Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing participated in the lively multi-venue Festival of Nature organised in Bristol and across the region in June 2017. On a sunny day we took over a conference room in the Watershed overlooking the Bristol Harbourside, and discussed nature and wellbeing from research, policy, community and activist perspectives.
Researching Nature in Care
The first session, showcased two recent PhD projects which tracked therapeutic nature interventions and evaluated their outcomes.
Rich Gorman, from Cardiff University, gave a talk entitled ‘Health, Place and Animals’ exploring the health, social and educational benefits of farming and interacting with animals. At the start of the talk, Rich introduced the term ‘therapeutic landscapes’ (associated with the work of Wilbert Gesler), which describes an attitude to place in which every phenomena has therapeutic potential. Focusing on his own research, Rich described some of the thoughts behind, and outcomes of, care farming activities and animal interactions including tending sheep and chickens and Revision Petting Zoos. Paraphrasing feedback from participants, Rich noted changes including an increase in confidence, often connected to new responsibilities, opportunities to communicate with animals and other participants and to build a relationship with animals and place. One quote, taken from his slides (download here: Rich’s Slides), read:
“I think the animals add a touch of magic really, one of the big things here is for all these guys, they are cared for, and actually, when they come here, they get to care for something. It completely changes it, and gives them a sense of confidence and wellbeing, and sort of self-worth, that they kind of get a role change.”
This role reversal from cared-for to carer had positive impact on participants’ sense of self-worth; indeed, this was a trend across a number of activities Rich outlined, including the revision petting zoos and a project in which people read to cats as a means of socialising the animals and improving the literacy in a low-pressure environment.
During the following questions, one attendee asked whether much research had been done into the role of wild animals in improving wellbeing. While Rich’s project has focused closely on domesticated creatures, he noted that the environments in which therapeutic encounters took place were often the home of wild, as well as domesticated, animals. There is also some work being conducted by other researchers and project leaders, such as Joe Harkness of Bird Therapy and Athina Georgiou Shippi (who spoke at this project’s IASH event) on biodiversity and wellbeing. There’s lot of potential for further research here, and Rich’s own findings and methodology could serve as a base for future investigation.
Rebecca Crowther from University of Edinburgh spoke next. Rebecca has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork into nature-wellbeing encounters as part of her doctoral research. She reflected on her experience of working with four groups each providing somewhat distinct pathways into nature encounters, all in a group context. Her findings suggested that in these encounters, people are seeking an ‘ideal’ or ‘ought’ sense of self in relation to nature, and that wellbeing is produced in this ‘liminal loop’ between group, place and person (more of her findings on another blog post, and on Rebecca’s Slides)
Rebecca also drew attention to the wider context of unwellness that nature-wellbeing discourse seeks to address. The quote from Adams, featured in Rebecca’s presentation, refers to the imaginative ‘dissociation’ of humanity from earth ecology and community, which I have often seen described elsewher as ‘nature deficit disorder’ (following the popular-science account of Richard Louv).
‘we are suffering from an unprecedented and perilous estrangement of a single participant— we human beings—from the rest of the shared earth community […] Healing this dreadful dissociation is one of the most urgent responsibilities of contemporary life.’ (Adams, 2009: 38- 39)
The history of this dissociation, and its material as well as psychological effects, was a running theme throughout the day, and it was helpful to have it raised in the first session.
Education and Wellbeing Support
Session two addressed Education and Wellbeing Support. The first talk was given by Dr Alyson Lewis of Bath Spa University. Alyson is a Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education and has conducted extensive research into early years education in Wales and across the UK and Europe. Her recent project examined the meaning of ‘wellbeing’ in educational settings, asking what was meant by wellbeing in early years education, and to what extent and how that message was being received, interpreted and implemented in the classroom. Alyson revealed a complex story, in which the meaning of ‘wellbeing’ was far from fixed. She determined four competing or overlapping understandings of wellbeing: ‘hedonistic’; ‘eudaimonist/flourishing’; ‘needs-based/objectivist’; and ‘desires-based/preference satisfaction’ (more citations and details available on Alyson’s Slides)
In her work with schools, Alyson noted an uncertainty amongst teachers in determining the wellbeing of children, partly as a result of the proliferation of meanings underpinning the term, and because of a difficulty with interpreting children’s behaviour. She showed the following chart and described the difficulty of using these criteria as a means of distinguishing good wellbeing from poor wellbeing. For example, is shyness a sign that a child is unhappy? Are the routines of a school, which are increasingly formalised at even a very young age, really conducive to happiness? Should children (or indeed, should anyone) really be expected to know who they want to be?
[From Alyson Lewis’s slides, link above]
In her talk, Emily Malik picked up on many of the points raised by Alyson, and also introduced new ideas about childhood wellbeing and the importance of outdoor play. As the director of EcoWild, Emily offers opportunities for adults and children to spend time in the forest through sessions including Nature Child and Nature Nurture Wellbeing Course. Many of Ecowild’s adult participants find out about the groups through referrals from the BANES Wellbeing College, and in her talk Emily gave insight into some of the feedback she has received from participants. She described how she has begun to move away from pared-down surveys in which participants are asked to rate their experience between 1-10, to more qualitative, personal and creative forms of reflection, including poetry (see Emily’s Slides for more examples)
“When I’m at home the thoughts and the negative emotions take over, I start the walk to the woods to meet the wellbeing group and my shoulders drop, my heart beat slows and I smile and laugh and feel lighter…..”
In the following discussion, Emily discussed the importance of free play in the forest for the children who attend Ecowild’s sessions. Children are increasingly monitored, assessed, examined and forced into constricting environments and routines. As the behavioural chart Alyson showed had demonstrated, good wellbeing is increasingly being associated with being able to fit into routines, looking smart and being ‘well-behaved’. In the forest, children are able to make a noise, behave in more wild and ‘bad’ ways than would be permitted in the classroom, and to get muddy. Emily and Alyson also spoke of the importance of listening to the voice of the child in assessing wellbeing, something that Alyson suggested is not happening in current education research. From the participant feedback received by EcoWild, and the evidence in the video below, children are able to behave and learn in quite different ways in the forest, with huge potential benefits for their emotional and personal development (I’ll write more about evaluating these interventions in the future).
My favourite quote from the video, voiced by one of the young participants: ‘There is really no such thing as a bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.’
Creativity and Engagement
After a short break, we reconvened to discuss Creativity and Engagement with Morwhenna Woolcock and Owain Jones. Morwhenna Woolcock is The Creative Adventurer, and runs her own creative and personal projects, as well as the Connect to Nature coached adventure course with Jamie MacDonald.
Morwhenna spoke honestly about her own experiences of illness and injury, and how discovering a sense of adventure helped her to flourish. She reflected on how a chance opportunity to volunteer aboard gave her the confidence to take on further challenges and start to craft her own adventures. These include a voyage in the footsteps of St Morwenna, and most recently a trip around 12 UK islands in 12 months. The success of her story depends on a triangulation between three things:
Creativity, Adventure and Nature are the wind in my sails, the power to my oars that help me navigate and ride the bumps when the sea gets rough.
I don’t sink anymore.
Adventuring builds confidence while creativity spurs a process of self-realisation and self-discovery. Nature, then, is a support and an inspiration. In the Connect to Nature course that Morwhenna now co-runs, participants are prompted to pursue new adventures, leading to a new work of art. It was particularly interesting to see how the three points of the triangle were interconnected: adventuring spurring curiosity and interest in nature, nature inspiring creativity leading to self-realisation and personal growth. You can find out more about the project on Morwhenna’s Slides.
Next up was Owain Jones, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University. Owain gave a paper entitled ‘Toxic Discourse’, in which he questioned the context of the wellbeing movement and the recent government and third sector attention to wellbeing. As soon as policy starts paying attention to something as a problem–as soon as a discourse is produced around something, as Foucault might say–it is proof that something is wrong. As Owain put it:
We would not be having a wellbeing revival if we weren’t profoundly unwell.
Owain spoke despairingly of the difficulty of communicating ecological messages as corporations are pouring huge sums into marketing designed to make people feel unworthy and unfulfilled. Limitless growth, production and consumption are at the core of the environmental crisis, as resources are needlessly squandered and waste accrues, while people in the developing world suffer the indignity and injury of working in miserably paid and unsafe working conditions to make products which create little satisfaction in the privileged west. Owain addressed the interconnectedness of capitalist and the ecological crisis through the theory of Felix Guattari. In his 1989 essay, The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari addressed the conditions of integrated world capitalism as socially, subjectively, and ecologically devastating.
Turning to nature and wellbeing discourses, Owain questioned whether it was sufficiently critical of present conditions. He also queried one of the founding principles of much work: that nature is our home, and that it is intrinsic to our nature to be in nature. Certainly, it is impossible to determine what ‘natural’ behaviour is, as we cannot see humanity in a pre-cultural state. Animals also have their own cultures, so a construction of inherent animal-humanness without the meddling presence of culture is problematic.
Owain turned instead to the notion of dwelling, drawing from phenomenological understandings of ‘being-in-the-world’. Dwelling, as he notes on his Slides,
‘means being-in-the-world in rich sets of embodied, affective registers of becoming. Articulated through DNA, evolution, culture, movement, habit, skill, motor processes, it is how we are in the world as embodied beings over time – in place. The denial of dwelling causes a catastrophic breakdown in well-being.’
Is it really impossible to ‘dwell’, in his sense, in the city? What does nature offer that the built environment doesn’t? What that something is might be a ‘sensory and affective richness of certain kinds. Nature can offer that, and this over known time and place.’
The panel provoked a number of really important questions, key amongst which was whether nature-wellbeing interventions and wellbeing discourse are just treating the symptoms, not the system producing unwellness. Although capitalism has produced conditions for some people to succeed in some senses, it has also produced a mental health crisis, ecocide, and gross inequalities. Just recently we have seen the terrible consequences of uneven distribution of wealth in the man-made tragedy of Grenfell Tower. In London, people live in abject poverty on the doorsteps of the super wealthy, while across the world people in formerly colonised countries and lands subject to processes of ‘Third Worldization’ are surviving the worst effects of capitalism and ecocide. A respondent in the audience, himself involved in wellbeing networks, spoke up to say that these are problems many working in the movement are desperately aware of and fighting to address. The question is do we have time, and how do we help people realise their extraordinary resilience and capacity to flourish in spite of and against a fundamentally broken system?
Policy, Conservation and Communities
More of the these threads were picked up in the final session. The first speaker, Mya-Rose Craig, made a powerful case for making diversity and race equality central to environmental agendas. This is both a fundamental rights issue (as environmentalism should never have been excluding in the first place) and a vital move to ensure that all communities and individuals are able to participate in environmentalism, conservation, and form relationships with nature and place. Mya-Rose spoke of her own experiences as a young British-Bangladeshi birder who realised that the birding and environmental communities she was involved with were overwhelmingly white. She sought to address this issue in conversations with environmental charities, resulting in the Race Equality in Nature Conference which she organised in 2016 (conference round-up and reporting can be found here). The expert speakers at the conference shared a number of reasons for existing exclusions of BAME youngsters, families and adults from the environmental sector and green spaces, and produced a detailed list of ideas for addressing existing inequalities (see a previous post about her work on this blog).
Mya-Rose also spoke about her own work getting BAME kids interested in nature through her annual Camp Avalon event and a nature film-making day (image above from Mya-Rose’s BirdgirlUK blog), employing her concept of ‘nature by stealth’ to help young people learn about nature through film-making, photography, bird-ringing and sketching. Mya-Rose Craig is leading the way in this vital work and challenging many of the preconceptions and prejudices that have contributed to young BAME people being excluded from the kinds of engagements with nature that white children have long benefitted from in the UK.
Janice Gardiner, Nature and Wellbeing Manager at Avon Wildlife Trusts, spoke next. Avon Wildlife Trusts have recently launched the Wellbeing Through Nature project, a new initiative funded by Big Lottery to deliver nature, health and wellbeing projects across Avon. Based on the Five Ways to Wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation in 2008, Avon Wildlife Trusts aim to
• Offer participants opportunities to gain skills, build confidence and move towards healthier lives.
• Give people access to quality natural environments.
One of the starting points for me when I was developing Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing was the proposed Nature and Wellbeing Act, developed by the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB in 2015. Janice noted that the legislative context has changed, and though the Wildlife Trusts are pursuing the Act at present, initiatives like Wellbeing Through Nature make it possible to put many of the recommendations of the Act into practice: specifically, offering Wellbeing Self-Care courses for people with long a term health conditions and/or those who experience mild to moderate depression, anxiety, and stress; supporting Wildlife and food-growing opportunities at Feed Bristol; and supporting Community Wellbeing Projects for individuals with learning disabilities.
The courses and other opportunities supported by the Avon Wildlife Trusts are built upon a foundational evidence-based connecting nature-based activities and outdoors interventions with increased wellbeing, defined as: social interaction; improved mood; increased self-esteem; increased physical activity and reduced stress (more definitions above). Furthermore, as the graphic demonstrates, reduced use of health services is a potential positive outcome of the training (more on this in a moment). In Janice’s talk and the Wellbeing Through Nature project’s information sheet, positive impacts on people and nature are at the foreground of the initiatives. As Janice put it, The Wildlife Trusts are ‘putting the planet and nature back into the heart of what we’re doing’, and they are aware that nature-wellbeing relations are holistic and not necessarily measurable by GDP. As the ensuing discussions brought up, what is needed is fuller investment in a ‘Natural Health Service’ (something I need to research further before I comment here) and in the city’s parks (which have also been subject to deep and devastating cuts), green places and connected ecologies. Janice also gave a really useful overview of the policy context for nature and wellbeing work, and suggested some of the tactics being used by The Wildlife Trusts to enhance wellbeing and protect and preserve nature in a difficult political climate.
The final speaker of the day was Liz Zeidler, the Co-founder and Chief Executive of Happy City. Happy City was set up in Bristol to challenge the belief that economic growth is the only measure of success in society. Their aim is to put wellbeing at the heart of public discourse on what it means to truly prosper. Having been programmed to speak at the close of the event, Liz was able to respond to a number of questions and points of contention raised during the afternoon in a powerful and galvanising talk which connected the inequalities and irrationalities of the current political system with the forms of oppression and uneven opportunities which are damaging the planet and making people so unwell.
She questioned the construction of nature as something ‘other’ to the human, noting that nature is everywhere and we are nature, even if we act as though we are above it. She also emphasised the importance of making connections with each other through an understanding of ecological interconnectedness. Adding clarification to a question I had raised in my opening introduction about the significance of nature in the Five Ways to Wellbeing, she noted that in early conversations, ‘Nature’ had been classed as the 6th way to wellbeing, though had been dropped because five was a snappier number, and nature could be seen as being present in all of the other five.
Finally, she emphasised the importance of tackling the root causes of suffering, not just the symptoms. A lack of wellbeing seems to be built into the economic, social, educational and political systems we have created, and individual interventions cannot fully address either the mental health or the ecological crisis, or create a fairer and safer society for all unless systemic failures are addressed.
In a previous Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing event held at Bath Spa on 8th May, Professor Sian Sullivan criticised the use of ecosystems services reasoning and the use of ‘natural capital’ in the Nature and Wellbeing Act (you can read her blog posts about it here and here). Sian states: ‘Like everything else in our capitalist society, the monism of money is all-pervasive. But the reduction of all life to this single metric is impossible without losing essential elements of what it means to be human.’ At the present moment, it is increasingly difficult to avoid references to natural capital and ecosystems services reasoning in nature-wellbeing discussions. This point was also raised at the IASH Nature and Wellbeing Symposium, when we discussed whether it is possible to speak to government and policymakers without converting all arguments in favour of nature into the language and categories of capitalism. Alleviating pressure on the NHS (as discussed by Janice) is of course a positive step during a continued period of deep and ill-considered funding cuts. However, supporting nature and wellbeing interventions cannot just be a money-saving exercise.
I am immensely grateful to have been able to spend an afternoon talking with people so passionate about human and ecological flourishing and the connection between them, and I’m hoping to continue these conversations through future events and conversations. It was particularly exciting to see such a reciprocal and energising relationship between theory and practice across the talks, and to discover that a strong critique of current political, social and economic systems is intrinsic to nature-wellbeing discourse for so many of the speakers and attendees.
Watch this space for videos of the event (to be uploaded as soon as I’ve worked out how!).