I run many of my nature connection courses in beautiful, wild places. But most people – over 50% of the human population – live in urban areas. People often ask me how they can connect in the city, where it seems like there is less ‘nature’ to connect with, and the modern-day culture of disconnection is at its most extreme. Our buildings and urban spaces are built from a worldview of ecological disconnection; our built environment perpetuates the feeling of disconnection.
When I reflected on ways of connecting with nature in the city, I came up with so many things I have run workshops on the theme and not had time to mention all of them! Perhaps the most enlightening reflection though was that essentially, the urban world is not separate from the ‘natural world’. Even human-made constructions of buildings and roads are all made from materials that ultimately come from the Earth, taken through complex processes by living, breathing, mammals. Humans and the human-made world are not separate from the rest of the world – we are like beavers, or termites, ecosystem engineers, a particularly industrious, innovative mammal. Ultimately, we are still immersed – how can we not be? We still walk on the earth, under the sky, participating with other living beings in creating the atmosphere we breathe as we exchange gases.
Nevertheless, it can be hard to remember this – and to feel it, so here is a list of things to try on your way to the office, or the shops, or just out and about in your daily urban life.
- Feel the Earth beneath your feet. She’s always there, breathing gently underneath the concrete. At any time you can feel the solidity beneath your feet, feel her pulling you down towards her, holding you closely with her great gravitational forces – feel it in your body.
- Look up at the sky. It’s always present, even if only a thin slice glimpsed through a window or between skyscrapers. We’re immersed in the Earth’s atmosphere, co-creating it all the time along with all other life forms. Are there clouds? What kind of clouds? What do they signal? If you don’t know, find out! Where in the world could they have they come from? Perhaps they gathered from the ocean and were transformed above the mountains…?
- Expand your senses. Our senses are the very point of nature connection, the point at which the outside world meets our inner world, our perception, our experience. You can always use your senses wherever you are. Use wide-angle vision to take in the whole picture including the peripheries of vision. Listen for the quietest sound. What can you hear? What can you smell? What textures can you feel?
- Notice the weather. Weather is nature, and it’s always changing. It offers our most immediate signals about the state of Gaia, of the Earth system in this very particular spot. Feel the temperature of the air. Feel it against your skin. Is there a breeze? How strong is it, which direction is it coming from? Wind offers change, taking away the old and bringing in the new.
- Notice your breathing. No matter where you are, your own body is your most reliably available bit of nature! Notice how breathing doesn’t take any effort, it just happens. It’s like we’re being breathed. And we’re being breathed along with all other living things, this invisible force running through all of us, keeping us nourished and refreshed as we take in gulps of atmosphere. Perhaps these in breaths are the out-breaths of wolves in America, or whales erupting their out-breaths in sprays of Pacific ocean, or a human family working the land in the Kalahari… When we breathe out, the carbon dioxide and water vapour will go on to other places, other beings, perhaps forming clouds and winds or nourishment for plants and trees. You can try imagining your breath moving through your body and into the Earth, and back up again into your body.
- Notice the quality of the sunlight. Notice the quality of light and how it falls on different forms. What is the relationship like between the sunlight and those stones or bricks or glass? Sunlight is always present (during day!), even if it is not sunny there is daylight – the sun is always shining behind the clouds.
- Clock your orientation– Having a sense of place, knowing which direction you’re moving in can help get a sense of yourself in a bigger landscape, in relationship to the world around you. Where is the nearest water? Where are you in relationship to where you started from today? Which direction is this train moving in?
- Observe the night sky. As much as you can in the city. But simply remembering that the stars, the moon, are always there even when they’re not visible. Can you locate the North star? Can you keep a connection to the North star throughout the day, imagining flying it like a kite?
- Look for signs of life. They’re always there, way more than we normally realise. Plants growing between cracks, moss and lichen on walls, plants planted by humans, insects scurrying underfoot, even spider webs hanging from the ceiling are signs that life is present and thriving.
- Find a tree to befriend. You can find a tree somewhere in most cities. And they’re great company! Spend some time with your tree. Observe its shape, ponder on how it describes its life’s story, responding to changing conditions as it grew. Meet your tree with all of your senses. Explore its textures, smell, colours, the sounds it makes when it comes into relationship with the wind. Breathe with your tree. Tell it your secrets. Tell it your woes, ask for advice. Offer it your thanks, a song, a poem, a lock of your hair.