MADE IN NA­TURE

LEARN­ING A NEW SKILL IN THE FRESH AIR HELPS TO RE­FRESH AND RE­FO­CUS THE MIND, SAYS OUT­DOOR GIRL SIÂN ANNA LEWIS

The Simple Things - - THINK | WELLBEING -

There’s some­thing deep in­side us that yearns for the wild. Sim­ply swap­ping cramped com­mutes and con­crete of­fice blocks for the nat­u­ral world is an in­stant tonic that lifts spir­its, ebbs away the lit­tle stresses of daily life and gives you room to breathe. But if you’re search­ing for an in­ner calm and men­tal headspace, learn­ing or prac­tis­ing a skill out­side can bring even greater and longer-last­ing ben­e­fits.

Mak­ing or do­ing some­thing with my hands in a nat­u­ral space is one of the most re­lax­ing and ben­e­fi­cial things I know (as a re­sult, my house is full of wonky-but-cher­ished wil­low stars, jars of for­aged jam and half-whit­tled wooden can­dle­sticks). It can be as sim­ple as pick­ing berries for supper or as in­tri­cate as learn­ing to carve a wooden chair – as long as you’re fo­cus­ing on a task, re­peat­ing move­ments, en­gag­ing your brain and cre­at­ing some­thing in a wild en­vi­ron­ment.

A 2016 study by the BBC and the Univer­sity of Derby showed that spend­ing time do­ing an ac­tiv­ity in the wild – even some­thing as sim­ple as feed­ing birds – sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases our health, hap­pi­ness and con­nec­tion to na­ture, and not just dur­ing the ac­tiv­ity, but in a sus­tained way for months af­ter­wards. The study found that a month of spend­ing short amounts of time do­ing ‘acts of wild­ness’ could im­prove self-es­teem and help with anx­i­ety, and found that peo­ple with a stronger con­nec­tion to na­ture feel more sat­is­fied with their lives. Har­vard’s med­i­cal school ad­vises learn­ing new skills to keep your brain healthy, too. “When you ex­er­cise, you en­gage your mus­cles to help im­prove over­all health,” says Dr Ip­sit Vahia. “The same con­cept ap­plies to the brain. You need to ex­er­cise it with new chal­lenges to keep it healthy.” They also rec­om­mend learn­ing new skills as a way to boost self-es­teem.

Re­becca Cork runs monthly Wood­land Women days in Tort­worth Ar­bore­tum, Glouces­ter­shire, to help women es­cape from city life, learn new skills and re­lax around the camp­fire. Each day is dif­fer­ent, and could in­volve wil­low craft, a guided med­i­ta­tion ses­sion, the ba­sics of bushcraft and camp­fire cook­ing. “These days ad­dress a need in the women who at­tend,’ says Re­becca, ‘to take a break from work, whether in an of­fice, in a car­ing role at work or pro­vid­ing for fam­ily mem­bers. A need to stop for a few hours and take stock of what is im­por­tant. Some of our women have many roles – mother, wife, run­ning a busi­ness – but when life

brings big changes such as chil­dren leav­ing for univer­sity or a re­la­tion­ship break-up, we need some time to re­assess how we view our­selves and what is im­por­tant to us, who we are. Time in na­ture with like-minded women pro­vides time out, a chance to learn new skills, share healthy food cooked on a fire and have fun in a nur­tur­ing, non-com­pet­i­tive space.”

It’s worth not­ing you don’t have to go the prac­ti­cal route by whit­tling spoons or play­ing with fire, ei­ther. Get­ting cre­ative out­side with a cam­era, pen or paint­brush is just as re­ward­ing, and eas­ier to fit in to a busy week. Dr Ruth Far­rar is the di­rec­tor of Shex­treme (shex­treme-film-fes­ti­val.com), a film fes­ti­val that cel­e­brates and cham­pi­ons fe­male po­ets, artists and pho­tog­ra­phers who are in­spired by the out­doors. “Chang­ing your per­spec­tive is a key men­tal well­be­ing ben­e­fit gained from go­ing out­doors. It trans­forms your daily view­point from a lim­ited dig­i­tal rec­tan­gu­lar screen to the ex­pan­sive­ness of ex­plor­ing out­door en­vi­ron­ments. Ven­tur­ing out­doors to cre­ate some­thing new is a vis­ual re­minder that you are just one tiny part of a big beau­ti­ful world.”

Choos­ing what to do can feel a bit daunt­ing. For a con­fi­dence boost I’d rec­om­mend brush­ing up on some ba­sic nav­i­ga­tion skills or learn­ing fire skills. Fancy a chal­lenge? You could get out­side your com­fort zone and get your hands dirty with some­thing ad­ven­tur­ous like learn­ing to gut and cook a fish or try­ing ax­ethrow­ing ( harder than it looks!). Or if you spend a lot of your work­ing week fo­cused on tasks and dead­lines, swap them for a cre­ative haven on a wild paint­ing or craft week­ender. Marie, a full-time of­fice man­ager and mum, headed for a Welsh for­est to try green wood­work­ing (carv­ing tools from freshly felled trees) and found “just the phys­i­cal act of sit­ting and fo­cus­ing on cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful and prac­ti­cal was ex­tremely calm­ing for my ever-busy brain. Whilst your mind is fo­cused on mak­ing some­thing very pre­cise and de­tailed, the rest of you is drink­ing in the sounds, smells and feel­ing of be­ing in a wild place – what could be bet­ter for your state of mind than that?” »

Siân Anna Lewis is au­thor of The Girl Out­doors: The Wild Girl’s Guide to Ad­ven­ture, Travel and Well­be­ing (Blooms­bury), and writes The Girl Out­doors blog (the­girlout­doors.com).

“Time do­ing an ac­tiv­ity in the wild – even some­thing as sim­ple as feed­ing the birds – sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases our hap­pi­ness”

From for­ag­ing to hik­ing, nat­u­ral weav­ing to sto­ry­telling, tak­ing part in an ac­tiv­ity out­doors is good for both body and soul

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