As Festival of Nature prepares for our ‘Nature, Health and Wellbeing’ conference on June 5th, we seek to bring professionals together to discuss and debate. In preparation for the event, we asked our conference producer from Natural Academy to share his thoughts on a growing body of practice and research, and asked him the questions:
- Can conservation services and health services join forces to find effective win-win solutions? How can such solutions help us address health crises and environmental crises?
- Are there simple yet effective ways to facilitate health and wellbeing in nature that have clear benefits and outcomes for people and nature?
- Can we develop the way we see the world within a deeper ecological connectivity where we again see our intricate part in a greater web of life?
“‘When I stand still in the forest and stop, I often remember that which I have forgotten. That I am as natural as every tree, bird and animal, as elemental as the wind and Sun and that I am made of this Earth. Always around me there is a deep reciprocal relationship with the whole of nature, whereby my health & wellbeing and the health & wellbeing of the whole ecology are intricately woven together.’ Rhonda Brandrick Eco-psychologist.
Our own health & wellbeing and the health of the natural world that we depend on are fundamentally inseparable. There is a crisis in both, and a way forward to recovery is re-connecting the Human-Nature relationship. This topic has been explored through a number of different lenses: climate change, eco-system services, microbial impacts on our gut flora, recovery from illness, immune system function, stress reduction, mental health, self-esteem, Eco-therapy, sense of place, and deep ecology to name a few. This extensive field is developing across the world and in the UK. In this article I will be exploring and ruminating on the following deep question of our time:
Can our modern human health and wellbeing flourish as part of the flourishing of a healthy and species rich environment?
We are gathering on the 5th of June and holding a conference to explore how we as a community of interest can learn from each other, share ideas and create realistic and sustainable ways forward for the benefit of the health of individuals, communities and the natural world.
Nature and holistic health
The physical dependence for our health on nature may seem clear to most, but how our nature connections can influence our whole quality of life may not be so obvious. Yet the evidence is gathering for a holistic view, an integrated way forward that sees our health and wellbeing as impacted by nature, not just at a physical level, but across our psychological, emotional, social, cultural and spiritual experience. This discussion is too brief to go into the detail but some links are included at the end of the article and I recommend a dive into the literature.
Redeveloping a clear focus on the Human-Nature connection and how this can be a catalyst for positive change in human health and in the ecological health and wellbeing around us, is, I believe, a key that may open a new door for us. Behind this could be some new answers and ways forward to help mitigate many challenges we face collectively but here I focus on two fundamental challenges that affect us all locally, nationally and globally. These are human health and environmental crises.
In the UK we are facing a wide-ranging health crisis with many issues across our whole health sector. One key issue is that over 15 million people are living with long term conditions according to the Department of Health (1), and second stark statistic is that two thirds of British adults report mental ill-health at some point in their lives. (2)
In addition, research shows clearly that nature is in serious decline across the UK. ‘After centuries of habitat destruction, the UK’s nature is impoverished, with some of our special habitats reduced to scattered fragments.’ The State of Nature 2017 (3)
Such vast complex issues require new thinking, new ways forward, innovative models, movement of our resources, connections, aligning of effort, and systemic thinking. In short: an ecological approach. Chapter 3 of the 25-year Environment Plan speaks to connecting people and sets out some approaches. It also sets a target of :Focusing on increasing action to improve the environment from all sectors of society” (4)
A deepening collaboration between what has been a more human oriented health system and a more environmental focused conservation movement is emerging and beginning to find new ways forward. This Win-Win method is not without issues, challenge and cost and needs to have a realistic view and learn from the journey of other integrated approaches. However for me it is obviously an way forward.
I also believe that the Human-Nature relationship is what will cultivate the resources of this emerging field further and help it sustain, grow and develop. I also hold that this focus on individual nature connection may well avoid some pit-falls of other integrated approaches that have struggled to find ways of bringing conservation and well-being together. For me it is in the depth of our nature connection that we will find the guidance and wisdom we need to help this integration deepen.
The Natural Self
Our fundamental affinity with the natural world, as set out in the bio-philia hypothesis, comes from the fact that we are of nature and have a deep love and connection to the natural world, which includes a sense of place and belonging. We are now living in a primarily human designed, urban world; yet we have only lived without close affinity to our natural environment for a very short period of our human history. Some argue this disconnect is a fundamental issue at the core of our health crisis.
At Natural Academy the connection to nature is fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human. We see ourselves as a human being with an inner nature, mind and body in relationship to people, society and to the ecological. Therefore what it means to be fully human requires a deepening connection and healthy development of our self within these different arms of what we call the Natural Self.
Within Nature, Health and Wellbeing services, people are encouraged to deepen into this Human-Nature connection whether that is a first walk in a rural setting, or a short time sitting in a park or time in wilder spaces. This will help develop a greater sense of this Natural Self wherein lie huge resources for our physical health, mental and emotional wellbeing, our personal development and our greater connections to meaning and purpose.
I am privileged to have been alongside many people as they found these resources and healing in their connections with the natural world. Whether it is a person on a nature walk, someone recovering from a mental health issue on a Green Care course, or people diving into deep immersion in wilderness; I have seen at first hand the powerful, healing and transformational benefits of our human-nature connections. In our work we also always seek ways of giving something back, an offering, an act of care, or an opportunity for conserving and restoring the natural world around us.
In this deepening connection and harvesting of resources for wellbeing it is also clearly true that a reciprocal way of seeing ourselves with nature begins to deepen or re-emerge. Within that a care and love for the natural world blossoms further. This reawakening is, I believe, the key to how health and conservation can integrate more effectively and it requires the design and delivery of Nature, Health and Wellbeing services that have the principle of nature connection at their core and an understanding of the emergence of reciprocity as a natural and healthy part of that connection.
So take a moment reader and consider your own experience, that last time you had in your garden, or the park, walking in rural Britain, or by the docks, or the sea or in wilder lands. Did you stop a moment and connect, to a plant, an animal, the landscape? What happened to you in that moment? Did you see, feel, sense or imagine how our human-nature connection is vital to your life, to your health, to your wellbeing to your purpose? Did you feel how precious this place is and how we need to protect, restore it for ourselves, for each other, for the generations yet to come, and for those wild plants and creatures that inhabit it?
If you thought or felt these things then maybe the quote of Gary Snyder speaks to you now: ‘Nature is not a place to visit. It is Home.’”
References and further reading
5. Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity, Richard A Fuller et al, 2007