On the 5th March I was able to run a workshop on Nature and Wellbeing at the AHRC Leadership Fellows Conference in Manchester. Prior to the workshop I had circulated a rough plan for the discussion:
1) This discussion workshop will focus on the theme of ‘Nature’, ‘Wellbeing’, and their interrelation. I will begin the session by asking participants to reflect on the meaning of the two words, taking into account different cultural, historical and disciplinary understandings of each.
2) We will then compare and contrast different interpretations of the words’ meanings, looking for continuities and differences
3) This will lead into a discussion of how nature and wellbeing might interrelate at the present moment, and how they may have interrelated historically.
4) I will then circulate very short readings of literary texts (some poetry, fiction and non-fiction prose) and discuss with participants a) the relationship between nature and wellbeing established in the text, and b) to what extent the textual representations of nature-wellbeing relations coincide with or differ from the responses generated through individual exercises and group discussion.
We will spend some time discussing the possible reasons for similarities and differences, focusing in particular on cultural and historical context and influencing factors such as gender, race and class-based experience.
To conclude the workshop, I will introduce the group to definitions and uses of ‘nature’ and ‘wellbeing’ currently in use in environmental, health and related third sector contexts. This will lead into the final discussion, in which we will question the value of analysing literary texts in interdisciplinary ways, e.g. in order to address wider sociological, environmental and medical trends.
I began the session by asking participants why they had chosen this workshop, what personal understandings of nature and wellbeing they had, and what discipline-specific insights they might bring to bear on the discussion. This proved a spur to really fascinating and wide-ranging contributions, which I have tried to summarise below.
The group consisted of AHRC Leadership Fellows Dr Matt Brennan, Dr Broderick Chow, Dr Esme Rose Cleall, Dr David Higgins, Prof Jonathan Pitches, Prof Sharon Ruston and Prof Robert Stern, and Dr Sam Lambshead , Strategy and Development Manager of the AHRC.
Firstly, many of us were keen to reflect on our personal experiences of ‘nature’. All of us work in academia, a career which can be stressful, competitive, and involves long working hours. Like many people, academics like to escape out of doors. Members of the group shared their experiences of birdwatching in the early hours of the morning to make the most of the difficulties of living with insomnia, of leaving the office or workspace to walk or sit outside, and of going on weekend trips alone or with family as a release from the working week. We compared our experiences to the classical notion of pastoral retreat and return, and questioned to what extent ‘nature’, green spaces and the countryside are still constructed as pastoral spaces for retreat, and whether we live with those notions of nature as part of managing our workloads and stress. This point also raised questions about access to safe and clean green spaces. Indeed, ensuring communities have such access is at the centre of Nature and Wellbeing legislation proposed by the Wildlife Trusts, so it was interesting to see how important quick escape to ‘nature’ was to members of the group.
The notion of accessibility is also central to disability rights campaigning, so it was really useful to have an expert on disability studies—Dr Esme Rose Cleall—in the group. Supporting wellbeing and enhancing quality of life are hugely important factors to people living with disabilities, and even more so at moment in which disability support is being cut and becoming increasingly difficult to access. In terms of the theme of ‘nature’, scholars in disability studies have pointed out how encounters with nature are determined by our physical abilities and disabilities, and how social structures and injustices can be reproduced in people’s engagements with nature. In Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012), Alison Kafer notes how most disability studies research has been conducted on the construction of the built environment, and yet “the natural environment is also ‘built’: literally so in the case of trails and dams, metaphorically so in the sense of cultural constructions of ‘nature’, ‘natural’ and ‘the environment.’” (p.129). Recognising this, Kafer explores how “‘social arrangements’ have been mapped onto ‘natural environments’” (p.130) with a specific kind of white, male, middle-class and able bodied encounter with the natural environment having been celebrated as most ‘natural’ and most conducive to authentic and spiritual appreciation of nature.
Focus on categories of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ as they relate to bodies led on to a consideration of the performative hyper-masculinity of athletes and wrestlers. It was fascinating to hear about Dr Broderick Chow’s Fellowship project Dynamic Tensions, to consider the theatricality of athleticism, and to compare these findings with those of Prof. Jonathan Pitches, who has been working with the Kendal Mountain Festival to explore the use of mountains as theatrical spaces in the project Performing Landscapes: Mountains.
Western cultures of nature and constructions of the wild have indeed been dominated by figures of rugged masculinity and physical prowess, inspired by walker-poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Euro-American pioneers of the North American wilderness John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. Literary genres of nature and wilderness writing have played their own part in perpetuating racism, ableism and sexism by representing the ‘natural’ body as the athletic body of the white male explorer and/or coloniser. This is especially so in mountaineering literature, with its traditional focus on feats of endurance and physical prowess, and its construction of mountains as threatening landscapes to be conquered and overcome.
Drawing from the disciplinary skills and perspectives of other members of the workshop group, we moved on to a consideration of different philosophical perspectives on questions of nature and natural law, ethics, and the normativity of certain discourses of nature and wellbeing, and the value of rights discourse and the land ethic, which has urged, in recent years, the extension of rights traditionally reserved for the human and more recently the animal, to places, natural processes and entire ecosystems. The new environmental-capitalist discourse of ecosystems services raised its head, prompting us to ask whether nature needs to have a value for us—in this case, enhancing wellbeing—before we care about protecting it? This is an important point to consider, as environmental charities that promote Nature and Wellbeing legislation might inadvertently tie themselves to an anthropocentric and instrumentalised understanding of nature’s value for humanity, which may do little to protect the flourishing of complex ecosystems and of species with no verifiable benefits to society.
[From CBO: ‘Humankind benefits from a multitude of resources and processes that are supplied by ecosystems. Collectively, these benefits are known as ecosystem services and include products like clean drinking water and processes such as the decomposition of wastes’. Source: TEEB]
The perennial and tricky question of how to define nature—and how it is distinct from the ‘human’ or ‘synthetic’—came up, prompting a consideration of the meaning and value of alternative terminology including ecology, the more-than-human world, the countryside, and the environment. We were lead to ask: what kind of qualitative, subjective, phenomenological difference is there in an ‘encounter’ with nature, versus a visit to a museum, building or city? Is it simply a matter of ‘absorption’ and ‘distraction’, and if so how might nature encounters compare with creative practice, reading or meditation? These questions get to the heart of the problem of defining ‘nature’, and understanding what exactly it is about whatever ‘nature’ is that might contribute to human wellbeing.
Many of the scholars attending the workshop are engaging with public bodies and non-academic organisations concerned with questions of sustainability, resilience, and the entanglement of the social, economical and ecological. I’m particularly interested in how humanities scholars can critique and expand some of the definitions used by public institutions. Employees, including Universities, are increasingly coming to appreciate the importance of employee wellbeing, to recognise links—both anecdotal and scientific—between nature and wellbeing, and to build wellbeing exercises and events into their management of staff. In some cases, unfortunately, such gestures can be quite shallow and superficial. For example, staff may be offered opportunities for wellbeing classes but not a clear resolution to industrial disputes. It was valuable to have the insight of Dr Sam Lambshead from the AHRC in the group. I am particularly keen to discuss the role that research councils like the AHRC can have in suggesting a direction for these debates, and to explore how arts and humanities research can deepen understanding.
The conversation was a particular full and engaging one, and left us little time to analyse literature! I did circulate the handout with the quotes (copied below) and we had some time to discuss John Muir’s influential definition of Nature as ‘home’ for the nervous, and to compare it with Ingrid Pollard’s experiences of dread and unease as a black woman in the Romantic landscapes of the Lake District.
There was no one clear outcome or finding from the workshop. However, I am keen to return to this question, raised in various ways throughout the discussion: in addressing issues of human wellbeing and ecological collapse, are we helped or hampered by the idea of nature?
Handout: Nature & Wellbeing Workshop, AHRC Leadership Fellows Conference, Manchester. 06.02.17
1) ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature…’
John Muir, ‘The Wild Parks and Forests of the West’ Nature Writings ed. William Cronon. Library of America: 1997. pp.721-743: p.721
‘O there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate’er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.’ William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 1. 1850.
3) ‘…the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it—water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power. I only know that man can’t live without it. He must see it and hear it, touch it and taste it, and, no, not smell it, if he is to be in health.’
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1977. p.26
‘surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem
always an other poem?’
Lucille Clifton, from Mercy. Rochester: BOA Editions, 2004
5) Ingrid Pollard, from ‘Pastoral Interludes’ (1987) in Postcards Home. London: Autograph, 2004.
‘Nothing about the scene is really ‘natural.’ It’s as manufactured and deliberate as the assumptions and stereotypes about black people.’ (p.18)
‘…it’s as if the Black experience is only lived within an urban environment. I thought I liked the Lake District where I wandered lonely as a Black face in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease, dread…’ (p.23)