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Some nature thoughts - it is not just about feet!

Not Just Being but Connecting - here are some thoughts about me being out in nature. It is a bit different to my usual Podiatry blog and a big step out of my comfort zone. We are in strange times and these thoughts are buzzing around my head. I hope you enjoy.

I have always preferred to be outside, even from an early age I am at my happiest and feel most contented when I am outside. I am of an age where, as kids, during the school holidays we left after breakfast and came back when we were hungry, it got dark or we were past the time we were supposed to be home. I do remember having pocket money docked regularly because I was always late home. This has carried on and I still prefer being outside, although I do not have my pocket money stopped anymore.

This last year has been one of transitions and awakenings. Although I have spent many hours out and about, walking, running and cycling many miles over these hills, taking photos, exploring with Pip (and Bilbo and Ben before Pip) now I realise I was just doing that. I was out there, moving and seeing. It was great, I really enjoy it and essential for my mental wellbeing but now, with hindsight, I feel that I was not connecting with the places I am visiting. Now I am seeing these places for the first time, like going somewhere new and having all those ‘first time’ experiences. Places that I have walked for years, could probably walk them blindfolded, I know every turn and feature on so many of these walks but now I am seeing the land the with new eyes and experiencing the places for new. This has been a gradual process rather than a light bulb moment and one that will continue to develop.

Over the last few years, I have been reading a lot of books by authors who write about nature and their experiences in nature. How being outside has had an influence on their lives, or the effect some aspect of nature has had on others. People like Robert MacFarlane write beautifully and any of his books are a joy. Wild Places is a series of long essays talking about a particular place and he describes in great detail the effect on him or others this place has had. These places often seem small and insignificant, and this makes them all the more magical. We often don’t need the big hill or flowing ridge, beauty and magic can be found in a small copse, a depression in a hill side or a solitary tree. These thoughts have made me slow down and stop and look and watch. We do not have to be always flying along as fast as we feel we can go. There is a place on Mam Tor above the Odin Mine, a small stand of trees on the steep hillside. There is a grassy mossy bank in the trees. If you walk through you pass through it. If you stop and stand and look into the trees you see how alive it is. The trees and branches are full of bird life, but you have to be still, stand and watch and see the magic happening.

I have reading about Trees, how they work and the effect they have on us humans and their environment. ‘Oak and Ash and Thorn’ by Peter Fiennes and ‘The Hidden life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben provide an amazing insight into how trees live. The way they communicate with each other, how interconnected they are and the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Robert MacFarlane says that ‘… individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web’. This provides trees with an underground network of fibres where they can move carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, water, heavy chemicals and allelochemicals to and from each other. Trees look after each other, if one is sick and is dying it can release all of its stores of chemicals into the wood wide web so its neighbours will benefit. Conversely if a tree is struggling then its neighbours will share their stores with it. They can release chemicals from their leaves to alert other trees to a dangerous invader. If an insect lands on a tree and starts to eat the leaves, the tree can release a chemical to ward off the invader, this chemical gets carried on the wind and surrounding trees will then also release the chemical and so protect themselves before the insects arrives. Trees communicate and help each other out. Fictional works like ‘Overstroy’ by Richard Powers is an amazing book that brings so much of this all together.

There has also been much talk about how being out in nature can be of benefit to us humans. The actual effect is being slowly understood but the physical effects are slower breathing, improvement in immune system, lower blood pressure, less easy to aggravate, more compassionate to our fellow humans and an overall feeling of wellbeing. A lot of these studies are now being repeated and the results are hard to ignore. 30 mins walk in the woods or countryside is really beneficial to our health. Florence Williams book ‘Nature Fix’ explains all of this very well. The chapter on how our current lifestyle of being more urban, spending more time inside and on screens is having a huge detremental effect on the development of our children is informative and also a bit scary. What is this current lifestyle going to do to our children and their children? Our lifestyles have changed so much over the last 10-20 years, which is such a short time in the scale of things. Our cultural evolution is so far ahead of our physiological evolution it is not surprising we are seeing problems. Our bodies cannot adapt fast enough. There are some people who find going outside stressful, this is often a fear of the unknow. The deep, dark woods are often portrayed as a scary place where only bad things will happen. I know I feel much happier out in the countryside at night than walking through a city centre in the early hours. Even if you are apprehensive about venturing outside you will receive some benefit, although it may not feel like. For the vast majority of us being outside and being active has huge benefits to our physical and mental health. Just walking is enough we do not have to super athletes to benefit. Actually, just being outside and sitting in the garden or park will have an effect on our physiology. Even looking at pictures of the countryside has a measurable physiological effect. See below, pause an look, really look - you are welcome.

Trees can have two main effects on us as we walk through the woods or find and sit below a solitary tree. They are producing chemicals that we can only just smell at times. Think of the smell in a pine forest, it is these chemicals that all trees release. There are a variety of different chemicals and they are used by the tree for different purposes, it is the monoterpenes that can be beneficial to our health. Trees, like most organic matter emits electromagnetic energy. This can now be measured at the level that trees and us are producing it. This is what we can sense if we are open to it. The chemicals indirectly affect us as we cannot sense them. They work at a level that is below our consciousness, but they will be working on us whether we like it or not. It is this electromagnetic energy that we can tune into and benefit from directly. This is what I have been sensing over this last year – or becoming more aware of it. It has always been there. When I think back, this feeling has been triggered at times. I have not been aware of it or been receptive enough to acknowledge it. The most noticeable effect that springs to mind is when I have been out walking on a Sunday evening in the summer. On a sunny summer day the area where I live becomes so busy with people that I try to go out with Pip very early and then late in the day. It is in the evening when this feeling is strongest, the land feels like it is breathing a sign of relief, it is letting go and relaxing now all the crowds have gone. I have felt this way and commented but not really thought about it. What makes me feel like this, what am I receiving, what is the land showing us? Now I think I sort of have an understanding – it is this electromagnetic energy. When tree energy has been measured it has been seen to change. Most noticeably it goes up when trees are hugged by children. This electromagnetic energy stimulates certain parts of our nervous system in a positive way. But these effects can also be negative, and it seems that certain trees are good for us and some are not so. But what you can do is sometimes sense these bioelectromagnetic fields when you are standing near a tree. I feel a tingling sensations, like low grade pins and needles. Sometimes this is very owerful, other times less so and it does not always happen.

Approach a tree that you feel drawn to, stand a distance from it. Open up to the tree, empty your mind and slowly walk in towards it. See what happens, what do you feel? Vincent Karche in 'Tree Widom' explains this so well. His journey with trees is fascinating.

This is what I mean by connecting with nature and the countryside and not just being in the countryside. There is nothing wrong with being in the countryside and enjoying the views, the activity, the weather, the challenge and the good feelings that you get afterwards. But if you stand and listen and look there may be another level that you may be able to tap into. This is only a brief overview of some of the ideas and research that is out there that is starting to show and make sense of why we feel so good when we are out in the countryside and the in the woods. There is lots of interest in forest bathing or “Shinrin Yoku” – basically going for walk in the woods and allowing the forest to work its magic on us. This is a whole new science and the type of tree, angle of slope and orientation and even the position on the earth will all make a difference.

This break in our normal routine, less traffic on the roads, less airplanes in the sky, less industry will all have a positive effect on the world. It is breathing a sign of relief and able to repair itself. Animals are on the move again; they are able to move about freely without having to keep an eye out for us. I hope there is enough down time to make an impact, to make a difference. It is what we do afterwards that is important. How this virus came about is being hotly debated; the wet animal markets around the world are thought to be breeding grounds for viruses that can jump species and hence the rapid spread. We humans are destroying the earth with our pursuit of “stuff” and the need to have more and more. There have been an increasingly large number of these episodes (SARS, MERS) and we have to listen to the earth. Is it sending us a message? What changes can we make to ensure we start to work in balance with the earth, only take what we need, put back what we take and respect all life out there. Trees are a good starting point. They can absorb CO2, create moisture and make the rain fall, influence our bodies physiological and nervous systems in a positive way. If you are interested then give yourself time outside and start to connect with the landscape, this way we will start to look after it and cherish it, not just see it as a commodity for us to exploit. At the moment Pip and I are having to stay closer to home for our walks. We are walking with the family and slowing down to look as the earth as it grows back after is winter break. Let us use this time wisely as it presents an opportunity and let us think how we can move forward in a kindlier way to the earth that supports us.

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