At home, with glazed eyes, slow fingers and a foggy brain, it takes me an age to compose a simple response to an email. I lie down for hours afterwards but I can’t relax because my throat is so constricted it feels like I’m being strangled. My nights are restless and I often feel like there’s a dark presence in my room; an empty figure that sits heavily on my chest until I wake, panicked and utterly exhausted.
You cannot carry on like this.
This was an inarguable truth that my body was trying to deliver to me. The message began as a timid murmur (which I ignored), that grew into an insistent plea (which I placated) and then became amplified into a scream (which I finally heard). This resistance only made me much more ill and eventually, my body said no.
I’m grateful that my family said no such thing when they saw how much I was struggling. They encouraged me to come to ground in Gloucestershire and I uprooted my life from North West England, away from a place that I loved, from friends, from work. I didn’t so much down tools as leave them flung around the workshop as I stumbled and tripped my way out.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a complex and debilitating condition that affects multiple bodily systems, of which a dysfunctional nervous system is often a huge component. Symptoms present with different levels of severity and predictability and often lead to substantial incapacity in basic functioning. In most cases, there doesn’t seem to be one single root cause for ME/CFS, but rather a range of psychological and physiological factors including but not limited to: viral load and toxin exposure, auto-immune responses, digestive and gut issues, energy-depleting patterns of thought and behaviour, repressed emotion, sustained stress and trauma.
Our bodies are composed of a number of interconnected systems: integumentary (skin), nervous, endocrine, muscular, skeletal, immune, circulatory, respiratory, urinary/excretory, digestive and reproductive. When one or more of those systems is in a state of dysfunction, it affects those to which it is connected. For example, if our nervous systems are constantly emitting a stress response, our endocrine systems can be flooded with excess cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn de-prioritises and inhibits nutrient absorption in the gut, or blood pressure in the circulatory system. When our organisms, as a whole, are subject to sustained pressure from a number of directions, they can tip into such an out-of-whack state that it’s no surprise that chronic illness arises.
These interconnected systems extend well beyond the psychological and physiological boundaries of our individual organisms to the web of life within which all living things are a part.
The world as we know it cannot carry on like this.
The strands of this web encompass connections that are social, political, economical and ecological. Any number of these connections could initiate a chronic stress response within an organism, from social relationships to economic circumstances to an ecologically toxic environment. As the wider systems of our world unravel into political chaos, social inequality, ecological destruction and mass extinction, is it such a stretch to view our living planet as an organism on the brink of collapse from chronic illness?
Is it such a stretch to view our living planet as an organism on the brink of collapse from chronic illness?
The planet’s alarm system could not be blaring louder right now. The demands placed upon our ecosystems are escalated by insatiable greed, a component of late capitalism. Neoliberal political and economic mandates of ‘growth, growth, growth’ ignore the limits of a planet with finite resources.
Soil health has massively deteriorated in recent times due to mass-scale industrial agricultural practices. A lack of nutrients in the soil is passed into vegetables that end up in the digestive systems of our bodies. By-products of this system of food production include habitat destruction, profit at the expense of ethical working conditions, monocultural crops and a lack of biodiversity, all constituting a toxic cocktail of chronic stress on the ecosystems that provide our food. As climate breakdown sweeps in, crop failure, famine and flooding will continue to impact on a system that needs to increase its resilience, urgently.
The emotional responses to the collapse of both our bodies and ecological systems share common ground: writhing knots of anxiety, frustration, confusion, desperation, anger, and the deep despair in questioning: how has it come to this? These emotional landscapes paralyse us into a state characterised by a lack of energy and inability to move forward. When my symptoms flare, I often find my capacity for decision-making in a state of severe contraction, like my head is in a vice. Knowing how to act while living with collapse (in all its guises) is an ongoing challenge in the face of uncertainty.
Solastalgia, the emotional and existential distress experienced in response to ecological breakdown, has parallels with dysfunctional body-anxiety. In the face of the massive environmental change within our bodies and the world, our response (individually and collectively) can be to fight, flight, or freeze. We ‘battle’ both illnesses and the climate crisis, rage against or deny them, or simply slump into depressive inertia.
When I’m in the midst of an ongoing state of stress, I pull back and focus on the immediate sensations in my body. Paying attention to the breath is my most useful, accessible and fundamental tool.
The brash soil of the Cotswolds is depleted of nutrients. You don’t have to dig deep before hitting limestone bedrock. Growth from depleted soil can be as challenging as growth from a depleted body and mind. Building up the soil with organic matter and improving its diversity was the first priority at The Three Turnips, a Community Supported Agriculture project at Lower Hampen Farm.
‘It has to all start with the soil, I think,’ Lydia tells me early in my time as a volunteer. So much of the farm’s regenerative approach is geared towards cultivating healthy earth. This process was initiated with several years of herb lays, grazed on their arable rotation, which is a soil-building exercise encouraging greater biodiversity. The planting of cover crops, Lydia says, is also an essential part of this process:
‘Regenerative farmers shouldn’t leave soil bare, because that’s the worst thing for soil and the whole system breaks down. You’ve got to have growing crops in the soil to feed the microbes all the time. If it’s bare, the microbes aren’t being fed, because they need the photosynthesis to create the sugars, to create the bonds with everything that’s going on in the soil. There’s lots of different functions of having it covered. You don’t get run-off, so if there’s a storm, you don’t lose half of your topsoil as it goes down into the rivers. The roots hold the soil together.’
Alongside Lydia, Liberty has spear-headed the farm’s first season of veg-growing. She explains that a diversity of connections on a microbial level is also key for optimum soil biology. Wood-chip paths help to retain moisture and support mycorrhizal fungal networks underground, as well as making weeding easier. Soil and plants have a microbiome in their leaves and a separate biome in their root system, in a similar way to our gut and skin microbiome. These microbiomes can determine where there are nutrient deficiencies and can often exchange and rebalance resources accordingly. Liberty explains that a healthy soil microbiome is encouraged by a diversity of companion planting, using different families of plants, such as mixing brassicas with lettuces, which helps support those symbiotic mycorrhizal connections:
‘In a drought, if a plant has formed all of these different relationships with microbes and fungi in the soil, and then it’s under stress from attack, it will absorb some of those bacteria into the structure of the plant. Those bacteria will then change the physiology of the plant itself. The bacteria have the power to strengthen the cell walls of the plant to stop it wilting in a dry season. Nature is extraordinary. The more relationships they have in the soil with different microbes, the more resilience those plants will have.’
This movement towards interdependent balance is also true for the optimum functioning of our bodies. If the nervous system is allowed to reset and regulate itself, it helps the body’s other systems ease into equilibrium again, to weather the storms when they come. For example, a functional level of stress hormones from the endocrine system will aid digestion and ease muscular tension. We might breathe more freely and deeply as a result. A more balanced system is a more resilient system, both within our individual organisms and on the living Earth.
Supporting and allowing these ecological systems to work in symbiosis is at the heart of regenerative farming practice. Western healthcare might learn much from the philosophy that everything is connected to everything else. It’s these unseen dynamic processes occurring beneath the surface of things that can have such a major effect on yielding healthy growth, for our food, our bodies and within our individual and collective psyches.
Mythologically, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that many forms of personal transformation involve navigations of the underworld, entering into the chthonic realm and emerging from the earth anew. A baptism of soil.
The term ‘healing’ stems from the Old English word haelen, meaning ‘wholeness’. Rather than being defined as a fixed end state in itself, it is an ongoing process; a movement towards cohesion, balance and reconnection. The physician and writer Gabor Maté describes healing as ‘a direction, not a destination; a line on a map, not a dot. Nor is healing synonymous with self-improvement. Closer to the mark would be to say that it is self-retrieval’. In this sense, within the contexts of both chronic illnesses of the human organism and an industrialised food system, a vital aspect of healing is about reclamation of that which has been lost, buried or not permitted to flourish.
A more balanced system is a more resilient system, both within our individual organisms and on the living Earth.
I’ve been digging deep to uncover the roots of becoming ill by looking inwards, as well as outwards. From examining my own psychological wounds and behavioural patterns, as well as how I relate to the world and my fellow living beings, I sometimes feel lighter. It’s messy, though. I can weed out the stories that no longer serve me and leave others to compost. At times, excavating the earth around old bones and writhing worms is a viscerally raw process, but I trust that everything that is discovered in the burrowing, when tended with compassion, will lead to healthier growth from the earth.
In tending to depleted bodies and soils, a diversity of approaches and interventions are appropriate at different stages of recovery. Cultivating an abundance of diverse life which includes plant varieties, animals, insects and bacteria, is an important facet of regenerating soil ecology. Lydia and Liberty have built up a beetle-bank near the vegetable patch in an effort to establish pest-control: the beetles eat slug eggs as well as enhancing biodiversity, providing an inviting meal for birds. Adopting a ‘no-dig’ approach encourages deep-burrowing worms, which contribute to the formation and preservation of the soil structure. These and other methods all improve the environment in which food is being grown for the bellies of the local community.
With ME/CFS (along with a plethora of other forms of chronic illness), there is no one-size-fits-all advice or treatment suggesting that if you do x, y and z, then you will be better in x amount of time. Detoxifying the body, tests for hormonal and mitochondrial function, the calming of the nervous system, good nutrition and various therapies can all play interrelated roles in treatment. For every person, illness and recovery looks like a different puzzle, with no quick fixes and a great deal of perseverance and patience.
When tending a garden, you can’t do everything at once. Cultivating healthy growth in any living thing is an accumulation of tenderness: the result of myriad small and nurturing acts that respond to an organism’s needs and the systems that influence life.
A key part of my path to recovery is trying to balance an acceptance that I may never be completely symptom-free with a commitment to making what small changes I can. One of my favourite musicians, Nick Cave, wrote that the process of healing is often about taking ‘the next least-wounding step’, which I usually think sounds manageable. As individuals, and as a society, having agency over how we take that ‘next least-wounding step’ is something that gives us great power.
Reclaiming sovereignty over food production and supporting the interdependent systems of our bodies and the planet to be self-regulating is a key element in cultivating resilient systems for life. One of the farm’s future plans is to grow a forest garden, in which a balanced ecology promotes a self-sustaining system that can re-calibrate itself.
At the moment, I can manage a morning’s work per week up here at the farm. Sometimes it’s beyond my capacity, but whenever I do go, it gives me a welcome and hefty dose of vitality that carries me through the day. I scatter compost, chat, plant hedges, munch on herbs, laugh and harvest vegetables. Red kites hover over a nearby copse, their forked tails offering tentative waves from the sky as clouds scud over the valley fields. I breathe easily, in a way that I thought I’d forgotten.
As one feature on a map to recovery, The Three Turnips at Lower Hampen is a small pocket of healing as storms rage in our minds, bodies and in the world. The farm slowly spreads its hyphae within both a metaphorical and literal mycelial network. Overground, it connects me with people, wildlife and the food that sustains me. Underground, it feeds and nurtures an extraordinary world: down with the worms, microbes, fungi and seeds, all held within the dark earth of possibility.