Nature withdrawal: recalling the wilds of New Zealand

Nature withdrawal: recalling the wilds of New Zealand

We are Maddy and Penny, two old friends who met at primary school in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. We’ve been around for 23 years, but after Penny left New Zealand in 2002, we didn’t see each other until 2016. After all these years apart we talked for a long time about our childhoods, our love of the wild and how we independently came to realise the importance of nature for our wellbeing.

Maddy: I have a vivid memory of meeting you at my house last year after so many years apart. It was so cool to catch up on old memories and how different our lives were after you left.

Penny: There is something so special about being a child in rural New Zealand. I missed Hawkes Bay very much after moving to the UK. Although my new home in the English countryside was beautiful, it lacked the wildness of New Zealand. I didn’t understand or identify how I felt at the time but now I realise that I grieved for it; the land itself, the unique diversity of plants and animals, the birdsong, the beach and the Kiwi way of life. I think we were very fortunate to grow up in this unique part of the world and just living somewhere else made me realise how truly special it is.

Penny with chickens. Image: Penny Richmond
Maddy spend time outdoors on the swing. Image: Madeleine Parker

Maddy: I also realised how fortunate we were when I moved overseas but this wasn’t until I was 21. I left New Zealand when I finished my degree and fell in love over two summer months in Australia. Almost every weekend we drove somewhere beautiful. I then spent a month in Asia where almost every person I met told me how lucky I was to live in a place as beautiful as New Zealand. One person even proposed to me on the street because he’d been to 80 countries and New Zealand was his favourite. I was so happy to be home after that summer. It was like seeing it through different eyes. When did you start to realise?

Penny: I realised the importance of nature to my wellbeing when I moved to central London for university. It was the first time I’d lived in a place that was more concrete and stone than earth and leaves. Something big was missing. Not living a life dominated by the seasons was particularly disorienting for me. The subtle seasonal changes in London are nothing compared to the intense changes in scenery, smells, colours, birdsong and the home grown produce. I felt anxious and agitated. Did you notice any changes when you moved from our home town to a bigger city?

Maddy: Not when it came to nature. I was mostly focused on being independent and leaving my old life behind. I loved Wellington. It has beautiful reserves and nature escapes nearby, so I never got the chance to miss the wild. I think I needed to be far enough away to realise how much I needed nature. There’s also something special about being alone in nature.

Beautiful Wellington. Image: Madeleine Parker

Penny: I’ve always known that sometimes I need to go somewhere where others are not. I need my alone time. But it was only when I moved to London that I realised I need to be alone somewhere natural, preferably a woodland or a forest, and just be there for a bit. To me, nature is like an essential nutrient. It puts everything in perspective. It takes you away from whatever problems you are dealing with at that moment and puts before you the raw cycle of life and death.

Maddy: It also helps me put things in perspective. The more I learn about it, the more I realise my dependence on it. Living in Australia this year, I participated in a three-day Indigenous cultural awareness course. Nature was our classroom. The teachers took us on a bush tucker walk where they shared the uses for all the different plants. It was incredible, hearing knowledge that had been passed down from generation to generation. I’ve never met a group of people who so deeply respect and understand the importance of nature. It’s tragic how much we miss out on when we don’t see the true importance of nature in our lives.

We both studied science at university, so we were interested in evidence about why nature is good for us. While many papers give good reasons, some of it is intuitive. Maddy asked a few people if they knew of any important research papers in particular. Although there are plenty out there, one person summed it up pretty well: sometimes you just need to get outside.

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