Drawing on the power of nature How art outdoors can help enhance gains in positive wellbeing

Last week I mentioned the research of Miles Richardson and the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. Specifically, I was intrigued by their recent study, which suggests that it’s ‘moments, not minutes’ that influence how we feel after our encounters with nature. It’s quality, not quantity.

Richardson et al. suggest that ‘simple everyday activities’ that help us notice nature, like birdwatching or smelling flowers, are what drive down our scores of stress, anxiety and depression. So, this week, I decided to take them seriously.

On Tuesday afternoon, I dug out a blank notebook, grabbed an HB pencil and stomped up to Branksome Gardens (one of my recent nearby nature discoveries). I wandered around a bit, scoping out a quiet place where I could do my dirty work in peace.

I sat down on a bench. But it only offered an open vista: churned mud, a chain link fence, a stand of denuded birch around a foetid pond. I needed something I could get lost in. So I stood up again, stomped over the mud and squelched down to the pond.

I rested my notebook on the rotting timber of the fence and scrutinised the bark of a silver birch. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted around the curves of ivy against the peeling ash of the shadowy scrolls of bark. And I began to draw. Badly.

Left: Ivy on birch, Branksome Gardens. Right: Two angles on a holly leaf.

It’s worth confessing right away: yes, I can see that these are pretty crap. But that’s not the point. For the thirty minutes they each took to draw, I could forget everything that’s happened in the past year and suspend judgement over everything that is yet to come.

Art has been shown, independently of nature, to be strongly associated with, not only positive mental wellbeing, but healthy eating and physical activity. Drawing has also been used to stave off burnout in medical students. So, even if my crap drawing doesn’t enhance my experience of the natural world, hopefully the creativity has its own rewards.

But how did I feel as I tramped back down along the prom, wind in my hair, notebook in my pocket? I’m not sure. It’s hard to separate out the effects of nature, the effects of a half hour break and the effects of the so-called artwork. But I definitely felt lighter—elevated, somehow.

I’ve been out drawing every day this week and I already look forward to the creative hiatus in the merciless pings of the workday. Drawing is a convenient excuse for a freelancer always looking for productive value. I’m not aimlessly gawping up into a tree (although that is always worthwhile), I’m creating something real and I’m learning something new.

And, boy, have I got a lot to learn. I have deliberately started with nothing more complicated than a very small notebook and an HB pencil. With these two tools, I hope to grasp the fundamental skills of drawing before I ever contemplate anything more ambitious.

Inspired by Bob Ross, a friend of mine has really got into painting over lockdown. For him, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or two away from laptops and smartphones. I got excited about the idea, watched a couple of wonderful little episodes, but was ultimately put off by all the kit I’d have to buy—easels, acrylics, brushes, canvasses, oils. I wanted art supplies that I could pick up, put in my pocket and take out into the wild.

(Side note: Bob Ross seems to exclusively paint bucolic landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains. Art and nature make a hell of a pair.)

Oil painting might be a step too far, but the crap landscape I drew on Wednesday, looking between a mess of pines out to the wave-washed sea, might have benefitted from a few coloured crayons. Once I’ve graduated through the shades of pencil, I might look into what I can learn about colour. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to search far for inspiration.

Earlier this week, a talented friend of mine kindly shared her ‘study of tree mentors’. Here is Naomi Pratt’s drawing of a pair of copper beeches that stand in the cemetery at the end of her garden:

A pair of copper beeches by Naomi Pratt

Now there’s something to aspire to! I feel like I could stare at this drawing all day—it’s almost as good as resting there among the quiet gravestones. Here’s what Naomi says about her friendly neighbourhood copper beeches:

Their height makes you feel very small in a comforting way and they have a tremendous foliage. I tried to capture this in a drawing last summer, but it is a challenge to draw a tree—there is so much going on!

You can admire more of Naomi’s wonderful drawings of the natural world on her website.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to create drawings half as beautiful as hers. And, even if I can’t, I mean to persist with my scrawlings because, as Naomi wrote in the email that accompanied these images, drawing ‘is an activity which allows me to look more deeply at the world’.

And that’s exactly what Miles Richardson et al. were hoping for.

~

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby have created a pile of Covid-19 nature resources to help us ‘find a friend in nature’. Still want more? Join me on their free online course. (Thanks to G.C. for those links.)

No more indoor species! Get outside and live longer, healthier lives

That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.

After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.

Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.

An indoor species

It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.

If you’re thinking that this only applies to pasty-faced office workers, then I should point you in the direction of a two-year study that followed the daily acitivities of more than nine thousand randomly selected people in the United States. The study participants reported spending 93 percent of their time inside either enclosed buildings or enclosed vehicles.

It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:

We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total.
~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)

A pandemic-shaped mirror

What’s fascinating is that we don’t realise what we have become. A 2018 survey of 16,000 people across North America and Europe found that fewer than one in five of us can believe we spend so much time indoors. But we do—and no more so than now, during this thing that’s happening.

One study, published last August in the Journal of Urban Ecology, found that the pandemic has reduced the usual recreational activities of ‘outdoor enthusiasts’—particularly those living in urban areas. I can certainly vouch for that! But what about the rest of humanity?

By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.

Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.

Lockdown is nothing like a free pass to go and play outside, however: a survey of 604 people in post-lockdown Ireland reported that, on average, participants spent only 8 percent of their time in the great outdoors.

It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.

What has the outdoors ever done for us?

A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.

Because of these stress-busting effects, merely living in a greener neighbourhood makes you live a longer, healthier life—no matter what your socioeconomic status—and reduces the risk of preterm birth, type II diabetes, asthma, stroke and, er, ‘all-cause mortality’. That’s amazing.

As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:

If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.

Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.

But the miracles of nature don’t end there. The natural world can also make you feel more generous, more grateful and less selfish. Exercise in the outdoors can increase your creativity (both divergent and convergent, since you ask), your memory and your attention, as well as protect against cognitive decline as you age. Wordsworth was a neuroscientist when he wrote:

Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
~ From The Tables Turned (1798)

In Toronto, researchers discovered that living in a neighbourhood with just ten extra trees made people feel as good as if they were given $10,000 or magically made seven years younger. Spending time outdoors can even roll back the effects of myopia in school children.

In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:

There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.

‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’

A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.

It’s certainly not a fair way to compare the lived experience during the pandemic of the wealthy billionaires who saw their assets increase by more than a quarter last summer and, shall we say, the ‘unwealthy’ immigrants unable to work during lockdown who are being discouraged from accessing welfare support and threatened with punishments by the Home Office if they do.

Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.

In the UK, nearly 34 percent of the wealthiest citizens live in the greenest and most pleasant of our land. The comparible figure for the country’s poorest citizens is less than 4 percent. Access to green space is directly correlated to wealth, amplifying the evils of health inequality, at a time when people can’t travel outside their local area.

Not the same boat.

Comfort from 226 CE

Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.

In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.

As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.

I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:

It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly!
~ Yu Huan, Weilue

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

What’s the point in bushcraft?

Last Saturday night, on Day 2 of a weekend bushcraft course, I slept in a shelter that I’d built out of dead branches, pine fronds and compacted leaf litter. As you can see, it was cosy…

When I woke up after my eight hours to a bright sunrise, I was actually a little disappointed that my shelter-building skills hadn’t been tested by the heavy rain we’d been promised overnight.

I don’t know if you remember the storm last Saturday night, but it turns out that, contrary to intense scepticism, our instructors were correct: compacted leaf litter is not only solidly stormproof, but soundproof too.

A fine skill learned, but I couldn’t help reflecting that this bushcraft course would have been laughable a hundred or so years ago.

As we threw ourselves pell-mell into foraging, fire-setting and shelter-building, the instructors asked us questions like, ‘Have you made bread at home before?’, ‘Do you know how to find the North Star?’, ‘What’s a good firewood?’ and ‘Who knows how to gut a trout?’

We weren’t a particularly naive group, but all these question were met with shrugs — not unanimous shrugs, perhaps, but certainly majority shrugs.

Surely these questions would have been batted off by our ancestors, laughed at by those who preceded us by a generation or two.

~

That said, you could make a case that none of the things we learnt on the weekend are much use in the modern age.

  • Who needs to know how to filter water through a thick-weave cotton shirt when it comes clean from the taps?
  • Who needs to know how to gather dry firewood in winter when we have central heating or can buy fuelwood from the local garage?
  • Who needs to know the waterproofing qualities of leaf litter when we have four walls and a roof — or, at the very least, a tent?

And yet everyone on the course — even the young woman whose main priority was to protect her impressive acrylic nail art — found a weekend in the woods somehow nourishing, in spite, or perhaps because of its primitivism.

~

So what is it that makes learning bushcraft skills valuable, even today?

I think the answer can be summed up in a single word: competence.

It’s not necessarily the case that I’ll use my newly-won knowledge of natural shelter-building ever again, but there’s something reassuring about knowing that I know.

Competence breeds self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-assurance — all soft skills transferable to the rest of our lives.

  • Can you find your way out of a pickle?
  • Can you fix things that are broken?
  • Can you survive?

One of the mantras of the instructors was, ‘In a survival situation…’. They invited us to imagine a catastrophe that left us all alone in the wilderness, with only our wits to feed, clothe and shelter us. (The phrase was usually followed by the description of something highly illegal in the UK.)

But I am not a prepper. I have no interest in building these skills for self-preservation. I only want to become a competent member of the tribe. Someone who can be relied on when needed. Someone who can help others become stormproof.

~

Being outdoors can look a lot like being for oneself, in isolation. But, for me, being outdoors is being for others. I would not be interested in learning these skills if not to share them with, and use them for others.

I’m lucky that I have an outlet or two for the skills that I’m learning. Over the past couple of years, and almost by accident, I’ve become an outdoor leader.

This summer I’ll be part of a team helping 60 cyclists travel some of Europe’s wildest corners, camping all the way.

Last year’s adventures on Thighs of Steel were quite possibly the greatest outdoors experience of my life thus far. Not because of being for myself, in isolation, but because of being for others.

Earlier this week, I got my first ever contract for outdoor instructing, working for a small company that delivers DofE expeditions for schools.

I’ll be part of a team that introduces dozens of children to the outdoors, perhaps for the first time. My competence is central to the success of the programme and I take pride in that responsibility.

~

One of my fellow students on the bushcraft course, an affable retired police officer, loves the outdoors. Beside the fire every night, he told stories of wild fishing in the icy lakes of Snowdonia, his eyes flickering in the flamelight.

He’d caught the outdoors bug as a schoolboy fifty years earlier: on his DofE expedition. These journeys can last a lifetime.

My own appreciation of the outdoors can be traced back to Christmas and Easter family holidays to the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons or the Yorkshire Dales.

My memories are of splashing through trickling, gushing, freshet becks, hopping from stone to stone, and scoffing Kendal Mint Cake.

I’m writing to you from Edale, in the Peak District. Yesterday I walked up Kinder Scout to see the boulders of the Wool Pack and the ice fields of Kinder Downfall, but the origin of this walk can be traced back to before I was born.

In the early seventies, my dad came here after handing in his PhD thesis: relief that it was over, looking forward to a year of adventure, travelling overland to Australia with his young wife.

My mum has even older history here: a photograph of her on Mam Tor in the sixties, feeling the same breeze that whips my hair from my scalp, decades later.

The outdoors is being for others.

~

I went on the Woodland Ways bushcraft weekend. It’s full on, with hardly a moment not learning something. Highly recommended.

I caught the train from Bournemouth to Edale, changing at Manchester Piccadilly. I’m staying at the Edale YHA for £13.50 a night and I had the place to myself last night.

Contrast my feeble shelter building with Dominic Van Allen, who built a concrete bunker sunk into the woods of Hampstead Heath. Thanks to T.D. for sending me this article.

No Place Like Holm (Oaks)

I left it late to climb a tree in April, but here I am, high up in a holm oak, with what appears to be a dislocated jaw.

The holm oak is an evergreen, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was brought over here in the late 1500s and isn’t fussed about sea spray, which explains why there are a number scattered along the clifftops here in Bournemouth.

The leaves are glossy dark green, and the younger ones are spiny like the leaves of the holly – which explains why this oak is called ‘holm’, an old form of ‘holly’.

As a climber, this tree is a safe bet, with thick branches and helpful forks to wedge in. Snapped upper branches are evidence of recent high winds. The dense leaves make the holm oak a perfect hideaway for miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. After all, an Englishman’s holm is his castle.

I’ll leave it to the Woodland Trust to explain why you might want to explore this pleasing oak for yourself:

In ancient Greece the leaves of the holm oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people. The acorn was seen as a sign of fertility and wearing acorn jewellery was believed to increase fertility.

From a log in a quiet noisy place with mud underfoot

After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?

The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.

It also ties the first loop in a chain of habit; today I walk out of my (borrowed) front door and into a wood. Continue reading From a log in a quiet noisy place with mud underfoot