Nature Connections – Part 1

This is the first of two blog posts, co-authored by Hannah Chalk, Learning Manager and Katherine Majewski, Curatorial Assistant (Vivarium), about the ‘Nature Connections’ conference that we attended earlier this month, and how it relates to our work in the Museum. In this first post, we provide a brief overview of nature connectedness and why it is such an important aspect of the Museum’s work. To finish, Kasia introduces a project that is currently being carried out by the Vivarium Team, and shares a film that captures precisely what nature connectedness means in practice. In the second post, we provide further details on some of the central themes and questions that were raised during the conference.

On 2 July, we travelled down to the University of Derby, where we joined 150 delegates for the annual ‘Nature Connections’ conference. The day brought together researchers and practitioners and, through 30 papers, explored a range of methods for developing nature connectedness and measuring its impacts.

What is nature connectedness?  In one of the opening papers, Miles Richardson, part of the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group, used the distinction between contact and connection to describe what nature connectedness is. While contact with nature refers to exposure to – time in or with – nature, connectedness is a person’s sense of their relationship with the natural world and the depth of that relationship. In recent years, interest in this relationship and its impacts has generated a growing body of research that links nature connectedness to pro-environmental behaviour (namely, behaviour that actively seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment) and health and wellbeing.

Simply put, nature connectedness is good for you, it’s good for society, and it’s easy to do: even ‘noticing’ or ‘spotting’ nature can improve an individual’s connection to nature. Such simple actions are increasingly being promoted through national campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild, and the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you’re 11¾. Importantly, the impacts of such interventions have been shown to be of most benefit for people with a low level of nature connectedness and who spend less time outdoors.

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However, a word of caution: having established a connection to nature, there is no guarantee that it will continue inevitably. Indeed, recent research into nature connectedness across the lifecourse has revealed an ‘Adolescent Dip’ – a considerable drop in levels of nature connectedness during the teenage years, and one that takes 20 years to recover.

1Dip

Fighting for beauty: The striking revelation that connectedness to the natural world is centred on experience rather than information or knowledge, was the message at the heart of author, Dame Fiona Reynolds’, opening paper. Her dedication to the ‘Fight for Beauty’ (also the title of her book) was really captivating: nature should not exclusively be assigned value due to its agricultural, residential, industrial or perceived scientific worth, she says, but rather its intrinsic beauty. Yet this mind-set is at odds with the ways in which nature is treated, regulated, valued and spoken about; terms like natural assets, ecosystem services and natural resource management point to a transactional relationship with nature, and this couldn’t be further from the enchantment and joy that is central to nature connectedness.

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You don’t have to be an ecologist or biologist to appreciate and benefit from a beautiful landscape, and that appreciation is equally justifiable and important as the economic benefit landscapes may have. In short – we should be allowed and encouraged to protect and fight for areas of beauty, because of their beauty, and not just because of their perceived economic value. This raises interesting questions for the Museum, and how we can facilitiate opportunities for our audiences to experience beauty in the natural world when beauty is so subjective. This is particularly significant when the ‘natural world’ is an urban environment, and where ‘natural beauty’ may be less obvious or feel distant from our daily lives.

Hot topics in nature connectedness: Throughout the conference, it became clear that there is a great deal of work that is attempting to overcome the ‘Adolescent dip’ and likewise, nature connectedness in the urban environment was also a particularly popular theme. It was also apparent that much more work is needed to address the inequalities in access to nature and its associated benefits: more than half of the visits that connect people with nature are undertaken by just 11% of the population. Indeed, the perception of ‘nature’ as an elitist pursuit, as something distant, special, removed from the everyday lives of many people, and the preserve of the white middle and upper class sectors of society, is a persistent problem that has yet to be adequately resolved.

From a policy perspective, a number of priorities were identified in order to move this work forward. These include: understanding the motivations and barriers to connecting with nature; gathering hard evidence to demonstrate its value – financial, environmental and social; and working to reach more diverse groups of people through partnerships (with mental health groups, faith groups, planners and business, for example).

Heart not head: How do people (re)connect with nature? What can organisations do to support this? Echoing Dame Fiona Reynolds’ message, a theme that ran through the conference was that nature connectedness is about the heart and not the head: it is about emotions, beauty, pleasure, and joy and the experience of being in or with nature for its own sake and this experience being part of our everyday lives.

To support those working to develop activities that connect people with nature, Richardson and colleagues have used their research to develop ‘5 Pathways to Nature Connection’.

5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Contact– tuning in to nature through the senses
Emotion – feeling alive through the sensation and feelings nature brings
Beauty – noticing nature’s aesthetic qualities
Meaning – nature bringing meaning to our lives
Compassion – caring and taking action for nature

For more on the Pathways, visit the ‘Finding Nature’ blog.

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The ‘heart not head’ mantra is central to these pathways, and throughout the conference, there were many examples of how artistic and creative methods were particularly suitable for supporting the type of emotional relationships from which nature connectedness emerges.

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However, and as Marian Spain of Natural England explained, nature connectedness is not about education – it is not about telling or teaching people, but rather it is about people experiencing nature for themselves. In short, if you want to develop meaningful relationships with nature, then the five pathways are the most effective way to do this.

Inspiring work at the Museum: One such example of how wonder can inspire connections with nature can be found in an ongoing project, led by the Museum’s Vivarium team and working with the INSPIRE Chorley Youth Zone. The project started with the installation of a new information panel in Millennium Green park in Chorley, depicting the variety and importance of local pond life. Following this, we took some of our live animals out to the INSPIRE Chorley Youth Zone to deliver some experiential learning sessions. The Vivarium team subsequently did some fund raising so that we could continue to work with the group, and back in May, the donations enabled us to take the INSPIRE youth group on the road and outdoors to Brockholes Nature Reserve.

As a further extension to our in house teaching initiatives, myself and Curator Andrew Gray were thrilled to facilitate the opportunity for a group of young people to experience the wonder and diversity of the natural world. While we tend to find that the tropical setting and immersive and sensory experiences of the Museum’s Vivarium are ideal for this type of engagement, we were interested to find out how the group would respond to the slightly less exotic (yet equally unique and diverse) nature in their proverbial backyard. We were fortunate enough to have this experience captured by talented film maker Katie Garrett, so you can see for yourself how the joy and wonder of simply being in nature can have quite significant effects. To view the film, please click the image below or visit the Frog Blog.

Inspired by nature

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