This week, when I was in Delhi, I told my friend Shabani, “I went for a walk in Aravalli Biodiversity Park.” She said, “What! I thought you hate nature.” And with my nature-loving, hiking, trekking friends, I continue to carefully maintain that I hate nature. Otherwise, they may suggest things like a six-hour trek on my birthday (true story). Or start talking about monsoon walks in the Western Ghats and how they have a new solution for those leeches. Or plan an amazing ocean-side trek in the middle of our office get- together (also, a tragic true story.) I like nature that I can get to in an autorickshaw. I like indoor plumbing. And if that means I hate nature, I guess I really hate nature.
I know some of you are like me. You know that nature is pokey, prickly, dusty, rainy, hot, dry, sandy and covered in pollen. You may not have as much practice as I do in admitting you prefer AC to nature but I know you are like me.
But did you know, my fellow nature-haters, that nature can also be fun? And I have learnt this from YouTube and Instagram. For instance, did you know you can spend the whole day, week, and, possibly, years watching baby animal videos? Baby seals waddle up to the camera. Orphan baby elephants drink milk from giant bottles. A stray baby swan sits on top of its mother while its siblings follow obediently. Baby crocodiles look hilarious as they paddle in a vertical position. Oh, teeny, tiny baby crocodiles tinier than my geometry box ruler, you are so cute. Wait, what was I telling you about? Right, nature. Nature is great. In small, cute baby doses.
But if you, like me, often think “what has nature done for me lately?”, I have some news. In the last 15 years, nearly a thousand scientific studies have shown the actual, tangible benefits of being out in nature, nature here being either man-made or natural greenery. Time spent in nature makes people feel less lonely, improves their mood and reduces aggression. While everyone benefits, research focused on women shows that those who resided in green neighbourhoods lived longer and were less likely to die of respiratory-related illnesses and cancer. Flip side, if you are a woman living in an area affected by severe tree loss, chances of cardiovascular disease increase.
And given this substantial body of research, you can also check out the small print. For instance, time spent in nature reduces blood pressure—but only if you are not scared of nature. If you are afraid that a bear is about to jump out at you or you have heard from the neighbour that the empty plot has a cobra, don’t do your nature immersion there. Next, to experience the benefits of nature, you need a minimum of two hours per week outdoors. That’s the minimum, says a 2020 study of 20,000 people in the UK. Wondering if these studies are only talking to affluent young college students? No, the studies cut across age and class.
A total of 120 minutes outdoors per week. Not so difficult, right? Yes, but the projection that most of humanity is going to be living in a cities in less than 25 years means that we all have to plan our nature immersion like our diets. The good news is that your 120 minutes doesn’t have to be all at one go. You can do it in bits and bobs over a week.
If you sort of prefer lying down, like sloths and koalas and me, I have some suggestions on micro-dosing nature. For instance, you could learn the names of one or two common trees in your city. You could use an app or a book or ask some nature-loving type. Believe me, someone in your layout is one of those horrors. Once you have learnt the names of two-three trees (at this point, I want to emphasise that coconut trees do not count), you could go for quick walks and take pictures of nice specimens. If photography is not enough of a challenge, you could draw them or paint them.
Similarly, you could learn the names of three birds in your region. You could set up a bird-feeder. Nothing is as satisfying as saying, “look, a split tailed, pink breasted drongo,” to your friend whose favourite birds are Pokemon’s Lugia and the Talonflame. Bird names are genuinely ridiculous, so they won’t ever know if you are faking it. Go google the blue-footed booby.
If showing off your new general knowledge or posting cool nature images online is not your thing, you could join a group. Big cities have groups of tree-lovers. They organise walks and picnics, do surveys and are generally tree-bhakts; the most enjoyable description of them can be found in Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli’s Cities And Canopies.
Once you have dipped your toes in the outdoors, you could try for longer stretches. Your city might have a mini forest or a state forest that you can check out on a weekend. You could actually go for a three-hour walk on your birthday. A trek is a slightly difficult walk, by the way. I hadn’t figured this when I was listening warily to my leech-loving friends. And you can actually ask what the difficulty level is and figure whether you are up to it.
I am not going to lie. Soon, it’s going to be easier to spend 120 minutes in nature than to actually get to nature. You know what’s super-quick though? Cancelling nature. Last week, the Maharashtra state board for wildlife finished a meeting in five minutes, clearing all the projects affecting protected areas, tiger corridors and bird sanctuaries without any discussion. I guess they hate nature too? The thought of the Tadoba tigers losing their forests makes me feel cannibalistic, like the smiling axolotl that the American poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes about in her book, World Of Wonders.
One of the greatest ways to be involved with nature, I find, is to read about it first. Recently, I discovered why there are so many stunning photographs of crocodiles looking up sincerely at their living crown of butterflies. First, they are apparently caimans, a gharial-like creature in the Amazon. And butterflies love the salt from the caiman’s tears. There are no caimans outside my front door; very occasionally, there are some butterflies. But the thought of this living metaphor of high-low fashion makes me smile while I take a walk and dodge a car.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.