With a new year stretching ahead of us, we naturally begin to think about and reflect upon past experiences and the future – new intentions, fresh to-do lists, a blank journal. An innate need for renewal and new beginnings. So instinctively after the new year countdown I found myself needing to spend time in nature, to simply wander without a particular destination, to observe the natural world and to be guided its familiar rhythms and feel welcomed. I found myself seeking out the big sky landscapes of the heathland and coastline of the New Forest. Why did I want to spend time in these large open landscapes?
There are strong psychological ties between people and landscapes. They offer us an often elusive sense of calm and amity. Maybe the emptiness and spaciousness of large natural landscapes anchors our stability in ever changing scenes. The rhythm and sounds of a seascape wash over you. Constantly changing, yet familiar. A crisp morning frost that casts a magical spell over the heathland, that helps to set our internal orientation, a self-reference to natures calendar.
The process of transforming space into place, where our brain learns to visualise and memorise places that have aesthetic, social and personal meanings, is described as place attachment. It’s a positive emotional bond between an individual and particular locations and environments. For me it’s a ‘sense of place’, a feeling of security and familiarity but also a sense of reverence, that we are part of something larger than ourselves.
The human-landscape relationship has an ‘inborn’ basis, a genetic memory going back to the survival needs of primitive humans. Often explained by the so-called savannah-based theory, it recognises the idea that humans continue to prefer the open, flat landscapes. Today, we understand that exposure to natural scenery, on a psychological level, not only makes us feel better emotionally, but the effect on our well-being is profound. It contributes to our physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.
It is true to say that there is no bond more primitive and rooted in us than our love for landscapes and nature. Here are a few ideas and activities to help you step positively into a new year.
Stargazing: Embrace a new astrological calendar and step out into the big skyscapes of the New Forest. Away from street lamps, the dark skies of the open heathland and coastline are perfect settings to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. 2022 is going to be an exciting year for astronomy with comets, meteor showers and supermoons. Stargazing can help bring about a calmness so we can focus on the immediate moment and connect with our minds and body. Check out www.skyatnightmagazine.com for your 2022 stargazing guide.
Mindful walking: Stride out into your favourite landscape with feet on the ground, heart open. Let your feet guide you? Enjoy the rhythm of your movement, thoughts are simply thoughts – let them go. Bring your awareness to your body, walking in a relaxed but uplifted posture. How does the ground feel beneath your feet? Notice sensations like sunshine, or a breeze. What sounds and smells do you recognise or seek? Bring your attention to colours, textures, light and shadow – notice without lingering on anything in particular.
Sit spot: When you are quiet and still, your surroundings seem to engage with you on a deeper level. Sometimes we have favourite place that we regularly go to spend time in solitude to connect inwardly to ourselves and outwardly to nature. Often when exploring big spaces, I allow a sit spot to catch my attention. It might be beside a small trickling stream or sat next to a gorse bush listening to its seed pods ‘popping’ in the warmth of the sun. Open your senses – pick up and caress a pebble – notice its cool smoothness or warmth in your palm. The longer you sit in one place, the more you will notice.
Natural creativity: An energised, grounded and healthy body also supports a creative, happier and healthier mind. We all have creative potential and drawing from nature can bring about a new perspective. Landscape sketching, for example can heighten our perception, bringing our surroundings into life with details never noticed before. Before you start, take a moment and have a good look at the scene. What catches your eye? Are there features that will help with perspective, a focal point such as a path disappearing from view or a solitary tree. Try the ‘rule of thirds’, using faint grid lines helps to give a landscape sketch depth. Above all enjoy being in nature and remember that drawing is a skill learnt through repetition just like practicing mindful walking and sit spots.
Cloud spotting and daydreaming: Simply find a place to sit or lie down comfortably on your back and gaze up at the clouds. Take a few slow, deep breathes and bring your attention to the clouds as they drift by above you. Notice how the colour, contrast and depth of the clouds change constantly in the light. Use your imagination to pick our shapes and pictures – perhaps faces, animals and mountains. You might find your mind begins to playfully daydream as you connect with the cloudscape above you. What would it feel like to fly like a bird in the sky, to fall through a cloud – allow your mind to drift in and out of asking yourself questions, not answering just enjoy being curious.
Landscape photography: Similarly to sketching, photography allows us selectively focus on the elements that interest us – balancing light and composition, colour and feelings. What attracted your attention? Maybe a stunning sunset, the frozen wonderland of the heathland, sparkling light on a seascape or storm clouds gathering. Colours have been found to affect our moods and feelings. The red and orange of a sunset is energising, whereas the greens and blues of forests and water are calming. Let yourself connect with the beauty of nature.
Whatever landscape you love, practice a few of these activities to deepen your natural affinity with space and place, and help support your health and happiness through the year.