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REWILDING YOURSELF IN A BUSY WORLDA Message for Young People Jo Roberts, CEO of The Wilderness Foundation In the iconic book, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox by Charlie Mackesy, Christopher Robin asks mole as they look out over a vast and empty landscape, 'What is that out there? 'It's the wild', said the mole, 'Don't fear it."All of us grow through life, building on past experiences and what we see and take from the people and world around us. In terms of getting to know wild places, it is built on the same premise, and younger people, more new to the world and growing up in more urban surroundings, can only know what they know and what they see before them. It is usually parents, teachers and others who are older who reminisce about the green spaces that were there in their early lifetimes, their memories of its felt wildness, the birds and wildlife that once were part of it, and the sense of wild nature that proliferated before development moved in.
As Robert Macfarlane laments in his works such as "The last Ways" and "The Lost Words", – when we don't have knowledge of something, we don't miss it; meaning gets lost, and we move on. How do we miss what we don't know?’ We can question; why is it important for all of us to understand what was there? Why do people need that baggage?
I argue that by understanding what has been lost, and why it was necessary helps us appreciate how valuable these wild places are to protect for now – so we don't repeat the same errors. If we don't stay aware and connected to their value in our everyday lives – they too are lost, and we have the next generation share the same stories. Here in the UK and globally, we prioritise adapting to growing population and housing needs and human demands for lifestyle, alongside basic needs. The challenge is how this should not be at the expense of the natural world or our natural communities that surround us. More and more, we hear the need for biodiversity to be enhanced as its role in climate mitigation is indisputable. However, it is often couched in language about green infrastructure or managed parks and other urban spaces that can have some rewilded values. For urban children and youth, helping understand wildness rather than managed infrastructures is a journey of faith in our innate understanding of biophilia and how wilder places make us feel physically and mentally. Working hard for the last wild spots, parks, and woodland is an urgent campaign they can all get involved in once the connections are made.
These last pockets will hold a myriad of the remaining and potentially reintroduced wildlife that once existed in more proliferation in times before. Renewed energy and understanding can support them better and more systemically for perpetuity. Urban spaces can have wild corridors and spaces between the housing and developments and leaving these spaces untouched can offer a sense of wildness for people and nature to flourish. These last places are important not only for wildlife but also for us. In our English village in rural Essex, not far from a city, our local friends talk of a childhood playing in wild woods alone all day – not supervised or watched – but free to come and go. There was no fear of being attacked or molested or hurting oneself whilst adults were absent. Phones did not exist, and they would make a plan if something went wrong. Resilience was a given, and exploration led to confidence. Today these freedoms are lost as many fear being alone in these places, which overrides the benefits, and children do not access them without supervision.Media has created this uncertainty, and fears are not rational – as most attacks on children do not take place in parks and wild places at the hands of strangers, but sadly predominantly at the hands of people they know. This catastrophising has eroded a sense of exploration and self-confidence in children's innate ability to learn how to handle challenging situations, judge their judgements well and learn from a range of experiences that nature will throw at them. They will cope with rain and wind, darkness, and wildlife. However, parents' fear is contagious; if they had not experienced this free and wild play, their protective instincts would also hold their children back. The work of reconnection is, therefore, across the board intergenerationally.
In schools in the UK, there is a movement to enhance playing wild in the growing Forest Schools and recognition of the value of outdoor experiential learning. The UK is picking up from the Scandinavians who have been active in this area of child–nature immersion for many years. Teacher's training includes nature play and the media and articles about engagement. In secondary schools, however, often wrapped in intellectual and rational thinking, education is focused on the science around the concepts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Trees are still trees, but rather than being romantic and having characters, they can, in this rational mix, run the risk of now being seen solely as carbon sequesters and carbon sinks. The old free play of younger children that included imagination, stories and personal discoveries can be lost in the science yet remains critically important. This is where the work we do in wilderness leadership in Scotland and with our partners, the Wilderness Leadership School founded by Ian Player in South Africa, engage with the next generation. Deeply immersive wilderness journeys become seminal change points for young people on the cusp of forging careers and futures. With the immersive work – they see themselves as nature and nature as them. The separation between nature and humanity is forgotten as we draw water from the same rivers as the wildlife that surrounds us, and we experience the same weather, the same home in the wild, and find a spirit in common.
Not everyone can experience this, however, and with climate consciences growing around flying across the world, we need to do more in our own backyards and find ways that hold the same integrity as African wilderness right here in the heart of places like the UK which is densely urbanised and populated.
In his seminal work' Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv continues to lament the development of something he calls 'nature deficit disorder', the loss of this experience of wild places in more, if not most, urbanised youth. They have lost the freedom to learn what is ok or not, the freedom to play unsupervised, and the freedom to be wild is something lost to our younger generations. He writes extensively about the experience and opportunity that wild and green hideaways – particularly as we develop give much more significant benefit than the fear we carry about them. He calls for a reduction in our technology addiction, the statistics of over 20 hours a week spent by children online, and a significant decrease in outdoor play.
There is a link between knowing a place and learning to love it; when we love it, we wish to protect it. If it remains outside of our experience, the 'other', then this is lost, and so is our desire to care for wild places and the many creatures, plants and animals that depend on them. What can be done to create more connection and wilder experience in our busy worlds with all that seems against us?What can be done to create more connection and wilder experience in our busy worlds with all that seems against us?
There is a lot, but it takes courage, a sense of fun, and open-mindedness. It also means parents must make time to share nature with their children and trust them to explore. Families can undoubtedly avoid endless queues at airports and choose holiday spots closer to home or accessible by train or car that immerse children in wilder, untamed places. Sometimes we have to work harder to access these kinds of spots, but there are campsites across Europe and Scotland. For example, one can wild camp almost anywhere with respect for the landowner as part of the right to roam. Lying in a tent in a storm or watching the night sky by a campfire are all formative, as is simply lying on the grass and watching the clouds in the local park. We can do that almost anywhere – including parks in cities. Wilderness is around us, but we have to know how to use our senses to access it well.
I have worked with children who, for two hours, have played with ants – using a magnifying glass and collecting bottle. Watching the tiny insects leads to a mindfulness and curiosity of the other world whilst calming a troubled child whose experience of humanity had been painful and unsafe. Here he was absorbed and mindful, happy, and calm.
Learning "Leave no Trace" ethics and how to manage ourselves in green and natural spaces are lessons for life that any parent or teacher can offer. Building an understanding of respect for self, others, and nature, how we leave no damage or harm from our presence and leaving nature as we find it is a deep value that we wish everyone learned from day dot. Litter would disappear for sure, and a sense of oneness would grow.
We can allow children to have natural pleasures wherever they can find them. Creating dens in parks, exploring local nature reserves, walking on beaches, making fires, working pieces of wood, sailing, or canoeing develop skills and patience. For those in city apartment blocks, local spaces offer experiences such as rewilded church yards, riverbanks, parks and ponds that can open new vision. Even logging birds through the kitchen window can open up the world through a simple action. Create games and incentives for your family to learn about urban wildlife and the adaption of plants and animals to these landscapes. Fall in love with weeds on the pavement and work out their value to birds or mammals.
For teens and young people who are urban dwellers, be open to joining nature clubs, canoe clubs, scouts, cubs, and brownies. Take opportunities with the school – if affordable – to go on school trips and keep your curiosity about the natural world alive and vibrant. Follow nature programmes on TV, follow influencers trying to make a difference to the environment, take up roles at school promoting sustainability, and take time to soak up nature whenever possible.
Some of the wildest times are in the dark. Sitting in your garden or front porch on a dark night and looking at the stars opens up a humility, awe, and wonder at the universe, systems, and galaxies that are so much bigger than ourselves.
Learn to love growing things whenever you can – plants and vegetables are brilliant for health, and flowers are brilliant for your soul. Understanding the cycles of life and death helps us reconnect with the earth and our human animal, which is part of Gaia and the wider world.
Listen to your heartbeat, focus on the breath you take and utilise the senses when you are troubled or stressed. Nature offers solutions to calm us down quicker than other sources, such as tranquilisers or substances that can help us chill. Breathwork connects us to our bodies but also reminds us of the air we breathe, and that is connected to nature and the natural world around us. Watch other human's body language as it helps us see our connection to our animal family as humans – and see how we flock together as groups to find our social linkages that go back aeons in our evolution. Limit the time spent alone gaming and watching TV. Our generations now watch more TV and have more screen time than any before us. It may give us expanded thinking at times, but it shortcuts our empathy, which is key to our survival, narrows our eyesight and peripheral vision, limits our creativity with directed rather than soft attention, and stops us socialising with important cues such as touch and smell.
Nature immersion is now evidenced to lower our blood pressure and stress hormone Cortisol. Just forty minutes walking in a wild wood holds this immense catharsis. Mindfulness by using our senses calms body and mind, and just practicing breathing, and sensory awareness of taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell will have that result. By doing it, we help ourselves and feel a sense of connection and belonging to the forces of the wild wherever we are.
The thing to remember is that our minds stay much healthier when connected to nature. Research conducted by The Wilderness Foundation UK and The University of Essex evidences changes in mood, self-esteem, hopefulness and resilience the more our teenage clients connect with nature.
With the pressures of climate change, plastic waste, energy, and biodiversity loss – constantly in our sights through media, there is an urgency to stay connected and part of the systems of nature that surround us to keep going and not lose touch with the earth as a whole. We cannot fix things all on our own, but we can act and behave within the nature family with care, love, and thoughtfulness. Our experience of green and wild places helps us stay well and together; in this state, we can act better and stronger for the future. We reap what we sow. By living ethically and in communion, awe and wonder of nature and her beauty, we have a better chance in life and have a safer space for nature to recover and restore herself after the onslaught of insensitive handling and little genuine care and protection. Rewild yourself and rewild nature wherever you can find her around you. Being urban makes it a tad more difficult but is possible and desperately needed. The opportunities are great – become another Greta Thunberg, or simply do your best and live as cleanly and wildly as you can.Get into the wild woods more often, walk when you can and notice the world around you as it bursts with awe and wonders even in cities – and, as the mole says, 'Don't fear it.' For more information about nature and your mental wellbeing and programmes offered by the Wilderness Foundation UK for nature immersion, rewilding, wilderness leadership journeys, environmental education and wilderness therapy, visit www.wildernessfoundation.org.uk. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the CEO Jo Roberts at email@example.com for more information.