a book review: nature and well-being in Aotearoa NEW ZEALAND.


Lockdown fatigue is real right now. Many people are struggling to cope with the uncertainty of Covid-19. That’s why Catherine Knight’s book ‘Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand – Exploring the connection’ published last year is so topical.

Knight grew up with little contact with nature; that’s why she supports the return of places in our neighbourhoods that all kiwis can freely access. She asks us to reconsider the way we live by spending less time commuting to work and instead living and playing nearby. We need to create more natural spaces in cities, towns, and backyards and make it easier for everyone to spend time in nature.

History and scientific thought on nature and well-being

I love that Knight researched the historical and scientific experience of nature and well-being. From the Greek philosophy in the 6th century BC to the European monasteries in the 13th century, where gardens were used not just for food but also for recreation to aid the recovery of the sick. While the Iron Chancellor of the German empire between 1871-1890 was told by his physician to put his arms around a tree for up to half an hour as an antidote to severe fatigue.

While the growth of scientific and popular interest in the relationships between health and nature was also explored, numerous studies have found that contact with nature positively affects mood, cognitive function, and recovery from stress. From forest bathing in Japan, known as ‘forest or nature therapy’, to moving to greener urban areas along with the duration and frequency of exposure to nature are just some of the scientific research covered and more are mentioned in the book.

Studies of behaviours

The book has drawn data from various studies on the latest scientific research on how children’s behaviours have changed over twenty years and the consequences -an increase in obesity, along with illnesses in children and adults. There is strong evidence supporting that getting amongst nature is beneficial to health and well-being, which is also touched on in the studies.

The place of nature in Aotearoa New Zealand cultural history

There is a chapter on our cultural history and how Maori and European settlement affected the natural world, including birdlife, forests, wetlands, and rivers. Knight also compares with other countries like Germany, Norway, and Japan, who associate strongly with the forest as part of their cultural identity.   

Finding a sense of place and connection in nature

Knight also devotes a large part of the book to telling personal stories of people she interviewed seeking better lives. One of those interviews is Rachael Phillips, who grew up in Gisborne on a quarter-acre section in a wilderness of fruit trees. Rachael remembers family bushwalks in the Waioeka Gorge (between Gisborne and Opotiki) and visits to the National Arboretum of NZ Eastwoodhill and Grays Bush Scenic Reserve. Rachael’s story is very personal, and her own experience behind the restoration of a kahikatea block on their farm in Otorohanga. The memories of the kahikatea forest in Grays Bush and her father’s passion led her to find some healing in her own project. 

Grays Bush Scenic Reserve: This reserve is renowned for kahikatea and puriri trees that grow together some are 400-500 years old. I feel small. Kahikatea, named ‘white pine’ by European colonists, are majestic trees and NZ’s tallest native trees at 55 metres. It is estimated that only 2 percent of original kahikatea forest remains nationwide.
Grays Bush Scenic Reserve: This reserve is renowned for kahikatea and puriri trees that grow together some are 400-500 years old. I feel small. Kahikatea, named ‘white pine’ by European colonists, are majestic trees and NZ’s tallest native trees at 55 metres. It is estimated that only 2 percent of original kahikatea forest remains nationwide.

Embracing nature in our everyday lives.

We still have a way to go as a nation, with many kiwis still spending little time in nature due to demographics, time, and even cultural factors. Knight ponders the question, ‘what are some of the ways we can ensure nature is in every kiwi’s life?’ This is already happening with initiatives around the country that are community-led to restore nature along streams, rivers, and in forest and wetland remnants and estuaries. Despite this happening, these are often separated from the places where we live and work.   

Recommendation

I recommend this book as an excellent read and resource suitable for anyone interested in knowing more about nature and well-being from a kiwi perspective. It gives food for thought and moves us to take action to create more natural spaces in the cities and towns in which most of us live.

Images equally support the information throughout, providing a visual record of nature experiences and people enjoying it. Knight is also the author of ‘Environmental History of the Manawatu’, ‘Ravaged Beauty’ and subsequent books ‘New Zealand Rivers’ and “Beyond Manapouri”.

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Catherine’s book is available from:

Nationwide Book Distributors

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