How to love the natural world
National Heritage Week a prime opportunity to connect with our natural environment
As National Heritage Week focuses on nature, Sylvia Thompson asks environmentalists how – in spite of the gloomy statistics on species loss and habitat decline – we can have a joyful relationship with the natural world.
Michael Starrett, Chief Executive, The Heritage Council
“Promoting the enjoyment of nature is part of our brief. We are conscious of the need to acknowledge the value and beauty of our heritage in a time where so many other issues compete for our attention. National Heritage Week (August 19-27), which is co-ordinated by the Heritage Council, gives everyone the opportunity to connect with or reconnect with nature.
“Our sense of wellbeing is so linked to the quality of the places we live, work and visit and it’s the interaction between nature and culture that encapsulates the quality of these places. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are being out and about and there is so much research now showing how good it is for your mental and physical health to spend time outdoors. The good thing is that we are not past the tipping point; we can rescue this and encourage people to reconnect with nature.
“We want National Heritage Week to inspire people to be involved all year round – whether it’s making your garden more wildlife friendly, joining an environmental group, working with your community to make your town pollinator-friendly or becoming a citizen scientist to observe and submit wildlife records to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. If you can smile and laugh while you’re involved, you’re more likely to do something about the problems faced by the environment.”
Anja Murray, ecologist, environmental policy analyst and broadcaster
“I think we have lost our fluency with nature, so the sense of wonder that comes with exploring and discovering is bypassed and only the bad news gets through. It might seem obvious but to restore that “fluency”, we have to get out in nature, down on our hunkers and poke about in a hedge to examine wildflowers and insects.
“When you go out with friends and children, leave your phones at home and go with the intention of noticing what’s going on around you and keep the chat to a minimum. I went out with an 11-year-old recently and we saw so many different things in 10 steps – including a spider carrying an egg case, two damsel flies mating and some red insect I don’t even know.
“The key is to walk slowly and look closely so the detailed patterns and colours and smells can reveal themselves. For example, in mid-August, the hedges are alive with honeysuckle which puts out its scent more strongly at dusk because it is pollinated by night-flying moths. Knowing and reading about the natural world helps but really it’s the experience of being outside.
“I have a five-minute “nature file” slot at 9.20am on Saturday morning on the Lyric FM Daybreak programme. I talk about seasonal details, covering everything from plankton to jellyfish to orchid-rich meadows. It’s not just a collection of facts because I add in bits of folklore too which helps people peel off the layers that prevent us from seeing the details of nature.”
“The Irish Wildlife Trust has thought a lot about how to get the balance right between sharing the bad news about species decline and celebrating the joyful side of nature by getting people out of doors on walks. But, one issue is that farmers see protecting nature as a burden and EU environmental directives create a lot of hostility in rural Ireland. This turns a lot of people off engaging with nature.
“However, most people have an instinctive joy for nature whether it’s running in a park or gardening. The Burren Life programme has also reignited a sense of joyful connection with nature by bringing farmers on board. With funding, this programme could work right along the Western coastal regions and in the Wicklow uplands.
“I really believe political leaders must see nature as important and talk enthusiastically about nature. People like [the deceased Fianna Fail politician] Charles Haughey brought red deer back to Kerry and tried to reintroduce the white-tailed eagle. Our president, Michael D Higgins visited the Abbeyleix Bog this summer and spoke out against the forest fires. We need more politicians to value nature and speak out about it.”
Zoe Devlin, author of books on the wildflowers of Ireland, including the forthcoming ‘Blooming Marvellous: A Wildflower Hunter’s Year.’
“I believe citizen scientists are key to a joyful relationship with nature. There are lots of community groups who are improving the surroundings of where they live and helping others learn about nature. In Mizen Head in West Cork, people can go on wildflower trails and complete a checklist of what they see and feel part of something bigger.
“There is a social side to this too with people meeting up and sharing their knowledge. For example, it was a local action group who got a 50-year lease on Abbeyleix Bog, developed a boardwalk and pleasant walks so people can see lots of rare plants. Also, the Pure Mile project in County Wicklow was established to combat illegal dumping but now there are 24 groups who get a great sense of satisfaction from looking after their section of the countryside. I belong to the Wexford Naturalist Field Club, a group of 150 people and we have monthly lectures and outings. Sharing knowledge brings joy to people and you always come home feeling better than when you went out.”
“The most treasured part of my weekday is the ten-minute walk to school with my seven-year-old daughter, Eva. She’s always pointing out the changes in seasons on the walk, from the leaves changing colour to the bees beginning their work for spring. Keeping her connected to nature is important to me because there are constant reminders for how dependent we are on everything nature provides. Watching bees and butterflies gives me a chance to teach her about the importance of pollination and food production. Falling leaves are an opportunity to talk about trees as the lungs of our planet; even rain running into gutters along our walks is a way of explaining the water cycle.
“Getting my daughter out for walks simply for exercise can be a challenge, but making it fun through foraging quests or participating in citizen science initiatives like Trinity’s Solitary Bee Project, the Wild Pollinator Count or Coastwatch’s Annual Coastal Survey are all ways to get out into nature with a mission that keeps her distracted. Even a ten-minute beach clean like those being promoted by An Taisce is a great way to keep kids busy outdoors, learning, and giving back to our beautiful country.”