Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Getting a Nature Fix: reading about nature

Reading about nature can't replace the experience of exploring and discovering in nature, but it certainly can enhance it, helping us to better understand what we are seeing or to look more closely at details. Earlier this year, for example, I reviewed two excellent books on New Zealand birds and reptiles that added substantially to the knowledge I've gained from volunteer field work.

My own books will, I hope, open children's eyes to what they see in their gardens, parks and at the beach, although on the whole I'd prefer that they spend more time in nature than poring over my books! When I started writing there were relatively few factual books for young children about nature, and despite New Zealand being a country in which most people have contact with nature, there are relatively few nature books for adults that go beyond glossy photos or field guides.

UK bookshop - just one of the many shelves devoted to Nature Writing

I envy readers in the United Kingdom where "Nature Writing" has its own identity, complete with bookshop sections and websites promoting it; and in Australia where they have an Environmental Book Award for Children's Literature.

Here's a round up of my recent Nature Reading:
The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative by Florence Williams
This book is the culmination of journalist Florence William's investigation into the physical and mental health benefits of being in nature. Some of the chapters draw on articles she wrote for National Geographic and other publications, in which she covers topics such as, the Japanese practice of forest bathing; research into how the brain responds to nature's smells, sounds and sights; and Outward Bound-type experiences for PTSD sufferers.

I confess I started reading The Nature Fix already a convert. I know that being in nature makes me happier and more creative, but what I didn't know was why. After reading the book, I not only have some answers for why nature can help make us happier and more creative, but I also now understand just what a positive impact time in nature has on our physical health.

Finnish research suggests, for example, that 5 hours in nature a month is the minimum needed to elevate mood and stave off depression. Other research in the USA, Japan and Korea demonstrates the positive impact nature can have on our brains and on our blood pressure.

Nature's sights invoke awe, provide mystery, or soft fascination all of which have a positive impact on mood, creativity and even our generosity to each other. Nature's sounds are relaxing, while human generated sounds such as trucks and planes elevate our cortisol levels. There's science behind the smells of nature too.

Her arguments were compelling enough to make me consider allocating regular time in nature, rather than just when I feel like it or can fit it in.

There are some amazing lessons to be gained from this book for people in roles as diverse as urban designers and architects, educators, psychologists, doctors, and those charged with protecting our National Parks, forest parks and other reserves. It raises questions on a wide range of topics, from how we design cities with proximity to green areas, through protecting the natural soundscapes in our National Parks, to helping children with learning difficulties.

You can find out more about the book and listen to the author talk about the book here: https://www.florencewilliams.com/the-nature-fix

I'll be looking at some of the topics she explores in more depth in future blogposts.

Nature Writing - Memoirs and Autobiographies
In the last year. I've read through an eclectic list of nature writing memoirs and autobiographies that demonstrate at the individual level the lessons from The Nature Fix. Perhaps not surprisingly they are all from the United Kingdom, given the support this genre receives there.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
The author, a young woman, returns to live on the Orkneys to recover from addiction. The book paints a picture of the rugged nature of these islands and how immersing herself in the cold sea, the dark nights and the barely tamed land restore her hope and life. Beautifully written.

The Moth Snowstorm: nature and joy by Michael McCarthy
Part childhood memoir, part essays on the joy and wonder that nature can bring, this book also makes a case for saving the world's remaining wild places.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham
A well known (in the UK) nature documentary presenter describes his extraordinary childhood obsessed with nature, in which his bedroom overflows with all manner of living things. As an adult the author discovers he has Asperger's syndrome. Apart from being a moving story, his writing is also an eye-opener to how a person with Asperger's might see the world around them.

For more nature book reviews, enter "book reviews" in the search on the right-hand column.

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