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Becoming nature connected has opened my eyes and heart to the importance of indigenous people for the future of humanity. I acknowledge this in the last chapter of my book. Connect with Nature, where I speak of the ‘Earth-centred wisdom’ that sets indigenous cultures apart from human-centred cultures (like my own).  

Indigenous or first nations people are the descendants of the original inhabitants of a territory. They are people who work closely with natural ecosystems, as hunters and gatherers, shifting or permanent cultivators, herders, and fishers. Typically, they turn the resources of nature to multiples uses. Their productive practices are small-scale, labour-intensive and often geared to subsistence rather than the production of a surplus. Their societies are organised at the level of communities and are characterised by a common language, religion, clothing, and set of values and beliefs.

Indigenous peoples see themselves as stewards or custodians of the land they inhabit. For them, land and the environment in general have a sacred quality, a view which is almost absent from Western thinking. Land is revered and respected. It is seen as the primary source of life, nourishing, supporting and teaching. Nature is not only a material provider but the core of culture and the origin of ethnic identity. At the heart of this deep bond is the perception that all living and non-living things are inextricably and intrinsically linked as are the natural, social and spiritual worlds.   

Not surprisingly, but very significantly, there is a close correlation between indigenous land occupancy and the survival of biodiversity. The rich diversity of nature is declining much less rapidly on indigenous peoples’ lands than in other areas.

In Half Earth, Edward O Wilson writes: ‘The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself’.   

Species are being lost at about a thousand times the natural rate of extinction. This is faster than at any other period in human history. Ecosystems — the vital systems on which all life depends — are being degraded across the globe. The major cause of this catastrophe is human activity. To reduce an area of habitat by, say, 50 percent does not just mean that the populations of plants, animals and microorganisms fall. It also means that the number of species in the area declines. A 50% loss of habitat, for example, leads to 80% loss of species. On the other hand, prevent the loss of 50% of habitat and we save 80% of species.

Fortunately, there is a growing realisation that the world’s indigenous people have a critical role to play in conserving biodiversity.

The 300-500 million indigenous people live in about 75 of the world’s 184 countries. They have a presence in practically all of Earth’s main flora and fauna communities, including the less hospitable ones. It is estimated that the total area under indigenous control is between 12 and 20 percent of the earth’s land surface. Eighty percent of the world’s biodiversity is to be found in this area, mainly in tropical rainforests.

Indigenous peoples have conserved biodiversity for millennia. Many of the world’s remaining strongholds of biodiversity remain intact thanks to the stewardship of the people living there. These strongholds are often thought to be untouched natural areas. But studies show that most areas depicted as ‘untouched’, ‘wild’, and ‘natural’ are actually areas with long histories of human inhabitation and use. Areas untouched by people are rare.

It is true that some indigenous land practices have resulted in extinctions – of megafauna in Australia and ground-dwelling bird species in New Zealand, for example. But indigenous practices have usually sustained biodiversity, in some instances increasing it. Indigenous people have also created much of the world’s agricultural biodiversity, including thousands of crop varieties, livestock breeds and unique landscapes.

There is a clear message in the remarkable overlap between indigenous territories and the world’s remaining areas of high biodiversity. Indigenous views, knowledge and practices are essential for biodiversity conservation. The world’s biodiversity will be preserved only by preserving indigenous cultures and vice versa.

There are numerous examples from around the world of governments and conservation agencies having the good sense to involve local indigenous people in ecological protection and restoration undertakings. Many of Australia’s national parks, including Kakadu, for example, are jointly managed by government departments and indigenous land title owners. In Brazil, indigenous knowledge and skills are being recruited in a variety of ways in the interest of rainforest protection and rehabilitation. The Brazilian state of Acre, for example, is providing financial incentives to encourage indigenous farmers revert to more sustainable traditional agricultural and forest protection practices.

But tapping into existing indigenous knowledge and skills is only part of what must be done on behalf of the environment. The bigger challenge is the preservation of the cultures that provide that knowledge and those skills.   

For those of us privileged to share our land with indigenous people, this means (at the very least):

  • working with them to ensure that their rights to autonomy, equity, justice and security are fully safeguarded
  • acknowledging, restoring and protecting their land rights
  • accepting and respecting their environmental perspectives, values and attitudes
  • respecting and facilitating the preservation of their language(s), lore and knowledge
  • respecting and empowering their cultural practices – religious and social as well as those relating to the environment

What is needed, in short, is the setting aside of prejudice, the fostering of understanding and an active commitment to equality, equity and justice.

Please sign the pledge

The death occurred on December 26, 2021 of Professor Edward O Wilson, an acclaimed biologist, foremost naturalist and pioneering thinker. Widely regarded as Charles Darwin’s successor, Wilson transformed my understanding of myself, others and what it means to be human. My writing over the past 20 years including my recent book, Connect with Nature, was largely inspired by his insights, especially his concept of biophilia. This is the idea that evolution has shaped humans to have a close affinity with nature.

I am saddened by his passing

Wilson is renowned for his work in several fields, notably myrmecology—the study of ants. Robbed of the sight in one eye resulting from a childhood accident, he was compelled to focus his biological investigations on the creatures he could see close-up. ‘Instead of birds, mammals, or fish, he turned to insects and eventually ants, a lifelong obsession and love—and a pillar of all his scientific work’.

But this did not confine the limits of what he could envisage and explore in his mind. He never lost sight of the ecological ‘big-picture’, for example. In collaboration with a gifted mathematician and ecologist, Robert MacArthur, he developed an equation predicting the number of species that could live in a natural area of a given size. The equation shows that as the size of natural areas decrease so too does the number of species that live there.

This relationship is inexorable and demonstrates the stark consequences for biodiversity of humanity’s pillaging and damaging of natural areas. Because of human activity, species are vanishing at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times the rate that would be expected otherwise.

In the last years of his life, Wilson addressed this existential challenge head-on. In a landmark book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, he challenges humanity to protect half of Earth’s natural habitat. At present we stand to lose half the world’s species because we are protecting only 10 percent of that habitat. Protect half of it and we save 80 percent of species. This would avoid the dire consequences of mass extinction and the disastrous ecological collapse towards which we are heading.

The half-Earth goal can be reached, Wilson argues, by a worldwide and flexible network of conservation areas. Some of these areas would be fully protected, but many would allow for the continuation of human activities and occupation. Acknowledging that indigenous peoples are often the best protectors of their land, Wilson stresses the importance of indigenous land rights in the half-Earth mission.  

Wilson’s impassioned call to escape the global end-game in which we are all currently participating has not gone unheeded. The Half-Earth Project has been established and merits everyone’s support. This is a statement of its purpose:

With science at its core and our moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart, the Half-Earth Project is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity including ourselves. 

As Wilson reminds us: ‘We ourselves are part of the living world and the only species with the intelligence and thereby the moral responsibility to serve as its caring steward’.

In Connect with Nature, I speak practically about caring for nature as well as about our moral and ethical obligation for doing so. There is no better way of caring for nature in a moral and ethical way than committing to the Half-Earth Project’s pledge:

As a global citizen, and using my unique skills and abilities, I pledge to:

  • Contribute to our understanding of biodiversity and support scientific innovation to achieve the goal of Half-Earth.
  • Promote educational initiatives that connect students with the natural world and inspires them to become our next generation conservation stewards.
  • Advocate for conservation action and collaboration within my community.
  • Expand the Half-Earth movement culture by sharing my commitment with friends and family and encouraging them to join me in signing the Half-Earth Pledge.

To sign the pledge, go to the Half-Earth Project’s website.  

Do campfires have a future?

This is the first post that doubles as an update for my book, Connect with Nature. To ensure you receive all future updates, click on the Follow blog via email link at the bottom of this page.

In my bush camping days, a highlight was the campfire. I always looked forward to relaxing around a fire with friends at the end of a day of backpacking. As I say in Connect with Nature, I especially enjoyed ‘the soporific pleasure of “fire gazing”—watching the dancing flames and glowing coals’. Elsewhere in the book, I suggest capturing the campfire experience by installing a backyard or patio fire pit or bowl.

My love of campfires is widely shared. One of my most viewed blog posts is entitled, The campfire connection ( with nature). As Henry David Thoreau remarked, ‘The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness’.

There is no mystery about the appeal of the campfire. According to recent research, enjoying the flickering light, crackling sounds, warmth, and a distinctive smell of a campfire lowers blood pressure and promotes relaxation. Moreover, compared with daytime socialising, socializing around a campfire, is more likely to involve intimate and ‘big-picture’ conversation, storytelling, sharing of jokes and music making. 

This difference between day and night talk has been observed in the Ju/’hoan hunter-gatherers of southern Africa. Whereas their day talk centres on practicalities, around the evening fire, relationships, sharing of information and cultural priorities are more the focus. This observation lines up with the view that through human history, the controlled fire has discharged important community building as well as practical functions.   

But in the context of a planet threatened by pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity, the spotlight is shifting the campfire’s downside. Burning wood releases surprisingly large amounts of compounds such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. Carbon dioxide is well known to be a potent greenhouse gas, that contributes to global warming and climate change.

Wood smoke contains fine particles of unburnt wood. That may not sound like pollution, but reduced in size to 2.5 microns or less, these microscopic particles become toxic.  Wood smoke also contains benzene, formaldehyde and other volatile organic chemicals. These toxic residues can end up in ground and surface water. Smoke from campfires can also lead to visible haze in high-use areas like national parks.

Needless to say, inhaling the smoke of campfires is distressing and can be damaging to health. The list of negative health effects includes: irritated eyes, throat, sinus, and lungs; headaches; reduced lung function; and lung inflammation and swelling.

Campfires often leave behind charred wood, piles of ash, and blackened rocks – all visually polluting. The impact is worse when the fires are used to burn rubbish, which is often only partially destroyed.

In high-use areas particularly, the removal of wood, even dead and fallen wood, for campfires can be ecologically damaging. Dead logs and other wood may be habitat for insects, birds, reptiles, and small mammals. And wood gathering frequently goes beyond the dead and the fallen. Visit any popular campsite and you’ll find trees denuded of low branches or scorched by nearby fires. In areas where plant growth is very slow—high alpine environments, deserts, arctic tundra—wood regeneration may not be able to keep up with campfire demand.

Campfires can become wildfires – a risk that a warming climate is increasing in many parts of the world. 

Does all of this mean that we should stop building campfires? There is undoubtedly a strong case for saying, yes. But an unequivocal yes ignores two considerations. First, there are circumstances in which a fire is justified for practical and/or safety reasons, to offset the effects of cold or wet weather, for example (Yes there are techniques for lighting a fire in the rain). Second, a campfire can be enjoyed while minimising its health and environmental impacts.

The guidelines for doing this are:

1. Have a fire only where wood is abundant.

2. Use dry wood (wood that is free of bark and breaks with a ‘snap). Dry wood burns hotter and releases fewer pollutants.

3. Avoid using chemically treated wood or fire starters for your campfire. This reduces your carbon footprint by a significant amount.

4. Keep your fire small. A small fire can be controlled and will not get out of hand and result in wildfires. Using thin sticks results in a hotter fire that burns all unwanted gases more efficiently. Keeping the fire small also means it will burn only for the time you are using it.

5. Build your fire on a previously used site, providing the site is surrounded by a litter-free area that separates the fire by at least three metres from vegetation or any other flammable material.

6 Circle the fire with stones (which are returned to their source after use) that have been nowhere near water, that is, they are completely dry.

7. Do not locate the fire under overhanging tree branches.

8. Do not use the fire for rubbish (including food scraps) disposal.

9. If you can’t avoid building a fire on a pristine site, (a) remove all litter from the site and place it well away, (b) hollow out a shallow pit for the fire, (c) after use, restore the site by removing any unburst sticks, covering the ash with soil, and returning the litter.

10. Completely extinguish the fire when you are done. Generously douse the campfire with water, stir the ashes and flood them again with water. This way, you put the fire out completely. Do not rely on dirt to extinguish the fire; always use water.

For cooking purposes there are now excellent alternatives to a wood fire – small spirit and butane stoves, for example.  

I would certainly miss a campfire but there is always the night sky to be wondered at and nocturnal bushland sounds to be enjoyed.     

Judging a Book by its Cover

As I explained in my last post, I will be using future posts to provide updates and supplementary material for my book, Connect with Nature: One of the Best Things You Can Do for Yourself, Others and Planet Earth. This will be in addition to (and certainly not instead of) what I hope the posts have always done: inform, interest and inspire readers about connecting with nature.   

The book has now been published – for more information about it, please visit its brand new and sparkling website . 

I have discovered that the writing of a book is only part of getting it into print. A further and very important step is designing the cover. For Connect with Nature this was something of a saga.

Contrary to the old adage, people do judge a book by its cover, or at least they decide whether a book is worth investigating on the basis of its cover. This is hardly surprising given the millions of books there are to choose from. So, the message from the publishing industry is to ensure that the cover meets (or goes close to meeting) these criteria:

  • It is eye-catching, better still irresistible; it must transform a passing glance into a searching look, and then to a close inspection.
  • It tells simply, directly and genuinely what the book is about; it signals what the book has to offer and to whom.
  • It captures the character of the book (The character of Connect with Nature, for example, is down-to-earth and businesslike, but warm and supportive).

I’ll spare you the details of our search for a cover meeting these criteria. Suffice it to say, the quest went on for some weeks and evoked frustration and borderline despair. We (author, supporters, publisher, etc) knew we would recognise the cover when we saw it, but seeing it proved to be elusive.

But what we were looking for had been right under our noses all the time. It was lodged in my own digital photo album.    

I find the photo irresistible and so do others. The novelty, gentle humour, charm, and everydayness of the scene clearly pressed emotional buttons. Kids attract anyway, but kids having fun has additional appeal.

The scene also has authenticity. The children were not only connecting with nature as a once-off experience. They have parents who take them outdoors regularly. As a result, both are on the road to nature connectedness – to having a deep and valuable relationship with nature.

The ‘bucket baby’ is very likely at the first stage of the journey, the ‘liking enjoying nature’ stage, which emerges during infancy and toddlerhood.

In this stage, the child becomes:

• at ease and secure in natural places

• comfortable with the sensations and elements of nature, such as dirt, water, sand, mud, rain, sun and vegetation

 • curious about the natural world.

Her brother is probably into the second, the ‘learning about nature’ stage, which mainly develops between the ages of two and five. In this stage, the child:

• learns where and how to play in natural spaces

• displays increasing knowledge about the natural environment

• forms attachments to a natural place or places

• builds memories about nature experiences.

Both these youngsters are on track to reach the ‘looking after nature’ stage, the last stage in the development of nature connectedness. The appearance of this stage roughly coincides with the elementary or primary school years. In this stage, the child:

• relates to nature with empathy and concern

• feels a sense of oneness with nature

• values nature and wants to take care of the environment.

A point I make in the book is that there is joy to be had in watching children progress through these three stages, the three ‘Ls’, as I call them. One of the best things we can do for our children is to lead them to a connection with nature.

A new direction

My blog is 10 years old. In that time, I have written 146 posts (147 with this one), almost all about the good things nature does for us. My aim has been to share what I have discovered about our relationship with nature and what it means for our lives and our understanding of ourselves.

The WordPress data about the posts, tell me that:

  • Currently, I have 112 followers (greetings and thanks to you all).
  • My posts attract an average of 2,065 views and 920 visitors (many returning ones I suspect) annually.
  • In the four peak blog post years, these figures exceeded 2,500 and 1,300.
  • The Home/archive page is the most visited part of the site.
  • Most posts attracted a handful of views, some excited a short-lived burst of attention and about 14% remained ‘popular’ over time.

These popular posts include:

‘What is it about waterfalls?’ (June 11, 2015)

The campfire connection with nature’ (June 10, 2014)

Body and soil are one: shun to bul ee’ (Jan 15, 2016)

Is risky outdoor play good or bad for children?’  (Sept 25, 2015)

It’s no good asking me what characterises a ‘popular’ post. I have tried but I cannot identify a single defining or characteristic feature.

Has writing the blog been worth the effort and time? I have no way of knowing whether anyone benefited from reading the posts. Overall, they attracted 207 valued and appreciated comments, but too few to convey anything about the impact of the posts overall.

I am confident that the person who most benefited from the blog is me. Writing the posts gave added point to my retirement project – keeping abreast of the science relating to nature’s effects on human happiness, wellbeing and health. It also challenged me to think deeply about what I was learning. Above all, it required me to work hard on my writing skills.

It was almost inevitable, I guess, that the idea of writing a book about nature and the human condition occurred to me. The idea gained impetus as I came to appreciate just how enormously valuable a connection with nature – especially a close one – is for us individually, for our loved ones, for our community and for the natural environment.

This appreciation morphed into a message that I feel compelled to share. It is that message that lies at the heart of the book, which I recently completed and is about to be published, Connect with Nature: One of the Best Things You Can Do for Yourself, Others and Planet Earth.

I’ll say more about the book in a subsequent post. In the meantime, click here to view a brief YouTube introduction to the book.

The book promises readers that it will be updated via this blog. Adapting the blog for this purpose requires the change of direction referred to in the title of this post.

I anticipate that this change will see posts appearing regularly, probably monthly but maybe more frequently. The posts will usually contain material that supplements and updates the contents of the book. This material will mainly be (non-technical) research digests, reports of people’s nature experiences, book reviews and extensions of my own published thoughts. Occasionally, the posts will return to topics that have attracted most interest in the past (about waterfalls and campfires, for example).

My hope is that the blog will continue to be of interest and value beyond its service to book. If you have any ideas or suggestions about this, I would love to hear them – via a comment on this post or an email message to ourgreengenes@gmail.com.

President Bill Clinton said that there were two kinds of people—those that have seen the Taj Mahal and those that haven’t. I suspect he was highlighting the stunning beauty of the place rather than suggesting that people who have seen it are a breed apart.

But I came away from my visit to the Taj a changed person, if not actually a different one. Seeing the magnificent monument gave me a transforming emotional experience. I was awed.

Awe is a “goose-bumpy” feeling we get in the face of something that vastly exceeds our expectations – something that challenges our understandings or images and theories of how things are or of what is possible. Conscious and unconscious expectation shape almost all of our behaviour. We do not respond to the world that is, but the world as we expect and predict it to be. Our brains have evolved to work this way to avoid being overwhelmed by the ‘real’ world’s detail, complexity and pace of change.

Our brains have also evolved to adjust our mental ‘models of the world when these provide faulty or inadequate expectations and predictions. Awe is one of processes or mechanisms our brains use to do this.      

Lying as it does in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear, awe is an experience that is intense, transcendent and mind-boggling and not one we are likely to have every day.

Perhaps because it is a relatively rare and sometimes mystical experience, awe was ignored by science until the beginning of the 21st century. Psychology professors, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, changed that by identifying the features of awe that set it apart from other positive emotions, such as wonder, happiness and amusement. Awe, they point out, is experienced when we perceive that we are in the presence of or vastness (or immense ‘goodness’) – in the presence of something that both defies our current understandings and imaginings and humbles us. The actual or measured scale of the vastness is not what matters; it is how it seems to us that is important. If vastness is perceived, then vast it is, regardless of whether the vastness relates to physical size or another dimension such as force, power, achievement, leadership, altruism, heroism and, of course, beauty in all its natural and created forms. Vastness, like beauty, is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. If you perceivevastness, then the vastness is real for you.

The perception of vastness is one of two aspects of awe that set it apart from wonder and other emotions. The second aspect is the need to come up with a new theory or mental model to make sense of what we are experiencing. This is the need for accommodation. Simply refining or adjusting theories to embrace new information or facts is not enough.

I learned this from another of my experiences of awe, one that occurred at the end of a long day of trekking in Nepal. I arrived at a small saddle, the final hurdle of the day, and there in front of me was the immense eastern face of Mt Dhaulagiri rising the best part of 6000 metres from the valley of the Kali Gandaki River. I was overwhelmed and I remember exclaiming, It can’t be true!. Time stopped for me as I was totally caught up in the scene. I sensed immensity beyond the scene itself, something to which I was connected in the core of my being and something that I had to acknowledge in my understanding of the cosmos. I felt humbled and deeply conscious of my “smallness” and relative insignificance. My self-understanding was not simply refined; it was given a new dimension. I came away from the experience with a new concept or mental model of myself and my place in the cosmos.  I have no idea how long I remained there, utterly transfixed (I can still get goose bumps recalling it). When I finally made my way to the camp, I had completely forgotten my fatigue and my mood had lifted. Somehow the world seemed a better place.

Awe is often spoken of in the same breath as wonder, but the two are different (contrary to what dictionaries may indicate). They are alike in one important respect, however; both originate in amazement. Amazement works in both awe and wonder to arouse our interest, curiosity and desire to explain the unexpected, and to adjust our knowledge accordingly. The energy for this work comes from the powerful drive in all of us to resolve uncertainty. While uncertainty in small measure can be stimulating, exciting and even thrilling, in larger measure it can be very stressful. That is why our brains are programmed to seek the comfort of certainty. Awe and wonder serve this purpose by stirring us to “fix” our knowledge so that the unexpected is explained and certainty is restored. Along with love, the need to resolve uncertainty makes the world go round.

Awe is called a positive emotion for good reason. The strong feelings of pleasure that accompany it arise from activity in the brain’s reward or dopamine pathway. Even a brief experience of awe is noticeably mood-lifting and likely to leave a positive after-glow that makes the world seem, for a short time at least, more interesting and attractive.

Awe is arguably the most potent of the positive emotions. It stimulates the mind and spirit in ways unmatched by any other emotion. A healthier and more wholesome way of achieving a restorative high is hard to imagine.

The difference between awe and other positive emotions such as aesthetic pleasure, happiness and amusement can actually be observed. The genuine (Duchenne) smile that is a feature of these other emotions rarely appears with awe. The typical outward signs of awe are raised inner eyebrows, a bright-eyed stare, an open mouth, a slight forward jutting of the head and an inhalation of breath. These signs all indicate heightened attention, alertness and mental arousal – just what a larger-than-life encounter would be expected to evoke.

Awe adds so much to life that it is hard to imagine existing without it. But there is a mystery: how and why did awe come to such an important part of our emotional repertoire? How did it serve the survival needs of our species?

No one knows for certain, but scientists have suggested that awe helped our species survive in two ways:

  • making us smarter by sharpening our ability and motivation to seek knowledge and understanding (and so limit the burden of uncertainty) and
  • making us more caring by inclining us to be empathetic, generous and co-operative and better equipped to foster cohesive communal life

There is a good case for both suggestions. Awe makes us smarter in several ways:

  • It stimulates curiosity, which supercharges learning by activating regions in the brain associated with motivation, understanding and memory.
  • It fosters the development of information gathering skills by motivating us to be thorough and analytical in evaluating information, for example.
  • It provides the building blocks of a disposition to be curious.
  • It fosters the development of interests  

Awe makes us more caring by leaving an intriguing emotional legacy – an afterglow of goodwill and selflessness. There are at least three strands to the link between awe, kindness and caring behaviour. First, the emotional lift from awe makes us feel better about ourselves. You have probably noticed yourself that when you are in a good mood, you are friendlier and more open and accepting of others. Second, awe has the effect of absorbing us into the present moment and diminishing our awareness of the passing of time. As a result, we perceive that we have more time available for others as well as ourselves. This lifting of time pressure enables us to be more generous in providing for the rights, needs and concerns of others. Third, by shrinking us down to size, awe enables us to see ourselves more objectively and realistically in relation to others. This, in turn, helps us to identify with other people, to see the world more from their point of view, and to empathise with them.

Awe is an emotion that contributes to the greater good as well as to individual well-being. As awe makes us happier, it makes us kinder, which leads to a win-win situation – a win for us and a win for others. It is no accident that the study of awe is given high priority at the Greater Good Science Centre within the University of California, Berkeley.

Recently, I had an experience that was memorable, but like many I have had before. Despite COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, my wife, Margaret, and I were able to go for a walk in a nearby coastal national park. We were on a mission—to follow a friend’s urging to see a display of flannel flowers. These are large multi-petalled white flowers that grow in profusion a year or so after a bushfire.

Just as we had been told, we found masses of the flowers everywhere in the coastal heath. They looked especially stunning when viewed against the azure blue background of the Pacific Ocean and cloudless sky.

Photo by Stephen Gibson

We walked with no sense of effort, utterly absorbed in the landscape. Pleasure accompanied every step, sometimes with a sense of intense joy. ‘It almost makes me want to cry’, Margaret remarked at one point. When it came time to turn back, we did so reluctantly.

Little was said during the walk but afterwards we talked animatedly about the experience and its effects on us. We also enjoyed reliving the walk by viewing the photos I had taken and by telling others about it.

We came away from the experience with an emotional ‘high’ or ‘glow’. We felt revitalised as well as happy. Immersion is the ‘goodness’ of natural beauty had lifted our spirits and, for a time at least, made the world seem a better place. 

The flannel flowers and their setting had given us a sustained dose of the beauty buzz, otherwise known as aesthetic pleasure. I talked briefly about the aesthetic pleasure in my last post, but there is more I would like to share.

Aesthetic pleasure is triggered by beauty in any form, and beauty, we are told, ‘is in the eye of the beholder’. Strictly speaking, it is in the beholder’s brain. Natural beauty (or beauty of any kind) is not something we encounter or discover. Natural beauty is not actually in nature waiting to be observed. Rather, beauty is behind our eyes in our brain; it is a quality that our brain “gives” to things. The beauty of a flower, a sunset, a mountain panorama or anything else exists totally in the activity of brain cells. Beauty is not a thing we find, but a response we make. And the fact that there is such a response and that we can appreciate beauty at all is one of the most intriguing and amazing features of our brains.

But it is not a special or unique feature. The human brain is always putting its own spin on the information it receives. It does not register the world exactly as it is but creates a story about it. This is not the brain being tricky. It works this way to cope with the millions of bits of information it receives every second. It registers what information it can and fills in the gaps by drawing on expectations to ‘guess’ and predict what is and what will be.

Margaret and I, for example, started our walk with subconscious expectations about flannel flowers formed from our many past encounters with them. We had an idea (‘schema’) or expectation in our minds of how flannel flowers occur in the wild. But we encountered something surprisingly different, not distressingly so, but delightfully—indeed beautifully—different.     

Surprising as it may seem, surprise is integral to the beauty buzz. Broadly speaking, beauty is an interesting and appealing departure from the usual, normal and expected. It is a quality that our brains give to the ‘extra-ordinary’. When the extraordinary is associated with a sense of vastness, the emotion evoked is wonder or awe; and if the extraordinary is too extreme, anxiety and fear result.

Rewarding ‘feel-good’ emotions are also integral to the beauty buzz. The ‘buzz’ is delivered by the brain’s reward system. The structures in this system produce dopamine, a chemical which generates feelings ranging from gentle pleasure to euphoria. That is why the beauty buzz is something we want to experience again and again. Margaret and I might have said we went on our walk to see the flannel flowers, but our real mission was to enjoy the beauty buzz.

We expected to get the buzz because we have memories of other pleasurable encounters with flannel flowers. The reward system includes structures responsible for memory and learning. The involvement of those structures means that the beauty buzz motivates us to learn about and to remember the circumstances that provided the experience. In other words, the beauty buzz fosters learning.

It also stirs us into activity, especially activity that engages us more closely with whatever it is we are experiencing as beautiful. That is why my wife and I had no trouble surrendering our attention to the flowers and walking on and on to see more of them. That is why the beauty buzz is described as a ‘get-up-and-go emotion’ as well as a rewarding one.  

Why do we have a system in our brains that enables us to perceive beauty, to feel rewarded when we do, and moves us to stay with the experience to learn more about it?  The answer, quite simply, is that without it, humanity would not have survived. For the first members of our species, the ability to experience aesthetic pleasure was indispensable. It helped our ancient forebears identify what was good for them in the natural world and what could cause them harm. Their brains had evolved to associate beauty with beneficial and hospitable aspects of the natural environment, such as water, food bearing plants and hunter-friendly woodlands, and to regard as unattractive features and objects like dense vegetation and putrefying carcasses, that should be avoided or destroyed.

Just as we do, our earliest ancestors found panoramic views especially engaging and useful. For them, panoramas combined beauty with opportunities to gather important survival information about safe routes to follow, the presence of danger and the availability of food, water and shelter.

Not only does the beauty buzz motivate us to connect with nature it also opens our minds and hearts to other people. I have often noticed that a good dose of natural beauty leaves me seeing the world in a better light and feeling friendlier and more empathic towards others. Philosophers Simone Weil and Elaine Scarry claim that people experience a de-centring of the self when viewing something beautiful. In a similar vein, the novelist, Iris Murdock, said that beauty leads to what she called unselfing, the process of transcending self-interest to become kinder and more generous. These views are supported by neurological evidence. Encounters with beauty activate brain regions associated with empathy, considerateness, compassion, openness, trust and other positive social responses.

A team of psychologists from the University of California at Berkley led by Jai Wei Zhang have investigated the link between the beauty buzz and kindness experimentally. Zhang and his team reasoned that if beauty can shift perspectives away from the self and towards others, then the greater the beauty the more the shift. A well designed set of studies confirmed their prediction. A bigger dose of beauty did make people more generous, trusting and helpful, especially if they were already sensitive to natural beauty. 

Zhang and his team drew this encouraging conclusion from their findings: 

  Human civilization has had a profound and ancient relationship with the natural world. In this research, we asked the question, does nature help promote the greater good? Our studies reveal that it does.

This is the sixth and last in a series of posts spotlighting nature-connectedness. The take-away messages from the earlier posts in the series are:

  • Being nature connected, is a pathway to happiness, well-being and health—among the most important things we could desire.
  • More than something to be desired, the relationship is a basic psychological need.
  • The need is accompanied by an innate disposition and ability to connect with nature.
  • Meeting this need is easy because it is something that is ‘natural’ for us to do.
  • As there are many nature activities to choose from, virtually everyone can find ways of connecting with nature that suits them.

I addressed some of the practicalities of choosing nature activities in my last post, where I emphasised the importance of contacting nature regularly.

Physically ‘doing’ nature activities is obviously essential to becoming nature connected, but it is not enough.  A person might walk along tree-lined streets, past gardens or in a park every day, for example, oblivious to the nature on display. They would be contacting nature physically, but not psychologically. They would not be engaging with the natural environment in a way that leads to nature connectedness.

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby in the UK found that people connect with nature more rapidly and deeply when they interact with the natural world by stopping, pausing and engaging with it deliberately and mindfully.

Stopping and pausing provides time for nature to be noticed. We can be surrounded by nature but pay it little attention. Under some circumstances that is understandable and appropriate. When catching up with a friend in a park, for example, chatting might be more important than communing with the surrounding flowers and greenery. But to get the most from our nature activities, we must use them to connect with nature in mind, heart and spirit.

The Nature Connectedness Research Group have identified five practices or actions that create this kind of engagement: ‘seek and savour beauty’; ‘stimulate your senses’; ‘notice your feelings’; ‘discover what nature means to other people’; and ‘care for nature in thought and action’.

Seek and savour beauty

This is the easiest and one of the most effective practices for cultivating nature connectedness. We possess an astonishing ability to find beauty in almost all forms of nature, including representations of it in pictures and photographs. Natural beauty (and beauty of every kind) is mainly experienced as aesthetic pleasure or the ‘beauty buzz’. This feel-good and powerful emotion ranges from a warm glow to heady euphoria. Aesthetic pleasure heightens awareness, sparks curiosity, stimulates inquiry and inspires creativity. It can also foster empathy, friendliness and kindness.

Photo by Wendy Moore

Aesthetic pleasure is a highly rewarding emotion. To experience it is to leave us wanting more. We are attracted to beauty and beautiful things for that reason. We are drawn to nature largely (but by no means exclusively) because it is full of beauty.

Beauty is everywhere in nature. Much of it cannot be missed; it ‘hits you in the eye’ so to speak. But there is much beauty that is easily overlooked in the natural world’s complexity.

So be prepared to look in and under, to watch and wait, to seek, explore and investigate. You may find that the simple undertaking of looking for ‘three good things in nature’ every day is a helpful way to start. Bear in mind that natural beauty is where you find it and not always where you expect it to be. As we tend to underestimate the pleasure of nature experiences, seek nature’s beauty expectantly, with an open mind and with a readiness to be surprised.         

Natural beauty is to be savoured by dwelling in the experience, discovering more about it and then processing it. Dwelling is essentially increasing the impact of the experience by staying with it, ignoring distractions and noticing your feelings. Discovering more about the experience requires attending mindfully and purposefully. Aesthetic pleasure prompts us to do this. Processing the experience involves re-living it in some way. You might talk about it with a friend, for example, write about it in a diary or journal, capture it artistically or record it photographically.

Seeking beauty increases our chances of experiencing awe, an emotion that more than any other binds us to nature. Awe is a ‘goose-bumpy’ feeling we get when we perceive that we are in the presence of vastness—in the presence of something that is both beyond our current understandings and imaginings and dwarfs us physically and/or psychologically. Awe draws us out of ourselves and immerses us in our surroundings and the wider world (which may help explain its tendency to inspire generosity  and a sense of connection with others).

Stimulate your senses

Photo by Ross Norrie

This practice is about making full use of your senses to absorb the sights, sounds, silence, scents, textures and tastes of the natural world. It is about getting to know the fabric of nature first-hand and intimately.

We are programmed to pay attention to nature. Our attention is captured ‘automatically’ by the natural world—by its naturalness, aliveness, complexity and novelty. Nature is unequalled in its capacity to hold us in its spell or to fascinate us. But even nature’s allure can lose out to distractions. It is especially vulnerable to conversation, troubling thoughts and intrusive sounds. We need to be aware of this vulnerability and do all we can not to fall victim to it.

Try, for example, to have times free of chat and mobile phone intrusions during nature activities. Consider as well having a quiet time before an activity, a short breathing-focussed meditation perhaps, to get your mind in the right space.

Photo by Wendy Moore

It is also worth taking time to pay attention purposefully—by making a point of observing nature close-up, for example, or giving yourself mini-projects, such as looking for patterns on the bark of trees or noticing the different shapes and colours of leaves. You might also try selecting just one sound to listen to or a single object or landscape feature to explore with your senses. You could also try observing the natural world as if you are an artist, photographer, composer or poet. Consider following Rachel Carson’s advice to attend to nature as if it were your last opportunity to do so. 

Notice your feelings

Noticing your feelings is an especially important way of engaging with nature.

You do this by paying attention to your emotions, identifying them and registering how they are playing out in your body as well as your mind. It also involves thinking about the effects the emotions may be having on your happiness and moods.

The emotions that you can expect on your nature connectedness journey will mainly be positive ones such as pleasure, joy, happiness, awe, wonder, excitement, exhilaration, peacefulness and tranquillity. You are also likely to experience gratitude, empathy, love and humility. A few negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety and disgust, may find their way into the mix. But this is OK. A mature and resilient relationship with nature requires an appreciation of nature’s ‘darker’ side. Just as our friends are friends, ‘warts and all’, we need to relate to nature in the same terms.

Discover what nature means to other people

Others can’t connect us with nature. Even so, our own nature connectedness journey can be enriched, guided and inspired by other people’s nature experiences, especially those that are captured in photographs, paintings, poetry and other forms of writing. The practice of discovering what nature means to other people is a way of experiencing nature indirectly. While not as powerful as experiencing nature first-hand, this indirect way of accessing nature is beneficial in surprising ways. Viewing nature photographs, for example, can reduce stress and promote recovery from mental fatigue.

Care for nature in thought and action.

Caring actions foster closeness between the carer and the cared for. Any keen gardener will tell you this as will people actively involved in hands-on conservation projects such as those organised by Landcare and Conservation Volunteers Australia. A caring space is an intimate space, one of understanding and unity. It is also a moral and ethical space. To share this space with the natural world is to share a distinctive and enduring closeness that fosters affection, respect, empathy and concern. And if there was a time that needed this closeness between humanity and nature, it is now—a theme I’ll explore in a following post.

If you have found this post helpful, please feel free to share it. It just may provide the help and encouragement that a COVID-weary friend or family member is seeking.   

Doing what comes naturally

Pre-baby boomers like me will remember the 1940s musical, Annie Get Your Gun and a song from the show, Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly. The song was slightly risqué for its time, comprising such verses as:

Cousin Nell can’t add or spell

But she left school with honours

She got every known degree;

followed by the chorus:

Doin’ what comes natur’lly

Doin’ what comes natur’lly.

I sometimes recall this song when I am thinking about connecting with nature, which is certainly something that is ‘natural’ for us to do. In the presence of nature, we respond ‘instinctively’ and intuitively. We are not taught to experience the beauty of a bunch of flowers, for example, the awesomeness of a towering tree, the wonder of a coral reef or the serenity of a mountain lake. Nor have we learned to find a forest relaxing, or the view of indoor plants restful or an encounter with a ‘cuddly’ or friendly animal disarming and heartwarming. We just do.  

That is one reason why connecting with nature is easy. We have been programmed by evolution to seek it and to be rewarded for doing so.

A second reason is that nature is easy to find. It is virtually all around us. Some people mistakenly believe that nature is distant—always outdoors, often remote and sometimes alien. But nature can be in and around our homes and in our neighbourhood and suburb. It can be as close as the plants in your living room or on your balcony or patio, for example.

What’s more, we do not have to experience nature directly to enjoy its pleasures and benefits. Artworks and photos inspired by nature can stir the same emotions as the real thing, not as powerfully perhaps but just as genuinely. The same is true for other things that evoke a sense of the natural world, particularly natural materials, colours, forms, shapes, patterns and textures.

The fact that nature can be brought into homes, workplaces and urban spaces has led to the ‘biophilic design’ movement in architecture, urban planning and interior decorating. The movement is based on principles that represent the elements of nature to which we are most responsive, such as:

  • natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity
  • natural ventilation
  • plant and animal life
  • nature’s rhythms and cycles
  • naturally occurring still and moving water
  • beautiful vegetation and awesome scenery
  • places of calm, restoration and tranquillity

The biophilic design principles provide practical guidelines we can all use to bring nature into our lives. I have devised a Connecting with nature planning aid based on the principles. The ‘aid’ consists of 12 questions, including: 

  • How can I experience natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity?
  • How can I experience plant and animal life along with nature’s rhythms and cycles?
  • How can I experience open and moving water?
  • How can I experience the sights, sounds, textures, tastes and scents of nature?

Here are a couple of illustrations of how the aid could work for you.

In answer to the first question, you might think of adopting such practices as:

  • adjusting curtains, blinds, doors and shutters to admit as much natural light as possible
  • softening domestic lighting in the hour before bedtime
  • taking short walks in the early morning sunlight and again during twilight

Actions for the longer term that might come to mind include replacing solid doors with glass ones, installing a skylight or creating an outdoor fireplace or fire pit (to increase exposure to light at the red end of the spectrum).    

The second question might lead you to identify such actions as:

  • having a house, patio and/or balcony garden
  • decorating living and work areas with indoor plants
  • installing a fish tank
  • placing nature pictures or posters on your desk and walls
  • listening to birdsong CDs and DVDs, e.g., ‘A Morning in the Australian Bush’, ‘Favourite Australian Birdsong’, ‘Nature Walks – In the Forest’
  • walking regularly to look at neighbourhood gardens

Among the more distant options you might choose are spending time in local parks, bushwalking, community gardening, taking part in environmental protection programs, going on a wildlife safari, and regularly visiting scenic attractions, zoos and aquaria.

You can find the full version of the Connecting with nature planning aid in my forthcoming book, Connect with Nature: One of the Best Things You Can Do for Yourself, Others and Planet Earth.

When choosing green activities, it is useful to find out about the nature that is in and around your locality. You could start with a search of maps of your district and then do some exploring by car, bicycle or on foot. Your local council is almost certain to have information about parks and gardens and community green activities, such as Landcare. If you find places close (within a kilometre) to home, so much the better, but don’t disregard places that are further afield. You could consider visiting those weekly or monthly, maybe to add some ‘green’ variety to your walking, jogging or cycling program. Visitor or tourist information centres in your town or city could also be helpful. If there are popular outdoor recreation areas available to you, information about these could be on the Internet or in walking guidebooks and local publications.

As you may have gathered, activities for connecting with nature (or ‘green’ activities) are many and varied. You will find more than a hundred (for infants, children and adolescents as well as adults) listed in my book. There are activities for virtually everyone. This is another reason why connecting with nature is easy; we can all do it in ways that suits our individual preferences, needs, capabilities and circumstances.   

Many green activities occupy only a few minutes; some require much longer. So, you could find yourself choosing several short activities, a handful of longer ones or a combination of the two. The time spent in nature activities is important. A forest walk of 30 minutes, for example, is more likely to reduce stress than one of, say, 10 minutes. A rough rule of thumb is to devote 120 minutes per week to nature activities. But it is worth remembering that the quality of our engagement with nature is as important as its duration—possibly more so.  

In saying that connecting with nature is easy, I am aware that modern life throws up barriers and impediments to having quality time in nature—work demands, family responsibilities and the allure of social media and electronic entertainment, for example.

While many of the obstacles to connecting with nature are genuine, others are mostly in our minds. Some people are put off spending time in natural settings by misconceptions about what nature is and what nature activities involve. The mistaken belief that nature exists only in rural regions, national parks and wilderness areas, for example, rules out many green activities that can be done at home, in urban neighbourhoods and by travelling short distances to parks, public gardens and bushland reserves.

Another off-putting belief is that natural environments are typically uncomfortable and unsafe places. Misadventures in nature do occur but they are usually not as serious or as dramatic as reported in the news. The truth is that green activities lie at every point along the spectrum from easy, comfortable and virtually risk-free to arduous and hazardous. Even activities nearer the extreme end of the spectrum do not necessarily involve danger and hardship.

But if you have feelings of unease and uncertainty about natural environments, ‘wilder’ ones especially, don’t be deterred. Start your nature connectedness journey anyway with activities and in places that sit securely in your comfort zone. 

Another of the mental barriers to seeking happiness and well-being in nature stems from the culture of ‘busyness’ that can emerge in modern societies. Not only do we live crowded lifestyles, but we are coming to accept that this is as it should be, that being busy is normal and expected. My late friend, writer, inventor and artist Tory Hughes alerted me to how damaging this culture is for nature connectedness.  I asked her why people were retreating from nature and missing out on so much pleasure, happiness, personal fulfilment and friendship as a result. According to Tory, it is because people have difficulty giving themselves permission to do otherwise. Real and perceived work, social and family obligations, she said, are getting in the way of doing things that really matter to us.

Tory’s observation prompted me to compose my own connecting with nature permission statement. This is the result:

 I give myself permission to:

  • acknowledge my need for nature and to give priority to meeting that need
  • work less and play more in natural environments (especially with my family and friends)
  • find interest, emotional stimulation and inspiration in nature
  • spend more leisure time with others in natural settings, and
  • seek pleasure and happiness by connecting with nature.

Why not do something similar for yourself? Remember that to have a connection with nature is your birthright, part of your genetic inheritance and part of what being a human means. Make the promise to yourself, and act on it sooner rather than later.

Thank you for visiting.

This is the fourth post in a series on my pet subject, nature connectedness. I said in the previous post that we need to be nature-connected if we are to live well and to flourish. We have this need even though most of us live in cities and towns. It is a need that was obviously relevant to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They lived intimately with nature in savannah woodlands, forests and other natural or wild habitats. Our urban habitats are very different, so why is the need still part of our make-up?

The reason, quite simply, is that we and our ancestors are from the same genetic mould. As a result, we are as they were. Our bodies are the same as theirs and, more importantly, our brains are no different from theirs. Evolution shaped our ancestors to survive, thrive and reproduce in natural environments; it has crafted us for the same purpose. We may be making a fair fist of living in towns and cities, but that is not because we have evolved to do so. It is because we have brains that are very good at learning, thinking and creating. We may have relocated from the savannah to suburbia, but our genes have not had time to catch up with this radical change of address. We ‘modern’ humans are still a ‘wild species’, as Charles Darwin said.

Just like our ancestors, we are drawn to nature. We are born with a disposition to find nature interesting and attractive. Our babies soon display an alertness to living things, preferring to look at animals rather than toys, for example. Harvard University biology professor, Edward O. Wilson (sometimes called the Charles Darwin of the 21st century), calls this disposition, ‘biophilia’.

Biophilia prompts us to connect with the natural world. Broadly speaking, it disposes us to love nature. Love or affection is certainly at its core, but other emotions such as pleasure, wonder, awe, exhilaration and excitement are involved as well. Negative emotions, particularly fear and disgust, are also in the mix – and for good reason. The negative emotions are an aspect of biophilia referred to as biophobia. This is a necessary aspect that helps us avoid natural hazards such as snakes, dark caves, heights and excrement. Biophilia encourages us to reach out to nature, while biophobia makes us vigilant and discerning in how we go about it.

Biophilia also involves abilities. Before we can be attracted to nature, we need to make sense of it, to find it meaningful. Biophilia comes with innate sensory and mental abilities that enable us to do this. There is, for example, our astonishing ability to find order, beauty and meaning in the ragged, irregular and complex shapes of nature. We do this so spontaneously and intuitively that it is easy to miss what a remarkable ability it is. It is commonly thought, for example, that beauty is in nature just waiting for us to find. The reality is different. Beauty is not ‘in’ nature but is an attribute our brains ‘give’ to natural features and phenomena. Our brains associate beauty with the things of nature that are good for us (and, correspondingly, ‘ugliness’ with what could be harmful).

Our ability to detect more than a million shades of the colours blue, green and red is another example of the way our senses and brains have evolved to cope with the bewildering complexity of nature. This ability makes detecting fruit, nuts and other foods in the greenery of vegetation a whole lot easier. And then there is our inbuilt snake detection system. We are not born with a fear of snakes but with a strong inclination to pay them close attention. This increases our readiness to learn from others how to respond to them. (This may also be the case for some other creatures, spiders for example.) The innate survival abilities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are still with us. They are coded in our genes—our green genes, as I like to call them (hence the title of my blog, ‘Our green genes’).

But as a disposition, rather than a hard-wired instinct, biophilia doesn’t compel us to bond with nature. It is a ‘fragile trait’, says Wilson, by which he means that it must be nurtured by being ‘used’. If its promptings are ignored, it is likely to ‘switch off’. But even switched off, it remains a very important part of who we are, part of our biology, part of our genetic blueprint.

Biophilia gave our nature-dwelling ancestors the affinity or ‘oneness’ with nature on which they built their success as hunters, gatherers, naturalists, nomads, and explorers. This affinity ensured that they would learn about the natural world and how to make it their home. Biophilia also enabled them to draw from nature the stimulation and inspiration for much of their art, dance, music and spiritual beliefs and practices. Living illustrations of this can still be seen in long-surviving indigenous cultures like those of Australia’s First Nations peoples. Without biophilia, our human ancestors would have found surviving in the wild extremely difficult and developing rich and diverse cultures even more so.

Biophilia and the need for a connection with nature are two sides of the same coin. They both feed off, and serve one another. The need for nature connectedness drives biophilia; it ‘energises’ our endeavours to engage with nature. For its part, biophilia prompts us to behave in ways that meet our need for a close relationship with nature.    

The fact that we are ‘biophilic beings’ with a need for a connection with nature requires us to broaden our understanding and appreciation of what it is to be human. As most of us live, work, socialise and play in urban environments, there is great pressure on us to let ourselves be defined strictly as urban creatures. That is a pressure we must resist because it leads to a seriously incomplete picture of who we are and what we can be. We must also see ourselves as creatures of the natural world.

With this view of ourselves, we cannot regard hunter-gatherer cultures, past and present, as primitive and ‘inferior’. The biophilic abilities responsible for the success of hunter-gatherers in their ‘wild’ world are the same as those that put a man on the moon. If we look hard enough and with open minds, we will see all the elements of the hunter-gather lifestyle expressed in our own. We may have largely ‘domesticated’ our hunting and gathering but hunter-gatherers we remain. We may have removed the need to hunt for animals in the wild by corralling them on farms and ranches, for example, but the end point is still the same. The same is true for gathering, only it is now called harvesting. We may think that scientific inquiry, technological innovation, and creative expression are the exclusive hallmarks of modern humanity. How wrong we would be. Humans have always been creators of knowledge, the inventors of tools and tellers of stories in word, song and art. The human brain’s extraordinary capacity to learn, investigate, think and create was resident in our ancient forbears no less than it resides in us.

Ju/’hoansi Bushmen

Our brains have at their disposal remarkable advances in human knowledge, technology and culture. These advances have extended the range, power and impact of human capabilities, but they have not yet modified the anatomy and functioning of our brains. These are still the brains of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The knowledge, technology and cultural ‘tools’ available to us may have amplified the power and reach of our brains—made us hunter-gatherers on steroids, you might say—but they have not changed the essence of our humanity.

Nor have these tools changed our inherent kinship with the natural world. As a species, we were, are and always will be indissociably part of that world. We cannot disregard this relationship if we are to understand fully who we are and what we are meant to be. In Stephen Kellert’s words, ‘We will never be truly healthy, satisfied, or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment from which we evolved’. For this reason, I think of connecting with nature as a mental, emotional and spiritual homecoming.      

Also, for this reason, I am challenged to re-think what we ‘modernised’ humans need to learn from people who remain repositories of hunter-gatherer insights, values and wisdom. I am particularly conscious of what these people, typically members of Indigenous or First Nations societies, have to teach us about nature connectedness. The culture of Australia’s Indigenous people, for example, is founded on the belief that people and nature are created as one. Indigenous Australians feel a profound connection with nature or ‘country’. This kinship is fundamental to their identity and entire way of life. They have a holistic engagement with a physical place that is both real and symbolic. For them, all living things are interdependent so that there can be no separation of person and country, no separation of culture and nature. Variations of the same Earth-centred wisdom are taught and practised in many other indigenous cultures.

An important part of connecting with nature is tapping into this wisdom and respecting its source. It is high time that we seek to understand Indigenous people’s cultures in their own terms and not from the standpoint of colonisers. The difference between Indigenous and other people has nothing to do with evolution or levels of development. Every culture has been and always will be shaped by the world it occupies.