9 min read

On Forging a Connection with Nature

How I developed a deeper relationship with nature, and found a greater sense of wellbeing.
Weeding the carnation bed at the flower farm

I shared earlier this week that I would be writing a little more about my own relationship with nature, to add more voice to Mental Health Awareness Week (which this year, is focused on ‘nature’).

Yesterday, I waited for a bus to another community project (a flower farm situated in the garden space of a community centre, complete with a beautiful yurt and pine trees) - something I have been investing my time in, for almost eighteen months. As I fumbled around in my pocket making sure my facemask was at hand ready for quick application, and keeping my phone unlocked to display my online bus ticket, I pondered on the process of waiting in itself - of standing next to this metal pole in the ground, with nothing but sheer hope and belief that someone would eventually transport a vehicle to where I was stood, and take me to where I needed to go. The patience to stand, with neck craned to see if those brightly-lit, orange pixelated numbers would pop up around the bend in the road, was something I feel I don’t often check-in with (or practice enough). I consider myself a highly patient person (I mean, I have a four year-old, so its sort of mandatory), but even I have fallen victim to the instant gratification of the internet and social media, of being able to reach out to my friends within seconds, of takeaways delivered to my door - in fact, even my fortnightly food shop and the books that I stack up on every available surface in this flat. There is clearly a huge amount of privilege to be in my position, and I am more aware of this than ever. Even as I stood there fidgeting, the app for the bus service could give me live updates on where my bus was (so in fact, my patience itself was in a strange place - waiting for something that I actually knew was coming - there was certainty in it - so was this even truly patience?). I realised how important the practice of patience is, which is essentially sitting within the current / present moment and accepting it for what it is, and letting go of the anxiety or excitement for the future (something hard to do, as someone diagnosed as highly anxious). Usually, I would indulge in a bus journey (perhaps not quite so much as a train ride) - getting to absorb the neighbourhoods I was being driven through or watching all of the little interactions between the passengers, but this morning I was up in my head more than usual; catastrophising about various things that needed to be done. This absorption, I’ve noticed, is often how I access my creativity - how I can suddenly rack up lists of ideas just from a simple twenty-minute journey.

As I emerged from the bus and walked through the gates of the community centre, I began to really notice the difference between worrying about the future versus being in the present, and I wondered - if I’m observing this process, then who or what am I in this exact moment? I think it is Eckhart Tolle that encourages this questioning - that if we’re not the thinker, then who are we? I started to understand the concept of ‘being’ (that pure awareness or presence, right that second in time). A book I had bought from The Feminist Bookshop this week (Kae Tempest’s 'On Connection') even nudges at this exploration; of who we are when we’ve stripped everything away. In terms of ‘becoming zero’ (which is something I’m trying to investigate myself, as I try to live with less labels and titles, less expectations etc), I even started to wonder whether trying to ‘reduce’ myself was a further act of withdrawal, of maybe even indulgence or selfishness (perhaps privilege again here, too). Though really, what I am working on is cutting the ties that society, media and others have placed on me; its more about unravelling so that I can actually choose for myself what it is I want to be - if anything. There is definitely something to holding on to this space - of stretching out into it and letting ourselves have more freedom than we’ve ever given ourselves permission to have before - but that doesn’t mean that I’m personally intending on staying there forever. Its more that I’m learning how to access it, and how to return to it whenever I want to; to let myself evolve and change over time, and come back to this spaciousness that is always available (its taken me two years to understand this concept in depth - and a further thirty-three years to give myself permission to take that space for my own). Often, I’ve written about wanting to learn how to take my space in nature, and though that is true on some levels (in terms of overcoming the discrimination towards women and other underrepresented communities in the outdoors) - what supersedes all of that, is learning how to access that mental space of freedom that I’ve not felt able to reside in, for the majority of my life.

So during Mental Health Week, I hope it becomes clearer to others that the space in nature and the space in our minds are two separate landscapes - both are connected as far down as the roots, and both work together, but the missing link between these two spaces - the bridge - is other humans. I can feel the tip towards labels again now that I’m allowing myself to peruse my own passions and interests, and have recently tried-on the word writer (especially the more I am asked to write bios, to refine my message/niche, to get more specific, to find my field of writing e.g. creative non-fiction etc) - and steadily, I can feel the weight and constriction of this. But what if I was simply, ‘writer’? It’s what I do. It’s what I am. It’s what I’m being, through the action of turning lived human experience into words. This fluidity is something I will come back to again and again in my writing - of its necessity in my life. Something might fit one day, but might not the next - we already know that life is this way; this 'rebelliousness' to being pinned-down - yet so much of our life is controlled, labelled, signed, stamped - maybe that’s why I’ve always struggled to be so sure of anything; because underlying so much of life is uncertainty. Maybe I’ve always known that the most certain part of life, is the uncertain (so, life itself then). As Kae writes, our numbness is needed in this world - and that’s why I feel the work that I’m doing - to feel again, to allow freedom and space in my life, and to take ease - are such radical acts; literally taking the unknown into my hands, whilst simultaneously allowing periods of unfeeling. Like seeds that we place into damp soil with hope - we can’t be certain that growth will come - but we can plant more seeds; in fact, we can even stop putting seeds in the ground for a while and work on regenerating the soil instead (which, if you haven’t watched Down to Earth yet, I highly recommend as one starting point).

I was allocated a weeding job to help clear out the plants growing around the flower planters, and it didn’t take long to find swarms of woodlice and other insects digging tunnels under the wooden panels. I felt my whole body tense up at the sight of these masses, but realised this was exactly the point - to get uncomfortable, and get close to, the very things that I have avoided, or deemed too ‘repulsive’, or ‘dirty’ over time. It literally took my hands to be in the earth, gripping at dock stems and bird’s-foot-trefoil, with tiny gelatinous slugs on my fingers, to start to get to know these things better - to confront my avoidance and begin to ask questions of it; undoing more of the societal constructs around what is supposedly meant to be looked-down on, or turned-away from. It is the literal earth that we sustain ourselves on, but like many others have mentioned around the term ‘sustainable’, it becomes troubling if we only focus on what we can sustain (or therefore, what we can keep taking from) - there is little mention of where we step in and actually take part, and give back. As I pulled some garlic mustard out of the ground (and swiftly stuffed it into a paper bag to take home), I watched as fat orange slugs, blue-bodied spiders, rust-coloured woodlice and young centipedes scattered from their recent upheaval, whilst a soft ginger tabby cat stopped to sit and chew a blade of grass, before raindrops began to make their ears twitch. At halfway point, the other volunteers and I gathered to drink from our flasks and sit in a socially-distanced circle as we discussed recent television series, general knowledge and other chit-chat. As seems to be common in the emergence from lockdown, I kept feeling unsure about anything I was contributing - was I saying this right? I’ve always preferred to sit quietly in groups, enjoying the presence of others more than the expectation of conversing, but its hard not to take part when you know that the others around you, are there for the same reasons. I went back to my weeding for a short while longer, and identified a whole bunch of ‘European Corn Salad’ or ‘Lamb’s Lettuce’, adding it to my paper bag of foraged goods to take home and experiment with. I left the session feeling lifted and more connected to the others there as well as the earth - a thin layer of dirt on my skin that did nothing but make pools of brown water in the community centre sinks. I didn’t feel ‘filthy’, though - I felt right and true, like I was somehow closer to my self, above all. I stepped onto my bus home and became immediately aware of how much I was stinking the place out with garlic mustard (which strangely, smelt suspiciously like another plant that people might carry on their persons from time to time); I was glad for my facemask to hide behind, and quick to alight again. That evening, I cooked those bright green, heart-shaped leaves into a vegan macaroni-and-cheese; the combination of something wild and local, with something so comforting and warm, was the ultimate in reassurance of a good day.

It is with this wonderful alchemy of people and the land that I return to my previous enthusiasm for exploring nature. For me, I’ve spent this last year or so starting to lean into the things that I’m passionate about - things like birdwatching, foraging, gardening and exploring local spaces at every given opportunity. I live opposite a managed, communal garden and even observing the same few trees and hedges over the seasons; of simply looking out my window and noting the subtle changes, has been so rewarding. Living in a tiny flat during the pandemic, with a young child, has meant I’ve had to be outdoors more than usual (I don’t think I’ve ever spent that many days in the rain and cold, as I have during the last winter) - getting to know every local park and stretch of beach intimately. I also made time for more specific walks (often solo), going a little further where I could, and of course, taking part in community projects where they were permitted. I yearned for more nature-themed films and struggled to find many on the usual subscription services (other than My Octopus Teacher), but then fell into a magical rabbit hole of adventurers documenting and sharing their journeys on YouTube (Abbie Barnes, Alexandra Reuter, Jonna Jinton...). I fell upon East Forest’s music, incredible podcasts (‘Green Dreamer’ by Kamea Chayne, ‘For The Wild Podcast’, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things' by Melissa Harrison, ‘The Spoken Remedy’ by Sez Kristiansen, ‘Prompted by Nature’ by Helen Forester...) and came back to my neglected reading pile via the many nature writers I adore (I devoured the awe-inspiring ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd, ‘Wanderland’ by Jini Reddy and ‘The Way Through the Woods’ by Long Litt Woon, and am currently halfway through the incredibly validating and moving work of ‘Grounded’ by Ruth Allen... with a keen eye on Anita Sethi’s new book ‘I Belong Here’).

I’ll sign-off here, taking inspiration from the groundbreaking work of Robin Wall Kimmerer on reciprocation - to remind ourselves, that nature is not there simply to ‘fix’ us or heal us (nor can it, on its own - ‘garden therapy’, a walk around the block, a breath of fresh air - all of these things can support us, but we must address that mental health falls upon the responsibility of our community - not just ourselves in solitude, and not just nature as an isolated cure-all). This is why I believe so much in working together for the environment; that so many of our issues stem from certain needs not being met, and that these cannot be met by nature alone (though don’t get me wrong, nature does provide reassurance and reflection, in wonderful ways). In my opinion, to really feel the benefits of this gift, it comes by truly developing a relationship with nature - just like any other kind of connection in our life - we absolutely need to listen first, and ultimately to respond by supporting however we can. I hope that by finding our own connections with nature (be it the spider living in the corner of a window, a dandelion growing through the cracks in the pavement, the tomatoes in our pasta, the shadows of trees on the forest floor or in the surging waves of the sea), and giving back in any way we can, that we can all benefit from a collective increase in mental health and overall wellbeing - one based on connection with life.