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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
Caladenia

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)

Australia’s latest State of the Environment Report was released recently. The message of the report is as clear as it is alarming. The already calamitous environmental degradation in Australia is continuing. The loss of biodiversity, ecosystems and species is happening worldwide, but Australia is among the countries leading the way.  

The Report is yet another call for action in a world where so much needs to be done to improve the human condition and to safeguard the wellbeing and future of humanity. With urgent action required on many fronts (climate change, the COVID pandemic, rising cost of living, housing insecurity, poverty and homelessness, to name a few), it is very easy for us, as individuals, to feel overwhelmed and impotent. The temptation to opt out under these conditions is compelling. When we feel that there is nothing we can do, doing nothing appears to be the only option.

But where rescuing the natural environment is concerned, there are things we CAN do, both as individuals and together; we CAN ‘hold a hose’ (Dear overseas reader, this metaphor references an infamous excuse given by a former Australian Prime Minister for not being on hand in a bushfire crisis.)

One of the most vital and important things we can do is to nurture our own connection with nature and to help others do the same. The more we engage with nature the more likely we are to value it and to look after it.

You have more than my word on this. This statement is from the Royal Society, one of the world’s foremost scientific bodies:   

‘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.’

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity agrees, proposing indeed that facilitating people’s connection with nature is an environmental care and protection strategy that could be rolled out across communities large and small.

The power of the strategy lies in its potential to cultivate what I call, in my book, ‘Connect with Nature’, an ‘environmental conscience’.  An environmental conscience values nature for itself, for its intrinsic worth. It obliges us to accept that all life forms have a right to exist and to flourish. It reinforces our innate 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 we expect of ourselves. It is our moral ‘muscle’ as far as nature is concerned.

An environmental conscience also promotes a mind-set that takes full account of the rights and needs of nature. Such a mind-set consistently assesses proposed actions in terms of their likely environmental impact. Imagine how nature would benefit if decision-making at every level of society were to be based on such an assessment. Apart from increasing the pro-environment behaviour of individuals, it would strengthen community support for environmental protection initiatives launched by governments and corporations. A government-run recycling program, for example, is likely to be more successful in a community where most people are already motivated to get on board.

The mind-set would also reframe government and corporate policy and practices, making them far less vulnerable to opinionated ignorance, ideology, economic self-interest and the distorting (and sometimes corrupting) influence of money and power. It would make possible the broad consensus and co-operation that are needed if action to save planet Earth is to have any chance of success.

A second vital thing we can do to save the environment is to heed the warning that it is not possible to sustain perpetual economic growth in a biosphere with finite natural resources and a limited capacity to absorb waste. Humanity is currently living well beyond its environmental means. An average individual human life today devours the resources of 1.6 Earths. The figure is much higher for those of us fortunate enough to live in economically developed societies. To discover simply and quickly how much higher it is and your own environmental footprint, click on this link.

In everyday terms, acting on the warning means doing such things as:

  • buying fewer products and making sure the products we do buy are environmentally friendly
  • maximising household energy efficiency and the use of green energy
  • purchasing locally produced goods   
  • re-using and re-cycling
  • reducing waste practices in relation to food, clothes, electrical appliances, etc
  • minimising the use of non-recyclable plastics  
  • investing in environmentally friendly enterprises
  • supporting political action committed to protecting the natural environment
  • supporting financially and otherwise institutions and organisation that promote environmental wellbeing
  • participating in, or otherwise supporting local and regional environment protection groups
  • featuring care of the environment in family conversations, daily lifestyles and recreational activities

By themselves, cultivating environmental consciences across communities and doing all we can to be responsible stewards of the Earth’s resources are not going to solve the planet’s environmental problems or secure humanity’s future. The problems are far too urgent and complex for that to be possible. But both strategies need to be integral parts of the endeavour.

A particular delight for me in my bush camping days way to be woken in the early morning by a ‘dawn chorus’. The Australian bush is home to many birds and come morning, especially in the spring months, it seems that almost every bird in the neighbourhood is stirred to sing – and to do so at full voice and for a relatively sustained period.

It is easy to imagine that birds sing lustily at dawn for fun and entertainment. But the reason is rather less romantic. The dawn chorus for all the pleasure it may give the human listener is basically a matter of life and death for the choristers. Birds sing at dawn and indeed at all other times to protect territory and attract mates – to survive and reproduce in other words.

The fact that, to the human ear, most birdsong is sweet-toned, enjoyable, restorative and potentially inspirational is a curious evolutionary by-product.

Birds also produce calls. Whereas bird songs tend to be melodious and complex, bird calls are simpler, shorter and less musical. The main functions of bird calls are to sound alarm and to keep contact with other birds.      

But the Gang-gang cockatoo in this photo has also learned to use her call for a very different purpose – to get a couple of humans, my son-in-law, Mal, and daughter, Wendy, to do her bidding. She, along with her mate and sometimes another pair of Gang-gangs, regularly drop in on Mal and Wendy for a meal (a healthy mix of purpose-produced seed). The Gang-gangs announce their presence by perching close to Mal and Wendy’s kitchen window.

If food is not forthcoming in a reasonable time, the Gang-gang (or one of her mates) calls out, continuing to do so until a food-laden human appears. There is a curious twist to this story. While the female’s partner eats from a bowl and sometimes a hand, she eats ONLY from a hand, as in the photo.    

With their ‘creaky door’ call, gang-gangs are more screechers than singers. But for another of Australia’s iconic birds, the Superb Lyrebird, the story is very different. Among the world’s most beautiful avian singers, the Superb Lyrebird is an extraordinary mimic, not only of other birds but virtually of anything, including mechanical and human sounds. Sir David Attenborough has a video of a Lyrebird mimicking a chain saw and a camera shutter.   

If you click on this link, you can watch and listen to a video of a Superb Lyrebird imitating a dozen other birds. The video shows the imitated birds when their calls are being vocalised by the lyrebird. When you have finished listening, take a moment to reflect on the experience. Did you enjoy it? Did it have a soothing or calming effect?   

Dr Rachel Buxton from the Department of Biology at Carleton University in Ottawa led a review of experimental studies off the psychological impact of natural sounds. The review found that birdsong reduces stress as well as evoking joy and boosting mood. In combination with other natural sounds, such as the whisper of wind in the trees or the burbling of a creek, it can make a significant impact on mental well-being and even lessen pain. Dr Buxton is not surprised by these findings. “From an evolutionary perspective, humans are hardwired to attend to signals of danger and security. And an environment that is filled with natural sounds feels safe and allows us to let our guard down,” she says.

But not all birdsong is the same or its impact alike for everyone. According to Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, an environmental psychologist at the University of Surrey, the effectiveness of birdsong depends on several factors notably the intrinsic properties of the song – such as volume, pitch and melodious structure – and the meaning given to the song by the listener.

Dr Ratcliffe says that people like listening to bird sounds which are quiet, high frequency and melodious. But if bird sounds are loud, non-melodious, harsh and simple, people are more likely to find them unpleasant or even stressful. The harsh ‘cawing’ of a raven or crow, for example, or the screech of a white cockatoo are unlikely to be soothing or calming.

The impact of bird sound is also affected by the personality, background and experience of the person listening to it. Dr Ratcliffe reports, for example, that people with a high appreciation of nature and are more nature connected benefit most from birdsong. My many happy memories of dawn choruses enable me to associate birdsong with pleasure and mental well-being, more so than I otherwise would. And for that, I am very grateful.

The recent report of yet another mass shooting in a school in the USA brought to mind the experience of Kyle Jeter, a science teacher at a high school in Florida, USA.

In 2016, Kyle succeeded in having newly available space in the school grounds set aside as a garden to support science and STEM studies. Although Kyle knew little about gardens, he orchestrated the planning and initial development of what was to become known as Marjory’s Garden. Other teachers, as well as students, were heavily involved. By the start of 2018, a student-designed and built hydroponic system, as well as conventional gardens, was operating. The garden was becoming the venue for a range of educational activities including astronomy nights and full moon yoga. 

On Valentine’s Day, 2018, Kyle arrived at school early to lay out piping and sprinklers that were to become an irrigation system. Before starting the first class of the day, he noted that a new garden bench, built in an engineering class, had been delivered. When Kyle sought volunteers to paint the bench, the only offer came from one of his most creative and enthusiastic and brilliant students—a young lady named Emma González. (That bench is now known very poignantly as Emma’s Bench).

About twenty minutes before the final school bell that day, the fire alarm went off. As there had been a fire drill earlier in the day, Kyle and students assumed that the alarm had been triggered accidentally or mischievously. But an urgent call to evacuate the building came over the intercom. What followed devastated the citizens of the USA and horrified people everywhere. The school was the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and over the next couple of hours 17 members of the school community, teachers and students, were gun-downed by a disturbed former student.

Kyle’s recollection of his grief in the immediate aftermath is harrowing. He shed many tears, his feelings “toggling” between sadness and anger, and even guilt. His days were punctuated with candlelight vigils and funeral services. He tried to comfort grieving students but was burdened with the thought that he wasn’t doing enough. Then he remembered the garden that no one was tending. There had been no rain and the plants needed watering.

At last, with some sense of purpose, he slipped through the media army and after negotiations with police and security he gained access to the school precinct. Despite his many years on the staff, he felt a stranger in the school – that is until he reached the garden.

There it was, beautifully green and remarkably untouched by the surrounding chaos. I felt like I was in the eye of a tremendous hurricane swirling around me. But there in the garden it was peaceful, and quiet, and blessedly tranquil. For the first time in days I felt a sense of normalcy. I sat on our modest classroom stage and watched the rising sun’s rays illuminate our little oasis. And in that moment, I found my purpose.

He saw that a way ahead was not only to complete the garden but also to make it a place where students and staff might experience the same sense of tranquillity that he was relishing. Kyle’s sense of mission was fuelled in large part by the memories of the happy times he had playing with friends in the wood bordering his home in Southern Illinois. These left him convinced that green spaces are important and necessary, with a significant role to play in helping young people deal with the anxieties and pressures of modern life. Such places, he believes, are pockets of positivity in a world that is far too often negative, divided and often violent.   

Kyle’s vision called for and encouraged creativity in garden design and construction. Apart from the efforts and energy of the school community, the project received amazing support from well-wishers including gardening suppliers and tradespeople. Students found themselves working alongside professionals producing an amenity beyond anything they might have imagined.    

The reflective garden. There are 17 polished and glazed granite stones one for each of the students and teachers who died

Large shade and bamboo trees were planted along with hundreds of native plants. A reflective garden with a fountain centrepiece was built and framed with river rock and plants. Curving paths were added. Kyle and his students collaborated in completing an observatory, the entry to which was marked by a pair of gardens featuring rocks that students had painted as an art-therapy exercise early in their grieving. As Kyle himself said, Marjory’s Garden was fulfilling a purpose well beyond that which was initially envisioned by him or anyone else.

It was stories of this kind that inspired me to include the chapter, Turning to Nature in Difficult Time in my book, Connect with Nature.

A precious endowment

This image is from the record of an intriguing project undertaken by Wendy Moore, a polymer clay artist of international standing. 

What you are looking at is a dead eucalyptus leaf gathered by Wendy on one her bushland walks, a card matching a colour on the leaf, and a polymer clay tile of the same colour.

It is important to understand that the tile is not painted, but painstakingly produced by combining just the right amounts of polymer clay – coloured white, black or one of the three ‘primary’ colours – cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Wendy repeated this process daily for 100 days, committing herself to making the ‘recipe’ for each colour freely available to other artists.     

All the colours replicated by Wendy were drawn from nature. What she did was to ‘imitate’ the way the human brain generates the same colours.

Colours as such do not exist in nature. They are created by our brains using information received from cells located in the retinas of our eyes. These cells are of two kinds – rods and cones. The rods are highly sensitive to light and permit us to see at night, but only in shades of grey. The cones, on the other hand, enable us to see colours, but not under conditions of low light. The cones send information to our brain that broadly codes the colours red, green and blue.

Just as Wendy created 100 different colours by combining cyan (bluish-green), magenta (purplish red) and yellow in different ways, our brains ‘create’ a million colours (possibly more) by combining the red, green and blue signals they receives from the cone cells.

Apart from those in people who are colour blind, our brains distinguish several colours, notably red and green, extremely well. This makes us particularly good at detecting and distinguishing ripe and ripening fruit and at foraging more generally. It also helps us with social communication. Many species, including our own, use reddish colours to convey sexual arousal, good health, virility and emotions (blushing when embarrassed, for example).

Only a handful of species share the human ability to colour the world with a red, green and blue palette. Most get by without red. This does not mean that human vision is superior. In some respects, it is but in others, it is outclassed by what the eyes and brains of other creatures can manage.

That said, the ability to distinguish a million different colours is impressive – worthy of wonder in my view. And that is not the only astonishing sensory feat of which we humans are capable.    

Perhaps you are familiar with the distinctive earthy and usually pleasant odour that emanates from damp soil that is rich in organic matter – soil on the floor of a rainforest, for example. This is the petrichor smell, which is probably more commonly experienced after a downpour has drenched soil and rock. The word ‘petrichor’ means the essence of rock or the smell of life. It comes from the Greek ‘petros’ – stone, and ‘ichor’ – the vital essence that flows in the veins of the gods. As a primal scent, petrichor directly impacts our minds, affecting mood and evoking memories.

A component of petrichor is geosmin, the usually pleasant odour of soil that is rich in decaying organic matter and bacteria. Geosmin gives root vegetables and carrots their earthy taste. Humans are extremely sensitive to geosmin, detecting it at levels as low as five parts per trillion. It is thought that this sensitivity evolved to support the search for food, especially after periods of drought.   

With senses so amazingly attuned to the natural world, it is not surprising that we humans derive so much pleasure from it. One of the most potent sources of our pleasure is the beauty we experience in nature.  

Our brains experience beauty because they can detect the forms, patterns and relationships that make an otherwise incomprehensible universe meaningful. They are sensitive to the symmetry, balance, proportion and ratios (especially the Golden Ratio) that are displayed in nature’s more orderly structures such as crystals, water droplets, snowflakes, flowers, seed heads, shells, spiral galaxies, faces, beehives and lava columns. They are also attuned to the ‘fractal’ patterns within the seemingly chaotic complexity of trees, forests, mountain ranges, clouds and coastlines. We humans can find meaning and beauty in what would otherwise be nature’s mind-blowing complexity.

What an amazing ability! We are indebted to the Wendy Moores of this world. Through their nature awareness, creativity and enterprise, they inspire us to cherish, use and benefit from this precious endowment.   

This is an example of Wendy’s work.

For more about Wendy and her art, click here.