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Interview with Dr.Hanna Haveri, Planetary Health Physician.

Recently, my home country Finland has been making headlines, not only for being the happiest nation in the world, nor for the NATO membership process. But for something greener.

Finland has appointed the world’s first Planetary Health Physician, Dr. Hanna Haveri, a Specialist in Neurology in Lahti.

Planetary Health “recognizes that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked and that our civilization depends on human health, flourishing natural systems, and the wise stewardship of natural resources. With natural systems being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history, both our health and that of our planet are in peril” (UN, 2023).

I was enthusiastic about this initiative and decided to approach Dr. Haveri to interview her on a number of tricky topics.

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Dr.Haveri feels that at the core is the problem of nature not being given value it deserves. Nature is often seen and treated as the last bit to consider. But because nature cannot speak directly to us (personally, I interpret this as most humans not understanding while nature speaks loud and clear) and defend itself, we should be the advocates for nature as we are dependent on it. Here, Dr. Haveri feels that the scientific evidence can and does help us to point to the financial incentive to protect nature. Here she points to the value translation into as ecosystem services, like pollination services, without which we would not be eating, or at least not as well, on this planet.

I see this as a question of worldview or even spirituality, as many people recognize the intrinsic value of “nature” and do not require nature to prove itself in financial terms. However, clearly, this bunch of humans is a minority, hence the need for the search for value and proof.

Talking about value and proof, I wanted to know what Dr.Haveri found most challenging when trying to motivate planetary-friendly (good for self and Earth) behavior. Furthermore, I wanted to know whether she thought is was enough to navigate this tricky path with only information, as my hunch was that value-based change would work more effectively, though it would maybe be more challenging to bring about.

Dr. Haveri did not find values and knowledge contradicting each other but that they can actually work together. She finds it important to pursue collaborations with commercial interests, such as food procedures,  to get them on board with ethical and planetary marketing, etc. I will circle back to this later in this post.

Dr. Haveri underlined the importance of political action to support planetary lifestyle and used the example of cigarette smoking to highlight it as a success story of how to get people to change their behavior in a relatively short time, as it has been made structurally so difficult for them to smoke in public and private places.

As for incentives,  she feels that it will not work well to only focus on positive incentives if we want to achieve big changes fast. Positive changes are voluntary, often connected to improved health or other positive outcomes. In addition to the positive incentives, we do have to use negative ones, meaning, legislation. Humans are capable of adopting these negative incentives as well, but it is more effective when working with both when we try to make this behavior stick. It takes time and support for people to adopt new habits.

I shared my concern of taking the wrong path exploiting nature to restore us simply to be able to return to work in a rather toxic system that is stress-causing and taxing to our mental health, rather than trying to change the root causes of such a system. Dr.Haveri did not see a problem in looking at nature as a place that supports our effectiveness. In fact, she felt that work is a big reason to keep mentally healthy and engaged in life. For many people suffering from loneliness and minimal or non-existent social circles, the work community could even be their only social circle. She would like to see more effort being put into the work environment’s quality and making sure that meaning can be found in work. It is much more worrisome to see people living for the weekend, says Dr.Haveri.

Referring to the experiment that is still in analysis in Finland (first-line care/maternity clinic personnel were informed of ways to improve planetary health through increasing nature contact, diet, and recycling) of promoting planetary health as a lifestyle, Dr. Haveri finds it important that the health/social care personnel is trained in these matters. The public continues to listen carefully to the authority’s suggestions on matters concerning their health. This is a good opportunity to affect people’s behavior. However, it has been discovered through a few pilot projects, such as the planetary prescriptions, that in Finland the lack of information is mostly not a problem with people, but it is the speed at which we live and have to make decisions that make it difficult to make the “right “choices. Stressed-out parents who know very well what should be done, choose unsustainable choices just because of ease and accessibility, i.e. the price of food, manners in which free time is spent, the way we commute, etc. Often planetary food choices, i.e., healthy, locally produced, and/or organic food is claimed to be inaccessible due to their high price. In the case of Finland, it is not necessarily true. For example, there is less burning need to buy organic food in Finland because no antibiotics are used in Finnish meat production, and the use of herbicides and pesticides is much lower than in continental European countries, not to mention countries outside of Europe. (Pictures of Finnish nature at the bottom of this post)

However, Dr.Haveri feels that supply and marketing need to get on the same line with the efforts of health care. It can no longer be so that the more unhealthy is cheaper or easier to get access to.

I was also interested in Dr. Haveri’s take on the ever-so-high burn-out numbers. Dr. Haveri talked about the changes that have happened with electronic communications. In comparison,  when Haveri was a child, and her father would stop work at the end of the workday, he would have time e.g. to go skating with his children because work was done and left at the workplace. Nowadays the boundaries between work and home life are blurred and people are reachable throughout their day. It is therefore needed to create more boundaries and protect oneself better during free time. Dr.Haveri wondered where the need for constant reporting on social media was coming from. As a neurologist, she sees the effect of our online lives affecting our working memory, focus, and sleep quality.

In Finland, she reports lots of mental unwellness among youth, especially so in the countryside where services and social contacts are far apart. This means that people in the countryside might be more alone. In the city, on the other hand, there are some protective elements, in terms of mental health: more social contact and services closer by, more opportunities to follow one’s interests. But in the cities, there is also the well-documented effect of a lack of green spaces as cities become too urban. Dr.Haveri highlights the importance of green cities, to make the best of both worlds: keeping the diverse green spaces to enable high-quality nature contact also for immunity, but also the cultural and social contact.

The fact that Finland still has some less touched nature is good news from an immunity point of view, but even in Finland, the portion of untouched nature has dramatically decreased. The majority of forests in Finland are rather young production forests, and as land use has drastically changed, so has biodiversity. The young, mostly monoculture forests are poorer in biodiversity than untouched old-growth forests where biodiversity has had thousands of years to develop.  This seems to imply also immunological changes, e.g. Type 1 diabetes has become more common in Finland, as is also evidenced by the groundbreaking work of Ilkka Hanski.

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I was happy to have had this opportunity to share a short moment with Dr.Haveri and hear her take on these issues. It is exemplary that the city of Lahti, the green capital of Europe in 2021 and also home to one of Finland’s first therapy forests, spearheads this type of interdisciplinary professional titling. However, I did find myself wondering how I felt about using nature for doing better at work. I find this begs the question, which one comes first: being in nature to be able to do better at work or making work about taking care of nature. As things are now, I cannot think of any form of employment that wouldn’t have an indirect or direct effect on the planet. Therefore, my hope is that in the future we will see the appointment of many more Planetary Health Physicians but also Forest Managers, Teachers, Film stars, and Baristas, to name a few. And later on, seven or so generations from now, these additional titles will no longer be necessary as people will have adopted planetary health on a value level.

The work toward this goal continues.

On becoming a forest

Blog by Katriina Kilpi

People who are passionate about nature – myself included –  explain their passion by the time they spent playing in nature as a child.

Maybe their parents loved being in nature too. Maybe they were scouts or had a summer house. Maybe they lived close to nature and they got to spend their free time running free all day long together with their siblings and neighborhood kids.

Or, maybe…maybe their parents were not around to engage with them in meaningful activities and they needed to keep themselves entertained. Maybe they needed to stay out of the way, to stay small, to stay invisible. Outside is a good place to disappear into. Outside is also a safe place that will keep inspiring and distracting the young mind from the negative feelings brought on by absent or possibly dangerous adults. Outside is always available. Outside calms down the nervous system of a child.

Nature teaches at a very young age that it does not need anything from us but offers calmness, like hot chocolate that runs in the veins: cozy, sweet, and warm.

A child growing up with nature as a safe place will never grow too far from it. They might momentarily grow distant, and lose their way, but when shit hits the fan, they can find their way into it later in life. They will only need to remember.

Nature will have the same effect, and instead of being the playground, nature can be the safe adult that teenagers still need but often miss. Nature can be the friend who doesn’t judge or make one feel worse for wearing, thinking, or liking the wrong thing, or whatever is unacceptable in the often black-and-white world of teens.

In nature, it is okay to be different and a bit awkward. Nature is available, listening, and consoling. The nervous system of the teenager calms down.

If a child stays close to nature all the way to young adulthood, there is very little chance they will lose their way from nature as an adult. Nature might just become more consciously part of their life or they might become more consciously part of nature. This starts reflecting in their daily choices of consumption, where they live, what they believe in, who they work for and what they want to put into their bodies and surround themselves with.

The forest becomes a sanctuary for many because, in our highly urban lives, we need reminders of wilderness, the untamed world, and what things could look like if humans were not manipulating it all. Forest is an organism that one can immerse oneself into and momentarily forget about the human world.

Nature gives a perspective: it is the source of reason and meaning, the beginning and the end. For many who have felt nature holding them all through their lives, nature now becomes their place and object of worship. And a companion to co-regulate their nervous systems with. Nature provides the secure attachment many of us are missing.

Picture of a forest in the morning in Ottignies, Belgium.

Many recite this mantra of us human beings being part of nature. Yes, we are because we are carbon-based life forms like any other creature. We are programmed to love nature because of biophilia. We intuitively know everything that the mounting research on nature’s health effects tells us. But the reason why we keep going back to nature is that it has, for so many of us, ever been the only safe place to be.

You see, the human world is often not safe. The human world is exhausting. In the human world, we make ourselves and others feel unworthy, lacking, limited, sad, envious, ….frustrated, aggressive, competitive, having power over, and finally, victorious. But only for a split second. That victory we feel when we get that job, that girl, that new purse or a car, is fleeting because none of it fills our tanks for good.

Only we can do that. We can fill up our own tanks by understanding there is nothing wrong with us. We are perfect because this is how nature made us and everything in nature is perfect.

The realization is hard to remember and maintain because everything in the human world seems to be designed to remind you of your lacking.

Nature helps us to get started with that realization because no matter where we look we are reminded of that perfection. So many people report feeling consoled when they are in nature. They say they feel welcome. That there is no bad hair day in nature.

We get a glimpse of that wholeness when we are in nature. And that wholeness is our ventral state. Our wonderfully centered state, in which we are naturally mindful, present, noticing, and alert. In this state, we allow more, of ourselves and of our neighbors.

Source: http://www.rubyjowalker.com

And then, so easily something happens that makes us slip into the other states of our nervous system, dorsal or sympathetic, and lose our center again. And because we are so used to these other states, we feel almost at home in them. These states are maintained by our societies as well as the trauma that we have not yet resolved.

Because the majority of us are traumatized. Even without a big one-time event from war or a dramatic situation, we are traumatized. Why do I claim this? If you have a relative that knows or knew someone who was alive during the war, you are most likely traumatized. Not only because of the war traumas long tail but because that was the generation that did not learn to love their kids in the way we are all supposed to be loved: unconditionally and with full attention.

Illustration by therapist Ayan Mukherjee.

Our parents and grandparents and grand grandparents did not have the time for that! They were busy surviving. But humans are made to give and receive love. We are sensitive creatures but that does not mean we are not resilient. It is just that sometimes our resilience actually turns out as a survival mechanism and deep down, there are wounds festering. We hurt easily but we stay in the game.

On top of that trauma we have inherited from our parents, grandparents or grand-grandparents, the society we have built, the unreasonable and ridiculous demands we put on ourselves to work 5 days a week from 9-17 to be able to provide our families and ourselves everything that is needed to measure up as good citizens, makes it that we are constantly watching out, staying hypervigilant for the chances we are missing and for opportunities to do better and be less faulty. We are never just enough.
Except in nature.

So by all means let’s keep going with these projects to green the cities, create less polluting cars and try not to damage the Earth even more. And definitely providing opportunities for children to find nature as their safe space. But what about what we are continuing to do to ourselves? We need to stop being so relentless towards ourselves.

It is November and the forest is getting ready to go to sleep. What do we do? We up the ante and go even faster to “finish everything before the end of the year”. For what? For artificial deadlines. Who will die if we do not reach that deadline? Noone, but you might die trying.

What good does it do if we only have nature to bring us back to ventral for those fleeting moments, if we are only going to rush back into the sympathetic or dorsal states where we train our kids to be in and go through their lives in.

When people are calm, they are automatically more mindful. They have time and space to ask questions about their own wellbeing, their life choices, and the big picture. They will notice nature on their own, as this is our default programming – to notice nature when we are in our natural state. This noticing leads to awe and even more positive reinforcing.


I believe that if we are feeling good in our skin, we can be the regulators for others. Just like we sense the slow heartbeat of nature, we can sense the regulated nervous systems of other humans.

We can be nature for each other – that calm and familiar forest that we long to take shelter in.

Non-native contributions: Introducing Jonna & Taiga-Yoga

In this series, I want to highlight some expat entrepreneurs who are contributing to the wellbeing of people living in Belgium with their nature based offerings.

Because I am a Forest-Finn, it gives me such pleasure to start off the series with a fellow forest-Finn, Jonna Kokko (Jonna´s last name means a big bonfire that we traditionally burn near the lakeside in the midsummer or at Easter in some parts of Finland). I had the pleasure of joining one of Jonna´s Taiga-yoga sessions in the Liedermeers park on a Saturday morning. We started out with a meditative walk, and then went on to some forest inspired yoga poses. We finished with a chat and a lovely cup of tea, all corona-safe. #thistooisforestbathing

Hi there, please introduce yourself?

Jonna Kokko

“I’m Jonna. I’m a Finnish expat, yogi, yogateacher, musician, nature lover and a mother of two. I moved to Ghent Belgium in 2009. I’ve been teaching yoga since early 2020.

I’m currently hustling with a full time job, teaching yoga and being a mom. Sometimes it feels like a lot but mostly I’m loving my busy and chaotic life. I’m hoping to inspire others with regular jobs and busy family lives to make time to take care of themselves.

Where did you get the idea of taking yoga to the forest in Belgium?

I’ve been practicing yoga since the early millennium so it’s been an important part of my whole adult life. The idea of following a teacher training was there for several years before I finally decided to go for it in 2019. I’ve been very inspired by the Forest Yoga movement in Finland which was started by Mia Jokiniva with her book Metsäjooga (=Forest Yoga) in 2018. Finnish folklore and shaman culture are often at the heart of the Finnish Forest Yoga.

In Belgium, I cannot entirely copy paste the Finnish Forest Yoga so I am making it my own. Folklore is less present in my Forest Yoga for now but I’m  most definitely letting my imagination go wild.

Part of the Forest Yoga experience is bringing the attention away from the mind and becoming present with the forest and nature around us. In Forest Yoga I’m combining the benefits of noticing nature and yoga in imaginative ways and the result is something very healing and empowering.

What is the difference between the indoors and outdoors yoga except for the obvious?

In my indoor yoga classes we bring our full focus inwards and to our body. We are practicing the skills of yoga asana, meditation and breathing. Essentially we are learning tools for life.

In my Forest Yoga sessions we open our senses to experience the nature around us. It is more imaginative using symbols to find the right energy of the pose. During the sessions we use sticks, rocks, trees and other elements from nature to incorporate in our yoga practice which makes it very creative.

There is magic in Metsäjooga

Is there something in nature in Belgium that you have learned to especially appreciate?

Belgian nature is highly accessible for everyone. I used to dislike the straight paths and the park feeling of the forests but now I can appreciate the positive side of it. Everyone has the possibility to enjoy nature, the young, the old, people with disabilities.

What is our own relationship to nature like?

Nature means everything to me. I was brought up making day trips to nature, fishing, picking berries, swimming in the lakes. When I’m outdoors, I can fully relax and experience the nature around me with all my senses. Mother nature is a reminder that all the worries of our daily life are usually smaller than we think. Being outdoors puts things back into the perspective.

In this image, Laura, Jonna and Kirsi show the wild chicken, forest warrior and magical moose poses.

Veerkrachtpad (Resilience path) opening at Borgwal, Vurste

Today we officially opened the resilience path at the beautiful Borgwal domain in Vurste (Gavere). This route of +2 km contains exercises that invite you to slow down, stop and immerse yourself in the forest. From Saturday September 12th you are very welcome to try out the Veerkrachtpad yourself and enjoy the positive health effects of the forest.

From the beginning of 2021, you can also be guided on the path by a guide who will support you in the exercises.

Download the Veerkracht report here (in Dutch, available until 15/09/2020)

Dowload the press release about the Veerkrachtpad here (in Dutch):

Opkikkerpad & Veerkrachtpad

Afgelopen donderdag openden we het Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck. Sindsdien ben ik in Vlaanderen op radio (Radio2, Nostalgie) en tv (AVS) geweest. Waarover gaat het?
Het is duidelijk dat het belang van de natuur voor welzijn eindelijk is opgemerkt in Vlaanderen. Het maakt me heel gelukkig. De ophef over het Opkikkerpad heeft waarschijnlijk te maken met het feit dat het ging over het bewust contact maken met de natuur, de “Scandinavische oorsprong” en de grappige naam.
De waarheid is dat de originele “Voimapolku” (Sterkte-pad) in 2010 werd gecreëerd door Dr Kalevi Korpela in het Finse Ikaalinen. Sindsdien is het losjes gekopieerd in Finland, Zweden, Frankrijk, Luxemburg en dus nu ook in België. De paden zijn ook getest op mensen en bleken te werken. Ze zijn vooral veelbelovend in omgevingen waar je lawaai, oogproblemen en andere dingen hebt die je ervan kunnen weerhouden om van je natuurervaring te genieten. Ze herinneren ons er ook aan om te vertragen en te genieten van wat er om ons heen is. Het is in wezen een bosbad, maar dan zonder
gids.
Het Opkikkerpad is het tweede van onze NatureMinded-creaties. Het eerste pad is nog niet open. Eind vorig jaar heb ik samen met mijn collega Henrik twee maanden het Veerkrachtpad getest in Borgwal, Ortho-Agogisch Centrum. Daar hebben we onderzocht wat het effect is van het pad op mensen die het bewandelen. Ik kan je de resultaten nog niet vertellen omdat het verslag op dit moment wordt vertaald voordat ik het inlever bij gezondheidsfonds CM die de hele studie heeft gefinancierd (Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen en Borgwal gefinancierde ook ons werk en werkten enthusiast mee). Maar op basis van de resultaten kan ik zeggen dat mensen in Vlaanderen echt hun voordeel doen met dergelijke paden die hen eraan herinneren om te vertragen en “aan de rozen te
ruiken”.
Het leuke van het Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck is dat het een langere route is, er verschillende alternatieve lengtes zijn om uit te kiezen en de meeste paden toegankelijk zijn voor rolstoelgebruikers. De negatieve punten zijn dat je bijna de hele tijd op een verharde weg zit. Het is echter een heel rustig deel van Puyenbroeck waar je af en toe ook herten kunt zien! (Ik heb ze elke keer dat ik ging ook echt waargenomen, geen grapje). Doordat je de folders met oefeningen mee kunt nemen, kan je ze ook in andere omgevingen uitproberen, zelfs in je eigen tuin. En zo kan de magie van het bewust verbinden met de natuur zich over heel Vlaanderen verspreiden…
Het Veerkrachtpad in Vurste is iets anders. De domein is kleiner en er is maar één route. De oefeningen die op specifieke plekken te vinden zijn, verlengen echt je verblijf in het bos waar je anders op enkele minuten doorheen zou lopen. Maar je krijgt er een bosgevoel, ook omdat je over de bosgrond loopt. Je kunt het bos ook echt ruiken, vanwege de vochtige grond. En de bomen zijn prachtig! Het is een meer dan 300 jaar oud bos met een grote diversiteit aan bomen. Ik kan je verzekeren, elk seizoen in Borgwal is een bezoek waard! Net als aan Puyenbroeck.
Maar genoeg erover. Ik nodig je uit om het pad in Puyenbroeck uit te proberen en na de opening op 8 september ook zeker het Veerkrachtpad in Borgwal te gaan bezoeken. Daar is tenslotte alles begonnen.

Guided wellbeing path

Last Thursday we opened the Opkikkerpad (“Boost path”), and since then I´ve been on radio (Radio2, Nostalgie) and TV (AVS) in Flanders. What is all this fuss about?
Clearly nature´s importance for wellbeing has been finally noticed in Flanders and we at NatureMinded could not be happier. The fuss about the Opkikker pad has probably to do with the fact that it includes the very mindful connecting with nature, “Scandinavian origins” and a funny name.
But truth be told, the original “Voimapolku” (Strength path), was created by Kalevi Korpela in Finland´s Ikaalinen in 2010. Since then it´s been loosely replicated in Finland, Sweden, France, Luxembourg and now Belgium. The paths have also been tested on people and found to work. They are especially promising in environments where you have noise, eye sores and other things that might keep you from enjoying your nature experience. They also remind us to slow down and enjoy what´s around us. It´s essentially forest bathing, without a guide.
But Opkikkerpad is the second of our NatureMinded creations. The first one is not yet open. Late last year me and my colleague Henrik spent two months testing the Veerkrachtpad (Resilience path) in Borgwal Ortho-Agogisch Center. There we tested on people what the effect of the path would be. I can´t tell you the results yet because the report is being translated as we speak before we hand it in to CM who financed the whole study. But, based on the results, I can say that people in Flanders can benefit from such paths that remind them to slow down and to smell the roses.
The nice thing about Opkikkerpad in Puyenbroeck is that it´s a longer route, there are couple of alternative lengths to choose from and most paths are accessible to wheelchair users. The negative points are that you are almost the entire time on paved road. However, it´s a very quiet part of Puyenbroeck where you can also often spot deer! The fact that you can take the folders with exercises with you, means that people get to try them out also in other environments, even in their own gardens. And so the magic of mindfully connecting with nature spreads across Flanders…
And Veerkrachtpad is something different. The domain is smaller, there´s only one route, so the exercises that are fixed in place really lenghten your stay in the forest that you would otherwise walk through in a matter of minutes. And there is a forest feeling there, also because you walk on the soft and squishy ground. You can also really smell the forest, because of the moistness of the environment. And the trees are magnificent and old! It´s an over 300 year old forest with such diversity of trees. I can assure you, every season in Borgwal is worth visiting! As is Puyenbroeck, of course.
But enough about writing about it. I invite you to check out the path in Puyenbroeck and make sure to visit Borgwal after the opening on the 8th of September. Afterall, Borgwal is where everything started.

Wat doet natuur voor ons?

Deze video is een samenwerking tussen NatureMinded Consultancy en Maks Vzw om het bewustzijn over het belang van natuur voor onze gezondheid en ons welzijn te vergroten.

Maks vzw (https://maksvzw.org/) stimuleert bewoners uit Brussel om op zoek te gaan naar hun talenten en competenties met een focus op digitale kennis. Maks vzw levert ook diensten aan bedrijven en organisaties uit de profit en non-profit, zoals ICT cursussen, de realisatie van video CV’s, grafisch werk, promotiefilms, digitale story’s voor en met de klant.

Met dank aan:

Opa – Etienne Flerick

Meisjes op school – Unna Flerick Kilpi, Nine Hendrikx, Marie Tschabé

Kindjes in de park – Amin, Ayoub, Senna, Anouar

Meisje met de hond – Ellen de Lagun

De jongen op de kinesthetics – Sam Van Leugenhaege

Dame in het bureau – Bakhta Benzaza

An Goossens en leerlingen van Freinetschool Ibis

Tony Huysmans

Fons De Jonghe

Roy Remmen

Verteller – An Jacobs

Finding and losing nature in Belgium

The sun is glaring through the windows. The spring in Belgium has never been as beautiful. The scent of the wisteria blooming in the garden gets mixed up with the scent of the purple lilac carried over the fence from the neighbour´s yard, mixing the two into a wonderful fragrant cloud. The birdsong covers the sounds of neighbours chatting on their yards. The colours are vibrant as the air is clear. The haze, that would decend in the evenings and irritate my the throat is not there. When it rains, all the smells are amplified. I can smell nature. I can see nature. I can hear nature.

All this is possible because of the pause we have been forced to put out lives on since March. I am able to spend more time outdoors and I am overjoyed seeing people walking in the neighbourhood.  The dog walkers have been joined by families, young and older couples, even youngsters in the neighbourhood green spaces.

But this dreamy scenario was not always as dreamy.

You see, at the ripe age of almost 40, my invincible body and her immune system developed allergies. I don´t know for what exactly, but I know April has become the month of sneezes, snots and coughs, even occasional rashes. I´ve heard that allergies can be triggered by air pollution even at an older age. The culprit is clear: the Belgian airspace with its plentiful impurities. Except this year. This year my symptoms have been milder than ever.

IMG_20190421_170243

Allergy is only one of the challenges I´ve faced since moving to Belgian Flanders in 2006. When I arrived, I never considered to settle here as Belgium was not exactly the ideal country for an outdoorsy nature-lover like myself.  But as life (=love) had brought me to Flanders, I decided to give it a go. For now.

But while missing nature, I ended up getting angry at the country and its busy streets.  I blamed the paved and managed Belgian surfaces for my unhappiness (side note: Obviously not all my unhappiness can be blamed on the lack of nature in Belgium, but I´d like for now just to conclude that one´s surroundings do affect one´s wellbeing which is what I touch upon in this text). All I saw was the violent way nature was tamed and managed, and how I was reduced to a mere passer by who needed to stay on the path.

Everywhere in my immediate surroundings I was reminded of the human world and its grip on nature. I could never have the forest all to myself (Finnish privilege, I realise). If it wasn´t for the scouts making noise or bikers passing by, it would be the nearby highway not letting me forget I had never really left the civilisation. The sights, sounds and smells kept me tied to the human world.

On our street in one of city of Ghent´s  most densely populated housing areas, houses were attached to each other side-by-side. As soon as you stepped outside, there was life in front of you. Neighbors to talk to you, cars to honk at you, dog shit to step on and to all this, you had no time to prepare. It hit you just as you stepped out. For the introverted highly sensitive outsider that I am, this was often too much. At the same time, I loved the multicultural, active community of Ledeberg, and the idea of our street with (at the time) 19 nationalities.

To ease my own longing for nature, I let our tiny garden grow wild. I planted a facade garden and I took my tiny daughter and dog to the nearby “dirty park” (“vuile park”, i.e. Vijverspark). Most kids were not accompanied to the park by their parents so the kids played on the narrow sidewalks with cars whizzing by. Once a month I packed our family to hit one of the bigger nature reserves in the south of the country or the Dutch coast as I felt the growing need of feeling surrounded by the vastness of nature.

The family grew by one more child and the house started feeling inconvenient, the green even smaller and the busyness of the surroundings unbearable.  As a last resort before throwing in the towel and using force to move the unwilling love to Finland, we found a house not so far away from Ledeberg but in a distinctly different kind of neighbourhood.  Compared to Ledeberg, however, the move to a new neighbourhood included a steep decline in diversity of nationalities and a sharp increase in the average age of the residents.   The proximity of the highway and the inner ring around the city of Ghent and the subsequent gridlock in the afternoons on both sides of our neighbourhood, dawned on us only after settling in. My thirst for nature had got so acute, all I saw was the amount of light inside the house and the potential of greening the area around us.

 

All this came to a halt during the past almost two months when we have been forced to put our lives on a pause.  But a pause means a temporary stop.   The lockdown easement will start tomorrow. The freedom to move beyond one´s neighborhood will be returned and people are even recommended to use their own cars to leave public transport to those who need it more urgently.

After weeks of not being able to move as we wish to, the urge to drive to the coast or to one of the nature reserves with more services and facilities, will be as tempting as ever. What will it take to keep us from taking one of those 2-3 cars standing idle on our yards? How can we remind ourselves of the glorious silence on any morning of the week when there was no gridlock? How will we remember how the sudden smell of the may flowers at the side of the road lifted our moods on a walk in our neighbourhood? Will we remember the surprise of meeting so many familiar smiling faces in the nearby forest during the lockdown and how nice our neighbourhoods actually are and can be?

The lockdown has showed me that there is a wild side to the Belgian nature. Once we lift the blanket of human activity that covers the vibrant colours, the birdsong and the scents of the spring flowers, nature will take over.

The idea of losing that wild nature again breaks my heart. I have been waiting all these years to fall in love with it.

 

Coping with the pandemic – survey

We at NatureMinded seek to deepen the current understanding of aspects supporting or hindering mental health and wellbeing during our first (but probably not last) pandemic.  Together with our partners from Steunpunt Geestelijk Gezondheid, we are launching a survey in three languages to involve as many people as possible in this endeavour.
The data collected will be used to raise awareness on aspects influencing how we cope during a pandemic but also our mental health and wellbeing in general.  No such personal data will be collected that can be linked to your identity (e.g. email addresses, phone numbers, names). We appreciate your participation!

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Getting your nature dose during COVID-19 in Flanders

Since we started hearing the awful news from Italy, it started to dawn on many people that we were also headed to a lockdown. And many people started finding their way out into nature. No wonder, as the internet is blasting out messages of how if one is not feeling sick, they should be getting out to nature because nature is good for you. And of course, they – the internets – are right. During these days, weeks and let´s face it, months of unusual situation, we should find our way out to nature daily.

 

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Simple movement in nature – walking, biking, jogging – gets our blood circulating, warms up our stiff muscles and body on the whole. Walking in a greenery lets us relax our minds as we pay attention to the green around us and the fractal patterns of nature. Our minds relax, we let go of the nagging thoughts that bother us and our moods lift. The sky starts to show up a bit more pink after all. We start walking home, home to ourselves.

When we breathe in the healing and fortifying fumes breathed out by the plants and trees, our cells are strengthened. The forest soil reminds our internal microbial environment about the good and the bad guys trying to enter our bodies and trains our system to work optimally.

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The flooding of humans to the nature domains and forests more than ever before is a worldwide phenomenon – my colleagues report the same from the United States and Japan. That is easy to understand – where before one´s energy was spent at work, commuting to work and picking up the children, many are finding their homes just a bit too confining. Not enough energy is burnt, and more and more messages on the endless stream of corona news starts to build a heavy weight on the mind too.

On top of getting rid of energy, we humans have a need to experience the wildness of nature and the sheer power of nature. Being able to follow a nesting bird, the first wood anemone or observing butterflies over blooming flowers is nature in action which gives us hope and a feeling that life goes on. That is a very important notion in these strange times when we are looking for answers and a way forward.

Nature domains are perfect places for this as one is able to get a feeling of untouched nature (minus the paved walking paths, signage and facilities. And the café at the parking).  However, during this crisis, the domains are getting overly used. Green spaces in Flanders are scarce. If this housebound situation persist, the government will have no other choice than to start liming our access to these spaces, in the fear that we will be getting too close to each other on the forest paths.

So I´ve collected here some tips and hints on where to find your daily dose of green when the forest paths get too crowded. Remember, these should be found in your nearby environment or not further than a bikeride away:

  • Check out your neighbourhood: now that there are less cars outside, even the busiest of neighbourhoods are bound to be more liveable. Take a walk in your neighbourhood, and even if where you live is not particularly green, pay attention to the colour of the sky, the way the sun makes different surfaces look; how on a sunny day you can feel the summer making its way to Belgium, regardless of corona. Pay attention to the birds in the city, the trees that are there. And take a moment to greet a tree in your neighbourhood. Imagine, if you will, all the services the tree is offering you in this city: it produces fresh oxygen without which you would seize to exist. On a sunny day it offers you shade, if you let it grow to become big enough where its shade can fit more humans underneath it. Using up some of the water and transpiring it into the air so that when we get heavy rains, it helps us to get rid excess water that would otherwise flood the paved city ground. And did I mention the phytoncides? They are out there, wherever there are plants growing. And who says you cannot walk after hours in your neighbourhood. Just remember your reflecting jacket!IMG_20200317_193055
  • Try the slow streets in the countryside that offer nice and romantic sceneries of the Flemish countryside. Next to vitamin D that you will need to again boost your immunity and sunlight to regulate your sleeping patterns, there will be trees to look at, fields that are starting to push some green and more birds to pay attention to. Take a look at the willows that have been cut in the traditional way. These trees can hold so much biodiversity as they are often hollow from inside. Imagine how much life an old willow can keep within it, and still keep growing! That´s the beauty of nature right there. Visit the horses or cows you see on the pasture. Take a moment to observe their way of being. How has their life changed since you were ordered housebound? Pay also attention the countryside houses and the signs of the olden days that are often visible. Reflect on how life has changed from the times of your grandparents… I dare to say, life on planetary level has improved tremendously, regardless of Corona.
  • Take a walk in the green neighbourhoods: in your city there are bound to be one or two neighbourhoods that are spectacularly green, with beautiful big, old trees surrounding the big villas. Most of the time, the soundscape in these environments is also pleasant as there are no busy highways in the vicinity. The air is again cleaner and your friends, the phytoncides, will be floating around that airspace too.
  • If you live on the seaside or at a reasonable distance from the sea; the sea has a calming effect on the human, due to, some say, the fact that we came from the ocean and because water has always played an important part in any landscape we find especially soothing and pleasing (of course, for people who have experienced trauma in relation to water, this might not be the case). The sounds of the waves work wonders on our brain and help us to relax. A walk at the seaside with the sea gulls screaming above you and the smells and sounds can catapult you to a memory and holiday feel instantly. That itself is enough to give you a healing, relaxing experience.
  • A garden: your own or a city garden. Though smaller in size, you can get the same feeling of wild nature when paying attention to a detail of a young shoot pushing from the ground. Take some mulch in your hands and smell it. There is something comforting about the smell too. What signs of spring are already visible? Can you remember or imagine what this space will look like after a few months when everything is in full bloom?
  • How about planting some seeds? Some of the grocery stores sell seeds of tomatoes, cucumbers etc. and even bags of soil. Why not try to grow your own vegetable patch, in your yard or on the balcony or windowsill on small scale. Observing the start of new life and tending to baby plants can be a healing experience on its own. Plus, it gives you something else to do and think about.
  • Just putting this out there: imagine if the private forest owners would make their private forests available to people, even if just on some mornings or some days of the week, with the same rules in place as on public forests, and visitors fully accepting own responsibility, we could make more green space available in Flanders. Just a thought…

My advice is to alternate between the places you visit so you won´t contribute to the crowds and you keep it interesting for yourself. There is no point in driving further than your neck of the woods. Nature is all around us. It is just a matter of noticing it.

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