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Doing what comes naturally

Pre-baby boomers like me will remember the 1940s musical, Annie Get Your Gun and a song from the show, Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly

Pre-baby boomers like me will remember the 1940s musical, Annie Get Your Gun and a song from the show, Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly. The song was slightly risqué for its time, comprising such verses as:

Cousin Nell can’t add or spell

But she left school with honours

She got every known degree;

followed by the chorus:

Doin’ what comes natur’lly

Doin’ what comes natur’lly.

I sometimes recall this song when I am thinking about connecting with nature, which is certainly something that is ‘natural’ for us to do. In the presence of nature, we respond ‘instinctively’ and intuitively. We are not taught to experience the beauty of a bunch of flowers, for example, the awesomeness of a towering tree, the wonder of a coral reef or the serenity of a mountain lake. Nor have we learned to find a forest relaxing, or the view of indoor plants restful or an encounter with a ‘cuddly’ or friendly animal disarming and heartwarming. We just do.

That is one reason why connecting with nature is easy. We have been programmed by evolution to seek it and to be rewarded for doing so.

A second reason is that nature is easy to find. It is virtually all around us. Some people mistakenly believe that nature is distant—always outdoors, often remote and sometimes alien. But nature can be in and around our homes and in our neighbourhood and suburb. It can be as close as the plants in your living room or on your balcony or patio, for example.

What’s more, we do not have to experience nature directly to enjoy its pleasures and benefits. Artworks and photos inspired by nature can stir the same emotions as the real thing, not as powerfully perhaps but just as genuinely. The same is true for other things that evoke a sense of the natural world, particularly natural materials, colours, forms, shapes, patterns and textures.

The fact that nature can be brought into homes, workplaces and urban spaces has led to the ‘biophilic design’ movement in architecture, urban planning and interior decorating. The movement is based on principles that represent the elements of nature to which we are most responsive, such as:

  • natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity
  • natural ventilation
  • plant and animal life
  • nature’s rhythms and cycles
  • naturally occurring still and moving water
  • beautiful vegetation and awesome scenery
  • places of calm, restoration and tranquillity

The biophilic design principles provide practical guidelines we can all use to bring nature into our lives. I have devised a Connecting with nature planning aid based on the principles. The ‘aid’ consists of 12 questions, including:

  • How can I experience natural light that is constantly changing in direction and intensity?
  • How can I experience plant and animal life along with nature’s rhythms and cycles?
  • How can I experience open and moving water?
  • How can I experience the sights, sounds, textures, tastes and scents of nature?

Here are a couple of illustrations of how the aid could work for you.

In answer to the first question, you might think of adopting such practices as:

  • adjusting curtains, blinds, doors and shutters to admit as much natural light as possible
  • softening domestic lighting in the hour before bedtime
  • taking short walks in the early morning sunlight and again during twilight

Actions for the longer term that might come to mind include replacing solid doors with glass ones, installing a skylight or creating an outdoor fireplace or fire pit (to increase exposure to light at the red end of the spectrum).

The second question might lead you to identify such actions as:

  • having a house, patio and/or balcony garden
  • decorating living and work areas with indoor plants
  • installing a fish tank
  • placing nature pictures or posters on your desk and walls
  • listening to birdsong CDs and DVDs, e.g., ‘A Morning in the Australian Bush’, ‘Favourite Australian Birdsong’, ‘Nature Walks – In the Forest’
  • walking regularly to look at neighbourhood gardens

Among the more distant options you might choose are spending time in local parks, bushwalking, community gardening, taking part in environmental protection programs, going on a wildlife safari, and regularly visiting scenic attractions, zoos and aquaria.

You can find the full version of the Connecting with nature planning aid in my forthcoming book, Connect with Nature: One of the Best Things You Can Do for Yourself, Others and Planet Earth.

When choosing green activities, it is useful to find out about the nature that is in and around your locality. You could start with a search of maps of your district and then do some exploring by car, bicycle or on foot. Your local council is almost certain to have information about parks and gardens and community green activities, such as Landcare. If you find places close (within a kilometre) to home, so much the better, but don’t disregard places that are further afield. You could consider visiting those weekly or monthly, maybe to add some ‘green’ variety to your walking, jogging or cycling program. Visitor or tourist information centres in your town or city could also be helpful. If there are popular outdoor recreation areas available to you, information about these could be on the Internet or in walking guidebooks and local publications.

As you may have gathered, activities for connecting with nature (or ‘green’ activities) are many and varied. You will find more than a hundred (for infants, children and adolescents as well as adults) listed in my book. There are activities for virtually everyone. This is another reason why connecting with nature is easy; we can all do it in ways that suits our individual preferences, needs, capabilities and circumstances.

Many green activities occupy only a few minutes; some require much longer. So, you could find yourself choosing several short activities, a handful of longer ones or a combination of the two. The time spent in nature activities is important. A forest walk of 30 minutes, for example, is more likely to reduce stress than one of, say, 10 minutes. A rough rule of thumb is to devote 120 minutes per week to nature activities. But it is worth remembering that the quality of our engagement with nature is as important as its duration—possibly more so.

In saying that connecting with nature is easy, I am aware that modern life throws up barriers and impediments to having quality time in nature—work demands, family responsibilities and the allure of social media and electronic entertainment, for example.

While many of the obstacles to connecting with nature are genuine, others are mostly in our minds. Some people are put off spending time in natural settings by misconceptions about what nature is and what nature activities involve. The mistaken belief that nature exists only in rural regions, national parks and wilderness areas, for example, rules out many green activities that can be done at home, in urban neighbourhoods and by travelling short distances to parks, public gardens and bushland reserves.

Another off-putting belief is that natural environments are typically uncomfortable and unsafe places. Misadventures in nature do occur but they are usually not as serious or as dramatic as reported in the news. The truth is that green activities lie at every point along the spectrum from easy, comfortable and virtually risk-free to arduous and hazardous. Even activities nearer the extreme end of the spectrum do not necessarily involve danger and hardship.

But if you have feelings of unease and uncertainty about natural environments, ‘wilder’ ones especially, don’t be deterred. Start your nature connectedness journey anyway with activities and in places that sit securely in your comfort zone.

Another of the mental barriers to seeking happiness and well-being in nature stems from the culture of ‘busyness’ that can emerge in modern societies. Not only do we live crowded lifestyles, but we are coming to accept that this is as it should be, that being busy is normal and expected. My late friend, writer, inventor and artist Tory Hughes alerted me to how damaging this culture is for nature connectedness.  I asked her why people were retreating from nature and missing out on so much pleasure, happiness, personal fulfilment and friendship as a result. According to Tory, it is because people have difficulty giving themselves permission to do otherwise. Real and perceived work, social and family obligations, she said, are getting in the way of doing things that really matter to us.

Tory’s observation prompted me to compose my own connecting with nature permission statement. This is the result:

I give myself permission to:

  • acknowledge my need for nature and to give priority to meeting that need
  • work less and play more in natural environments (especially with my family and friends)
  • find interest, emotional stimulation and inspiration in nature
  • spend more leisure time with others in natural settings, and
  • seek pleasure and happiness by connecting with nature.

Why not do something similar for yourself? Remember that to have a connection with nature is your birthright, part of your genetic inheritance and part of what being a human means. Make the promise to yourself, and act on it sooner rather than later.

Published on September 18, 2021


Les Higgins

Dr. Les Higgins is a deeply nature connected person. He has experienced the life-enhancing power of nature directly and extensively, mainly through bushwalking, trekking and gardening. An enthusiastic and experienced bushwalker, he is a life member of the Yarrawood Bushwalking Club, which he helped establish in 1982.

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