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A natural state of mind

Is this busy, technological world a happy one? Kate Humble explains why we can improve our state of mind if we log off and spend more time with nature.

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[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

Our vocabulary has changed so much in recent decades that our grandparents would now wonder what we were talking about. In the 1980s we got stuck in a language of acronyms, full of yuppies, dinkies and nimbyism. By the 1990s we’d become subversive, flipping “wicked” on its head and turning “mobile” from an adjective to a noun.

As we entered the new millennium, we retreated to our computers and started blogging and googling for all we were worth. Busy, busy words for a busy, busy society. Shorthand terms for those short of time. As the pace of our lives has increased, so the rate of our linguistic change has comfortably managed to jog along beside it. And where has this heady hedonism led us? We’ve made up a new phrase for that, too. The credit crunch has the ability to affect all our lives, yet, again, previous generations would have no idea what it meant. Good heavens, most of them weren’t even able to get credit in the first place.

But there’s an answer to it all and, unsurprisingly, a new word to sum it up, too. It’s called ecopsychology, and although the word may be less than 20 years old, the concept it describes is most definitely not. In a nutshell, it means that nature makes you feel good, and if that seems a rather banal and obvious statement, consider how far removed from nature so many of us have become.

In Britain, one survey last year showed that only 53% of children could correctly identify an oak leaf, and nearly one in three had no idea what a magpie looked like. Another asked children to rank their favourite ways of spending their free time: playing in the countryside came bottom.

Add to these statistics the World Health Organisation’s prediction that depression will become the second-biggest cause of ill health by 2020, and you start to wonder whether our decreasing contact with nature and increasing reliance on antidepressants are in some way connected.

It appears that they are. A number of studies around the world have shown that patients in hospital beds where the view through the window is of greenery tend to recover faster than those who look out on more industrial or urban views. Other studies have shown that in many urban environments reports of violence lessen by up to 50% when greater access to nature is built into people’s lives. There are reports of the effect of nature on children’s attention-deficit disorders, and on adults’ irritability levels. Socialisation in a community can be up to 90% higher when green spaces are available than when they are not. Stress levels go down. Crime is reduced. It’s all good stuff.

Let’s be frank. It makes sense, really. As the great Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) legend Janet Kear once wrote: “Just as you can’t sneeze with your eyes open, you can’t feed a bird from your hand without smiling.”

Meanwhile, simply walking among all that greenery gives us a certain level of exercise, which is good for us, too.

The scientific benefits of nature are increasingly being proven, but there’s an aesthetic aspect, too. The poet William Wordsworth wrote of his daffodils: “For oft, when on my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood,/They flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude;/And then my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils.” He did not write of his oxygen intake or his neurobiological system.

Medical science is proving that nature is good for us, and this is an excellent and timely thing. Yet we are human beings, not just machines, and use human judgements to help us make our decisions. A recent poll asked whether respondents would be happy for their doctors to provide outdoor exercise instead of prescription drugs, if they thought it would work. Now, outdoor exercise is more time-consuming and requires more effort than popping a pill, yet 94% said that yes, they would be happy to accept that advice. Could it be that stirring inside us all there’s not just a medical need to spend more time in green spaces, but a spiritual one, too?

This is not about religious domains, but a connection with our natural environment that’s tucked away in our collective psyche. We are natural beings ourselves, yet we’ve transplanted ourselves from the woods and wetlands into brick boxes with tarmac links between them and shimmering screens to occupy our hours. Are we simply yearning for the world that directly gave our ancestors their life and livelihoods?

The biologist and thinker EO Wilson believes that our humanity effectively depends on how we interact with nature. “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms,” he wrote. “They offer the challenge and freedom innately sought.” He calls this biophilia, and it basically means love of life.

Compare this with the writings of another man. As he sits at his window looking out, he sees his wife helping his daughter put caterpillars on to fresh poplar branches, and his son drawing a picture of a tree. He contemplates his life in the midst of nature and writes: “I am more than ever convinced that I am the luckiest man I know. I say this not with smugness or self-satisfaction but because I can think of nothing sadder than to live a happy life without recognising it. Maybe I am an ostrich with my head in the sand. Maybe fate or my own or other men’s folly has all kinds of disasters in store for me, but they cannot take away these exciting and happy years. Not to acknowledge such good fortune would be inexcusable.”

This was Sir Peter Scott, the founder of WWT and a man for whom other organisms truly offered that challenge and freedom. He wrote those words in 1960, and they conclude his autobiography The Eye of the Wind. When you’ve lived a life as full of connection with wildlife as Scott’s was, and sum it up by dwelling on happiness, then you truly understand what nature can offer you.

Many have followed in his footsteps at WWT, continuing his work, visiting reserves, offering their services as volunteers and finding ways in which the outdoor life gives them untold pleasure. Those reserves, that work and those levels of happiness await us all.

Ecopsychology and biophilia are good words, but don’t just google them. Come along and find out what they mean in the real world.

Kate Humble
is a vice-president of WWT.

[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

Do you feel close to nature? Are too many people too removed from green spaces these days? How much time do you make to simply walk among trees or over hills, or to camp or fish? Do such experiences alter your mental outlook?

Share you thoughts and experiences on the forum.

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匿名 | Anonymous


Matilda (田亮翻译)


Kate Humble is right. We do need to reconnect with nature, to get out amid the flora and fauna.
One of my favourite writers, the American author Henry David Thoreau said, in his essay "Walking", published in 1862: "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least -- and it is commonly more than that --sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements." We don't all have four free hours in the day for "sauntering", but we should try to make more time in our lives for such natural healing. We all need it, this peace that nature can provide. Even an hour in a local park can make a difference.
Thoreau's book "Walden", first published in 1854, is a great reflection on living simply. It's full of sensible thoughts and inspiring observations. "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion," for example.
If you find yourself indoors for too long, crowded amid the comfort, take a long walk outside -- or pull out a copy of "Walden" and start reading.
Logging off now to follow Humble's (and Thoreau's) wise counsel. -- Matilda

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The children in China

According to this writer, children in the UK have become less familiar with animals and plants in nature. It is actually the same case for children in China. They have been removed from nature from an early age, needless to say, they haven't had the experience of running freely across fields. When my 7-year-old nephew returned to our old home and saw a woodpecker, he asked why that magpie had such a long beak.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Governor takes a hike

Shortly after reading this article, I was amused to learn that the governor of my state, South Carolina, vanished for four days, apparently without briefing his staff or family about his plans. Now a spokesman for the governor's office says Mark Sanford escaped late last week "to clear his head after the legislative session", and that he was hiking along the scenic Appalachian Trail. If the details are correct as reported, Sanford switched off his cell phones and headed for the 2,100-mile-long trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. So just where is he? The media don't seem to know -- which sounds like what this southern outdoorsman would have intended. Well done, governor, from Charlie M.!

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匿名 | Anonymous



Governor - update

Clearing his head with a good long walk on the Appalachian Trail, it turns out, wasn't what the governor was doing after all.
See http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSTRE55N3GZ20090624

Putting aside this false and embarrassing incident from the US, the essential point remains: Getting out in nature, in the fresh air, and reconnecting with our inner selves, is vital. Given the real story of the governor's brief disappearance, he may find that he has a lot of time in the future for long, contemplative walks!)
-- from red-faced Charlie in South Carolina

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匿名 | Anonymous


生态文化方向的研究生,Shiblom Lu

Why we need to be close to nature

When I was small I grew up in the wild countryside and the natural environment was a part of my life. All along, I was used to the natural environment, until one summer I came back for summer vacation and realized that the trees next to my house had disappeared without a trace. Like a pot of orchids that couldn’t find its dirt, I slowly realized that I had been deprived of something and that I had been split from my connection with nature. At that time I felt like crying, like I was split from a family member. I think that there are some people who have strong feeling for nature and who recognize that nature is worth a lot to them. They think that environmental issues are a personal issue and not about climate change or the energy crisis. I will use myself as an example to explain why people need to get close to nature, and why they have a spiritual need for nature. Since people originally came from nature, and their natural instincts and roots are biological, they need to stay close to nature to preserve their physical body as well as their spirit. Ecopsychologist Roszak said the deepest human psychological need was its connection with nature, and he called it the ecological unconscious. It is similar to Jung’s collective unconscious in that it people need to experience their own roots while being in nature to return to a plane of reality, and people need to experience nature emotionally. But we have been cut off from this ecological unconscious and we have been cut off from nature; this has happened thanks to urbanization. This article gives a good example of the problem; I find it very enlightening. There is no way we can go back now, but we can still spend a little more time getting close to nature, to keep our ecological spirit healthy.

Ecological culturally oriented graduate student, Shiblom Lu http://blog.stnn.cc/luzhibo (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

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匿名 | Anonymous



When could we find the environment as we had in childhood

Growing up in the countryside,I collected grasses for herds from the grassland and woods, and fed goats with locust leaves. Every morning when I got up I could hear the twittering of magpies, swallows and some birds that I couldn't tell the name. When the winter came, we played catching birds in the snowfield, while in summer stealthily we went swimming and fishing in the brook with pals...... All above, However, have already become a dream for me. Once in a winter the government ordered the deforestation of all trees to convert to economic maidenhair trees which they believed could make us rich. All became bald at a sudden. Birds had gone; no tasted leaves for herds; creeks got smell and needed to be clean every year; rivers demanded to be dredged every year, and banks were crushed down in the wash of rains...... Actions of that exact year caused the consequences we undertook for years. But swarmed changing of the planting led to the over production and the fall of price, and farmers were prepared to cut those useless maidenhair trees. Vicious circle like this again and again, when could the environment get improved?---Beautiful Sky The comment was translated by Li Huan)