It’s been a year of analysis, writing, presenting, workshop-ing, and traversing the length and breadth of the country on trains and buses!
I spent much of January to March going through all the fantastic interview transcripts from last year’s fieldwork phase, analysing people’s nature experiences in the context of their everyday and whole lives.
It was clear through this process that what ‘nature’ is and what it means to different people can vary according to the environments we grow up in, those we experience over time, and the stories we share about nature within different societies and across generations.
Nature can be experienced at many different levels; from a plant pot in the home to feeling the elements outside; the plants, birdlife and other creatures in the garden; or venturing further afield to parks, woodlands, the coast, countryside and mountains.
With this in mind, we’ve held a series of events through the year, and produced a range of practical outputs designed to support people to engage with nature in varied ways, according to their interests and priorities.
One of these outputs is the ‘Easing into nature with sight impairment’ resource; a written and audio output designed for people living with an eye condition, close friends or family, and anyone keen to facilitate more inclusive nature experiences.
The second is the ‘Designing urban green space with sight impairment in mind’ resource; a booklet designed to support landscape architects, planners, designers and managers with the inclusive design and management of nature-based settings.
A third resource is a set of suggestions for ‘Supporting people with sight impairment to participate in group walks’. These aim to encourage walking groups to welcome walkers with sight impairment, and feature a series of ‘top tips’ for supporting, sharing and routing varied walking experiences.
In September 2018, we also organised an event in Bristol, called ‘Adventures with nature and sight impairment’. We were lucky to have brilliant presentations by the Calvert Trust, the Milton Mountaineers, Vision of Adventure and Blind Veterans UK. Since many people were keen to find out more about the event’s discussions, we have produced a short podcast to capture some of the highlights, which can be accessed online here.
Recognising the importance of building people’s connection with nature from childhood onwards, we organised a lively ‘Festival of More-than-Visual Nature’ at the Eden Project in November, in collaboration with Moorvision, the Sensory Trust and sound artist, Justin Wiggan. Building on what has been a brilliant collaboration with Moorvision, the event aimed to celebrate the many opportunities we have to experience nature across the senses, with activities ranging from musical plants to rainforest quests, botanical tastings and creative adventures.
In May 2018, we were also very lucky to be awarded a small amount of additional funding to develop a strand of activities called ‘Vocalising Nature Sense: Nature Narratives’. This project was prompted by last year’s Nature Sense workshop at WWT Slimbridge, and has been delivering tailored visual awareness and audio description training workshops at three case study sites: Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, Sherwood Forest and Durlston Country Park.
The overall aim of the work has been to build capacity to welcome and support inclusive multisensory nature experiences amongst people with sight impairment, whilst also raising awareness of these types of settings as places for everyone. We are currently refining a set of written training materials based on these workshops, which will be available to download via the Sensing Nature website in the new year. In the meantime, project partner Anna Fineman (Museums, Galleries and Heritage Programme Manager at VocalEyes) has written a great piece about the rationale and development of this programme of work.
Along the way this year, I’ve also heard about and participated in some other exciting initiatives, from Julian Jackson’s epic Big Blind Walk from Lands End to John O’Groats (with a mini clip of our stretch of the walk available online), to the fantastic Bryan’s Quest in Cornwall, Sense Adventures in the Malvern Hills, and exciting forays into technology and nature, creativity and nature, and the pleasures of bird life with the Casual Birder Podcast series.
We were able to share many of these activities and outputs at our ‘Sensing Nature: Wellbeing with nature and sight impairment’ event at the Wellcome Collection in London on 30th October 2018. With a diverse mix of inspiring speakers, the event brought together over 60 representatives from across policy, practice, research and the arts to share the Sensing Nature study findings, and showcase a range of other great initiatives that are encouraging engaging, multisensory nature experiences around the country.
Through the year, I’ve also been presenting the findings to various other organisations and events, including the University of Edinburgh in March, Maynooth University in April, the University of Exeter in June, the National Outdoors for All Working Group meeting in Peterborough in June, an ‘in situ and mobile methods’ workshop that we organised in London in July, the Annual Royal Geographical Society Conference in August, the Sidmouth Science Festival in October, and the International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress in October.
A number of academic outputs, including book chapters and journal articles, are in progress - these always take a little longer to come out due to the nature of the academic peer review system! Many of these outputs challenge the stereotypes around sight impairment and embodied diversity that persist in society.
Drawing on the Sensing Nature findings, they reflect carefully on the ableist assumptions that still seem to underpin many of our ideas about what nature is, where it can be found and how people ‘should’ interact with it for health and wellbeing. In doing so, they aim to raise greater awareness of opportunities to promote more inclusive, multisensory nature experiences that cater for a diversity of interests and priorities. We will include updates on each of these outputs within the Sensing Nature news pages over the next few months.
Finally, I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed to Sensing Nature over the last two years; from the brilliant participants who have made all these activities and outputs possible, to the project advisory team and Project Mentor, Dr Kate Leyshon, to all the fantastic organisations and individuals that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and of course the project funder – the Economic and Social Research Council.
Although this is the end of the funded phase of Sensing Nature, there has been a huge amount of enthusiasm for putting many of the findings into practice, and I will be exploring which of many possible next steps to focus on in the New Year, so hopefully there’ll be plenty more to come!
If getting involved in any of these activities, and/or engaging with any of the Sensing Nature outputs, has influenced your thinking or your own activities at work or in other areas of your day-to-day lives, please do get in touch to let us know.
It is only through evidencing the change that these types of projects can bring about that we can continue doing them, so it would be great to hear from you, however big or small a change you feel it has been! You can contact myself, Sarah Bell, via Sarah.Bell@exeter.ac.uk.
Wishing everyone a very Happy Christmas and a super New Year!