Nanci Nott speaks with zoologist, Sarah Way, about why it’s important to connect with the natural world, and how we can find our own Ways to Nature.
We all know that spending time in nature can benefit physical health, improve cognitive function, and enhance mental wellbeing. We understand why we should be immersing ourselves in the natural world – at least occasionally. The tricky part, is knowing how.
Here in the Peel Region, we are lucky to be surrounded by dolphin-filled estuaries, lush bushland, and wildlife-rich wetlands. Unfortunately, being in close proximity to nature will never be equal to actively connecting with it.
Sarah Way, a local zoologist with over eighteen years of conservation experience, knows more about the flora and fauna of the Peel Region than most. Sarah loves, “our sea-to-scarp lifestyle, and the biodiversity that abounds here – the Swan Coastal Plain is so unique! I love the fact that I can enjoy internationally significant Ramsar wetlands and beautiful beaches along the coastline, and also be able to go hiking in stunning jarrah forests on the Darling Range, that occur nowhere else on Earth.”
We live in a truly magnificent part of the world. But when was the last time most of us explored our native bushland? Spotted a nocturnal marsupial? Identified a species of bird we wouldn’t necessarily find perched on our clothesline?
Modern humans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Manicured lawns and concrete footpaths make up the majority of our familiar outdoor scenery. Children today spend more time indoors – and less time climbing trees, absorbing sunlight, and breathing fresh air – than ever.
When we have little opportunity in our daily lives to engage with the natural world, all of society suffers the consequences. An under-appreciation of our natural world doesn’t only negatively impact individuals. It directly (and indirectly) harms our planet, through a widespread lack of understanding, and a deficit of personal investment in the world beyond our air-conditioned homes and television screens.
Sarah Way, our aforementioned zoologist, loves Sir David Attenborough’s oft-quoted assertion: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
In a world of concrete-slabs and virtual reality, engaging with nature is easier said than done.
Like many others, Sarah Way has identified this ‘indoor epidemic’ as a widespread issue in our culture. Unlike many others, Sarah has created an innovative solution – at least, for those of us lucky enough to live in the Peel Region.
Sarah’s solution – Ways to Nature – is “dedicated to inspiring a sense of wonder and appreciation of Australia’s biodiversity through unique experiences with nature.” (Ways to Nature website)
I spoke with Sarah about her passion for the natural world, her plans for helping people engage with the environment, and how she paved (or un-paved?) the road to Ways to Nature.
NN: In your opinion, what are the benefits of spending time connecting with nature?
SW: For me, I feel a sense of peace that comes from slowing down and experiencing nature. It helps me connect with being in the movement and really observing, being present. I think being in nature also helps maintain a healthy sense of perspective and reminds me of the unity in all things.
NN: What initially drew you to studying zoology, and where has that career path taken you?
SW: I have always had a love of animals, and I originally thought I wanted to be a vet. So I went to university to study a Bachelor of Science with the intention to transfer across to Veterinary Science after my first year.
When I didn’t get accepted into the Vet course, I continued with my three year Bachelor degree, started majoring in zoology and botany – and loved it! It opened up a whole new world for me, and I never looked back!
Being a zoologist has provided me with so many unique experiences and it has been a privilege to work with some of Australia’s most threatened species. My career path has been varied, and includes roles at Monash University, Museum of Victoria, private business (environmental consultancy and now my own in Ways To Nature), Landcare, State Government environmental departments and the mining industry.
NN: What inspired you to create Ways to Nature, and how did you go about it?
SW: My love of Australia’s biodiversity, and the desire to share that with others, was the driving force behind creating Ways To Nature.
It has been a long process creating the business, a process I believe is ongoing! It began with taking time out from my existing commitments: I quit my job, which then allowed myself the time and mental space to imagine the possibility of the business in the first place - which I did while walking the Bibbulmun Track, end to end, in the spring of 2018.
From my initial idea and 'what ifs', I then got practical and did some market research to test out the viability of my idea, went to many small business workshops and seminars, as well as spending time building on and expanding my professional networks.
I also applied and got accepted into the Federal Government’s NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme), which has been invaluable for the mentoring, training and financial support it provides to those starting up a small business.
NN: What projects and/or experiences do you currently run through Ways to Nature?
SW: I lead guided nature walks in three local Mandurah reserves: Samphire Cove Nature Reserve, Creery Wetlands Reserve and Len Howard Conservation Park.
During the school holidays I run ‘Encounter Ecology’ children’s programs at the Forest Discovery Centre in Dwellingup, as well as in Mandurah.
I am also developing environmental presentations for schools, retirement villages and community groups, drawing on my experience as an Australian zoologist.
NN: You recently received a mini-grant from Shape Mandurah, in support of your Nurture Through Nature project. Can you tell us a bit about that?
SW: Thanks to Shape Mandurah’s Community Soup grants, I will be providing free guided nature walks to those members of our community who are seeking support from the services provided by Peel Heath Hub and Pat Thomas House.
The Nurture Through Nature program draws on my belief that engaging with nature can alleviate feelings of hopelessness and isolation by offering inspiration and connection - connection to community and place.
The nature walks are scheduled throughout November and it is my hope that the experience provides a little respite for people going through some tough times.
NN: Do you think schools should create more opportunities to get kids outdoors and engage with nature through programs such as yours? If so, why?
SW: Yes! Being outside and experiencing nature is so important for creative play and childhood development.
Engaging with nature can foster a healthy curiosity and respect for the world around us- and recognition of our place within it, too.
Being outside immersed in nature is also great for our wellbeing, providing fresh air, sunshine and exercise – all of which have been proven to grow healthy and alert children.
NN: What legacy do you hope to leave for the next generation?
SW: That they understand and value Australia’s biodiversity and develop an innate sense of stewardship for their community’s natural environment.
Next time you’re planning a weekend getaway, meeting up with friends, or keeping your kids occupied during school holidays, consider swapping some of your usual activities for a few hours immersed in nature. Your health, wellbeing, and the future of our planet will thank you for it.
To learn more about Ways to Nature, go to www.waystonature.com.au
By Nanci Nott
Nanci Nott is a mother, educator, and author, who believes intrinsically motivated learning is the birthright of every human. Nanci loves persuading people to pursue their personal passions, and she adores alliteration.