The Contented Countryman podcast | Episode 2: Nature Connection

Season 1, Episode 2: Nature Connection

Fennel Hudson talks about Nature Connection, comparing it to the nature 'disconnection' epitomised by the 'virtual' online world. To listen to the podcast, click the play button above, or subscribe via iTunes.

Transcript of The Contented Countryman podcast

Episode 2 – 10 March 2017 – Nature Connection

It’s said that to be an author is to share your art with the world. It’s what I do through my books, but none more so than in this episode of The Contented Countryman podcast.

In it, I’ll be sharing my views on the hot topic of nature connection. I’ll talk about the appeal and joy of being outdoors in wild places and compare it to the ‘other’ world of nature disconnection, where computer and television screens command our attention and dictate our mood.

And as this is going to be quite a long podcast, I’ll share my conclusion with you now: that the more I write, and the more I explore the natural world, the more I’m convinced of the life-giving qualities of nature. It restores our health, faith, and self-belief. It heals us of our times spent in man-made surroundings. It keeps us happy, healthy and contented. 

Our world, of Nature

I guess that if you’ve listened to Episode 1 of this podcast, you did so because you relate to its subject. You’re familiar with the natural world. It’s your home, as it is mine, so we share a common appreciation of its gifts. We know that it makes us happy. 

The Contented Countryman is, after all, our way of praising the countryside’s ability to enrich our lives. Lives that we, as countrymen, value. We know this life. We cherish it. We’re connected to the countryside, bonded to it, consumed by it, brought to life by it. All encompassing, it fills our thoughts and shapes our reasons for being. It energises and inspires us.

When we’re outdoors, amongst nature and at one with ourselves, we’re complete, contented and free.

It’s obvious to us, but not to others. For some, our world is alien.

Their world, online

They, the Contented Urbanites, exist within the World of Man. Theirs is a place of their making, where nature is ignored and corralled, buried beneath concrete and ignorance. It’s a four-walled existence, where ‘connection’ requires electrical plugs and a broadband signal.

To them, the countryside is something to be avoided. It’s smelly, dirty, wet and cold. Full of flesh-eating insects, uncontrollable randomness, and ‘dung’ that threatens every footstep. It’s a scary place for the uninitiated. Worse still if they stray from the security of a WiFi or mobile phone signal. 

Hmm. Cellular phones, or a cell-like existence? Always on, always connected, always accessible to others. Their definition of freedom is very different to ours.

Or is it? 

Is it just that many people – seemingly the majority of modern society – aren’t aware of the pleasures we find in the outdoors? Or perhaps they’ve discovered something better and more appealing? Perhaps they’re ‘connected’ to something else. Another passion. Another source of inspiration. Another kind of world.

The technological world and the real world

There were two articles in The Times newspaper last weekend that caught my attention, both of which spoke of how communications technology is negatively affecting us.

The first suggested that smartphones are shortening our attention spans, making our memory poorer and leading to a passive intellect. How? Because, said the article, “We’ve never had a technology so intrusive into our moment-by-moment thinking, perception and attention.” It continued, “If you try to take in vast amounts of information, particularly continuously, nothing stays in your short-term memory for long because you have to push ‘stuff’ out to make room for new ‘stuff’. Information doesn’t stick long enough for us to successfully transfer it to long-term memory. It’s only through this process that you create rich associations between the new piece of information and everything else you’ve learned or experienced that’s stored in long-term memory. Those associations are the real source of intelligence and knowledge.”

I thought about this deeply, wondering whether it’s the constant stream of information that’s the issue, or that we don’t stop to sit and reflect and ‘connect the dots’ of learning. 

For example: if we sit quietly in woodland in spring, there’s a constant flow of sights and sounds to stimulate us, but we somehow seem to – how shall we say? – ‘drift’ in these environments. We’re able to reflect and relax, appreciating things in more detail. It’s like we’re subconsciously accessing the ‘rich association’ of nature that grows with continued exposure and recollection.

My thoughts were supported by the same article in The Times. “Tech companies,” it said, “promote the idea of intelligence, that the more information we take in the smarter we become. The truth is almost the opposite. We don’t get smart, we don’t become knowledgeable through the speed with which we take in information, but through our ability to synthesise information into context, into some broader understanding of the world. Acquiring true knowledge takes time. It requires us to think without distraction or interruption. All higher forms of thought, reasoning, contextualising, critical thinking, require control over our attention; require the ability to turn off the flow of information and think deeply and over and extended period of time about things.”

It’s obvious then: our time alone in the countryside slows things down. Whilst we could easily experience stimulation overload, by the near-infinite things going on around us, we’re able to choose the speed at which we become aware. Natural things appreciated at a natural pace. They’re everything and nothing, enabling meditation for the soul and a healing of the mind. How? Because we can choose how deep to dip our toes. 

Whilst a woodpecker makes a welcome sight and sound, we wouldn’t wish it to peck directly into our eyes. Which is just what the artificial world achieves with intrusive technology.

But is it the technology that makes the non-natural world so addictive to so many? The second article in The Times provided an explanation.

The Nature of ourselves

The article reviewed a new book by Adam Alter called ‘Irresistible: why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching’. It explained that 59% of western society is dependent on social media, yet we know that checking a glaring rectangular screen hundreds of times per day makes us unhappy. It highlighted the downside of online life: poor sleep, low attention span, diminishing empathy, wasted time. And how modern-day ‘World of Warcraft’ online video gamers have become so addicted to the game that they are choosing to wear adult-sized ‘gamer’s nappies’ so that they don’t have to unplug for a second while answering the call of nature.

Wow. I wonder what they’d make of the calls of nature that we hear? Fortunately, when we’re fully immersed in the outdoor world, we have plenty of bushes to hide our discrete – er – ‘moments of release’.

But is technology to blame for this strange, ‘always on, always connected’ digital lifestyle?

The article explained that the addiction comes not from technology but from our deepest needs and desires. It revealed how, in the 1970s, a psychologist named Dr Michael Zeiler attempted to discover how rewards stimulate motivation. He put pigeons in a cage with a button; every time a bird pressed the button it would get a food pellet. Then he changed the drill so that the button didn’t always deliver: sometimes the pigeons pressed in vain. He expected them to be quickly demotivated by disappointment, but instead the birds pecked away at the unpredictable button twice as often as when it was a sure thing. Birds’ brains, he found, we releasing twice as much dopamine – a natural pleasure chemical – when the reward was unexpected than when it was assured. 

Hmmm. Seems we’re no different to the birdbrain pigeon, as our drug-like addiction to social media is exactly the same. “It’s like pulling the arm of a slot machine,” said the article. “Will our post receive 40 likes or, horror of horrors, no likes at all? Will we hit the jackpot and post something that goes viral?” It’s this gambler’s uncertainty that keeps us checking our phones.

But my argument is it’s not just to do with what we post, it’s to do with the information ‘feed’. Humans are inherently neurotic: that we feel like we’re either missing out, or that someone’s talking about us. Social media gives us access to the gossip and chatter. It’s harder for people to talk behind our back, because – prying obsessives that we are – we can stalk them on social media.

Here’s the underlying cause, the fundamental driver in the online lifestyle: “Dopamine,” said the article, “does not create addiction, just as heroin does not a junkie make. The danger comes when we use a drug or chemical to medicate a psychological state such as boredom, loneliness or anxiety. It highlighted an experiment conducted at the University of Virginia, where a group of students were told they could sit quietly alone for up to 15 minutes in an unadorned room. Or they could give themselves painful electric shocks. Most students chose the shocks, some hurting themselves over and over (one zapped himself 190 times). The study concluded that most people would prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, “even if that something is negative.” And that it’s a modern confirmation of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s remark that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. That we would rather fry our brains for hours with video games, or endure emotional abuse on Twitter, than suffer a second of boredom.

There’s learning for us in this. We, as adults, are perhaps most exposed to the ‘always on’ culture that takes us away from the things that really matter. Day-after-day we work at whatever job we do, wrestling an ever-growing job list and a constant stream of work-based requests. The phone calls, emails, text messages, instant messages, even – dare someone be so brave – face-to-face conversations, they all demand our attention.

The right to disconnect

No wonder France passed a law at the start of the year, allowing employees ‘The Right to Disconnect’. 

The new law obliges organisations with more than 50 employees to initiate ‘switching off’ negotiations with their workforces, the goal of which is for everyone to agree on employee’s rights to ignore work-related requests outside the boundaries of regular work hours.

The law was the result of a report written by the Director General of Human Resources at telecoms giant Orange, that was sent to France’s Labour Minister. It suggested that both employers and employees would benefit, else they were likely to suffer psychological risks from a ceaseless communication cycle. 

Having worked in telecommunications for nine years, I can vouch first hand as to the impact this ceaseless cycle can have on those with poor self-discipline. Whilst the issue is often rooted in the individual’s inability to switch off, rather than the work culture, I believe the new French law is a very, very, good thing.

The ceaseless communication cycle, and the twenty-hour working day that it encourages, was responsible for my motto: ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy.’ Everything I do at Fennel’s Priory, and everything I write in my books, is a reaction to this cycle and the deception of what is called ‘work-life integration’. No. Everything in balance, I beg of you. Hence the four words that remind us to seek quality times doing things that matter.

I say again: ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy.’

Inside, outside

And, as I said in Episode 1 of this podcast, the quest for contentment is often the result of a desire to move away from a state of discontentment. But in searching for contentment in the offline world, as we do, rather than the online one, I wonder whether we’re simply highlighting the difference between introverts and extroverts? The online junkies get their fix by feeding off others’ energy and activities. It’s classic extrovert behaviour. Whereas I, and possibly you, get my energy by sitting alone in quiet, peaceful places. 

Whilst I enjoy the company of others, I am an introvert. My ideal scenario is to be alone atop a mountain, or deep within a wood, or sitting quietly upon a misty moor, or by a trickling stream, or on a beach looking out to sea. I gaze in wonder at the vista, knowing that it’s somehow reflecting deep within me, refuelling me for when I return to the bustle and chaos of a crowded world. 

As W.H. Murray wrote: “The heart’s natural movement is to lift upward, and this is most readily done in the wild, for there it is easy to be still.”

But, introvert or extrovert, online or offline junkie, we’re not that different from those around us. Our activities and lifestyles are born of a need to escape, to find adventure, to discover the passions and curiosity to be found in new and familiar things.

I admit that I struggle with the whole social media thing. I’m just too ‘unplugged’ to be checking my accounts every day, let alone every few minutes. 

Do I miss much? Not really. Whilst I have friends there, my focus is home-based and my curiosity is in the outdoors. I’m constantly ‘plugged in’ to the daily goings-on and interactions between wild species and all the drama brought by our ever-changing weather. When I wake, I don’t reach over to the bedside table to check my smartphone for Twitter feeds and latest emails; I get up and open my curtains to view the sunrise. That’s my ‘media feed’, and so very rewarding it is, too.

Away from it all

Think of what’s happening in nature at the moment. It’s early spring here in the UK. The first snowdrops and celandines are blooming; cherry blossom and hazel catkins are showing in the woods; hawthorn leaves are appearing on the hedgerows, the daffodils are in flower and each morning I’m greeted by the joyous songs of blackbirds, robins, wrens, tits and finches. It’s as real as we can get. To witness it is to be most vibrantly alive. To appreciate and understand it, however, is to know and value more. Our gift is that of countryside wisdom, born of observation and caring.

For us, we know that the deepest pleasures lie in natural things. We know how to Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy. We know the yearning when, at the peak of a busy day, we crave to be – as we say – ‘away from it all’. 

But what is this ‘it’? The ‘it’ that we seek to be away from?

Surely we don’t want to be away from it all? At least the ‘all’ that matters. Don’t we mean that we need to be ‘close’ to it all – insomuch as our ‘all’ is amongst the life-giving wonder of nature? Perhaps, when we’re starved of our ‘fix’ in the countryside, we crave fulfilment? We need ‘topping up’ and plugging in to an altogether more natural current – the current of life.

Away from it all? No. I prefer to say, ‘Away from The Nothing, and close to it all’.

How we once were

Nature connection, in my mind, is more than a reaction to the virtual ‘always on’ world. I love the countryside for its own merits. If I’m ever in doubt of this, I refer back to my favourite countryside books – the ones written in the early part and middle of the last century, when mobile phones, computers and televisions were unknown. The authors spoke of the countryside with great affection, because they knew how special and fragile it was.

One of my favourite quotes is by W.H. Hudson, from his Afoot in England. It says: “The charm of the unknown, [is] the infinitely greater pleasure in discovering the interesting things for ourselves [rather] than informing ourselves of them by reading. It is like the difference in flavour in wild fruits and all wild meats found and gathered by our own hands in wild places and that of the same prepared and put on the table for us. The ever-varying aspects of nature, of earth and sea and cloud, are a perpetual joy to the artist, who waits and watches for their appearance, who knows that sun and atmosphere have for him revelations without end…[but] he knows that his striving is in vain – that his weak hands and earthy pigments cannot reproduce these effects or express his feeling…he has his joy none the less; it is in the pursuit and in the dream of capturing something illusive, mysterious, and inexpressibly beautiful.”

Those words were written in 1909. That’s over 100 years ago. 100 years! More than twice my age. Yet the message is perhaps more pertinent now than it was when written. The study and appreciation of natural history is about getting out there in the wild, to observe with awe the beauty and magnificence of nature, not sitting in front of a computer screen being spoon-fed what other people want you to see. Far better, as my namesake said, to experience life for yourself, to connect with nature, and know – first hand – the ‘inexpressibly beautiful’ qualities of the natural world.

I’m conscious that this podcast, and my books and broadcasts, fits into the category marked ‘second hand information’. So I really urge you to get out there and experience nature for yourself. We can only remain cooped up for so long before we need a release. And doing this in the quiet of day, at dawn or dusk, is best – it’s when we’re most likely to be alone and see nature undisturbed. That’s when the connection is strongest.

You’ll often hear me talk about nature connection. Some will say that a better term is nature ‘reconnection’, that as natural creatures ourselves (albeit highly evolved ones) we’re seeking to rediscover something from our primeval past or, more accurately, from before 1995.

The Nature Connection Movement

The Communications Age, enabled by the Internet and communications technology, is driving a concern that the more connected we become to the virtual, the less connected we are the real. Like in the film The Matrix, we – and especially our children – exist in bubbles while being duped into a static indoor existence. Blissfully unaware of our environment and the consequences to our health and wellbeing, we ‘scroll’ through life while our bodies and minds deteriorate.

I’ve spoken of the articles and research that look at the effect that technology is having on us. But there’s another area of study that looks at the benefits of nature connection and how it can save us from the prospect of developing square eyes and a backside warmed by the sludgy discomfort of an adult gamer’s nappy.

The Nature Connection movement, as it is known, was coined by authors such as Richard Louv with his book The Nature Principle, Richard Mabey with his Nature Cure, and George Monbiot with his rewilding classic Feral. It addresses what Louv described as Nature Deficit Disorder – or NDD for short.

The term was first used in Louv’s book Last Child of the Woods. Published in 2005, the book puts forward the case that decreased exposure of children to nature results in a disorder that harms them and society. He argues that all of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and perhaps more vulnerable to negative moods or reduced attention span. He cites the causes for spending so much time indoors as: parental fears heightened by media sensationalism about ‘stranger danger’ (that have literally ‘scared children straight out of the woods and fields’, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favours ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play); restricted access to natural areas, with its instructions to ‘please keep off the grass’ and ‘look don’t touch’; and the lure of the screen, with its ability to create a virtual escapist world. The latter is responsible for what’s being called the ‘epidemic of inactivity’, where the average American child spends 44 hours per week in front of an electronic screen. That’s more than six hours per day, every day.

In the UK, the biggest issue preventing children playing and exploring outside is the increased amount of road traffic. We live on a busy, polluted, island. The days of playing in the street are nearly gone. So we adults need to supervise our children while giving them the freedom to explore. And this is a big part of the problem.

My view is that Nature Deficit Disorder in children is as much to do with a deterioration of parenting skills, and available time to be with one’s children, than the dangers and distractions around them. How easy is it, when we’re stressed, busy or tired, to hand a child an iPad in return for their silence? But that’s an abdication of parental duty. Surely we’d be better making time, and reserving energy, for our children; taking them outside for walks and play and educating them in the wonder of the natural world? Build dens in the woods, go for walks, fly a kite, do whatever’s needed to share quality time outdoors with your family.

Louv’s book, thankfully, recommends that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. (The latter is addressed in his 2011 classic, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, where he explores the question of: “What could our lives and our children’s lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”)

Happier and healthier

Louv’s books emphasise how research has proven that time outdoors can reduce anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems. Also that experiential learning, in forest schools and outdoor classrooms, is better for our children, leading to better grades in social studies, science, language, arts, and maths. And that outdoor play, in fresh air and sunshine, helps us physically, too. Just what’s needed when you discover that the Institute of Medicine claims that over the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled for adolescents and more than tripled for children aged 6–11.

Evidence suggests the problem is worse in the UK than other parts of Europe, and may help explain poor UK rankings in childhood satisfaction surveys. In the UK, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly since the 1970s.

David Pencheon, the medical doctor who heads up the National Health Service’s Sustainable Development unit, says: “There’s undoubtedly a phenomenon that’s not good for health, which is about not giving access to outdoors or green space, [for] safe risk-taking and so on.”

UK author George Monbiot acknowledges the heart of the issue in his book Feral: “Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world.”

In recognising these trends, it’s obvious that we need to get out more, to engage with and indulge our instinctive liking for nature. This is known as the biophilia hypothesis, which says that spending more time outdoors is good for us. Shame that it’s taken an impending car crash in the health of a new generation to realise what we’ve known all along. Still, there’s plenty being done about it.

Encouraging reconnection to nature

Several organisations spring to mind, each of which is doing sterling work on the nature connection front.

The Children & Nature Network is an international organisation that’s leading the movement to connect all children, and their families and communities, to nature. If you’re a parent or teacher, I encourage you to visit their website and get involved.

The No Child Left Inside coalition, based in America, works to get children outside and actively learning by “igniting student’s interest in the outdoors” and encouraging them to explore the natural world.

Here in the UK, The Wild Network is reconnecting children with nature, with its film-led campaign Project Wild Thing. There’s also great work being done by the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, and the National Trust.

The RSPB, in particular, has over the past years commissioned the Universities of Derby and Essex to undertake pioneering research to understand the link between how schoolchildren feel about nature – their ‘connection to nature’ – and the positive impacts associated with it.

The research has shown that, since 2010, only one in five children in the UK is connected to nature. And it’s proved, for the first time, the important benefits associated with being connected to nature. By setting a defined ‘target level’ of connection to nature it showed how children who were more connected to nature had significantly higher English attainment. 

Also that connection to nature is as important to established factors such as life satisfaction and attendance at school. Children meeting the defined target levels of connection to nature had significantly higher health, life satisfaction, pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature behaviours. No wonder that the research recommended that connecting with nature should be part of every child’s life. It has the potential to aid nature’s revival while also benefiting the child. Wonderful news given that the State of Nature report shows a 60% reduction in wild species in the UK. We’re handing this to our children, for them to enjoy…and potentially to fix.

All these organisations, all this research, is good and absolutely necessary.

Why? Because many people need a guiding hand to be shown the way back to nature. 

I want to connect, but how?

Stephen Moss, the author and naturalist who wrote the Natural Childhood report for the National Trust, said, “The natural world doesn’t come with an instruction leaflet, so it teaches you to use your creative imagination. When you build a den with your mates when you’re nine years old, you learn teamwork – you disagree with each other, you have arguments, you resolve them, you work together again – it’s like a team-building course, only you did it when you were nine.”

So maybe we need to provide the right environment for people to explore nature.

Dr Ross Cameron, of the department of landscape at Sheffield University, gave a lecture to the Royal Horticultural Society where he said: “There’s another throwaway term, which is ‘Nature Knowledge Deficit’, where we don’t understand as much about the natural environment as we used to. And if we don’t experience natural places or ‘tinker around in the garden’, this can be bad for our mental health. As biological beings we are physiologically adapted to be in certain environments – to run, to play, to hunt, to be active. The reality is we tend to have the lifestyle of a brick at the minute. We tend to sit for most of the day – we tend to be very sedentary…‘Any’ interaction with nature and green space seems to have some potential. Simple connections with nature can give people a buzz. As you increase the scale and quality of it, the benefits also increase.”

So, the more unfamiliar nature becomes, the greater its power to amaze people.

Awe-inspiring nature

The subject of ‘awe’ has been getting increased press lately. Along with mindfulness and compassion, awe is now the subject of scientific research at universities worldwide, the results of which have shown that a sense of awe leads to greater humility, curiosity, innovation, happiness, and a desire to contribute to the world.

Awe is described as “a heightened awareness of beauty and mystery, most commonly induced when we are among natural wonders or with inspiring leaders”. Most of the research on awe has focused on taking people out into nature and documenting the consequent reduction of their stress levels and increase in their creativity.

The challenge, says the University of California, Berkley, is how to build what they call ‘mini awe interventions’ throughout the day in order to sustain the shift in perspective, which is why architects are integrating nature into building design with their vertical gardens known as ‘living walls’. The university cites over 100 studies that have shown that “being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, our bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions”. In particular, they say, viewing nature seems to be “inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of positive emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience”.

As an artist, more than a scientist, this reminds me of the wonderful quote by Roald Dahl, who said: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

From little acorns...

As with everything in nature: it starts small. So begin your nature connection journey by doing the simplest of things: open a window. Look and listen, feel the breeze, smell the scents, imagine being out there. Soon you’ll discover a world of natural things delighting your senses.

The journey starts close to home, so you don’t need to look far. But when you can, gaze and breathe deeply. As the naturalist John Muir wrote: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” 

Muir found his connection in the mountains of California. I hope you’ve found some of it here. As I said in Episode 1, The Contented Countryman is your opportunity to take time out from the stresses of modern life, to stop the wheels for a bit, unplug from the daily grind, escape to an idyllic and peaceful place, and enjoy the natural world. 

It’s where we can share our love of nature and wildlife, celebrate rural lifestyle, and rejoice at how the ‘truly great’ outdoors helps to shape our identity and passions. It’s about the quest for freedom and adventure, reflection and contentment. Ultimately it’s about achieving a slow-paced and meaningful life.

This, in its entirety, is what I call 'Nature Connection'.

If you like this podcast, then you might like Fennel's books The Quiet Fields and Nature Escape. Please also subscribe to Fennel on Friday. You'll receive a blog, video or podcast sent direct to your email inbox in time for the weekend.