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Connecting Health and the Environment through Literature

AHRC's Early Careers research grant scheme 
project title: 
Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing: Connecting Health and the Environment through Literature
Principal Investigator: Dr Samantha Walton

People’s disconnection from nature is an increasing concern for policy makers. Last year, for example, the government announced a £10m fund to support outdoor learning. AHRC has funded a number of projects designed to explore how the arts and humanities can help to reverse this trend.

AHRC’s Spring Diary – run by the LandLines research team and supported by the National Trust – encouraged members of the public to record their own nature observations. And in a similar vein the Cultures of Nature and Wellbeing project explores the connection between wellbeing and the natural environment.

Funded through AHRC’s open call, Early Career Leadership Fellow Dr Samantha Walton from Bath Spa University, hopes to explore the role which creative writing – be it non-fiction, prose or poetry – plays in human-nature relations.

The project worked closely with Wildlife Trusts, says Dr Walton: “Working with [them] lead to some interesting collaboration, mostly around events focused on public engagement. The timing of the project raised challenges, as the political context of Brexit meant that policy changes in this sector became less easy to achieve.”

“The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB decided to abandon a 'top down' approach to policy-making, meaning they no longer campaigned for the Nature and Wellbeing Act (which was the immediate policy impact pathway of my project). Instead, they decided to adopt a grassroots approach, aiming to influence mental health service users, medics, visitors at their nature sites and local councils. They were still keen to work with me, but they became more interested in changing cultural perceptions of nature therapies and nature for wellbeing, than pursuing specific policy outcomes.”

Dr Walton’s research was particularly focused on how arts and humanities approaches could contribute to this 'grassroots' approach, along with forming new networks to help achieve it.

“Most important has been my work with the Network for Wellbeing, Bristol Festival of Nature, and the West of England Nature Partnership,” she says. “With these groups, I’ve run workshops for members of the public and policy makers. I’m now interested in seeking new sources of funding to support more targeted local policy work.”

The Cultures of Nature project also looked to reach out to the public: “I found people were far more interested in contributing on an individual level, in group events, workshops and meetings, than online. This seems to be typical of a community that is less concerned with online networking than with more place-based meeting, and in particular with working and socialising out of doors.”

“If I were planning the project again, I would focus on people's personal stories. I was worried about the ethical implications of this when I planned the project, but the responses I've received so far are so intensely personal and heartfelt, I would like to find a way to capture this in future work.”

The central discovery of the research is how great an appetite there is for arts and humanities approaches from people concerned with nature for wellbeing. For Dr Walton “The common perception amongst policy makers and practitioners is that the medical evidence and statistics are pretty compelling, suggesting that nature-therapies and health interventions are generally accepted to have beneficial effects for many people.”

“What needs to change is cultural perceptions of these treatments, awareness of their availability, and demand from the public.”

After looking at the reasons that nature therapies and treatments are still underfunded Dr Walton believes she now knows how her research can best be utilised: “I've concluded that the most useful role my research can have is to promote the value of nature for wellbeing, while thinking critically about the reasons people are not able to access mental health services. This is consistent with the 'grassroots' approach the Wildlife Trusts and other NGOs are adopting, and best suited to the disciplinary expertise of the arts and humanities.”

The project has created a number of written outputs, including a monograph and poetry by Dr Walton, which has been published by Granta.

“The book I am currently writing is targeted to a public audience,” she says. “And I am working with a literary agent to secure a deal with a trade publisher. The book will be a cultural history of nature and wellbeing, with autobiographical elements, reflecting on places (mountains, parks, forests, waters) where people have sought nature for health. The purpose of the book is to reflect on our emotional and psychological dependence on nature, at a time of climate change and ecological disruption, and to spark critical public dialogue about the place of nature in health.”

Dr Walton has also written two journal articles: one for the Journal of Medical Humanities focusing on trauma and ecology, and one for Green Letters Studies in Ecocriticism, focusing on eco-recovery memoir and austerity, to be published later this year and early next year, respectively.

“I aim to use (the articles) as the foundation of a monograph on ecology and mental health, bringing together environmental and health humanities, which is close to the project outlined in the original bid. I'm confident that (this strategy) speaks to the impact ambitions of the project, has the greatest possible potential for engaging the public and policy makers, and represents value for money for the AHRC.”

One of the unexpected discoveries for Dr Walton was that policy-makers and practitioners were often less interested in her as a researcher, than as someone who has personally benefited from nature in terms of mental health and wellbeing, and as a person able to articulate the complexities of that relationship creatively: “My engagement with some communities has been possible because I introduced myself as a poet, and through poetry I've been able to elicit more honest and critical opinions from people than as a researcher. It was perhaps whimsical to include my poetry collection in ResearchFish, as it was far from any intended output from the project, but I wanted to reflect the importance that creative outputs have had in facilitating conversations and relationships related to policy and impact ambitions.”

Dr Walton was also able to develop her career through the Early Career Researcher scheme. She says ‘It taught me a great deal about the policy landscape, how to form relationships with stakeholders in other sectors, to recognise shared ambitions and to navigate struggles and differences.”

“It has given me time to write and reflect on the value of humanities research in a time of environmental crisis, and as the mental health policy context demands a thoughtful and critical approaches, alert to changing contexts, pressures and political uncertainty. It has improved my skills and standing as a researcher, so that I am now able to act as a mentor for early career researchers working at the intersection of humanities, health and environmentalism – most significantly, I am currently acting as mentor to a postdoc working on autism memoir and nature writing who has been shortlisted by the Wellcome Trust for a competitive fellowship. I have also had the opportunity to run workshops and to speak in non-academic policy contexts which are newly opened up to me thanks to this award.”

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