Whatever the Weather: Mental Health and the Cycles of Nature

Alex Mills
Alex Mills

For Mental Health Awareness Week (which is every week), and in anticipation of his wonderful SongPath Podcast interview to be aired next month, Alex Mills, our composer-in-residence, or rather on-foot, shares his thoughts on the orienting power of natural rhythms for mental good health:

Whatever the Weather: Mental Health and the Cycles of Nature

We love to talk about the weather. It’s a comfortable, familiar habit. The default topic of small talk and pleasantries. But it’s also something else. Something far more essential.

The weather orientates us. Knowingly or unknowingly, acknowledging it helps us get a sense of ourselves; of where we stand, and how we feel, in relation to it. Its changing otherness is a constant reference point in determining our sense of self, especially when a sense of self is challenging to hold on to. When I struggle with anxiety, panic or dissociation, the cycles in nature help to ground me.

From left to right: Marloes Sands Pembrokeshire, Broad Haven beach Pembrokeshire, Pembrokeshire Coastal Path

Growing up by the sea, the changing tides and coastal weather patterns tethered me, particularly when I felt lost. While they were often wild and unpredictable, they were a consistent presence that I knew would be there even when I was not. To build a relationship with the sea was to build a relationship with, or a gateway to, myself.

My London Garden

Today, my garden serves the same purpose. Observing and tending to the plants, even if just for a moment, helps me to orientate myself. Checking the stems of the roses for pests; keeping an eye on the turgidity of the mint; touching the waxy geranium leaves. The garden was there yesterday, and last year, and the year before, and therefore so must I have been. When I look out at the garden in May I know roughly what will be flowering because I remember how the garden looked this time last year, and the years before, and how it changes throughout the year. In remembering, I can remember myself, too: the seasons hold me and I can hold onto myself through them. And in having chosen the responsibility to look after the plants, I’m reminded to look after myself too, even when self-care feels impossible.

Van Gogh, Starry Night
Van Gogh, Starry Night

Away from the garden, I’ve always found the phases of the moon a comforting presence too. Unlike the daily rhythms of the tides or sun, which can feel overwhelming sometimes, or the slow turning wheel of the year which can sometimes feel static, the pace of the lunar cycle soothes me. It feels like life is continuing as it should be, gently but assuredly. When I feel fragmented or unsure of myself, I can count on the moon to be intact and enduring its own visible process of forgetting and remembering itself. It reassures me.

If the moon catches my eye by surprise, I might wonder if it’s waxing or waning, but I don’t really mind because tomorrow, should I choose or remember to look, I will know. If I catch the moon a sliver away from being full, I might wonder which direction the cycle is turning, but I don’t really mind because there are many full moons to come. Sometimes I might track and reflect on its daily incremental changes. Sometimes I just let it be, because I know the moon has always been there, and will continue to be there.

The moon is an equal because sometimes it looks for you and other times you look for it. It seeks you out and sees you just as much as you seek and see it, even if that’s once a year, or once in a lifetime. Like other heavenly bodies, it’s as rich in symbolism and meaning just as much as it is a lone piece of rock in space. It doesn’t matter what it is because it still shows up and is there when we need it, even if we never need it.

There is a bittersweet paradox in the cycles of nature playing an orientating role in our lives: they are constant and yet constantly changing. The same yet never the same. Unchanging yet infinitely varied. But their uncertain certainty reminds us what it means to be human. It keeps us grounded. There is safety in being held in place while the world keeps on turning. There is familiarity in the same thing being repeated over and over again but never quite in the same way. And there is comfort in commenting on the weather every day, even with the real possibility of that weather always being different.

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