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Archive for June, 2014

These very fortunate kids are on a family cubby building expedition. This is the kind of nature experience that their brains will file away in their store of happy memories. DSC00581

When Israeli researcher, Rachel Sebba, asked  adults to recall the most happily memorable place from their childhood, almost all nominated an outdoor location. What made the outdoor place memorable Rachel Sebba found was not so much the beauty of the scenery but more the activities that had been enjoyed there.

Sebba puts this down to the intensity with which the natural environment is experienced in childhood. Children experience the natural environment in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but rather as the enabler and stimulator of experiences. Children themselves have indicated that they are attracted to natural environments because these are full of novelty, variety and interest and because they contain so much that can be played in, on and with. Elements such as rocks, trees and water can be particularly significant in children’s play. Children also value the opportunities nature gives to claim territories, to have time-out from adults and to get on with “secret children’s business”.

I was prompted to think again about the power and pleasure of childhood experiences when I read an article on the relationship between money and happiness by three consumer psychologists, Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

They confirm the common view that money is no guarantee of happiness. There is a relationship between the two but it is a weak one. A reason for this, they say, is that people are bad at anticipating what will them happy and make poor purchasing decisions as a consequence. A very common mistake we all make, for example, is to overestimate the happiness we will get from buying “things”. Often the anticipation of ownership is more enjoyable than ownership itself. The novelty of the new car, work of art or piece of jewellery, for example, can wear off quite rapidly.

But when it comes to experiences, it is a different story. Based on research findings, Elizabeth Dunn and her associates say that we are far more likely to derive happiness by buying experiences instead of things. For one thing, experiences vary – unlike objects – so they retain their novelty value for far longer. For another, experiences offer more scope for happy recollections. It is not only childhood nature experiences that stay in our memory. Happy adult experiences can do the same, especially if we have them frequently. Better to have small (and less expensive) doses of happy experiences frequently than to have single, large (and possibly more expensive) doses infrequently, Dunn and co suggest.

Frequent happy experiences are easy to come by in nature – and most cost little or nothing at all. But if you have a mind to convert some of your money into happiness, then nature provides opportunities for doing this as well – establishing and maintaining a garden, taking a scenic bus trip through the “Red Centre”, having a farm-stay holiday, rafting a wild river and trekking in Nepal, for example. Even though these look like one-off investments, they work well as happiness generators because they are made up of many experiences. Exif_JPEG_PICTUREakcFarmstay holiday

I have been fortunate to have a lifetime of nature experiences. Many came my way easily and at little cost, but others required money that could have been used otherwise, including acquiring more things. But I don’t regret for one minute choosing in favour of “doing” rather than “having”.

As Jon Krakauer writes in Into the Wild:

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

 

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It is intriguing how a few simple words can provide an insight that enables you to see the familiar with greater clarity, freshness and depth. I had just this experience recently when reading an article by Claire DunnClaire-Dunn portrait in the Sunday Life magazine of the Sun-Herald for June 6, 2014.

In the article, Claire sketches her extraordinary time-out from city life and the pressures of being a professional environmental activist. She spent a year living largely alone and with only the amenities she herself crafted from the wilderness. Her shelter was a hut thatched with grass, for example, Claire Dunn in her shelterand she rejected the luxury of matches for the friction drill method of fire lighting. Her recently published book about this experience is aptly named, My Year without Matches . (An alternative title, favoured by Claire, is Rewilding the Soul – which I find encouraging because it is so close in concept and message to my own Claim Your Wildness ).Claire Dunn making fire

Her time in the wilderness taught her many things about nature and about herself. One discovery she made was that wilderness “…is less a place but more a state of being”. These are the words that have so helped me.

When I read them, I immediately realised that what is true of wilderness is true of nature generally. To be connected with nature in the deepest sense is to be a transformed “being”.

Nature, as I see more clearly now, does more than evoke the experience of beauty, relaxation, restoration, tranquillity, connectedness and wellness – the precious “gifts” I have enthused about in Claim Your Wildness and this blog. Embraced humbly, openly and as kin, nature changes who we are and how we function. It enriches our mental, emotional and spiritual capabilities in ways that are unique. It enables us to be much more the person we are capable of being.

In an interview with John Bennett, organised in conjunction with the recent Bellingen Writers Festival, Claire shared some of her thoughts on how an immersion in wilderness (read nature) impacts on our state of being. The following is my summary of what she said (liberally amplified with wonderful words of her own).

When nature has imprinted itself on our being:

  • our senses are fine-tuned and our awareness is sharpened

Claire places a high value on the sensory and other “hunter-gatherer” skills she honed in the wilderness.

 I don’t have any rose coloured glasses about wanting to return to hunting and gathering however its demise has come at a cost. We no longer see ourselves as inextricably linked to the natural world. It’s a dangerous illusion to live by. There is much to be gained from relearning these skills and integrating them into our modern life.

  • nature is experienced as a friend you want and need to be with

 I’m much more aware of the trees and birds and wild things growing around me. On another level my entire way of relating to the world and to myself has shifted. My relationship with the natural world is much more intimate. Not a distant cousin anymore but a good friend whose presence is palpable. I go to wild places regularly and just sit with this friend and experience myself as part of a larger web of relations.

  • our tolerance of urban environments is diminished

I find it hard to be on a computer for more than a few hours a day, living within four walls is claustrophobic, and I often roll out my swag and sleep on the floor next to the bed. 

  • there is a transforming consciousness of the wildness within oneself

There is currently a call to ‘rewild’ our landscapes – to bring back top order predators and repopulate the land with wild creatures. So too do we need to protect the wilds of our inner environment. We have become too domestic, our minds and sense dulled by constant stimulation. By hanging out in more-than-human environments, we provide an opportunity to enter more fully into conversation with the wild outside and the wild within. Our wild imaginations awaken to the possibilities of what our individual and collective lives can embody, what stories they might tell.  

  • we are more “alive”

My motivation for learning survival skills was not in preparation for the apocalypse. I don’t have a bunker stacked with baked bean tins and snare wire. I was drawn to learning these skills because it was the most powerful and direct way I discovered to reconnect with the earth. They make me feel truly alive. I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist about the future. I am a believer in Harold Thurman’s philosophy: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

  • we have a heightened ecological sensitivity

The way we spend time in wild places is important. Of course it’s lovely to go on a bushwalk or to have your daily walk or jog in the forest or dig in your garden. But there also needs to be time where we enter into wild places without an agenda. Instead of a walk from point A to B we enter with openness, with curiosity, a willingness to be taken someplace and discover something new. Our senses re-engage, and our imaginations blossom. This is often the originations of nature-based art, and ignites a heart-felt sense of belonging to the larger world, which as you say, naturally flows to how sensitively we live within our ecological niche.

Based on my own studies and countless hours spent in nature, I would like to add:

  • we have a strengthened desire to experience natural beauty

Beauty is a response that is accompanied by pleasure and a desire to sustain or repeat the experience. It generates feelings of happiness and, in Iris Murdock’s words, “ appears as visible and accessible access of the Good” – thus providing a sense of connection with something greater.

I wholeheartedly agree with columnist, Elizabeth Farrelly, when she writes, “Beauty is both the core ingredient of joy and our best hope for effecting the large-scale behaviour change we’ll need to save the planet”(Sydney Morning Herald, June 5, 2014).

  • we have an active sense of wonder

Wonder plays a key role in stimulating intellectual, moral and aesthetic growth over the course of human life-span.Wonder It belongs to the family of emotions that motivates exploration, creativity, a lively engagement with the environment and a greater openness to others. As Robert C Fuller says, “A life shaped by wonder is qualitatively better than a life relatively devoid of this emotion” (Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality, page 2. 

Thank you Claire for helping me to see more clearly that being connected with nature is ultimately an enhanced state of being. Is there a better reason for seeking this connection? I don’t think so.

 

 

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