Conservationist Matt Williams on how men often engage with nature.
One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing a flock of starlings perched on the roof of a fast food restaurant while on a family summer holiday. Sitting in the back of the car I watched out the window as the evening sunlight turned their feathers iridescent green and purple. Their whirring and clicking made them sound like clockwork toys and certainly lived up to their collective name of a murmuration. Then suddenly, as if with a collective mind, they fell silent all at once and took flight. I’ve been fascinated with nature ever since.
As I grew older my grandfather, who still walks the hills near our home today at the age of 80, would report back to me hearing Spring’s first cuckoo or glimpsing a green woodpecker. His fascination and respect for nature inspired the same values in me. I’ve spent a large part of my adulthood working in conservation, much of that stuck knee-deep in mud, cutting my way through vegetation or carrying logs around, as well as enjoying wildlife with friends and on my own. I’ve also developed my own passion, wildlife photography, as a way to communicate nature’s beauty to others.
Throughout all its variety—from dark green English woodlands, to golden reedbeds, to freezing Scottish loughs—nature has always provided some constants. Even if wildlife is sometimes frustratingly unpredictable (birds which refuse to show up even if you feel that sitting in a freezing cold hide for three hours means you’ve earned it), I’ve always found joy, solace and time to reflect. At difficult times it has helped me recover, and some of my happiest ever memories are from when I’ve been watching wildlife of one kind or another.
While going through tough times in relationships, I’ve often turned to nature. I’d go on a long walk and trace the familiar country lanes then leave them for the footpaths over the heath and along the river. One evening I stopped and sat on a fence to watch the sun set. Behind me was a grass field full of rabbits. In the bush to my right along the edge of the path a yellowhammer issued his ‘little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese’ call and linnets jangled their keys as they flitted branch to branch. On the heath a fox, burning umber among the purple heather, snuck out of the bottom of a large bush and sauntered up the slope, out of view. I didn’t see a single person that whole evening, instead just the animals that lived on my doorstep. But the life surging up from the Earth beneath my feet made me realize that the troubles in my personal life weren’t the end of the world, and that nature will always be there for anyone who chooses to experience it, unconditionally providing calm and happiness.
Male friends to whom I wrote before penning this piece tell me that spending time in nature brings them that same sense of escape and tranquility. It improves their mood for some time afterwards. One friend told me that going surfing gives him a sense of ‘scale and mortality’. He says this connection to nature helped him through some of his darkest moments while receiving treatment for leukemia. Other men say it allows them to think creatively and to dream. One friend revealed that it helped him to recover from anxiety and depression while others said it provides time to reflect on relationships with loved ones.
A sense of morality and humility, space for recognizing and dealing with mental illness or strife and time to focus on our emotions and (romantic) relationships are all things that men must proactively pursue against the current of modern culture and lifestyles. Nature offers an alternative space in which these activities can take place organically, at our own pace.
Ron Lizzi, author of the recently published Go Outside and Come Back Better about America’s national parks, told me “culture tells boys to be conquerors. In movies and video games, beasts must be slain. In the real world, mountains must be summited.”
Nature instead teaches humility. Ideally, we learn not to treat all foreign beings and objects as adversaries that challenge us. Our egocentric aggression is replaced with a more enlightened appreciation and reverence for our surroundings.”
The way that men engage with nature can modify the ways that we interact with society and the people around us. As well as helping us through difficult periods, nature can provide us with space to be more creative, calm and to experience beautiful moments alone or with others. On a more personal level, shared experiences of nature have enriched my relationships with my father and grandfather. I believe that spending time in nature can make men better and happier fathers, friends, partners and citizens. In forthcoming pieces for GMP, I’ll explore more about men’s relationships with nature. In particular I’ll be looking at how contemporary society gets in the way of connection to nature, particularly for young boys, how this could be linked to violent crime and ways to overcome this.
–Photo: Matt Williams