A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog piece for the University of the Highlands and Islands on my relationship with the outdoors as an environmental scientist. It goes without saying that being outside, close up to mother nature, feeling the wind in my hair, the goosebumps on my skin, and the damp ground seeping in through the mesh in my shoes, is essential to me. It’s part of who I am.
I think this affinity to nature is really common in environmental scientists, and also in people working in the renewable energy industry. I’ve met more than one CEO or director of a renewable energy on the beach with a surfboard or kitesurfing kit. I’ve met PhD students on mountain ridges, after teaching them about environmental impact assessment, and seen senior lecturers at their best/worst at the mid-camp of a mountain marathon. It seems like somehow, our work, play, and sense of self are linked by a connection to nature.
I thought I’d share what I wrote for UHI here, but you can find the full article, including pieces from other UHI staff and students here.
“This is where we live!”, exclaimed a close friend and colleague many years ago, expressing the joy of living and working in a beautiful place, with endless opportunities to run in the hills, swim in the sea, cycle anywhere and everywhere, and pursue many other outdoor activities. It is a saying that stuck with me, shouted from the top of a mountain climbed after work, or shivered between shaking teeth after a butter-smooth swim in the sea on a sparkling winter day. Like many environmental scientists, I love to be outdoors (even when it’s wet). I could say that this is because I can see in nature the very principles that I study in my work, or that because of my training I see greater detail in the plants, animals, and landscapes around me. Or perhaps, at the intersection of working in environmental science and loving the outdoors is a deep-rooted fascination and curiosity about the natural world. The latter is probably the most accurate statement, but in reality, it just feels really, really good to exercise outside in the wonderful highland landscape right on our doorstep.
In normal times I would be one of a handful of people washing away a stressful morning with a swim in the sea at lunch, looking out for local seals that following our progress. Or I would pound away a day’s ruminations while running up a local hill after work, leaning in to the incline, feeling the wind on my skin and laughing as I sink a foot into a deep bog. During lockdown, our worlds have suddenly become squeezed by the added stresses of uncertainty and homeworking, combined with a government-mandated travel restriction. We could no longer escape to the office for a change of scenery, and we could no longer escape from the office to the sea or to the hills to clear our heads.
In my case, I know that outdoor swimming, running, and cycling are essential to my wellbeing. In the final year of my PhD thesis I signed up for a challenging triathlon, which provided a different focus away from the stresses of work. The expansive views from mountain summits, on the other hand, are where I find seek comfort when the world feels like it is spinning – this was particularly true after my father died in 2013.
But in lockdown, it felt different. Suddenly the small things mattered more. Since March, I’ve watched frogspawn turn to wriggling tadpoles, the gorse flower and die back, jellyfish bloom in the nearby sea loch, and the bracken shoot up across the mountains. I’ve discovered countless new paths, leading to intriguing ruins, waterfalls, or hidden oak groves in the middle of plantation forest. I’ve explored the five mile radius of my village more deeply than ever before, and after every excursion, I come back with some new finding, some treasure that makes me smile – a welcome relief from so many hours spent working in the home.
With lockdown easing, it has become clear to me that the mental health benefits of outdoor exercise don’t come from aching muscles and burning lungs (although for some people that helps!). Perhaps it is the scientist in me, or maybe it’s mindfulness, but I think noticing the detail and richness of what is around you, from vast landscapes to the tiniest of garden insects, can help us to feel happier, more relaxed, and grounded in our surroundings.