Posts Tagged ‘Connecting with nature’

Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire


indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends


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In Japan, this remarkable object could well be a wedding gift not because of its obvious delicate beautyIMG_0294 cropped but for what it signifies – love that lasts a lifetime.

Known as Venus’ Flower Basket, it is actually the skeleton of a sponge (Genus Euplectella) that is found on the ocean floor, at a depth of 100 – 1000 metres, off Japan, the Philippines and other western Pacific countries including Australia.

Looking more like a vase than a basket, the skeleton is made from glass produced by the sponge itself from silica it extracts from the surrounding sea water. Yes, this simple creature is able to convert dissolved silica into glass as genuine as any that human technology can produce from sand and quartz.

Not only that, the sponge fashions that glass into a structure that has the rigidity to withstand the huge pressures of deep water. It manages this by combining amazingly efficient microscopic building blocks called spicules (Think of three spikes intersecting at right angles to one another) into the geometrically elegant network that you can see in the photo. Fragile as it may appear, the resulting structure is incredibly strong and resistant to cracking. Architects and engineers have studied it in search of ways to build more robust buildings, especially skyscrapers.

Engineers in the field of fibre optics are also looking to the Venus’ Flower Basket for guidance, and in particular at the hair-like fibres at the base of the skeleton. These fibres anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. They also act like optical fibres transmitting light along their length. The intriguing thing is that they do this better than the industrial fibre optic cables currently available for telecommunication and other applications. Additionally, the sponge’s fibres are more flexible than the man-made variety. What is more, the sponge makes its fibres at very low temperatures using natural materials – a process scientists hope someday to mimic because the existing manufacturing process requires very high temperatures and has other limitations.

Beautiful as the skeletal Venus’ Flower Basket is, it pales in comparison to the living animal, which actually glows in the darkness of the ocean depths. The sources of this light are bioluminescent bacteria that live in the cells of the sponge. Attracted by the glow, male and female shrimp larvae enter the central cavity or atrium of the sponge, happily staying there to feed on the left-overs and waste from the sponge’s diet of plankton.

By the time the sponge has finished growing, the top of the atrium has been sealed, trapping the now mature shrimps inside. But everyone is happy. The shrimp have a perfect “love nest” for life, a secure home and a reliable source of food, and the sponge has a couple of resident cleaners. It is even an ideal set-up for the shrimps’ offspring, as these are small enough to exit through the walls of mum and dad’s sponge and set off on their own to find a mate and make a home for themselves in another sponge.

So there you have it. Because of a shrimp love affair, the Euplectella skeleton has come to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and to be adopted as a symbol of a happy married life.

But Euplectella, the living creature, symbolises something of much greater significance for human well-being and advancement. As mentioned, this simple creature has found the solution to technical problems that continue to tax human ingenuity, making it both an example and a symbol of the “genius of nature”. Engineers and scientists look to Euplectella as a source of insight and inspiration, valuing and respecting it for what it can teach them.

Surrounded as we are by the products of human ingenuity and creativity, it is easy to think that the problems of existence, big and small, will be solved only by the human mind. This view ignores the reality that nature has been addressing the same or similar problems for 3.8 billion years – and producing extraordinarily efficient, enduring and graceful solutions. We are privileged to live in a very competent universe.

One of the smartest things humankind can do in the quest for solutions to the problems that face us is to first “ask nature”. Doing this is far easier than you might imagine as there is a fascinating website that can be consulted by anyone. I urge you to go to this site right now. When you are there, try sampling what the site offers by exploring this question: How does nature maintain community? Do this by selecting the following links: (1) maintain community (left-hand column), (2) co-operate and compete  (central column), (3)within the same species (central column), (4) collaborating for group decisions: honeybees (right-hand column). This will lead you to a summary of the work being done by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois looking at ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts. And where are they looking for inspiration? – to honeybees.

This is one of almost 1800 examples you can find on the site of an approach to innovation and development called bio-mimetics. As its label suggests, the approach involves the conscious emulation of the forms, systems and processes of nature.

Perhaps the best known product of bio-mimetics is the Velcro fastener. The Swiss engineer, George de velcro burrMestral, developed Velcro by adapting the system some burrs use to cling to cloth and fur.

More than a very wise problem-solving strategy for scientists, engineers and other innovators, bio-mimetics is also a way of valuing and respecting nature for everyone. An underpinning philosophy of bio-mimetics is that nature has more to teach us about living well, harmoniously, sustainably and gracefully on the planet than we could ever imagine.

Humans are masters at exploiting the material resources of nature and dangerously abusing the planet in the process. We need urgently to extend our recognition and appreciation of, and our readiness and willingness to be guided by, nature’s knowledge, genius and wisdom.

Much is being said at the moment about building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) capabilities within our society. The philosophy and method of Bio-mimetics need to be at the heart of that undertaking.

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

It is also essential that society as a whole becomes much more aware and respectful of nature’s capacity to inform, inspire and guide our scientists, technologists, engineers and manufacturers. This will require, among other things, the expansion of environmental education in our schools and vastly enriched communication between scientists, especially those in the natural sciences, and the rest of society.

In a following post, you will meet a gifted artist who is using her talents to help Australian scientists share their message – something to look forward to, believe me.


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Please do not read any further until you have clicked on this link  and discovered (or re-visited) a very different and remarkable website and blog.

Josh Gross, the creator of the site and author of the blog, has channelled his love of nature in a way

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

that is both unique and inspirational. More than that, he has made his blog a powerful advocacy tool on behalf of a number of species of endangered or threatened animals. Needless to say, I was both delighted and honoured when Josh agreed to write a guest post for ourgreengenes. He has entitled his post “My personal relationship with nature: loss and recovery”. You will read how he had the common adolescent experience of disengagement from nature. But you will also be intrigued and even surprised by the experiences that restored his connection and indeed took it to new heights.(Make certain you follow all the links.)    


My personal relationship with nature has not been entirely smooth. As a child I was enamored with the natural world, as many children are. But unlike some children I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to foster this connection.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full    of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

My father frequently took me to one of the excellent metro parks near my house, which are oases in the sprawling Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. There was one park in particular that contained an enclosed wildlife observation area replete with bird feeders; as well as several miles of trails. I spent many hours there watching the birds, walking in the woods, and interrogating the naturalists.

In addition to exploring my local parks, I was an avid reader as a child. The vast majority of the books I checked out from the library concerned animals. I probably read every children’s book (and a few adult books) they had about wolves. But reading about exotic creatures paled in comparison to the thrill of seeing them at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

When I was young, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the zoo. Wolves, cheetahs, lions, tigers; all the animals I was enchanted by were there. Then, sometime in middle school I visited the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s RainForest location for the first time. I suddenly found myself immersed in an environment richer than any I had experienced before. Obviously it was artificial, but the RainForest was real enough to capture my imagination. I can honestly say that my childhood visits to the zoo helped make me who I am today.


My love for the natural world never completely left me. But during late adolescence it faded into the background. It is at this point in Western society that one must decide how to go about scrounging for the social construct of money. I had a dilemma: my greatest interest was wildlife but my disposition and talents strongly favored people-oriented work. At first I tried to take the natural sciences route. But I found social science courses to be much more enjoyable, as I was captivated by the mystery of why we humans do what we do. Therefore I ended up majoring in psychology, and eventually entered a Master’s program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. But it would not last.


I never forgot my first love. I always returned to natural spaces whenever I needed to think, and my free time became ever more filled with television programs that featured wild areas. The more my educational life was consumed by Gestalt and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the more I escaped into the electronic world of Survivorman and River Monsters . I also kept working for the same parks district I frequented as a child, even though I knew it was in the ‘wrong’ field. It was as if my unconscious mind was aware of something I was consciously ignoring.

Then the façade came crashing down. My forays into electronic procrastination led me to watch several documentaries featuring the non-profit group Panthera. So out of curiosity I ordered a copy of Alan Rabinowitz’s An Indomitable Beast . I do not know why, but this book affected me like few others. It left me enamored with this creature, the jaguar, and I had to know everything about it. In a fit of desperation I e-mailed Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity , asking if there was anything I could do to aid in jaguar recovery in the United States. Unbelievably, he replied.

Since I was enrolled in graduate school, Michael suggested I could use the educational resources at my disposal to locate a number of hard-to-find texts. The goal was to uncover references to jaguars outside of their commonly accepted historical range in the U. S.

This work enthralled me like nothing before; everything about it felt right. I had to find a way to contribute more to jaguar conservation in the future. Imagine my relief, then, when frantic googling revealed that there is such a thing as conservation psychology . It might actually be possible for me to apply psychological knowledge to biodiversity conservation. Not only that, but there are actually graduate programs at respected universities that can prepare me to enter this field. The stars had aligned.

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

Moving Forward

Thanks to a combination of hard work, fortuitous circumstances, and human kindness; I am set to become part of Humboldt State University’s Environment & Community program this August. Not only will I get to study the human dimensions of conservation, but I will be living in an area inhabited by both people and mountain lions (Puma concolor).

My blog at thejaguarandallies.com has also opened up new possibilities. As it turns out, I have some skill as a writer. Given the importance of communicating scientific information to the public in a way that is both accurate and engaging, I cannot help but wonder if this will become a more prominent part of my life.


My story contains a few key points. First of all, urban green spaces should not be taken for granted. It was my local metro parks district that first allowed me to nurture my love for nature. Second, despite their drawbacks, zoos can have important benefits. My childhood visits to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo enhanced my fascination with wildlife and taught me about the challenges they face. Lastly, every form of communication should be exploited in order to create a more sustainable future. Nature documentaries, River Monsters, and especially Survivorman served as lifelines for me when my relationship with nature became a peripheral concern. Live wildlife programs like Wild Safari Live are the future of this genre.

My relationship with nature has not been smooth, and at one point I nearly lost it. But unforeseen events helped me rediscover my greatest passion, and I finally feel like I am on the right path.


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bz A room with a viewAs this is my 100th ourgreengenes post, I thought it appropriate to write about the aspect of nature that has meant most to me. It is not nature’s beauty, wonder or tranquillity or its calming, restorative or therapeutic effects, or its nurturing impact on the developing minds and bodies of our children – precious and priceless as all of these “gifts” are.

Rather, it is the somewhat mysterious, even mystical, sense of connection with the cosmos that certain experiences in natural settings evoke. Even after 40 years, I can vividly recall one such experience.

At the end of a long, hard day of trekking in central Nepal, I was walking a little apart from my companions, weary and looking forward to reaching the campsite. I arrived at a small saddle and there in front of me was the full eastern face of Mt Dhaulagiri rising the best part of 7000 metres from the valley of the Kali Gandaki River. I was overwhelmed but I remember exclaiming to myself, “It can’t be true!”. Time stopped for me as I was totally caught up in the scene. I have no idea how long I remained there, utterly transfixed (I still get goose bumps recalling it). When I finally made my way to the camp, I had completely forgotten my fatigue and my mood had changed. Somehow the world seemed a better place.

Embedded in this experience, an example of what I call a “high moment”, was a deep sense of “oneness” with the panorama before me. Indeed, this sense of unity seemed to embrace something even more immense and grand – something of which I was completely a part. The boundaries of my “self” were utterly breached; self-awareness was replaced by a consciousness of the oneness or unity of all things.

This and other high moments in nature have left me with the unshakeable conviction that

human life is not an individual existence but a cosmic relationship.

It is true that we all have a deep awareness of our individuality and separateness. Our brains have evolved to provide us with a sense of being an individual, separate from all other individuals and entities. One of the functions of the insula region of our brain, for example, is to weave our sensations, memories, social perceptions, imaginings and expectations into a dynamic autobiographical narrative that we can hold on to as “I”, “me” and “mine”. Such a powerful sense of personal identity is essential because it gives meaning and purpose to all of our efforts to live, love and leave a legacy – to thrive and survive in other words.

But our separateness is an illusion. Being part of the unity that is the cosmos (which is what I mean by our “cosmic relationship”) connects us with everything and everyone else. We are actually part of a seamless whole in which “one is all, and all is one”.

The “felt” (as distinct from a purely intellectual) awareness of our cosmic relationship lies at the heart of wilderness or natural spirituality. Peter Ashley from the University of Tasmania has investigated people’s experience of wilderness spirituality in order to identify its defining characteristics. The salient features he found were:

  • a feeling of connection to and interrelationship with other people and nature;
  • a heightened sense of awareness and elevated consciousness beyond the everyday and corporeal world (transcendence);
  • the intellectual and emotional responses of peace, tranquillity, harmony, happiness, awe, wonder, and humbleness; and for some
  • the presence of religious meaning and connotations.

Of these features, the first was by far the most commonly reported. This is interesting but not surprising as relationships figure prominently in more general definitions of spirituality, an example being:

Spirituality is a deep feeling of compassion and unity and relatedness and connection with all of existence. (Satish Kumar)

According to Baylor Johnson , the spirituality we experience in nature confers a number of benefits. The list he has compiled includes:

the enduring’            coming face to face with ancient things and timeless cycles;

the sublime’               being humbled by the awesomeness of the wilderness landscape;

beauty’                       enjoying aesthetic pleasure;

peace of mind’          feeling calm and stress-free; and

self-forgetting’         escaping the clamour of “worldly” concerns and anxieties.

No doubt others would want to add encountering the sacred and divine to the list. And I am personally aware of instances where the spiritual impact of nature has been literally life-transforming. One that I was privileged to observe first-hand involved Irene who was on my Annapurna Sanctuary trek and later went on to devote her life to the education of orphan children in Uganda.

There are certain features of natural landscapes that are widely recognized as having spiritual connotations, including:

  • high mountainsWilderness spirituality b
  • towering cliffs
  • ancient forests
  • deserts
  • caves, canyons and overhangs, and
  • water in all its guises.

af Red sands and spinifex

There are particular natural features and places that should stir the soul of even the most nature-averse person. The Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal is surely one of them.

bl Machhapuchhari from Annapurna B C

But a spiritual response is not inevitable even in such an overwhelmingly awesome place. It will be evoked in some who go there but not others.

People who already have an affinity with nature are much more likely to experience wilderness spirituality. For that reason, any encounter which enriches our relationship with the natural world enhances our readiness for the experience. It is possible that there are some who stand in the Annapurna Sanctuary and see only a stunningly beautiful place. But others – those whose previous nature experiences have predisposed them to do so – will also feel its immense spiritual impact and understand why it is venerated by the Nepalese people.


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There have been several newspaper reports and commentaries recently holding up Finland’s education system as a model to be followed. Apparently Finland’s children lead the world in literacy, numeracy and other markers of educational progress. They manage this even though they do not start formal schooling until they are seven years old and they have more free play at school than children elsewhere. There is a mandatory 15-minute play break every hour during the school day. Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity are considered engines of learning. Outdoor play is encouraged even in the harsh Finnish winter. “There is no bad weather; only inadequate clothing” is a guiding maxim.

Finland’s approach to education is grounded in several entrenched and powerful cultural values. A high respect for and trust of teachers is one. Egalitarianism is another. A third – and the one that has really caught my attention – is referred to throughout Scandinavia as frituftsliv (free-tuufts-leave), which literally means “free air life”. Frituftsliv is a lifestyle philosophy that is a conspicuous part of educational policy not only in Finland but in other Scandinavian countries as well.

The central message of frituftsliv is the importance of experiencing the natural world directly in an uncomplicated way. This image of a three-year-old simply collecting sticks on a bushland track is highly likely to be a depiction of frituftsliv.

Object play

Frituftsliv is a relationship, not an activity. While the frituftliv’s deep emotional and spiritual connectedness can arise from many of the things we do in nature, most nature activities have nothing to do with frituftliv. Any activity in which the features and resources of nature are treated as means to an end is unlikely to qualify as frituftliv. That is why learning about nature as a hobby or as an academic undertaking is not frituftliv. Nor are “adventure” activities such as backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering and white water rafting. Even living out-of-doors is not necessarily a frituftliv experience. The same can be said of activities that use or “consume” nature as a therapy or as a means of escaping urban life.

Frituftliv is an unconditional relationship with the natural world – a relationship with no strings attached. It involves encounter, an I-you rather than an I-it form of participation with nature. Frituftliv is an acceptance of nature as it is, with all the challenges it can pose and the discomforts it can deliver. In frituftliv, there is no attempt to change nature to serve one’s own purposes; rather it is a relationship of co-operation harmony or “oneness” with nature.

In a frituftliv relationship no purpose is needed to connect with nature – just as being with a loved one is a sufficient end in itself.

That is why having no purpose for seeking the companionship of nature is the best “purpose” for doing so.

The nature that most reliably evokes frituftsliv is “true”, authentic or undisturbed nature. Scandinavia is richly endowed with nature of this kind. Irrespective of whether it is part of the public estate or privately owned, Scandinavian nature is regarded as “free” – free in the sense of being accessible to all in accordance with the unwritten convention of allemansrätten – The Right of Public Access, which provides the possibility for everyone to visit someone’s else’s land for the purpose of engaging with nature.

This “right” is bound up with the belief that “free” nature is our true home and that frituftliv is the way back to that home. While the foundations of that belief are historical and philosophical, it is now supported by a strengthening scientific case. Having evolved in natural environments, our brains are adapted to the rhythms and forms (especially fractal shapes and patterns) of nature. When we give these brains of ours the stimuli they are looking for, we are rewarded with feelings of harmony and of “coming home”.

If you have experienced a campfire experience, you may recall these feelings of calm and contentment.

When looking into a fireplace we feel the flames alive and attracting our attention. No artificial light, like the cold mechanical lifeless light of a flashlight, will ever attract us in the same way. What is the difference between the dead flashlight and the living spirit of the flames, if not the fractal rhythms that so much stimulate our perception? (Hans Gelter)

People around camp-fire

This photo reminds me that frituftliv also provides a social experience that many people in our urban, high-speed society are missing, that of sharing a nature activity where participants are dependent on one another. Through such activities, frituftliv, recreates the tribal life with the same sense of security that comes from belonging to an interdependent group. This is a human resource and a form of human wealth that we have lost in our urban life. In this and other ways, frituftliv fulfils basic human needs and creates a sensation of wholeness.

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Tree hugger bIt is not always complimentary to be called a “tree hugger”. The label is sometimes attached disparagingly to people considered by others to be overdoing the business of loving and protecting nature. It has been given to scientifically informed conservationists, as well as to people who seek the mystical properties and powers of nature (whatever these may be).Tree hugger a

But if the label means a person who enjoys a rich personal relationship with natural objects and places, then I am happy to claim it. Properly understood, the term conveys two very important ideas.

First, the “tree” part of the term points us to the fact that a relationship with “nature” has to be a relationship with particular natural places, objects, creatures and events. The vast and complex totality of nature defies being known and loved in a personal way. But we can and we do relate at a personal level to trees, flowers, lakes, landscapes, animals and a host of other particular elements of nature. We can have a genuine “love” for a particular tree, for example, a plant, a garden, a scenic lookout, a mountain or a waterfall.

Our personal relationships with nature’s elements are not only rewarding and important in themselves, but they also serve to open our hearts and minds to nature more broadly. A person’s “love of nature” is actually the composite of many “loves”. It is no accident that a passion for the well-being of nature in later often stems from childhood encounters with the natural world.

I choose the word “encounters” deliberately because of the strong link it has with the second of the ideas to be drawn from the term, “tree hugger”, the “hugger” part specifically. Giving someone a hug can be a superficial social gesture of course, but it usually conveys affection, empathy and comfort – all elements of a personal and “feeling” relationship. An authentic “tree hugger” has established just that kind of relationship with at least some and probably many elements of nature.

Way back in the 1923, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, published a landmark book about human relationships, I and Thou. In the book, he draws a distinction between “experience” and “encounter”. These, he said, represent the two basic ways or modes by which we engage the world.

In the experience (“I-it”) mode, we relate to whatever we are engaging (including another person) as an object or an “it”. We gather information about the object in order to interpret it. The object is viewed as a thing to be utilised, a thing to be known or put to some purpose. In the experience mode, we see our object as a collection of attributes and qualities (sometimes quantifiable). There is an inevitable distance between the experiencing “I” and the experienced “it”. The “I” is a more or less objective observer rather than a personal participant in this mode of engaging the world.

Do you recognise this mode? You should because, says Buber, this is the way that characterises the world we live in. People are employees, for example, or consumers, customers, clients, welfare-recipients, “negative-gearers”, refugees and illegal immigrants before they are people. In politics, economics, public institutions and even aspects of personal life, people predominantly view one another as “it” rather than “you”.

Unlike the impersonal “I-it” way of relating, the encounter or “I-you” (I-thou) mode is intensely personal. It is the person-to-person mode; the mode laden with feelings of love, affection, attraction, empathy, compassion and bonding. In encounter, there is a mental and emotional dialogue between the “I” and the “you”, as whole beings; both are changed as a result. “I-you” is a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality, while “I-it” is a relationship of detachment and separateness, one which only ever involves part of the “I” and the “it”.

We can enter into encounter with any objects that we experience; with inanimate objects; with animals; as well as with one another. With one another, the phenomenon of encounter is readily recognised as love. With animals and objects, encounter may not have all the range and richness of the love between people but it does comprise many of the same emotional elements, including affection, pleasure, reward, empathy and compassion. And just as does the highest form of love between people, it draws us into an unconditional regard and valuing of the other.

There is no doubting that this photo of Jane Goodall and Wounda depicts encounter.

Wounda farewelling Jane Goodall

Equally, it is safe to assume that the “I-it” relationship figured very prominently in the events leading up to the scenes in these photos.

Whale slaughterForest destruction b Tarkine




Now it is important not to rush to judgement about these two events simply on the basis of the kind of relationship, “I-it” or “I-you”, implicit in them. Both have a necessary place in human existence. Indeed Buber says they are equally important.

Moreover, the two modes of relating are not independent of one another. If fact, they readily change from one to the other. My fernery, for example, is an “it” to me when I doing the tasks to maintain it, butIMG_1870 very much a “you” when I am sitting contemplating it.

Perhaps a better example of the way “I-it” and “I-you” can interplay is found in North American Indian hunting attitudes and customs. Typically, the prey is accorded respect as a co-inhabitant of nature and before the kill, which is only ever for food, permission is sought from the animal’s spirit.

Although the two modes of engaging the world are equally important, Buber claims that in modern society, experience is far more highly valued than encounter. If we are to have a truly meaningful and fulfilling society (a true community), he argues, we need to make much fuller use of the neglected, encounter mode, of engaging the world.

Revisiting Buber’s ideas has led to me to something of an epiphany (or awakening). In a nutshell, I have come to realise a personal connection with nature is forged through encounter rather than experience. Experience can be part of the journey but there has to be encounter if the journey is to be completed. The chapters in my book and the many posts that now comprise my blog fall roughly into two categories – those that talk about why we need to connect with nature and those that suggest ways of making that connection. The material in the second category is by far the more important and useful because it more directly facilitates encounter.

If a person were to ask me, How can I acquire a love of nature?, my answer would be along these lines:

Spend time as often and as regularly as you can with any “bit” of nature that you find (or think you will find) appealing in some way (Find a tree to hug, so to speak). Connect emotionally rather than logically, analytically or intellectually with your “bit”. If you are able to do this, encounter will follow almost certainly with no further effort from you.  

I dedicate this post to the memory of a valued friend and colleague, Frances “Beau” Aspinall, who  awakened my interest in the writings of Martin Buber.

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Have you ever returned to a very scenic place that you hadn’t visited for some time and found it to be more beautiful than you remembered?bluegum e

I frequently have that experience. With my days of full-pack bushwalking behind me, I am re-discovering many of the shorter day-walks I did in the early days of my bushwalking career. A few months back, I did one such walk, The Blue Gum Walk that is located in bushland on the northern margin of Sydney. Actually, it is a walk that is well-known to me as I have done it several times over the years. Nevertheless I was exhilarated – yes exhilarated – by the diverse beauty I encountered. I came away marvelling that such magnificent scenery could be found right on Sydney’s doorstep. I responded to the walk almost as if this was the first time I had done it. You might even say that I had discovered the walk again for the first time.

Why is it that my earlier very positive memories of the walk had dimmed to such an extent? Could I be suffering an unusual long-term memory problem along with whatever might be happening to my short-term memory?

I don’t think so. It is much more likely that my memory is working very much as it always has. In allowing the positive emotional content of good memories to erode over time, my brain is functioning in a typically human fashion. Generally speaking, the things that make us happy are not threatening to our survival – quite the contrary. This means that there is not the same imperative for our brains to remember such things. Things that make us happy are not likely to kill or injure us. Nasty things, on the other hand, could – so it pays our brains to be very efficient at remembering threatening experiences – especially the negative emotions like fear and disgust that such experiences evoke.

Our brains, in other words, are better at remembering the bad rather than the good things that happen to us. That is why Rick Hansen, author of Hardwiring Happiness, says that it is very important both to repeat and to dwell on happy experiences if we want them to leave a lingering beneficial legacy in our brains.

A consequence of my muted recall of the delights of The Blue Gum Walk was that I underestimated how enjoyable it was going to be. This is not surprising as expectations depend on memories.

An interesting possibility this raises is that we all tend to underestimate the positive return we will get from an anticipated nature activity. We may expect to get some pleasure from, say, a bushwalk, stroll in a park or garden visit, but less than we actually experience.

To test this possibility, Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski conducted a couple of intriguing experiments at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They took advantage of the fact that, on the Carleton University campus, it is possible to get from one place to another either along outdoor paths or through underground tunnels (popular in an Ottawa winter). In both studies, they randomly assigned participants (male and female adults, aged 16 – 48 years) to take walks either in the tunnels or outdoors along the paths through natural features. The researchers tested two predictions:

  • participants would enjoy walking outdoors more than indoors and that the outdoor walkers would feel more connected with nature;
  • participants would make forecasting errors, such that they would underestimate their enjoyment of the outdoor walk.

The results of the experiments supported both predictions. Walking outdoors produced better moods but the extent of the emotional buzz was not fully anticipated even though the predictions were about walks in familiar areas.

Nesbit and Zelenski draw this conclusion from their studies:

To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximise their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature.

 In other words, lower expectations about the pay-off from nature activities means fewer such activities are chosen.

For those of us in the business of promoting greater society-wide engagement with nature, any guideline for helping people make pro-nature lifestyle choices is welcome. Nesbit and Zelenski’s findings may be suggesting just such a guideline, namely increase expectations about nature’s pay-offs.

If you asked Rick Hansen how this could be achieved, I am confident that he would emphasise two broad strategies:

  • Help yourself to pleasurable nature experiences often and regularly – these can be as simple as spending a few minutes in a nearby park or garden;
  • Savour the experience deeply so that it stirs your brain’s memory networks into sustained activity.

Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff have written a book about savouring, a process of being deliberately mindful of pleasure and attentive to its source. They describe a range of techniques for savouring, including:

  • Be absorbed: Go with the “flow”. Stay with your feelings and try not to think about what is happening and why. Dwell in the moment and be aware of your oneness with the object of your contemplation. Ignore the presence of others and shut out distracting thoughts. Don’t rush for the camera – give priority to making a “psychological” record rather than a photographic or electronic one.
  • Sharpen perceptions: Accept nature’s implicit invitation to discover more. Let your attention take you deeper into the experience. Observe mindfully – listen, taste, feel, smell as well as look. Follow Rachel Carson’s suggestion to focus as if this is the last time you will have the experience.
  • Support memory storage: After allowing time for absorption, take a photo, make a sketch, or write a diary or journal entry. Reminisce about your experience with a friend. If appropriate keep a physical souvenir (a pebble, feather or leaf, for example).


As I have decided that I could do a good deal more savouring on my bushwalks, I am on the lookout for practical savouring activities to try. As an example, a friend has suggested spending half an hour of each bushwalk simply observing the insect and other life on a small patch of the forest floor or on the trunk of a tree. Other suggestions gratefully received (use the comments box if you like).

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