I announced a while ago that I was working on a new book, and now it’s ready. The title has evolved to ‘Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age‘. This is the first time I’ve written and created a Kindle book from scratch, and it has been a very enjoyable experience. I plan to do more!
I hope you like this short excerpt from the new book, including a few practical tips you might like to try. You’re also warmly invited to join the conversation in the Digital Wellbeing Facebook Group
Are you always staring at your phone and never at the sky?
If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. (Steve Jobs)
Do you worry that you never seem to notice the weather any more Are you concerned that you do not hear the birds in the trees? That you seldom feel the grass under your feet or the wind in your hair? That the most vivid colours in your life come from a screen?
When was the last time you sat on a beach and let the sand run between your toes? Followed footpaths across rich green meadows, inhaled the heavy scent of hawthorn hedges around their perimeter? Got lost in a wood at dusk and felt just a little bit scared?
Do you check the weather in an app, or by the way it feels on your skin?
Are you always staring at your phone and never at the sky?
I wrote most of Technobiophilia at home in a cottage in the English Midlands, sitting in front of a back room window overlooking a small courtyard containing potted plants. I had arranged the plants so they looked good when you were in the courtyard, but my window looked out onto only part of it, so most of the time I could not even see the beautiful greenery I had curated.
The view from my desk featured only a single white clematis bush, but clematis is a deciduous climber which booms gloriously for a few months and for the rest of the year looks like a drooping clump of dead sticks. And I was so deep in my work that I did not even notice the paucity of my view. It was only towards the very end of my research that it suddenly dawned on me that all the plants I had spent money and time on were at the other end of the courtyard and invisible from my window. Feeling rather foolish, I realized that not only would a simple rearrangement of the pots bring colour and greenery into my view all day long, but they would also be a working application of biophilic design. I moved them right away. From then on, as I sat writing, I could raise my eyes and enjoy brilliant red geraniums, multi-coloured mesembryanthemums opening to the sun and a succession of other beautiful and renewing greenery.
So here is a question: what kind of view do you have from the places where you work and relax?
One aspect of my window view which was already biophilic was the fact that at the time I was living in an old country cottage where the mullioned windows of the sitting room had eight panes apiece. According to architectural designer Kent Bloomer, the large picture windows we so enjoy and which reinforce that sense of bringing the outdoors indoors are actually provoking a damaging level of cognitive dissonance. This is because, he explains, ‘we possess a psychological boundary around our bodies (and by extension around our houses) that divides, or separates, our sense of a personal, possessed interior space from an exterior extra-personal space.’ This boundary is vitally important to our experience of the world because it conditions our perceptions of the environment; it appears at places of entry and exit, providing visual information about ‘social rank, safety, cultural belief and the occupants’ relationship to nature’. Passing through the boundary indicates the near-possibility of touching and that haptic experience is, says Bloomer, ‘fundamentally critical in establishing a firm connection, a “contact” with the natural environment. Yet’, he goes on, ‘touching is precisely what is negated by the pure picture window!’
His solution is to make the boundary more obvious, not less, by investing in ‘the liminal transitional space of the window’ and using different tactile ornamentations to emphasize the threshold. By touching them, or being able to imagine touching them, ‘you may heighten your sensual association with the world outside’. Examples of such interventions include thicker or tinted glass, mullions connecting small panes, old-fashioned bottle-glass, leaded and stained glass, or even just patterned curtains or blinds. You can also buy large transfers of life-sized flowers and shrubs to stick onto picture windows, and various kinds of sun-catchers and mobiles to hang in front of them. All of these can establish a ‘visible and touchable moment of mediation between inside and outside’.
If that sounds a little far-fetched, consider this: Bloomer ends by pointing out that the ‘naked’ picture window ‘provides a sanitized vision and might even promote a false feeling of fulfilment predicated upon an illusion of experiencing and being connected to the natural environment’. His proposition does not seem to have been scientifically tested, and it rather contradicts the general belief that big picture windows strengthen our sense of the outdoors, but it is an interesting thesis and worthy of some experimentation.
For more see Kent Bloomer. ‘The picture window: The problem of viewing nature through glass’. In Biophilic Design, by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen and Martin L. Mador, 253– 262. New Jersey: Wiley, 2008.
I’ve been reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful book ‘Wildwood: a journey through trees‘, and was thrilled by his descriptions of Walnut Tree Farm, the moated farmhouse where he lived for many years before his untimely death in 2006. He bought the house in 1969 after spotting it nestling in neglected woodland, its ruined chimney rising above the trees. In the years that followed he slowly and lovingly renovated it piece by piece. He slept in every part of the property, including its fields. He swam joyously in its weed-filled moat.
Deakin was a nature geek and a craftsman. We can learn from him and combine his sensibilities with our online lives to create workspaces with his world in mind. And of all the things he made, it is his desk which most fascinates and inspires me. He wrote in his journal:
Building the new desk under the window in the study, looking south across the garden to the moat. Perfectionism kicks in and all the same self-critical criteria that go into a piece of writing. I make a yew bracket to peg to the oak wall post and support the top, a slab of fine-grained Oregon pine, and a careful wooden sub-frame or chassis. I fill some open cracks in the grain with plaster, smooth it down and carefully stain it pale blue using a delicate watercolour brush. I hollow out one of the old bolt-holes in the top to accommodate a smooth, round flattened pebble from the Hebrides, like a tiny curling stone. It is a sort of worry-bead. (p17)
Make some space on your desk for stone, wood, or shells that you have cleaned and shaped yourself.
Set aside a few minutes each day to enjoy the feel of them in your hands – the surface, the weight, the coolness, the warmth.
You may even choose to work colours and materials into the surface of the desk, as he describes above.
A treat, perhaps, for fingers more accustomed to keyboards and screens.