The strident call of the Woodland Kingfisher proclaims the arrival of spring in South Africa, and the return of the bird from its winter visit to the north. Whilst enjoying a morning walk, we noticed a male of the species. It took our breath away before fluttering into a bush not five feet from us. We paused to look, and the kingfisher, after casting a scornful glance our way, fanned its wings with a flourish, exposing the brilliant white lining underneath. Strutting now, it flipped this way and that, flashing its cobalt blue wing feathers and black wingtips followed by the dazzling white under-wings in a mating display.
Flip blue, flop white. Eight seconds, and it was all over.
How many special moments of beauty such as this have we missed because we were too busy to stop and notice the small things?
Psychological studies have shown that taking the time to connect with nature has positive benefits for humans. In a study by Roger S. Ulrich, published in Science as long ago as 1984, it was found that gall bladder patients recovered quicker, required fewer painkillers and suffered less complications when they were in a hospital room with a view of trees, compared to those whose view was a brick wall.
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan of the University of Michigan promote the concept of Attention Restoration Theory, the idea that nature plays a positive role in healing minds that have become fatigued through the barrage of stimuli in urban working environments.
Picture the scene: Mr. Gen X, a 40-something-year-old business manager, arrives home after work, slams the door behind him. "You won't believe the traffic," he grumbles, dropping his calfskin briefcase into an empty corner before heading for the cocktail cabinet. "Wall to wall bloody cars! Idiots blocking every intersection! Morons cutting in front of you..."
Huge gulp of scotch and soda.
"And that bloody meeting," he moans, rolling his eyes, "went on forever. I couldn't slip away to miss the traffic. Nobody can make any decisions. And old Charlie! He just went on and on, listening to the sound of his own voice."
Another gulp of scotch.
"I need a holiday!"
Not just any holiday, though, the Kaplans believe. They say that natural environments in particular are just the ticket.
Look Deep Into Nature—At Home
Often the benefits of encounters with wildlife are perceived as bigger being better — as in Big Five safaris and the Great Serengeti Migration. They are, of course, spectacular. And Africa is renowned for these experiences. But we don't always need to go to this extent — we have all the nature we need at home. We just need to go out into the garden, or a park, or even gaze at a scene through a window, and look for the small things. As Einstein said, "Look deep, deep into nature and you will understand everything better."
As an experiment, when you are next in the garden or a park, try this: stop and appreciate the presence of nature around you, the variety of trees, flowers, grasses, birds, soils, reptiles and even the fungi on rotting branches. Then look deeper, and pick out the lichen and moss on different sides of the trees, as well as the countless insects scurrying about on the leaves and the bark; smell the vegetation, listen for the array of sounds; touch the leaves, feel the velvety texture of some compared to the sandpaper roughness of others; the smoothness of some barks and the corkiness of others. Sense the breeze, or the lack of it. Is it going to rain, or is going to be a scorcher?
Look still deeper. The whole food chain in the garden may appear: the midge feeding off the juices of the caterpillar that is devouring the vegetation, the beetles and spiders that will have the caterpillar for lunch, the flycatcher that will snatch the midge in mid-air, the frogs that will gulp down the spiders, the mongoose that will scratch for bugs and stalk small birds. If we are lucky, we may even glimpse the hawk that is eyeing the crows, who will put up a racket and mob it until it leaves.
Eventually, it may occur to us that everything in nature is connected, and that we are but a small part of it. Yet we can do it so much harm.
Flip blue, flop white.
Let it last longer than eight seconds.
All photos are courtesy and © Lourens Durand 2015.