Most of us will have experienced feelings of well-being when visiting a beautiful place with clean air and where nature flourishes. Many of us may have also felt a deep longing to be able to spend the rest of our lives in such a place. There can be little doubt that it would be beneficial to our health, not only on a physical level, but also on a deeper spiritual plane.

Unfortunately, industrialisation has meant that most of us no longer have that privilege. There is a growing number of people who would like to return to a simple life, living lightly on the land and close to nature, but living in the countryside is increasingly becoming an option only for the wealthy. Some are able to join or form land based communities (see Community section) but restrictive planning laws mean that these types of communities are, presently, few and far between.

The best that most of us can hope for at the moment is to spend as much of our spare time as possible with nature and try to bring as much of it as we can to our own homes. At the same time it is in everyone’s interest to do whatever we can to arrest the rampant spread of industrialisation, not only because nature nourishes the soul, but because we depend on it for our survival. There is little sense in us all learning how to live super healthily if, at the same time we are causing the place where we live, i.e. our planet, to become uninhabitable!

We all have a part to play and I believe that improving our health by living closer to nature and making healthy lifestyle decisions can go hand in hand with protecting the environment if we are conscious of how the choices we make effect the planet.

Thanks to the growth in planetary consciousness, there is now a healthy and more environmentally friendly alternative for just about anything we choose to consume or any action we choose to take. Unfortunately this is not always the easiest nor most economical option, so the first important step we can take to helping ourselves and the planet is to think about what we really need and make the decision to do without what we really don’t need. One of the reasons that modern living is so hectic and complicated is that we are constantly being persuaded that we “need” more and more. By choosing to simplify our lives and consume less we have a better chance of achieving peace of mind as well as freeing up resources for making those healthier but possibly more expensive choices.

So what are healthy choices? Well let’s begin with our immediate environment- our own skin, and work outwards from there. Most of the products from the multi-million pound cosmetics industry contain chemicals which have been shown to be of dubious value or even damaging both to the skin and to the environment. This is one area where we might consider whether the products we consume are really necessary. It could be argued, for example, that with good nutrition and hydration we can have healthy skin and sweet smelling bodies without the need for moisturisers and perfumes. For those who can’t do without cosmetics, however, we now have the option of either making our own (which is more simple than you might imagine. See Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong, for example) or of buying natural alternatives. I would particularly recommend products from Weleda which uses organic and Biodynamic ingredients of the highest quality.

Moving outwards, we can consider the next layer which is our clothing. How many of us have wardrobes, cupboards and drawers full to bursting with clothes that we hardly ever wear? How many of these clothes have been produced in environmentally damaging ways by companies using slave and child labour on the other side of the world? Would it not make sense to reduce the amount of clothing we buy and treat ourselves to some quality, natural garments which are ethically produced and kind to our skin and the environment? Much good clothing can be found in charity shops, of course, but if you must buy new there are now many options.

Next we move on to the interiors of our homes. To create a healthy environment, ideally we will have well ventilated rooms with plenty of cheerful colours, light and house plants, but not too much clutter, too many electrical appliances nor furniture containing toxic chemicals. We spend a third of our lives in our beds and it is vital to have good quality sleep so, if you can afford it, a good bed made form natural materials which gives support and comfort is an excellent investment. There are natural alternatives for beds and other furniture. There is now also a good range of energy efficient electrical appliances of all kinds, although it is worth pointing out that there is now evidence to suggest that exposure to electromagnetic fields is detrimental to our health. Mobile phones, being something that we tend to keep very close to our bodies, are of particular concern. Another source of exposure to toxins is through cleaning products. Fortunately, companies such as Ecover and Bio D now stock a full range of natural alternatives. Herbs and incense make good air fresheners and all supermarkets now stock environmentally friendly toilet rolls. Our rooms can be decorated with natural, breathable paints.

When we consider the house as a whole we enter the exciting world of Bio-construction. In modern times cement and concrete have become the main components in the massive expansion of the building trade. Unfortunately they and other materials commonly used are not good news for our health and especially bad news for the environment. Once again, however, a new generation of progressive architects and builders are emerging and demonstrating that strong and beautiful homes can be built using healthy, natural and sustainable materials, some of which, such as lime, clay, wood and stone, have been used for millennia, whilst others such as straw bales and solar panels, are more recent innovations. Not only that but the designing of buildings has now evolved to the extent that there are houses which by maximising the collection of solar energy require no other external energy input. The German “Passivhaus” is one being copied in many other countries and if you are one of the fortunate few who is in a position to build your own house I would definitely recommend exploring this option.

For the majority who don’t have the self-build option the next best alternative may be to live in an old house which is more likely to be made of natural materials and make sure that it is as well insulated and as naturally furnished and decorated as possible. If funds are available and the situation of the house favourable to add a conservatory and solar panels (for water and electricity) to harness the sun’s energy, then this is also worth considering.

This leads us nicely to the outside of the house where we may have the opportunity to create our own small piece of Eden if we are fortunate enough to have a garden. Gardening is, of course, a hugely popular pastime, mainly, I suspect, because being in contact with nature and allowing it to flourish so that we can enjoy its staggering beauty is nourishment for the soul. However, as well as the aesthetic value of our garden I believe it also has an important role to play in providing us with some of our food, however small it might be. You may be wondering how we can grow food in our garden without it losing its beauty, but with the most progressive gardening methods there is no reason why we can’t have a garden that is both productive and beautiful. If we go back to the Victorian era we can see examples of how fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers were combined in very attractive and effective ways in Cottage Gardens. We know that diverse ecosystems are far healthier than the huge mono-cultures of industrial agriculture, so combining plants that form symbiotic relationships and encourage natural pest controls can eliminate the need to use pesticides as well as creating beautiful gardens and healthier crops.

We may be able to go one step further than Cottage Gardens and create Forest Gardens. This concept was developed on a farm in Shropshire by A de J Hart and explained in his book Forest Gardening. The idea is that we create our own forest or woodland, incorporating plants that are useful to us. By making use of the different layers in a woodland from taller trees down to root crops we can make our garden more productive and with less effort in the long term, provided that we choose the plants that will thrive in that environment. I have been developing my allotment along these lines and have found the challenge stimulating and rewarding. Every year it becomes more productive and I make exciting new discoveries. The Agroforestry Trust and Plants For a Future are the current pioneers of this form of gardening and offer a wide range of plants that can be used.

Although most of us are aware that fresh, organic, home-grown food is easily the healthiest and most environmentally friendly choice we can make, many of us are deterred  by the perception that gardening is “back breaking” work. This can be true of conventional methods, or at least the ones that don’t employ machinery to do all the hard stuff

Yet again, however, there is an exciting alternative. I have been inspired to try “No Dig” gardening by early pioneers such as A Guest and Ruth Stout. This method is now used successfully professionally by Charles Dowding (www.charlesdowding.co.uk), who has also conducted experiments that demonstrate superior yields for “No Dig” crops. They were all guided by the observation that nature doesn’t need rotavated soil to produce abundance. All we have to do is encourage healthy soil by adding compost or mulch to the surface and all the micro-organisms that are needed for fertility will multiply and do the job for us.

By making use of every available space in our house and gardens, including windowsills, balconies, roofs and patios, we can surround ourselves with nature and produce surprising amounts of our own food. Even in the kitchen we can grow some of our own by sprouting legumes and grains or growing mushrooms under the sink.

Finally, we can move out of our gardens and into the local community where, unless you are very unlucky, there are many more opportunities to come into contact with nature, as well as becoming more self-sufficient in food. You might like to take on an allotment or forage in the countryside. Richard Mabey‘s classic Food For Free reminds us of all the edible and nutritious wild plants that are available to us and has inspired many people to become foragers. Another option is to follow the example of Incredible Edibles in Todmorden (see Community section) and start up or join a group which makes use of unused land around your town to grow food.

All of the ideas in this section and many more are incorporated and elaborated within a concept which has inspired me for many years, known as Permaculture. One of its guiding principles, and for me the most significant, is that if we learn to work with nature rather than battle against it, any land in almost any climate is capable of producing great abundance, no matter what damage we may have done to it previously. if you would like to learn more ideas for healthy and sustainable living visit www.permaculture.org.uk or subscribe to the inspiring quarterly magazine “Permaculture” (www.permaculture.co.uk).

You may, of course, prefer to take up some of the many other outdoor pursuits which connect us to nature, but whatever activities we choose, I believe it is important to take as much time as possible to stop and enjoy the sensory pleasures that nature brings and remind ourselves of its importance to our well-being and our survival. We need to move from an era in which we believed we could manipulate  and control nature to serve our own ends, to an era in which we rediscover our reverence and wonder, and attempt to live in harmony with her so that she may be allowed to flourish and produce abundance.