We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

24 responses to “We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

  1. Great subject Margot and some fantastic examples. It’s so true that we learn so much from nature. Aesop Fables are a prime example. My wee one, yes the wee one that’s 22 months, knows the difference between a ‘tweet tweet’ of a garden bird the ‘caw’ of a crow and the ‘mew’ of a buzzard. She knows where to look for them – in the apple tree, high in the big sycamore trees or soaring in the sky, respectively and I didn’t even realise I was teaching her this. I just said oh look there’s a buzzard and made the noise. It didn’t occur to me this wasn’t normal, it’s how my mother taught me and it’s so important we don’t lose our knowledge of the world around us as technology allows us to be more insular. Sorry off piste again :-/

    • No worries, D.S. – at all. What you’re talking about is really important, and it shows just how attuned we can be to those natural things if we pay attention. Of course, it also shows how smart Beany is 🙂 . It reminds me of my own granddaughter, who’s learning the differences among some of the lizard species that live near us. And she’s learning to differentiate between some birds, too. The research my friend has done really shows some powerful advantages for kids who grow up spending time out in nature. It doesn’t have to be a whole-day trek, either. Just a short time can be very beneficial.

  2. Absolutely love the outdoors away from digital distractions, but sadly as in the cases you have referenced here, when life calls ( or a dead body ), someone has to answer.

    • All too true, Lesley. Too often, life gets in the way of planned time away from the digital. But I think that, when it’s possible, it’s worth it to put the devices away and take a walk or watch some birds or work in the garden or some such outdoors thing.

  3. I was one of the lucky ones and grew up with a forest on one side and acreage on the other. Maybe that’s why I have an imagination that won’t stop. Standing in the centre of nature makes you stop and experience the moment. Hard to do otherwise. Love Miss Marple. Excited that she’s survived the ages.

    • I’m glad she’s survived the ages, too, Clculzwriter. She’s a great character. And you are indeed fortunate that you grew up with lots of nature surrounding you. I’m sure you have some great outdoor memories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that nature inspired your imagination.

  4. I do like Miss Marple in her garden and I’m sure she does enjoy it even if she is busy peering over her fence or hiding behind her shrubbery. A good post for reminding us that it is so easy to take the beauty of the outside for granted

    • Thanks, Cleo. And you’re right: Miss Marple no doubt enjoys just being in her garden, even when she’s using it as a convenient ‘cover’ for her – erm – observations.

  5. Nature can be lovely, but beware the Reichenbach Falls!

  6. Ha! I got a sudden mental image of Madame Poirot telling little Hercule to run along outside and play, and him refusing to go in case he spoiled the shine on his little patent leather shoes… 😉

    • 😆 Oh, I love it, FictionFan! What a great mental image! And no, I cannot imagine Poirot ever being willing to get dirty, dig for worms, or look for salamanders. Nope. Never would happen.

  7. Col

    Another interesting post Margot. I think I’ve read a Deon Meyer book, Blood Safari where a love of nature and wildlife goes a little bit too far and you end up with eco-terrorists. I’m trying to think what I’ve read anything with animal rights activists or hunt saboteurs – other groups with tendencies to over-step the mark.

    • Oh, Blood Safari is a great example, Col, so thanks for bringing it up. Maeyeris really talented, so I’m glad you mentioned his work. And there are books out there that feature animal rights activists and so on who go too far. That’s actually a subject in and of itself that I may to write about in a post sometime. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  8. Being out in nature does tend to help clear one’s mind and re-energize the spirit. Using a garden or a forest as a setting can lead to all sorts of possibilities. I’m sure there are numerous stories where someone has started to plant a garden only to discover a buried body no one knew about. Great post, Margot!

    • Thank you, Mason. And that’s a great idea for a mystery plot! You’re right, too, that nature does help to ‘clear out the cobwebs.’ It’s an excellent restorative, I think.

  9. Great topic, Margot. It’s not quite the same thing, but I recall the many occurrences of flowers (especially orchids) and greenhouses in mystery fiction. Nero Wolfe had his orchids and then there’s General Sternwood’s sinister greenhouse. Also villain Ray Milland tended orchids in a Columbo episode.

    • Oh, yes, Bryan, I’d forgotten about that episode of Columbo! Thanks for the reminder. And in all of the cases you mention, we have characters who enjoy that aspect of nature. Thanks for the kind words.

  10. Doesn’t Poirot love nature and doesn’t he take walks too? I think he does on both counts, Margot. Walks through parks can be harmful and dangerous, especially when there are serial killers on the prowl, as I found out in Bill Granger’s “Public Murders.”

    • It is true, Prashant, that walks in parks can bring a lot of danger, and I’m glad you brought up that terrific example. As to Poirot, he does enjoy the occasional walk in a part. And he likes looking at beautiful flowers and trees. But I’m not sure you’d find him working in the garden often – except for those vegetable marrows in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

  11. I see a frog, but almost missed the baby lizard till I blew it up. Is it the thing that looks like a giant tadpole?

    I love nature, Margot. Hence, why I moved to the country. Especially for writers, there’s no better way, in my opinion, to release the mind than a walk through the woods. It’s also a great way to kick-start your imagination and solve a story problem. I’ve figured out more plot issues when walking…and in the shower. Still can’t figure out why the shower works. 😀

    • Oh, but it does work, doesn’t it, Sue? I find that to be true, too. And you’re right about nature. A walk through a woods, or in a park, or… can do so much to release one’s creativity, I think. Oh, and about the ‘photo? Yes, the baby lizard is the animal that looks like a large tadpole. Their heads are larger in proportion to their bodies until they grow a bit.

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