Our natural world and how to reconnect with its wonders

by Hana Merchant

Hana Merchant, a volunteer in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden, shares her top tips for reconnecting with nature, including rewilding your phone, wild reading and wild activities.

Nature inspires

The UK’s wildlife and countryside have long been an inspiration to those who live in or around it.

Some of our most popular works of art have been a direct result of the beauty of nature, one of the most well known being JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a self-confessed nature lover and you cannot miss the admiration and respect for nature in his stories.

He delighted in long forest walks and was in awe of the majesty of trees. Even during a time when conservation biology was in its infancy, Tolkien connected with our natural world in a way that most of us today couldn’t even think possible and was deeply troubled by the way it was being defiled.

Our connection with our natural world is drastically dwindling, resulting in a lack of concern for the habitats around us and protection for their safety.

Here are some modern Tolkien tips to get in touch with what’s on your doorstep and why you should give it a go.

What does connecting with nature mean?

It’s that sense of awe you’d feel as a child playing in the garden or a park, the feeling of wonder as you let a ladybird crawl all over your hand and arm, or the joy you get when you climb a tree. As we grow up, for most of us this joy and wonder eventually comes to an end.

The biggest influence on our connection with nature is urbanisation and the reduction of green spaces. Today, 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas, with Europe (74%) and North America (82%) having some of the highest levels of urbanisation1, and this is increasing rapidly.

This has become even more relevant during the current global pandemic, which has forced us to retreat indoors, cocooned in a man-made environment and relying even more on the virtual world. This growing detachment and lack of compassion is a huge problem facing nature conservation efforts2.

Some of the inhabitants of the wildlife garden include sheep © The Natural History Museum, London

So how can we take a bit of time out of our busy lives to get to know our natural world a little better?

Compassion and connection with nature comes from interest and understanding, and you don’t need to be in the remote countryside to do this – it can happen anywhere. So, the next time you walk to the shops or to the station, leave your mobile and headphones in your pocket.

  • Listen to the different bird sounds throughout the day. If you’re out in the evening or if you wake up early enough, enjoy the dusk and dawn choruses. Can you recognise the different bird calls?
  • As you walk down the road, look at the leaves on the ground or in the trees around you and compare the different shapes and colours.
  • Learn to identify just one plant species so you can spot it wherever you are. Explore what makes it unique using as many of your senses as possible. What does it smell of? What colours and textures do different parts have?
  • Take notice of one tree and watch how it changes throughout the seasons – find out what colours the leaves change in autumn and what time of year they drop off. Keep an eye out for when they start to grow back in spring and if the flowers or leaves unfurl first.
  • Keep a diary or mental note of what grows in a particular patch in your garden or local green space, and notice how different things crop up at different times of the year – has the flowering time of a particular plant changed from one year to another?
  • The next time an insect gets in your house, before you throw it back outside, take a closer look at colours on its body and count the number of eyes and legs.
Volunteers in the Wildlife Garden © The Natural History Museum, London

Mental health and our connection to nature

As summed up by Sir David Attenborough, ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’

Recent research carried out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggests that people with a stronger connection to nature are more likely to behave positively towards the environment, wildlife and habitats3.

In addition to helping conservation efforts, the positive effects of connecting with nature on our mental wellbeing and health are widely researched.

Non-infectious diseases such as depression, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia are the leading cause of death globally4 and many of these are linked to our modern sedentary lifestyles, which include lack of physical activity, poor diet and high levels of stress5.

The green areas around us provide a space for us to disengage ourselves from the urban world and its pressures, for even just a short amount of time.

Watch Sir David Attenborough talk about nature and mental health.

Wildlife Garden © The Natural History Museum, London

Rewild your phone

Wild reading

  • Collins Gem guides – a series of mini-pocket guides to help identify different species groups including trees, wildflowers and fungi.
  • Back to Nature by Megan McCubbin and Chris Packham
  • The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs by Tristan Gooley
  • Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us – A Diary by Emma Mitchell
  • Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence by Marc Bekoff

Surround yourself

Get involved

About the author

Hana Merchant is a PhD student studying speciation of African mole rats at Royal Holloway University. She is looking at how mole rats adapt to their environments and how climate change might affect where they live in the future.

Hana’s work in the Wildlife Garden includes ecological surveying, maintenance, spider trapping, pit-fall trapping and newt trapping. ‘We left a newt trap overnight and got quite a lot of smooth newts, about five to six in each trap. I have never seen a newt up close before that, they are like a slippery gecko’ she says.  

Her favourite plants in the garden are the bee orchids, the rowan and ash trees and the wildflower meadow.

Hana wants to help everyone relate to nature, even if you live in a city and town.

References

  1. United Nations (2018). World Urbanization Prospects.
  2. Clayton, S and Opotow, C (2003) Identity and the natural environment: The psychological significance of nature (pp. 45-65) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  3. Bird, W. (2019). Natural Fit
  4. World Health Organisation (2014) Global Status Report on non-communicable diseases.
  5. Peen, J, Schoevers, R A, Beekman, A T, and Dekker, J (2010) The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatr. Scand. 121(2), 84-93.

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