A Walk of Wonder

Updated: Jan 6

WARNING: this blog contains images which you may find absolutely awe inspiring!!

I'll start with a personal confession... I have vivid memories of experiencing awe and wonder as a child...and still crave those experiences. Maybe it was because I was a child of the 70s and early 80s, avidly watching Linda Carter spin on the TV screen as Wonder Woman. Hell, I wanted to BE wonder woman!!!I Also, even though I saw the film E.T. nearly 40 years ago, I still can't look at a picture of the loveable alien, without melting. So Steven Spielberg, if you're reading (ha ha there goes a flying pig!), thank you for that magnificent film which still fills me with wonder to this day! I guess you could say that the whole idea of super heroes and childhood fantasy films encompasses some of what we feel when we experience awe.

Once we lose that sense of awe, we stop believing that anything is possible.... and right now, I've started to feel that what the world needs is renewed belief in the wonder and possibilities of both human beings and the world, even if that does sound a bit childlike and naive! So, I came up with the idea of creating 'Wonder Walks' as part of Green Connections CIC's 'Breath of Fresh Air' project. I must humbly add that I have since realized this idea isn't original and there has already been research into what people experience when they take a 'wonder walk' (known in the United States as an 'awe walk').

What exactly is an awe walk?

The concept of an awe walk is one which combines the benefits of walking with noticing and being wowed by nature.

Researchers describe awe as that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.

Why is experiencing awe beneficial to our wellbeing?

Experiencing awe strengthens our immune system, along with bringing awareness to our sense of reality, consciousness, and bond with others, ultimately making us feel more interconnected and helpful to people.

A 2015 study* (NB see footnote) led by the University of California showed that not only can this kind of experience relax us, it can also make us behave in a kinder and more compassionate way towards others.

How many of us have noticed the aggression and anger that’s so near the surface both in ourselves and others, just waiting to rear its ugly head? Now, I’m no neuro scientist and I don’t claim to understand the reason why experiencing awe makes us more chilled towards others (maybe someone clever reading this will be able to tell me), but if it works, then that HAS to be a good thing right?

At this point in the blog, I invite you to pause.

When was the last time you were in awe of something? Was it when you saw an amazingly clear rainbow? When you heard a beautiful song that transported you to a different place in time? Was it when you visited somewhere remote and stunningly beautiful?

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. Albert Einstein

As an occupational therapist, I’m acutely aware of the therapeutic value of DOING things, so wanted to apply this knowledge when designing and co-leading our 'Autumnal Wonder Walk' which took place in November 2021. I invited neighbours and local residents living in Hertsmere and Watford to join me. I wanted my fellow walkers to experience awe and wonder whilst also feeling a sense of connectedness and pride in a local place of historical and ecological significance.

The Green Connections Wonder Walk

We were fortunate on this occasion to work in partnership with a local group who look after and protect a wonderful local site called Attenborough Fields, in Watford. One of the Friends of Attenborough Fields group’s longstanding members (Rob Hopkins) shared his absolute encyclopaedic knowledge as he co-led this walk over part of the site. Rob was able to provide so many valuable insights into how it is managed and the plans for its future conservation.

One of the highlights on this walk includes a stately home (pictured) where the young Sir David Attenborough is said to have spent time as a young boy. With the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, it felt serendipitous to be walking past this house where Sir Attenborough may have had his first thoughts about protecting the planet.

Hayden Hall House

Sir Richard and Sir David Attenborough’s childhood home is pictured above. Just as amazingly, the architect (Decimus Burton) was one of the most celebrated of the 19th Century, and the man behind Wellington Arch at London Zoo, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and much of Hyde Park, including the gate and screen at Hyde Park Corner. In mentioning facts like this to participants on our awe walk, I try to make people feel both a sense of awe as well as connectedness and pride with our natural heritage in the local area.

The WOW moments on our Autumnal Wonder Walk The wow moments at Attenborough Fields came in many shapes and forms including:

Stopping to look at a 250 year old oak which had been split down the middle through lightning, was near the top of the list.

How comes in all my 48 years on this earth, I didn't know that there are thousands of species of insects and living creatures who use the oak as a safe habitat? Getting up close to a beautiful red cow (pictured) with its alluring chocolate brown eyes, was enough to make all of us all go weak at the knees too.

Looking at a moody sky and ancient landscape

Standing and looking at the landscape with its moody grey cloudy sky (pictured) was almost like going back in time. I imagined that this would have looked the same to any of our ancestors standing in exactly the same spot 200 or so years ago.

Awe Inspiring Impressionist and Local Artwork

Picking up on the quote from Albert Einstein earlier in this blog, the link with creative arts is one which Green Connections CIC likes to include at every opportunity: so in this session, we drew on the Autumnal theme, by showing walk participants a painting (pictured) entitled 'Autumn on The Seine' by the famous impressionist artist Claude Monet. This painting is said to be one of the first where Monet worked from an outdoor studio, proving the theory that connecting more closely with nature produces amazing results!

We also took the chance to appreciate the amazing art history which we are fortunate to have inherited in Bushey and that we are still able to enjoy through the wonderful local Bushey Museum. Many local artists studied at the (once world famous) Herkomer School of Art in Bushey. One of these artists was Algernon Talmage who painted this awe inspiring scene 'Sheep on Cliffs' below

One participant's feedback and testimonials after this walk proved that we'd struck the right note on this walk.

I learnt so much about trees, species and the wonder of their growth...listening to the birds + feeling the wind in your ears - this is the sense of awe!

Making an awesome experience accessible for all

It's really important to remember that the experience of awe and wonder doesn't come easily to everyone. What about people in care homes or living with conditions which confine them to spending their days indoors? Don’t they have a right to feel this amazing sensation too?

If some people have limited contact with the outside world, could they still be helped to experience awe through the way that we design our environments both indoors and outdoors?

Something as simple as a bird feeder and bird cam (for example) placed outdoors, provides access to captivating images which can break up an otherwise monotonous day, providing a chance to track bird activity and develop a new absorbing interest which can also facilitate social connection and conversation with others. There are some superb bird cams worldwide that can be viewed at no charge, that provide an easy and comfortable way of experiencing the awe of watching these wondrous feathered creatures all over the world.

My 96 year old mother in law who is registered blind, still experiences the joy and wonder of watching bright green parakeets birds from her apartment window or when we take her out in a wheelchair, pausing to say hello to the local robin!

We continue with our wonder walks from March 2022 onwards, so if any of what I've written has now got YOU craving for this kind of experience, why not join us? Click on our button below to register your interest.

Footnote: A new study found that experiencing a sense of awe promotes altruism, loving-kindness, and magnanimous behavior. The May 2015 study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” led by Paul Piff, PhD, from University of California, Irvine was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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