I have been thinking a lot about belonging recently.
Changes in our lives and moving forward always tests our sense of belonging, to what we leave behind and what we seek to be a part of next.
Many scholars have identified that a lack of a sense of belonging can be detrimental to our own health and to the health and functioning of communities.
There are many ways that we can feel that we belong, in families, neighbourhoods, schools, friendships, intimate relationships, work, interest groups, all kinds of places and geographies, our own bodies and minds and of course in nature.
Stories, folk lore and forgotten wisdom have historically supported us with an understanding of how and why we don’t always belong. Maybe we once did but changes occur and we no longer are in the right place or with the right people. The archetypes of those who have been outcast-outsider are very familiar to us in characters such as Cinderella. In fact a great many Disney films are about outsiders looking for their place, their people, their belonging.
The reasons for Belonging are about survival. A baby or child who does not belong in a family may not survive into adulthood, many communities across history and cultures cultivate a sense of belonging to support survival of the individual and the community as a whole.
Our current political climate does not support belonging it encourages division and isolation. The reasons why we don’t belong are too many.
It is sometimes difficult to explain what we do at Curious School of the Wild as we are committed to many different elements in our work. This sometimes leaves us behind and at the back, as we can’t say we are any one particular specialist provider of any one specialist thing. We do not specialise in mountain biking or surfing or forest school or walking or cooking or expedition or nature connection or environmental education or youth work, neurodiversity, poverty proofing, forest bathing, art, camping, but we are all of these things and more. It’s difficult to market yourself in a world where being really good at one thing is what is praised and rewarded. We know this, but we still continue to do way too many things as we understand that it is all linked and in a web, where if one part is removed threads in the web no longer connect. I think what we do is cultivate belonging and that requires many threads, many connections, and many moments.
An example of this, is that last week we were lucky enough to be offered some surfing sessions. One of our young crew was able to surf for the first time with our support and the support of Newquay Womens Surf Club. It’s not that simple though, as this person has known me and worked with me since she was in Reception year at school, when I led outdoor learning there some years back. She now comes to our youth café most weeks, shares food and adventures with us and has been on residentials and camps, she trusts us and she feels she belongs. Belonging is what means that she could surf for the first time and feel safe and be supported by an organisation she doesn’t know and an instructor she met for the first time. The look on her face as she caught the first wave will be forever imprinted on my mind. She was elated and the happiest I have seen her. It was one of those moments where you say to yourself “this is what it’s all about!” It could have gone very differently though and it sometimes does. Not everyone feels belonging, it can take time and a lot of work, it can take a lifetime and sometimes generations.
It is hard to write about belonging and not mention that our landlord and some neighbours do not feel that my family belongs in our village. Consistent complaints and hostility mean that we know we do not belong here. I am a single parent, on a low income, renting in a village of financially buoyant, mostly retired older people with very distinct ideas about what does and does not fit in their neighbourhood. Rudy said to me ‘Mum it is so hard as the thing you care about most is community and we don’t have one here.’ She is right. An example of the hostility towards us means that any litter in the village is put in our front garden, sending a consistent and very clear message. The perceived moral failing of poverty and being a single parent means we are too easily scapegoated for the ills of a whole village. What keeps me from despair is the patch of cyclamen that grows in the hedge only opposite our house, the wood sorrel hiding in the corner of our garden and the garden birds who enjoy what my landlord referred to scathingly as ‘a mini wilderness’. A wilderness garden is a moral failing to my landlord and neighbours but obviously to many of my readers this would be seen as a triumph-a triumph for nature-that will no doubt lead to eviction in a housing crisis! Belonging in nature and belonging in communities are issues that for me are tightly tied together, well illustrated by our being outcast and displaced, in part for a messy garden.
I understand that we are stigmatised in our village. Belonging and stigma are related. The application of stigma ensures difficulty in belonging. Erving Goffman, the Social Interactionist, described stigma as the “situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance". Although some of the content of Goffman’s work on stigma and the language used, is by today’s standards what I would call a bit spicy, the central themes are important and much still rings true. Stigma is a powerful social tool used to control behaviour considered deviant and to ensure compliance and conformity. Stigma is a tool of the powerful used against those with less power, it uses our most vital instincts to belong, against us and frequently does not produce conformity but instead isolation.
Compliance and conformity are not the same as belonging. We can try to conform but if it is not the right place for us then in the end we only do damage to ourselves. We will all have a story from childhood where we faked characteristics or interests to be accepted into a group. Those from marginalised groups will have whole lives full of masking and camouflaging to pass as one of or at least, acceptable to the dominant group. This temptation to fake belonging continues into adulthood, at work, in communities and even our own families. Many of us can’t fake belonging in a group that does not genuinely want diversity and difference in it’s number. Some of us have difference that can’t be hidden or won’t stay hidden for long. Understanding that social survival depends on conforming when we know we can’t conform, will affect our health.
I have been reading Belonging by Toko Pa Turner and she describes belonging through conformity as ‘false belonging’.
“Our longing for community and purpose is so powerful that it can drive us to join groups, relationships, or systems of belief that, to our diminished or divided self, give the false impression of belonging. But places of false belonging grant us conditional membership, requiring us to cut parts of ourselves off in order to fit in.”
This reminds me that on making our work more accessible a couple of years ago we unintentionally invited the wrath of those who wished for our offerings to remain more conditional and exclusive. Some parents were very upset as our work became more inclusive. I received some pretty upsetting messages, as we opened up our work to more marginalised groups-as we felt it important that others were offered the opportunity for belonging-including those who were upset at the changes. This gives a crucial insight into how some people have learned to value exclusion and conditional membership above inclusion.
Nature and belonging is a big part of my life. At times when I had few healthy social connections, my sense of belonging to nature was strong enough to support me to survive. Many people report a connection and a belonging to nature during darker times as a kind of medicine. When social rules dictate that we can’t belong in the communities we need, I hope we can always belong to nature. I am not sure where my nature belongingness came from, I believe it is possible to have an innate sense of belonging to nature without explicit guidance from others. Having said that there is much research that suggests that nature connection can be supported and encouraged. I enjoyed the Ted Talk by Dr. Pooja Tandon who like us has a long list of things she does to help cultivate healthy lives outdoors and in nature as all of it is beneficial. She describes not having an obvious outdoor life but later appreciating what she calls ‘Nature Mentors” and ‘Nature Allies’ who helped her to feel confident and that she belonged in nature and could also be “outdoorsy”.
In our work I sometimes feel like we are nature allies and mentors, supporting people to know that they also belong outdoors and in nature. We observe that many of the barriers to nature belongingness are forged by people and not by nature. The social rules around being outdoors and in nature are often hidden, what seems free and available for everyone to enjoy sometimes is not. We are encouraged to believe that only experts can access the outdoors and sadly some actual experts work to gatekeep their places and knowledge and do much to hinder inclusion and belonging. Land rights, trespass and land ownership tell us that we literally and legally don’t belong in some nature. It is still attached to ideas of Empire, power and colonialism where no one except the privileged can belong. It is not a surprise that so many minority groups still find themselves needing to fight to belong outdoors. I am bolstered by the ground that is being made and the communities finding each other and growing outdoors in nature and adventure. Organisations like All the elements are doing so much to connect communities who are working for inclusion and belonging outdoors. The ways that we can explore and express our belonging and connectedness to nature are being eroded through stifling curriculums squeezing out the arts and play. Forest school has done much to counter the loss of belonging to nature but it can’t fill the ever expanding nature deficit hole quickly enough.
We must all be Nature Allies.
I have come to the conclusion that there is one thing that we specialise in, in our work- whether we are playing in a street, summiting a Tor, walking the coast path, playing a board game, chatting, paddling, camping, drawing or cooking up food on a Trangia stove-we specialise in belonging outdoors. Our work is diverse because whatever it takes to help someone to belong we will try it. We are nature mentors and nature allies, hoping to support people to have good outdoor lives. We don’t know everything or have all of the resources and so we also make crucial connections with others who are also nature allies and support us in our work towards belonging.
I recently visited the house of John Ruskin, well known art critic, social reformer and nature scholar. He firmly believed in Nature as a teacher as did many of his Victorian peers. He did though disagree with Darwin's theories of evolution through survival of the fittest as he refused to believe that evolution was only about competition rather than co-operation. Again Ruskin was a complicated character, also at times on the margins but it is interesting that his ideas of nature co-operation now hold water as we learn and understand more.
We are living in difficult times. It’s hard to know what to do. What I do know is that we all have the power to stigmatise and exclude OR to invite people in. The environmental challenges we face are tied to the social challenges that we face. Isolation and disconnection from each other and nature make solutions hard to find.
Maybe those who have struggled to find a sense of social belonging lean towards belonging in nature?
Maybe those who have suffered stigma and discrimination are those who also know the value of belonging?
Maybe those who have suffered stigma and exclusion learn it is sometimes better to not try to be included?
Maybe many of us are attached to false belonging and as Toko Pa says, have cut parts of ourselves off?
Maybe disrupting the crucial need to belong creates communities that are unhealthy and distracted?
Maybe one person is all that is needed to open up a sense of belonging for another who is outcast.
Maybe being outcast is useful and has a value all of its own?
I don’t know. I do know that Belonging is a theme that is bubbling to the surface for me right now, in life, work and in the world.
I no longer want people to be just be included, I want them to feel belonging.