I was delighted to discover that not far from my suburban home there is a healthy colony of koalas, the cuddly marsupials that are among Australia’s most photogenic but endangered animals. This image of a mother koala and her young was taken by the renowned nature photographer and author, Joel Sartore.

Joel Sartore has set out to photograph every species of animal currently housed in the world’s zoos. With portraits of over 10,000 species already taken, he is well on the way to completing his 25-year project, Photo Ark. His driving quest is to create a photo archive of global diversity with the hope that his portraits will stir in people a deep empathy with animals and an active desire to protect them from extinction.

He is undertaking the project against the background of the calamitous species loss almost everywhere on Earth. It has been estimated that unless massive remedial action is taken, half the animal species currently inhabiting the planet, including koalas, will be gone by the end of the century.

Sartore’s portraits are both beautiful and moving. He tries to take his shots with the animal looking directly into the lens, so creating the impression that the animal is making eye contact and forming a connection with the viewer.

While we are genetically programmed to pay attention to animals, we are more attracted to, and more empathic with, species that have similar features and/or behaviours to us (the ‘similarity principle’).

There are many physical and behavioural differences separating our species from others, but the main features of the human face (especially the eyes) have their counterparts in mammals, birds and other members of the animal kingdom. By focussing on the faces of his animal subjects, Sartore is making use of the similarity principle.

There is still much to learn about the specific attributes that attract us to animals. Beautiful form, colour and movement are obvious candidates. Superior size, strength and physical skill relative to ourselves are others. But arguably the strongest candidates are those features that contribute to the ‘cuteness’ factor.

Cuteness is thought to be bound up with the ‘baby schema’, a set of features including large head, round face, high forehead, large eyes and small nose and mouth. In combination, these features automatically trigger bonding, nurturing, protective and empathic behaviour in both adults and children. Animals displaying these features, are the ones most likely to be patted, cuddled, protected and chosen as pets.

To be a member of a popular species is to be a ‘charismatic’ animal and more likely to receive favourable attention and conservation funding. As my blogging colleague, Josh Goss, remarked in one of his recent posts, this is not a bad thing even though some of the most charismatic animals are apex predators and potentially dangerous to humans, wolves and bears for example. Such predators typically play a vital role in their ecosystems. For that reason alone, protecting them makes good ecological sense.   

But ‘uncharismatic’ creatures warrant our protection just as much, says Josh, because they are also integral to the well-being of their ecosystems. In his post, Josh refers to a bill, currently before the United States legislature, that would explicitly protect certain ugly and uncharismatic species, including the mucous covered hellbender salamander or ‘snot otter’ (pictured).     

It is telling that laws need to be passed to protect species from the potential shallowness of human regard. The grim fact is that we humans struggle to see other species as beings – as alive as we are, occupying an integral place in the web of life as we do, capable of relationships as we are, and linked, like us, with every other life form in one unfolding whole.    

When another creature is regarded as a being, we relate to it as we would to another person, or as a ‘you’. We embrace the creature in ‘I-you’ terms, much as we would a friend or a pet, for example. In contrast, if the creature is viewed as an object, we are relating to it as an ‘it’. Instead of a personal ‘I-you’ bond, we have an impersonal ‘I-it’ connection of the kind we might have with material objects in our environment. The sad history of humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world signals that humans commonly and inappropriately relate to other life forms as objects rather than beings.

The distinction between the I-it and I-you (or thou) modes of connection with others was first proposed by the Jewish theologian/philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965). In the I-it mode, says Buber, we experience the other but in the I-you mode we have an encounter. In experience, the ‘other’ is viewed as a thing or object to be used, known or put to some purpose. We see it as a collection of impersonal qualities and quantities. But in encounter, we form a relationship with the ‘other’. We join with the other; we give to the other; we share with the other; we feel with the other; we participate with the other; we value and respect the other. 

Buber proposes that many of the problems, crises and dysfunctional situations facing humanity today arise because I-it connections (experience) are dominating or excluding more valid or appropriate I-you relationships (encounter). I-it connections are not necessarily or intrinsically bad, far from it. They are vital to our survival as human beings. Through them we learn how the world works and how we can make it work better for us. But as Buber observed, I-it modes of connecting dominate and undermine the quality of modern life. We live in a world of its, he says, where it is easy to feel alienated and lonely and where our well-being is jeopardised.

The dominance of I-it connections is also detrimental to the well-being of other creatures. According to the similarity principle, we are more likely to have an I-you relationship with a (charismatic) koala and an I-it engagement with an (uncharismatic) hellbender salamander. It is a safe bet, then, that the plight of the koala (facing extinction) is more likely to attract conservation resources and efforts than the hellbender salamander (endangered in some regions).   

An aim of my book Connect with Nature is to motivate and assist people to form an I-you relationship with the natural world’s plants, animals and other life forms. Such a relationship is best formed by spending time in nature in ways that suit our individual needs, capabilities and circumstances. The book shows that there are ways of doing this for virtually everyone and that having I-you rather than I-it relationships with our fellow creatures and the environments they inhabit is enormously beneficial for them and us alike.

I am confident that Peter Wohlleben, forest ecologist and author of The Hidden Life of Trees has an I-you connection with nature. He does not relate to trees as inanimate ‘its’. He is convinced by a wealth of scientific evidence that trees are ‘living beings’ that ‘feel’, remember, communicate, co-operate and form nurturing communities. In these very important ways, trees are like us. He acknowledges that it is much easier for most of us to see animals as beings rather than objects. The ‘aliveness’ of animals is readily observed. But as Wohlleben reveals trees and indeed all plants (and fungi) have ‘hidden lives’ that are every bit as vital as our own.  

What is it about trees?

The largest and oldest living things are trees. The ecosystems made possible by trees are among the most diverse and important on the planet. Even a single tree can be an ecosystem, a home to birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, other plants, lichen and fungi.Trees also create some of nature’s most beautiful, awesome and restorative places.

But humanity’s indebtedness to trees goes way beyond the powerful and beneficial emotional experiences they provide. Our survival depends on them. Trees liberate the oxygen we breathe and play a vital role in the Earth’s water recycling system. Much of the water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from forests. Apart from supporting rainfall locally, forests also contribute massively to the ‘rivers in the sky’ that stream water vapour around the planet. And trees are, of course, crucial to the mitigation of climate change. Approximately 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels, is absorbed by forests every year.

We need trees, not only in vast tracts like the Amazon Jungle, but also in our neighbourhoods and our day-to-day lives. Trees promote health and losing them can be deadly. 

Meet a killer, the Emerald Ash Borer. This highly destructive forest pest has killed more than 100 million trees since it was first detected in the USA in 2002. In the 20 years since its appearance, the borer has made its way across numerous US states destroying both urban and forest trees. Once leafy neighbourhoods were left denuded of their trees.

This invasion created the conditions for a natural experiment to assess the impact of tree loss on people’s health. A team of researchers led by Dr Geoffrey Donovan, gathered health data from residents in 15 states before and after the destructive passage of the borer. After controlling for other determinants of health and illness, such as socio-economic status and level of education, the researchers found that the destruction caused by the borer increased death rates – 6113 additional deaths related to respiratory illness and 15,080 additional cardiovascular-related deaths.

Just how trees protect cardiovascular and respiratory health is not clear. But there is no shortage of plausible explanations including by reducing stress, improving air quality, fostering physical activity and cooling the environment.  

Professor Roger Ulrich, a leading authority on the greening of health facilities, believes that stress reduction is a major factor. During his adolescence, Ulrich suffered from kidney disease. He spent many months at home in bed looking out of a window at a big pine tree. “I think seeing that tree helped my emotional state”, he later recalled. As a researcher later in life, Ulrich demonstrated that a view of trees reduced surgical patients’ time in hospital, their need for painkillers and setbacks to recovery. Subsequent research supports his view that the view of trees accelerated recovery by reducing stress.

Since Ulrich’s pioneering work, which began over 40 years ago, evidence of the healing and health promoting power of trees, and especially ‘communities’ of trees (forests), has proliferated. The practice of spending time among trees, ‘forest bathing’ or shinrin-yoku as it is called in Japan, is gradually becoming a mainstream therapy and a recognised adjunct to a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the mechanisms mentioned earlier, the health benefits of being in forests may stem from beneficial chemicals (phytoncides) that are liberated by many species of trees. Some of these chemicals stimulate immune functioning.

Like the young Roger Ulrich, the Australian radio presenter, Indira Naidoo, also found solace in the companionship of a tree. The suicide of a younger sister left Indira stricken with grief and guilt. In the early days of her anguish, she set out on walk that took her to a strip of parkland bordering the Sydney Botanic Gardens and overlooking Sydney Harbour. As she occupied this iconic space, she found her senses tuning into the sounds of the trees and their embracing presence.

Pausing to dwell in the quiet of the place, she became aware that she was under the canopy of a massive Moreton Bay Fig tree. The many sturdy limbs of the tree are clothed in waxy deep green leaves. Its prominent surface roots looked to Indira like the “claws of a giant slumbering dinosaur”.

As she marvelled in the tree’s durability and steadfastness, Indira suddenly became aware of the significance of the encounter. She realised that she was where she was meant to be – in the protective shade of her ancestral home.  “Trees were our first refuge from danger”, she reminds us. “They were where we sought safety from predators and the elements”.        

Indira also reminds us of our deep affinity with trees.

We are earthly cousins this tree and I. We may be arranged a little differently, but we are composed of the same molecular elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, metals and minerals. Its branches are my limbs, its bark my skin, its sap my blood. We resuscitate each other with the gift of our breath. I supply its carbon dioxide; it gives me my oxygen. Can two beings be in deeper symbiosis?

Hugging a tree may not be such an odd thing to do after all.

For like us, trees are social beings. They have vibrant social networks that operate on one basic principle, harmony. These networks are sustained by communication or ‘talk’ as Professor Suzanne Simard, a world authority on forest ecology likes to say. Some of this talk is above ground, mainly via chemicals. When some species of trees are attacked by insects, for example, they release volatile chemicals that spur neighbouring trees to take steps to protect themselves – by adding toxins to their leaves or sending out pheromones to attract predators to deal with the attackers.

But trees mainly communicate underground via their roots and fungi. While mushrooms and toadstools are the familiar parts of fungi, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads called mycelia. Under a forest floor there could be several hundreds of kilometres of mycelia right beneath your feet. These fibres and tree roots exchange nutrients, phosphorous and nitrogen from the fungi and sugars from the trees. The fibres act as a kind of underground internet, the ‘wood wide web’ linking trees and plants of different as well as the same species.   

Old tree

Trees use the wood wide web to look after one another. Professor Simard has discovered, for example, that nutrient rich trees can share some of their abundance with trees that are ill or struggling. She has also found that in some forest there are ‘mother trees’ that use their extensive fungal networks to deliver nutrients and water to young offspring.

Forest scientist Peter Wohlleben believes that living in a forest community makes it possible for trees to survive to a great age. Forests themselves create optimal growing conditions – a consistent local climate, an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water and generates a great deal of humidity. Also in forests, the reduced light forces younger trees to grow slowly and slow growth makes them stronger and better able to stay healthy.

Is there a lesson in the ‘altruism’ of trees for how human can live? I believe so and it is simply that an essential way to achieve our own health and well-being is take great care of our communities – by helping one another, in other words. Individuality, independence and self reliance are all very well, but in the final analysis, we cannot manage life and living on our own. We humans evolved to be sociable (or disposed to care for one another) for very good reasons – survival and optimal individual and collective well-being.    

Commenting on my last blog post about trekking and grief, Monsoonwendy, wrote: “The world would be a better place if more of us trekked”. As Monsoonwendy’s life, especially as an artist and humanitarian, has been greatly influenced by trekking, you might well suspect that hers is a biased and starry-eyed view. But her perspective is widely shared and supported by research.

Basically, a trek is a long (ish), typically demanding, journey mainly on foot. But treks vary enormously in all manner of ways: duration, distance, number of companions, types of terrain visited, landscape features, wildlife encountered, cultural contacts, unanticipated happenings and physical demands.

People’s trekking experiences also vary widely depending on the nature of the trek itself and the characteristics and capabilities of the trekker, such as their level of fitness, state of physical and mental health, attitudes, values, expectations, and openness to experience. People who are already deeply nature connected, for example, tend to benefit most from nature experiences including trekking. But, in my experience (including as an honorary trek leader for a commercial trekking company), trekking has something of value for almost everyone, even those who find themselves seriously physically and mentally challenged by the activity. 

My own trekking has varied from a relatively easy four-day walk across farmland in the North Island of New Zealand, with nights spent in farmhouses, to 28-days of demanding walking, much of it at high altitude, in the Annapurna region of Central Nepal. A memorable variation on the theme was a six-day camel trek in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, sleeping in swags under the stars with days spent alternately walking and riding a camel.

Monsoonwendy’s trekking, like mine (and Rosie Batty’s, as described in my previous post), has been in natural regions of spectacular scenic beauty, wonder and diversity. This is the kind of trekking that she believes makes the world a better place. It can be physically and mentally challenging, for sure, but this is a big factor in making trekking so beneficial.   

In what ways does trekking in nature’s grand places makes the world a better place? My answer to this question is based on research as well as experience.

Trekking makes us healthier and fitter

Health and fitness are resources for life. The stronger they are the better equipped we are to cope with the demands of daily life and to have reserves of energy to invest in promoting the ‘greater good’.

Trekking improves aerobic fitness, muscle strength, bone density, balance, agility, and proprioception (the brain’s awareness of the position and movement of the body in relation to its surroundings) and sleep. It helps to lower blood pressure, combat bad cholesterol and improve glucose tolerance – all important for heart health. It may also strengthen immune function.   

Spending time on a trek is an ideal way of reducing stress, combating anxiety, alleviating depression and keeping our brains in good repair and functioning well.

 Trekking boosts mental well-being

A trek is a retreat. It is both a retreat from and a retreat to  – from (for most of us) an urban environment that is biologically speaking alien to our senses and our brains, to a natural world where our senses and our brains feel much more at home.      

Trekking provides a restorative and therapeutic respite from modern urban environments and lifestyles. On a trek you are unplugged from technology, for example. But more than just unburdening our senses and our brains, a trek also nurtures our mental well-being in ways that make us smarter, kinder, more spiritually aware and more likely to seek ways to make the world a better place.

  • Treks commonly stir powerful positive emotions, notably aesthetic pleasure (the beauty buzz), awe, wonder and empathy. These emotions are known to broaden and build us. They broaden us mentally by increasing awareness, awakening interest, exciting curiosity, promoting learning, stimulating thinking, fostering creativity and generally making us more responsive to experience. Additionally, they broaden us emotionally and socially by inclining us to be more socially sensitive, generous, altruistic and caring. The positive emotions build us by motivating us to engage with the world in ways that extend our knowledge, understanding and abilities.
  • Treks offer valuable ‘me’ times when we can be alone with our thoughts. These are times for mind wandering, reverie and reflection. This ‘inner journeying’ can be very rewarding and productive. It can increase our self-awareness and our understanding of the person we want to be and the life we want to live; it can lead us to new ways of thinking about our problems, relationships and goals. Especially when stirred by natural beauty and awe, inner journeying on a trek can have us thinking about the “big picture” issues of life, the things that really matter.

Trekking builds self-esteem, confidence and resilience

Treks can teach us about ourselves. As we cope with a trek’s physical and mental challenges, we stand to gain a better appreciation of, respect for and confidence in, our own capabilities. There is a story in my book about Michael, an adolescent boy who had serious learning and behavioural issues. But following a 62 km, four-day, full pack hike in a scenic coastal wilderness in the company of similarly burdened classmates and two of their teachers, he emerged a changed lad. Although he often found himself well beyond his comfort zone during the walk, he grew in self-respect, confidence and resilience. It made him, in his own words, ‘a better person’. His subsequent academic success and appointment as sub-school captain indicated that the transformation was genuine and enduring.

Trekking can foster unselfish values  

Extended periods in nature, as on a trek, are known to promote environment friendly values and practices. They also appear to foster intrinsic (having to do with personal growth, relationships and community) rather than extrinsic (pertaining to wealth, possessions, image and status) values. The world is a better place for having people with outward oriented values like these.  

Trekking nurtures friendship

For most people, a trek is somewhat like the hero’s journey of legend – a venture into a different and unknown world involving physical and mental challenges, but delivering a fulfilling reward at the end. Sharing such a journey can forge close, supportive and enduring friendships because there is time to have on-on-one conversations as well as opportunities to assist and encourage other party members. I am still in touch with folk I trekked with nearly 50 years ago. These friendships are refreshingly egalitarian and unaffected by social, educational and cultural differences.

Trekking fosters cultural empathy and understanding

Treks can be setting in which your mind and heart can be opened to people from different cultural backgrounds to our own. The tempo of a trek is especially conducive to observing the social as well as the physical landscape.  In many countries, trekking involves sharing accommodation and meals with local folk. In some countries, Nepal and India for example, local folk accompany trekking parties as guides and in supporting roles. It is usually possible to engage with at least some of these folk to learn about them and their world.  


A trek that affects us very deeply may be difficult to leave behind. The return to ordinary life can be a massive letdown. It can trigger a reaction called re-entry depression. This can range in intensity from feelings of regret to a sense of having left part of oneself behind. But a temporary sense of loss and sadness is a small price to pay for the mental and spiritual capital that is built up during a trek. This is evident from the way such experiences are often recalled by people as life-changing, and sometimes as the best thing they had done in their lives.  

Would you like to try trekking? If so, please leave a comment letting me know and giving me a contact email address. Your privacy will be protected as your comment will not be published. I would be delighted to put you in touch with Himalayan Sunrise ,a top-drawer Nepalese trekking company with an excellent reputation for quality of service and integrity.

Most people in Australia would recognise Rosie Batty. In recent years, she has become an admired and influential public figure. She was named Australian of the Year in 2015 in recognition of her efforts to raise awareness of the extent, ubiquity and horror of domestic violence.

Less than a year earlier she had suffered the loss of her only child, Luke, at the hands of her estranged and mentally ill husband.  On the morning after Luke’s murder, she somehow found the courage and strength to make an impromptu and impassioned speech (to a media pack outside her home) that captured the attention of a nation and ignited a landmark and snowballing conversation about domestic and family violence.

In the months and indeed years that followed, she was a leading voice in that socially transforming conversation, despite the unremitting and profound grief she was feeling.

Her continuing and powerful advocacy led ultimately to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. In 2019, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in recognition of her “distinguished service to the community as a campaigner and advocate for the prevention of family violence”.

But behind her brave public persona, there was a woman in the depths of grief. She admits to wanting to die so as to escape her anguish and profound sense of loss. She was feeling pain for which there seemed no relief or end.

She is finding healing, however, not complete healing – the loss of a child creates a wound that can never fully heal. But, as reported by award winning journalist and author, Sue Smethurst, in a recent Women’s Weekly article, Rosie is now experiencing joy and contentment in between times of painful grief.

Rosie’s main source of healing is trekking – walking for long distances over extended periods in wilderness and other natural areas.  Among the treks she has done are: Cradle Mountain to Lake St Claire in Tasmania, sections of the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory, Scotland’s West Highlands Way and Coast to Coast in the United Kingdom.

Rosie described trekking to Sue Smethurst this way: “You’re in spectacular scenery, you’ve got the camaraderie of like-minded people, and all you are doing every day is getting up, having a hearty breakfast and walking, whether it’s 10 kilometres or 20, or whatever”. As Rosie suggests, there is a grounding and relaxing rhythm to life on a trek.

Feeling challenged and fatigued are part of a trek’s rhythmic pattern. So too are the joys of rest breaks and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes when camp is reached at the end of the day with its promise of food and an evening of relaxing companionship.

As Rosie also reported “[A trek is] …challenging in a physical and mental way and it’s very meditative, it’s a safe challenge. It’s one you can do with people, but have your own space and be on your own journey too, so I think there’s lots of healing elements to it”.      

I agree with Rosie. I have enjoyed many treks in Australia, New Zealand and the Himalaya of Nepal and India. My wife, daughters and other members of my family, including granddaughters, have shared several of my treks. My wife, Margaret, especially valued the simple routine and rhythm of a trekking day. It is a wonderful way of ‘getting away from it all’, of taking time out from the persistent demands, concerns and responsibilities of life in contemporary Western societies. Trekking can be thought of as a retreat on foot.

But as much as it is an escape, a trekking day is usually a journey to a whole new world, typically one of beauty, wonder and discovery. It can also be a world that challenges us physically and emotionally but often in ways that are ultimately satisfying, rewarding and strengthening.

A trekking journey can also be one of self-reflection, a journey into the highways and by-ways of our inner selves. As Rosie says, a trek provides the ‘space’ to be with oneself. The space she refers to is a psychological one. Even in the company of others, hazard-free walking in natural settings frees our minds to wander, to meander from thought to thought, topic to topic, idea to idea, memory to memory. Such mind-wandering can be very productive and beneficial, enabling us to reframe perspectives, free-up ways of thinking, foster creativity and enhance self-awareness.

Trekking helped Rosie to realise that she can still enjoy life and experience moments of wonder. It awakened in her the realization that she didn’t want to reach old age regretting not doing things. “I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and do things” was how she put it.

My first trek was in the company of my family and people we met for the first time at Kathmandu airport. It was a 14-day circuit in the Annapurna region of Nepal. At the time, trekking in Nepal was still something of a novelty and widely thought of as ‘adventurous’ (which it needn’t and shouldn’t be). All four of us certainly accepted that the trek would push us out of our comfort zones. Our two daughters, then 14 and 12 years of age, later recalled that facing and preparing for the challenges of the trek along with their parents was a very empowering experience in learning how to ‘push the envelope’ and the benefits of doing so.   

The trek had a massively enriching influence of each of our lives. It spawned life-long interests, passions and ultimately close and precious relationships with many Nepalese people. For us as a family, it was an enduring bonding experience and source of precious memories.    

I see in that first trek the foundations of my love of, and sense of unity with, nature, my passion for bushwalking and other nature activities, and my desire to share that love and passion with others.   

That trek and the many others I have done since has brought home to me the power of nature experiences to connect us with ourselves, others and the cosmos. I call tell numerous stories of people who have returned from treks with a more valid appreciation of their capabilities, a deeper understanding of what they want from, and value in, life, and greater insight into their family, work and wider social relationships. In my book, Connect with Nature, I tell a little of the story of Irene Gleeson, which illustrates the point.   

Connect with Nature also contains an account of how another grieving mother found comfort and restoration in nature – not by trekking but simply by being or ‘dwelling’ in it. Maureen Hunter lost her son in a car accident after her husband had also died accidentally. Somewhat like Rosie Batty, Maureen reached a point when she said to herself: “No, I will not become a victim of my circumstance. I will not let pain be all I know”. Maureen turned to nature simply by spending times of quietness and reflection out-of-doors. “Nature connected me to life, to life and simple pleasures again”, she recalls.   

Chances are that you are concerned, even alarmed, about climate change and the deteriorating state of the natural environment. Surveys consistently report that most people are worried about the future of Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Indeed, researchers are finding that this worry poses a serious and growing risk to mental health, especially that of children, adolescents and young adults. Very likely, we are in an epidemic of ‘eco-anxiety’.

It is also possible that, although your mind is telling you that you ought to do more to help save the planet, you’re finding it difficult to get moving. This could be for all sorts of justifiable reasons including a sense that the environmental problems are just too big and complex for you, as an individual, to deal with. Even if you know that taking part in collective action is a viable option, you still might feel unmotivated and discouraged. You may be finding that you can’t get emotionally involved with the problems, even if you know that they are real and requiring urgent action. If this is where you find yourself, you are in the common situation of the elephant and rider in your brain being out of step.   

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced the elephant-rider analogy as a useful way of thinking about how and why we humans behave as we do. He argues that human behaviour (apart from reflex and automatic action) is determined by our rational brain (the ‘rider’) and our emotional brain (the ‘elephant’). Much more than we might think, the elephant is the major player. The rider might be the planner or ‘intender’ but the elephant is the source of motivation and energy; it is the doer in other words. While the rider may appear to be in control, it is really the much larger elephant that is the boss.  

The analogy helps us to understand why adopting new behaviour, that related to saving the planet included, can be difficult. But the analogy also tells us how, in broad terms, we can successfully address these difficulties. In short, the message is: If you want to change your (or anyone else’s) behaviour, be sure to target both the elephant and the rider.

Here are some key guidelines for implementing this strategy.

Targeting the rider

The intended actions should be:

  • explicit
  • clear (unambiguous)
  • concrete
  • practicable
  • seen by the person as appropriate for them, convenient and relevant

Targeting the elephant

The intended actions should:

  • be seen by the person as easily ‘doable’ (involving ‘tiny’ steps and little time if necessary)
  • be experienced by the person as rewarding (makes them feel good – especially about themselves)
  • provide a sense of progress (which the person can easily recognise and acknowledge)
  • align with the person’s image of who they are and/or who they would like to be   

Applying the strategy to environmental action calls for a critically important second strategy: connecting with nature in order to cultivate a sense of identity with, and obligation to, the natural world. I explain what this means and why it is so important in my book, Connect with Nature (final chapter).

In summary, the point I make is that connecting with nature is vital because it changes us in ways that motivates us to take care of the environment. As we connect with nature, our valuing of the natural world and our capacity to empathise with it grows. This, in turn, fosters what I call an ‘environmental conscience’. An environmental conscience guides us to value nature for itself, to see beyond what nature can do for us to what we can (and should) do for it. It obliges us to accept that all life forms have a right to exist and to flourish. It reinforces the disposition to love, appreciate and be inspired by nature rather than the inclination to exploit, dominate and even shun it. An environmental conscience makes protecting the planet a deeply personal matter, something that we expect of ourselves and, hence, something in which we are invested emotionally.

When it comes to acting on behalf of the environment, the importance of having a moral commitment and an emotional drive to do so cannot be overstated – think ‘elephant’!.

I am not alone in emphasising this point. No lesser a scientific body than the Royal Society, for example, includes this statement in its online pamphlet entitled, ‘What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?’:

Spending more time in nature can help improve our relationship with it and attach greater value to the habitats around us. Educating children about wildlife and local ecosystems can help to make our connection to the natural world clearer and bring about long-term behavioural changes in future generations.

If you think I can help you, your family or friends to become more actively engaged in connecting with nature and doing more to care for planet Earth in ways that suit you, please ‘drop me a line’. I have ideas and suggestions I would like to share, and I am sure there’s plenty I can learn in the process as well.  

You can do this by popping a comment on my Facebook page, or more privately, by using the contact facility on my book’s website, www.connectwithnatureguide.com.  

It is an experience that left a lasting impression on me.

My wife, Margaret, and I had walked up to the rounded peak of the volcanic remnant we knew then as Mt Dromedary. At 800 metres above sea-level, the mountain overlooks part of the celebrated ‘Sapphire Coast’ of south-east Australia. Although just the core of its former majestic self, the mountain is very interesting geologically. Its humped profile prompted Captain James Cook to name it Dromedary when he saw it on his 1770 journey up Australia’s east coast.

Art by Cheryl Davison

But it already had a name, Gulaga – meaning mother mountain, given to it by people of the Yuin nation. What the Yuin people see is not a resemblance but an actual mother figure to which they trace their individual and collective origins. Without Gulaga, they would not exist. This recognition of a landscape feature as the embodiment of an ancestral (spiritual) being is universal across all of Australia’s First Nations peoples. After the creation, the ‘Dreaming’, the ancestral spirits became part of the landscape. So, for the Yuin people, Gulaga IS their mother spirit, as sacred to them as Uluru (formerly known as Ayres Rock) is to the people of the Anangu Nation. Their values, identity, spirituality and lifestyle are all intimately bound up with Gulaga. Many of their sacred sites and exclusively women or men’s places are on Gulaga. She lies at the heart of their ‘country’, the land that has been and always will be theirs.

Margaret and I knew nothing of this when we made our way up Gulaga (Mt Dromedary). After reaching the summit, we set about retracing our steps. Not far into our return journey, we reached a saddle where we spotted an unmarked narrow side-track, which we had not noticed on the ascent.

Intrigued, I set off to investigate the track with Margaret following. Quite suddenly, I came upon a cluster of extraordinary figure-like boulders. Superficially they resembled granite tors, but there was a character about them that was completely new to me.

I now know that I had stumbled onto one of Australia’s seven most significant rock formations, as recognised by Geoscience Australia (The other six include Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Wave Rock.).

Excited and awed, I reached for my camera, but stopped when I heard Margaret say something like, “Don’t take photos; this is a sacred site”. Rather than being excited by the place, Margaret was clearly apprehensive and anxious. She later told me that she felt as though she was trespassing. I had no trouble empathising with her distress, so we left, somewhat mystified by the experience.

Our perplexity increased when we learned from a brochure we obtained in the nearby town of Tilba Tilba that ‘Mt Dromedary’, was indeed sacred to the local Aboriginal (Yuin) people.   

Perhaps we had been given the privilege of sharing just a little of the Yuin people’s sense of sacredness. I am reluctant, however, to make such a presumptuous claim. But I am confident to say that Margaret and I had a deeply affecting experience of awe. Awe is evoked by the unexpected, by an encounter with something that challenges an understanding or ‘model’ we have of how the world is. Such an encounter can be stimulating and exciting, as it was in my case, but it can also be threatening and frightening, as it was for Margaret. Either way, awe is powerful emotion that can make us wiser, more sociable and spiritually aware (You can read more about awe in my book, ‘Connect with Nature’).       

Note: Although I refrained from taking photos of the rock formation on Gulaga, such photos are freely available – from sources that include the Museum of Australia and locally produced tourist publications. Evidently, taking and reproducing photos of the site does not cause offence or distress to Yuin people. But if you visit Gulaga, you are asked to remain on the tracks, as there are sites elsewhere on the mountain that should be visited only in the company of a Yuin person.

This magnificent place lies on a stretch of the Kowmung River, one of the few remaining wild rivers in New South Wales and part of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park. But it is under threat.

Why? Because the Kowmung is part of a river system that could be drowned if a plan to increase the depth of the Warragamba Dam goes ahead.

Built originally to safeguard Sydney’s water supply, the dam is now seen by some in power as having flood mitigation potential. The NSW State Government is proposing to raise the wall of the dam by 14 metres so as to reduce the impact of flooding downstream on the floodplains of the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers. Avaricious, irresponsible and short-sighted planning over (relatively dry) decades has permitted wholesale residential development on the floodplains. Now, with the incidence and severity of floods increasing, in large part because of climate change, the community and government are scrambling to mitigate the inevitable.

The proposal to raise the dam wall is controversial. For one thing, there can be no guarantee that it will work. The catchment of the Nepean-Hawkesbury system includes several rivers apart for the Warragamba. These other rivers are entirely capable of flooding the floodplains on a grand scale. It may well be that the strategic release of water from Warragamba and the other five dams supplying water to Greater Sydney would be as effective in mitigating floods or even more so. And there is, of course, the ultimate solution – stopping and even winding back development on the floodplains.

Raising the dam wall would mean that rivers and creeks feeding the Warragamba River, including the Kowmung, would be subject to periodic inundation. The loss of pristine wilderness would be only one of the costs. The flooding would damage and destroy ‘country’, including irreplaceable sites of immense indigenous cultural and spiritual significance and importance.

Why would such loss and destruction matter? Clearly, for some politicians, developers and rank-and-file citizens, the loss and destruction would be justified, typically on the grounds of saving lives and property, fostering commercial and agricultural development, and preserving lifestyles. When viewed through material, commercial, utilitarian and political lenses, these are compelling justifications.

But these are not the only lenses through which the potential loss and destruction can be viewed. In the final analysis, they may not even be the most important or most valid lenses.  

Raising the wall would be yet another example of the exploitative attitude to nature that has accompanied the industrialisation of Western societies in the past 250 years. This attitude has inflicted on humanity the twin existential threats of global warming and loss of biodiversity. At the core of this attitude is the view that nature matters primarily as a resource; nature is something we live FROM.

A very different view is that we are physically, mentally and spiritually part of nature; we are OF nature. According to this view we make up the natural world equally with all other living and non-living things. We are part of all that exists, has existed and will exist. Each of our lives is not a separate existence but as a cosmic relationship; we are part of an unimaginably vast and incomprehensibly complex whole. This means quite simply that all of nature is our kin and entitled, just as we are, to exist.

The natural world has value in and of itself, independent of its value to humans. Everything in the natural world is worthy of respect and indeed affection.  Just as it is incumbent on us to relate to one another morally and ethically, so we should relate to nature in the same way. The ‘Golden Rule’ applies equally to nature. There is a Maori proverb: ‘When the land, river and sea creatures are in distress then I have nothing to be proud of’.  In India, it is common for animals to be slaughtered ceremonially (rather than expediently as is the case in Australian abattoirs). And in Ancient Greece, it was customary to throw the knife used to slaughter an animal into the sea as punishment for its part in the killing.    

The cultures of Australia’s First Nations peoples are 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 central to their existence. 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. So, to desecrate or destroy country is to strike at the heart of indigenous identity, lore, culture, relationships and values.

Unless it can be demonstrated scientifically (not just politically or economically) that there is no alternative, raising the wall of Warragamba would be morally and ethically bankrupt on three counts. First, it would be to disregard nature’s intrinsic value and right to existence. Second, it would be a rejection of our kinship obligation to take care of nature; and third, it would be an act of desecration, the wanton disregard of the centrality of ‘country’ to the health and well-being of our indigenous citizens.

Bathing in the Blooms

All photos are by Wendy Moore

Here’s me on what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to savour the flowering New South Wales waratahs (Telopea speciosissima) in Bottle Forest, part of the Royal National Park near Sydney.  

I was in the company of family and dozens of others on much the same mission. This pocket of waratahs attracts hundreds, possibly thousands, of visitors each year.

There is nothing particularly attractive about the waratah plant. It can be ‘leggy’ and the leaves are hard and leathery. But the blooms are something else.

Each bloom is not a single flower but a cluster of flowers – a flower head or inflorescence which sits regally at the end of a longish stem.

As always, viewing these spectacular blooms left me with a visceral sense of pleasure and satisfaction. I felt uplifted and glad that I had made the pilgrimage. This was not an illusory emotional response but a physiological one triggered by the spiking in my brain of the pleasure and reward neuro-chemicals, endorphins and dopamine.    

The experience led to me wanting more of the same – more floral beauty – and I was not disappointed. There were other beautiful, if less spectacular, flowers in the surrounding bushland, including Native Iris and the diminutive Caladenia (one of the ‘spider orchids’)   

Native Iris

A springtime walk in Bottle Forest, when the waratahs and other wildflowers are in bloom, encourages ‘forest bathing’, the Western term for what the Japanese call, ‘shinrin yoku’. This is the practice of mindfully letting your senses take in the sights sounds, odours, tastes and feel of forests or bushland. The health and well-being benefits of forest bathing are now firmly established and ‘how to do it’ books and articles are easy to find.

But a springtime walk in Bottle Forest makes forest bathing virtually effortless. The flowers, especially the waratahs, capture and hold our attention, taking us out of ourselves and, for an uplifting and refreshing time, into the world of nature.  

Even if there is no Bottle Forest near you, there may be a park or garden where you can ‘bathe’ your senses.

If you have a ‘bottle forest’ experience you would like to share (with photos as well as words) for the benefit of others, please do so by commenting on this post or by sending me a message via the website of my book, Connect with Nature.  

Michael Portillo is probably best known for his TV documentaries on railway journeys, but Australia’s SBS network is currently screening a series recording a walking trip he did in Devon and Cornwall.  In contrast to his upbeat railway documentaries, this series is more personal, introspective and reflective.

After two years confined to city life, some of it under COVID restrictions, he felt a strong need to spend time in nature. By his own admission he is a thoroughly urban creature. Nevertheless, he chose to undertake a ‘nature challenge’ – to walk along the physically demanding but stunningly beautiful track that skirts the coastline of Devon and Cornwall. The weather along the track can range from Gulf Stream balmy to Atlantic tempest, as Portillo himself discovered. He certainly needed his waterproofed jacket and hat.  

The fact that he had at least a camera operator for company and a production team in support reduces the authenticity of Portillo’s experience. But there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of the joy and awe he experienced and the sincerity of his thoughts about the power of nature to inspire, heal and restore.

Countless others have benefited from this power. It is one of the greatest, if neglected, resources of life.

Science has given us a picture of the kinds of natural environments that are best for restoring jaded minds and emotions. First and foremost, they are environments that enthral us – that command our attention, delight our senses and excite such emotions as joy, awe, wonder, calmness, and tranquillity Such environments take us ‘out of ourselves’, giving us a feeling of being ‘away from it all’ and in a ‘whole other world’. This can be a challenging space but one where we can extend and enrich ourselves in the way we want to.    

Such a space enables us to switch off from the everyday world and to open ourselves fully to nature’s rejuvenating embrace.

E. G. Waterhouse or ‘Camelia’ Gardens, Caringbah, NSW, Australia

Michael Portillo travelled several hundred miles to find a space of this kind. But it is possible to get away from it all and to be in a whole other world within domesticated (or urban) nature. We can feel or sense that we are away from it all and in a whole new world even if the familiar world is physically nearby (just like the spot in this photo, which is surrounded by suburbia)   

What matters is that the setting seems genuinely natural and free of reminders about the outside world. This allows everyday concerns, responsibilities and routines to be left behind.

The time spent in the setting can also vary – from days and even weeks to just a few minutes. ‘Being away from it all’ is a matter of the mind rather than of time and distance.

Being away, moreover, is not simply a matter of escaping physically. We can be in a totally different and remote environment and still be encumbered by everyday concerns and obligations.  Healing and restoration are unlikely under these conditions. As far as finding remoteness is concerned, what we leave behind or get away from is every bit as important as where we get away to.

The familiar adage, ‘change is as good as a holiday’ tells us that being somewhere different from our usual haunts can be restful and refreshing. A restorative environment gives us this sense of being somewhere different. It takes us to a ‘whole other world’ where our minds are pleasantly distracted from the burdening tasks of ordinary life and the temptation to ruminate unhelpfully about our concerns and anxieties.

Environments that do this need not be large tracts of natural landscapes like those on the Devon and Cornish coastline. Other settings can provide a sense of being part of ‘something bigger’ and in a world apart.  The ‘bigness’ need not be physical. It can be, and often is, a bigness that exists in the mind rather than reality. Many small settings, a Japanese garden, for example, a landscaped park or a patch of urban bushland can suggest the bigness of a whole other world and so provide an oasis of respite for jaded minds and fragile emotions.

Usually, my posts are about the effects that nature has on us, drawing on research to describe and/or explain what goes on. This post is different. In it I simply share in words and photographs a nature experience that I recently enjoyed.

It was a landmark experience for me because it represented my return to physically demanding bushwalking after an enforced lay-off of six months. There were times not so long ago when I doubted whether I would ever manage such a walk again. It was special also because the walk took me to places I last visited 60 years ago.

The walk is in the Royal National Park right on Sydney’s doorstep and close to where I now live. The Royal sits on a sandstone plateau that rises steadily from north to south. Much of the vegetation on the plateau is dense heath comprising an extraordinary diversity of shrubs and low-growing trees. This diversity of plant life is astonishing considering that the soil on the plateau is basically sand, any nutrients in it coming from the litter created by the plants themselves. In the valleys formed by the streams draining the plateau, the heath gives way to forests. The eastern boundary of the Royal is a spectacular sequence of cliffs, headlands, beaches and lagoons.

My walk took me across part of the plateau, into the valley of Marley Creek and then on to the coast. The track conditions varied markedly, ranging from uneven, muddy and water-logged tracks to stony fire trails and metal broad walks.

At some times of the year, the density of the heathland vegetation of the Royal can be off-putting but walking through it in late winter, as my companions and I did, it is bedecked with wildflowers. Though very colourful, many of the flowers are small, but those of banksia and isopogon (drumsticks) are exceptions.

Banksia spinulosa Hairpin banksia (Photo Rob Bradley)
Isopogon anethifolius Narrow-leaf drumsticks (Photo Rob Bradley)

A very wet summer and autumn has saturated the Royal. Some tracks have become watercourses, others badly eroded. This made some stretches of the descent to Deer Pool on Marley Creek somewhat challenging for my worn-out knees. But the descent was worth it. Usually a trickle, Marley Creek was making an impressive entrance into Deer Pool.

(Photo Rob Bradley)


Beyond Deer Pool, the track returns to sandstone heath country before reaching a stretch of coastal cliffs that provide spectacular views, south

And north

Apart from the views they provide, the sandstone cliff-tops have remarkably beautiful features of their own, like this outcrop, where the deposition, oxidisation and leeching of iron compounds have created this unusual effect.

From the majesty and colours of the cliffs, the walk took us to Little Marley Beach, a popular lunch spot. The resident magpies have learned that the presence of humans means the likelihood of food. After investigating a pack and finding nothing, this ‘maggy’ joined another party at the other end of the beach.

The track from our lunch spot skirted little Marley Beach providing more exposure to colourful and weather-sculpted sandstone before the return journey.

(Photo Brian Morgan)