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