Biological Time: Reconnecting with Nature

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 9th October 2018

Maddy Harland describes why shifting our focus to biological time, rather than human time, can reconnect us with the natural world around us and make us psychologically as well as physically more healthy.

This summer, we had no proper rain for weeks and after a cold, snowy late spring we leapt into the height of summer. It iwas hotter than usual and this gaves us, in the cool temperate north, a holiday feeling, especially those in the PM team who have enjoyed the World Cup!

Our modest 360 litre rainwater harvesting system in the veggie patch almost ran dry. The ponds, especially the one in front of the house that has a small pebble ‘beach’, became a haven for birds and insects. On the telephone wire outside my writing room window I watched dunnocks, sparrows and goldfinches preen their feathers after a bath. At least once a day, swifts appeared displaying their impressive aerial acrobatics to catch insects. We appreciated them eating the horseflies, less so damsel and dragonflies. At night a juvenile tawny owl sat on the hazel opposite and rasped out its call in the half light.

Whilst I completing a new project, The Biotime Log, a way of recording biological time like patterns in nature, cycles and unusual sightings, my life changed immeasurably. The PM team decided to radically alter our working life by moving office to ‘the Cloud’, responding and adapting in a positive and proactive way to the inevitable change hitting the publishing world. (Streaming, digital, downloads, high street closures, loss of income for artists and small labels have affected the music business for years. Now it is affecting us.) Just as vinyl has experienced a resurgence, however, we are seeing new possibilities emerge for small, artisanal publishers.

Moving to the Cloud has brought me home after 20 years at offices at The Sustainability Centre (still our registered address and store thanks to The Centre’s willingness to be flexible) and the PM team still meet up. No longer a daily commute, it is more like seeing good friends and a cause of celebration!

This immeasurable change, however, has not been about my daily work routine. It has been personal and unexpected. When I left life at home for the office, our forest garden was just four years old and I hadn’t discovered the full possibilities of no dig gardening. Yet it is not just a matter of garden maturity or the pleasure of a garden and greenhouse that has something for the table most days of the year. It has been my own deepening immersion in the landscape. Having lived here more than 30 years, I had thought I ‘knew’ the place and was in tune with its rhythms. Somehow being here most days and nights has brought a different subtle rhythm and intimacy into my life with more flexible time for me for both work and play. I notice and appreciate the minutiae and the daily changes to phenomena like the drying seed pods of yellow rattle (successfully reintroduced into our meadow by Tim last year) and the ripening of soft fruit like tayberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries – usually the blackbirds beat me to the harvest. I get to see the buzzards soaring on thermals more often. My focus on biotime and recording key events has encouraged the deepening of my attention. I have become more enthused by the practice of learning to identify plants, birds and insect species and by observing and appreciating the honeybee colony I care for. I feel stress levels dropping away and I am ‘quickened’ in a way as if the ‘genus loci’ has come alive to me.

Psychologically, biophilia (a term coined by Edward O. Wilson meaning a ‘love of life or living systems’) makes us happy. Humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with Nature and other forms of life. This affiliation is therapeutic. Relationships with non-­humans can be nurturing and supportive. We know this to be so with the domesticated dogs, cats and other species we share our lives with. We are beginning to understand that relationships can extend beyond our pets to the entire ‘more than human world’.

Researchers are discovering that there is evidence that immersion in Nature can reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; improve vitality and mood; benefit issues of mental well-being such as anxiety; and restore mental fatigue and attention capacity. Feeling a part of Nature has been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness and lower cognitive anxiety.1 The act of deepening daily observation, journaling, drawing – walking barefoot, climbing, wild swimming, listening to whatever aspect of the wild calls you – is an antidote to what Thomas Berry called the ‘radical discontinuity’ between the human and natural world that leaves us not knowing who we really are. We begin finally to belong.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine International and the author of Fertile Edges: Regenerating Land, Culture & Hope and The Biotime Log.