Simplicity and Meaning: Heddon Valley Reflections

For a couple of days last week I took part in an outdoor experiences workshop with the National Trust in the Heddon Valley in Devon. Eighteen or so people took part, all successful and creative in their own areas. It was an immersive time, both perspectives and rain! Ideas flowed and this blog emerged as I worked through them on my return.

I live far from the coast, so I purposefully arrived to catch the last of the light for a walk to the coast. After several months inland and four hours in the confines of a car the hit of arriving on the pebble beach was emotional and inspiring – energetic yet calming.

Arrival – becoming part of the whole

After a day exploring the valley, we were invited to share provocations, mine included:

  • We are not a nation of nature lovers.
  • Our relationship with (the rest of) nature has failed.

But there is hope for a new relationship and a good, worthwhile life:

  • We have a deep latent connection with (the rest of) nature.
  • Simple activities in nature can help reconnect.

Simple things matter

For me, within the many ideas and perspectives, simplicity was a theme over the two days. The dramatic landscape of Heddon is built from many simple things. The need to prompt and pause, to look and listen, was mentioned often. Whether it’s urban nature or a more natural valley we need reminders to pause on our journeys. Our successful interventions to notice the good things are based on prompts and I’ve written about affordances and designing human-nature interactions before. There are many creative ways to create prompts, pauses and new relationships – from technology and art works to simple looking and listening tools. We need more.

Simplicity: Listening to a Robin Sing

The latest research is starting to show how important the simple things in nature are for building nature connectedness, wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. I pointed out that the origins of the National Trust align with the very latest research, through the writing of Octavia Hill for example. The power of this to me is that 125 years ago and more there was an awareness of the importance of the simple things in nature for wellbeing. The Victorian naturalist and writer Richard Jefferies saw our connection with nature and the impact on mental wellbeing:

“We are of the great community of living beings, indissolubly connected with them from the lowest to the highest by a thousand ties” & “The mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself.”

The good things in nature are constant. Humans are fundamentally unchanged. It is our culture and technology that have changed and reinforced our disconnection from the rest of nature.

Listening to an excellent guide

One simple event on the first day was a trip to the cliff top for an unexpected cup of tea made from water boiled in a Kelly Kettle. I don’t think I was alone in finding this simple experience enjoyable and memorable. Once again simplicity matters.

The two days also made me reflect on how simple things can build to become an experience and the magic of the mundane versus curated events that can use the landscape to powerful effect – making meaning.

Making Meaning

The second day had a focus on creating great outdoor experiences and was, on reflection, a deep dive into creating meaning – one of the pathways to nature connectedness. We’ve put some work into understanding this pathway and improving our guidance on this pathway as initially it felt a little elusive despite it being central to human experience of nature. Our revised guidance refers to celebrating the mystery, signs and cycles of nature. To creating stories and folktales – letting nature be your story. I’ve also realised that knowledge about nature should be used as a tool to unlock meaning – and the other pathways.

So the perspectives of others more used to creating meaning were of great interest. Encouragingly, there was talk of creating tradition, ritual and personal stories – ‘Where you go changes who you become’. More can be done on how the pathways and elements of a story can interact – helping people step towards our pathways strapline – ‘Let nature be your story’. Later on day two when talking about woodland, I shared how some traditional folktales teach the danger of the woods, and suggested the need for new folktales about the danger of a warming climate and loss of wildlife.

Also encouraging was regular talk of relationships with nature – and play, another topic I’ve been keen to pursue, but these things need an injection of creativity and expertise. Bringing together the various perspectives and experience over two days is a great way to develop new ways to help create a new relationship with nature.

Micro-Activities & Actions

Building on simple things there was talk of small actions taken by many – the valley gets a lot of visitors. We’ve introduced nature as providing the ‘micro-foundations of well-being’ in papers written last year and our extended frameworks for nature engagement have recently been published.  I like the idea of micro-actions as well as prompts to pause and sense nature. Micro-actions to connect to nature and micro-actions to act for nature. Micro-volunteering perhaps where thousands of visitors do one simple thing. Micro acts for meaning where visitors share their experience to create a compelling vision for a new relationship with nature.

I expect many of us want to take away the feeling of a special time spent in nature. When returning from my initial walk to the sea I wanted to take that feeling away, there was a personal story to share, to be collected. There are many such stories to gather at the moment people are in a ‘changed state’ from their visit – their experience. This is also a form of listening, another key message from the two days. To listen to visitors. To listen to those that stay away. Set a direction for a new relationship with nature and listen to how to get there.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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