I’m incredibly excited about today’s post, because I’ll be sharing with you a section of an interview I conducted with artist, hedgewitch and incense maker, Danielle Barlow. Danielle is author of the Green Wheel Oracle, which is a stunning celebration of nature, as well as someone who feels deeply connected to the natural world. Danielle kindly took part in a study I conducted – a phenomenological investigation into the experience of love and care for nature. Below is a section of an interview where I ask Danielle to talk in more depth about her experiences of communion with nature.
That sort of leads me to my second question, which is to do with the word communion, and this ties into what you were talking about earlier in your text when you were walking among these ash trees, and you said you would talk to them. And I was just wondering if you could unpack that in a bit more detail. What does this experience of communion actually consist of? What’s going on when it’s happening?
When I talk to the trees I build up a personal relationship with them. They’re old friends. They’re familiar faces. There are two very very old trees on the farm – ash trees. There is an ash there which is the largest ash I’ve ever seen. We measured it and it has this girth of nearly seven meters. We measured it last Summer. It’s enormous, and we call it Yggdrasil. It’s been there for ever. And if I were to sit out there I’d treat it as a friend. I’d talk to it. Does it talk back? I like to feel that there is a communication there sometimes if you build a relationship and a friendship with these plants or trees, and that I do get something back. It’s not like a conversation in my head as such; but, you get a feeling back, and it’s not in your head at all: it’s in your heart and it’s deep in your belly. That is the thing that I try to teach other people – particularly my children – how to listen to the trees and listen to the plants. You have to drop your attention, you have to switch off the chatter in your head, which is really hard for us, so it’s perhaps like meditation, but it’s not. It’s dropping your consciousness down and it’s having that real open heartedness so you’re aware but you're listening with your belly. I don’t really know how to describe that except as a feeling that bubbles up in your gut. And sometimes there are words there. Knowing is more like it. You know… ah, it’s really difficult to describe. There is not a voice in my head saying anything: it’s not like that. It is a gut feeling, and you kind of have to learn to trust it, because when it first happened I thought ‘well it was just my imagination wasn’t it’. And who knows? Maybe it is your imagination. I don’t know; but the more you listen to it, the more you trust that that’s what it is, the more it becomes a backwards and forwards connection. And it's like having a connection with a person. It’s also very different, and it’s something that has to be built up. You can’t just walk in and go ‘hello tree, tell me this’ – well some people perhaps can. You have to kind of get to know a plant, a tree, or something like that. But most often what you get from them, or what I get from them, are waves of feeling, rather than the sentence of communication in the way that we would be communicating. Sometimes I just chatter away literally out loud, chatter away at them; but you have to actually be still and listen in order to get anything back. For me, sometimes it’s images; most often it’s a wave of feeling of some sort and you kind of have to learn to interpret that because at first it’s just sort of ‘I don’t really know what this is, is this just something I imagined?’. Sometimes you know there is just no connection at all; but it begins with knowing them [plants and trees] well and walking the land and recognising what’s grown and what hasn’t, saying hello to familiar faces, that sort of thing – that classic talking to your plants. And then, one day, there’s something back. And you think ‘did I just imagine that? Is there something strange going on?’ And the more you do it the more you think ‘this is actually a two-way relationship’. But it’s quite different from a human to human relationship.
You mean that in the sense that…
You’re not verbalising it. You’re using that other sense, that gut feeling, that intuition. That sort of thing can’t be quantified or scientifically proven, and therefore, is very easily dismissed. But, you know, there is something there.
Do you find this communion and mode of communication is uniform across all elements of the natural world or do you find you have it with trees but you don’t have it with something else?
I think you can have it with everything. It is slightly different for every – I was going to say every species – but even within that there might be some trees that just have no interest whatsoever. I guess it’s like some people, you know, you don’t have much in common, no connection. Or maybe a tree just doesn’t like people and just doesn’t want that. I don’t know. But there are definitely ones that you can’t connect with, certainly with animals. There are some that are so open to connection, and others that are utterly closed and want nothing to do with you.
Plants and other things are quite easy to talk to. Trees are a little more difficult. Things like rocks and that sort of thing (sighs). You have to sort of get this understanding of time because not everything moves in the same time frames as us. For instance, I’m told that a humming bird’s metabolism runs so fast and there heart beat is very fast and everything they do is very fast and their lives are over very quickly. I’ve never tried to speak to a humming bird because I’ve never come across one. Trees are much slower, live a much slower life than us. They have many of the same physical characteristics as us. They have fluid that moves around them, and I believe they have consciousness, but it works in a slower time frame. And it’s quite hard for us to slow down enough, mentally, and to make that connection. And then if you want to talk to something like the land itself, that can be even harder sometimes, because it’s on an even more vast time frame than we are.
Do you feel like that has to do with the proximity of the object to the human species? You describe the tree as having some qualities that are similar to a human, whereas a rock, of course there isn’t really much. I mean we’ve got some minerals in us. There’s a lot less there you can relate to.
Exactly, although when you get down to the atomic level we are all made of the same thing. There’s just energy dancing in different patterns; and when you start to look at it like that you start to think, okay, there is a way actually that we could connect, but you have to go deeper and deeper and deeper, the more different from you the thing is, and some people are more skilled at it than others. And sometimes (laughs) now it just gets into the more and more bonkers. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to them in a human form. You know this whole idea of spirits and deities and spirits of the trees and things like that. I used to question it a lot but the more you question the more difficult it is to have a connection. But actually, if you have trouble connecting, and you let it come in some sort of human form like a sort of spirit that you see in your mind’s eye, it’s easier to have that conversation, that connection.
So your communion with nature can happen through the medium of symbols?
It can do, yeah. If I’ve got a really urgent thing I need to go and have out with the trees, it might be easier to communicate with a human form. Maybe like an avatar or something I suppose. That sounds really weird; but a representation of the spirit in human form can help you go ‘right, I’ve got all these questions and I need to know this’. But mostly it’s much more preferable to just connect with the tree itself. It’s just a case of slowing down usually and trusting what you feel.
If I can ask you one more question, if you had the opportunity to give someone who didn’t have a connection with nature a piece of advice on how they might acquire it, what would you offer them?
I would imagine that the best way to start would be to find a place in nature as wild as you can. A quiet place uninterrupted by other humans. A beautiful garden in a city is probably okay. I’m not used to them. And to just sit and be still to begin with. That’s the hardest part, the learning how to be still. But once you can be still, and you can quieten your mind as well, that’s when things happen, like the connection with the deer [reference to an earlier part of the interview]. She saw me, but I was very still, and my energy was really still too, dropped down into my belly. And therefore, she obviously perceived that I wasn’t a threat, and carried on. But they don’t have to be deer. Once you can get yourself into that still space and just look at what’s around you, even if it’s just a patch of grass with bugs, and just start to see what’s really there. For me, that’s the most amazing thing, when you just go somewhere, just pause on your walk and you realise just how many species there are around you. And you can hone in on a small patch and it might not be full of wild flowers. It might be a bit of rock. It might be a bit of tree or something; but, the closer you look the more you see is there. It’s not just a rock with nothing on it. There could be lichen, there could be tiny red spider mites, there could be insects and things too. Just to really see those small beauties, rather than the great big picture. People don’t hone in on the little things, the individuals. I think that’s it, building a relationship with an individual, whether it’s a small flower or a spider in your garden. Anybody can do that. You might have a spider in the corner of your room that’s been living there for a couple of weeks, and you might just keep an eye on it to see, has it come out today, ‘hello’, you know. Those sorts of things. Maybe that’s the first step. It’s just noticing the individuals. It’s not just this great big thing called nature and you can take it or leave it. It’s made up of millions of individual beings, whether they’re plant or animal or whatever, and it’s about appreciating how important each one of those is within its environment.
Would it be fair to say it’s about developing a personal relationship?
I think so, because that’s what we care about isn’t it? Personal relationships. You know, the big picture can be dealt with by somebody else. In our mind it’s always that ‘who’s going to save the world? That’s somebody else’s job. I can only do this little bit around me.’ And I think it’s probably the same with nature. You have to build that first connection right on your doorstep, in the small ways, before you can start to realise that the big thing is also made up of all those small things.
When two super powers join forces
Both mindfulness and green prescriptions now have a strong evidence base supporting their utility for restoring and nourishing mental health and well-being. For those of you who are new to the party, mindfulness is the practice of letting one’s conscious attention rest in the present, whilst relaxing one’s body to a deep level and bringing all one’s senses into awareness. Mindfulness exercises often involve taking the conscious perspective of a witness to one's own stream of consciousness. Green prescribing is when a healthcare professional (usually a primary care giver) refers a patient to some kind of green activity, such as joining a rambling club, going on a bird song identification course, or even taking on an allotment, as an alternative to prescribing a pharmaceutical solution, such as anti-depressants.
The cross over episode
This post is a short guide to drawing on the benefits of mindfulness and green prescribing (that’s right – you don’t have to wait for a doctor to send you out into nature) by involving yourself in both as one integrated practice. The combination of these two approaches can be highly efficacious for enhancing well-being. Below, I offer an example exercise you might like to try. Then you can decide for yourself, and if you want to, share your experience in the comments section.
Make sure you’ve set aside enough time for this exercise. How long will depend on your proximity to a natural space, so read through the following first and then you’ll be able to estimate how much time you’ll need. Then, before you go out, check the weather so you can dress appropriately.
Leave your house and find the wildest area of nature you can. If you’re in the city, look for a woodland park – or just a natural space where you are most likely to find solitude. If you’re living out in the sticks, set off on foot and seek out a place with several natural features, such as trees and a river for example. The richer the environment the more you will have to be mindful of. That’s not always the goal; but for this exercise it will help.
Once you’ve arrived at your natural space, enter it slowly, walking slowly. Start to shift your attention to the immediate and the physical, feeling your foot fall as you walk, and the sounds made as your boots meet the ground. Maybe you are aware of the gentle thud of your weight against the grassy earth, or the crunch of leaves, or the squelch of mud. Breathe deeply, taking a few really deliberate lung-fulls. Be conscious of your chest expanding as you breathe in, the movement of your muscles. When you let your breath out, can you see it? Can you feel it’s warmth against the roof of your mouth? Be aware of how your body feels as you’re walking along, and at the same time, look around at the place you’re walking through. Let your awareness of the your body and your environment join together as parts of the same place in the same time – the here and now.
Even if you cannot completely escape the presence of other people, seek out the place where you are least likely to be interrupted, or distracted by social life. Perhaps it’s a solitary bench overlooking the whole park, or a comfortable patch of moss at the base of a tree, or a river bank. When you have chosen your place, sit or stand. This is where you will be for the remainder of this exercise.
Close your eyes. Give all your attention to everything you can hear: birdsong, the sound of flowing water, an orchestra of rain drops drumming on the leaves of the tree you’re sitting under, a distant woodpecker, rustling in the undergrowth, the whooshing sound made by a breeze moving through the forest canopy, the sound of the air entering and exiting your nose as you breathe. Forget all other senses except your hearing. Discover the reality all around you by listening.
Now give all your attention to everything you can smell: pine sap, dank pond weed, gorse flowers, the scents you brought with you. Don’t strain to smell anything; just be attentive to your sense of smell.
Now give all your attention to your sense of touch: the contact between you and the surface you are sitting on, the awareness of your clothes against your body, the gentle brush of a light wind against your face or back. Feel everything.
Now be attentive to everything you can taste: move your tongue around in your mouth. Swallow. Open your mouth slightly and taste the air.
Now, gently, begin to open your eyes. See the world around you. Give all your attention to the information as it floods in – you’ll find the more you look the more you’ll see. Observe the complex flow of water, the twisted trajectory of a tree as finds it way upward, the amazing array of colours present in everything from leaves to bark to rocks. Observe the light adding a numinous quality to everything, the movement of thousands of species rustling through the leaves, crawling, climbing or leaping through the trees. Don’t search for things; just look – and discover.
After having given all your attention to everything you can hear, smell, touch and see, each in turn, you are going to culminate this exercise with a final step. It’s very important not to force anything here. Just stay relaxed, and begin to bring all your senses into awareness; all of them – at the same time. You may find that for a while your attention is dancing between your senses. That’s perfectly fine – in fact it’s wonderful – enjoy it. With practice though, you will develop a capacity for experiencing an awareness of integrated senses, without forcing anything and without effort, as you move more and more into the fullness of the present moment.
Tips and benefits
There is no limit to how long the above exercise should take. Take as long as you like. It doesn't really matter if it's two minutes or two hours. If you'd like some initial guidance though, I'd recommend starting with around five minutes. You'll find that with regular practice, your attention strengthens, and with that, your engagement with the exercise will lengthen. A quick tip at this point – never look at the time while you're doing this. Set an alarm if you must, but never monitor the time during the exercise. It ruins everything.
The benefits of green mindfulness are multitudinous, but may include restored mental focus, a sense of well-being and relaxation, emotional equanimity, and a deeper feeling of connection to the natural world. One more thing. If you're not used to this sort of exercise it can be challenging not to just end up mind wandering the whole time. Whatever you do, don't chastise yourself if you become conscious that you've been thinking about something completely different and far removed from the present environment. Just return to the exercise and continue. With practice your attention to the here and now will improve effortlessly. So enjoy your first adventure into green mindfulness, and feel free to share your experiences of this exercise in the comments below.
Philosophers have long argued for the importance of emotion when it comes to developing a healthy relationship with our environment. Emotional responses to nature can include awe, reverence and wonder, and these often numinous feelings are understood to be the foundation of environmental ethics. Perhaps this is why climate scientists have such a hard time prompting people to pro-environmental behaviours. Although the statistical predictions for our planet’s future should send shivers down anyone’s spine, they generally don’t. Why is this?
Enter psychological science!
Part of the problem is due to the fact that numbers may stimulate our minds, but they don't tend to stir our hearts. It's our emotions that motivate us to action, not information. Based on this, a whole body of psychological research has shown that internalised emotions about nature are more effective drivers of pro-environmental behaviours than factual knowledge of environmental issues, especially when those facts are disseminated in the form of percentages and other statistics. A lot of these findings have come through the use of special psychological surveys called 'scales' that offer a way to measure strength of feeling toward a certain psychological construct. Scales to do with nature connection have been used to analyse relationships between how people feel about nature, and their pro-environmental actions. I’d like to focus on just one of these scales here: the Love and Care for Nature (LCN) scale, developed by Perkins (2010).
The Love and Care for Nature Scale (LCN)
The LCN scale focuses on measuring the intrinsic value of nature to a person. That is to say, the LCN scale taps into the extent to which someone values nature in and of itself, rather than as a resource available for human use. Furthermore, among the numerous scales developed to measure aspects of nature connection, Perkin's (2010) LCN was developed to specifically target our emotional relationship toward the natural world. In response to 15 statements, respondents mark their strength of agreement to each statement along a series of ranks which include ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘strongly disagree’. The ranks are given a numerical value in order to make them amenable to statistical tests. With a large, well chosen sample, such tests are capable of making general inferences about the population of interest.
What did Perkins (2010) find?
After developing a way for capturing an empirical measurement of a person’s love and care for nature, Perkin’s (2010) found that people who scored highly on the LCN scale were more likely to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the natural environment, such as taking the time to recycle, signing petitions, abstaining from unnecessary car journeys and showing a willingness to pay higher prices for goods and services if that would serve protecting the environment. Therefore, our love and care for nature can be a reliable predictor of our likelihood to act on behalf of nature.
Let's get interactive!
Let's do a bit of community science. Below you will find a link to download a pdf file of the Love and Care for Nature (LCN) scale. I’d like to invite you to fill out the scale for yourself. Once you've done this, use the contact page to send me your results; or just post them in the comments, and I'll do the analysis for you. See you in a bit!
So, I'll use your results to conduct a Wilcoxon’s signed ranks test. Put simply, this is a way of mathematically deciding whether your score sets you aside from a theoretical population of people who are indifferent toward the natural world. I will get back to you (via a private email if you wish) with your results. If your score is statistically significant we can decide with confidence that you are in the population of people who love and care for nature under Perkin’s (2010) definition of the construct. But what if your score fails to reach significance? Don’t worry. Firstly, no scale can usurp what any individual feels in their heart, so at the end of the day, you’ll always have the last word on that one. Secondly, failing to reach significance could be useful for you: you get more interesting questions from it. Why didn’t your score reach significance? Were you surprised? Is your support for environmentalism more of a rationally thought out thing perhaps? Finally, if your score doesn’t reach significance, but you would like it to, you might ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about that. If that’s the case, I've got good news for you – you can! Stick around for my posts on developing a deeper connection to nature.
The take home message
Perkin's (2010) research, along with many other studies, offers a useful insight for promoting pro-environmental behaviours: environmental education needs to be as much about inspiring as informing. Not many people will make sacrifices for abstract information, but people will fight tooth and claw for what they love. Of course, you can't love what you don't know, so whilst nature documentaries may evoke a variety of transient emotions - perhaps even enough to motivate pro-environmental action - the most powerful driver of sustained lifestyle change will come through regular, meaningful connection with nature. This is the context within which we can develop that real, living relationship, whether is be with the house plant we've nurtured since it was a seedling, or vast, wild nature. This is the context within which we start to care. So let's remember not just to share links to those important reports on the latest climate change warnings - share your own experiences of our one beautiful earth. Mention how awe-struck you were by the that exquisite sunset, the close encounter you had with that fox, the joy you felt listening to an orchestra of bird song on a woodland walk. Let your own inspiration be an inspiration to others.
Perkins, H. E. (2010). Measuring love and care for nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 455-463. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.05.004
I'm a social scientist and data analyst and I'm in love with nature. One Beautiful Earth is where I bring these roles together. I keep a regular blog where you can read all about the latest science behind nature connection and the psychology of human responses to environmental issues such as climate change and much more besides.