HOW CAN WE GIVE BACK AS WELL AS TAKE?
If we all did our bit, instead of so many taking nature for granted or abusing it, oh boy, what we could achieve between us. At a local level, I pick up litter when I am out walking. Just as the dog walkers (hopefully) have poo bags with them, I have a litter bag. I know where there are litter bins along many of my walks, so I can empty my bag and continue to collect more, otherwise, I squash in as many sweet wrappers, cigarette packets, takeaway containers and plastic bottles as I can and deposit in my bins at home. I tend my garden so that those who see it can enjoy it, including the bees, birds, mini beasts and any other visitors. I plant insect attracting flowers and shrubs, I plant trees and replace those that die. I have hedgehog houses, bird feeding stations to accommodate different feeding preferences, and last year made a new bug hotel including lots of different habitats.
I try my best and am always looking for ways to improve my support, especially as nature gives so very much to me.
RECOGNITION OF THE IMPORTANT ROLE THAT NATURE CAN PLAY
Many find that by getting out of the house or place of work, they experience a lifting of spirit, a lightening of their emotional load. Yes, the getting away from the four walls surrounding you helps, but more significantly that contact with nature and natural surroundings lifts you up or calms you down.
A Guardian article reports on recent research carried out by the University of Exeter Medical School stating that by being out in nature and soaking up the peace that it offers, we benefit mentally and physically. Said research specifies a weekly time allocation of two hours and seems to show that simply sitting out and being surrounded by nature’s peace, on a regular basis, is a benefit to us. If you don’t have access to a copse, a stream, a meadow, whatever, then take that morning cuppa or afternoon coffee out into the garden. My garden backs onto a road which can boast quite a flow of traffic, but I am able to cut out the sounds of passing cars as I focus on the greenery and flowers surrounding me. Add in the birds and I can feel my shoulders lowering as I relax. I do sometimes take my first morning cuppa out into the garden – still in dressing gown and slippers, carrying a throw if necessary, to share in the first sounds of the birds beginning their day. The plus – I don’t have to shut out the traffic sounds and can begin my day by connecting with nature and bringing back memories of a dawn canoe ride in the waters around the Keys of Florida. Maybe my feathered friends aren’t as exotic as Florida’s equivalents, but they are still wonderful and I don’t have to take care not to fall from my canoe ‘In case of the sharks or the gaitors!’…
I will often allow my mind to take me back to other outdoor times – time spent in the garden of my childhood, playing out with friends in a nearby field or by a pond that contained lots of minnows; cliff top and beach walks – especially one of my favourites along the Greenaway in Cornwall with the breakers rolling in on to the rocks below. Even as a teenager, I would happily perch on a rock here and let the world pass me by. I never plan for this mental take over to happen, it just does. When my mind is stilled from the wonderings around the day’s activities and my ‘to do list’, there evolves a welcoming space for the memories to resurface and add to my contentment. My personal therapy.
These benefits of a two-hour dose of nature were found to be the same for anyone, no matter what their age, social standing, location. In addition, as it simply involved sitting, without necessarily simultaneous exercising, those with a disability or illness were also found to benefit. I am left wondering if our 8 hours of sleep, 5+ fruit and veg, 2 litres of water, 10,000 steps will also see sitting in nature included as recommended positive choices for a healthy mind and body?
IF NOT SIMPLY SITTING …….
There are ways of deepening that communication with nature – there’s gardening, walking the woodland paths – or forest bathing as it has become known. Being surrounded by nature, fresh air and natural light. Not only walking through the woods, but simultaneously, mindfully, taking in the forms, colours, textures, sounds of our surroundings. There’s being by or in water – a lake, a stream or the sea. The 'being in' part, having been spoken about by a guest writer. There’s being out at night, and star gazing. The silver splashes against the velvety black of the sky. Sadly, a sight denied to many due to urban light pollution.
Some choose to rid their feet of shoes in that woodland, meadow, river side, in order to use the over 200,000 nerve endings in their feet to communicate the feel of the soil, the twigs and leaves beneath them. This is known as earthing. I admit that I would struggle with this as I would find it hard to walk amidst my ouches, oohs and aahs when I encountered stones or prickly bits and would be far too vigilant in my checking for un-cleared dog pooh to take in my surroundings. I guess my feet have been encased in shoes for too many years. However, spurred on by research encouraging us to ‘ground’ ourselves, and practice earthing by sitting or lying with bare feet on the ground, I did try this out on my lawn in the spring time sunshine. I found the experience pleasant, until my foot found a wood pigeon poop!
The theory is that the electrons from the earth are able to pass into our bodies and support the production of antioxidants. Inflammation, felt to be at the core of many current ailments, is reduced. Blood is less viscous, supporting better cardiovascular health. Our nervous system is enabled to work more effectively. Free radicals (responsible for cellular damage) are cleared from the body. Whilst I have not seen any extended write ups of the various pieces of research, I have been prompted to look into the purchasing of a pair of barefoot shoes, ones with some level of protection by way of a non-rubber sole to allow me greater feeling whilst softening some of those edges for my wimpy feet. A compromise methinks between health benefits and discomfort.
Then we have gardening. My favourite form of communing with nature. I love to see my garden flourishing, especially as I have developed it from a patch of grass to a cottage garden. I am out in the sunlight – and even sunshine sometimes – so my body is supported in its production of serotonin, endorphins, and Vitamin D. Yes, at times, the weeds can become very personalised as they are yanked out to join the contents of my composters, but all in all, my time spent gardening improves both my physical and a mental/emotional wellbeing. I stop when it clicks over from a pleasurable experience to becoming a chore, not beating myself up for setting aside uncompleted tasks for another day.
WHAT IF YOU ARE A TOWNIE?
The ever-present need for more houses to be built puts pressure on the green spaces around us. Towns expand, villages merge, cities become ever larger sprawls providing employment and housing for the masses. They are centres of business and busyness, hustle and bustle, noise but often seemingly without meaningful communication between said masses.
In such towns and cities, people are fighting to prevent the cutting down of trees which line suburban streets. Their canopy of leaves has been shown to reduce stress for those who walk beneath them. It probably comes down to cost – the cost of lopping the trees, of straightening paving slabs.
Researchers at Hong Kong and Illinois Universities have put people into stressful situations, then showed them 3D cityscapes with different levels of tree cover. The finding? The higher the density of tree cover, the lower the stress levels became. The lower the density, the lower the reduction in those stress levels.
HOW NATURE CAN HELP US
By being around plants, animals, rivers, lakes, the sea – whatever mother nature has to offer reduces stress and anger, and can help to lift depression. You become more relaxed with an improvement in overall mood, as well as the quality of your sleep. The result of this is an improvement not only in mental and emotional well-being, but in physical health too, simply by being in nature. Add in the exercise and the benefits increase.
Connecting with nature through growing your own fruit and vegetables is a win/win situation. You get the exercise, the pleasure of watching your crop grown – even better when you can share this process with children or grandchildren; then you get to eat the fruits (or veg!) of your labours, being fully aware of how these have been grown and hopefully not sprayed with chemicals. I have to say that I was delighted to pick the first of my sugar snap peas this week and to note that there was only about five minutes between picking and eating – so fresh that a quick one minute blanche was all that was needed. That’s what I call fresh. If you don’t have the time or inclination to grow your own – you could always pick your own, be this at a farm or simply getting out wild blackberry picking come September. Then home to freeze for future use or to make blackberry jam. Sadly, my foraging skills have not moved far beyond this.
There can be benefits of socialisation if you join a walking group. The scenery providing a topic of conversation, or you can choose to have a companionable silence or even walk as an individual whilst within sight of others. Whatever floats your boat. There are often properties with gardens looking for volunteers to help – again, another way of meeting new people without an enforced need to always be talking. A way to exercise and to simultaneously cut down on loneliness whilst interacting with nature.
I have mentioned using nature as my therapy. I have also used walking therapy with clients; taking our talking out along a woodland walk which can make the process easier for some clients. Do get in touch if this may be of interest to you.
Allow nature to open the door to a new hobby for you as being creative is another plus for positive mental wellbeing. Take a camera out with you, or put a sketch pad in your pocket. Either of these encourages you to look more mindfully at the things that you often just see.
When encouraging children to be out in nature, you can get them actively involved – looking for a list of items, beachcombing, pond dipping. I will say no more on this as there will be a follow up blog specifically around the subject of children being out in nature. It is being written by a friend who has a lot of experience with this and who wrote about her experience of birth some time ago.