Why hugging trees and walking barefoot could be the answer to saving our planet.
Words & Images by Georgina Jeremiah
When did you last notice nature? Virtual reality, busy schedules and a societal need to succeed mean that slowing down to appreciate the natural world is oft considered a waste of precious time and a little too ‘hippy’. I challenged this by taking the time to attend an outdoor session run by Nature Connects, an organisation that proves how noticing nature is actually intrinsic to finding our inner balance and perhaps the missing key to safeguarding our home.
But what is nature, anyway? Is it a childhood memory of climbing trees or rockpooling? Is it the feeling of peace when listening to birdsong and ocean waves? Maybe it’s a national park or even a small green refuge in a busy city. We all have our own perceptions, and shifting baseline syndrome means that as we reshape nature, we re-evaluate our accepted versions of it with younger generations feeling more dissociated from the nature of the youth before them. Have we lost our ‘nature smart’?
I was lucky enough to experience a childhood where ‘screen-time’ and GIFs didn’t exist. Riding my bike around the village, playing in the park until it was dark and building sand forts as the tide came in are treasured memories compared to the day I got my first mobile phone or learned how to use the television remote. I wonder if ‘nature-alienated indoor upbringing’ has been added to the dictionary yet?
It’s not all doom and gloom because biophilia is definitely in the dictionary. This is the idea that humans are instinctively drawn to the natural world. This needs no further explanation when we think of that urge to see the sea or to get lost in the woods. It makes sense, because being in natural environments is proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and mental distress to name just a few benefits.
Although there are already many initiatives in Cornwall to encourage children to get stuck into nature, what is there for adults? Is it too late for us? Of course, we have numerous ways to preserve local nature with volunteering organisations like Shoresearch and the Woodland Trust, but what about actually being in nature for the sake of it? Is it too childish for us to climb a tree, play pooh sticks or make mud pies? How about actually understanding how nature makes us feel before committing to acts of conservation that perhaps make us feel good only because we believe that we should?
Nature Connects was founded by Alice and Sarah in 2020 to help people find a connection to nature and improve their emotional well-being. They offer a six-week Woodland Wellness course for those looking to restore their relationship with nature; as well as for individuals suffering from anxiety, depression and stress, which Alice says is rooted in a deep disconnect from nature and the indoor sapiens we have become. Alice says that nine years ago: “I realised nature had helped me heal and that I wanted to know everything from that point on.” Training as a forest school practitioner, Alice became a leader and the founder of Nature Playgroup for children before taking the plunge with Sarah and embarking on Nature Connects.
Meeting and discussing over a bowl of nettle soup, Alice and Sarah were both initially nervous to start this next chapter but they decided to hold hands and leap together. Alice says that: “Although I love working with children, since the beginning I have always wanted to work with adults, not being able to shake the feeling of deep knowing that they need to find nature”.
Nature-deficit disorder is an increasingly common term used to describe the breaking of the bond between people and the natural world. 90% of the human genome is shared with every other mammal and yet we have created a human-nature split, forgetting that we need nature more than it needs us and ignoring our biological origins at the cost of our mental health and wellbeing. Alice and Sarah have helped numerous people awaken to nature and will continue working to help “solve the human and environmental health crises through reconnection to the natural world – physically, mentally and spiritually”. They have also worked hard to receive funding from various sources including crowd funders, collaborations with organisations like the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and partnerships to deliver nature training and stress relief for NHS workers. Two years on, Nature Connects is going from strength to strength and Sarah hopes to work towards offering an ecotherapy service.
Having the opportunity to attend a session with Alice and Sarah and to absorb their enthusiasm for nature was an honour and an inspiration. I had expected to be a fly-on-the-wall, but before I knew it, I was getting carried into the rhythms of nature with everybody else. Having experienced anxiety, I had already been aware of the great teacher that is nature in reminding me that life is but a series of moments to be enjoyed in the present. However, building and lighting my first ever fire, making a (somewhat modest) sculpture out of sycamore leaves and empathising with the other participants made me understand that I am not alone in my quest for healing. The search for Nature’s Wisdom is now becoming acceptable in a society that has traditionally suppressed it. To begin the session, Alice guided us through a grounding exercise whereby we closed our eyes and experienced the feeling of being safe and supported by nature. As we breathed in, we were made aware of the life that nature provided us, but also of the gift we gave in return by breathing out. Is it possible for us to really feel good about ourselves as natural beings in a nature-separated society? In order to love nature, we will first learn to give ourselves love, for we are nature too.
Nature Connects follows the five pathways to nature connectedness as researched by the University of Derby. These encourage us to access our ‘old brain’, thinking of our relationship with nature in a sensory and nameless way rather than with reason and language which dominate our consciousness. If we think back to our school days, we were taught the name of every colour so that when we see the word blue written in green, we will say blue and let our reasoning overpower our natural senses.
These pathways include senses, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion. For Sarah, compassion is the most important pathway as “it is what will save the planet”. Alice adds: “through my experience of working These pathways include senses, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion. For Sarah, compassion is the most important pathway as “it is what will save the planet”. Alice adds: “through my experience of working with actual people and nature in this way I have discovered more than I could ever feel or know through self-reflection or study. I realise that we need to learn how to feel our way through life as well as think and this is how I try to work as a facilitator.''
Although green education is typically promoted to understand how to protect our planet, we sometimes offer not inspiration, but ecophobia, with the stories of loss and despair doing little more than encouraging further separation from that which we are born of. Alice and Sarah root their work in ecopsychology, described as a means to restore our wellbeing by restoring our biophilia and a more eco-centric way of living. Isn’t this what we have all been waiting for? This is the opportunity to put ourselves first and help the planet at the same time.
Conservation, like nature, has different meanings to different people. I had felt that we should isolate nature from humans and protect the untouched and untainted from our destructive presence. But this is wrong. Pristine nature doesn’t exist anymore, and our idealistic impressions are reserved for postcards and greenwashing campaigns. We should also remember that we are not a tumour that has infected nature but the stewards in charge of nurturing it back to health. We must not cower away from wild nature but be open to its mystery and the life all around us. It may sound a little spiritual, but to understand that nature is calling us home, we will heal not just the planet, but ourselves.
If ecotherapy generates feelings of wonder and a connection with oneself and with nature, doesn’t it seem obvious that this is the starting point for us to want to protect our planet instead of being told that we must? Like us, the planet is alive. It feels what we feel and reflects our actions, good or bad. Science has proven that water, plants and animals show molecular responses to our intent. We must stop relying on cold facts and figures when talking about conservation because it is who we become that changes the world, not just what we do. We must go back to our roots; in order to save the planet we must first save ourselves.
So, how do we get started? Walking barefoot, wildlife watching, keeping a nature journal, taking a photo, feeling the texture of a leaf or simply talking about nature, and even to nature, are just a few ideas to show us just how easy it really is. It has been proven that simply noticing nature leads to more pro-nature behaviours, from picking up litter to building homes for wildlife. We protect what we care about, it’s as simple as that.
If you’d like to share this experience, visit Nature Connects to find out about courses running, as well as the proven benefits of getting outdoors.