Our world is becoming an increasingly mobile place; the distribution of life can feel abundant as we move across town, city and country. But this abundance is juxtaposed with a feeling, or a knowing that life on earth is changing; that although our human societies are growing and becoming more resilient, it is at the expense of our natural environment. Alongside this we are perpetually told that we need to find our connection with nature; that we need to become stewards of our environment and foster the natural world. But if we don’t know what’s out there, how do we know how important it is to save?
It feels almost assumed that because our need for energy is soaring, because temperatures are rising and species diversity is dramatically falling; that we as humans have severed our connection with nature; that there is a deliberate and archaic intention to destroy the resources available to us. But I don’t believe this is true. I believe more often than not there is an inherent wanting to ally ourselves with planet earth; our bodies crave the very fundamentals of a healthy planet and we know nature is out there we have just lost our way and our ability to find it.
For centuries we have lived by a mono-ethnic view of how we should engage with nature. The best of it can feel restricted to the very few, available to those who understand the countryside code; read OS maps; identify plants in Latin, or afford expensive and ‘appropriate outdoor clothing’. In addition to this, our nature reserves have been fenced off spaces, isolated pockets of land, boxed in and sometimes inaccessible with styles and gates not everyone can pass through. These fenced-off spaces make nature feel owned, when ownership is a concept far more impossible than owning an allotment of air.
This is one of the reasons I started to build a community I call MOF (More Outdoor Friends). I was working as a wildlife ranger and found myself feeling somewhat restricted by the secrets I held about the world around me. I was learning things about my environment that I couldn’t believe I’d never been taught, and I felt an uncontrollable urge to share it. I wanted to show that finding nature is a process that can be found in the everyday. It can be gratified by the bright burst of a sunrise, washing soil from vegetables, nurturing houseplants indoors, or cooking a meal with fresh ingredients. It can feel like a deep submerge into a cold lake, a quiet pause to hear the sound of a bird, or feeling the wind in your hair on a bike ride. There is no prescription, nor restriction to this learning.
In the early days I wasn’t sure how I could bring that conversation into the limelight. I was worried what I had to tell people may sound patronising or self-righteous being that it was so simple. I didn’t want people to scroll upon it and past it, but instead feel immersed in the very substance of life on earth. I wanted to create a space where I could support people in finding confidence, encouraging a quiet pause, a moment to take notice and connect with how we make sense of the world. Creating these spaces and opportunities could then open up a conversation about how our landscapes are managed; we can begin to understand and recognise the purpose of what a habitat is, how it is interacting and how we as humans can support that. By acknowledging the fundamentals, we can begin a cultural shift into landscape-scale thinking, seeing an interconnected world led by the ecosystems among us.
So I organised a series of meet-ups, in a simple fashion… in real life. We used woodlands, parks, commons and coastal paths, spaces that were both accessible and wild. I invited a host of people, anyone on my phonebook, and everyone was welcome. Twenty people turned up from artists, fathers, accountants, friends, botanists, and teachers. I invited them to move through the landscape with me, share their space and use it as they wished.
There was no premeditated outcome to the meet-up, just to plant a seed and let those who attended nurture it. I was inspired by how the strangers shared the space, taking time to pause, mindfully sharing knowledge, wisdom and simple conversation, some going off piste and others connecting with the group. People soon started to see that nature wasn’t a far-off and distant place. That it didn’t only exist in a Planet Earth-Attenborough style fashion; it might not be as captivating as lions eating water buffalo, but England hosts life that is bountiful and exotic. There was surprise as the botanists and artists shared their views of the world, each finding something new in the familiar or something different in the same space. Within our meet-up there became a shared discovery that nature is on our very doorstep, and by taking the time to take notice we can see that it’s weaved between the gravel patches of our carparks, growing along the roadside verges of our highways, and whittled between stoney walls and fences. They became a space for learning about the world around us and the worlds between us, finding mutually authentic relationships between ourselves and our environment, and the added bonus being the positive reports of improved physical and mental wellbeing.
We never walk the same path twice, and as our community has grown so have our events. MOF has since worked in a variety of ways, on social prescribing projects and artists workshops; we’ve hosted bike rides, shown up at sharing circles and scouted beaches for fossils. As a collective, we pushed our connection to nature and to each other to the very edges of ourselves when serving time under house arrest during the 2020-2021 lockdowns, finding new and innovative ways to bridge the gap. Recovering from this is still a work in progress, but tuning back into nature and its life-affirming qualities is something we’re re-establishing. Since then, the community has begun to serve each other, attendees hosting workshops, guiding walks and encouraging dips in the ocean. This is what I feel most empowered by, to hear people speak up about their experience, and enable those voices to guide how we work. By learning through shared experience and wisdom MOF is becoming a synergistic space where we connect, people, paths and places.