Good Nature

Below is the foreword by Tristan Gooley for a 2017 exhibition, Good Nature, at the Candida Stevens Gallery.

We have evolved to think in two ways. We are capable of plotting, calculation and analysis. But our survival as a species depended on us being able to take in our surroundings – our landscapes – without having to think too hard about them.

A person who sensed that a squirrel’s call meant that a predator was approaching went on to procreate, the genes of their oblivious neighbour were gobbled up. Equally, the person who calculated the width of the river, and therefore the length of vine necessary to cross it, is our shared ancestor.

These may not be daily challenges now, but our brains continue to depend on these two ways of thinking. And many exciting things happen when we allow them to support each other. Outdoors it becomes possible to experience landscapes the way our ancestors did – we rediscover that we can sense our own weather forecast and see a compass in the shape of a tree.

There was a grand yew on top of Bignor Hill in the South Downs that had been sculpted by decades of wind from the southwest. This buffeting formed a tell-tale shape, effectively a compass that anyone who chose to could read effortlessly.  

A few years ago this tree was chopped down to make the area more palatable to grazing livestock. The old yew had become a natural navigator’s favourite and I felt its absence. The demise of a tree I had come to use and know also triggered a keen awareness of changes being made to the broader landscape, long before there was any public information about them. I believe this sequence is the most powerful way to effect broader engagement and connection with nature.

We shouldn’t lecture people into changing behaviour, it is almost always ineffective. Instead of saying, “Bird numbers are decreasing, this is terrible, we are all wicked and our lifestyle is an abomination,” we could try saying something very different. Maybe: “Have you noticed how the birds on trees and rooftops face into the wind? When they change the direction they are facing it means that the wind direction has changed and there may be rain on the way.”

A person who enjoys this sign will come to notice the birds and any change in their numbers and behaviour. Conscious thought about an outdoors method leads to heightened awareness and a deeper connection with nature, without any browbeating. It is this relationship that can foster positive changes in behaviour. If we are hectored by environmentalists, however well-meaning, it is more likely to engender resistance or apathy. It is stimulation that engages and motivates.

The two modes of thought, gut response and conscious thought, govern our take on both nature and art, because our impressions will always be shaped by these psychological forces. And we can enhance our appreciation by being aware of both forces, whilst in nature and in a gallery. It is worth knowing that this process is as good for us as our surroundings.

Academics have proved that immersion in nature improves our mood, concentration and attention span. Time in nature makes us think and feel better. Art exists to stimulate our thoughts and emotions. Nature and art form an irresistible pair. We are powerless to stop them shaping the way we think and feel. 

The concept of ‘thinking fast and slow’ outdoors is explored more fully in the book Wild Signs and Star Paths (The Nature Instinct in the US).

The full exhibition catalogue can be found here.