Wellbeing

Emerging from the mist: how nature can help us as we step out of lockdown

8th July 2020 by Kelly Hargie Share

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The past few months have been unusual ones without question. The global pandemic and lockdown situation have pushed us all into a smaller, confined space where we have had no option but to slow way down, take stock of our own lives and collectively it seems we are opening our eyes to the sad state of the world on various levels.

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I don’t know about you, but for me personally the last 3 months have felt a little bit like hiking in severe misty weather. If you’ve ever trekked in the Mourne Mountains, or anywhere for that matter, in misty weather you will know it’s eerie and extremely disorientating. Even the best-known trails can take on a whole new persona during misty walks and it can be extremely easy to get lost even if you’re an experienced hill-walker. Although the few months just passed have been something of a rollercoaster of highs and lows and everything else in-between the best way I know to describe how March, April, May and June have felt for me is disorientating and very scary!

Our normal way of life has been disrupted like never before; we have been shaken and shocked in ways unheard of in my own lifetime. The world literally ground to a halt in so many ways and apart from the incredible key-workers and carers we all stayed at home. Suddenly, we found ourselves in our houses, our circles of movement and interaction became much smaller, some were able to work, some not, some home-schooling, some doing zoom workouts and conference calls or learning new skills, and all figuring out ways to navigate this unprecedented season; to stay motivated and engaged and hopeful while all the while wanting on one hand to help in some way and on the other to hibernate until it was all over! It has been a tricky act of ball-juggling that’s for sure and no matter which situation you have found yourself in I am certain you have faced your challenges.

As a Mum of 3 I have taken on the role of home educator, my own business put on hold temporarily and our weekend family adventures and hikes had to be shelved much to my great dismay. The outdoors and particularly hiking in the Mournes have been a lifeline to me as I’ve worked my way through postnatal depression and various injuries over the years; so to suddenly have that stripped away from my life was a huge shock to the system and accompanied by a whole array of feelings including sadness, frustration and fear.

No longer would I have my midweek hikes and weekend family adventures to support my physical, emotional and mental wellbeing! How was I going to manage being cooped up with 3 children, 2 cats and a crazy husky pup, preparing a 10-year old for exams that might not happen, figuring out never-ending Algebra tasks and learning all parts of the ‘aller’ verb so that I could assist with French homework without my weekly outings into nature to recharge my batteries and boost my energy?

I compare the whole lockdown experience, now with a little bit of hindsight as restrictions are slowly lifted, to walking in the Mournes on a very misty day when you can barely see more than a metre in front of yourself. When you can’t see into the distance, or know what the next day’s news might bring, when the path is unclear, the ground unstable, suddenly your immediate surroundings are thrown into sharper focus as you try to identify your position and locate a visible trail to follow. The other thing that happens in those circumstances is that you slow right down and begin to take stock, your true priorities become more apparent as you try to figure out your route through to safe and familiar ground.

Unable to get to the mountains or the coast for a wander on my own or with the family during lockdown meant that the garden became the real focus of our attention and we have repeatedly remarked how grateful we are for that little patch of outdoor space as messy and unkempt as it is! Coupled with the good weather and the need to differentiate the weekdays and workbooks from the weekends meant our outdoor space became something of a haven: a quiet space to stretch and have a coffee after a restless night before the kids awakened, somewhere to watch spring gradually unfold, flowers blooming, bees and butterflies coming to visit…nature continued its beautiful cycle despite what was going on beyond the parameters of the garden fence.

We pitched a tent in the garden, strung up some bunting, set up the camp stove and so our garden was transformed into a makeshift campsite for mini-adventures. Here we watched and marvelled at the meteor showers, staying up late to toast marshmallows and learned to appreciate what was right on our doorstep in terms of connecting with the natural world. We have walked barefoot on the grass, sown a few seeds, built a bird bath and table, studied bugs, spotted butterflies and helped tired bees and I know many others have enjoyed similar wild experiences in their own gardens.

I began to appreciate on a deeper level that adventures and being in touch with the earth didn’t always need to involve a trip to a forest or a gruelling hike up the side of a mountain; that there was so much already on offer right at home that could contribute to nurturing our need for nature, and give us something to care for and increase hope for better times ahead.

When you find yourself in adverse weather in a mountain landscape all of your skills and experience come into play. If you’ve travelled the same trails over and over again you will be familiar with marks in the landscape that will help to give direction should your view become obscured by mist, snow or heavy rain. You will recognise certain trees, boulders, dips and rises and often these will be able to guide you and keep you on track. When it’s not possible to do that, map and compass skills come into play.

I’ve found during the past few months of uncertainty and oftentimes not knowing which way to step that many of the skills and lessons I’ve picked up over years of hiking through all seasons have been transferrable to my experience of lockdown…endurance, perseverance, patience, noticing the details, grounding, knowing when to stop, getting a decent rest, good nutrition, planning, being prepared, breathing deep, gratitude, moving my body, keeping calm, knowing my limits and so on have been so helpful to me on days when I’ve felt so uncertain and ill-equipped to deal with what was going on.

The things time in nature have taught me have provided a really supportive framework for dealing with the anxieties and fears that have risen so tangibly to the surface during this period of lockdown and as we begin to emerge from our individual home bubbles and begin to take tentative steps out into the world once more I know those things will continue to support me.

Maybe you too have found yourself enjoying your garden more and noticing your natural surroundings during lockdown like never before and are eager to explore a little further afield as restrictions ease-off. I highly recommend that you do! There are so many reports of how time spent in nature can benefit us and even recent news reports have told us that people are suddenly hearing more birdsong and becoming aware of thriving nature in their own area as traffic noise has dimmed and our attention isn’t being pulled in so many directions.

We live on a flight path in Belfast and the lack of airplane noise was one of the biggest changes I personally noticed and from the early hours I can hear the birds merrily chirping…was the dawn chorus always so beautiful and vivid right outside my window but I failed to hear because it was being drowned out by flight noise? I think it probably was.

There are the obvious beneficial physical aspects of moving our bodies too; increasing our heart rate and improving mobility will last us well into old age make getting outdoors well worthwhile; our future selves will thank us! We know too that walking in nature also supports our mental and emotional wellbeing, reducing anxiety and helping us deal the with challenges in life that we all face.

Spending time in nature is also believed to increase our creativity and I can certainly vouch for this because when walking in the mountains I have all my best ideas for writing and inspiration for making; walks in nature are a problem-solving friend like no other! Taking time out from the manic hustle and bustle of the daily grind also does us the world of good, helps us untangle our thoughts and put things into perspective, figure out our priorities and goals and I find it also ignites my motivation and increases my energy to pursue my passions and the things that really matter to me. We only get one chance to live this life after all, we may as well endeavour to make it the best life possible.

Stepping back out into the world after a 3-month stint at home is a bit of a daunting prospect in some ways, especially if like me you quite like the peace, quiet and solitude. We’ve become accustomed to our smaller, slower, simpler existences and our own company, but in saying that we are also social beings and we know that when we work together and interact in positive, healthy ways we can contribute to the world in a vital way!

I personally have found that despite the challenges and the sadness of a global pandemic which has ripped through our world there have also been a multitude of pros too. I’ve realized that I enjoy the slower pace, that simple living: cooking from scratch, unhurried mealtimes, working in the garden, reading, writing, paying attention and being fully present are some of the benefits of this time.

We have been presented with an opportunity to change how we live and lessen our impact on our beautiful planet that is hurting so badly right now; and that opportunity has the mighty potential to be a really good and world-altering thing! That’s where nature really comes into force, because the more time we spend in nature, the more we realize its multitude of benefits on our personal lives, then in turn the more we want to protect it and therefore change how we live in order to do so. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle! It’s a benevolent circle that can truly make a difference!

We have undoubtedly learned a lot of lessons during this pandemic, one being that we can live with a whole lot less ‘stuff’ and instead of spending a Saturday wandering around a shopping centre we could instead be wandering around a nice stretch of coastline, appreciating the views, saving our money and getting some headspace! We don’t have to go back to normal; I doubt we can in any case. Too much has changed, so much has been thrown into the light in the past few months and we’ve seen first-hand the cost of our destructive ways of living, and now we have the chance, and more importantly the responsibility to amend our ways before it is too late.

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While we have stayed at home, nature has endured, it has been the constant, and there have been reports from around the world of nature flourishing in our absence. Nature is continual, and beautiful, generous and forgiving, cyclical and predictable yet mysterious, complex and unpredictable, not something to mess with yet something we can be part of and enjoy. Lockdown has been an experience much like hiking in the mist, at times scary and uncertain, but as we peek our heads above the parapet let us not forget the lessons we have learned.

Let us not forget the joy of simple pleasures, of bug hunts and baking, of sowing a herb garden and greeting neighbours across the fence who we’ve lived next to for years but barely spoken to, of garden picnics and water fights, of low-key birthdays, quiz nights, time together and local walks. We are so fortunate here in Northern Ireland to have so many beautiful, wild spaces to explore and look after. Our rugged coasts, wealth of forests, mountains and beaches are some of the finest in the world and if like me, following a period of lockdown you’re eager to go for a little adventure beyond the garden wall, then you truly are spoilt for choice!

With a little bit of research, you will more than likely find places to explore in your own vicinity that you didn’t even know existed, start there! I am continually amazed by the trails and forests I’ve never even heard of until I see something online or someone mentions it in conversation. If going back to long hours in a busy workplace, or commuting on jam-packed roads fills you with a sense of dread, why not let nature help you transition from lockdown mode to a healthier and more fulfilling way of living. By making space in your calendar for a hike, a wild swim or a leisurely dander along the beach, you’re investing in your own wellbeing in so many ways and learning to appreciate life’s simple pleasures!

If you would like some walking inspiration check out this article that I wrote on the Trek NI website: 5 Favourite Walks for Wellbeing.

Also, if you’re out and about adventuring please bear in mind the Leave No Trace Principles:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Be considerate of others
  3. Respect farm animals and wildlife
  4. Travel and camp on durable ground
  5. Leave what you find
  6. Dispose of waste properly
  7. Minimise the effects of fire
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