Nature Story
The Nourishment of Nature

Fall Planting Celebration in High Park, Toronto. Credit: High Park Nature Centre

How we can foster a greater sense of connection to nature through awareness, reciprocity, and gratitude—and why that matters.
  • Nature connectedness is a feeling of oneness with the natural world and is related to environmentally sustainable behaviours and positive emotions like generosity.
  • Practicing reciprocity and gratitude for the Earth and other beings is key to nature connectedness and forms the foundation of many Indigenous worldviews.
  • While nature may feel inaccessible or distant to some, it’s important to remember that nature is always within and around us, so we can find moments to connect in small, everyday ways—even in our own homes.
Mont-Royal, Montréal

Mont-Royal, Montréal

There’s something about the feeling of grass between toes. Or the sound of birds chirping. Or the smell of Earth after it rains. These sensory experiences cause us, often unconsciously, to stop for a moment to feel, to listen, to breathe deeply.

During the pandemic many city dwellers were drawn to parks and natural spaces. In our survey of over 3,000 residents of Canadian cities, 54% said they sought out naturalized parks most often—a jump from 34% in last year’s survey, highlighting the rising importance of contact with urban nature.

Even small spaces count: 71% of respondents said small naturalized spaces within a 10-minute walk of home, like a native plant garden or meadow, helped foster connection to nature. Just half of respondents said the same for traveling to larger natural spaces.

Overall, 87% of respondents reported strong nature connectedness—a finding that was fairly stable across race and income. However, nature connectedness levels grew with age, starting with 83% for 18 to 29 year olds and rising to 94% for those 65 and older.

Not apart from, but a part of
Volunteers remove invasive English ivy in Stanley Park. Credit: Don Enright

Volunteers remove invasive English ivy in Stanley Park. Credit: Don Enright

How aware are we of our body and the Earth as we move through it? Do we know the tree species in our park? When was the last time we gave back to the places that give us so much?

These questions highlight the difference between spending time outdoors—a worthwhile and beneficial pursuit in itself—and feeling connected to our place in the natural world. To feel nature is a part of us, not apart from us is a trait that researchers term “nature connectedness.”

As one report put it: “Nature connectedness refers to the degree to which individuals include nature as part of their identity through a sense of oneness between themselves and the natural world.”

Another defined it as “an appreciation and value for all life that transcends any objective use of nature for humanity’s purposes.”

While this seems philosophical, nature connectedness has material impacts on the way we live our lives, how we feel, and our impact on the Earth—all of critical importance in an age of rising mental health challenges and climate change impacts.

Nature connectedness has been linked to in-the-moment hedonic well-being (feeling good), but also strongly associated with eudaemonic well-being (functioning well), which contributes to personal growth and long-term well-being.

People who report stronger nature connectedness are more likely to engage in environmentally sustainable behaviours. When we tune ourselves into the natural world, we feel more positive emotions, like vitality. We also ruminate less and act kinder and more generous to those around us—a finding that study attributed to nature’s ability to stimulate feelings of awe that allow us to engage in “unselfing,” or the practice of stepping outside of ourselves.

Making sense of the “green blur”
Kids on a SPES school program in Stanley Park wrap their arms around an old growth cedar tree, one of the few remaining giants left in the Lower Mainland. (Credit: Justine Kaseman/SPES)

Kids on a SPES school program in Stanley Park wrap their arms around an old growth cedar tree, one of the few remaining giants left in the Lower Mainland. (Credit: Justine Kaseman/SPES)

As an Associate Professor in the Trent University Department of Psychology who has led Canadian studies on nature connectedness, Dr. Lisa Nisbet thinks a lot about what it means to feel connected to nature.

We carry nature connectedness “around with us” like a “personality trait that’s fairly stable,” Dr. Nisbet said, distinguishing it from simply time spent outdoors. You can walk through a park every day to work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you feel connected to that environment.

Nature connectedness can predict behaviour. Multiple studies have shown that people who report greater nature connectedness also spend more time outdoors and are willing to travel farther for nature experiences. In her own pandemic-focused research, Dr. Nisbet found that university students who reported high nature connectedness “were actually using nature more as a coping method than people that were disconnected from nature.”

For Dr. Nisbet, a huge opportunity lies in city parks and nature education. Many people just see a “green blur,” she said. “Oh, it’s a tree. But is it a red oak? Do we know anything about it and how it contributes to reducing climate change and improving soil quality and the kinds of critters that like to live in it? I think that richer understanding helps people develop a sense of connection.”

While this connection can be forged at any age, Dr. Nisbet stressed the importance of nature education for children. “If you learn about those things early and you learn about the plants and animals in your ecosystems, then you’re just going to be more aware of what’s out there and I think you have more empathy,” she said.

The importance of reciprocity and gratitude
Harvesting coreopsis flowers in the Colour me Local Dye Garden in preparation for making a dye vat at the Gardeners’ Gathering, 2020. Credit: Carmen Rosen / Still Moon Arts Society

Harvesting coreopsis flowers in the Colour me Local Dye Garden in preparation for making a dye vat at the Gardeners’ Gathering, 2020. Credit: Carmen Rosen / Still Moon Arts Society

Well before researchers thought up the term “nature connectedness,” this worldview existed, and endures today, as the foundation of how many Indigenous Peoples view their relationship with the Earth as caretakers that practice “reverence, humility and reciprocity.”

Carolynne Crawley—a storyteller, forest therapy guide, and educator who runs Msit No'kmaq—shared that many people often overlook the importance of cultivating a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and other beings. “Oftentimes a relationship with the Earth isn’t prioritized as one would prioritize a relationship with a human loved one,” she pointed out.

A focus on reciprocity and viewing the Earth and other beings as kin is a common perspective of Indigenous Peoples. “The Elders in my life have shared with me that all life is sacred,” Crawley said.

“And as people we have an individual and collective responsibility to be in a good relationship with the Earth, just as well as being in a good relationship with ourselves and each other.”

Too often the Earth is seen as a commodity to extract from, Crawley said. “I always invite people to think about our relationships with people. If you’re always giving, giving, giving, and someone’s taking, taking, taking without respect and gratitude, then there’s an imbalance there.” Addressing this can include picking up trash along a trail and being aware of our impact on other beings.

Practicing reciprocity can also extend to being more mindful of our language, which Crawley explores in her workshops. “I hear words that reference the Earth and the beings in a way that lacks respect and gratitude and love for those particular beings. And so in my workshops and webinars, we reflect and deconstruct those words.”

Take the word ‘dirt’. While many of us use this to describe Earth, Crawley asks whether it conveys respect for the soil and all it offers. While it may seem small, language can shape our ways of relating to things—it also signals value to those around us, including young children, she said.

Crawley recommended using all our senses and approaching the world with the curiosity of a child. “Hiking is a great activity,” she said. “But oftentimes it’s about getting from point A to point B,” whereas children will meander and explore.

Indeed, a study by Dr. Nisbet highlights the benefits of practicing mindfulness techniques in nature that focus your attention on sensory experiences. In our survey, 81% of respondents said hearing sounds from birds and rustling trees was important to feel connected to nature.

Much of Crawley’s work is guiding people to “return home to the relationship with the Earth” and creating space for people to slow down and notice the world around them. “I believe that relationship, that memory, is in our DNA,” she said. “There’s something called blood memory that I’ve heard Indigenous Elders speak about.”

“Throughout history people have been violently severed from that relationship at different times,” she said. “And yet we still see Indigenous Peoples in that relationship all around the Earth today.”

Crawley stressed that recognizing and honouring the role of Indigenous Peoples as the “inherent caretakers of these lands” should be at the basis of nature education and stewardship programs, adding that it’s paramount to build relationships with Indigenous Peoples and organizations doing this work already.

Nature isn’t just around us—it is us
Scented Garden, Hendrie Park. Credit: Royal Botanical Gardens

Scented Garden, Hendrie Park. Credit: Royal Botanical Gardens

Cultivating greater nature connectedness can feel challenging in the day to day of urban living. As we’ve written before, there are multiple inequities in the access and enjoyment of urban green spaces, with ramifications for climate justice, equitable park development, and public health.

Being able to spend time in nature can be a privileged activity, Zamani Ra, Founder and Executive Director of the environmental non-profit CEED Canada, pointed out.

Ra stressed that it’s critical to take an anti-oppressive approach, accounting for the specific needs of a neighbourhood or individual, especially when working in racialized and lower-income communities. For people without backyards or the ability to travel outside the city, making time to access green spaces can be challenging, resulting in trade-offs in time spent with family, working or sleeping.

Ra said she found the concept of time poverty helpful in understanding whether people feel they have the time in their lives to do what they need to do, but also what they want to do.

For Ra, making the conscious decision to spend more time in nature for her own well-being, including going for long walks in a nearby ravine, meant working less, which meant less income. “It cost me something,” she said, noting she was living below the poverty line at the time. “I had to decide that the risk I was taking was actually going to be okay for the time being.”

But we don’t have to look far to find nature. In fact, we’re a walking, breathing, beating connection ourselves.

“Nature is a part of everything I do,” Ra said, adding that she brings an African-centred worldview into her work:

“Whether I’m inside or outside of my apartment, it doesn’t matter” because we are nature ourselves…You are Earth, you are wind, water, and fire.”

“Sometimes I find that people feel bad because they don’t have the ability to access these certain spaces,” Ra said, like large parks outside the city. In those instances, she reminds people that nature is all around and within us.

“I want to empower people with what we already have,” she said, even finding moments to connect with nature in our own homes by noticing the sun on your face or a breeze through a window. Starting small is a great place for people, Ra said. “And then because you’re aware of it now, you more than likely want to do more.”

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Jake Tobin Garrett
Jake Tobin Garrett is a writer, illustrator and public space policy and research consultant. He was previously Park People’s Manager of Policy and Planning and continues to work with the organization as a consultant.
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