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Exploring Natural Spaces: Belonging, Empathy and New Friendships

This is a guest post kindly contributed by Rebecca Crowther, PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Rebecca’s PhD is based upon wellbeing, in relation to belonging, empathy and shared experience of the natural landscape. In this post, Rebecca shares the motivation behind her research, and explores the importance of our connection to the earth.

"In coming close to other ecologies and rhythms of life, we may obtain distance from everyday routines. Whilst perhaps also experiencing renewed energy and finding different perspectives upon our circumstance." Conradson, 2005

Connecting with others in nature

As kids my sister and I’s number one priority was the piecing together of huts in old disused woodland grounds “hidden” behind my family home in Edinburgh. Gaggles of us - new kids, friends of friends, and siblings - would scamper home from school and squeeze along a narrow self-made pathway, between the rickety, damp garden fence of our neighbour and some decidedly jagged branches, wriggling towards a small clearing amongst the trees: Our space, school bags flung to the side.

Just a few metres further into this ‘wilderness’ was an abandoned walled allotment, dilapidated sheds, broken greenhouses, and of course lots of overgrown nooks and crannies to explore. Our little slice of an almost rural affair. So committed were we to creating our dwelling that it was common practice to go to the loo in our new natural habitat. (An awkward moment between a bemused neighbour won’t be mentioned here!)

Through our stories, shared experience and collaboration in making our secret hide away, we made this space our place. Through touching it, smelling it, climbing it, poking around in it, eating it, and breaking bones on it (!), we developed a part of our identities. In our engagement with the earth, we found a temporal sense of belonging; these experiences were self-making. These days brought with them a sense of collective discovery, which I continue to see as vital as an adult.

The importance of collective discovery and new experience, for me, is integral to our wellbeing. Particularly when it involves the outside world. Part of this experience is the leaving behind of the built and urban environment, to somewhere where the norms may be subverted, to a more intimately natural, let’s face it, human environment.

Getting caught up in ‘flow’

There is a sensoriality and sociality to these kinds of experiences (see Pink, 2008), a temporality and a certain feeling of warmth (not due to the glorious Scottish summers surprisingly!) Time within these kinds of moments is immaterial; we can often be caught up in ‘flow’ (see Seligman, 2011; Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Unaware of time flying by us and deep in the experience of the moment: What Abraham Maslow might have referred to as a peak-experience, or William James as ‘absolute happiness;’ is something that I find unfortunately lacking in many modern, working adult’s life. Thankfully, optimal experience is something that can be formed by ourselves, we can make optimal experiences happen. I believe we can make them happen by sharing experiences exploring our greenspaces.

Interaction with nature and with many differing personalities in this manner has a physiological impact upon our beings that translate into our treatment of one another. Or so I wish to prove through my research. When we share positive or exciting experiences together I believe we become better adept at accepting, listening and confiding in others; thus identifying with people we may not otherwise. We are able to find the means by which to identify with others through the ability, in natural spaces, to dedicate time to hear and to be heard.

As a bonafide adult, it’s hard to get away with a past-time such as hut-building and weeing in bushes (ok, just once I have been caught out on a long distance hike!*). But perhaps, by journeying out of our built environments and taking a chance in the way we interact with strangers – or let’s call them potential new friends - we can build similar experiences. Out in the natural world, there seems to be more space for one another, through shared new experiences there is a phenomena of a new closeness, or ‘communitas’ as anthropologist Victor Turner would have said.

Building empathy and a deeper sense of belonging

We know that shared time spent within nature is good, on many levels and of course the benefits to wellbeing are widely researched, for example, see:

What we don’t know is whether a deeper sense of belonging can be felt through sharing these experiences with strangers, whether that sense of identity and place can lead to stronger empathic understanding with others and in turn begin to foster friendships that will last. Visceral and emotional connection in shared experiences with others is integral to wellbeing, because it opens up possibilities of empathic understanding.

"Empathy for “Other people” is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil." - Frans De Waal, 2009

So why is this something worthy of extensive research? Well, quite simply because of what we stand to gain by understanding how notions of belonging, empathy and communitas manifest themselves within group experiences. On the one hand it is about complex psychological and physiological social relationships, and on the other, more simply, it is about removing ourselves and fellow humans from the hub-bub of our hectic urban norms to allow the space to really connect.

By suspending the norms and lifting the structures might we open ourselves to new experiences, new understandings, and heightened awareness of other and self? Might we cooperate, share, listen, and be heard? Roman Krznaric (2014) speaks of the need for the development of a global empathic revolution; where we might imagine ourselves as “Other”. Where better to start than locally? With this he advocates, more than anything, talking to strangers. Can talking to and sharing a experience in nature with new people allow for a deeper opening up of empathic engagement?

Wellbeing through new relations in natural spaces

Using ethnographic observant participation; collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact, collaboratively documenting experiences using things such as journals and ‘slow sensory place making,’ (see Pink, 2008) I aim to provide a more empathic analysis. I intend to be with people as they experience new relations in new natural spaces, to see how people begin to identify, how belonging might begin to manifest, and maybe see a new sense of empathy emerging. I hope to truthfully represent the experiences, the imaginations, the stories of others and capture this essence of communitas that I feel is so vital for understanding our own wellbeing. I want to know how it happens, why it happens and what this might offer to humanity.

So, what am I advocating? To go outdoors, touch things, build things, meet people, create new experiences, talk, listen, and share together. Perhaps this might contribute to that sense of what Adam Smith deemed a ‘fellow-feeling.’ A feeling of connection that is fundamental to human wellbeing.

(*It was definitely more than once, but that’s all part of the experience!)

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @abonnieday

Looking for some outdoors inspiration? Try some of the following:




Conradson, D. (2005) "Freedom Space and Perspectives: Moving encounters with other ecologies", in Davidson, J. Bondi, L. Smith, M, (eds.) (2005) Emotional Geographies. Hampshire/ Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

All other references are linked to for further information within the text above.

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