Talking (nature) sense

Authored by Sarah Bell and Andy Shipley

In mid-November, Sensing Nature organised a two-day “Nature Sense” workshop in collaboration with the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Andy Shipley, Visually Impaired Coach, Facilitator & Sensory Explorer. 

Focusing on the types of nature settings that are managed by organisations like the RSPB and the WWT, the overall aim of the workshop was to explore how we can promote and enable more inclusive multisensory nature experiences amongst people living with sight impairment.

It was hosted at the WWT Slimbridge site in Gloucestershire, giving participants a chance to meet all sorts of characters and creatures, including the incoming migratory Bewick swans!

We were fortunate to have a positive and enthusiastic group of people in the room from a range of organisations. It was a great opportunity to move away from thinking about accessibility in terms of disability (risking ‘boxed off’ accessible experiences), to understanding people as individuals with diverse nature interests, knowledge and skills, who are keen to participate in inclusive nature experiences that engage all the senses. 

Co-organiser, Andy Shipley, has written a lovely guest piece about the workshop titled ‘Rediscovering what delights us’, which we would like to share here. So, in Andy’s words…

“As our conversations about multisensory experiences continued over the two days we were together, my thoughts kept returning to the idea of how we learn about the world as pre-school children.

As infants we yearn to enjoy the world with every sense, equally and fully. Watch any toddler interacting with an object for the first time. See how much they want to connect with it and know it thoroughly, to hear what it sounds like; shaking it, beating the ground with it. To explore its shape and various textures, not only with their fingers but with their more sensitive lips and tongues, seeking out and sensually consuming every knowable feature of it.

I remember, in primary school, each of my classmates were as distinctive by their smell as their appearance. And there were some pretty pungent characters! I'm always struck by how children are just as likely, even perhaps more likely, to describe someone, particularly an adult they don't like, by their smell, as by their appearance.   

I wonder what our perception of the world would be like, if at every opportunity, when encountering an object, we were encouraged to explore all of its properties on equal terms. How much richer would our understanding of the world be, if, as well as describing an object by its shape and colour we were equally concerned with qualities such as odour, resonance, surface texture and spatial context? And in turn, what questions might our awareness of these properties raise for us?

Take the oak tree for example. We are taught to recognise it by its distinct outline, the unique shape of its leaf and of course by its fruit, the acorn. But does the oak have a distinct and unique scent? I suspect it might! When played by the breeze, is the sound of its canopy distinctly oakish? Perhaps! And what relationship does it have with its neighbours? 

There was a lot of discussion about “interpretation” during our workshop. But again, reflecting on our formative learning experiences, it seems to me that what engages us the most are the stories that delight and enchant us.  And the most powerful of these, the tales that really stay with us, are the ones that come alive by speaking to all of our senses. 

So I think the invitation to all of us is to continue to be like children, to explore and discover the diverse ways in which sites and habitats behave and express themselves so we can work with them to reveal and share their unique and distinct stories, to delight and enchant all who encounter them”.

Thank you to Andy for that fantastic insight, we will be producing a full report of the workshop’s discussions and activities so watch this space to find out more.