”Consistent and constant, yet wild and free
Are the avian wonders comforting me.
From the lake at my patch, to the gorse-speckled heath,
they dowse me in light, over darkness beneath.
Sharpening senses, they help me to find,
the systems and solace that strengthen my mind.
From meadow to estuary, shingle to tree,
I’ll always be thankful for Bird Therapy.”
Sobering, powerful and inspirational at the same time it was a privilege to read Joe Harkness’s story outlined in his book Bird Therapy. Anybody who has suffered or suffers with a mental health condition will understand its complexity, its terrifying ability to strike randomly or in the wake of certain actions or words, and the need of the sufferer to actively work to improve their situation and make it less likely that they will become consumed by the condition. This book accounts for how and why the natural world is a suitable and effective means of improving mental health and outlines how ‘bird therapy’ itself can help sufferers with their mental health condition.
One cannot praise teacher and author Joe enough for being so open regarding his story, particularly when it comes to accounts of attempted suicide and some particularly dark times relating to his extreme anxiety.
Poor mental health knows no boundaries. It can impact on us all no matter our social background, age, faith, gender or geographical location. It surprises me that we are only just beginning to talk openly about it as a society but it is a change that I hugely welcome. In my own working community #FarmerMentalHealth is becoming far less taboo a subject to discuss and an increasing number of farmers are opening up about the way they feel. If you haven’t already please listen to Kit Papworth here on Meet the Farmers and Patrick and Zanna Joice here on Rock and Roll Farming. There are an increasing variety of ways that people can tackle poor mental health, including some of the best online therapy sites and seeing a counsellor, but generally speaking out to anyone is what one needs to do.
The book is not an easy read, as one might expect, especially in the opening chapters, but if one perseveres one gains the joy of experiencing the determination of an individual to succeed despite the situation. Joe learns, and we learn as readers, that a simple hobby – that of birdwatching – can be used to counter several of his problems connected with his mental health, especially relating to anxiety. Birds provide a welcome constant and reliability in a world and society that is often far from this. Indeed, Joe insinuates how a healthy relationship with the natural world is inherently connected with a healthy relationship with ourselves and our mental wellbeing. In birding for Joe comes a sense of healing. He explains how birding is connected with mindfulness – connected to all the senses, and through this we can learn to be truly ‘in the moment’. We listen to song, we see birds in the glory of flight or admire their sheeny feathery outer-garments, we feel our way through our environment at the time, we smell the freshness of the air of the moment.
I admire Joe for what he has done, helping to keep the conversation going and creating a work that has the ability not just to shape thinking but to save lives. Joe’s ‘Five Ways to Well Birding’ (you’ll have to buy the book to find out what these are) are particularly poignant and will stop a lot of bird watchers in their tracks I reckon and get them to really think about the process they are undertaking. Thank you Joe.
Bird Therapy was published through Unbound and crowdfunded by hundreds of individuals who made the book happen. Click here to buy a copy.