The Grow Wild team share their five top tips for connecting with nature, and how they have helped their mental wellbeing throughout the pandemic.
1. Look beyond what’s in front of you
Ellen, Grow Wild’s Communications Executive, says: “I’ve found that being in the same place for most of the year can make me feel quite cabin-feverish. To combat this, I’ve tried to go on regular walks in my local area to get fresh air and sunshine, which are already great for boosting your wellbeing, but rather than walking on auto-pilot, I’ve tried to challenge myself to look beyond what’s immediately in front of me. I might look for hidden plants and fungi growing around the trees in my local park, or find a new route that takes me away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets and onto quiet back roads, where I pay attention to what’s growing in people’s front gardens. I also really enjoy seeing and identifying the wildflowers growing in the pavement cracks, or spotting a hidden carpet of Sweet Violets hidden in the undergrowth.” Paying attention to the simple beauty of nature can have a profound effect on our wellbeing, so have a look next time you go for a walk, and see what you find. You could take a notebook or use an app to record or identify your findings.
2. Follow your nose…
Alison, Grow Wild’s Programme Manager, shares: “I’ve really been enjoying the spring scents on the air lately. Whenever I detect a lovely aroma floating on the breeze, I follow my nose and try to locate the plant that it came from! If I know the plant is safe to touch, and I have permission to, I’ll often rub a leaf or flower to release the volatile essential oils which give aromatic plants their scent. Recently, I’ve really been enjoying the aromas of wild plants like Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), and Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the woods near my house, and also the Mint (Mentha piperita) that grows in my garden.” Senses play a huge part in our wellbeing, and our sense of smell, in particular, provides a direct link to the part of our brain (the amygdala) associated with emotions and memory. Ever smelled something and immediately been transported back to a particular memory or time of your life? That’s the Olfactory bulb and amygdala connection at work! Sensory gardens, as well as disciplines such as Aromatherapy, make use of this connection between our sense of smell and emotions for their therapeutic objectives.
“The process of journaling really made me begin to appreciate all the different shapes and textures”
3. Get to know the ‘locals’
Phoebe, one of Grow Wild’s Engagement Assistants, says: “I’ve been making more of an effort to notice and learn the names of the plants growing in my local hedgerows. It makes me pay more attention to my natural surroundings and generally be more outward-looking! At the moment, there are lots of primroses (Primula vulgaris) and Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum), but I’ve also found some lesser-known plants which I’ve since learnt are the poisonous Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis and Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) – both species are indicators of ancient woodland! I’ve also seen Bugle (Ajuga reptans), a creeping plant that uses its runners to spread all over damp grassy areas and clearings in woodland.” Learning something new can be a satisfying and rewarding experience; there’s a reason why ‘Keep Learning’ is one of the spokes on the Wheel of Wellbeing! Why not try out your wild plant identification skills with our What’s that WildflowerWildflower ID template and factsheets, or visit our Wildflower Gallery to help you develop your skills.
4. Study the changing seasons
Isha, Grow Wild’s Engagement & Training Assistant shares her top tip: “I started an art nature journal in January to try and record the seasons changing, something that I had never had time to do before Covid-19! The process of journaling really made me begin to appreciate all the different shapes and textures of moss, as well as trying to identify the different trees I saw on my walks, just from their silhouettes! The whole project has been a lovely distraction from the challenges of the wider world, and also presented a very good reason to force myself to go outside for some fresh air during January, which typically is my least favourite month, let alone with lockdown…!” Journalling has become extremely popular as a mindfulness tool in recent years, with good reason; it has been shown by studies to provide us with a whole heap of wellbeing benefits, from better sleep to improved emotional processing. If you’d like to read more on journaling, this New York Times article has lots to say on the subject, and also links to some interesting studies.
5. Stare at the stars
Chloe, Grow Wild Training & Engagement Officer, says: “If I’m feeling stressed out by day-to-day worries or juggling lots of demands on my time, I find a really effective way to get some perspective is to look up at the stars. Looking out into the vastness of the universe, wondering what lies beyond and how things came to be always makes me feel very small. This often puts my worries into perspective and brings into focus the things in my life that really matter.” We think this tip is a brilliant one. If you live in a city, why not wrap up warm one evening, climb a hill or visit a spot with a view, and admire the twinkling city lights from afar? We’ve found that this can have a similar effect. After all, humans and cities are part of nature, too! Don’t forget to let friends and family know where you are going if walking alone at night, and take sensible precautions. Even better, bring someone along with you.
…And finally, get growing!
Whether you’re growing plants in a great big garden or sowing in a simple window box, the health benefits of getting green-fingered are well documented. One thing that’s really helped keep the whole Grow Wild team’s momentum and motivation going throughout lockdown has been sharing the fruits (and failures!) of our gardening efforts throughout the past year. We’ve connected (and commiserated) over our shared wildflower woes and vegetable victories, and whilst we haven’t worked together in person for what seems like forever, having a common thread and interest to connect us all has been a real lifeline. Connection with others is key to our wellbeing, and a shared interest makes it all the more fun to reach out, even if it’s only digitally, and connect with others who share our passion. At Grow Wild, we have plenty of online resources to help you start growing, whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a complete newbie. You can also connect with our community! Join our Facebook groups for Fungus and Wildflower growers, or come and say hi on Twitter or Instagram.
If you’d like to read more about this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, take a look at the Mental Health Foundation’s website. They have resources, videos and more information about the links between nature and our mental health.
‘I love to see the summer beaming forth And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north I love to see the wild flowers come again And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain …’
John Clare (1793-1864)
John Clare, considered by many as the finest poet in the English language, had a troubled life. His love of ‘mare blobs’ (Marsh Marigolds- see picture above) and many other dimensions of nature was not enough to prevent him developing mental illness, and he ended his days in a ‘Madhouse’ in Northampton.
But there is a wealth of historic observation and a growing body of research evidence to show that connecting with nature can be a powerful way of promoting mental (and physical) health, helping to treat ill health and aiding recovery. Our love of nature goes back a long way, as these quotes from the celebrities of their time demonstrate…
“Nature itself is the best physician.”
“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.”
– Jane Austen
“All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”
― Marie Curie
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
– Albert Einstein
Why do we love Nature?
The causes of mental illness remain largely a mystery; our understanding of physical illnesses is much greater and has spawned a wide range of scientific and medical specialties. Despite the growth in research that shows the benefits of connecting with nature, theories on why this is so are limited.
Some think it goes back to our early existence as humans when, as hunter gatherers and as early farmers, our relationship to the natural world was more direct and integrated. Somehow the traits developed then still permeate our lives today.
Other theories suggest that natural environments promote feelings of “being away” from routines and thoughts that dominate our attention and cause stress. Features such as clouds and sunsets that attract attention without requiring mental focus help to restore our minds from ‘attention fatigue’.
Robert Ulrich thinks that spatial openness, the presence of pattern or structure, water and other features of the natural world trigger feelings of interest, pleasantness and calm that allow us to recover from stress. American poet Sylvia Plath illustrates this ‘fascination’:
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, This is what it is to be happy”.
Another explanation is simply that we appreciate nature because we are part of it. As time has moved on and we have ‘progressed’ into new ways of surviving, with an emphasis on controlling and directing nature, so we have become less connected with it. What Richard Louv has described as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’-especially for children who have particularly suffered from ‘more screen, less green’ in their lives.
What are the benefits to mental health?
Being in nature- either passively sensing it (e.g. with a walk in a wood) or actively engaging with it (e.g. through gardening) can promote positive feelings and help to promote mental health. Things like:
Reducing anxiety, stress and fatigue
Raising self esteem
Improving emotional well being
Reducing hyperactivity and inattention
Building supportive relationships where some sort of communal activity is involved
And seeing or otherwise connecting with nature can aid treatment and recovery- ‘social and therapeutic horticulture’ and other therapeutic activities can target particular health needs.
Even just seeing nature can help recovery; studies have shown how patients in hospitals with east facing rooms or ‘green views’ need less pain killers and recover quicker, and hospital gardens are increasingly important features of hospital design; something that hospices have long known.
And, to an extent, some of the benefits of nature connection can be secured through indirect exposure. I recently discovered that those laying prone whilst undergoing a body scan at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital can view moving images and sounds from nature to help relax them (see above- they are even offered a variety of different films!)
How can you connect with Nature?
There is a wide range of options. At Norfolk Green Care Network, we like to define ‘green care’ as all sorts of nature connection. This diagram summarises the six main dimensions (my inadvertent use of a ‘beehive’ diagram was gratefully received by a beekeeper at one of our online workshops recently!).
As you can see, from anything that enables you to ‘sense’ nature (it might be just a view from a window or walk along a beach); through more directed activities that could involve other people (e.g. community gardens and conservation projects are wonderful ways to meet other people and build relationships); to different ways of interacting with animals (e.g. riding or engaging horses, tending to them on care farms or through special projects that use ‘pets as therapy’ by visiting people in long term care, or helping children build relationships and self-confidence).
What are the challenges?
Access– research shows that those living in areas of deprivation have generally less access to open space- can we take positive action to increase green space in these areas and improve connectivity in all communities?
Modern lifestyles- as already mentioned our lifestyles are becoming increasingly urbanised, with greater online and home-based activity- what can we do to make it ‘normal’ for people to connect with nature?
Neighbourhood planning and design- awareness is growing of the importance of access to green space as part of designing new developments that are more environmentally friendly, less car dependent and safer to walk, cycle and play in- how do we influence developers, architects and planners to design with nature connection in mind?
Care for nature- there are signs that we are becoming more aware of the importance of protecting biodiversity and taking positive action to ‘re wild’ our environment- how can we ensure an active, coordinated approach to nature protection and enhancement?
The pandemic- opportunity or threat?
Well, I think it’s potentially both….
On the one hand research has shown that the pandemic, with its associated restrictions on movement, has enabled people to appreciate nature more, (especially that ‘on the doorstep’) and to seek out green (and ‘blue’) places to connect with it. Families have been visiting these places together and with others; walking and cycling have been boosted as a part of many people’s daily routines.
But it is also clear that the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic are still yet to be fully felt; significant increases in unemployment, the mental and other stresses and strains caused by disruption to normal family routines and social contacts and so on.
So, the need for nature connection has never been greater; how do we expand the opportunities, channel and manage this activity so as not to destroy nature?
At the Norfolk Green Care Network we are not only helping our members to connect with each other but are actively finding ways to promote the growth in ‘green care’ …..and care for nature.
Churches Count on Nature runs as part of Caring for God’s Acre’s Love Your Burial Ground week from Saturday 5th June – Sunday 13th June 2021. We are asking churches to use the week as a springboard to start recording the wildlife within their churchyards.
So, if you fancy running a wildlife spotting event in Love Your Burial Ground Week then please fill out the form below or download a copy here and we will send you a link to a page where you can download various resources.
We look forward to hearing what you have discovered in your local churchyard!
Churchyards are often ideal paces for social distancing, even if you have to control the number of people coming in at any one time. We are all hoping that by June we will be able to meet up outdoors, although we recognise it may have to be in small numbers. For up-to-date government Covid-19 secure advice please visit www.gov.uk/coronavirus for activities in England and gov.wales/coronavirus for Wales.
Please register your activities – download a copy here. You should get an autoreply to your registration email containing our logo which you can use in your publicity – please check your spam folder if this does not arrive. Don’t forget to visit our resources page to help you with planning your activity.
Tesco have launched a community grant scheme that has a specific focus on funding projects that help to alleviate food poverty, e.g. whether that be for a new community vegetable garden, food banks, breakfast clubs for children, etc.
The Tesco Community Grant scheme has recently re-branded and they wish to have an application in all store voting booths (the blue token scheme) that relates to food poverty.
Applications are currently very low- each application could equal up to £1,500 of funding.
We’re delighted to have received the go ahead from Natural England to restore White-tailed Eagles to West Norfolk and Eastern England! We’re hugely excited that we will all have the opportunity to watch this charismatic bird soar through big Norfolk skies once more.
The approval comes after a full feasibility study was conducted, including a public consultation that ran during January and February. We were overwhelmed by the support during the consultation, where 91% of survey respondents gave their support to the propoals, including 83% who said they were “strongly supportive”. Huge thanks from our team for those of you that supported us! You can read more on the news in our latest blog.
But before any eagles can be reintroduced at Wild Ken Hill, we need to build them a new temporary home where they stay for the first few weeks, and have the capacity to feed them during this period (we need to keep a lot of frozen fish!). We also need to the purchase the equipment to monitor their health while they are at Wild Ken Hill and once they have been reintroduced into open skies, which is vital for their ongoing wellbeing.
We are asking for your help to get this vital infrastructure ready, allowing us to bring the first juvenile birds from Poland in 2022 and reintroduce them at Wild Ken Hill. With your help, we can get this project started.
Join us by donating or purchasing one of the awesome rewards, like a private tour at Wild Ken Hill, or a chance to choose names for Norfolk’s new eagles. Thank you in advance for your support, we are truly grateful.
As part of our commitment to maintaining a transparent and open-book approach, we have made availablethe full study that was conducted to assess the feasibility of reintroducing White-tailed Eagles to Norfolk. We hope the study demonstrates that the comprehensive and detailed manner in which the project team examined the potential benefits and risks of going ahead with such a project.
This one-off competition offers 18 grants to Social Farms & Gardens members to support summer activities that will connect children from disadvantaged backgrounds with nature.
For the last 25 years, Hilden Charitable Fund has provided small grants to voluntary and community groups across the UK to help run summer play schemes for the benefit of disadvantaged children. This year, however, the charity is partnering with Social Farms & Gardens (SF&G) to support SF&G member. (Please note it will not be running its annual summer scheme in 2021.)
The Fund is offering 18 grants of £1,500 to support local summer play activities taking place in July and August 2021.
Applications are open to existing members of Social Farms & Gardens who are located in the UK. This includes registered charities, not-for-profit companies, schools or educational bodies, CIOs, SCIOs, and CICs.
Applicants must have previous experience of running successful activities for children.
The activities must:
Connect children with nature.
Encourage participation from children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The terms and conditions and online application form can be found on the Social Farms & Gardens website.
The deadline for applications is midday on 24 May 2021. Successful applicants will be notified by 11 June 2021.