On the 8th May, I held the first in a series of interdisciplinary conversations about nature and wellbeing relations at Bath Spa University. The speakers represented practitioner, research, activist and educational perspectives, and as was discovered over the course of the afternoon, approached and understood nature and wellbeing in distinct, though not uncomplimentary, ways. In this post I’ll share reflections on perspectives offered by Emily Malik from EcoWild; Philippa Forsey from Creativity Works; Morwhenna Woolcock, Creative Adventurer; and Birdgirl and founder of Black2Nature, Mya-Rose Craig.
[Image courtesy of EcoWild]
The first speaker was Emily Malik, from EcoWild, a local organisation which supports forest activities connected to education and mindfulness experiences for adults and children. Emily has a strong background in Biology, and it was fascinating to learn about her own journey from the Life Sciences to running the more human-centred project, EcoWild. Conservation and environmentalism depend on children forming close relationships with the natural world at a young age, and EcoWild’s children’s groups allow young people freedom to explore and learn through play, engaging the senses and building children’s confidence in the forest. As rates of childhood engagement with nature decrease, these activities provide vital encounters for children who may otherwise only experience ‘nature’ in gardens, parks, or in urban environments. Emily also spoke of the importance of making EcoWild activities available for adults, who are put in touch with EcoWild through BANES’ Wellbeing College. Social prescribing for adults experiencing or at risk of mental health problems is increasing, and Emily spoke of the different ways of evaluating the success of the courses EcoWild offers. One quote from a participant’s friend, which I can only paraphrase, spoke of the difficult that they had leaving the house most days; however, EcoWild activities gave them motivation and drive when other activities felt insurmountable. Another participant, quoted on their website, states:“Usually when I leave here, I have a bit of a spring in my step for the rest of the day” and “its been good for me” Alistair, Nature Nurture Wellbeing Course). The moving accounts Emily read demonstrated the value of first person responses to the activities, and also the value of deepening engagement other a series of sessions, although a one-off session might provide a good ‘way in’ to engaging with nature in new ways. Clearly thought, continuity of contact and deepening relations with the place and the group are significant factors in the success of this work: even if the group do not speak or interact much during the session, non-judgement togetherness and support seem to provide a context for positive experiences of learning, relaxation, and gaining ‘a new perspective’, as is stated on the EcoWild site.
The next speaker was Philippa Forsey from Creativity Works. Like EcoWild, Creativity Works runs health and arts sessions for adults, focusing on wellbeing. Creativity Works begin by establishing arts, craft, writing and reading groups, building the confidence and skills of participants, and then empowering individuals and communities to continue to run groups and activities themselves. Collaboration and community empowerment is at the heart of their work, as well as the conviction that creative self-expression, mutual support and self-development are fundamental factors in health, recovery and wellbeing. In Philippa’s presentation she discussed the different ways Creativity Works is connecting creative activities with the natural world, particularly through a recent outdoor photography initiative Snap and Stroll, run by the artist Sally Collister. This activity had the connected benefits of encouraging participants to explore the environment surrounding their meeting venue–that is, to leave build environments in which therapeutic activities so often take place–and to interact with each other and the local area in different and more self-determined ways. Snap and Stroll also could be connected to the New Economic Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing action tool kit, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog. One of the ways is to ‘Take Notice’, and photography urges you to explore and to look at things from new angles and perspectives. Another way is to ‘Connect’, and NEF define this as connecting in person, but can’t this be applied to photography too? To photograph something is to save a record of it for oneself, and to offer it as a gift to others as well. What kinds of connections might photography make possible, if photography enables us to capture the world as we see it and to share it with others? Finally, photography is inherently empowering because it offers us control over the record we make. Susan Sontag wrote extensively of this relation in her book On Photography:
In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. … To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.
Susan Sontag, On Photography
Photographs may appropriate and objectify the natural world, but they might also denote things as worthy of seeing and of being brought to other people’s attention.
[Morwhenna Woolcock in Psychologies Magazine, from http://www.morwhenna.com/]
Philippa’s talk introduced the question of creativity and how we make sense of our experiences of wellbeing and nature, and the next speaker, Morwhenna Woolcock, continued this thread. Morwhenna is the Creative Adventurer, a personal and collaborative project concerned with reconnecting with nature through art and mindfulness. Morwhenna spoke of the transformative power of developing self-awareness and connection with the natural world through exploration, storytelling, and developing curiosity. Adventure and curiosity are clearly key factors in childhood contact with the natural world and the out of doors. Classic children’s fiction often involves local forests and ‘everyday’ places made magical and exciting, from Winnie the Pooh to Swallows and Amazons, The Famous Five stories to Calvin and Hobbes. Morwhenna’s work captures the adventuring spirit that is intrinsic to childhood storytelling and place-making, and encourages adults to pursue their own adventures. Her recent work has taken her from the Brecon Beacons to Morwhenstow, connecting with the legend of her namesake, St Morwenna, and a more recent project taking her around the Isles of Scilly. An important theme that developed in Morwhenna’s talk was the impact that these adventures have had on her own mental and physical health, which she describes in her own words on a recent blog post. Her experiences reclaiming control of her health, seeking support, and tying these changes in with the theme of adventures offered an important narrative thread to the discussion. It also suggested different ways of thinking about the role of agency and the metaphor of ‘the journey’ in nature and wellbeing engagements.
The next sessions featured academic and student perspectives, which I have decided to blog about in a separate post (as this one is getting pretty long!). I’m going to end instead by reflecting on the talk given by Mya-Rose Craig at the event’s close. Mya-Rose Craig is an experienced and avid birder and blogs as Birdgirl. At 15 years of age, she’s been incredibly active at sharing her love of birds and the natural world with young people and adults, featuring on BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day, speaking at the Hay Festival 2017, appearing on the cover of Earth Matters and seeing over 4,400 birds (catch up with the latest figure on her blog). Mya-Rose is also highly alert to the politics of environmental campaigning and birding, having spoken out against sexism in birding, fox hunting, Islamophobia and race equality in nature. Her talk addressed the challenges that Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority children face in accessing nature, and gave a detailed insight into the work that she is doing, through Black2Nature, to make nature accessible to everyone, whatever their heritage or background.
Using lessons learnt from the Race Equality in Nature conference, which Mya-Rose held at Bristol Zoo in 2015, Mya-Rose spoke of how different approaches could help connect with young people otherwise alienated by outdoor activities. For example, environmental organisations implicitly or explicitly gear their activities and marketing to white families. By training staff at nature reserves to be more welcoming to BAME families, organising events (e.g. nature festivals or outdoor learning activities for children) in areas where more BAME people live, or simply changing the time of day that events are held, nature can be made more accessible. Mya-Rose also spoke of her notion of ‘nature by stealth’. Young people might not be interested in coming on a walk to look for flowers or insects, but they may be tempted by a workshop on photography or field recording, which just happens to happen outside. In her own experience of running Camp Avalon, and actively working to recruit BAME children, she learnt that people have different ‘hooks’ and ways into caring about nature–whether its through learning hand-on skills like ringing birds, to more creative forms of encounter such as photography or drawing.
Mya-Rose also brought up the nature and wellbeing connection, suggesting a need to research possible links between the very low rates of nature-encounters amongst BAME children as recording by Natural England, and the high-rates of mental illness experienced in BAME communities, as recorded by the Mental Health Foundation (details below).
The reasons for this high rates are manifold: the Mental Health Foundation cites racism, poverty, social exclusion, distrust of and exclusion from mental health support, as well as social stigma. However, at a moment when the therapeutic and wellbeing benefits nature-engagements are being routinely cited and more widely researched, racial inequality in nature needs to be tackled and challenged as a pressing social justice and health issue. Mya-Rose’s addressed inequalities and injustice, and demonstrated the importance of listening to excluded communities, challenging stereotypes and racism, and considering the contexts in which people engage with nature. She also spoke passionately about her lifetime of birding and her love of the natural world, which is at the centre of all she does, and the theme of the Workshop as well.
The next Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing event will be a Forum held at the Watershed, Bristol, on 13th June. To book a free ticket, visit Eventbrite