My research contributes to understandings of human and nature connectedness, providing accounts of cognitive, social and cultural experience.
Journey to the Ideal Self:
Personal transformation through group encounters of rural landscape in Scotland…
My Ph.D research was funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership. (To find out more about the AHRC click here.) It was carried out at The University of Edinburgh, working across the school of Landscape Architecture (Cultural Theory), Social Anthropology, and Material Culture at Edinburgh College of Art. I began my research in September, 2014 and completed my thesis and sat my VIVA examination in December, 2017.
The THESIS – My Full thesis will be made available as soon as possible and when ready it will be available here. I am currently seeking book publishing opportunities and will be publishing journal articles in due course. When these are available you will find them on my Academia.edu profile here.
What did I want to know?
What is positive about group engagement with rural ‘natural’ landscapes?
Why do some people take advantage of their ‘right to roam’ in Scotland and engage with these spaces?
What do groups do within these landscapes when they journey there?
Why do people go as a group?
And what happens when they do?
What do activities in rural spaces provide for people?
Why are these kinds of excursions considered to be personally and socially transformative?
In what ways is getting outside good for us as individuals?
In what ways is getting outside in to these spaces, as the Scottish government appears to believe, good for society?
and what do we even mean by good?
What were my methods?
My research was qualitative, meaning that it was concerned with the experiential elements of these excursions: the quality of these experiences. My methods relied on being with people as they made journeys and took part in these activities. I spoke to people, I participated in activities and I observed everything as I did so. I was concerned with the emotional and bodily experience of these kinds of excursions and with how the individual, the group and the landscape related to one another.
I researched among 5 case studies…
1) A young adults personal development charity that took young adults from urban areas in Edinburgh and Glasgow on excursions in rural environments where they camped, kayaked, walked and stayed in bothys.
2) A mental health initiative who utilise wood craft, site management and sustainable creative projects to foster well-being and better mental health in individuals experiencing mental ill health.
3) A community living initiative in the Inner Hebrides who champion a sharing ethos, permaculture, sustainability and living off the land. They also offer walks, kayaking a ‘wild’ swimming.
4) A group of artists, neo-shamanic practitioners, psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioners who engage with the ‘natural’ landscape to better their practice and well-being.
5) A woodland weekend group who spent weekends across the country volunteering to take part in forestry maintenance and social excursions.
I owe an awful lot to these groups of people.
This project was multi-sited: I traveled with my case study groups to rural spaces around the lowlands, highlands, and islands of Scotland.
Serendipity and transdisciplinarity
To remain responsive to my research communities and their activities I developed a framework for a serendipitous ethnography which is outlined within my thesis. Simply this means that I was open and allowed for what will be to be. I took every opportunity and activity to be a method for understanding.
I adopted a transdisciplinary research strategy, engaging with a theoretical framework spanning psychotherapy, psychology and eco-psychology, sociology, philosophy, human geography, anthropology and outdoor education as well as landscape and performance studies.
Before starting I had to reflect upon my own relationship to these kinds of landscapes and activities. What has my own personal narrative had to do with my research?
Where it all started….
As children, my sister and I often played outside, as many children in Scotland may have in the 1980’s. We built gang huts out of branches, stones and debris. Through our stories, shared experience and collaboration in making our secret hideaways, we made the spaces in which we interacted with friends, our place. Through touching it, smelling it, climbing it, poking around in it, eating it, and breaking bones on it (!), we arguably, developed a part of who we were to become.
We would gather tadpoles from beneath an old sewage tank, where the concrete basin had filled with rain water. The old tank sat amongst the trees in a woodland surrounding the old Victoria Hospital behind our home – most likely now a space out of bounds to children. We would watch the frogs lazily stretching down and beneath the murky water, their springy leg the last thing to plop in. We would rush tadpoles home, to my mother’s despair, to keep in the bath. We had jars with caterpillars in, making sure they had foliage to munch on. We would catch bees by flowering bushes in jars too, listen to them buzz frantically before letting them free as we squealed. We would hunt for things, beasties, passage ways, we’d leap out of trees. It would turn from sunshine to dusk and only then we would come inside. We always found somewhere to play. But at some stage, I couldn’t specify when, we stopped looking.
As an adult I was looking for a sense of well-being…
When I was eighteen years old I moved to London to study and was rarely outside of the city centre. The most that I engaged with anything remotely ‘natural’ was growing herbs in my window or perhaps sitting in a large, busy public park on a summers eve with friends and a glass of wine. Years in London, as a student and waitress, went by with very little thought. It was all late nights out and cramming to finish papers. I was simply getting on with ‘stuff,’ as people do, without perhaps tapping in to how I was, mentally nor physically. At twenty-two, no longer a student and needing to find work, I moved to Birmingham City Centre, where the opportunities or chance engagements with any type of greenspace were minimal. I was working eighteen hour shifts in an events venue, living next to one of the UK’s busiest shopping centres and living in loop: work, pub, home, work, pub, home, I found myself exhausted, run down, and suffering badly with an anxiety disorder that had plagued me since I was a teenager. A good friend at the time insisted that we get out of the city.
On the outskirts of Birmingham there was a vast park, Sutton Coldfield, with forest and lake and we were going to spend the day there. We wandered, paddled, sat and talked. Within one month I had handed in my notice at work and was heading back to Scotland.
Looking back, I feel that through our engagement with these childhood reveries, my sister and I found a temporary sense of belonging. I associate the outdoors with my own personal narrative. These days brought with them a sense of collective discovery, which I continue to see as vital as an adult. It is experiences such as these that have formed my interest in such a research topic. As a person who has engaged with these outdoor landscapes due to a desire linked to a childhood spent visiting family in remote rural areas, there is a fond interest in spending time within these spaces. As an adult, I choose to engage with these spaces. I therefore position myself, as a researcher, as someone who deliberately engages with ‘natural’ environments due to my own perceived benefits, regardless of their intangibility. Living within urban Edinburgh, I choose to journey to ‘natural’ areas to walk, to rest and to explore for many reasons. This choice is telling of a disposition – I believe that this is positive, for me. The question of what this kind of activity may offer to groups and of what manifestations within these spaces may tell us of the phenomenological experience of rural spaces is still left pertinent.
So, what did I find out?
My thesis outlines motivations for engaging in excursions from urban central Scotland to areas in rural Scotland. It explores the intangible, ineffable and ephemeral experience of case studies in ‘natural’ rural landscapes and what is relevant in the relations between the self and non-human in these circumstances.
- I describe how and why group interactions within ‘natural’ space are adopted as positive self-transformation strategies and I consider the ‘nature experience’ as relational between the self, the social and place – with what constitutes the social as ambiguous within case study interaction.
- I discuss the self and the perception of the ideal and ought self in relation to motivations to journey in this manner. I discuss the self as part of a group and within the landscape as a dynamic and relational subject.
- I have considered the sense of self within these experiences as a metaphorical liminal site. I discuss the group collectively as a site of dynamism and liminality. I also argue that this allows for the perception of the landscape itself to be a liminal site. With this we see the importance of temporality and structure, or indeed anti-structure, within these excursions as something which aids in the perspective that they are transformative.
- I have considered notions of perceived affordance (or sense of opportunity for activity and personal development, as I define it) and how this changes throughout experience with the increasing ability to associate ideas and abstract experience within one’s own personal narrative.
- I explain how each group differs in how they perceive the rural landscape as something to instrumentalise, personify or anthropomorphise – With this comes an exploration of complex anthropocentric mindsets and the influence of these ways of thinking on experience.
- And finally, I suggest that individuals choose to journey to ‘natural’ rural environments to self-verify an aspect of their ought or ideal self with a desire to re-imagine the self through engagement with others. In self-verifying one’s ideal or ought sense of self, finding a sense of belonging within a group and believing oneself to be doing something good in relation to the ‘natural’ rural space, individuals and groups experience a sense of personal and social transformation.
Wellbeing, natural space and mental health
– Good Lives and Decent Societies, The University of Edinburgh/ The Engine Shed, 2014, Invited panellist.
– The 5th International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Emotional Geographies, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, The University of Edinburgh, 10th-12th June, 2015 –Capturing Communitas: The Joys of Reverie and Shared Experience in the Scottish Rural Landscape – A Proposal for Creative and Sensory Methods in Ethnographic Research; Conference presentation.
– Future Connections: Sustainability Research in Action, w/ GESA, IAD and the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science and the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, 25th-26th June, 2015; Conference co-organiser.
– The 5th International Conference on Health Wellness and Society, Interdisciplinary Social Sciences and Common Ground Publishing, University of Alcala, Madrid, 3-4th September, 2015; Graduate Scholar Award, multiple panel chair.
– Sharing Cultures, The Green Lines Institute for Sustainable Development, The Cultural Centre of Lagos, Portugal, 21st-23rd September, 2015 – Shared experiences and reverie within Scottish rural landscapes for group wellbeing? Conference presentation, proceedings publication and nomination for best ‘Early Research Career’ paper.
– Eco Cultures Glasgow’s Festival of Environmental Research, Policy and Practice, The Pearce Institute, 17th October 2015 –Capturing Communitas: Place, Idleness and Shared Experience of Scottish ‘natural’ landscapes – A participatory Ethnography: Conference presentation.
– Innovative Learning Week/ Ideas in Play, The University of Edinburgh, 18th-19th of February 2016 – Being Other: Seeing Other, Theory into Practice and Practice in to Theory: Organiser and co-workshop leader.
– Traversing the Field – an interdisciplinary conference on walking in the Scottish landscape, The University of Dundee, 30th April, 2016 – Body and Boulder: Tactile encounter, pace and personal “transformation” in Scottish landscapes beyond the urban; Conference presentation and invited panel chair.
– Like a Rolling Stone, The University of Edinburgh; Silversmithing and Jewellery department and The Italian Cultural Institute, 6th -10th June 2016 – Immersion, Flow and Making in The Scottish Natural Landscape; Ethnographer, workshop facilitator, presenter and critical essayist.
– ESALA Away Day, The University of Edinburgh, The Royal Botanical Gardens, 15th June 2016 – From the Mundane to the Sacred: Group engagement, experience and the perception of agency in Scotland’s landscapes beyond the urban; Invited speaker.
– Tales for Travelers and Traveler’s Tales, Fife, 10th of August 2016 and summer 2016, in conjunction with the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, The Fife Psychogeographical Society, Forth Pilgrim and The University of Edinburgh: Walking event, invited workshop leader.
– Explorathon: European Researchers Night 2016, Beltane Public Engagement Network, Ocean Terminal Edinburgh, 30th September 2016: Participant/public engagement/ presenter.
– Mood, Mobility and Place – Habitats for Happy Ageing Conference, The University of Edinburgh, 11th-14th October 2016, chair.
– The Bristol Nature Festival, AHRC funded project, Nature, Culture and Wellbeing. Bath Spa University, The Watershed, June 2017. – Invited speaker.
– Nature and Wellbeing Symposium, IASH, The University of Edinburgh, June 2017. – Panel leader and presenter: Activities in Nature for Improved Personal and Social Wellbeing: Practice and Research.
– RCUK World Mental Health Day, Invited speaker, Swindon. 10th October 2017.
Plus featured in The Arts and Humanities Research Council Mental Health Report (2017)
– The American Association of Geographers Annual Conference: (Upcoming)Towards the Dark: an exploration of presence, with and without light, in the ‘rural’ darkness of winter. New Orleans, USA, April 2018. (Co-Author – Dr Margaret Kerr)