History, Theory and Practices of Nature and Wellbeing

What is the history and heritage of nature and wellbeing interconnections? How might theoretical perspectives developed through research inform or be refined through engagement with practical activities conducted in natural settings? These were some of the questions raised at the Nature and Wellbeing Symposium held at IASH, University of Edinburgh, on 23rd June.


The event began with a Slow Walk around Holyrood Park led by Pam Candea of Natural Change, an Edinburgh-based enterprise which seeks to ‘foster deeper, richer, relationships between each other and with the rest of nature; relationships rooted in a sense of connection, belonging and respect’. Our group, made up of symposium speakers and participants, gathered by the western gateway to Holyrood Park to be led through a series of mindfulness practices designed to encourage people to better sense and attend to natural surroundings. As a participant in the walk, attention to sensory experiences made me aware of the damp and fresh smell of woodland ground after rain, the sound of wood pigeons in the trees, and also of the roar of cars circling the park, which faded into and out of prominence as we dipped away from and then came closer to the road. Natural Change run Slow Walks and short courses in more secluded settings over longer periods. These support participants to establish a deeper absorption in their surroundings, via the senses and meditative techniques. Even in the more lively setting of Holyrood Park, it was striking how deeply settled we were able to become by the end of the resting period at the walk’s close, and how that period of calm and openess positively affected the mood and discussions for the rest of day. The desire to filter out or listen around the rumble of the cars also raised fruitful questions, for me at least, about the binary relation between nature and culture: for example, can we accept technology and evidence of urbanisation and modernity as part of our experience of ‘nature’; or would we rather become absorbed by ‘deep’ or ‘wild’ nature? If so, what does that mean and where is wild nature—where or what is wild enough?


The relationship between the cultured nature of the garden and human health was addressed in the keynote talk given by Dr Clare Hickman, Lecturer in History at the University of Chester. Clare is a medical and landscape historian who researches garden and landscape design and medical practices from the 17th century to the present day. Her book, Therapeutic Landscapes: A History of English Hospital Gardens Since 1800 offers a meticulously researched and richly illustrated account of the use of garden spaces and outdoor settings in psychiatric and medical hospitals, touching on the summer houses of elite nineteenth-century lunatic asylums, the Victorian pavilion hospital design with its courtyard gardens, and the open-air institutions of the Edwardian period.


In her talk, Clare looked back to literary and medical sources, including Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651) and William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), to explore changing perspectives on the role that nature has played in illness and recovery within Britain and Europe. She discussed cold-bathing which, according to humoral medicine, was believed to toughen the body and correct imbalances by changing environmental conditions. She also revealed a long history of use of gardening in hospital treatments, in particular the involvement of patients in tending vegetable patches, which also supplied fresh food for the institution. Clare revealed a history of conscious links between diet, exercise and health, as well as a belief that pleasure and interest in the garden might contribute to recovery. I made a note of one fascinating quote from her talk, from The Builder (4 October, 1856):

‘There is no escape from a sick ward, when sunlight, trees, plants, grass, and the external air, would do more for patients than all the medicine and doctors in the world. Thousands of lives might be saved annually if sick men could be turned out so as to look upon Nature, feel the sunshine, and breathe pure air.’

While the exact causes of many illnesses remained unproven and mysterious, designers and medics emphasised the importance of the senses and emotions in recovery. These factors reinforced scientific understandings of disease circulation at the time, including the theory of noxious miasmas (which began to be supplanted from the 1860s as scientists better understood the roles of germs and bacteria in disease). The importance of miasmatic theory was demonstrated in hospital designs, including Victorian Pavilion hospitals, which maximised light and air circulation with large windows, halls, and the interweaving of gardens between corridors. In the early 20th century, the Open Air movement lead to the creation of outdoor wards for TB patients, as well as Open Air schools, based on the premise that fresh air was healing and offset the negative effects of pollution and overcrowding.


[Images show an open air school in the Netherlands, 1918, and an open air ward outside Aberdeen, WW1, courtesy of University of Aberdeen. More examples and quotations can be found in Clare’s book and on her blog: https://drclarehickman.wordpress.com/, and you can listen to a recording of her talk on this blog’s media page (coming soon!)]

When it came to questions, there were many interesting points raised: for example, what can the history of nature in treatment tell us about the relationship between cultural ‘returns to nature’ and anxieties about industrialisation? Does nature only come to our attention and become a point of discussion, theorisation, worry and idealisation at the point at which it is threatened, instrumentalised or undervalued? Finally, why was this long and widespread relationship between nature, hospitals, and other institutions (including schools) broken in the post-war years? One suggestion was that the discovery of new drugs and the success of medical technologies meant that the focus shifted to a more positivist understanding of treatment: a drug would treat the causes of illness, so the environment and other contextual factors in recovery became less important.

Activities in ‘Nature’ for Improved Wellbeing: In Practice and Research

From crossing liminal boundaries and the transformation of the self through to practice in ‘healing journeys’, social policy, mental health, personal development, education, place making and community initiative, this panel will explore themes within current research projects, individual practice and grass roots organisations that address the outdoors and personal and social wellbeing.


The next session featured a panel discussion titled ‘Activities in ‘Nature’ for Improved Wellbeing: In Practice and Research’, organised by Rebecca Crowther, an ethnographer and PhD candidate at The University of Edinburgh. The other guest speakers on the panel were Dr Margaret Kerr, psychotherapist, outdoor facilitator, researcher and arts practitioner; Dr Matluba Khan, a landscape architect; Sam Gardiner of mental health and social charity New Caledonian Woodlands; Athina Georgiou Shippi, a PhD candidate, exploring wellbeing and sustainability; and Marie-Amelie Viatte, Performance Advisor for Link Up, a community development programme at Inspiring Scotland, and founder of The Power of Food Festival.

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Rebecca Crowther works across Landscape, Cultural Theory and Social Anthropology exploring transformative encounters within the Scottish rural landscape. She gave a paper reflecting on her own research findings based on engagement with four different groups working in natural settings. Although the kinds of activities varied—including caving, spending time with forests, and (to the upset of one group), chopping down trees—Rebecca came to the conclusion that ‘people are looking for an ideal sense of self’ across nature-wellbeing encounters. That is, the starting point of the encounter involves seeking an ideal or ‘ought’ sense of self, so that the sense of wellbeing achieved through the activity is connecting to a feeling of belonging and verification by oneself and the group. Nature is also vital in this encounter: Rebecca notes a ‘looping’ of the relationship between participant’s perceptions of place, self transformation, and group transformations.


Dr Margaret Kerr then picked up the theme of the relation between place/nature, group and self in her paper on outdoor mindfulness activities with veterans experiencing PTSD. Looking at recruitment posters featuring troops looking out over mountains and natural horizons, Margaret noted how people often go into army because they like being together in groups in nature.


This can, however, be present a problem for PTSD suffers, as ‘Nature can become a reminder of trauma.’ PTSD, as she explained, can bring about fragmentation of self, alienation, a feeling of being different, a loss of trust in the self and a broken relationship with others, and with nature. Treatment, according to her research, may involve healing social bonds as well as bonds with nature, as well as work to restore personal and emotional coherence. She then vividly described a veterans programme taking place in a forest. In the early sessions, people would sit alone in a solitary spot. In later sessions, many would choose a place to sit by paths or closer to others. Eventually, the group would be ready to gather together around a fire. She also spoke of the intentional or accidental use of natural metaphors in trauma recovery and its narration, for example the metaphor of trauma reaction as an avalanche, or of recovery as like canoeing a river with both obstacles and opportunities. At the close of the paper, she noted a lack of research into outdoor recoveries, and clearly her own work will provide a vital starting point for new work in this area.

Next, Sam Gardiner spoke of his work with New Caledonian Woodlands, an Edinburgh-based charity and social enterprise which addresses the physical, mental, emotional, social aspects of wellbeing. Sam has been involved in running Fruitful Woods: ‘a mental health and employability project that engages participants in the making and selling of environmentally sustainable produce’ (including the coffee spoon, pictured, which I bought from Sam on the day, and now has pride of place in my kitchen).

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The purpose of the project is not just to produce items for sale, but to ‘support participants in growing their self-belief and confidence while developing skills that can be applied in life and work settings that are not necessarily environmentally-oriented.’ Sam spoke of why he feels the project works for participants: because they are outside, the sessions are non-hierarchical and working with wood is fundamentally inclusive. It can be ‘a real leveller’, he suggested, ‘because you’re moving away from an intellectual space’; more than that, the forest itself is ‘very conducive to growing relationships’ amongst participants and with nature ‘on their own terms’. Previously on this blog I’ve questioned the representation of nature as separate from the human, and as an idyllic ‘other’ place connected with healing and balance. Sam described quite a different sort of place: small community and Millenium Woodlands within an urban environment, which might be littered and used by lots of people for lots of purposes. The nature/culture dichotomy applies less in these places, and Sam pointed out that the groups he works with don’t really mind that the woods aren’t idyllic: they are concerned with learning woodcraft, forest management and other skills, achieving personal goals they have set themselves at the start of the course, and sharing their talents and knowledge with the group.


Dr Matluba Khan then presented findings from her recent work in a school yard in Bangladesh. Faced with an identikit schoolyard lacking points of interest or living things, Matluba worked with the school to create living learning environments around the playground, which could be used for play, teaching, and independent student projects. Matluba interviewed students and teachers after the intervention, and found that the students were more engaged in learning and less likely to become bored or disruptive. Furthermore, the teachers were more excited about teaching and were perceived as more patient and engaging by the students. Nature was embedded fully in the curriculum, as maths, science, humanities and sports lessons could be connected to materials, creatures and environments dotted around the playground. Matluba spoke of the heritage of building design in Bangladesh, which has less of a history of seperation between inside and outside than much Western architecture. However, she also pointed out that her work could be applied to many cultural settings. It also crossed disciplinary boundaries, having implications for architecture, education, natural sciences, health, and (I would add) environmental humanities, because of its active approach to building nature-awareness into everyday life.


Marie-Amélie Viatte is Performance Advisor for Link Up, a community development programme at Inspiring Scotland . Inspiring Scotland focuses on tackling inequality and poverty, based on a deep understanding of the complex and multi-faceted challenges many communities and families face. Through Inspiring Scotland’s Link Up thematic fund, Marie-Amélie works with some of Scotland’s most deprived communities to help end generations of disadvantage and stop the cycle of poverty. Challenging the status quo is at the heart of what they do, and together with communities Link Up supports activities and initiatives–like cooking schools, music clubs and archery–which are led by the community and help build relationships, a sense of belonging, and improve the life of the area for everyone. Watch the video to find out more about the impact these activities are having in communities across Scotland.

Marie-Amélie also discussed her work with inner-city food growing and food-festivals across Edinburgh. She described the ways in which communities reclaim lost or neglected land to grow plants and food for the benefit of local people and wildlife, including bees and other pollinators. Through The Power of Food Festival, people are able to link up with members of the community and other community growing projects, to share ideas and celebrate food and the garden. As the project website states: ‘Its purpose is to encourage greater societal wellbeing, environmental sustainability and social inclusion through the promotion of community food growing.’ Food is a great leveller and growing provides a context for people to share ideas, passions and knowledge. Her talk raised a vital point about the rights of communities to determine land use in their area, and about ‘nature’ as inherently involved in culture and society: nature as connection, community, wisdom and sharing.

Finally, Athina Georgiou Shippi spoke about her PhD project, which explores wellbeing and sustainability in Scotland and Cyprus. Athina’s project addresses the potential links between biodiversity, mental health and environmental attitudes in children, asking whether biodiversity, as well as contact with ‘nature’ (e.g. green places, forests) might enhance wellbeing and improve health. She also raised the question of whether ecosystems services are a useful or problematic framework to use in order to interpret the benefits of biodiversity in human health and wellbeing. As we discussed over questions, ecosystems services undoubtedly instrumentalise nature, but as environmental organisations and researchers attempt to inform policymaking, ‘natural capital’ is a tempting framework to use to translate natural flourishing into a language the government can understand.

The day was an immensely positive experience and really brought theory, practice and history into a lively and productive dialogue. I am very keen to keep conversations going with the participants, and to this end have set up a Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing email list. If you would like to be added, please get in touch at s [dot] walton [at] bathspa.ac.uk or leave a comment below.


2 thoughts on “History, Theory and Practices of Nature and Wellbeing

  1. Pingback: Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing at the Bristol Festival of Nature – Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #46 | Whewell's Ghost

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