Ethics, aesthetics and outdoors

I’m reading for the umpteenth time a really good book on outdoors, the KaplansThe Experience of Nature. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan make some really important points in their book. It maybe didn’t have quite the impact in UK (although such themes are recurring: see here, for example, from Bowler et al., 2010)  as it would have had if it had been published, say, ten years later, and needs outdoor people to come back to again and again. I think that many of the ideas they come up with are assimilated by other, later writers or that others come to similar conclusions. Reading Chapter 6 on Restorative Environments was, when I read it for the first time, a bit like coming home.

The argument – by Ch 6 – is around what they term “mental fatigue” and the potential restorative role for the outdoors, although they admit this does not explain at this point what is being worn down. They come to the conclusion it is a facility with focus, and refine their idea as “Directed Attention Fatigue” in which basic tasks cannot be competently completed: we have less capacity for detailed attention, leading to basic errors, less sensitivity to social cues, less ability to persist. The next section is key:

The struggle to pay attention in cluttered and confusing environments turns out to be central to what is experienced as mental fatigue….One way to achieve this is through sleep… Sleep however has limitations as a way to achieve recovery. Ideally one would provide rest for directed attention during one’s waking hours as well. Achieving this requires environments and tasks that make minimal demands on directed attention.

Ingeniously they then propose ways of “getting away” which in turn are seen as insufficient, until the writers synthesise their arguments and come to their key notions:

  • Being Away
  • Extent
  • Fascination
  • (Action and) Compatibility

It is these four aspects I want to explore really quite briefly and from a set of personal experiences rather than anything remotely challenging the deep understandings that the Kaplans bring out in their book.

Being Away

When in 2009 I called my (?ecocritical) study of Sendak, Butterworth and Childs  ‘Escape into the outdoors?’ (in Deep Into Naturelinked here) I talked about the unwary getting into trouble “out there.”  I was thinking about the ways in which children’s literature encourages a mental escape, but that the space brings challenge. Ida and Max for Maurice Sendak, Charlie and Lola for Lauren Childs, Nick Butterworth’s Percy the Park Keeper all help the reader see beyond the page, behind the bedroom or wherever – even beyond reading in a garden on a sunny afternoon. Mini Grey has some lovely insights here, especially where she states that “books are windows and doors into experiencing being someone else.” Windows and doors to outside. It is not always a nice place (for Ida in Outside Over There it is a “mental and emotional landscape of sibling jealousy and childhood anxiety”) but it is an “away” that brings a different way of being. However, the personal experience of the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project and the simple delight of an afternoon walk in Wychwood Forest suggest to me that the embodied mind needs an embodied escape, an experience of release from the everyday being enhanced by perception of beauty. As the Kaplans propose, reviewing the work of Fly (1986),

…”experiencing nature” or “enjoying the natural surroundings’ received the strongest endorsement…. environments that foster a sense of safety and competence, where a quick assessment leads to the judgement that one could readily make one’s way and could explore without great risk were the more preferred.

What I am therefore to make of my fall from the rope swing (not pictured here but much enjoyed by my students on Twitter)? I suggest it’s complex: on one hand a simple misjudgment of my own capability and a need to belong or impress; on the other, the safety – the lack of great risk – is social/emotional: falling with a friend around to laugh rather than mock is a lesser risk than the fall itself. A pratfall: the humour is in the tumble; the affection is in the humour.

Would I have attempted that swing on my own? Where might the stranger walk? What part does confidence play? Ludchurch on my own was a greater challenge than with Mat and Roger and Jane and Debbie. Maybe the social stuff (see below) is important to me, and “embodied” implies “relational.” Maybe the Kaplans’ notion that social cues are dulled by certain contexts can be turned on its head and that the social aspects of “nature” should be considered. Maybe we need to create spaces for us to be away, or be away with people, to heal, or to sustain our wellbeing.


The view out to the North West from Wychwood Forest in April ’18 (the first shot) was wonderful, the view (here) down the valley from Thoon with Mat in November ’17 was tremendous, enlightening; there may be significance in the fact that they both had far-away horizons. Both encompassed

the imagined as well as the seen…a promise of continuation of the world beyond what is immediately perceived,

It might be possible to see extent as having a powerful pull on the role of landscape in literature, maybe drawing on Romantic notions of Nature – but we would have to admit the claustrophobia of Garner’s valleys somehow: extent might immediately be about vistas, but in play and literature it is also about possible worlds. The Kaplans’ “whole other world” might in fact be literature based entirely: would that negate their argument, or subvert it by suggesting that reading was an effective escape into the outdoors?


A fascinating stimulus is one that calls forth involuntary attention.

This suggests to me that part of the fascination might be that is it in part spontaneous.  That is not to say that some of it isn’t contrived or predicted: sunrises are unpredictable because of the weather, but they always happen; Forest School might always be Thursdays but what happens when you find that weird log to balance on?  The tension around how much “nature,” in England at least, is landscape, shaped land, means that the fascination we feel is always to some extent  contrived: Mat at Alderley Edge is photographing in an area made wild by the Garner family in previous generations, partly to entertain the local landowners and the visitors from Manchester. He is taking pictures of a lovely, autumnal wood, he is fascinated by the potential to Alan Garner and Garner’s readers, but it is in a contrived space.


[Humans] are fascinated by attempting to recognise in instances where recognition is difficult but not impossible.

They are explicit in citing here

scenes high in mystery.

Alderley Edge’s shaped land is just that; Garner’s writings  (quite apart from the stories he draws on) are enough to give it that mystery,  so in coming to an end of a too-brief discussion of fascination, I come to awe and wonder, and hence into the Kaplan’s final category.

I am back feeling whole and dreaming in Ludcruck.

Action and Compatibility

…The natural environment is particularly interesting…in that it communicates a sense of reality…[R]ather than leading to control the wilderness experience leads to a sense of awe and wonder and at the same time relatedness.

Relatedness is interesting if problematic. “The only place you could be a hermit was in the centre of the stage on the Albert Hall,” as someone once told me. I know that the Kaplans are viewing this relatedness as being to “nature,” and Belden Lane’s book Backpacking with the Saints sees this connectedness as being as a solitary affair. However, in choosing the photos for this post I do note how much of my experience of the outdoors is social. There are writers who would see spirituality as having a keen social element, so that the discovery of values and transcendence is, as Ping Ho Wong puts it in the article A conceptual investigation into the possibility of spiritual education,  also seen as arising from within a culture. I wonder whether this social aspect needs exploring further? Not only because without Mat I would never have explored the Wild Spaces of Garner Country, and without Jon would not have found the rope swing, but that without Maggie I would not have had someone to sit with in what Rob Macfarlane calls the “blue so deep, sea-deep” shimmer of bluebells above Nettlebed and caught their subtle, Endymion smell.


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