Guest blog by Rachel Howfield Massey
As an arts and wellbeing practitioner specialising in the benefits of nature connection I work creatively with people in nature supporting them to gain a sense of connection with themselves and their surroundings. It was a great pleasure recently to talk to Miles about the creative and playful approaches I am developing in my work with museums, galleries and heritage sector. We talked about the resources I’ve designed, including my origami ‘Nature Explore’ game, which has a series of open-ended questions to take the user on a journey of any distance and make nature connection discoveries along the way.
I was particularly interested in Miles’s matrix of ‘micro-activities’, as a foundation for developing prompts for nature connectedness focussed activities. I have developed a wide range of different resources, looking tools, invitations and activities to support nature connectedness, and it is interesting to think about them in relation to this matrix and the Five Pathways. I enjoy striking a balance between very practical activities, ‘look at a tree for a long time’ and more philosophical or poetic ideas ‘walk in a way that connects you with time and space’ – and sometimes the downright silly ‘follow a map of a different place’. I know from experience how these different approaches offer different ‘ways in’ for participants, but it’s great to map them against Miles’s matrix – and people always love to hear about how their nature connected experience is supported by measurable scientific evidence of the benefits to wellbeing.
My sessions and resources are necessarily open ended, designed to be used by people of all ages and abilities. They don’t follow prescribed routes or fixed activities and can be used in a tiny garden or on a full day hike, so the walker can create their own adventure of discovery. For example, my Other Ways to Walk cards include 15 individual cards with invitations to connect with nature and hand drawn images – use one card as a theme for a whole walk, or take turns to draw cards and follow the invitations.
It’s impossible (and also undesirable) to plan a detailed session as the character of a particular stretch of path can change so dramatically from one hour to the next and real nature connection can only happen with what is actually there! A breeze might be rippling a field one moment and total stillness the next – a sudden blackbird alarm call can make you jump changing the mood entirely – bright sun gives way to cloud and thoughts close in. There is no logical step-by-step process to nature connection, it’s an individual process and can happen in subtle or more powerful ways – but always based on meaningful engagement with nature.
For some, this might include invitations to slow down and linger using guided meditation, sensory activities, poetry and metaphor supported by reflective facilitated conversations. For others, it might involve games to randomise the route, or using chance to determine what activities we will do, drawing, poetry and various props to help people notice things that may have gone unnoticed. I’ve trained as a forest guide and mindfulness instructor, and also done a bit of animal tracking and forest immersion – magpie-like I take the bits that are relevant into my practice and synthesise them into whatever resource or activity is most appropriate for the circumstance.
Through a gradual process of carefully observing and listening to people in nature I am able to encourage them to follow their own fascination and curiosity, noticing what they are drawn to. This naturally leads to a sort of dance between the different themes identified in Miles’s matrix – an invitation to lie under a tree and notice movements in the branches can appear very passive, yet in reality the participant is moving between a great many experiences…
feeling the damp, cold earth under their body, smelling the earthy leaf litter, noticing sunlit spider threads, recalling childhood rolling down hills, appreciating details in the shape of branches, feeling resonance or dissonance with the pace of movement in the branches, sensing changes in their thinking and emotions, wondering why they argued with their loved ones again that morning, hearing a dog in the distance, sounds bringing them back to the present and noticing that their attention had wandered from the tree, hearing birds, squirrels, the creak of the boughs, finding meaning in the way a robin flicks it’s tail, wondering how long they’ve got to lie here, feeling safe and protected by the tree, noticing a sense of opening and compassion…
The flow of thought and feeling interact with the sensory prompts from nature. People can simultaneously be admiring beauty, feeling compassion, connecting with feelings and tuning into their senses then without noticing this dissolves into thinking, planning, remembering, disconnecting from this experience of lying under a tree. The value is in noticing when they come back, training their senses to notice how it feels. As a guide I see it as my role to set the conditions and hold the space for this to happen, then to drop in facts or information to encourage or support one of the five pathways or link to another. For example, people sometimes need their words repeating back to them ‘so lying under the tree helped you feel safe – do you think the tree felt safe too? What could you do to help the trees stay safe?’ (linking to ‘emotions’ and ‘compassion’ in the matrix.)
The real challenge for me is to facilitate learning from these experiences – to encourage reflexive behaviours and an understanding of how people can take this into their lives – so much of it happens inside someone’s mind, it can be hard to tell what’s happening. Occasionally, someone joyously declares their life has been transformed and I go home with an extra glow – a recent participant said the experience was ‘like a kind of magic fairy dust. You’ve opened me up. I can see beauty in the world that wasn’t there before.’ These words have helped me too – to notice and welcome that feeling of joy when I notice some beautiful detail in nature.
Rachel Howfield Massey is arts and wellbeing practitioner and founder of Other Ways to Walk. She develops bespoke resources and offers training and consultancy.
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