Nature Creativity And Well-Being In Hard Times

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21st April The Boathouse Aberdour
Present: Jim McCarthy, Gordon Peters, Norman Bissell, Bill Eddie, Tessa Ransford, Nanon McManus, Steve Pardue, Elizabeth Rimmer, Fiona Byrne-Sutton, Angela Taylor, Bill Taylor (Scottish Centre for Geopoetics) and Mairi Heneghan, Graham Leicester and Andrew Lyon (International Futures Forum).
Jim McCarthy opened the meeting by thanking the IFF for their excellent hospitality.

Jim McCarthy spoke about the influence of nature on his upbringing and career, finding opportunities in it as a boy for the experience of beauty, escape, freedom and adventure. In his career as a forester and in nature conservancy he was able to provide this experience for others, stressing the importance of sense experience before the acquisition of knowledge, and emphasising that spending time in gardens, forests and mountains provides many young people with their first opportunities for self-reliance and co-operation as well as enjoyment. He felt that introducing children to nature at an early age was a health giving response to what’s been referred to as ‘nature deficit disorder’.

Norman Bissell spoke about his childhood exploration of the Clyde coast and the teaching of Kenneth White in Glasgow University in the sixties, in which he opened up to his students not only the fields of literature, but philosophy and science, and a new way of looking at and being in the world – sensitive, open and learning, but also primarily creative. This later became an archipelago of geopoetics as a method of sensitive and intelligent perception of the earth and its creative expression which was thriving in different parts of the world. He also felt encouraged by the recent proliferation of new groups interested in similar areas, such as Dark Mountain and New Networks for Nature and thought that we should be willing to network with them.

Gordon Peters talked about his work with indigenous peoples, describing his career in social sciences, but saying that his primary interests now are poetry and physics, rejecting the traditional separation of the sciences and arts. He is interested in the concept of well-being as defined by indigenous peoples, not as material prosperity, but as understanding and being comfortable with one’s place in the world. Three insights from these communities which he stressed as being most relevant to our current needs are:

  • that the human is part of the environment and not alienated or detached from it
  • that categories of being are not fixed but mutable and can mutate into oneness
  • a special respect for the environment, and the processes of being and becoming.

Andrew Lyon introduced the work of the IFF which explores possible ways forward in a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty and what a society needs to do to live well. He described a holistic community health service initiative among First Nations people in Alaska, with the strap-line ‘healthy relationships = healthy people’. ‘NUKA’ is the sense of what works for this people in this place, and works by integrating western allopathic medical knowledge into the Alaskan world vision rather than imposing external values on it. The Alaskans pointed out that this practice could not simply be transplanted into other communities, as every community would have to create their own ‘nuka’. In the Scottish context, Gordon Peters had already mentioned the concept of ‘duthcas’ (from Joseph Murphy’s book On the Edge) which discusses the link between home, community and individual identity in Scotland and Ireland. Andrew also developed a reference that Gordon had made to the early Karl Marx who had pointed to the metabolic rift that occurred as a result of human separation from the soil by saying that in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844 Marx spoke about alienation from oneself, other people and other species.
The discussion became more wide-ranging after this, as Fiona Byrne-Sutton mentioned the cultural loss in not having the experience of fire in our everyday life, which Steve Pardue backed up by saying that cave paintings of animals came to life in fire light. Nanon McManus added that lack of light and outdoor living was causing illnesses in western countries.

We talked about the disempowering nature of current bureaucratic structures, which leave individuals and small groups without the expectation of being able to help themselves, while burdening those ‘in charge’ with impossible expectations. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Sir Harry Burns, with whom Andrew had previously worked closely in Glasgow, was advocating empowerment of individuals and communities to improve well-being, and it was pointed out that encouraging individuals to experience the natural world and be creative in the arts and sciences is one way of achieving that.

We also discussed wisdom circles, where locals formulate their own solutions to dilemmas, expecting central authorities to enable and support their initiatives rather than manage and control them from above. It was suggested that the quality of relationships between people and with the natural environment is crucial to healthy ways of life; healthy relationships mean healthy people; we must make our future or someone else will make it for us.

One example of change in this regard is that the Forestry Commission is now promoting woods for health and learning through creative play. Bill Eddie suggested that the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics is well placed to play a major role in education as a means of addressing the widespread alienation and estrangement from nature (Nature Deficit Disorder or NDD) in Scottish society.

Both the IFF and the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics relished the opportunity to hold discussions in such depth, and we agreed to keep this very valuable connection going with the aim of enriching our conversation by exchanging articles and news of events/activities on each other’s websites, and sharing examples of good practice that nourish life.