Andy Brown, The Tree Climbing Cure: Finding Wellbeing in Trees in European and North American Literature and Art

Andy Brown, The Tree Climbing Cure: Finding Wellbeing in Trees in European and North American Literature and Art (Environmental Cultures Series) (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2023) 225 pp. £65.00 Hb. £20.99 Pb. £15.99 Ebook. ISBN: 9781350327283

Being around trees is good for our mental health and wellbeing. Although this has long been known intuitively, there is now a wealth of scientific evidence which backs this up. Trees emit chemicals called phytoncides, which they use to ward off disease and insect attacks; when breathed in by humans these phytoncides stimulate a range of measurable psychological and physiological effects, including reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels, and alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. Increasingly, such findings are informing the discourse and policy decisions of councils, urban planners, conservation charities, and health organisations. Meanwhile, the link between mental health and spending time under the canopy of trees has become firmly rooted in cultural consciousness through endless endorsement in documentaries, newspaper articles, social media, literary fiction, popular science books, and non-fiction nature writing – including Richard Mabey’s fascinating memoir/manifesto, Nature Cure (2006). Since then, experiences of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns have profoundly shaped the way we think and talk about the connection between (unequal) access to greenspaces and mental health.

It is within this context that we can place The Tree Climbing Cure, a book which advocates for the restorative value of not only being around trees, but climbing up them, exploring how tree climbers have been represented in European and North American culture, from Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (1957) to Goya’s ‘Muchachos Trepando a un Arbol’ (1790-92), from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2009). If the book was a tree, Andy Brown would be a magpie – gathering a dazzling array of examples across a wide variety of forms, genres, and periods, and displaying them brilliantly before us in a tangled nest of ideas. His ability to grasp seemingly disparate things and hold them together to form new connections makes the book both engaging and rewarding to read. Indeed, The Tree Climbing Cure was fascinating enough to distract me, temporarily, from the discomfort of sitting on a branch, as I read part of the book perched in a tree.

The book opens with the story of Cody Lee Miller, a young man suffering from mental health issues, who in 2016 scaled an eighty-foot sequoia in Seattle and remained there for twenty-five hours. The event received national media coverage and became part of a social media trend, #manintree. As details about Miller’s history of mental health issues emerged, the event became the subject of serious debate about the inadequacy of mental health provision in the United States. I can see why Brown introduces his book in this way; it provides a contemporary example of how tree-climbing as an adult is perceived to be a sign of being, paradoxically, ‘out of your tree’, and raises a number of questions which are explored throughout. While Miller is discussed sympathetically and sensitively in the introduction, sometimes I found the way Brown linked the topic of his discussion back to the event a little clumsy. For example, I’m not convinced that ‘[i]t is surely no coincidence that Cody Lee Miller found himself climbing up an aromatic evergreen tree – a giant sequoia – whose phytoncide chemicals would have been working on his physiology in ways he was probably unaware of’ (26). Brown considers how tree-climbers are often represented as being in ‘mental distress, at a point of conflict in their lives, or simply poised to make some change’ (3), but balances this cultural perception with examples from art and literature, as well as testimonies from tree-climbers today, which express the many psychological benefits of climbing trees.

Brown summarises the wider ‘science of nature and wellbeing’, discussing psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (ART) and medical doctor Qi Ling’s influential work on the psychophysical effects of shinrin-yoku (‘forest-bathing’). Recent scientific research is presented as providing empirical foundation to the benefits which have long been purported by nature writers, ecopsychologists, and eco-philosophers, and conveyed in literature and art. The  way Brown explains the scientific basis of the ‘nature cure’ in connection to wider cultural ideas and philosophical beliefs is fascinating. Occasionally, however, I thought Brown could have gone further in examining how ideas around the ‘nature cure’ are being communicated from scientific research into nature writing, fiction, and art today, which will inevitably frame how we experience the psychological benefits of activities like tree-climbing. The intersectional social inequalities surrounding access to nature are briefly mentioned, largely drawing upon Samantha Walton’s critical insights in Everybody Needs Beauty (2021), but I wanted to hear more from Brown about the significance of such issues – especially in relation to his topic of tree-climbing.

In the following chapters, we see tree-climbing represented as a liberating and transformative act, uprooting oneself from entrenched ideas and norms about how to behave as an adult, or as a woman. Indeed, in one chapter, Brown discusses the fascinating gender politics of women climbing trees – a transgressive image in the photographs of Cecylia Malik and Jochen Raiß. As Ben Mikaelson’s novel, Tree Girl (2004), demonstrates, tree-climbing can be a way to escape from immediate danger or harm, but also an essential part of post-traumatic recovery and process of individuation. Or, as in many of the examples Brown shows us, it can be a way to gain perspective, literally and figuratively, stimulating visionary insight into oneself and one’s relationship with the wider, more-than-human world.

The Tree Climbing Cure is a fascinating book, offering a unique contribution to the expanding literature on the ‘nature cure’ in light of an exciting area of scientific research into the psychological benefits of experiencing natural environments, as well as an ever-growing interest in the value of trees in our society and culture. Scholars of literature and science, and those working in the environmental humanities, have much to gain from reading Brown’s book and, perhaps, even more by reading it in a tree.

Dion Dobrzynski, University of Birmingham