We’ve spent the week encouraging our people to experience, share and talk about nature. As part of that, we wanted to speak to people about their favourite experiences with nature and how it helped their mental health.
We spoke with Andrew to talk about his favourite nature experience.
What is your favourite nature experience?
"A few years ago I spent a month in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, volunteering on a primate research project."
What was it like being in the rainforest?
"It was amazing to feel so secluded with just a few other people, but the best bit was being surrounded by nature all the time. I had been talking to the research coordinator on the boat ride to the camp, she had been telling me that it isn’t unusual to go days without seeing the monkeys and it often involves trekking for hours each day. We got to the camp, and to our surprise, there was a group of monkeys right there in the trees around the camp. It was amazing to see animals like that in the wild. But she was right, we then went several days hiking through the jungle without seeing monkeys at all. But there was never a moment when there wasn’t something to listen to or see. Even in the shower, you were often joined by a frog or something."
What were some of your favourite things you experienced?
"A typical day was trekking from the camp for a good four hours. If we managed to find monkeys we would then do what they call a “Follow” where we, well, follow the monkeys and record their activity behaviours. These were fun but also hard work – trying to follow monkeys through the thick jungle can be really hard. Even with a machete, it is easy to get tangled on the ground while they fly through the treetops. I got to help catch, weigh and release caiman along the river at night which was amazing. Watching the parrots at the salt lick was another highlight. I didn’t get to see any big cats but there were a worryingly large amount of big cat prints around my bed each night. I got to hold a few snakes but unfortunately didn’t get to see an anaconda, which was top of my list. I did fall into a lake trying to find one though. I also got attacked by an army of ants for standing too close to a particular type of tree that they protect."
And what benefits did you feel while you were there?
"Well, there was no WiFi or phone signal obviously in the jungle, so it was really nice to be actually disconnected from the outside world, although I did manage to persuade them to use the emergency satellite phone to check the football scores once a week. But I really felt the benefits of not being attached to screens so much – it made me realise just how much time in the day there is. There are few things more relaxing than listening to all the animal sounds around you while lying in a hammock."
"The bird songs were amazing to listen to, and you would often hear monkeys in the distance too. And you didn’t have to look far for something interesting to watch. The jungle version of Netflix binging is stuff like watching an army of ants searching for food, or two lizards fighting for the best basking spot, you could pretty much look at any area around you and see something going on."
"One of the unexpected parts of living in the jungle was helping me with my sleep. I often struggle to sleep much and end up staying up late for no reason. In the Jungle, you didn’t have much choice. We would have our evening meal at about 6 and then by about 7 the camp would be pitch black. We occasionally went on really cool night treks, but generally, I was in bed by about 8 every night. It sounds stupid but it’s amazing how dark actual darkness is. Living in a city you’re never really in total darkness, there’s always some light around. In the jungle it was pitch black, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face without a torch. I found it much easier to sleep with a feeling I was outside, I had a net around my bed and a sheet metal roof but there are no walls around the platforms. The sounds of the rain and the animals at night were really soothing – occasionally there would be a group of Night Monkeys that would cause a disturbance in the tree right next to my bed, but even that was quite nice."
So you would recommend connecting with nature as a way to help mental wellbeing?
"In a strange way, it makes you realise how insignificant you and your problems are, opening your eyes to see a much bigger world around you can help get your problems in perspective. But the best benefit is just how relaxing it is to switch off from everyday life, no emails, no screens, no news etc. just natural sights and sounds."
"Obviously, it’s not always possible to just go to the jungle for a bit – but there are plenty of ways to enjoy nature in your day-to-day lives. I’ve tried to recreate a bit of a jungle space at home – I’ve even got a few geckos in there too. So when I want to chill out I go and sit in this room and leave my phone in another room."
If you want some tips on how to connecting with nature in your everyday life to help your mental health, visit https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/tips