Touched by Nature

Monday 21st of December 2020
Hand arm foot

Sometimes it seems as if everything aligns, as a series of ideas seem to cascade along a chain reaction, finishing somewhere that could not be foreseen at the beginning.

Today was the 8th November and it was one of those days. On my drive into work I heard about the Earthshot prize being promoted by the Duke of Cambridge and David Attenborough. There was also mention of William’s desire to introduce more positivity and hope into some of the many environmental debates currently taking place.

In some ways, I agree very much with that sentiment. I’ve written before about the need to find things that inspire and uplift us when contemplating nature, in spite or even maybe because of current levels of crisis. I do feel we need to do some hard thinking about our relationship with nature and there may be some bitter pills that cannot be sugar-coated. However, having said that, I am well aware that most people change their behaviour when they can see some obvious benefit or potential benefit to doing so. I was discussing this with work colleagues over lunch and my mind was probably still working on this theme for the rest of the day.

My journey home coincided with the whole of a half-hour slot on BBC Radio 4 given over to a sister programme to the Touch Test “results shows” being presented by Claudia Hammond all this week. Claudia Hammond had also been invited to present today an episode of Inside Science, which was given over to the science of touch.

One thing that I didn’t know before hearing this broadcast was that we have a particular type of skin-cell which responds to a specific aspect of touch. This is activated when we are stroked within a particular range of speeds on the skin which covers most of our bodies, the way we are touched when someone is striving to encourage, calm or reassure us. This is known as “affective touch”. This uses a particular type of nerve-fibre and has a relationship with certain types of cell in the brain. This seems to include parts of the brain which may relate to “feeling good” in a general sense, rather than being focused on the way or indeed where we are being touched in themselves.

I then started to wonder if touch could be a metaphor to describe any of our relationship or possible relationship with the natural world. Some of what has happened during the pandemic came especially to mind. There has been considerable focus on the impact of nature on people’s sense of wellbeing. Equally, there have been a number of high-profile examples of animals or birds “re-colonising” towns or cities with lower traffic levels and a general sense of things being less busy. Nature has perhaps seemed less “at arm’s length” and more “on our doorstep” or even “at our fingertips” for those living in a more urban environment.

We have a double sense of “touch” which has perhaps affected us during restrictions. We have been “touched” by nature in its ability to reach out to us with inspiration and even a form of companionship as human contact has been limited. This part is very much influenced by our attitudes and the relationship that we perceive that we have with nature. It is about the degree of closeness that we experience metaphysically. At the same time we may have also realised that we live in nature and any appearance of being divorced from it is an illusion, as it is only a wingbeat away. This is about the physical sensations and our direct connection (or lack of it) with our environment. One of the issues which has come to the fore during the pandemic is that even in urban surroundings there is far more wildlife that we might tend to realise. Lack of traffic and reduced levels of human activity generally have given us opportunities to observe the natural world in a different way.

In a recent post I concentrated on the potential benefits of technology and questioned whether there can be sufficient benefits from this for reversing rises of temperature to make the required difference when it comes to climate change.

If technology is not going to provide us with full answers, there need to be changes in our behaviour. There is a part of me that would love to think that this could come from a greater sense of our collective and individual connection to nature. (I happen to be writing this as this is being discussed by a Radio 4 programme in which Michael Morpurgo examines folk song and specifically the tradition of protest within that musical idiom). That is certainly something I’d like to work to expand; however, I don’t think this will happen without people feeling definite and clear benefits from that connection.

To me this is one of the biggest challenges of our time and it is actually even bigger than climate change. Many people don’t feel that they have contact with let alone connection with nature. If that is the case, why should they care about habitat loss, soil depletion, species decline or even extinction?

One of the interesting things about the Inside Science programme on touch is that it detailed analysis of the physical benefits of touch, but some of that was a more general sense of wellbeing. However, it is not totally straightforward. If we have grown up with this particular type of touch being something that we are used to, we seem to be more likely to continue to experience its benefits. It may be that we need to acknowledge that a generation or indeed several generations which have grown up with people largely failing to be “touched by nature” are unlikely to respond to a climate emergency. Perhaps there is a need to defer to younger people who do feel this issue more keenly.