The science behind why hobbies can improve our mental health

Great article form Ciara McCabe from The Conversation (links below) with a UK focus, about having a hobby as a way to improve mental health. Ciara has provided lots of links to other sources including SAGE, and other great articles from The Conversation.


My experience reflects this, in that I found art making and walking art pleasurable, and the walking bit also promoted physical health and wellbeing.

With depression one of the features for me is overthinking, often expressed as free floating anxiety that seems to just come from nowhere and be about nothing. I worry about worrying.

But also the act of making stuff means that I get to think about something that is pleasurable, and outside my head and not inside it. It is also real stuff I can do and touch. It is grounding. And I end up with an art object or do a walk with a purpose to seek experience to make art or my walk becomes performance. Out of the experience, I learn something and make some real concrete thing, and that is affirming.

So the depressive thoughts that I would have had that have no purpose, get used up with doing things that become purposeful.

The art object, be it performance or an art object becomes a container for personal experience and personal material. Culturally, this always was a purpose of art. An undue focus on art as ‘Fine Arts’ and art markets has undermined this purpose.

Make art and don’t beat yourself up that it is not ‘good’ art. Bad art is still art, and you can be the only witness to your art making. Don’t give in to embarrassment. Stop making sense. Nobody will ever know what you made.


by Ciara McCabetheconversation.com

February 11, 2021 

For some, having a hobby may even prevent depression.

The pandemic has taken its toll on many peoples’ mental health. Given the fear of the virus and the government restrictions on movement many may understandably be feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed than usual. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even issued guidance on how people can look after their mental health during this difficult time. Key advice includes trying to keep a regular pattern of eating, sleeping, hygiene and exercise.

But a less obvious recommendation is to make sure you’re still finding time to do the things you enjoy. In fact, research shows that having a hobby is linked to lower levels of depression – and may even prevent depression for some.

Losing interest and joy in things you normally like doing is one symptom of poor mental health. Known as anhedonia, this is a common symptom of depression and is something patients say they would most like relief from – possibly because the drugs used to treat depression target other symptoms and don’t seem to alleviate it.

For some people, anhedonia is one of the first symptoms of depression, and can even be used to predict the severity of depression a person might experience.

So, finding time for your interests and pleasures – such as a hobby – during lockdown could be one way of avoiding anhedonia and depression. In fact social prescribing is a treatment method where doctors can ask patients with mild to moderate depression to take up a non-medical intervention (such as a hobby) to improve their mental health. As antidepressants can be less effective in those with mild depression, this treatment strategy may still help patients with depression find relief from their symptoms.

Talk to plants. Befriend plants. Be a gardener.

So far, some studies have shown that social prescribing programmes that ask patients to take up hobbies such as gardening or art are beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.

Evidence also shows that even for those with clinical depression, certain psychological treatments – like behavioural activation, which requires patients to schedule in time to do things that bring them pleasure and joy – improve symptoms of depression. A wide range of activities and hobbies may play a role in social prescribing and behavioural activation, such as exercising, playing an instrument, drawing, reading or handicrafts.

Reward system

The reason that finding time for hobbies can work has to do with how they affect the reward system in the brain. When we take part in a hobby that we enjoy, chemical messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) are released – such as dopamine, a chemical which helps us feel pleasure. These feel-good chemicals can then make us want to do the hobby again, and feel more motivated to do so.

So even though we may not feel motivated in the beginning to spend time on a hobby, once we start it and feel the associated pleasure, this will kick-start our reward system and subsequently our motivation to do it again. This is something we’re researching in greater depth in our lab.

Alongside pleasure and motivation, hobbies can also bring other benefits. Physical hobbies can, of course, improve your fitness, and others can even improve your brain function. Research suggests that some hobbies – like playing a musical instrument – can improve your memory, while artistic hobbies (such as reading or board games puzzles) are reported to prevent dementia later in life.

So if you’re feeling lower than normal during the pandemic, perhaps try to find time to re-engage with some hobbies that you may have enjoyed in the past – or try new ones. You can also seek help or guidance from your GP or a therapist to find the best treatment for you.

Solway Walk – Dorothy Margaret Paulin – Writing

An unco sough i’ the gloamin’ 
An’ a flaff o’ risin’ win’,
A glisk o’ stoundin’ waters
By the weirdly licht o’ the mune, 
An’ the fell dark tide o’ Solway 
Comes breengin’, whummlin’ in. 

Whaur glistenin’ sands lay streikit 
Ablow the sunset sky
Noo a wan wide sea is reestin’
An’ the yammerin’ sea-birds cry, 
An’ a wheengin’ win’ rings eerily 
I’ the salmon nets oot-by. 

Solway Tide

by Dorothy Margaret Paulin

from Country Gold and other poems (The Moray Press, 1936)

Scottish Poetry Library

For the Annan Haaf Netters

Solway Walk – Human Ecology

Solway as a Means of Transport

To describe the Solway, it is useful to start at the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, because from this point, 100 km ENE to the outlets of the Esk and Eden, and 70 km ESE to Bees Head is one interconnected system of sea, sand, rock and river called the larger Solway Basin as shown in the header image above.

But this opened up to a world beyond. From the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway on a clear day, to the north you look towards the highlands and islands of Scotland, to the west you can see Northern Ireland, to the south the Isle of Man is clearly visible, and if you travelled due west you would arrive in Penrith, passing over Skiddaw on the way. Liverpool is south east. Dublin south west, Due south is Falmouth.

All this connected by sea passages going back millenia. Recent history would have seen highlanders removed in the clearances in the 18th century who would travel through this area from Annan waterfront to America around the same time that travellers and thinkers from France forged links and then divisions between the French and The Scottish Enlightenment. The Vikings came south into this maritime passageway, and the Romans came north. A legend with a grain of truth asserts that the Geodelic Celts came through this water from Scythia via Spain and the Fir Bolg from Greece.

Closer to home, the bit where the Esk and The Eden meet, between England and Scotland there are stories of ancient pathways of their own which give rise to it’s name. In ‘Crossing the Solway’ the writer Blindedbydazzle writes ‘Sol is common to Anglo-Saxon and Norse tongues. It means mud. The Anglo-Saxon woeth or Norse vad (or vath) … is ford. The Sulewad or Sulwath is as it was then, a way of mud.’

So before a bridge was built at the aptly named Metal Bridge, the Solway was a muddy passage way for travellers going between Scotland and England. The Wath’s across the Solway shown below are from Solway Shore-walker, another site worth a visit. The full story of the Waths is available here and a story of an actual crossing by the author is to be found here.

Where are all the people ?

Either speeding up the M6/A74 or driving more slowly round the minor roads, the Solway switches between being invisible, behind hedges and walls, or appearing spectacularly into view with an ever changing mixture of cloud, sun, water and land or vast areas which appear to be all of the above. However it is best experienced on foot. But as stated elsewhere, it is one of Europes biggest unindustrialised estuaries, and as such it is vast. The drive from Carlisle to the Lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway is over 2 and half hours, the same as to Manchester. There are an almost unending number of places to walk.

The terrain is varied with mountains and bays and sandbanks. The tides mean coastal walking varies by the hour. The flatness of the estuary also messes with your sense of distance. My partner and I walked on the estuary below Criffell and could see ‘something’ out over the sand as the tide ebbed. We went to see what it was and after a 20 minute walk, all we found was a plastic fish crate. But when we turned round we realised we were a mile from the beach. As we walked the sky moved under us reflected in the water in the sand ripples. It gives an impression of either indifference to human presence, or when the tides and weather change, a distinct sense of malevolence.

There are other wild and remote places in the borders that do this too. An article in the magazine ‘Live for the Outdoors’ puts the spot in England most remote form a tarmac road in Kielder Forest GR NY 58000 85879, under 30km NW of the Solway. The article is here. It is a land unused to people.

My wife and I went to the nearby Cristianbury Crags and found a large snakeskin and over half a dozen racing pigeon leg tags, presumed to be from the dinner table of the native Peregrines. It was an atmospheric place and after a while we both agreed it was time to go. In the car on the way home we confided with each other that we independently felt like the crags wanted us to go, at more or less the same time. This is weirdly reinforced in a 16m YouTube video of the crags below.

At the 15m mark, on departure from the place, the videographer describes what I think we felt. He says earlier that the mist seems to have followed them about and then says “The whole place is really mysterious with the clag coming through it, really eerie, like another world.” Just a few miles south there was another world, going from the head of the Solway up into the hills to the south of Christianbury.

The Debatable Land

The sparcity of population is a norm for this wild borderland. Between England and Scotland there was one a place called ‘The Debatable Lands’. Where it is popularly portrayed it is as the lawless breeding ground for the murderous Reivers. A 2020 BBC article here gives part of the story reinforcing this with the lurid reference to a decree ’..in the mid-16th Century, some 300 years into the Debatable Lands’ story: (stating) “All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.” While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either.’ See a map here.

The article points out this deadly decree is 300 years into the story. In ‘The Debatable Land’ by Graham Robb, he writes about how it was originally ‘…a defined area in which no permanent building had been allowed. Animals could be pastured there but only between sunrise and sunset, and the soil was not to be ploughed or ‘opened’ in any way…. ‘Batable’ comes from the obsolete verb ‘batten’. Batable land was rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’). By the 1800s, the word had fallen out of use.”1 As a teen, in Derby in the 70’s you took your food to work in your Bait Box. I thought it was a carry over from the fisherman’s bait box, but they just have the same root. The box for fodder, for the fish or the fishermen.

Ecologically this is exactly how this land should be used. It is in equitable balance with the human population. The Solway is the same. The biggest town, Annan has a population of, say 10k people. Dumfries has maybe 150k, and is connected to the Solway by the Nith, but is not on the shore. Malthus’s idea of a territory having a carrying capacity is seen as superseded in some quarters or resurgent in others. The Solway and the Debatable Lands have a low population density. Neither ids wilderness, both have a history of human interaction. I you can at least see everywhere on earth through Google Earth, or at least 98%, then there is no real, unseen by human eye, wilderness left. We all live somewhere on the urban fringe.

But part of what makes the Solway and the Debatable lands interesting to me is that to a large extent, the native population is not human. In the borders their are hotspots. Hadrians Wall runs a few miles from my house and ends at Bowness-on-Solway, the site of a Sulewath, and in the summer it is (by Cumbrian standards) heaving. But at Walton Moss (another of my stomping grounds), in the 6 years I have been going there, apart from a single busy day of hound racing, I have seen no more than 5 people, all at a distance. So who, apart from the few humans, who does live there.

Native Ecology

Natural England has a number of descriptive documents of National Character Areas. It’s summary of the Solway is extensive, available here and describes it thus…

‘The Solway Basin is a low-lying area of gently undulating low hills that grade into the coastal plain and estuarine landscape of the Solway Firth. To the east and south and across the lowlands of the Dumfries coast to the north, the lowland landscape is framed by the uplands of the Lake District, the North Pennines and southern Scotland. The area has a long history as border country, originally divided by the Roman frontier of Hadrian’s Wall, which has World Heritage Site designation, and through succeeding centuries it has been a part of the disputed lands of the English–Scottish border. The area is dominated by pastoral agriculture in rectilinear fields bounded by hedges but with increasing arable farming on the low hills. The coastal zone is characterised by a more open, wind-swept, dynamic and tidal landscape of salt marshes, beaches, sand dunes and intertidal flats along the margins of the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea.’

In previous posts the relationship between images and words and experience of place has been explored. But in terms of who lives on the Solway the Solway Coast Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty website has some great publications with images of birds, sea-life, plants, human habitation and industrial history available by clicking here.

The Solway Firth Partnership has a YouTube Channel here and two videos below which show the range of habitats from cliffs to moorland to estuary.

And as for the people who live on the Solway, the Annan Haaf Netters know the place better than anyone. This great film from 2019 shows the Solway in it’s many moods and the fishermen catching salmon. What is to anybody else, is just a bit of sea and sand, is to the local people an intimately understood place with names and a personality.


  1. Excerpt From: Graham Robb. “The Debatable Land.”  ↩︎

Solway Walk – Helen Cox – Writing

I found a number of writers and poets who know the Solway. I want to include them in this bit about the Solway and will post their writings with links for visitors to follow. Please support these artists by paying attention and buying their writing.


Helen Cox has been writing professionally since graduating from her MA in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of York St John in 2006 . Between now and then, Helen has written editorial for TV, radio, magazines and websites providing commentary on a range of topics including film, literature, travel and feminism. The publications she has written for include The Guardian, The Spectator, Film Fatale Magazine, movieScope Magazine and Film4.Com.

Visit her website here

Of the Solway, in her debut poetry book ‘Water Signs’ she says…

(the last paragraph is a killer)


I was raised on the edge of the Eden River, at the point where her mouth opens out to the Solway Firth. The Solway is a fault line, marking the brink where two continents once kissed and swallowed an ancient ocean – the Iapetus, a long-lost ancestor of the Atlantic. On a still day, this saline mirror reflects the jagged lines of Scotland, where martyrs were once bound to rocks and drowned, and the English saltmarshes on the other side where the last ammonites laid down to die.

On this windless November afternoon, when the frosts have yet to scratch their nails down the backs of the distant hillsides, you can almost smell the chill in the air. But despite the coldness of this landscape, and its cruelty, despite the firth’s deadly quicksand and the way it hold hands with its radioactive sister: the Irish Sea, even now there is a feverish singing in my blood. A siren call that lures me back to this shoreline.

Like these tides I know of old, I will always return.

Nearby in St Michael’s graveyard, the corpses of Georgian smugglers who pirated brandy and tobacco are buried beneath the Yew trees. Their ears unable to listen to the bells chime in the church tower. Bells stolen from Scotland by English raiders. Bells that sang to me on playtimes and lunchtimes when I was a student at Bowness-on-Solway – a school that stands just a hop, skip and a jump from the skeletons of dead buccaneers.

My old school gate is an Ouroboros; the end and the beginning of Hadriain’s Wall – an eighty-mile frontier where rebels and Romans shot bronze arrows through each other’s hearts.

Here is division, threat and death, and for the time I lived here that is a truth I was never allowed to forget.

Hiking the periphery of the firth, twenty-five years after I left this landscape behind, I watch eroding earth flirt with the dislocated jaw of the estuary. I mark progress by the hazard signs posted every half mile. Warning strangers about the merciless tides that grip and twist the Eden until she no longer looks like her true self. I am reacquainted with the silence that lives here on the outer rim. The only sound: the intermittent rattle of trucks clattering over cattle grids.

When dusk closes in, mauve clouds threaten to smother and in my bones I know I wouldn’t resist. Through the mist, an invisible hand inks the silhouettes of bare trees on the horizon. The only other witness: a creaking gate the farmer refuses to oil. He’d rather save the fuel for his furnace. For the day the hearth wolfs down his last block of fire wood, when he cannot bear to chop hawthorn bark with chapped hands in the snow.

While we walk through the last shred of sunlight, chased by the icy breath of the coming solstice memories wash up on the foreshore like fragments of old pottery and river glass, and with them some dead bodies.

Looking back over my shoulder at the expanse of silver water, I think about the yawning void between information and wisdom. By the age of ten, when my parents left Cumbria for Yorkshire, the universe had taught me everything I need to know. It took me another quarter of a century to truly understand what to do with that gift.

Rewilding on the Urban Fringe – A Proposal

Image – Edge of old peat cutting Walton Moss, Cumbria, UK.

A Proposal for working with art-making outdoors as a mode of discovery and discourse to support the process and practice of rewilding.


(I attended this excellent event A Natural Capital Lab on an urban fringe: challenges and possibilities on Jan 21st and made this proposal to work with art. To date no response to the proposal, but on reflection, I should have asked if there were any rewilding in the urban fringe projects currently running, or asked if anybody wanted to start one.)


My interest in rewilding on the urban fringe is prompted partly by my childhood living on the urban fringe in Derby, by my work in outdoor education which included two urban outdoor programmes and by my personal arts practice. I trained as a Drama and Movement Therapist, and guided by the principles of the arts therapies, most of my art making involves exploring and expressing my personal experience of the outdoors. I work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

This posting on my blog is presented as an invitation to conversation and collaboration. Art making as a mode of inquiry has many and deep connections to rewilding, particularly on the urban fringe.

I think there is scope for art making outdoors to be of use to the principles and practice of rewilding in the following ways.

  1. Art making has an affinity with the rewilding process and has the scope to facilitate personal insight into rewilding, in practice, in situ practically and intellectually.
  2. Art making can be used as a kind of performative research to explore and express personal experience as an adjunct and complement to quantitative and qualitative research.
  3. Art making, when undertaken guided by the principles of the art therapies, can promote a sense of attachment to place which can be mutually beneficial to the health of both the persons and places involved.
  4. Given mutual agreement, art made through outdoors as art activities, can serve as a catalyst for discussion, illustration and promotion of said activities and the persons and places involved.

Like the idea and practice of ‘Art’ the idea and practice of ‘Rewilding’ can be contentious. Both have some aspects which are not contentious. A fine art oil painting of a landscape is undeniably art, as the scientific data which is used in ecological sciences is undeniably an accurate account of the plants and animals in a community. But strong disagreements exist as to whether certain things can be classed as art, in the same way that strong disagreements exist about both the scope and value of rewilding.

In Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Professor Estelle Barrett, talking about art making as research in postgrad research says that art as research is subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. In the same book Professor Brad Haseman describes art based research as performative research.

My proposal is that guided by ideas and practices from arts education and the arts therapies, particularly when art is used as a form of enquiry or research, art as research acts as a useful mode of enquiry in situations that are subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. Core scientific data may still prevail in certain areas in which objectivity of material phenomena is required, but art making as enquiry is useful when we want to explore personal experience and subjective phenomena.

For example photography could be useful in work in which we are inviting people to explore and express where they think ‘wilderness’ begins and ends. This is even more so in the urban fringe. In a photo series called Northern Territories I explored the point where human managed space ended and wilder, less managed space started. In Local Internet, prompted by the work of James Bridle I explored the way that the idea of ‘The Cloud’ was still around us as a very concrete phenomena and totally crossed the boundary between online and offline spaces.

Art as research is very situational and personal but these ideas could be useful if used in other settings to help persons involved in rewilding produce images to prompt discussion about where they would draw a line between human and wild spaces.

In the arts therapies, in art making, and in art as inquiry the process is very important. One may have an intention for art making, but the final outcome, the art made is uncertain. This is similar to rewilding. In Urban Wilderness in Central Europe – Rewilding at the Urban Fringe, the authors Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister say of rewilding ‘..for some ecosystems there are no clear conceptions of the composition or appearance of the future wilderness state.’1 Rewilding, like art, is a creative act. Working with art outdoors could be a way to help people understand that with rewilding, like adtr making, the outcome may not always be certain.

Just saying what art is, like saying what rewilding is is difficult because creative acts are, by their nature, difficult if not impossible to accurately predict. In pure scientific research, the capacity to predict an outcome and test it, is central. This is a source of vital information about some things that can be measured and predicted. Arts as research does not challenge this or contradict this. But with rewilding, predicting the path of secondary succession towards a state of preservation of a fixed final climax state is not always possible.

The artist John Cage talks about the creative act thus “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”2 In rewilding, in the end, even we leave in faith that the place can take care of making wilderness for itself. Rewilding may have a human hand at inception, the first brush strokes, but human hand leaves in the end. Nature is creative.

Frans Schepers and Paul Jepson say of working with rewilding as opposed to fixed conservation approaches ‘This conservation approach, which has been compared to restoring a painting that then needs curating, is at odds with the process-oriented ethos of rewilding and the uncertain ecological and conservation dynamics this entails… Rewilding is seen as a process rather than a state…3 ‘ The rewilding act is not that of restoring an old painting, it is the creation of a new painting.

We could see that as a mode of enquiry art making outdoors can help people look at what is wilderness and where it starts and ends, particularly in the urban fringe, it can help people experience rewilding as process and as an unpredictable creative act and provide access to understanding wildness through performative experiences, alongside quantitative and qualitative data.

  • rosebay willow herb

My experience of working with the outdoors as art and art as research has included both formal research and exploration of more personal experience. The use of art making as a form of enquiry is, I think, of most use as an adjunct to more formal quantitative and qualitative approaches. I think it invites a mode of working which, when guided by principles form the arts therapies and arts education can offer a degree of rigour of process. The arts generally have a long history of providing an outlet for expression and discourse.

All work is localised to the setting, the place in which the art making is taking place, and the artform and content subject to enquiry. Any work is, like the actual form the rewilding takes, open to a creative and thus unpredictable outcome. Nature, like art, can speak for itself. But two examples of how to work with the arts are presented which may illustrate the process in two specific settings. One is presented below, the other will follow and is part of a project I am doing in the Solway Firth.

On arrival at my current home, a neighbour told us about a flood which came down a ridge behind our houses and entered a friends kitchen. It seemed inconceivable at the time. There was no watercourse within a quarter of a mile of our houses. But during lockdown I went looking for evidence of the story. To my surprise I found a cloistered and culverted stream ran right where she said. It was invisible except for the occasional sound of water form under two large concrete slabs behind a garage and a vague path of dampness on a football pitch after heavy rain. On some maps a series of disconnected water features were shown, but on others they were entirely absent.

After a few days of rain, I went out with a camera to film the path of the water on the football pitch, when a dog walker called me over and we got talking. He confirmed the story. The flood happens 17 years ago and ruined his dads car when it entered the families garage. The then open stream was filled in by the council as a result of the flood. I found the path of the stream, mostly hidden but above the surface in three places in over it’s 2 kilometer course. I walked this with a GPS tracker to make a performance of it’s whole journey down to the River Irthing from a spring behind our houses. I discovered that this spring was on a feature that was was part of ‘Brampton Kame Belt’ ‘..one the largest glaciofluvial complexes within the UK.’ I liked the idea of a mythical stream existing only when it rained and wrote a story about this like it was a Norse Myth. I become very attached to to this elusive, nameless stream, like it is the local secret only locals know about.

I know that the ridge the flood water came from was left by the bed of a river that flowed over the melting glaciers that disappeared 10k years ago. I know that on rainy days I can follow the wet path in the football pitch that marks the now filled in path of a stream, or find a spot under willow tree behind my house that produces the unseen but clearly audible sound of rushing water. I used story writing and performance to connect with the stream in a more personal imaginal way. I developed an empirical and personal connection.

This empirical and personal connection together acted to bring a feeling of attachment. In childcare, attachment is defined as ‘the maintenance of proximity’, and is an important source of security for care-giver and child. Because art making outdoors connects me to place with both empirical data and personal experience I feel now feel more attached to this stream and thus to the place I reside. So whilst with regards to rewilding, empirical, ecological data is vital, a personal attachment to place may be something that could be mutually beneficial to place and person. Understanding place through both empirical data and personal experience could be an interesting way to help people involved with rewilding form attachments to place.

Many rewilding schemes exist in the UK. Many will be supported by volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to connect with and form attachment to place. Participants involved in rewilding schemes will be familiar with many ecological, data driven modes of understanding. Having done a BSc in Human Ecology I can see this is vital. But as an arts therapist and art maker I can see that art making, or at least an approach to enquiry rooted in art making has had many benefits for me.

Any form of engagement with place and particularly physical or embodied engagement forms attachment. My experience is that this attachment has helped me through lockdown. My art based enquiry has maintained my mental health. But what the arts involvement has done has taught me to be is open in my approach to the place I live. Open in the way I understand what is going on.

  • things from a different perspective

For rewilding, and particularly rewilding in the urban fringe, a mode of engagement with process, a mode of understanding rewilding in it’s contentious and unpredictable nature that is open could be advantageous.

A Proposal

Therefore I make a proposal for conversation and possible collaboration in exploring art making as a mode of enquiry, understanding and attachment to place, in support of rewilding in the urban fringe.

I live in North Cumbria and would love to work with people nearby in England or Scotland on an actual site, ideally in the urban fringe.

Beyond lockdown, I would also be interested in connecting with individuals who may be interested in working with the outdoors as art, to simply experiment and explore ideas and possibly form a means by which we could support each other in personal arts, health, educational, ecological or environmental practice.

Art making makes art. Be it visual art, music making, poetry, performance art, pottery, sculpture, whatever. Sharing and showing art made is valuable as a way of inviting discussion, illustration and promotion of place, process, project and person. Showing and sharing art made is the art as research equivalent of the scientific peer review. I evokes discourse. But personal witnessing of art making is central to the arts therapies. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. For some people showing what they made is a terrifying proposal. But in some way personal witnessing is like wilderness. To be true wilderness, it may be that it is unseen by any eyes but the eyes of the people, plants and animals that live there. In the arts therapies, art made is seen by nobody but the therapist and the person or persons in therapy. What is shared is shared with consent.

If anyone is interested in a sharing a journey of exploration and discovery, a journey of uncertain outcome, like adventure, like rewilding, like art, please visit my blog at movingspace.blog and get in touch.


  1. Urban Wilderness in Central EuropeRewilding at the Urban Fringeby Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister.  ↩︎
  2. john cage / score without parts  ↩︎
  3. Rewilding in the European Context  ↩︎

The Solway – Betwixt and Between

A Visual Introduction to The Solway

The Solway Firth exists in a permanent state of being betwixt and between.

Between England and Scotland, between sea and sky, between high and low tide, between being land and water. It belongs to nobody. It is one of the least industrialised and most unspoilt large estuaries in Europe. It is as magical as it is dangerous. To visit on foot you need your wits about you as it can change from sandbank to fast flowing seawater in minutes.

Below are some moving and still images of the Solway. More material will follow of other peoples experiences of the Solway.

  • sky over the solway

Applying the Pathways to Nature Connectedness at Societal Scale

Finding Nature website

Posted on November 17, 2020 by Miles

The climate emergency and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human-nature relationship is failing. The scale of these inter-related issues requires a new relationship with nature. Bringing about that new relationship with nature requires interventions and approaches that effect large changes at scale across society. In our latest paper we propose an approach to creating a new relationship with nature at a societal scale based on improving nature connectedness using a framework called the ‘pathways to nature connectedness’. The paper published open access in Ecosystems & People suggests how the pathways can be applied at various leverage points across policy areas such as education, health, housing, arts, health & transport. It’s a long read at around 10,000 words, so this blog presents a summary of some key aspects.

What is nature connectedness and why does it matter?

The psychological construct of nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with nature. It can be increased through carefully designed interventions to prompt engagement with nature – such as noticing the good things in nature. Nature connectedness matters because it brings benefits for both humans and nature; it is a causal factor in improved mental wellbeing, increased pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours. The evidence of the benefits to wellbeing is such that it is argued that nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. The importance of the construct is further illustrated by proposals for its inclusion in the Gallup World Poll (GWP) which has an international reputation as a tool for global decision-makers.

Calls for ‘reconnection with nature’ have increased, but have been vague, with fragmentation around what nature connection is and with little concrete guidance towards achieving societies that are more connected to nature. The psychological construct of nature connectedness helps with the current diversity of approaches to understanding people’s connection with nature. It provides a measurable focus within this fragmentation, with an evidence base of benefits to the wellbeing of both people and nature.

Introducing the Pathways to Nature Connectedness

The pathways to nature connectedness provide a typology of activities that provide a methodological approach for improving human-nature relationships through targeting and increasing nature connectedness – you can find a summary of the 5 pathways (sensory contact, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion) on this postcard, but briefly they are:

·       Senses: Noticing and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.

·       Emotion: Engaging emotionally with nature. Simply noticing the good things in nature, experiencing the joy and calm they can bring, and sharing feelings about nature with others.

·       Beauty: Finding beauty in the natural world. Simply taking time to appreciate beauty in nature and engaging with it through art, music or in words.

·       Meaning: Exploring and expressing how nature brings meaning to life. Simply exploring how nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art, or by celebrating the signs and cycles of nature.

·       Compassion: Caring for nature. Simply thinking about what we can do for nature and taking actions that are good for nature, such as creating homes for nature, supporting conservation charities and rethinking our shopping habits.

Rather than a detailed model, the pathways present five overarching types of relationship involved in improving nature connectedness. They can be applied at various points, from individual activities in nature, to nature engagement programmes, to the design of infrastructure and school curricula and beyond to improve relationships between humans and nature on a larger scale. In sum, the pathways provide clear direction of the types of relationship for society to foster.

The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine were pathways to nature connectedness, four were unrelated to nature connectedness. These were fear of nature, dominion over nature, utilitarian use of nature and a purely scientific relationship.

Nature is often seen as a resource (utility), or a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), or nature is presented in terms of facts and figures (science), or as a threat (fear of nature). These types of relationship are common, often emphasised within capitalistic societies and can be seen as essential pathways for human survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – as shown by the red arrow in Figure 1.

The five types of relationship which form the pathways to nature connectedness are included in the green arrow which points towards improved nature connectedness and its benefits: pro-environmental behaviour, pro-nature conservation behaviour and mental wellbeing. Greater focus on the types of relationship with nature that promote nature connectedness can lead to a new, more sustainable, relationship with the natural world.

Figure 1. A graphical summary of the types of human-nature relationships, nature connectedness and their outcomes. Key: Pro-env. = pro-environmental (carbon & resource use reduction); Pro-nature = pro-nature conservation (wildlife habitat creation).

Societal relevance of the pathways approach

The application of the pathways has informed a successful large-scale campaigns (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and visitor experience programming (e.g. at the National Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). However, a paradigm shift in human-nature relationships is required at a larger scale. But which of the five pathways have greatest societal relevance? The full paper discusses this in detail, but here’s a brief summary.

Figure 2. Types of positive relationship with nature and scale of relevance and leverage. The statistical importance for nature connectedness identified by Lumber et al (2017) is represented by the solid oval. The proposed scale of relevance is represented by the dashed oval.

The relevance of the pathways for individual and societal connectedness to nature, and their potential for application at deep leverage points (more on that later), is represented in Figure 2 which considers the location of connection/leverage points (X-axis) and scale of relevance (Y-axis) for the five types of relationship with nature found to be positive pathways to nature connectedness. Let’s consider the societal relevance of each pathways in turn.

Meaning is related to cultural aspects of our lives that have great resonance at a societal scale. This pathway relates to deeper relationships, the symbolic use of nature to represent ideas, and provides an opportunity for societal change. Cultural programmes could be focused on developing these deeper relationships with nature on a large scale – through the cultural celebration of our relationship with nature and renewed appearance of nature in cultural products – and fundamental societal systems such as health care for example.

Emotions can, and have been, targeted on a large scale (e.g. consumerism) and brought societal scale changes. Emotions are fundamental features of human function. As far back as 1928, Edward Bernays targeted people’s unconscious desires in order to manipulate people towards items they didn’t need – creating modern public relations through appealing to people’s emotions. These ideas helped develop consumerism and self-absorption in Western society.  Edward Bernays recognised the scale of relevance of emotion, using them to mould public desire, shaping a consumer culture and shifting social norms at a societal scale. Through public relations campaigns, emotions could change social norms to a situation where a good life is seen as a nature connected life, rather than a consumerist life. The recent shift from the desire for experiences rather than consumer goods provides an opportunity to promote pathways focused experiences, rather than basing them on dominion and utilitarianism.

Compassion. Although care for nature is an overall goal of a new relationship, Figure 2 suggests that the compassion pathway doesn’t necessarily present opportunities for deep leverage. This is because it is likely that other changes are required first. Those engaged with pro-nature conservation behaviours typically have higher levels of nature connectedness. So before engaging people with pro-nature conservation behaviours that can require personal commitment, there could be a need to increase connectedness through meaning and emotion. However, humans are a social species, our capacity for co-operation emerged from social connectedness and emotional bonds. Therefore, focusing on the similarity of people with nature, rather than focusing on developing concern for nature directly may function as a more effective societal leverage point. For example, research shows that anthropomorphism can drive nature connectedness. The similarity of people and the rest of nature as a common discourse, rather than consumptive and dominance frames are required together with the provision of more opportunities for people to care for wildlife everyday, for example through access to places where people can easily engage in pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Beauty is a strong theme when people are asked to notice the ‘good things in nature’ – however we know that the beauty pathway works together with other pathways, such as when deriving meaning or evoking emotions. So, it is likely that this pathway doesn’t lever transformational change on its own. Rather, beauty needs to be available for sensory contact and wider meaningful engagement with nature.

Sensory contact is a pathway that relates to interaction, therefore there is a need for engagement with a wide variety of nature – which is provided in accessible and everyday places. Of course easily accessible nature does not have to be engaged with, so there is a need to design places, campaigns and activities to prompt that engagement. Nature contact can have a large scale of relevance and bring societal impact on nature connectedness if the engagement is fostered – through cultural programmes for example. When sensory contact is prompted, for example, through noticing the good things in nature or campaigns such as 30 Days Wild, there is evidence of a positive and sustained impact on nature connectedness. These interventions and our other work also highlight that the pathways to nature connectedness rarely work alone. Sensory contact involves noticing beauty, it elicits emotions, brings meaning and can involve care for nature.

Nature Connectedness, System Characteristics and Leverage Points

A truly sustainable future will challenge basic assumptions on the organizing of a society. Leverage points (Meadows, 1999), consider the parts of the system where maximum impact can be gained from small changes. Meadows (1999) describes twelve leverage points from shallow places where interventions are relatively easy to implement, but less impactful on system behaviours, to deep places where interventions are difficult but can deliver transformational change. Abson et al. (2017) note the twelve leverage points fall into four broad groups:

  • The shallowest are system parameters, for example standards.
  • Next, interventions can target feedback loops, the interactions between system elements.
  • Third are social structures that manage feedbacks and parameters.
  • Finally, the deepest group are intentions, the underpinning values and goals that shape the emergent direction of a system.

Where can nature connectedness have greatest leverage? Where can the pathways approach be applied for maximum effect? There’s a more detail in the full paper, but here’s a few examples.

System intentions: values and goals

The values and goals of the system are the deepest leverage points and therefore most important – often simple to write, but most difficult to change. For example, take a look at the priorities of the UK Government’s Department of Education (Sept. 2020):

“We’ll develop world-class education with the following principles:

  • ensure our academic standards match and keep pace with key comparator nations
  • strive to bring our technical education standards in line with leading international systems
  • ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being”

Standards and well-being are important – but there is no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Revising these principles to include a goal for a sustainable relationship with nature would be a simple change of wording, but very difficult to achieve. Being a deep leverage point, it would though have a great impact on schools, curriculum and teaching.

More widely, facts and research evidence can help establish goals. For example, nature connectedness being four times more important for living a worthwhile life than socio-economic status could help make it a goal for some. However, values come from meaning, which can come from experiences, but also how nature is reflected in society, such as in our models of human well-being.  Formally recognising the value of a right to a close relationship with nature would be very powerful. For example, a close relationship with nature could be considered as a universal human right, similar to the right to family life and social connections. This deep leverage is difficult to achieve, but would be a major contribution to embedding a new relationship with nature through wider society.

System design: institutions and social structures

Social structures manage feedbacks and system parameters – these rules, incentives and constraints create the social environment. Given the climate and biodiversity crises, policy and organisational goals should acknowledge the need for a new relationship with nature. Nature connectedness can be coupled into structures as an institutionalizable target – it is measurable so the nature connectedness of the people an organisation works with could be a strategic priority with associated Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A strategic plan and intention to improve nature connectedness can adopt and apply the pathways to nature connectedness.

A strategic plan for nature?

System feedbacks: the extinction of experience

A key reinforcing feedback loop in relation to human-nature relationships is ‘extinction of experience’.  The on-going reduction in experience of nature permeates culture and society such that social feedback helps reinforce a social norm of reduced experience of nature. Increased urbanisation, especially when poorly designed, reduces the opportunity to engage with nature – reducing positive feedback. This is then reflected in cultural feedback, for example, the decline of references to nature in cultural products – which all adds to loss of orientation to engage with nature. There is potential to shorten feedback related to the five key relationships identified by the pathways, while disrupting feedback loops related to the four non-pathways relationships. This can include measures to strengthen feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature and on the health of the natural world.

System Parameters: standards, policy and infrastructure

Standards, policy and infrastructure provide valuable but weak leverage points. Infrastructure is slow to change, however, policy can help show what is valued and also turns on or off the taps of funding. Policy change may be relatively ineffective in influencing behaviour, but can send a clear message on the types of behaviour that are favoured. Therefore, policy changes can contribute to the deeper paradigm shift required for a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world.

We present more details and recommendations in the full paper, there’s also some ideas in our New Relationship with Nature Briefing here.

Summary and Recommendations

The pathways to nature connectedness provide an important framework to help deliver solutions toward a new relationship with nature. It is proposed that the meaning and emotion pathways to nature connectedness can provide the deep leverage required to increase sensory contact. These three pathways have a large scale of societal relevance and the potential to provide solutions across a range of leverage points to foster closer human-nature relationships. Resulting interventions can also encourage people to engage with the remaining two pathways, to engage with nature’s beauty and to care for nature.

As a basic psychological need, nature connectedness should inform the values and goals of our systems for maximum impact on the human-nature relationship for a sustainable future. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a structured means to inform new societal and institutional goals. Using new narratives to highlight the meaning of nature to humans, such as models of health that unite wildlife and human wellbeing, can provide new values and desirable ‘system goals’. Approaches from mass-consumer persuasion through appealing to people’s emotions can also play a role in influencing values and goals on a large scale.

Changes in system values and goals inform the design of institutions and social structures for a new relationship with nature. As a measurable construct, nature connectedness can be a key performance indicator for institutions, such as those delivering health and wellbeing. Targets can be set and the pathways used to inform strategic plans. For example, including the enjoyment of nature in health and social care delivery.

To help create new social norms, a closer relationship with nature can be integrated into social structures with incentives, such as funding for cultural products and urban design informed by the pathways. More sensory contact, sharing of positive emotions, and structures that shorten system feedback along pathways to nature connectedness can counter the extinction of experience and renew the human-nature relationship. Feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature for wellbeing, and on the health of the natural world can also be enhanced.

Standards and policy provide weak leverage points, but many opportunities to apply the pathways to nature connectedness. For example, education curricula can be informed by the pathways, transport policy can be used to promote pathways relationships and planning policy can help turn public spaces into places that prompt sensory contact, celebrate nature, and elicit positive emotions through engaging with nature. Arts policy should recognise the close links between cultural expression and the pathways to nature connectedness.

In sum, as humans we are deeply affected by emotions and stories with meaning. We want to believe our lives are worthwhile and meaningful. The power of emotions and trust in shared stories have been used to bring millions of people together, to create consumer culture and ultimately disconnect us from nature, damaging the natural world in the process. However, as a species, our story is nature and for a sustainable future, nature needs to re-emerge as the human story through societal values, social structures, feedback and policy. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for improving human-nature relationships within that context.

Enjoyed this blog? Try reading A New Relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do.

M. Richardson, J. Dobson, D. J. Abson, R. Lumber, A. Hunt, R. Young & B. Moorhouse(2020) Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: a leverage points perspective, Ecosystems and People, 16:1, 387-401, DOI: 10.1080/26395916.2020.1844296