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Nature the Healer: restoring connection

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In November 2022, Bristol Green Capital Partnership hosted ‘Nature the Healer’ at Boiling Wells, in partnership with West of England Healthier with Nature, NHS Bristol North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Integrated Care Board. Olivia Sweeney, former Black and Green Ambassador, shares her responses to the talks from the day which featured projects and local leaders working to connect citizens with nature and promote the integration of nature-based approaches into health and care.

5 things I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell and 1 thing I can taste.

© Guy@alive

As I sat in an amphitheatre built in harmony with the nature that surrounds it, waiting for the talks to commence I am reminded of this connection exercise. As I think through this list, I feel the layers peel away and the weight of a busy week gone and a busy week to come lift. I feel grounded, connected, and restored. That is the power that we are here to explore, and I believe wholeheartedly in it. As the speakers begin, the audience is ready to truly listen to what they have to share with us, as we can all feel the magic of the nature we sit within.

We heard from four speakers, the conversation facilitated by Roy Kareem. Roy is a good friend of mine and a fellow former Black & Green ambassador, he has a calmness and presence that few speakers possess. In short, you know you are in for a good hour, if Roy is the one starting you off, and it didn’t disappoint. 

We began with Tay, a filmmaker and storyteller, who invited us to participate in a mental exercise, imagining ourselves on a country walk, visiting an allotment, and greeting our neighbours. Tay asked us to hold a mirror to who these people in our imagined scenario were, what did they look like? It is unlikely that they had brown skin, wore a hijab, or were a wheelchair user. There is no guilt or blame in this, just acknowledgement. We have been conditioned to think of nature, outdoor space and activities to be for a certain type of person, and our brains want to reinforce that image. But we must take steps to change this narrative, as it is not true.

Tay shared her experiences as a filmmaker, her learning and the warmth she received when working on Rooted In Bristol, for Africa Eye film festival. This is a documentary celebrating the contribution that people of African heritage have made in creating and sustaining kitchen gardens across the allotment communities in Bristol over many decades. Tay states it is vital all of us tell our own stories of our time, memories, experiences and joy in nature. The more we see ourselves in these places the more we belong, and who knows we could inspire someone else to feel confident in this space.

Helen from the West of England Nature Partnership followed – starting off with some pretty bleak statistics that place the UK in the lowest 10% on the global stage for thriving nature. Helen went on to share the very real ways in which human wellbeing and eco systems are intertwined. In order for humans to live healthy lives we need healthy ecosystems, but we are not doing enough to support or value nature. The natural world needs us to work together, and the West of England Nature Partnership is taking this responsibility seriously. They are connecting, building, co-ordinating, championing and funding nature based health projects. More than 50 projects have received funding so far in communities across the region. Helen’s talk was a rallying cry – the rights of the natural world and human rights are one and the same, and we must act to protect them. 

© Guy@alive

Next up was Emma, a multi media, multidisciplinary creative, with a message about the need for and the power in, rest. Emma has worked in many different roles, on many different projects, but throughout all of these has taken a truly intersectional approach. She prides herself in making complex narratives accessible to all without watering down the gravity of the topic. Emma spoke of her belief in the collective power of community and the need to prioritise connecting to and engaging with marginalised communities. Her most recent project, Nature as a Resting Tool, was an immersive experience using sound, imagery and space to encourage participants to engage in a peaceful way. The spaces she curates encourage mindfulness, play and reflection.

What struck me about the spaces Emma described was the thought that goes into how to make these hybrid. In the last two years we have all been catapulted into a virtual world, willingly or not. The advantages of this have been clear, allowing content to reach so many more people. With a lot of us eager to get back to real life experiences, we have yet to master the art of a hybrid world, but we don’t want to lose the inclusion that the virtual world allows us. Emma’s spaces hold this virtual access in every decision, and she challenged us to see this new hybrid world as a tool not a barrier – asking how would you change your approach? I suggest we do that and more, take any perceived weakness or disadvantage and see it as a tool. Reclaim the power others would take from you. 

© Guy@alive

Last, but my no means least Ian, who I have known and worked with since before I came to Bristol. What Ian does is hard to put into words, but if I had to choose a few they would be Nature, Music, Storytelling, Connection, Joy. Today he spoke of his story, and one of the many projects he runs. His talk was dispersed with verses of rap, which we could all join in with, music often connecting in a way words alone cannot. 

‘Plant more trees so that we can breathe’

‘No time to talk, only time to act’

‘Planting a seed everyday, watching the world just change’

Ian found nature through grief, after his mother passed away. A friend started using and growing in the garden of his council house. Ian was amazed and moved by nature. From this point onwards, May Project Gardens blossomed. He opened up the garden of his home to the community and for 16 years has been providing safety and warmth. He brings communities together and his garden is a space where people from all walks of life can come together and create solutions. As Ian stressed, there is a need for action.

The session also included an unexpected but very welcome cameo from Rubba Dub, who shared his story of growing up in Jamaica but feeling displaced after his move to the UK at a young age. It speaks to the kind of space this event created, that all felt welcome to share. Rubba Dub is working to protect his family’s beach in Jamaica, and is currently raising funds online to ‘Save Bob Marley Beach’.

This was an offering of experience and expertise from the speakers. The conversation was heartfelt, frank, intellectual and urgent, with both speakers and audience empathising and learning together. To end each speaker shared a powerful experience in nature. Mine was being blown away by seeing black sand beaches when I visited my family home of Dominica for the first time. That whole trip was incredible, I had never experienced nature in such immediacy, or my dad so ready and willing to explore it with me. I belonged in a way that I hadn’t before, and it felt pretty amazing. That is mine, what is yours?

Olivia is a chemical engineer by education. She is also a lifetime environmentalist and a former Black and Green Ambassador. She hosts a Tuesday morning breakfast radio show on Ujima Radio as well as working for a sustainable waste consultancy trying to make it easier for people to reduce their waste, recycle and build the circular economy. She was named one of the Top 100 most Influential Women in Engineering by FT in 2019 and one of Rife Magazine’s 30 under 30 in 2022. She is an advocate for equity and justice in all forms.

Connect with Olivia on instagram: @oliviameyonette

  • Continue reading Olivia’s reflections on the rest of the event here: Nature the Healer: championing wellbeing
  • Read the West of England Nature Partnership Strategy for Nature and Health here and share your views with info@wenp.org.uk.
  • Learn how to Nature can be a Resting Tool with Emma Blakes Morsi
  • Keep an eye out on Ian Solomon-Kawall’s, May Project Gardens as they are soon to launch in Bristol
  • Embrace the power of storytelling with Tay Aziz
  • Support young people’s access to green space and green careers with Roy Kareem and Bright Green Futures
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