To advocate for land, water and air requires growing in relationship with nature. For over a year, I have been providing conservation agencies with a series of workshops meant to expand their views of the human-nature relationship. Through that series, I have come to a 5-step process for growing in our relationship with Earth.
Nature Presence & Awareness
Workshop participants describe how they have trouble focusing on the present moment. People are easily distracted with thoughts about tasks they must accomplish (at home or work) and interruptions from other humans and noises in nature.
To counteract this struggle, I begin all my workshops with a 1-minute exercise to bring people present. I ask, “if you are not here, then why are you here?”
Presence opens our minds and bodies to what our surroundings have to offer. Being present has allowed workshop participants to realize –
- “How much I enjoy just taking time to stop, look and listen.”
- “That I am a part of this little, microscopic world that I was viewing. That I depend on it, and it depends on me.”
- “Taking the time to be present in nature has lasting impacts beyond the initial time invested. I felt more calm the rest of the day.”
- “I need to practice what I preach. I’m always preaching connection to the environment and I’m not taking the time to actually build a deeper connection.”
Our senses are important to our well-being because they provide information about our surroundings. Senses help calm our bodies. After I help ground participants in presence, we review an exercise where they spent 10 minutes focused on each sense while in nature. In that exercise, they record thoughts, feelings, and reflections. I invite them to notice which sense is the easiest to focus on, which is the hardest, and which most surprises them.
The easiest senses tend to be sight and sound overwhelmingly, while the hardest are usually touch and smell. Knowing the audience, often filled with wildlife watchers and birders, this is not a huge surprise.
I have received a variety of responses about which senses surprise participants –
- “Touch got me back into how I interacted with nature as a child.”
- “Since I was near a marsh I was expecting more [smells]. This exercise allowed me to appreciate some plants that I’ve never taken much interest in.”
- “I realized that I typically think about things and situations from the “30,000 feet view” (standing above everything). In the future, I need to allow more time for my own close examination of things and spend time exploring different perspectives so that I can have my own well-educated thoughts about them.”
- “Listening, I think mainly because I don’t think of it as much when I’m at home and so it was cool to really focus on city nature sounds around me and realize the diversity.”
I also do a sensory awareness activity, where participants list things that give them pleasure in each of the senses. One participant stated, “Eighty to ninety percent of my pleasurable activities are nature-related, and yet I only do 20% of them now.” This recognition filled me with sadness and an understanding of why so many of us are so unwell.
Connection with Nature
When our senses reveal what we had not noticed before, we become curious. Our mind opens to take in new information. Or, we remember something similar from our past. Sensory experiences often reveal connections between experiences that have left lasting impressions on us.
Ryan Reese, in his work on Ecowellness, defines connection as “pleasant thoughts and feelings inspired by one’s association with nature, positive emotions while reflecting on our association with nature, having a special place that elicits positive emotions, and having at least one activity that is incorporated into self-definition.”
These connections help us start to know and appreciate what is around us. We search for answers and look for more insight.
We do not even have to be outside to connect with nature. An avid birdwatcher said he became enamored with birds by watching a peregrine falcon from the window of his homeless shelter. Something as simple as worms on the sidewalk after rain can provide a long-term influence on a child’s relationship to nature.
Love of Nature
In human relationships, it is much harder to hurt someone with whom we have connected. Our relationship with nature is no different. We nurture our curiosity and notice how open and relaxed we are. As we feel with nature, we begin to admire and want to care more deeply for those spaces that affect us.
For example, the Galapagos Islands is probably the most impactful place I have visited. The trip occurred at a time when I had to reset my relationship with my daughter. I am so grateful I got to see her mesmerized by the beauty of the area and its people. I, too, experienced the deepest peace I have ever felt in my life. This experience moved me to be more present in nature and find that same peace in the spaces near me. I care more about what is right in front of me.
In my workshops, I ask participants to write about a place in nature that affected them and create a newspaper headline to describe their experiences. Their stories are quite telling –
- “Boy finds snake, and with it, his existence.”
- “Girl soaks in the world around her while the wind tells her stories.”
- “Local worm hero, rescues from blacktop.”
- “Girl discovers insects that walk on water.”
Some participants are now working, as adults, on the very aspect of nature they were affected by as children. Many did not even put the two together before attending the workshop! I love that about this work – helping people have a-ha moments about their connections with nature.
Ultimately, my goal with this work is to help people realize that they cannot just “use” or “take” from nature. A good relationship is reciprocal. When you bring someone outside, encourage them in their experience while challenging them to consider: “What can you do to assure this same experience will be here for you and others into the future?”
When I poll participants about how well they advocate for the places that affect them, the answers are across the spectrum. If we, as conservationists, are not the greatest advocates, then how can we expect others to champion nature?
Advocacy does not have to mean a big gesture. A thank you to the land managers is a great start – they often go unappreciated for the work they do. Picking up garbage as you hike is another simple way to reciprocate. You can also give money, volunteer, and keep in contact with government officials who make decisions about the places you love. And advocate for access for all.
Most importantly, always be mindful of your impact. Share stories, especially when it includes a sense of advocacy. When we demonstrate a good human-nature relationship, it makes it easier for others to follow.
Growing in your human-nature relationship
I teach others to grow in their relationship with nature. While teaching is one way I give back, I still have a long way to go in my own relationship with this amazing planet. I use items well beyond the categories of food, water, and shelter, which means I consume more than I need. We all, likely, need to work on our relationship to Earth.
I believe there are no good or bad relationships with nature. Instead, I encourage reflection to understand our own complexities and see that we all have space to mature. When we loosen up our rigid beliefs, I think we do less harm to others and Earth. Knowing that we all need to grow helps me be more compassionate and curious about other people’s relationships. When I refrain from judging others, I can be more curious about what they need for their own growth.
As I continue to cultivate my relationship with nature, I will share more of my progress. In the future, you are likely to read about the importance of understanding your environmental identity, more information on ecowellness and what that looks like, and the evolution of a human-nature relationship spectrum I have developed over the past few years.
Because relationships are hard, I will share my mistakes, as well as some of the study and work I have done around ecological anxiety and ecological grief.
In July, I am co-teaching a 1-credit course on Nature and Counseling with my partner, Bre Cahoy at Adler Graduate School in Minnesota. The full course is only available to students, but we also offer occasional workshops on some of the topics, including a workshop we just completed on Ecotherapy Ethics and Responsibilities. I hope more will be coming soon.
In August, I am leading a 4-part series on ecowellness through the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. We will be diving more deeply into what I have covered here. Contact me if you want more information or to register.
If you would like to hear more or are ready for a workshop for your group, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the words of Richard Louv, remember, “We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. Or hear. Or sense.”
Written by: Michelle Doerr