As part of our 'life in lockdown' focus on mental health, we're sharing stories about people helping others to be more resilient. When I heard about a socially-distanced nature walk, I needed to find out more so caught up with James Payne, one of the organisers.
It’s great to have a chance to catch up with you today, thanks again for taking the time.
I remember many years ago the first walk I’d heard about you organising featured some foraging. Back home in Colorado we learn in school about the common berries, flowers and other treats on offer in our local forests but I was excited to start to learn about what’s on offer in nature here! All these years later I still regret that I wasn’t able to make it in the end. Oh well, another time I guess.
Not sure if it was by chance or design, but I think these walks you’ve both organised have come to be called Steps to Sustainability, right? Can you fill me in on the background here both about 6Heads and about the walks?
6Heads is an organisation that came out of my environmental technology masters. The year before I did it, six of the six of the women in the programme got together and set up this sort of collective to look at sustainability and innovation.
I think in our experience we had explored such interesting things with the masters and then when you're moving on to work, that same level or sort of aspiration or inspiration isn't always there. I guess it was just sort of a community trying to kind of keep that inspiration alive.
We did all sorts of events together and all not for profit, sort of, I guess, initially friends getting together and keeping that spark of inspiration going.
One of the things we found was that putting on events can be a lot of work, and particularly finding a venue can be really tough. Whereas, I think, particularly with a topic like sustainability, a lot of it is about the natural world and rather than being stuck in the centre of London, actually the opportunity to kind of get out of London to spend some time in nature and spend some time walking felt like a really great way of sort of spending time together.
I think that combination of getting out into nature, spending time together and connecting with other people, it all just sort of comes together. We've experimented with lots of different things, but certainly the Steps towards Sustainability walks have been a real success.
That’s great to hear. After missing that foraging walk I remember the first time I did come along was to one you had focusing on change. You took us on a lovely coastal walk and we took time out in nature to write and read poetry about change before a lovely pub lunch. What do you get out of these walks that seems to make you keep organising them again and again?
There's a quality of conversation that you have when you are out in nature and you're walking, and you just sort of very naturally happen to be walking up to someone and you can strike up a conversation, or you might want to just spend some time just sort of wandering by yourself, and it just feels very relaxed and easygoing. Sometimes networking events can be really awkward and it's a natural unpressurized way to connect with other people and connect with nature.
What have been some of your memorable moments?
It hasn’t always been plain sailing. There was one walk we did, a harvest hike focused on sustainable food solutions. And I remember it was a bit late in the year, it could have been late Autumn, and there was almost horizontal rain with a bit of wind and a lot of people hadn't really brought the right gear. We ended up having to take taxis from our lunchtime stop to where we were doing a wine tasting at the end of the walk.
We’ve had some amazing moments. Just last Summer we had another poetry-focussed walk with Tom Mansfield talking about eco-linguistics. He had created a poem about the walk and it was amazing to sit together in a field and listen to him recite it.
We did a walk from Dover to Deal about design for longevity and had a guy from Vitsu there speaking at lunchtime and it was such good weather that afterwards we all just sort of piled into the sea.
And so it’s been moments like this that have been really memorable, but for me more than anything, it has just been about making time to spend in nature.
Definitely. This year nature has been my rock, my yin, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you today actually because it feels like with all that’s been going on this year, there are all sorts of issues coming up around mental health, change, and resilience coming up for so many people. And I know you and I are also Insight Timer buddies and I wondered if you might want to share anything about your own meditation practice and how it’s been supporting you in these difficult times.
I think for me, meditation is a practical thing. I learned about 15 years ago but haven't really cultivated a daily practice until the last 2 or 3 years. I started all that time ago because a friend of mine did a meditation course and I really spotted what a positive effect it had on her, she seemed a lot calmer and a lot happier. There was a noticeable difference and I really felt like I wanted a bit of that in my own life.
Personally I practice in a Buddhist context, so there are two practices that I alternate, there's a mindfulness in breathing practice and another practice that concentrates on cultivating positive emotion.
I work in sustainability, and I think a lot of people who are trying to create positive change in the world can burn out a bit. It can be demanding work and you’re facing some really difficult issues. Being able to do some inner work is a real counterbalance to that outer work that you do. Mac Macartney from Embercombe has been a real friend of 6Heads and is somebody that I admire. He talks a lot about the idea of a twin trail, where you simultaneously need to do leadership work outside in the world, but also work on yourself.
If you're just doing inner work, I guess you run the risk of navel gazing or becoming self-obsessed, but then if you're only focused on outer work, you can burn out or you can end up doing stuff in an unskillful way. I think there’s a real balance to be found between that outer and inner work.
I couldn’t agree more. For me part of the whole idea of Sharkey and Friends is that in my sustainability consulting work it’s all ‘out there’ and I’m trying to help the world and make positive impacts and I’ve really noticed how to be effective doing this I also need to focus on the inside, and on my own mental health and wellbeing.
I was talking with Gib Bulloch recently, formerly of Accenture Development Partners and now leading the Craigberoch Business Decelerator. I think he too is recognising and championing this idea recently that to navigate these times we need to slow down and take more measured decisions no matter if at the level of individuals, businesses, communities or whole societies.
Let’s turn to this most recent event, the Regenerative Ramble, tell me about it.
We had wanted to do another walking event, but in lockdown the traditional communal events where we all get together and hop on a train and go to the countryside wasn't really an option.
So we wanted to replicate that nature connection and the personal connection people had experienced on previous events but do that within the limitations of lockdown. It also happened to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week and that was a happy coincidence. I know I’ve felt pressure under lockdown and definitely a lot of people have found it quite challenging. Just the idea of getting more in touch with yourself, with other people, and with nature around you, seemed important to help people cultivate mental wellbeing in challenging times.
And so you arranged a walk, but where you all walked separately?
So we puzzled it out and we weren’t even sure if it would work or not, but it turned out pretty well. We basically had a ‘Morning Cuppa’ at the start of the day where we had a video conference where people could come together, meet each other and talk about their intentions for the day.
And then over the course of the day, people individually set out to a natural setting near where they lived and the idea was to spend time connecting with nature. That morning we invited people to do something to capture the experience so it could be anything from as simple as taking a photograph to what we call like a soundscape drawing where you close your eyes and you sketch out the sounds that you're hearing, and we even invited people to write a bit of poetry.
Then at the end of the day we got together for some fireside sharing, again over video conference. It was really great sharing our experiences like that and what was most surprising for me was the number of people who tried to write a little poem or haiku about their experiences. It was neat to hear people who wouldn't normally do that maybe engage a different part of their brains or do something outside their comfort zones.
Wow sounds great indeed. Another real driver for me with Sharkey & Friends is trying to bring this type of kind of creative, out-of-the box event to people in the community who maybe aren’t on the 6Heads list or normally wouldn’t come across them. Do you think this would be a good event for some of those groups?
Yes definitely, it was really quite simple and accessible. I mean obviously if we had been going to the countryside you would need to pay train tickets and lunch, but this kind of event participants don’t even need to pay anything. You just need a few prompts.
Particularly in an ‘always on’ digital world, having that invitation to slow down a bit and discover the nature on your doorstep seems welcome. Sometimes I think we feel we need to be out in remote wilderness to connect with nature, but I’ve noticed within the limitations of lockdown I’ve really got to know my own neighbourhood so much better and appreciate things in a way that I never did before.
As long as people have a phone or a way to connect together, or I guess we could be together physically if it’s after lockdown, but then having the invitation and the encouragement to go out and explore the nature on your doorstep in a way you wouldn’t normally, I think that could work really well.
Great, well I guess that sounds like a job for us then. I’ll get back in touch soon and we can start looking at charities who could use something like this or ways we can organise ourselves to support. Thanks again for your time, bye for now.
James (website | email) - James is the global lead on sustainability strategy projects at Forum for the Future, with a keen interest in systems change, regenerative ambition and nature-based solutions.
Photos from the South Downs, courtesy of Olivia Sprinkel