The other day I was at a meeting, having a chat about some possible work. The conversation turned to the meaning of the outdoors for our wellbeing, especially now so many of us live in urban centres. Our discussion was taking place in the ubiquitous open plan office and someone at an adjacent desk joined in. It turned out that he’d recently written a book about the paradox of modern urban living. In it he suggests that, while society has been changing rapidly over the last few centuries, anatomically and physiologically we are still much the same as we were thousands of years ago.
Nature for wellbeing
There was nothing about the conversation that I disagreed with, on the contrary, the thesis resonated deeply. I have a keen respect for the preventative and therapeutic role of nature – urban or otherwise – and have been incorporating that belief, supported by personal and professional experience, in to my work for some time. What the conversation did was remind me of a happening I had had a few weeks ago in India. I’d been staying in a small eco place. The design was such that all the guests were housed in their own huts, each made from traditional materials of coconut wood, mud, palm leaves and bamboo. My days were filled, slowly and happily, with walking, swimming, bird spotting, kayaking and watching the water.
Paddling, swimming and sitting
On the last morning I got up early, paddled around the lagoon in a kayak and watched the sun rise while listening to the birds. Afterwards I went for a long swim, then sat on the bank and covered myself with mud as the heat of the day gathered. A couple of hours later I went to sit in the shade of a rammed earth hut, at the far edge of the grounds. As the breeze from the palm trees gave me some respite from the hot, high sun, I closed my eyes and had the extraordinary experience of feeling utterly at one with everything around me: the mangroves, the water, the scurrying creatures, the calling birds, the hut itself, the earth beneath my feet. Later on, I began writing a poem about the experience and my recent conversation in the office reminded me just how powerful, mysterious and magical it had been.
I’m aware what a rarified opportunity I’ve described above – the time and means to travel far away, the option to stay somewhere comfortable and carefully designed. Yet there’s something about getting close to the ground – about listening to the grass grow – which many of us living in towns and cities can do, wherever in the world we are and despite our urban habitat, that is fundamental for our health and wellbeing. It has a wide and deep effect that is social and political as well as personal. It is as simple as taking the time to befriend nature, whatever form that may take for where each of us lives.
I began thinking about this way of seeing our relationship with nature recently, after listening to a podcast by John Paul Lederach, a renowned pioneer of conflict transformation. He was talking about how making ‘weird’ friends with people we feel we have little in common with or even disagree with, can go a long way to healing a divided world. It feels like nature has almost become weird in our urbanised lives and that befriending it would be a balm for us individually and also as a community, as we share green spaces and undertake group activities like sport.
The nature of revolution
Such an apparently simple gesture of befriending nature belies the revolution that is needed to make this happen, a revolution that Thich Nhat Hanh, the spiritual leader and peace activist, has eloquently called for. But it’s a revolution that is literally at our fingertips and beneath our feet: supporting wellbeing and sharing meaning – all of this is, quite simply, right here, in our roots.