When it comes to getting close to nature, Nick Baker is next level, from solo diving with great white sharks to accidentally sharing a sleeping bag with a toxic caterpillar – but he says you don’t need to go to extremes to benefit from bringing the wild back into your life. In his new book ReWild: The Art Of Returning To Nature, he reveals how just spending time in the natural world is a form of mindfulness, and also that you don’t even need to venture beyond your city limits to re-awaken your senses and reconnect with the wild...
RISING Your book is all about bringing nature back into our lives – but how do you think we’ve lost touch with it?
NICK BAKER ‘It's one of those slow changes that's been going on for some time and because it's been happening so subtly it just slides away. Generally speaking it's a much smaller portion of society which would be able to recognise the sound of a kingfisher, or tell the difference between a moorhen and a coot. It really is slipping away, and because it's not valued, this information, it’s not being taught, and as a consequence it’s just vanishing bit by bit.’
RISING OK, but does that really matter? I’ve got Google and my iPhone and more shows on Netflix than I could possibly watch – isn’t that enough?
NB ‘We are designed to look ahead and to look at a vista, and to process the natural colours and the natural sounds, and smells, and tastes and not lock ourselves to what is, effectively, a small sun in our pockets - your smartphone. It mimics daylight, so you are being completely transfixed by this glowing bit of sunlight in your pocket, and it's just not good for you. It's addictive and it's not good when it shuts down all your other interactions in the world. Despite what you might think, you can't focus and concentrate on everything all at once, you have to decide somewhere on what it is you're prioritising. We have this thing stuck on our hip or in our pocket that can get us at any time. It's a really difficult discipline to get away from that, to turn off the mobile phone. What you've got, attached to your wallet, is a portal to the entire world, but it's not real and it's not in the moment.’
‘Rewilding is about taking control of your own body, your own tool-kit and using it to your advantage’
RISING So do you think we are too reliant on technology?
NB ‘There are those that are saying that our way of remembering stuff, the way of learning stuff, is changing because of this technology we surround ourselves with, and that makes me wonder how we'd cope if and when that technology falls down and fails us, which it will and can do, especially given the current potential energy crisis that we may be facing. With that in mind, how are we going to carry on?’
RISING So, rewilding is a response to that?
NB ‘If our computer passwords fail, or our computers crash and everything goes with it, we're crippled, and that does nothing for our self esteem because we feel, deep in ourselves, that we are attached to this stuff; we cannot live without it. Rewilding is about doing something about that. It's taking control of your own body, your own tool-kit that you've been born with, and using it to your advantage in a way that helps you cope with everything, really.’
RISING What’s the benefit of spending time in nature, for our minds?
NB ‘All these Attention Deficit Disorders and mental health issues that are being experienced in increasing prevalence in today's society, particularly in young people; it's proven that time in nature actually has measurable therapeutic value. It's even being prescribed by various health services now. Time in nature is being seen as a viable alternative to medicine, and of course it's cheaper as well, so it's win-win for everybody. Once you've learnt it it's a lifetime skill that you can apply for the rest of your life to your own life, but also you can share it and you can help other people too. It’s a beautiful thing.’
RISING You’ve used the experience of watching badgers at night to deal with the shock of a car crash that left your mother in life support and brother in a coma – is nature able to do things people can’t, in that kind of situation?
NB ‘When something awful happens to somebody you know, you can't engage in a conversation with them without making some kind of reference to it. Sometimes you don't want that, or don't need it, or you feel awkward. Sometimes that completely un-judgemental presence of a space, of life of another kind, a non-human kind, can make a massive difference to your healing process. It’s nature therapy. This is what we're talking about, but it's nature therapy from a real place, almost to the point where I can't believe I'm saying this because anybody who knows me knows I have a history of being a blokey bloke. I'm certainly not a sensitive individual – I'm a social hand grenade – so for me to write a book like this is a bit of a surprise. But it's true. It comes from the heart.’
RISING What would you say to someone who can’t easily get out of the city?
NB ‘I work in the middle of a city sometimes – OK, it's a pretty green city, but it still has all the urban issues. I'm talking about butterflies and bees, and window boxes. I'm talking about peregrine falcons sitting on the cathedral. I'm talking about watching a parasitic wasp crawling up the brick walls, looking for spider holes in which to lay its eggs. As long as it is some nature, there is some space for nature, then there is some space and potential getting something out of the world that is not built around possession and monetary value.’
‘I've sat on a polar bear, I've slept alongside thousands of penguins, I've solo-dived with great white sharks’
RISING What’s been the most rewarding thing about your career and experience in the wild?
NB ‘You never stop learning, that's the beauty of it. I talk in the book about putting together a library of experiences. Every day I will learn something. Even though I know my way round my own patch and my own countryside pretty well, I'm learning stuff all the time. We are very privileged, us wildlife presenters. We get to see so much more of the planet than I could have ever imagined I could do. I've sat on a polar bear, I've slept with thousands of penguins all at the same time, I've solo-dived with great white sharks, I've slept at 80 metres in the Borneo rainforest in nothing but a hammock.’
RISING So, what’s been your most amazing wildlife encounter?
NB ‘The thing that knocks everything into a cocked hat is more about its surprise, and the fact that it caught me out. It's something that I've experienced on my own shores, and that was swimming with the second largest fish on earth. I'd never imagined I would be bowled over by such an experience, and it was partly magnified by the amount of failure that I'd had – the more times I failed to see a basking shark, the more I thought it would never happen. It was such a sweeter moment for all the failure, and it was an experience I will never, ever forget – my most amazing wildlife experience. This fish, the length of a double-decker bus, but the girth of a car; watching this thing swimming towards me with its mouth open. Even though I knew it ate plankton I had to keep repeating to myself the mantra that it was a plankton-eater, because I could see I would fit right into that great big pink maw, easily. The fact that I saw it less than 100 miles away from where I live made it even more special and it also made me realise that I could cut up my passport right now and not regret it.’
RISING If you were to design a four-step plan to get closer to nature what would it be?
NB ‘One: get outside, challenge yourself. Get outside of your comfort zone. We all talk about adventure, but the definition of adventure is put yourself out of your comfort zone. That doesn't have to be going to the ends of the earth. That could be going into the local woods at night, or doing river snorkelling, or skinny dipping in a local pond. Two: tune-in, I mean really tune-in. This is where the meditation comes in. You've got to sense your way around, become aware of things that you might not have been aware of before. Challenge yourself to become aware of those things, and bit by bit the world will come to you.
‘Three: don’t get hung-up on jargon, or on feeling that you are not as good as anybody else. The fact that I can identify nearly every bird I hear singing when I'm walking through a wood in the springtime could be daunting, but I reckon in a year or two of really listening you could easily be as good. The same goes for every discipline, whether it's recognising smell, whether it's identifying living things and spotting things with your eyes. It's tuning in to patterns. Four: use the skills you already have – people who come up for walks with me go, “How did you notice that, how did you see that that was one of those?” And I think and I say, “Well, what's your passion?” Some of them might say motor vehicles, or it might be aeroplanes. I say, “Well, I can't identify that aeroplane that flew over. You're picking up on exactly the same cues that I pick up on, but you're doing it with a machine, that's all. You can identify the sound of that aeroplane. It’s the same as a birdsong – the same skills, it's just taken out of context.”
WHAT NEXT? Read more about Nick Baker’s top wildlife experience in this blog – it made him bite through his snorkel in shock…