Inspired by the adventurous spirit of the Scottish naturalist who once tied himself to the top of a tree in a hurricane to experience the exhilaration of nature, the John Muir Award offers participants the opportunity to explore wild places and take an active role in conservation. In October, leaders who deliver the award, including teachers, community workers and National Park rangers, met for their annual gatherings in 3 locations around the UK, to share stories and discuss how values fit into their work.
After discussing what inspires them to be involved in the award, participants discussed which values motivate various people to spend time in wild places, using an example of a National Park. Suggestions included that farmers are likely to be motivated by tradition, family and profit; while hillwalkers would tend to be drawn by beauty, health and freedom. The groups then devised outdoor activities that could engage various values. One group created art with fallen leaves to foster the valuing of a World of Beauty, Creativity and a desire to Protect the Environment, while another looked up through the canopy of a Giant Redwood tree to stimulate a sense of awe and wonder, associated with Spirituality.
The gatherings concluded with suggestions for further activities that could be investigated, as prompts rather than prescriptions, including an exploration of how the quality and length of the outdoor experience affects people's values. Suggestions included the residential experiences, walking outside in the dark and exposure to positive role models.
A lack of positive role models was one of the barriers to children spending more time outdoors highlighted by the recently launched Natural Trust's Natural Childhood inquiry. Other barriers noted include the rise of indoor entertainment technologies, over-scrupulous application of health and safety procedures and limited access to green space in urban areas, especially socially-deprived neighbourhoods.
Through our work with 13 nature organisations for the upcoming report Common Cause for Nature we've discovered some great examples of projects widening access to green space, both in linking people with remote wilderness areas, as with the John Muir Award where a third of participants are from 'social inclusion audience'; and in tending to the places most people live, as with the Bat Conservation Trust's Green City Bats, which revitalised community groups in safeguarding local parks as bat habitat, and the Living with Nature project at Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, where biodiverse community green spaces are being created in 24 neighbourhoods, designed in conjunction with local people.
Projects such as these increase social cohesion as well as biodiversity, and thereby go some way to breaking down the fear that stops many people, young and old, from spending time outdoors. They also start to dismantle the idea that cities and towns can't be home to the wild: gardens and parks often provide healthier habitats than the insecticide soaked monocultures of the countryside!
When people actively engage with the outdoors, whether it be gardening, planting a tree, camping, painting, or counting birds, they they're more likely to understand it and come to value it. The connection is likely to be even stronger if the experience is a social one, shared with others. This wisdom, resting on a murmuration of studies and anecdotes, is swooping through the nature conservation movement and beyond. Let it fly on and multiply!