Authored by Sarah Bell
A couple of weeks ago, I had a great opportunity to meet up with Terri Rosnau-Ward, Chief Executive of iSightCornwall (and Sensing Nature project advisor) and Rod Keat, Assistive Technology Officer at iSightCornwall. We chatted about both their own experiences of nature and the potential benefits of this project to their work as an organisation.
Rod was born with an eye condition, whilst Terri lost her eyesight overnight approximately 12 years ago. The influence of these different personal histories on what nature means for them became apparent very early on in our conversation; as Terri emphasised, when thinking about people’s experiences, it’s about the person first - their background, their interests and priorities - and then their sight loss.
Terri explained that she was a very visual person before losing her sight and so her current encounters with nature – characterised in many ways by a sense of loss –really diverge in many ways from Rod’s, who has come to sense and make sense of nature in alternative – and to some extent, almost subconscious – ways over time. What Terri experiences as an ‘overly green canvas’, Rod describes as almost more of a ‘watercolour’, with experiences of beauty found, for example, in the sound of birdsong, water rippling in streams, and the rustling of leaves.
A few times through the conversation, Terri and Rod discussed their experiences of the coast. While Terri described the sand, the people and the terrain as somewhat disorientating and unsettling (missing the therapeutic experience of watching the waves rolling in and crashing over rocks), Rod appreciated the greater visual contrasts at the coast and the opportunity to find peace and stillness through tuning into the sounds of the sea.
The importance of other people in shaping their experiences of nature also came through during discussion, both in terms of supporting access to and reducing feelings of vulnerability in nature but also in being able to share their experiences in a meaningful way.
Moving on from Rod and Terri’s personal experiences, we discussed what could be done to enhance people’s opportunities to access meaningful nature experiences. As commented by Terri, for visually impaired people who currently lack the confidence to access nature, an important step towards this is the need to create safe but also non-visually stimulating spaces.
Building on this we chatted about how the project findings could be useful to iSightCornwall and their efforts to make diverse pleasurable experiences more accessible to people living with visual impairment.
This conversation has really emphasised the importance - within the Sensing Nature project - of situating people’s nature experiences in the wider contexts of their everyday and whole lives, of challenging some of the misconceptions that sighted people may have about sight loss, and of creating a shared language to talk about nature experiences in a way that moves beyond the dominance of the visual sense.