Spring is such a joyful and hopeful time. New shoots and leaves appear, catkins of all shapes and colours adorn branches, and – my favourite – the raucous dawn chorus filters into my sleep and stirs me awake.
After the downtime of winter, spring brings colour and texture back to the earth. It reminds of us of potential and growth. It reminds us we are alive.
This spring feels particularly poignant.
365 days ago we (here in the UK) entered into the first of several lockdowns. We didn’t know where we’d be in a year’s time. I don’t think many of us imagined we’d still be so restricted and limited with where we could travel and who we could spend time with.
There have been many losses and the grieving continues for those.
We also gained something very special. 365 days ago, we launched our Noticing Nature Community group. Inviting people to join us in strengthening our connections with nature and with each other. Offering mutual support through the simple act of sharing what we noticed in nature.
The day after our latest nature connection community challenge I woke up feeling rough. We’d had a great week saying ‘hello’ to Autumn with a lovely group of people from two different continents. We’d shared photos of conkers and turning leaves, moody skies and sunshine, spiders and slugs.
Folks had shared the things that delighted them, the nature they noticed, the weather conditions in their part of the world, and the messages they received from simply tuning in to the natural world. It had been great. As ever, I’d benefited from the experience as well: enjoying connecting with the everyday nature on my doorstep.
But 24 hours later I was staring out the window debating whether I’d make it outside that day or not.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues, as does my perimenopause*, and sometimes the combination of those two big life-changing events, along with all the regular events of life, mean I struggle to feel good. And part of that struggle is knowing how best to care for myself.
So I went back to basics…
I listened to a nature-themed meditation that helped to soothe my nervous system and give my brain some respite from thinking.
Then I went out for a walk with the sole purpose of looking for snails.
That might seem like a strangely specific task but it was what I needed to absorb me, to motivate me, and to give me an opportunity to experience joy.
(We’re called Joyful Nature for good reason!)
I went looking for snails that had climbed up onto the plants that line the lane where Bunny and I had walked only a few days before. That day, there had been a light misting rain and the snails were taking advantage of the moisture to move around. We rushed from one side of the lane to the other, excitedly pointing out each new find.
There were big ones, tiny ones, stripy ones, and golden yellow ones. There was pleasure in seeing the snails and also in sharing the experience.
My snail solo walk was a much slower-paced affair. I took my time observing the shells of each snail I found. I was extra delighted when one of them emerged from its shell – perhaps to look at me as closely as I was peering at it?
By the time I got home, I was feeling much more grounded, happy, and relieved – like the release valve had been opened up on the stress and tension I’d been holding onto; I felt I could exhale again.
I’m sharing this to offer a real-life example of how such a simple practice as connecting to nature(noticing, relating to, giving attention to) can help us navigate our lives.
We can go to nature as our touchstone. And that ‘nature’ can be found right on our doorsteps: perhaps a snail, a cloud, or a daisy growing through a crack in the pavement.
“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves…”
Cast your mind back to the Autumn of 2017… Do you remember it? I do. And the reason I remember it so well is that Autumn 2017 was when we ran our first ever Joyful Nature noticing nature challenge. We called it a ‘28 Day Experiment’. And that’s exactly what it was.
Me and a bunch of intrepid explorers set off on a 28-day journey to connect with everyday nature, sharing what we experienced along the way in our Facebook group, supporting each other and delighting in our own and others’ nature experiences.
It was a simple premise: each day, for 28 days, notice something in nature that makes you smile.
Three years later (24 September 2020), we are in the middle of our current 7-day ‘Hello Autumn’ nature connection challenge.
Same time of year. Very different circumstances.
In 2017, I was going to my office on a university campus every working day. I used the journey there and back, and the university’s grounds, as opportunities for my daily nature noticing. Weekends included going for walks and listening to an owl hooting in the trees outside my house.
This year – 2020 – I’ve spent the last 6 months working from home. For two months of that, we were on (pandemic) lockdown and only allowed to go outside for a limited time and at a restricted distance.
Each of these events has posed its own challenges and joys. Reflecting on the lockdown group and the current Hello Autumn one, I’m struck by how we need to be able to adapt our nature connection practices: both in response to personal life events and those that impact whole populations.
I’m missing the magnificent maple and cherry trees I used to watch from my office window. I’m missing being entertained by the gulls that used to ‘tap dance’ on the grassy university quadrangle.
But what I’ve gained is a closer and more attentive relationship to the nature (quite literally) on my doorstep. This week I noticed that the ash keys that have been suspended over my garden in big green bunches have finally turned brown and are beginning to helicopter down to ground level.
I’ve noticed the assortment of found nature objects that I’ve collected over the years and positioned around my house: dried up conkers, seashells, and pebbles with lines and faces. Memories and mementos from times ‘out in nature’.
And I’ve noticed my commitment to maintaining an active relationship with the natural world. Even on the days I can’t go outside I am still able to open a window and look up at the sky. And maybe, if I’m lucky, a window left open at night time will bring the sounds of the owl hooting to me.
I’m dripping wet, wearing just a crop top bra and thigh length shorts. It’s raining and my feet are covered in bits of leaves and twigs. A man stops to stare at me and says, “You look happy.”
“I am,” I tell him. And, it’s true, in that moment I am incredibly happy. I am beaming. “We did it!” I grin at my friends, “We swam in the river!”
The guidebook said it was an easy, 40-minute, riverside walk to reach the part where it was safe to swim. “Look for the wide flat rock and sandy shore,” it said, “and you’ll have reached Sharrah Pool.”
We’d been walking and looking for an hour and were beginning to think we’d taken a wrong turn. “We’ve been walking slowly,” we reasoned, “so our hour must be close to their 40 minutes, we must be nearly there.” We clambered over a high stile, walked carefully down one more shingly path, and there it was: a beautiful pool of deep, brackish water, surrounded by trees and moss; the wide, flat stone as promised; and just one other couple preparing to leave.
They pointed to the easiest entry and exit spot on the bank and wished us a happy swim. Then we had the pool all to ourselves. A quick change into swimwear, a careful stow of our bags and dry clothes under a rock, and we walked to the water’s edge.
The water was cold, clear, and incredible. I stayed close to the shore and kept my head above water while my braver companions ducked down and swam nearer to the place where the rapids from the higher river tumbled over rocks to join the pool.
Light rain continued to fall. My skin looked yellow beneath the peaty water. The pool was deep and topped with blobs of foam from the tumbling rapids. Every so often, my foot would brush against an invisible boulder. I kept an eye on my adventurous friends and we grinned at each other with sheer delight.
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But here’s what else happened on that trip…
Right from the beginning the “easy” path turned out to be quite challenging for me. There were several steep ups and downs on a path made of slippery and shingly stones. There were two streams to ford with just a log and few wobbly stepping stones to balance on. For at least half of the walk I needed Bunny’s hand to hold to help me with my balance, to give me confidence as I walked carefully and very slowly over loose stones, and to help pull me up when there was a high step. I was too nervous to use the stepping stones in the ford: instead, I chose to walk through the water and trust that my boots were watertight. When it came to crossing the stile on the return journey, I had to kneel on the first ledge as it was too high for me to step up onto and I came away with a very muddy knee.
It’s fair to say this wasn’t an easy walk for me.
We talked about it as we made our way back to the start. “What these guide book writers should do,” my friend concluded, “is give the map and walking instructions to a whole range of different people, with different abilities, and then get them to rate the walk. That might give us a better idea of what to expect and what level of walk it truly is.”
Repeatedly, over the years, I’ve experienced again and again how something that is ‘easy’ for someone else can be much more difficult and challenging for me. And I have to make decisions about what challenges I’m up for and which ones I need to be sensible about and decline. I try my hardest, I often need a bit of help and – on pretty much every outing with friends – I end up being the slowest one, the one at the back, the one who hesitates and needs someone’s hand to haul me up or guide me down.
Which makes getting somewhere like the river pool all the more happy-inducing and amazing.
It also means that I need other genuinely ‘easy’ ways to connect with nature. Yes, the river pool experience is one that I will savour for a very long time. But I am very aware that that kind of experience is one that is not accessible to lots of people for many, many reasons:
We needed a car to get there. The path was unsuitable for any kind of wheelchair or buggy. The stones were uneven and slippery in the rain. There were no toilet facilities on the walk (except those that nature provided…) and no refreshment stops: we had to carry our own insulated flasks to be able to warm up with a hot drink after the swim.
These aren’t criticisms; they are simply the facts about what this kind of nature connection experience can demand of the person wishing to experience it.
How can we make sure that everyone has the opportunity to connect with nature?
Here at Joyful Nature we are big believers in the joy of noticing the everyday nature on our doorsteps. Whether you live in the countryside or a city, whether you can walk and swim or have limited mobility, and whether you have someone to hold your hand or not, we want everyone to have opportunities to benefit from, and to enjoy having a relationship with, the natural world.
This could mean watching birds from your kitchen window, finding a fallen acorn on the pavement, or feeling the wind ruffling your hair. It can also mean walking in a wood, swimming in a river or the sea, or hearing an owl hoot at night. And let’s not forget listening to nature-themed meditations and visualisations, or reading nature-themed books and poetry, as other ways of staying connected to nature.
So, where should you go to connect with nature?
The answer to this question is up to you and will change day-to-day and year-to-year. The starting point has to be the nature on your doorstep. Regardless of your physical ability, your mood, your access to transport or a hand to hold, the everyday moments of nature all around us are the ones we can rely on to keep our connection going. And all you have to do is notice it. Just notice, appreciate, and ultimately care for the nature you co-exist with.
The nature on your doorstep is your neighbour. I feel very grateful to have been able to visit the woods and to have played in the river pool, but now I’m back home I also feel grateful to hear a blackbird singing outside my window and to see the sunlight showing me all the different shades of green on a tree.
An invitation to you…
Would you like to join us for a 7-day everyday nature challenge?
We start on the Autumn Equinox (22 September 2020).
Do you remember how you felt at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown this year? Here at Joyful Nature the initial response to ‘freeze’ while the ground shifted beneath us was quickly replaced by a strong desire to connect: to connect with the people we love and care about and also to connect with the natural world.
This was such a strong feeling that it rapidly transformed into a community project: the UK went into lockdown on the 23rd of March and our Noticing Nature Community was launched the very next day.
The aim of the community was to help us stay connected to each other and to nature during these times of uncertainty and worry. When we stripped it right back to the fundamentals, we realised that, even in amongst all the uncertainty in the world, two things remained constant: (1) the feel-good feelings we get from noticing nature, and (2) knowing there are folks out there who love and care for us.
We invited people to be part of this community as a way of showing how we can all support and care for ourselves and each other, and – importantly – support and care for the natural world.
We actively ran the Noticing Nature Community for 67 days – right up until the lockdown restrictions began to be eased and people could go further than their immediate area and meet up with others outside.
Today we are excited to publish our report: ‘Noticing Nature Community: Joyful Nature’s Covid-19 lockdown community initiative’.
We are very pleased to share the outcomes of this initiative. It showcases our approach as a simple and effective way of putting the research about the value and importance of connecting with nature (both for ourselves and the planet) into practice.
Before we tell you more, we want to express a huge THANK YOU to all of our community members! Your engagement and enthusiasm means so much to us.
The report describes what we did, how our community experienced and engaged with nature and each other, and the many benefits for their wellbeing that they identified from taking part.
This initiative highlights how anyone can notice nature:
You can do it very locally, wherever you live, and even from your home
You can notice as part of your daily routines and activities
You don’t need to be a nature ‘expert’ to lead or participate in a nature noticing community
Benefits for the group members:
Noticing and appreciating the nature on their doorstep
Supporting and enhancing their wellbeing
Finding meaning in nature
Sharing knowledge and appreciation for nature
Supporting nature connectedness (i.e. their experiences in, and relationships with, nature)
We so enjoyed running and holding space for this online Facebook group. It was great to see what people were noticing in the natural world each day, whether through spending time outside, from inside their homes looking out, or attending to elements of nature in their homes (in this case mainly houseplants and pets!). It really emphasised how experiencing nature doesn’t have to involve climbing mountains or camping in the wilderness – a shift of perspective which we feel is so important in opening up engagement with nature beyond traditional narratives and imagery.
People experienced as much joy and pleasure from noticing physically small and seemingly insignificant aspects of nature (such as rain droplets and leaf textures) as they did the wider vistas of a woodland landscape and a dramatic evening sky.
Their descriptions of how these interactions with aspects of nature helped to support their wellbeing, particularly at a time of such uncertainty and isolation, were both heartfelt and heart-warming.
One particularly lovely outcome was how being part of the group supported and encouraged members in their nature noticing practice. In addition to their daily engagement with nature, the group, although virtual, provided a sense of community at a time of social isolation, and a sense of connection to each other, as well as to nature, through their shared practice of nature noticing.
Whilst we established and supported our Noticing Nature Community in response to the Covid-19 lockdown, there are clearly many other times and situations when such an initiative could provide support to different communities of people.
Looking ahead, we want to disseminate and build on this work, as a simple, no/low cost approach to connecting people with nature and with each other. We’re keen to explore applying this to other ‘communities’ of people (and possibly get a bit of funding support to do so!).
Please do get in touch if you’d like to find out more, help or work with us to reach and engage with other individuals and communities.
We’ll finish off with a quote from one of Bunny’s favourite authors – the nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie – which conveys the fundamental importance of cultivating a practice of noticing nature in as many people as we can:
“When we read and write, when we love our fellow creatures, when we walk on the beach, when we just listen and notice, we are not little cogs in the machine, but part of the remedy.” (Antlers of Water, 2020).
Only by reconnecting with nature, and developing relationships of empathy, care and respect for all elements of the natural world, will we all flourish now, and in the years to come.
Being out and about in nature is one of the main things helping me through the Covid-19 pandemic. But these are tough times, and having other options in our coping toolbags can be really helpful too. So I’ve created this 10-minute meditation, drawing on nature connection, and also reminding us that we carry our own safe place in nature with us at all times.
All you have to do is listen and let yourself feel safe, held, and loved.
More and more research is highlighting what I’m sure many of us know intuitively – spending time in nature is good for us. I’ve always been struck by how often this engagement with nature is portrayed as people striding purposefully along a rugged path, or camping out somewhere wild and remote. When my latest copy of BBC Wildlife magazine came through the door, I was keen to read the enclosed supplement: ‘Wildlife and Wellbeing: How to connect with nature to benefit your health’. While this did identify some more sedentary pursuits, the main focus was on ‘outdoorsy’ activities. (No doubt this was influenced by the supplement’s tourism sponsor, but I feel it’s reflective of a common framing of how to derive wellbeing from nature.)
But what about those who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to access such opportunities?
Research also identifies that there are many ways in which time engaging with the natural world can help to support us. The work by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research group shows how our wellbeing can benefit from a close relationship with nature, which doesn’t require us to strike out in search of the wilderness. Instead, it’s something that can be developed at or very close to our own homes. As Professor Miles Richardson says “Even when we can’t get out and about, nature can still help us keep well”. This is clearly great news for everyone, and perhaps gains added significance during these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just being surrounded by bountiful nature, rejuvenates and inspires us.” E.O.Wilson
How can we develop this connection with the natural world?
This University of Derby research highlights a variety of easy and very accessible ways to develop our nature connections. One of these involves spending time with ‘virtual’ nature.
Remote or virtual access particularly intrigues me. One of my biggest fears is growing old and not being able to go off walking where and when I please. And I know that’s the reality for many people, regardless of their age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in response to the current lockdown, I’ve come across an increasing number of resources designed to provide virtual access to the natural world. Through the provision of images, videos, and sounds from nature, from specific locations, or more generic types of landscapes such as stream or woodland, we are invited to immerse ourselves in this virtual world.
While there are many examples I could share, here are a couple which I road-tested, one using Google Streetview, the other YouTube:
A trip to Northumberland
What it is
The Northumberland National Park invites you to take a virtual tour, enjoying some of its most iconic spots, including Hadrian’s Wall and the Pennine Way. These are accessed via Google Streetview, and were captured as part of Google’s Trekker project [click here to take a virtual tour]
What I thought of it
I didn’t find this approach very engaging or inspiring. Having to continually click on the screen to shift my view was tedious. As it’s solely image based, it also felt very sterile, which made me reflect on how much my experiences and enjoyment of nature are multi-sensory. I guess this resource could be helpful to get an initial idea of a landscape that you intended to visit, or stimulate memories of previous visits, but it did little to help me connect or feel any kind of relationship to that place.
A walk in the woods
What it is
TheSilentWatcher YouTube channel, contains high quality nature videos and sounds from woodland, coastal and forest landscapes [click here to watch]
What I thought of it
In contrast to the Google Streetview experience, I found these more enjoyable, as they evoked both visual and auditory senses, and didn’t require me to click around the screen to view the landscape. One took me along a footpath, giving a sense of moving slowly through a woodland, alongside a river. However, I found the pace too slow, which is probably because it didn’t match my usual walking pace – perhaps I need to slow down a little! Whilst these videos were able to provide a sense of being in and with the natural world, they didn’t hold my attention for that long, so I didn’t feel that immersed in this virtual experience either.
What other virtual avenues might there be, other than virtual reality, complete with headset and surround sound?
How about trying a different kind of ‘virtual’ nature – creative writing
During the pandemic lockdown, I have been working with the author Miriam Darlington to explore and evaluate the role of her creative nature writing in influencing people’s connection with the natural world. This research has got me thinking about another interpretation of ‘virtual’ access to nature. By analysing the media and reader reviews of her non-fiction book Otter Country, it’s very clear how Miriam’s writing can evoke virtual experience of the natural world. In describing her search for otters across the UK, readers are drawn into the landscapes she visits and the live otters that she sees (or tries to!).
“In beautifully poetic prose she conjures vivid landscapes and situations, recreating places so you feel like you’re there.” Reviewer, Otter Country
And it’s not only the human perspective that Miriam’s writing evokes. She also guides you to feel into the watery world of the otter, gaining understanding and empathy for how they navigate their lives alongside us.
“…by the end of the book, you feel you’re seeing the world perhaps as an otter would.” Reviewer, Otter Country
I have recently re-read Otter Country and have found myself transported back into landscapes that I know across Scotland, East Anglia and Devon. I also ‘got to know’, and gain a sense of place for landscapes that have so far eluded me on my travels. On finishing the book, I had to take a couple of days off before plunging into another, as my head was so full of the places I’d ‘been’ and the experiences I had ‘had’.
There are clearly multiple pathways through which we can engage with the natural world, which will on some level be unique to each individual. What’s clear is that it’s very important to highlight and encourage access for as many people as possible across a broad spectrum of real and virtual experience.
I would hope that this can help more people to think that engaging with nature is something they can do, even if they don’t have high-tech clothing and binoculars! Whilst firsthand encounters with nature will always been very evocative, virtual connection through writing can also provide a powerful means to connect people with the natural world, and through this support their wellbeing.
Dr Susan Warren is an environmentalist and researcher, with life-long experience of joyful, awe-inspiring and very necessary engagement with the natural world.
I have always walked on the streets, footpaths and bridleways around our home, so in many ways, the current COVID-19 ‘lock down’ on our daily activities has not significantly affected my walking routes. However, living in beautiful East Devon, I am also very lucky to have many other favourite walks a little further away, which are currently out of bounds. Over the past few months, Anna and I had walked many times on a path alongside the River Otter and down to the sea at Budleigh Salterton. With all the storms and rain, it was the least muddy path we could find, and also included a fab café stop at Otterton Mill.
We are lucky enough to have beavers on the River Otter. Once native to the UK, beavers lived in waterways throughout Britain. Sadly, highly prized for their fur, meat, and castoreum (oil), they were hunted to extinction. The last written record in England dates back to 1780. However, in recent times, led by reintroductions in Scotland, the beaver is once again returning to its former landscapes. In 2015, Devon Wildlife Trust issued a licence to release beavers into the wild on the River Otter, and I was lucky enough to be there to see these large mammals (think big springer spaniel), being returned to one of their former habitats.
Having these beavers living so close to us is fantastic. As they are most active and visible at dawn and dusk, and surprisingly elusive for their size, we don’t get to see them very often. However, it’s always fun to look out for signs of their activities. On our recent walks on the River Otter we’ve seen lots of evidence of their nocturnal gnawings, which you can see in the pictures.
However, whilst still rather novel and exciting, it’s not just the beaver activity that has caught our attention. We’ve also watched rooks flying back and forth to large rookerys in the trees high above the river. They have appeared particularly interested in one field, taking large beakfuls of moss/grass to patch up their nests, making them safe for the precious eggs to come. And further down the river, around the small estuary, over-wintering birds such as teal and wigeon have been busy grazing the short grass, fueling themselves before returning north to their summer breeding grounds.
As I’ve been walking the well-trodden paths near home, my thoughts often turn to this riverside walk, the beavers, the rooks, and the teal and wigeon. What are they doing now? Which trees have the beavers gnawed their way through? Have the rooks laid eggs? Have the teal and wigeon left to build their nests further north?
This year I will only be able to imagine what they are doing. I feel very grateful that I have attended so closely to the natural world on previous walks: the gift of ‘Noticing Nature’!
My memories of this place are so strong that I can see and feel into this landscape at this challenging time.
The rhythms of nature will, of course, continue to beat, regardless of my presence, and I can picture our non-human companions busy with their lives.
It’s very likely that by the time I get there again, the beavers will have had kits, the rooks will have fledged their latest nest of chicks, and the teal and wigeon will be long gone, busy with parenting their own broods in cooler climes. And the whole landscape will be different: plants and trees in full bloom and leaf, with butterflies and insects busy amongst them. The birds may have started to quieten down, and the riverside track will be dusty rather than muddy.
My return will feel like greeting an old friend. I know I will feel so thankful for its presence, both real and imagined. And hopefully, I will continue to walk along, with and through this magical, shared place, for many years to come.
Dr Susan Warren is an environmentalist and researcher, with life-long experience of joyful, awe-inspiring and very necessary engagement with the natural world.
This is a community space to help us stay connected: with nature and with each other. Because, even though there is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, two things that remain constant are (1) the feel-good feelings we get from noticing nature, and (2) knowing there are folks out there who love and care for us. It’s reciprocal: by being part of this community we also show that we care for nature and care for each other.
HOW IT WORKS
You are invited to share ‘3 good things’ that you notice in nature, every day if possible, but as often as feels good for you.
You can share regardless of whether you’ve had an indoors day or been able to get outside. You might notice things like birdsong through your open window, fluffy cloud formations, or new leaves appearing on the trees. Or perhaps share a bug sighting, the smell of rain, or how the moonlight snuck in your window. You are also welcome to share nature-themed poems, crafts, or other ways that you connect with nature.