Archive for January, 2015

I have just seen the film, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s  account of her 1700 km hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. As someone who has trained over 500 people for backpacking and camping activities, I cringed watching the scenes showing how unprepared Cheryl was for the venture and the initial difficulties she had as a result. I had to remind myself that her grieving and despairing state of mind left little room for thoughtful and thorough preparation and planning.

In the film, the part of Cheryl Strayed is played by Reese Reese Witherspoon in WildWitherspoon. In a Sydney Morning Herald  Spectrum article about the role, Reese explains that the director insisted that she came to the making of the film as much a novice about extended wilderness hiking as was Cheryl Strayed in the early days of the actual walk. This meant that Reese actually experienced some of the mental and physical hardships that Cheryl endured.

It also meant that she had the opportunity to experience the special joy and satisfaction that comes from meeting challenges in the natural world. This is how she recalls one particular challenge, that of starting a fire without matches or a lighter:

One day, when I set up camp off the trail, I rubbed sticks, made fire and started screaming. (There is no scene of her actually doing this in the film)

I was in the middle of the woods screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” at the top of my lungs. I was jumping up and down for joy. If you saw me in that moment, you would have thought that I’d lost my mind”.

Why did this sophisticated young woman find lighting a fire without modern aids so exhilarating?  The exuberance of her reaction suggests her success meant more to her than simply getting a fire started.

I know from first-hand experience that lighting a fire with sticks, even using the bow and drill method, can be something of a physicalStart-a-Fire-With-a-Bow-Drill and technical challenge.

There is also an element of mental challenge about it, especially for people like us who are beneficiaries of the conveniences and comforts of living in WIERD societies (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). It requires us to do something that is totally or largely unaffected by civilisation – something that is “primitive” in other words.

Lighting a fire with materials and “tools” gathered from the forest brings the fire-lighter and nature very close together. Success depends on being able to collaborate with nature on nature’s terms. You have to have suitable materials, appropriate sticks and the “right” technique. If you don’t meet nature’s terms and conditions, you don’t have a fire.

Fire-lighting and other primitive activities require an intimate connection with nature. For many of us making such a connection is novel and inherently challenging. It requires us to venture into an unfamiliar and uncertain space, but making that journey successfully can be very satisfying. I believe that a large part of Reese Witherspoon’s elation was an expression of just this kind of satisfaction.

Making Wild, gave her many other opportunities to undertake FOX_9534.psd“primitive” activities, including wading streams, scrambling rocks, and plodding through knee deep snow. Even some of the hiking she had to do on location would have involved some degree of primitiveness, especially as she was carrying a massive backpack, sometimes over steep and rough terrain.

I do not find it at all surprising that Reese found the challenges and hardships of filming Wild “transformative”.

It was so liberating, so freeing, she said. It was all about, “Yes, I can survive this, so maybe I can survive anything”.

Reese was not actually in real-life survival situations in the way that Cheryl Strayed often was. Nevertheless, she was genuinely challenged at times and genuinely immersed in primitive activities. As a result, nature was able to place positive and healthy demands on her.

That is how it is with most nature activities. To varying degrees, they extend us physically and/or mentally and provide us with opportunities to enter more fully into conversation with the wild outside and the wild within, as Claire Dunn (author of My Year Without Matches) so aptly puts it.

The conversation with “the wild outside” does not have to be in the context of high adventure or radical withdrawal from everyday life. Cheryl Strayed’s example is not one that we need or should necessarily aspire to follow.

There are many simple and accessible nature activities that can spark the conversation. Some examples are:

  • taking a short walk (mindfully) along a bush track or beach
  • wading a shallow stream,
  • walking barefoot over grass, moss, leaf litter or sand,
  • scrambling up a gently sloping rock face

Rock scrambling cropped

  • making a campfire (with or without matches)
  • climbing a tree (part way will do)
  • stepping across a creek on stones
  • building a cubby (kids) or a shelter (adults)


Kids in a cubby






  • gazing at the night sky from a wilderness vantage point
  • sitting in a rock overhang

These are all activities I have done alone and with others. I never cease to tire of them and they never cease to be satisfying and “re-creating”. They all help me to maintain an intimate relationship with the natural world. Through them I experience nature not as a distant cousin (to borrow again the words of Claire Dunn) but a good friend whose presence is palpable.


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Ask any professional garden designer or landscape architect about building garden paths, and I am confident that they will recommend including a curve or two wherever possible. The reason is simple: people usually find a winding path more attractive than a straight one.

Straighten this path out in your mind’s eye and compare the two images. Which do you prefer? Attractive path b

It is intriguing how the slightly curving stone path with its flanking vegetation makes this potentially dull side-passage into a place of interest and beauty.




See what the curve does to this boardwalk through mangroves.








Do you agree that it does a good job of integrating the engineered structure, the boardwalk, into its natural surroundings? You may also sense that the curved section is easier on the eye than the straight or rectilinear one.

This is likely to be your experience because human eyes and brains find rounded shapes easier (and more pleasurable) to process. Corners and sharp angles require more effort. In fact, angles can be a turn-off. One reason why spiders (even harmless Spiderones) evoke disgust and fear in many people is the angularity of their legs. Other reasons are their generally drab colour and their unpredictable movement.

Here is a diagram that nicely illustrates the point about curves. Which of the pathways between the boxes do you find easier to follow – the one with the curves or the one with the angles?


Do you find that your eyes are led smoothly on the curved path but not on the angled one? But there is much more to the attractiveness of curved pathways than easy visual processing.

If you compare again the two images of the boardwalk, you are likely to feel that the curved one is the more inviting. You can easily imagine that if you were actually on the boardwalk, you would be drawn to follow it round the curve – not simply to take in more of what you can already see, but to engage what you can’t see.

The appeal of the curve lies largely in the sense of mystery it creates. As your gaze moves along the curved path, you get a glimpse of a vista beyond, but information about this vista is hidden from us by the bend itself, as well as by the distant trees. Therein lies the element of mystery – the feeling that we could gather new information about the vista and other things by following the path and looking around the bend. To secure this new information, we would have to move from our present vantage point to a new one. We would have to do some exploring in other words.

Mystery in a non-threatening form is a prime motivator of exploration, especially when we are out and about in nature. For humans, exploration has been and remains a very important response. It satisfies our basic need to understand our environment – for survival purposes and to satisfy our brains’ insatiable need for the stimulation of novelty and change.

A natural or constructed path, especially one that winds or curves, is a common cue forBulga%20Denis exploration. And a path or a riverbank that can be followed into the distance can greatly increase the appeal of a landscape.

That is why curving paths, rivers and roads are found in landscape art across the world. Their impact is particularly potent if the scene suggests that a fertile valley or cool mountains might be where the path leads.


Landscape paintingLandscape painting b






We are usually not conscious of the influence of “curviness” on our feelings, actions, attitudes and even our values. The same is true for angles, flowers and many other features, objects and symbols that make up the fabric of the world we experience. Subconscious influences like these affect our thinking and behaviour in many unexpected ways. You can find many more examples in Adam Alter’s fascinating book, Drunk Tank Pink.

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Flowers have featured in two recent Australian news stories.

The first was about the deeply distressing loss of two young lives in a hostage drama in

ABC photo

ABC photo

Sydney’s Martin Place. The outpouring of grief, sadness and sympathy across the Sydney community and beyond was deeply affecting. People from a wide range of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds came in their thousands to the place where the drama played out. Some came to convey their sentiments simply with their presence but many brought floral tributes. These were placed informally side by side on the pavement of Martin Place. The display grew rapidly until it became a beautiful and fragrant tableau, reminiscent of the one that Londoners created following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The second story is that of a magnificent gesture of sympathy and compassion by journalist, Paul McGeough and his photographer associate, Kate Geraghty. In the face Sunflower MH17of serious obstacles, not to mention dangers, they harvested sunflower seeds from the field at Rassypnoe where MH17 had plummeted to the ground. Their purpose is to offer the seeds to families of the victims as tokens of remembrance – aptly described as a “simple and elegant gesture”.

The use of flowers to express grief, sympathy and compassion is not at all surprising. It is a traditional and very widespread custom, just as is giving flowers to express a range of other sentiments such as love, friendship, gratitude, contrition, support, pride and joy. For thousands of years, flowers have served as symbols and tokens of emotions. There are records of the flower-giving in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese writing, as well as in Greek and Roman mythology.

In England of the Middle Ages, giving flowers was one way of getting around the prohibition on open displays of affection. By Victorian times a whole language of flowers had evolved, with books being written to help people choose the correct flower for the message they wanted to send, a red rose for “I love you”, for example, or a sweet pea for “Goodbye”, or a white violet for “Let’s take a chance”.

But neither the length of the tradition nor the cultural sophistication of flower-giving answers the underlying question, “Why flowers?”. Obviously, their ready availability in most societies makes them a convenient choice, but that still leaves open the question, why choose to use them at all? After all, humans have rich spoken and written languages to draw upon as well as the non-verbal language of gestures and facial expression. I am sure that many a love-struck English couple in the Middle Ages, for example, declared their ardour quite effectively with discreet and private exchanges of meaningful looks.

The sheer extent to which flowers figure in human displays of sentiment and in behaviour generally points to a much deeper answer than their mere availability. In fact, this availability itself needs to be explained. Even as open urban land becomes scarcer, domestic and public flower gardens survive and there is no sign that our desire for flowers is diminishing. According to Wikipedia, the global floral industry is currently worth more than $US 100 billion and growing. When you consider the limited practical usefulness and short lifespan of flowers, this figure is astonishing.

It is, for me, further clear evidence that our demand for flowers is driven by our emotions much more than our rational minds. How flowers come to be associated in our minds with so many of our emotions is not known for certain. The existence and complexity of the association across human societies, cultures and histories indicate that more than learning is involved. It seems much more likely that our brains have been primed by evolution to respond emotionally to flowers in a way that favours their use in social communication and interaction.

The power of flowers to elicit strong feelings and to bring people together has been investigated by Professor Jeannette Haviland-Jones. In the first of her studies she compared the responses of 147 women (aged from 20 to 60+ years) to three different gifts – a mixed-flower bouquet, a basket of fruit and sweets and a candle on a stand. In the second study, 122 people (60 men, 62 women) were observed after they had entered an elevator alone. Once in the elevator, each person was exposed to one of four conditions – receiving the gift of a single Gerber Daisy, observing (but not receiving) a basket of the Gerber Daisies, receiving the gift of an inscribed pen, and receiving no gifts or observing no flowers. The third study involved “seniors” and involved tracing the effects on mood of receiving flowers (one bouquet for one group of subjects, two for another) at intervals over a one to three weeks period.

The behaviour observed in the studies was amazingly consistent from one person to another. In response to flowers, more than to other objects, there was a genuine Woman receiving flowers(Duchenne) smile of happiness; there were feelings of pleasure that could not be attributed to the surprise of receiving a gift, and there was a boost to mood that lasted for as long as several days. It was also evident that flowers helped to reduce social distance and to facilitate conversation.

Haviland-Jones suggests that evolution could have worked in two ways to produce our substantial emotional response to flowers. It could have fashioned the response to promote the successful search for food – flowers having strong associations with fruit and seeds. Or there could have been some degree of co-evolution whereby flowers acquired features that increased their attractiveness to humans and thus the likelihood that humans would become willing but unwitting agents in seed dispersal.

Whatever the answer to the question, Why flowers?, turns out to be, our relationship with flowers will remain something to value and marvel at. It will always be a window to our wider connection with the natural world and to our inner selves.

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