It’s not all hiking boots and wilderness

Exploring the virtual landscapes of nature

Written by Dr Susan Warren

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.

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