There’s been a lot of talk lately about something called ‘nature deficit disorder’. It’s not a disorder as such, but just a catchy name for something that we’ve so far failed to properly recognise – that people’s well-being depends on having a connection with nature. I would phrase this differently, because talking about having a connection with nature supposes that we’re somehow separate from it, when in fact we’re natural beings and are part and parcel of the natural world. It’s just that a lot of folk have forgotten this, and it’s not so much a case of connecting as it is of remembering.
I grew up in Scotland, with spectacular – and wild – scenery on my doorstep. I pretty much took this for granted until I moved ‘down south’ to Hertfordshire, and rather naively started asking people where they went when they wanted to get out into some wild and empty country. It didn’t take long for me to realise that there was no such thing there, and that was a huge shock to me. Eventually two things happened – the first was that we moved to Kent, which is generously endowed with lovely woods and beaches, some of them almost empty of people, and these filled the gap for me quite effectively. The second was that, by then, I’d got used to the idea that I didn’t have access to the kind of wild spaces I grew up with.
But now we’re living in Nottinghamshire, and the problem has resurfaced. The countryside round here is very pretty but it’s all been tamed and so far I’ve not been able to find anything that even approaches what I’m looking for. Again I’m asking people to recommend places to go, and they send me to country parks with tarmac paths and toilets and gift shops and cafes, when what I want is mud and silence. They don’t understand what it is I’m searching for. They don’t know what it is that they’re missing.
At one point I thought I’d found a place, a small wood only ten minutes drive away with no facilities at all other than a car park. It wasn’t really big enough, but it was something. And then I went there last summer and had a scary experience. After I parked, I noticed a man in a white van looking at me very intently. Every time I looked up he was staring at me and I put off getting out of the car. Eventually I got annoyed with myself, told myself I was imagining things, and left the car and headed off into the woods. A bit foolish, but I wanted my walk. I was wary enough to keep an eye on him through the trees, only to see him park his van next to my car and start walking into the woods behind me.
Major panic! I ran, looping off the path into the undergrowth and doing a large circle that brought me back to the edge of the woods next to the car park. Then I had a horrible thought – could he be waiting there for me? So I stood there hidden by the trees for ten minutes until another car drove in and then I ran to my car. He wasn’t there. Later – quite a lot later – I found out that these woods are a notorious ‘dogging’ site, which at least explained what had happened and put a less frightening perspective on it. It still meant I couldn’t go back there.
I have never felt afraid in truly wild spaces. Most of my female friends wouldn’t dream of going for a walk in an isolated spot by themselves, but truly wild places aren’t frightening at all to me. My view is that anyone who wants to prey on women isn’t going to go there, because you could wait a long time to find a woman walking alone. I feel less safe in busy places, and less still in what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts refers to as the Edgelands – those no man’s lands where the town trails off and the countryside hasn’t yet begun. Those places that are full of graffiti, and the plant life is strewn with broken bottles, empty beer cans and cigarettes. These woods, although seemingly wild, were too easily accessed from a nearby major road. They don’t look like edgelands, but they have the spirit of the edgelands rather than the spirit of the wild, and I didn’t know the area well enough to realise.
Most people’s relationship with the countryside is mediated. The wild is managed, and turned into the tame. Of course all land in this country is managed, but a lot of it doesn’t feel as if it is and still has the essence of wild space about it. And we need it. Peter Kahn, an ecopsychologist, writing in Psychologies magazine (July 2011), says this:
Connect to nature as much as you can. But connect more to the wild side of nature. Many people who talk about the importance of nature focus on what can be termed as domestic, nearby, everyday nature – a favourite tree in one’s neighbourhood, a local park or garden, or one’s pet. Domestic nature is important, but it’s only half the story. The other half is wild nature. For as a species, we came of age in a natural world far wilder than today, and much of the need for wildness still exists within us. Wildness in the natural world often involves that which is big, untamed, unmanaged. We should interact more with the wild – forests, rivers and the like – as we are strengthened and nurtured by it.
So many people haven’t experienced the wild, and domestic nature is all that they know. It might hurt me inside that I don’t have any wild spaces close by, I might feel the constant ache of longing for something to which there’s no easy access, but I’m grateful that at least I’ve experienced enough of the wild to know what it is I’m missing.
With thanks to Joanna, whose recent blog post By the Side of a River prompted this one.
The photos are of Stapleford Woods, near Newark.