Wilderness as a place

This is one of those posts that I sat down, wrote and barely edited because I really wanted to get it out there so forgive me any errors or untidy phrases.

Today Robert MacFarlane posted an open question on twitter:

“like many, I have long been fascinated by the complex relations of “mental health” and “nature”. Where, for you, is the most interesting current research & writing (from any time) to be found concerning this broad area?”

I too am fascinated by the relationships between mental health and nature as well as the added dimension of physical health which interplays with both mental health and nature.  I was excited to read the numerous replies but quickly found myself disappointed.  Repeatedly Miles Richardson was held up as a example of current research and writing and he is someone I follow on twitter and have read some of his research.  But beyond this there were numerous anecdotes which highlighted the privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There was an unspoken assumption in many of the tweets that nature meant somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk and thus require carefully cultivated paths which inevitably regulate our experience.  Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places are considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track include where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.

Another common narrative about nature and mental health is that of getting away from technology.  Now, if I am leaving my house I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair.  And I am aware that the people replying probably mean computers and phones when they deride technology but my wheelchair is technology and I cannot engage with anything outside without it.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and in that sense can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  If I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and say then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

Beyond that single thread of tweets, this idea of wilderness being true nature is prevalent in society and it gives us permission to ignore the nature that permeates our city, the nature which is literally on our doorstep, or ramp in my case.  Doing this deprives us of experiences but also alters how we think about conservation – it is something out there, not something in our everyday lives.

Privileging wilderness is also insidious because it has traditionally meant that female nature writers have not been able to engage with nature writing, or at least have not been granted the same status as their male equivalents, by virtue of not being able to access those places deemed wild.  The male monopoly on nature writing was challenged in the second half of the 1800s by writers such as Mary Roberts and Anne Pratt who “wrote with humour and insight about native weeds” (The Oxford Book of Nature Writing).

“What sees the stranger in passing by? A small and insignificant looking weed, covering the top of an old wall, or springing from interstices where the mortar has fallen out between the stones.  What sees the botanist in this simple weed?  An object of great interest; formed especially for the place which it is designed to fill.”
– Mary Roberts, 1845

This close-looking at the immediate environment juxtaposed with the drive to exotic and unusual that had driven men up till this point.  Instead of great adventures in search of rare and wonderful orchids, women had to find something to meet their interest nearer to home.  When we look at this through the lens of place, we see the male wilderness and the female domestic environments reflected in their writings.  I suggest that it’s possible these female nature writers were more in tune with nature than the male explorers.  To know a place intimately and deeply gives you a stronger sense of connection than you get from passing through.

“If there’s one thing that underlies the work of many women nature writers, however, it’s a sense of interconnectedness, a dissolving of barriers between nature and culture, wild lands and home.”
Vivian Wagner, Creative Nonfiction, Issue 61 – Learning from Nature

Wilderness also, often, suggests vast plains of uninhabited lands filled with large, strong feature – perhaps a mountain range.  By virtue of having 65 million people living on a 242,495 km² island, there is not much of the UK that could be considered wilderness in the sense that Americans or Canadians experience.   But is that the only kind of wilderness? Wagner cites Annie Dillard as being a wilderness writer but notes that her wildernesses are small, consisting of a wood behind a suburban house, a neighbourhood creek and a field by a busy road.  Dillard has rejected the idea of nature being confined to raging rivers far removed from roads and hillscapes which have never seen telephone poles and has found what many feel as the spiritual power of nature in her own back yard.

“The birds and I share a natural history.  It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for son long that the mind and imagination fuse.”
– Terry Tempest Williams

William’s here illustrates the power of intimacy and longevity. You can be part of a place, part of nature, part of the wild simply by being there and paying attention for a while.

“As with the work of many other women writers, Strayed’s wilderness is not separate and distinct from herself.  Rather, the larger world and Strayed herself are interwoven and connected, one shaping the other.”
– Wagner

The interesting paradox of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, is that the wilderness she escaped to and wrote about is now marketed as a route which you can recreate and experience through her experiences rather than a landscape with which you can create your own connections.

Despite everything I’ve just said about women finding alternatives to traditional wilderness, I am not saying that women do not write of the “true wilderness” but instead that historically, by focusing on local nature, women were able to break into the field of nature writing in a way that perhaps they couldn’t have otherwise.

“Ornithology and botany within the confines of home and neighborhood were considered to be fitting pursuits for woman, but solitary back-country living … and wilderness exploration … were most emphatically not.”
– Lorraine Anderson on Victorian society

I’d like to leave you with an image.

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

#30dayswild

I wrote an introduction to #30dayswild at the beginning of June which explains the challenge and how I’m approaching it.  As we’ve reached the end I want to share some of my highlights.

Day one: I saw a huge bee exploring my bird feeder which was exciting because no birds have been by… It’s been up for a few months now and I think it’s just a bad location but I don’t have a better one for it. I had the window open so despite being stuck in bed, I was able to hear the birds. I also emailed various organisations about disability and nature (I’ve been meaning to for a while) to ask for their suggestions, recommendations and to see if they could share my blog posts.  And I wrote up some long overdue reviews on euans guide:

And my copy of BBC wildlife magazine arrived!

Day two: Using the magic of the internet, I identified a blackbird from its song that wafted through the open window.  As I said above, I don’t really know any bird calls and I’d love to learn more.

Day three: My 30 days wild pack arrived and I wrote about snails and ladybirds.  I scattered wild flower seeds in my yard and made butterflies from clay as its butterfly education and awareness day.  This was a good day but I was in a state health wise at the end of it.

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Day four: Day three was a bit much for me so day four has been a bit of a washout.  Basically mostly spending it in bed watching netflix and reading about the seasons:

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Day five: I felt worse than day four so very little done at all and not really even up to reading.  I did however get a great response from one of the emails I sent on day 1 about access to nature when you have limited mobility.

I feel like this entire year is just passing me by as I bounce from one phase of illness to another…

Reads: As I lay ill, inside, trapped by my body, the seasons turn and turn and turn
Reads: As I lay ill, inside, trapped by my body, the seasons turn and turn and turn

Day six: There was supposed to be a walk but there was also exceptionally heavy rain so we postponed.  I did get out to go to the not very wild supermarket where I bought a couple of nature focused magazines.  I also, amongst other things, saw a happy little snail on the pavement outside my flat.  Whilst not a plant, it put me in mind of the following quote:

Reads: I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It's so fuckin' heroic - George Carlin
Reads: I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fuckin’ heroic – George Carlin

Day seven: Resting up for a day out on 9th.  The sun is dancing with the clouds, alternating my bedroom between light and dark in a matter of seconds.

Day eight: Awake at 3.30am but being serenaded by a blackbird calling in the day.

Day nine: A day trip!  We went to The Deep in Hull which was very accessible and has very detailed information about access on their website.  I was impressed.  As we drove over the weather was a bit patchy, sun and clouds.  And then the heavens opened.  It was like giants were pouring buckets of water over us.  The window wipers couldn’t keep up, the drains couldn’t keep up, we could barely see the car in front.  And then, just as suddenly as it started, it stopped.  It turned out to be a very strange day for weather.  When we stopped for lunch at Hornsea, it was really cold.  Once we’d eaten though, it was glorious sunshine and lovely and warm.  But after a short walk, the sky turned black once more. The weather was certainly wild!

I realise that #30dayswild is more about plants and animals and such but the weather is an important part of nature for me.  One day I will learn more about it. But for now, how about some pictures from The Deep?!  It was hard to capture them because you can’t use your flash and it’s quite dark and the animals move around a lot!

From here on out though, things got a bit patchy. My health went squiffier than normal and I’m not committing to any more thing a day challenges because they always seem to coincide with me feeling rubbish…

Day 10: Woken by a woodpigeon in the early hours and the day finished with a musky, golden sky.

Day 12: A little walk.

Day 18: Went to the park.  Saw ducklings and also baby blackbirds which I’ve never seen before!

Day 19: A really hot looking pigeon glared at me from my garden fence.

Day 20: I did some drawing, including a picture of dandelions:

dandelion

Day 21: More art, the summer solstice and a post about sunflowers.

Day 22: Saw a starling in a car park with a huge beakful of food, looking very pleased with itself.  And crows or ravens ruling the roost on the top of the butchers.

Day 28: Two little blackbirds hopped around outside my bedroom window making me smile.

Day 30: The woodpigeon, in all his plump and puffed up glory, returned to tightrope walking along my fence.

As I said above, I’ve not done well because of health and even though these all seem like little things, they bring a smile to my face when I notice them.  Having learnt the sound of a blackbird calling at the beginning of the month, I now pay more attention to his song.  It is more meaningful to me because I know which bird is calling.

#30dayswild

This month is the 30 Days Wild challenge.  The idea being that you do something wild every day throughout June.

What is a Random Act of Wildness?

A Random Act of Wildness is about making time to connect with nature around you, or doing something small yourself to help nature. Random Acts of Wildness are all about experiencing, learning about and helping your local wildlife. They can be simple, small, fun and exciting too.

The Wildlife Trusts running the challenge have their suggestions about ways you can be wild and are tweeting about it.  I love the idea of it and a couple of years ago I tried to challenge myself to notice three nature related things each day.  I liked the concept and I like the awareness but when you spend most of your life in your flat, it can get tricky to find new things.

My health is being more rubbish than normal right now so I’m stepping into this challenge very aware that I may not meet it every day and certainly won’t look like people’s idea of being wild in nature.  Part of the process for me is about getting back to basics and looking at what I can do, not just what I wish I could do.

For example, right now there is a woodpigeon cooing and I know it’s a woodpigeon and I love that I can tell it from it’s call (I’m not good at bird identification let alone birdsong identification).

I’ve been really pleased to see others on twitter taking a similar approach.  @porridgebrain tweeted that her “contributions will be very small and ordinary and probably only a few feet from my house.”  She also mentioned the perception of what a nature person should be and how if you aren’t doing x, y or z then you aren’t doing it right. And this is something I’ve picked up on as well.  There’s a lot of narrative about how you need to sit still quietly on the top of a hill with binoculars and no electricity pylons in sight before you earn the nature badge.

Jo Southall is another person who is focusing on doorstep nature.  She has some of the same health issues as me and I really admire the way she does get out into the more traditional wild but how she also pays attention to what is right in front of her.

I have written about nature and disability before and would love to get your ideas about ways of connecting with nature when you have limited mobility or can’t leave the house.

Why am I rambling about nature so much?

Connecting with nature when you’re stuck in the house

Connecting with nature when you have limited mobility

My hope is to collate my #30dayswild into a blog post at the end of June as a way of sharing my ideas and showing how I bring nature into my life on a regular basis.

Day one: I saw a huge bee exploring my bird feeder which was exciting because no birds have been by… It’s been up for a few months now and I think it’s just a bad location but I don’t have a better one for it. I had the window open so despite being stuck in bed, I was able to hear the birds. I also emailed various organisations about disability and nature (I’ve been meaning to for a while) to ask for their suggestions, recommendations and to see if they could share my blog posts.  And I wrote up some long overdue reviews on euans guide:

And my copy of BBC wildlife magazine arrived!

Day two: Using the magic of the internet, I identified a blackbird from its song that wafted through the open window.  As I said above, I don’t really know any bird calls and I’d love to learn more.