Exploring Biophilia and our connection with the natural world

“To be without trees would, in the most literal way, to be without our roots” Richard Mabey

The following article is written by Carmen Sheridan, our latest dream team member. It teaches us the meaning of Biophilia and explores the importance of our connection with nature during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

Just as lockdown is announced, spring is in full swing. It seems cruel that just as we are treated to nature in bloom, we are asked to stay inside as much as possible – but perhaps that makes us appreciate it all the more. When our outings are limited to just one, we instinctively reach towards nature as a means of safety and security. This is seen with the increase of people flocking to parks and natural spaces before lockdown, nature documentary viewings on the up and the exponential rise of seed purchases (with reports of 900% increase in vegetable seed buying). Amidst all the panic-buying and toilet-roll hoarding, we are once again, turning towards gardening and growing our own vegetables, harking back to the “Dig for Victory” days during the war.

During this pandemic and lockdown, when stress and anxiety is high, and with so much uncertainty in the air, there is great comfort to be taken in nature and spending time in it becomes a necessary and vital aspect of our wellbeing.

What is biophilia?

Our connection with nature links to the concept of Biophilia. It is a term first used by German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm who termed it as “the passionate love of life and all that is alive”. Biologist Edward O Wilson explores this further in Biophilia (1984), as the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with nature and this forms part of our genetic make up. As humans, we function better, physically, psychologically and emotionally, in natural spaces. For millions of years, we have lived in harmony with the natural world, in comparison with the short time we have lived in our time in urban spaces. We are hard-wired to be with nature.

Dr William Bird, a British GP who was awarded an MBE for starting the Heath and Greenspace Walk movement, believes that we don’t belong in these urban spaces; indoors and sedentary. The majority of our evolution has been spent living in and with nature, the time spent in urban spaces is by comparison, tiny. The impact on our bodies of this disengagement and disconnection with nature is a stress response – increased cortisol, blood pressure, as well as greater risk of depression and anxiety. In essence, when we are cut off from nature, we suffer. He talks of the ‘extinction of experience’, our loss of connection with nature and losing the knowledge that once was so common – the names of trees, plants, birds.

Dr Bird studied the implications of the ‘Biophilia effect’ on our health and wellbeing. Research shows that just being in green spaces for 15 minutes, lowers blood pressure, reduces blood toxin levels, reduces stress and improves cognitive function. People in hospitals recover faster when they have a view of green space or trees. There have even been studies to demonstrate that in housing estates with views of green space; mental health is better and crime rates are lower, as opposed to those with no green space. Nature is a cure, a tonic.

This is also echoed in studies of the practice of Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) in Japan; the act of taking a walk in forests and being completely present. This has been shown to lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and cohesion – amongst a myriad other benefits. Many of us, at this time, will not have woodland within reach so how can we ensure we are still feeling the benefits of nature during this lockdown?

Social distancing, self isolation & biophilia – what can be done? 

During our daily outing, we can slow down and take notice of all that is around us. Spot the different trees, the shape of the new leaves, the buds, bark, blossom. Engage the senses, what bird song can be heard? What scents are there? Look to the miniscule – the microscopic worlds of lichen that adorn trees, pavements, walls. The fluffy moss carpeting walls and fences. The flowers that grow between the cracks.

For those that are fortunate to have gardens and outside spaces – spend time in these observing, nurturing and simply ‘being’. Maybe now is the time to try your hand at wild gardening, for example, letting the lawn grow a little longer and seeing what wildlife and insects emerge as a result. You could learn how to make a hoverfly lagoon to encourage these pollinators into the garden (see link below) or get resourceful and use recycled cartons for planting seedlings.

If completely cut off from the outside world due to self-isolation, can we still feel the effects of the biophilia hypothesis? It was found that even just looking at pictures of nature can have positive physical and mental benefits for us, leading to better cognitive function, reduced blood pressure and stress. Try and ensure a nature fix every day… Grow seedlings if you can, nurture houseplants, watch nature documentaries, learn about trees, listen to bird song. Social media is an excellent tool for connecting and learning about nature and gardening with others. It is also important to just switch off and look out the window, at the sky, the clouds.

Now is a time for undoing this ‘extinction of experience’ and becoming connected once more to our deep-rooted relationship with nature. The Biophilia effect is crucial to us now more than ever during these uncertain and scary times; nature is a tool we can use to help us ground. During this enforced pause in normal life, we can reflect on what is important, and hopefully turn back towards a simpler way of being; a life more in harmony and in line with nature. 

Please do get in touch if you’d like any advice on growing, gardening or simply to connect during this time!

Words and images by Carmen Sheridan

Further watching/reading

Dr William Bird talk “The Role of Nature on Mental Health and Wellbeing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUrXoXutd8U&feature=youtu.be

How to make a hoverfly lagoon https://www.thebuzzclub.uk/hoverfly-lagoons

Forest Bathing https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/08/forest-bathing-japanese-practice-in-west-wellbeing