Connecting People and Nature

From our own gardens to the remote highland mountains, from city parks and forest schools to the coasts, and beyond to the islands, Scotland’s nature is that of a national pride and international wonder. The Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) aims to further conserve, facilitate enjoyment and advise on sustainable management of Scotland’s nature and land. The SNH vision is to establish Scotland as a recognised world leader for looking after and improving nature by 2030.

Connecting People and Nature is an initiative with key measures for impact and a clear goal to see more people across Scotland enjoy and benefit from nature. As someone who associates Scotland with family and outdoor freedoms (a freedom we are not afforded in England), the SNH mission statement is deeply true to my my own. By writing online and through many of my social media interactions I hope to inspire, promote and enable others to find their own outdoor adventures. From wild swimming in central London to helping my Dad finally finish the West Highland Way, I have wanted to show many of our limitations are imagined. Nature is for everybody, and adventure comes in many forms. An outcome of my last adventure (running the West Highland Way race within 35 hours) was that this weekend my younger brother and his girlfriend walked part of the Grand Union Canal and picnicked in the nearby countryside. Having seen runners of all ages and experience finish something many assume impossible, they had vowed to get outdoors and be more active. Taking on the race, I did not know how many people it would touch, but seeing the impact has been overwhelming. Sharing my story through Facebook adventure groups aimed to get more women outdoors and outside their comfort zones I received comments to say that such stories ‘push [their] ideas of what is do-able.’

“The advice that I would have previously given to one of my [cancer] patients would have been to ‘take it easy’. This has now changed significantly because of the recognition that if physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines.”

– Prof Jane Maher, Macmillan Cancer Support Chief Medical Officer, SNH Connecting People and Nature.

A key sentence stood out in the SNH proposal; that the natural heritage is Scotland’s own ‘Nature Health Service.’ Having worked in and closely with the National Health Service in cancer treatment for the past decade, I am often floored by how many patients were unwell before they even came to us. Not to say they were ill, but suffered from daily chronic maladies that we now take for granted as a part of normal life – lacking mobility, overweight, low self-esteem, stressed, depressed and lonely. A thought that haunts me in my chosen career is – am I helping enough? I am a true believer that nature and movement in nature, whether as sport or leisure, can heal and prevent many modern day health conditions. Not only this, but that it may be the only cure.

Beyond our own health, there is the health of the land, sea and air. We read and hear about the impact and importance of climate change, but the ability to act on an individual level feels so remote despite the urgency. When we are disconnected we have the privilege to distract ourselves from the imminent concern that such a disaster deserves. I never went to Antarctica, but as an environmental scientist, my husband did. It was through his emails and photos, the closeness of someone I knew and loved being present in the furthest region of the planet that brought the remote close for me. He had been there and together we experienced the distance. Now, we can no longer deny that we are responsible for its protection. It is true for the hospital, being there and seeing everyday people suffer and fear, people who are just like my family, I am responsible for them too.

“Everyone is involved; everyone benefits. Scotland is greener, healthier and more prosperous”

– Scottish Natural Heritage, 2018, http://www.nature.scot

Through writing, documenting and capturing these pressing issues of public health and global climate change, we can bridge distance and disconnection, but until a greater closeness is breached change will not occur on the necessary scale. A limitation in the SNH proposal is that it does not underline how to address either issues of health and improving nature for the individual. Building new green spaces does not necessarily mean more people will benefit, just that more people will have the opportunity to. The true positive outcomes of such an initiative as Connecting People and Nature will not be reaped for some time, and nor the disastrous outcomes if SNH fail. How do we invite everyone outside? And how do we show them the benefits of doing so? How can we instill the idea that everyone is responsible for their own health and the landscapes?

“When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed, incidentally, deliberately, imagination and memory go with them.”

– Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

The connection between People and Nature has always existed through the means of storytelling. It is through telling our own and other’s stories that we can connect people with each other, nature and their own selves. Reaching every person may seem impossible, but in a time of instant news via social media this is no longer the case. Just this year, we saw a bus driver take the initiative to crowd fund via Twitter to ensure every school in Scotland received a copy of the nature book ‘Lost Words’ by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. Children and schools wrote back sharing the work achieved from such a gift, allowing access to nature through storytelling for every primary school child in Scotland. We can tell the stories and reach everyone with a message to ignite change; consuming less is not a sacrifice, but sharing more is a privilege.

If we do not share nature and stories of people in nature, the connection of people and nature will be forgotten.

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