Nature is Healing? Embracing Environmentalism Through Culture

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[Written by Beatrice Crawford (she/her)]

[Art by Ella Ottersbach-Edwards (she/her)]

On a gloomy Monday morning in late March, the pavements of my neighbourhood would usually be desolate, save for the occasional dog-walker. And yet, according to my camera roll from the 30th of March 2020, this year was very different. With global lockdowns occurring throughout spring and early summer, it seems like everyone and their mother decided to spend their newfound leisure time in the fresh air: going on family walks, tending to blooming gardens, taking up cycling. With this noticeable uptick in the amount of interest in the natural world, the question in many minds is what this could mean for the future of environmentalism?

I am a firm believer in the idea that, in order to look to our future, we must first look to the past. As humans, we have spent much of our history as a species in nature, from hunting and gathering to modern day hillwalking. Nature is an integral part of many cultural identities across the globe: the Japanese pictogram for ‘home’ is a blend of the pictograms for ‘house’ and ‘garden’, highlighting a unity of nature and humans. Pantheism, or the idea that the universe and the natural world are exemplifications of the almighty, is an intrinsic part of numerous religions, including Hinduism. Consider, even, environmental award schemes such as Duke of Edinburgh and John Muir — both terms are common in the British vernacular even if you haven’t participated in them yourself; both promote an appreciation and understanding of the natural world and aim to translate these into real-life skills. And, with this new resurgence in humanity’s appreciation for nature, the relationship between nature and culture has once again been thrust into the public consciousness. 

Anthropologists have concerned themselves with the question of whether nature and culture are dichotomous or inherently linked for centuries. The late Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist, is famed for his argument of an ‘ecology of the mind’ — effectively denoting that mind and nature are one and the same. Bateson theorised that this ‘ecology of the mind’ could be developed by way of literature, art, or simply paying attention to nature — in his words, ‘ecological aesthetics’. So, how would we follow Bateson’s lead and engage with nature and its surrounding culture? Nowadays, there are a myriad of ways. Hobbies like hillwalking and gardening are relatively easy for beginners who are lucky enough to have access to a garden or green spaces; foraging (the practice of sourcing your own fresh produce from the wild) has also grown in popularity this year. Nature writers such as Robert MacFarlane and Helen MacDonald have made a living documenting and contemplating the natural world. MacFarlane’s debut 2003 book about the history of humans’ fascination with mountains, Mountains of the Mind, was lauded by critics and readers alike. 

Of course, it would be unfair to not touch on the social inequalities that can still be found under the skin of this new ‘nature resurgence’. Nature is not easily accessible for everyone: those spending the lockdown in high-rises or rented accommodation rarely had decent access to gardens or green spaces within urban places. Eco-ableism is also an underdocumented issue in the environmentalism movement as a whole — ‘easy’ eco-friendly techniques such as switching to public transport or forgoing your plastic straw at a restaurant can become much more complicated when taking into account certain disadvantages. 

Despite its multitude of downsides, the Coronavirus lockdown gave many of us an unprecedented chance to take a step back from the bustle of our daily lives and get out in nature, sparking a renewed appreciation for the great outdoors. With the climate crisis raging on over the past few decades, surely humanity rediscovering the beauty of nature can do much more good than harm. A rise in young families out in nature in this digital-heavy age may help to raise a ‘Generation Alpha’ that is even more environmentally-conscious than their Gen Z predecessors. A new WRAP study suggests that, since lockdown, more than half of the UK worry about the environmental impact of their clothes, and the idea of ‘slow fashion’ and sustainability is more common than ever in the general consciousness.

As a glass-half-full person myself, I’m inclined to believe that this new nature revival will reap some sort of positive repercussions for the environmental cause. And, if nothing else, now is the best time to get involved with and educated on the issue through culture — read some nature writing, pick up amateur nature photography, or even just go a walk through your local park. Whatever happens, we mustn’t lose our rediscovered appreciation of nature when Covid restrictions relax. Carry on the human tradition of treasuring the natural world, and we just might save the planet. 


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