Alongside the post-lockdown popularity of nature-based sport, physical activities and leisure like ocean swimming, camping, surfing, and hiking, there is a move towards medical professionals “prescribing” time in nature for our health and wellbeing. In the UK, USA and Canada, doctors are encouraged to approach going into nature as a part of a cure for mental health issues and for feelings of social disconnectedness, such as loneliness.
The effects of spending time in nature on human health and wellbeing is well established in literature across science and humanities research. The environmental immersion of swimming and walking and sailing and cycling and skiing and skating are full of unexpected sensory experiences and multispecies encounters, can have a restorative effect, which builds a sense of connection to the world; we get a sense of being part of something so much bigger than we are alone. Seeing more people embrace opportunities to get outside is a delight to see.
Not surprisingly though, it comes with impacts on the places we visit.
While human health is important, my work on human-environmental health and wellbeing is interested in the impacts on environments of people spending time in nature. That is, I’m interested in how the benefits to people of time in natural environments, provide benefits to environments in return. Much of what we find in this field shows that people develop more caring relationships to places over time, and that they come to develop ecological sensibilities and ethics of care for environments and the animals, plants and climates that are part of them. Certainly, there are many chances to have encounters with all kinds of critters, as well as with the water, trees, soil, rocks, sand, and other elements that are such a part of the joy of swimming, walking, biking, skiing, and skateboarding in the outdoors.
But we don’t always think about the responsibilities we have to take care of these places that bring us such joy.
This week, ABC News reported on a beloved river swimming spot on the mid-north coast of NSW where testing had “found concerning levels of what was essentially faecal matter, with human and dog excrement the suspected source.” The spot has become so popular that it is no longer promoted by the local council in an effort to reduce visitor numbers. But, of course, many of us discover out-of-the-way locations via social media, which is the case with this river too.
With these sites so undeveloped, and with councils hesitant to protect them by not promoting them, it means that there are usually no toilet and rubbish facilities, leaving people to manage sanitation on their own. If it was one or two people going to the toilet in the area, then the impacts would be minimal. But with greater numbers of visitors and their dogs relieving themselves, the impacts on the health of the place are going to come back to us too. In this case, swimmers are immersed in them.
We saw similar scenes at beaches when the initial lockdowns lifted in 2020. In the UK, visitors flocked to beaches in Cornwall and Wales, but even as they took away the benefits of their time at the beach, they left behind rubbish and excrement in return. These became a problem for the environments and for the local communities and Councils left to deal with them.
People have always been part of ecologies, but not in such volumes so these moments pose a conundrum: should local councils just give in and fund toilets and rubbish disposal faculties, including the ongoing cleaning, emptying and maintenance, even though that might not be the best outcome for the place itself? Or, possibly, should people be more considered in how we access places, accepting that sometimes we need to know when to sacrifice the pleasure of a visit in order to take care of the long-term health of the place and its water, soil, animals, and plants?
Ultimately, it is important that we make more considered decisions about how we engage with and use places, and the impacts that we have on environments when we do visit them. While a refreshing, restorative swim under a tree canopy is truly a joy, it might be that we need to leave some places alone for a while so they can recover. We are lucky in places like Australia that we have such open access to so many beautiful waterways, but this comes with responsibilities linked to our own behaviour. We need to think about how our health practices impact ecologies and, sometimes, we need to know when not to swim.