Connection to nature vs contact with nature: The wellbeing link.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post ‘Connecting to nature, what is it and how do you do it?’ Since then, this term ‘connecting to nature’ has become the new buzz word used liberally to describe any time spent in contact with nature. However, wether you realise it or not you experience nature directly all day every day, the air you breathe, the sun on your skin, the water in the tap, walking under the trees, to name but a few ways. You might have also perceived nature i.e. looked at it from afar through a window, or you might have thought about nature, dreaming of your summer cocktails on the beach. That does not necessarily mean connection.  So  I would like to expand on my previous definition and explain further what this concept means and how it relates to health and wellbeing.

People who have researched the topic extensively define nature connection as:

“Connectedness with nature is a sustained awareness ..of the interrelation between one’s self and the rest of nature..(reflected in) consistent attitudes and behaviours” (Zylstra et al 2014 )


“The extent to which an individual includes nature within his/her cognitive representation of self.” (F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz 2004)

Say what?!  These are indeed existential statements that we could spend pages delving into but at the heart they are talking about our sense of relationship with self, others and nature; as it turns out these relationships are at the heart of what we know as wellbeing.

Let me explain! Health is a term that refers to a state of good physical and mental functioning, it has an objectiveness to it in that it can be measured and tested and boxes can be ticked. Wellbeing, on the other hand is otherwise known as spiritual health and it refers to:  ‘intuitive inner feelings and beliefs that give purpose, meaning and values to life (Fisher, 2011) i.e. how you intuitively feel about yourself, your health and your quality of life.  Contrary to popular belief, spiritual wellbeing does not necessarily relate to religion at allIt can not be measured but is often described in the literature as being the most influential aspect of health (Chuengsatiansup. K 2003) . You can have for example great physical fitness but if you don’t feel like your life has meaning, in studies, when asked about their wellbeing people rate it low.

The way we experience positive wellbeing (spiritual health) is through our relationships with self, others and nature and in some cases people may also have a relationship with an ‘existential other . When our relationship is positive we may say we feel connected; connected to our selves like we are living true to our values for example. We will feel   connected to others in strong supportive relationships and we can now go back to Mayer and Frantz or Zylstra above and see that connection to nature is about feeling a strong sense of interrelationship, like the other is part of our ‘selves’. Stephanie Radock puts it beautifully:

“Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth…..identification with life forms beyond your own increase your empathy and respect for the world and embed you in a big family of relatives and relationships.” (Radock 2012)

The kind of words that people associate with a strong connection to nature is words like empathy, awe, belonging, zest. To come back full circle, the meaning behind these words is clearly different from the indifference of contact. Its not to say that contact can’t lead to a sense of connection or rekindle a sense of connection of course it can but its often a certain kind of contact or experience and that is a story for another day.

1.Chuengsatiansup. K (2003) Spirituality and health: an initial proposal to incorporate spiritual health in health impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23(1) pp. 3-15. Retrieved from

2. Dhar.N, Chaturvedi, S.K., Nandan, D. (2011) Spiritual Health Scale 2011: Defining and Measuring 4th Dimension of Health Indian J Community Med. Oct-Dec; 36(4): 275–282. Retrieved from

3.Fisher, J. (2011) The Four Domains Model: Connecting spirituality, Health and Wellbeing. Religions, 2, 17-28.

4. F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz. (2004) The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature Journal of Environmental Psychology 24(4):503-515

5.Radock, S. ‘an opening: twelve love stories about art (2012) Wakefiled Press, South Australia

6.Zylstra. M. , (2014)Exploring meaningful nature experience connectedness with nature and the revitalization of transformative education for sustainability. PhD


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The only widely accepted exception is when talking about pets

Beginning with the question of ” Who is in your nature family?” Who do you look forward to coming home to and tending to at night or visiting on the weekend, or thinking about when you are separated? Draw your family including your nature family members.
This was one of the activities offered to  teachers at a recent workshop run by  HumaNature Connect (on behalf of the Nursery and Garden Industry Victoria) that helped to structure lessons and discussions with students that would improve young people’s sense of ‘who nature is in their life’ and the idea of kindness and respect as it relates to nature. These lessons and discussions were based on activities in  the Respectful Relationships Curriculum.
The discussion had, highlighted that there is still a stigma around this topic of nature connection with people being labelled as ‘hippies’ and ‘ off with the fairies’ by their colleagues for using the language of emotions and intimacy that characterise connection with nature. One teacher said that a colleague asked her ” Why would you go to a workshop on nature connection?” as tho it was the most unimportant topic she could imagine.  Nature connection is a buzz word in curriculum and in main stream language yet we have a long way to go in helping not just children but adults as well understand what the concept of ‘connection’ really means and to feel comfortable in speaking about emotions. We wouldn’t talk about our friendships with people as ‘human services’ but we talk about ‘environmental services’ as tho our only relationship with nature is a mechanical transaction. The only widely accepted exception is when talking about our pets who have cute faces and a strong sense of perceived aliveness, thus making it easier to feel empathy for them. What if we could bring to life all parts of nature, the clouds, the rocks, the plants. To do this we need to spend time  tapping into the less obvious signs of life that we can only feel or notice when we take time to be with different part of nature. Cloud gazing, ripple making, mimicking plants growing, finding rock friends and just being with and feeling into (to help with this look for the book The other way to listen by Byrd Baylor). We also need to put ourselves in natures shoes and ask ” What would nature say to you for that act of kindness you have shown it?” “Would nature agree with your idea or plan to improve its health?
These are questions and experiences not only for our young people but ourselves as adults. Have a go…see if you can draw a stick picture of your nature family? (Could be the bird on the balcony, the plants in your house, the worms in your worm farm, the special tree you always sit under when you are on holiday, your dog). See if you can find the words for the emotions that you feel for them (there may be many both good an challenging) and write them next to your drawing. What would your nature family to say to you for your acts of kindness? Write your self a thank you card from your nature family.
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Look for people: Musings on rights and worthiness

Part 1: ‘Look for people’-This is a road sign you see out around remote communities in the NT. People are part of the landscape even tho you might drive a long way and think no one is there. Other ‘signs’ are the countless fires and rock paintings.

At Litchfield Creek recently the absolute plethora of rock art is staggering. It is layered and some is very old; I guess that makes it more important right?

In my discoveries of rock art I found myself saying with judgemental disappointment “oh but it looks new!”


Wait a minute,  people are doing what they have always done  here and that is communicate meaningful information or stories through images, why am I questioning worthiness, just because people now are still doing this practice?

This mindset i.e. my western lens of conservation risks rendering Aboriginal culture static!

Part 2:  On this Litchfield Creek walk, there is no path, its a make your own way kind of route.   I was wandering out from the conga line of bushwalkers and another participant asked with judgement “why are you walking up there?” To which I replied that I was just finding my own way and exploring.

We seem to accept the rights of Aboriginal people to be living and roam on land but what about the rest of us who are also indigenous to the earth? Is our western lens of conservation of the ‘out there’, rendering our own culture in relationship to nature as static?!

Part 3: People here in Darwin ‘city’ are also gathering and sharing experiences of natureYou cant go 5 minutes in conversation without someone saying ominously “oh you wait til the build up” .  The paper also has a section dedicated to crocodile reports, houses are open and people are out at every opportunity it would seem all along the coast.  Why wouldn’t you have your work xmas in July when you have views like this (photo left).

This kind of human-nature interaction is celebrated by western culture; is that because it is ‘in here’ confined by concrete paths and cities?

My question is this:

If we are going to re-build the human-nature connection as is now considered to be of critical importance, how do we balance a conservation mindset with the idea of allowing people to be in and interact with their natural habitat ‘out there’ as well as ‘in here’. How do we determine what footprints are worthy?



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No don’t kill it! The uncomfortable side of nature connection.

Connection to nature has a utilitarian side! I have been learning first hand about this from those who understand nature connection better than most, the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.
I take older Aboriginal ladies out bush for a week for women’s business and respite. These ladies hunt turtles for food and to see this makes me and many other’s from our culture uncomfortable. A case in point: I was swimming in the beautiful Mataranka Springs at the end of one of my working camps and I saw a group of Aboriginal people walking around the path carrying the usual zip up supermarket fridge bag full of fishing gear. At the same time I saw some tourists squeeling with delight over seeing some turtles in the absolutely crystal clear waters of this hot spring. As the Aboriginal group approached them, the tourists enthusiastically pointed out the turtles and I thought to myself ” no don’t do that!” I knew what was going to happen next. Sure enough one of the ladies quickly pulled out her line with its big hook and bait and tossed it in, much to the absolute horror of the tourist onlookers who shouted ” No don’t kill it” . I walked past just in time to see this unsuspecting turtle take its fatal bite and in the hope of diffusing what could have become an emotional confrontation, I said to the tourists, “this is food, this is their way, just walk on”.
No doubt I feel challenged every time one of the Aboriginal ladies on my camps catches one of these beautiful creatures; they get just as excited about seeing kangaroos and frIMG_0041ogs as I do, but they see food, I see a cute creature that I want to protect. I guess it makes me think that connection to nature is not just the ‘la la’ feeling of the warm sun on your skin, the chirping birds but perhaps its about respect more than anything;  a respect of co-dependence, which for us is lost in our supermarket ready life and our lens of what’s is acceptable to kill and consume. Fishing is  socially acceptable to us because fish are generally not considered cute and  what’s worst? farming millions of cows, sheep and chicken for over consumption or catching a turtle for yourself and family. For Aboriginal people living in Northern Territory, connection to nature is still rooted in survival for us we are shielded by supermarket packaging, over consumption and our socially accepted lenses of what animals we should care about (its ok to eat fish but not dog).
Perhaps in our efforts to re-connect with nature we can add mindful shopping to our ‘to do list’ and revisit our concept of what is enough when it comes to the volumes of food we catch, farm and consume. I think my lesson is that connection to nature has an uncomfortable side and this is where the real personal work needs to happen to fully understand what belonging to the natural world is all about.
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The parallels between violence against women and the destruction of nature.

Happy International Women’s Day! Whilst not exactly celebratory thoughts I am none the less reflecting on the parallels between the causes (drivers) of violence against women (VAW) and what could be called ‘violence against nature’. The most significant contributing to factor to VAW is named as the culture of ‘male privilege’, in the national framework for the prevention of violence against women (Change the Story) and there are several named drivers of violence that can result in such a culture. It would be interesting to change the word ‘women’ for ‘nature’ in relation to these drivers and see what we get; here goes… The drivers of violence against nature are:
1. The acceptance and condoning of violence against nature.
2. The lack of opportunity for nature to contribute to decision making in public and private life.
3. The negative stereotyping of the identity and value of nature
4. The lack of equal and respectful relationships between men and women and nature.
My experience facilitating workshops with many many diverse groups about nature and wellbeing is that everyone has a positive story to tell about the experience with nature and the benefits it brings to their life; its wrong to assume that most people don’t care because studies show that in fact, they do.  However there are many factors that make equal, respectful relationships difficult. If we go back to my theoretical drivers of violence towards nature,  perhaps the most meaningful things we can be doing are these:
1. Stop allowing violence/destruction of nature to be acceptable
2. Hear natures voice in our planning and decision making
3. Recognise the nature around us and accept its intrinsic value and right to exist regardless of wether its pristine rainforest or the median strip on our street.
4. Challenge our sense of entitlement and dominion over nature
Respectful relationship education is about to begin in schools across the country with Victoria leading the way. It is compulsory for all schools to take a whole school approach to the prevention of violence against women through through this program. In order to fully understand respect for someone else and to develop a healthy relationship with other people, we must have respect and a healthy relationship with ourself too. I wonder if the impact of this program will flow on to also create respect and a healthy relationship with nature ? If it does then we have the trifector that could lead to a dramatic increase in community wellbeing. I wonder what we can do to help schools make this link?! Just a thought….
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Are you really making a difference, are your actions true to their purpose?

The answer is yes, if  your environmental sustainability projects or daily actions increase health and wellbeing of all of nature including yourself. If that is not the case, then maybe its time to inject a bit more heart into what you are doing and how you are being.

Think about any interaction with nature that left a positive impression on you, it may have been simply hearing the birds this morning. What would you need to do to create more of that -more hearing, more birds. Is there a step that you can take today to make that happen?

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Finally, nature connection in policy and practice.

We are living in hope filled times! In the City of Hume in Melbourne, there is a palpable excitement in organisations business and local government about bringing nature back into our lives.

Why now ? why there ?

For change to happen there must be personal will and passion combined with structures and opportunities that enable people to act. The Healthy Together Victoria initiative has been just that.  Its an excellent example of a systems approach that supports hopes, dreams and community  leadership by supporting workplaces and schools to become health promoting settings under the guidance of human centered design thinking. These settings design healthy eating, physical activity, mental health , alcohol and smoking initiatives that effect change across policy, culture, community work and internal opportunities for staff.

Low and behold, its nature connection that has been the most popular choice of strategy to address these broader health and wellbeing issues; nature connection in the form of community gardens and orchards mostly, but also outside walking groups and environmental work. This is despite the fact that it is not listed as a benchmark activity for addressing any of the broader health and wellbeing issues in the framework.

People seem to know intuitively that they need to interact with nature, feel it nourshing their bodies in the form of home grown organic food, do some activity to care for it feeling a sense of purpose and doing physical activity in the process; they just needed the official excuse to do it and promote it on work time.

Isn’t it time that nature connection found its way formally into practice frameworks as its own priority area or own benchmark ? After all it is essential in its own right  for health and wellbeing.

Whether we like it or not its these frameworks that society values and institutions respond to.

In a brave step, the City of Hume have done just this. They have shifted their environmental care message from one that asks people to look after nature to one that asks people to look after themselves. Why because it works! They have had significantly more engagement in environmental activities by taking a health promoting approach than by taking a traditional environmental approach. This has lead to a number of new partnerships with community health centres and the development of three priority areas:

1. Nature connection (focusing on biodiversity)

2. Food security (focusing on community gardens)

3. Waste, energy and water (other sustainability issues )

This is a major step forward in creating culture change where people start to consciously recognise the importance of nature in their health and wellbeing and a step toward combined environmental and health policy. For this to be truly holistic however, a large gap still remains, an important one. That is to  explicitly address spiritual and cultural aspects of the human-nature relationship; to build pride and identity, gratitude and a sense of responsibility; a notion of stewardship and belonging with nature. This is the realm of nature focused arts based projects, mindfulness and celebration, the intrinsic stuff that words don’t explain well. The challenge is to find the words that do fit and find the opportunity to get these words into frameworks and policies. This can and will be done, its only a matter of time.

Note on the author: Erica is researching ways in which organisations are enabling culture change by integrating nature connection into policy and practice; with a particular interest in emotional/spiritual connections with nature.

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Some visual thoughts on nature connection

INSIDE OUT workshop 1 copy

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What is meant by ‘spirit’ and what does it have to do with sustainability?

The Inside - Out Project


It is commonly accepted that human beings experience three layers of experience body, mind and spirit. Body relates to the way our physical self interacts with the surroundings; mind relates our thoughts and intellect but what is spirit and what does it have to do with sustainability?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual Leader, Global Humanitarian, Peace Ambassador and Founder, Art of Living Foundation makes an important connection between science and spirituality as two forms of inquiry. He says

modern science is objective analysis, while spirituality is subjective understanding…..Science explores the outer world with a series of questions beginning with the basic query, “What is this? What is this world all about?” while spirituality begins with the question, “Who am I?” In the ancient world these two forms of knowledge were not in conflict but were understood to have a deep and subtle connection. Man’s knowledge of himself complemented…

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We are all indigenous

Join the conversation at The inside Out Project

The Inside - Out Project

Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth, but the stories of the many indigenous people all over the world suggest that they know which bit of the earth they come from and they can interpret it in terms of their own culture….Evolution is a profound creation story that connects every thing on earth…… Art that draws our attention to the earth underlines the importance of the relationship between humans and nature. the shapes of plants, of animals , of landfroms of skyforms, have a resonance within us that is lodged in our eyes and brains at the most fundamental level. …..all beings on the earth are related; our origins are the same. ……can we believe in the value of sharing food, respect for birds, animals, plants and trees, in responsibility for the planet? If the most significant identity comes from land, what of those who have…

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