Christina Patterson: It's not just children who never get the pleasure of walking in pathless woods


Click to follow
The Independent Online

It wasn't exactly Wordsworth, but it's probably the nearest she'll get. "I thought," said my mother, who thinks a mobile phone is something for a special occasion, but who has recently learnt to attach photos to emails, which she now does all the time, "that you'd like to see these lovely daffodils."

And there they were, a whole field of them, under a blue, blue sky. There they were, "beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze". I'm not sure that you could really say that they were "continuous as the stars that shine". I'm not sure that I could say, as I gazed at my computer, and then back at the column I was trying to write, that what they made me think was that I "could not but be gay". But what they did do was remind me that there's a whole world out there beyond the bricks and concrete, a world I'd almost forgotten.

It's quite easy, if you live in a city, and don't have a garden, or a garage, or a jerry can, or even a watering can, which Tory ministers seem to think you will, to forget that quite a lot of the world is green. It's quite easy, until you see a sudden cloud of blossom in a street where you hadn't even noticed there were trees, to forget that there are things called seasons, which aren't just to do with clothes. It's quite easy, in fact, to forget that there's a whole world beyond the one we've made that doesn't revolve around us.

An awful lot of children don't forget it, because they never even knew. More and more of them, according to a new report for the National Trust, are growing up without any knowledge of the natural world. Less than 10 per cent of them, apparently, now play outside in the wild. Half have been stopped from climbing trees. A fifth have been stopped from playing conkers. And the number who go to hospital after falling out of a tree is less than a third of the number who go to hospital after falling out of bed.

The National Trust wants parents, and teachers, and health professionals, and conservationists, to work together to make sure that children who never get to build a den, or climb a tree, or pick a flower, now do. It wants them to join together to "turn Britain's cotton-wool kids into free-range children". It says, though it probably didn't need a study to tell them, that children are fitter, and healthier, and happier, when they play outdoors. And when outdoors isn't just a street.

I'm sure they're right. I'm sure that getting children into fields, and woods, and farmyards is yet another thing to add to the list of things we need to do for our children, a list which already seems to include things like getting their parents to give them breakfast, and getting them out of 11 years of school able to write their name. But if even those of us who did make dens, and were forced to go on walks in the rain (and forced to go to National Trust gardens) rarely get to see a blade of grass, those efforts might be in vain.

When Alan Turing, or whoever it was, invented the computer, he probably didn't realise that this miraculous machine which would turn our lives, and work, and world, upside down, and which would bring us a field of golden daffodils as we raced against a deadline, might also be a reason we rarely saw daffodils we could touch. He probably didn't think that many of us would spend our days hunched over them, and quite a lot of our evenings, too.

And when Tim Berners Lee invented the internet, he probably didn't realise that the worlds it would open up might sometimes seem more real, and more interesting, than our own. He probably didn't think that what he'd invented might make us spend of our more time sitting down. And more of our time indoors.

Nature, according to all the studies, is good for us. Spending time in green spaces makes you more healthy, and less stressed. It lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of cancer. It makes you fitter. It makes you thinner. It makes you stronger. It can even, according to some research, reduce violence, and cut crime.

When the Romantic poets wrote about nature, they didn't talk about blood pressure, or stress. They talked, as Byron did, of the "pleasure in the pathless woods" or, as Wordsworth did, of the "appetite" for "the tall rock", and "the deep and gloomy wood" that had "no need of a remoter charm". They talked about beauty, of course. But they also talked about "fast-fading violets" and the "light wind" that "lives or dies".

The thing about the daffodils, in that sun-drenched field, or the blossom you pass on the way to the Tube, or the magnolia in that little square just round the corner from the office, is that they bloom, and then they die. The thing about nature is that it reminds you that you do, too.

We need, from time to time, and particularly when there seem to be a lot of things to worry about, to be reminded that good things pass, but so do bad. We need to remember that the things that keep us awake at night seem less important when we look down from a mountain, or up at the stars. We need to remember that the world is big, and we are small.

This Easter, I'm going to find a field of daffodils. I hope some of our children get to find one, too.

At last, a great rom-com

If you've enjoyed every twist and turn in the who-didn't-eat-all-the-pies saga this week, you'll probably love a film out next month called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It is, as you might guess, about an attempt to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen. It also features Kristin Scott Thomas as a spin doctor whose steely cynicism makes the pasty-scoffing exploits of the past week look tame.

Ewan McGregor is the fisheries expert with Asperger's who's persuaded by a beautiful management consultant to help a rich Yemeni pursue his dream. He falls in love with her, of course. It goes horribly wrong, of course. But the resulting film is touching, and funny. It is, in fact, that rare thing: a top-notch rom-com.

Let Michelle run our schools

"I just screamed," said Khadija Serwaah, "when Miss Dibb told me I had been chosen." I think I'd have screamed, too. Khadija is one of 12 girls from a school in Islington to have been selected to spend time at the White House, visiting Michelle Obama. This week, the girls said that the visit had changed their lives.

"I can still hear her saying," said one, "you have to push yourself hard, because if it feels easy you're not trying hard enough." Unfortunately, she's right. I wish Michelle Obama was in charge of our schools. In fact, I wish she was in charge of our country.

Twitter: @queenchristina_