Nature Nurtures Me

nurtured by nature.jpgWhen I was a child, my dad would often disappear for walks. occasionally he’d take us with him, point out grebes swimming on the river, name the trees and the wild flowers or explain why we shouldn’t pick the hogweed*. Mostly he walked in silence, and it’s only now I’m a grown up that I understand his need to be outdoors.

You see, nature nurtures us. In the late 1980’s, I worked in a school in the suburbs of Manchester, it had a stream running through the grounds and some of our more enlightened staff knew that making sure our “troubled children” had access to that space, to “dip” in the pond, discover pond skaters, damselflies and grubs made life easier in the classroom. Those kids were calmer, more able to sit and listen. As teachers, we noticed a difference too, we talked about “clearing away the cobwebs” or how lovely it was to breather fresh air. Truth be told, we dragged those kids outside as much for our own well being as theirs! Thirty years ago it wasn’t called “Forest School” or the “outdoor classroom”, it was just informal access to nature  and we knew the benefits without mountains of research papers to tell us why access to the outdoors mattered. Everyone looked forward to dry days when we could step outside and weave an appreciation of nature into the curriculum – and if you are sceptical of the effect of nature on mood and behaviour, visit any school playground on a windy day and take note of how it affects the children – our dinner ladies* used to  dread windy lunch times!

on the rocks

Whilst we were encouraging those kids to spend time outside, feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their faces, the recognition that being outdoors could improve well being was being accepted across the world. In Japan, the concept known as  “Shinrin – Yoku” (sometimes called “forest bathing” )was gathering momentum. The healing power of being outdoors was accepted as a legitimate course of treatment. Even the NHS implemented changes to hospital design and organisation after published research that showed patients with beds near the window healed faster and went home sooner! (Roger Ulrich‘s research was first published in 1984 and was considered ground breaking at the time).*

Of course, now the media have embraced this concept as “new” and innovative and now we all read constantly that being outdoors is good for the soul as this piece in the Guardian shows, Author and nature lover Emma Mitchell has embraced the idea of being outdoors as a strategy to ensure her mental well being . If you’re interested, then the nature Fix by Florence Williams is definitely worth a read. It’s a fascinating account and exploration of the healing possibilities of nature.

Even the smallest access to green space ( or just being able to see it through a window) can improve out mental and physical health. Notice how children will press their noses to the window on rainy days, anxious to connect with the outdoors. This need to be in nature is with us from the earliest age. I try to eat my breakfast, or at least gulp a mug of tea in the garden every morning. I think of it as a time to balance myself before the onslaught of social media, emails and deadlines. Even better, if I can squeeze in a walk in the forest or through the woods I know my day will be calmer and more productive.  If you’re interested in reading more about this, then I thoroughly recommend  this article in Business Insider, which lists “12 science backed reasons why spending more time outside is healthy“.

Garden Robin

Spending time outdoors has allowed me to observe nature close up, my photographs of birds, butterflies and garden wildlife are a happy accident of time spent sitting, walking or watching. I know that my mental and physical health improves when I get outside, I notice less pain and inflammation in my joints and I often discover the solution to a problem or difficulty. We need access to sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, so clearly the need to be within nature is built into our DNA?

There still needs to be more willingness to accept the existing evidence that nature heals, and to continue to research the best and most effective ways we can use what we already know. Children cooped up in classrooms, prisoners on almost 24 hour a day “lock down”, patients denied access to the outdoors because health care providers prefer to keep them in their beds “where we can see you” and office workers who lunch at their desks because stepping outside the office is no longer the norm. Everyone can benefit from a change in attitude and policy.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence. Nature nurtures, sustains, revives and inspires us. We should all spend more time outside, every day.

 

*The sap is irritating and can cause a nasty rash – leave it alone!

*During my time as a student Nurse, Ulrich’s research was causing a stir. A new hospital wing was designed around a courtyard, so patients could not only see the gardens, but walk in them through patio doors

*dinner ladies / lunch time supervisors

 

Keep the Wild in You

on the rocksI had an outdoors childhood. I didn’t think that was unusual, Dad would take us for walks along the banks of the river Severn, we would fish for sticklebacks with our cousins in the holidays, spend hours wandering through fields (in the days when wheat grew taller than me). Summer holidays were spent on the beach, exploring rock pools and building dens. We knew the names of birds and wild flowers because we saw them every year, named them, remembered them. We knew where to find wild raspberries, to avoid the bitter elderberries and in spring there was great delight to be had in picking “sticky willie” and throwing at each other.

butterfly on blackthorn.jpg

It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realise how lucky we were to have family (and teachers) who knew the value of being outdoors. It constantly surprises me that people will ask “Can you really eat that?”,  or that they are unable to identify garden birds or wild flowers, that they don’t know the thrill of finding a slow worm in the compost heap or the joy of spotting the first butterfly of the year. Maybe, because we walked to school or spent long summer days unsupervised in the countryside around our home a love of nature and an understanding of the seasons was just absorbed by osmosis. I can walk in the woods and name the trees, I know when to look out for the spiky sweet chestnuts (and I know how to roast them and eat them), I look forward to the first flush of nettle tops and the early wild garlic. I didn’t deliberately set out to pass on this knowledge to my daughter, but I think she has inherited at least some of that knowledge and respect for nature. Right now, we have a batch of birch sap wine fermenting in the kitchen, I’m eyeing up the cherry blossom and watching my neighbour’s crab apple tree with plans for jellies and jams. Food for free, foraging, whatever you like to call it, being with and eating wild things is part of who I am. It’s true, the only reason we planted an Elder in our garden was an ambition to make elderberry wine and elderflower champagne.

elderflowers 2016

So, in a long and rambling way, if this was your childhood and you regret that  you’ve now forgotten more than you remember, or you never had the opportunity to discover your “wild side”, then the Wildlife Trust’s “30 Days Wild” is for you. Starting on the 1st June, you can sign up to receive a whole month of simple ways to go wild. You can take part as an individual, a school, or even get together with your colleagues and go a bit wild in the work place. There are plenty of resources and ideas on the Wildlife Trust website. Download a pack and start planning your month of wild. Even if you can only manage a wild weekend or a few minutes there are suggestions for you. I love the idea of sparking “random acts of wildness” and encouraging more of us to step outside, even if it’s only for a few minutes each day. As regular readers know, my moments outside are essential. I always feel happier, calmer and ready to face the day after a wander around the garden or a walk in the woods.

But, 30 Days Wild isn’t just about discovering the outdoors and ticking a box in a spotters guide. It’s about encouraging us all to find time to go wild at any time of the year, not just in June. It’s about finding ways to live healthier, happier lives through being in nature. That might sound a bit “new age”, but everything I read and research tells me that my instinct to throw open the windows, walk barefoot on the grass or just sit on a bench and watch the birds  is good for me. Download the app and wherever you are, you can find something to do, or send off for an activity pack or check out the #30dayswild hashtag on Twitter and Instagram for ideas. I’ll be sharing my wild adventure online too, so join in with me and we can go wild together!

 

The Japanese advocate “Forest bathing”, children are being encouraged to take part in Forest School days, as far back as the 1970’s research proved that  patients in hospital make speedier recovery if they can see the sky and the grass through a window.  Try some of the suggestions and discover the nature in your garden, around your workplace or venture further afield. All the local Wildlife Trusts run activities (many of them free) to help you discover your local area, so if you’re nervous about venturing out alone you’ll be in good hands.

What are you waiting for? stop reading and get outdoors, find the wild in you…

 

Busy Doing Nothing

Sometimes I wear my “busyness” like a badge of honour. Being “busy” equates with success and achievement. On holiday, I noticed that I was far happier  when I was “not busy”. Those days when I sat by the pool, meandered around the garden or strolled down to a local cafe to mooch and enjoy an espresso with Mr T were some of the loveliest days I’ve had this year. We relished having nothing to do, nowhere to be and no-one to please but ourselves.

I came home with a sketch book full of ideas, swatches for new designs, hundreds of photos taken with my new camera and I refound my creativity. It’s the first holiday in years when I haven’t felt homesick within a few days of arriving. The beautiful gardens surrounding our holiday cottage were so wonderful we didn’t feel the need to stray far from home. We didn’t “tick off” many tourist destinations, we hardly ate out and we spent very little. What did we do? We swam, Mr T cycled. We visited the local towns and markets, bought local cheese, meats and honey (oh yes, and wine of course). We cooked simple meals, we talked, listened to each other and in the interests of full disclosure I should tell you we spent  more afternoons than we should enjoying a “siesta”! We watched TV coverage of the Tour de France (and saw some of it in the flesh), we didn’t feel the need to apologise for wasting our time in such trivial ways.

Since we came home, I’ve tried really hard to spend time doing “nothing”. Every day I have taken an hour out to go for a walk or tend the garden. I’ve been happier, less stressed out by deadlines and negotiating commissions. There have even been days when I’ve pulled the cobwebs off the deck chair and sat in the shade under the hazel trees to read a book.

This time, usually early in the mornings has often been the best part of the day. Disconnected from the internet, phone on silent I have been more aware of nature and more aware of the people who matter. For the past week, each day has begun with a walk in the local forest. I wasn’t aware of the concept of “Forest Bathing” until recently, but the idea that being outdoors is good for mental and physical well being isn’t a surprise to me. Ask any gardener, and they’ll wax lyrical about how much better they feel after an hour of weeding, dead heading or pulling up weeds – even the mundane tasks improve our moods!

The other thing I’ve noticed is this: No-one has noticed I’ve been disconnected! Nobody has noticed that I haven’t been answering emails, posting online, commenting or responding until late in the morning, sometimes not  even in the afternoons. In short, my day has started later and yet I’ve achieved the same, sometimes more in less time and in a better frame of mind.”

Slowly, very slowly I’m losing the need to appear busy to outside observers. I don’t feel the need to justify how I’ve spent my day or have something concrete to show off. Busy doing “nothing” is probably when I’ve been most creative, happy and above all, content.

I just wish I had learned this lesson in my twenties, not my fifties!