From Writing To VR, Finding Ways To Connect To Nature

From Writing To VR, Finding Ways To Connect To Nature
May 6, 2020
Banner image: Baobab trees at sunset in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people around the world to self-isolate, cutting them off from their connection with nature.


- Therapists, scientists and creative workers are finding ways to tap into the positive mental health benefits of being in green spaces.

- From mindful bird listening to virtual reality interactions, they’re showing that staying in doesn’t have to mean shutting off.


From her home in London, schoolteacher and therapist Nicki Gilbert is avidly following the comings and goings of an osprey nest in Scotland. She may be miles away, but thanks to a treetop webcam overlooking the peaceful Loch of the Lowes, it doesn’t matter.


“I have it on all the time,” she said when we spoke by online video. “Today has been particularly good ’cause they chased off a buzzard and he brought her a trout. And they’ve mated a lot, so there will be eggs.” For a nature lover like Gilbert, being stuck in isolation due to the COVID-19 restrictions should be frustrating, but bird-watching helps — as it has done many times before.


Across the world, as governments continue to hold citizens on lockdown, planes remain grounded, and everyone (bar those working in essential services) is urged to stay home, finding ways to connect to the natural world is becoming increasingly urgent.


Research into the positive physical and mental health impacts of green and blue spaces has proliferated in recent years. Plus, nothing makes you want to go into the great outdoors like someone telling you that you can’t. Restricted to desk reporting, I went online in late March to speak to a few people who are doing what they can to help themselves (and others) maintain a link to nature — whether that’s virtually or just through their window.


For Gilbert, being on lockdown has inspired her to set up her own blog, Bird Listening.


“Bird-watching healed me for several years [through] my own mental health issues, my therapeutic journey and then becoming a counselor,” she said. “One day I thought, why was I so peaceful when I was bird-watching? Why did I feel so much calmer? … I realized that I was so immersed in the listening that I didn’t have time for the other negative, everyday thoughts to come in.” As part of her ongoing studies, she’s been digging deeper into nature therapy and what happens somatically, in our bodies, when we’re in nature.

Nicki Gilbert pictured at Elmley National Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, on her last bird walk the week before lockdown. Image courtesy Nicki Gilbert.


“Then when everybody started getting really anxious about coronavirus, I thought, what can I do? What’s my role in all this?” She decided to give others what bird-watching gave her: “Focused distraction.”


One of her suggested techniques is finding a green patch close to home. “Get familiar with that spot,” she said, “and learn to note the birds that are there — then watch it change over the year.”


Birds can be found at all levels, she added, even from the window of a high-rise apartment.


“I know of a block of flats that is about 15 or 20 floors high on the Isle of Dogs where there’s a family of peregrines that raise chicks every year,” Gilbert said. She said she believes that fostering this sense of connection can help see us through the current crisis and come to new realizations.


“We’re not these special individuals who are alone, we are part of a natural cycle, and that’s oddly comforting.”


Forest bathing online

Milena McWatt pictured doing a site assessment prior to a group arriving for a forest therapy session. Image courtesy Milena Watts.


Milena McWatt was similarly drawn to her profession as a forest therapy guide in Canada through personal experience.


“I was struggling through a bout of severe depression and found myself instinctively drawn to the woods,” she said in an interview. “I’d spend hours there every day, just wandering aimlessly and it always brought me a sense of calm and sometimes even joy in an otherwise very challenging time.”


This wandering led her to become a certified guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs and set up her own forest therapy service, Wild Calm.


Though she has had to suspend all in-person guided walks in accordance with social-distancing practices, she’s keen to continue connecting other people with nature via social media. “In forest therapy sessions, the guide will often ask participants what they are noticing, which keeps them grounded in the present moment and connected to their senses, their surroundings, and their emotions,” McWatt said in an email.


So she decided to post short video clips of nature to give her social-media followers a break from the news and a moment to connect with nature. “I’ve received a lot of feedback from people who’ve said they find the clips really relaxing and a welcome reprieve from the societal anxiety we are all experiencing.” She said she’s now hoping to create more video content and lead some virtual, live forest therapy events that people can tune into from anywhere.


Virtual realities

An example of nature VR. Image courtesy of Mattias Wallergård.


In Sweden, using technology to bring people closer to nature is being taken to a whole new level. Mattias Wallergård, a senior lecturer in the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University, has been doing research into virtual reality (VR) for around 20 years. For the last 12 years or so, he’s been focusing on health and stress research. He’s currently working on a study to bring VR nature into elderly care homes.


“We were just about to test it when the coronavirus hit,” he told Mongabay via online video chat. His team had created a virtual hot-air balloon that users can fly over an island landscape and operate like the real thing, with a handle to regulate the gas and accompanying sounds.


Through his research, Wallergård has learned that there are roughly two VR user personas: the people who are happy to be in one place, slowly walking around and smelling the flowers, looking at a tree, seeing birds. “Then you have the group of people who need to move, move, move,” he said. “They constantly want to explore and test the limits.”


While nature in 360 may work for the first category of user, CGI virtual reality allows for a much more interactive, exciting experience. Some developers are even working on olfactory technology, which could make it possible to smell a virtual flower. And with VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) becoming increasingly mainstream, finding potential users is getting easier.


In 2018, Wallergård co-authored a review of research into the links between virtual reality, nature and health, along with environmental psychologist Mathew White, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in the U.K., and Mare Lõhmus, associate professor in the Institute for Environmental Medicine at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.


In their paper “A prescription for ‘nature’ — the potential of using virtual nature in therapeutics,” the team highlight a number of existing research studies. While many focus on pain reduction and rehabilitation, the authors also cite research into areas associated with well-being. One study, for example, found that exposure to VR nature with sounds enhanced “stress recovery and parasympathetic activation,” as compared to exposure to VR nature without sounds, or reading a popular science magazine.

An example of nature VR from a screenshot. Image courtesy of Mattias Wallergård.


According to Lõhmus, there are different theories as to the science behind why nature has this effect. For example, she said, the repeated patterns (or “fractals”) that occur on trees are what make the brain relax. “And that’s something you could do in a well-made VR, absolutely.”


Depressingly, especially given the coronavirus restrictions, the report notes that, “Social isolation … is a predictor of morbidity and mortality.”


But the current crisis could help speed up the growth of virtual nature therapies and resources. On the same day I contacted Lõhmus, coincidentally she had been in a Blue Health meeting (she is the lead for Sweden) and said she remembered someone saying, “We should really think more about the possibilities of virtual nature in this [COVID-19] situation.”


She says she, too, is hopeful that VR nature could be used to bring people together, especially those at risk of loneliness. Wallergård says he believes this is possible and spoke enthusiastically of looking further into these social aspects. In a Zoom conversation, he said, “Imagine connecting elderly care centers between nations and being able to have natural experiences and social experiences in the same VR experience.” It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. As we speak, he noted, Facebook is doing research with fairly photo-realistic avatars that, for example, mimic facial gestures.


The report does flag some downsides with VR: there’s the potential for cybersickness, which can be brought on by disorientating camera angles. There’s also the risk that the virtual nature experience could encourage a stationary lifestyle and reduce people’s motivation to access the real thing. Yet it could also have the opposite effect: giving them a greater appreciation for and interest in “in vivo nature exposure” — something White says he is seeing in the U.K., where citizens are still allowed outside for daily exercise. “The irony is,” he said, “I’m looking around and seeing far more activity in nature than I normally do.”


White is currently involved in research looking into boredom as a real issue in care homes and medical settings, something many of us in isolation are starting to experience. So far they’ve discovered that 360 technology is not necessarily more effective than normal TV. White has also been reminded of what, he said, veteran VR specialist Bob Stone told him years ago: Story is still the thing that matters, not the resolution.


“I might be a psychologist,” White said, “but I think the best psychologists are great literature writers.” He spoke of being still haunted by E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops, in which humans are forced to live individually in underground pods and rely on a Machine to stay connected. “He’s predicted this moral outrage for people connecting with the natural world,” White said, “[that] ‘They should be staying at home in their isolation…’.”


In recent years there has been a surge in modern nature writing, as writers attempt to grapple with environmental concerns, or their own personal connection to nature. One organization encouraging people to put pen to paper is the U.K.’s National Trust, which recently concluded the second edition of its Nature Diary writing project in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing research project at the University of Leeds. Pippa Marland, a Leverhulme early career researcher at the University of Leeds and part of the Land Lines team, told Mongabay by email that members of the public were invited to submit up to 150 words of poetry or prose about what spring means to them.


As the crisis worsened, more and more of the entries began to refer to the virus. Marland wrote, “I began to realize that what was emerging was an important document of what nature means to people, especially at a time when things are so frightening and so destabilized.” She said she realized that their relationship with nature was not simply a form of escapism but a way of finding meaning. “I think there’s an underlying recognition that viruses are nature too, and that we can’t completely separate out what’s happening now from the elements of the natural world we love.”

A spring image of cherry blossoms by Samuel Payne, a colleague of of Dr Pippa Marland at the University of Leeds. Photo by Samuel Payne.


Given the restrictions, it seems fitting that the submissions have been gathered in an e-book and already published.


It’s an example of just one of the many online projects connecting people to nature from the safety of their homes. On Twitter, for example, nature writer Robert McFarlane has launched the #CoReadingVirus Global Book Group with Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain as the first book on the list. A group of farmers in the United States have started a weekly online meetup, Ask A Sista Farmer, in which “experienced Black womxn* farmers” answer questions about gardening, livestock, agroforestry, plant medicine and food preservation. Marland also flags up a new hashtag, #NaturalHealthService (a play on the U.K.’s National Health Service or NHS), attached to tweets about the benefits of nature for mental and physical well-being.


Perhaps at the end of the day it won’t be technology — the Machine — that connects us, but our love for nature. As one of the Nature Diary’s entrants, Jenna Plewes, wrote, “Love will be our bedrock / We are separate, but we all stand / on the same patient, greening earth.”

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