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On connecting and disconnecting nature

This is a blog that I have had in mind for a while, but it has been hard to write as my understanding of the situation I describe has been and still is evolving.

As many outdoor educators, play experts, environmentalists, academics, and others were making calls for a better connection with nature, I could not understand why I had pulled the plug on it.

Social distancing measures have created distance from many things. How each of us has experienced it depends very much on what we do for work, where we live, what responsibilities for others we have and if we have strong support networks. The inequities of the impact of Covid 19 are well discussed but far from resolved.

They day we were told that we could only leave the house for one unit of exercise per day for one hour, was the day that I disconnected my relationship with nature and put it in a box for later. For a while I was angry and could not cope with seeing pictures on social media of people still accessing woodland, coast or moor, so I disconnected from most of my social media too.

I was really struggling. Living in a pretty, agricultural village, I had beautiful views and beautiful hedgerows but also lots of space all around us not actually accessible to use or exercise in. Aware of the privilege of green space even if just to look at, it was heart-breaking to read of people stuck in flats or unable to walk their toddler to the closest park and back within the hour limit or those who physically relied on benches to rest, on seeing hazard tape preventing use.

For some time, as a family we made use of the hour and walked the dusty roads in our village and fortunately a local farmer allowed us use of one particular field and so we would go there and throw a ball around or a frisbee and then walk back. After a couple of weeks though, the urge to do this became less and less until we realised that we were not leaving the house at all anymore. As a normally active outdoorsy family we were all puzzled as to what was going on.

There were some very basic barriers that we realised made it difficult. Firstly, as a family of four we felt we should spend our hour of outdoor exercise together. This meant that we might avoid walking the dog on our own as then this would exclude us from any family outside exercise time later. In reality, getting the whole family ready and in the mood for an hour of exercise in the same place everyday was challenging and so it began that some days we wouldn’t go out at all.

We later realised that our pre-lockdown outdoor time was so attached to important social relationships that we had,-with my outdoor colleagues, the groups that we work with and our friends-that our outdoor time in lockdown just felt woefully empty. With family far away, and as a lone parented team, our outdoor social connections are our main support. Used to being outdoors with a group of 20 or so and playing around, cooking and sharing food together, our throwing a frisbee about in a field without them all was just sad.

I spoke to my friend and colleague on the phone about how in difficult times, as outdoor people we would manage hard days, tricky feelings and balance family dynamics usually by visiting our special places. These she described as the places where you could find comfort just from being there and that these special places are the tool that we use when life gets tough. We also talked about how our scheduled outdoor time with groups was vital for the members of the group, including us and that without it, some natural mechanisms that kept us healthy and happy were missing. The sharing with my friend, that trying to manage the anxiety, loss and imposed isolation of the Covid 19 Crisis, we couldn’t use our number one tool to help fix it, was vital in understanding why I had disconnected.

Emails from another friend and mother of a member of one of our outdoor groups, gave me some insight into her life trying to continue helping her children to access the outdoors and nature in an urban area. Feeling watched by neighbours for perceived infractions of the outdoor exercise rules, police patrolling and the closest green space to walk with her children being so busy with cyclists and runners that it was neither safe nor possible to socially distance. She explained how her children were struggling without being able to use outdoor time for play and mood regulation and that she felt other families near her were having similar struggles. The restriction of one hour per day made it challenging for her to coordinate all of her children of different needs and ages as she would need to take the whole family to make it workable. Despite being a proud advocate of outdoor education and nature play for her children, this was not a tool that she was able to use.

Whilst I acknowledge that for some lockdown has been a time that they have used for connecting to nature, I offer here an alternative experience. I have resisted reading the multitude of articles telling us that lockdown has meant a better connection with nature, in much the same way that I avoided the photographs of people still accessing and enjoying woodlands and the coast, when much of the U.K. could not. Including the obvious issues of privilege and equity of access to green or blue natural spaces it seems wise to challenge the growing nature connection rhetoric and remember that for a multitude of complex reasons not everyone has been able to connect to nature. For some the loss of access to natural spaces has induced a grief all of its own.

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