Experiencing Nature During Physical Activities

Why Trekking?

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Hiking, walking, or trekking are some of the most common ways people experience nature. In this project, we’re using these activities as a way to understand how people interact with their environment, with other people, and with non-human animals. What kinds of experiences do people have when they are hiking or walking in nature, and what do these experiences say about their lifestances? The main goal of the study – as in the Community Gardens project – is to reveal the positive content of nonreligion. That is, rather than thinking just about what is absent when someone is not religious, we think about the positive attributes possessed by nonreligious people.  

How does the research work?

For this project, we interviewed 115 people in the seven project countries: Argentina (13), Australia (20), Brazil (11), Canada (20), Norway (21), the UK (17), and the US (13). We also surveyed nearly 7,000 people in these countries, as well as in Finland. We found participants through advertising in Facebook groups about hiking or walking. 

What are we finding so far?

We’re analyzing our survey and interview data and already finding some key themes in how people relate to nature. We’re finding that the experience of trekking and hiking sheds light on people’s lifestances, that is, their ethics, worldviews, and relationships with nature and each other. 

Saying Sorry to Nature?

One task we gave to participants was to write a short letter to nature in 500 words or less. Something that jumped out at us – across all the countries – was how many people wanted to apologize to nature for human actions.  

One interviewee (translated) from Argentina said: “I would apologize to nature for the harm that humanity does to it, I would promise to take care of it to the best of my ability and transmit values of care to the people with whom I interact or in whom I can influence. Thank you for everything you offer us.” 

Another, from Australia, put it more bluntly: “500 words?? Bugger that. I think I’d just try to apologise on behalf of humans for being so shit towards nature. For destroying her forests and habitat, for polluting the water, soil, air and solitude. Just apologising for us evolving.” 

This finding becomes even starker when we look at “word clouds” created from each country’s letters. These word clouds show the frequency with which certain words are used in the letters. As we see, “sorry” (or its equivalent in other languages) stands out prominently in all of them. 

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United Kingdom

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United States

Gratitude and Respect for Nature

Another theme we can see in the word clouds is that “thanks” or other signs of gratitude are also prominent. In the interviews and surveys, we see that people express joy and awe upon encountering nature. While it’s often suggested that things like awe and enchantment are uniquely connected with religion, one of the major themes we’re exploring is how nonreligious people experience awe in nature. 

We see people recognizing that non-human animals within nature have agency and intentions of their own. One participant from Australia explained this encounter with a pardalote (a small, brightly coloured bird, native to Australia): “I was admiring a particularly vivid green bit of moss for a while then realised a spotted pardalote was perched on a branch about eye level also checking out the moss. I had been quiet and still for so long at that spot on the hike, he felt comfortable being close to me and observing what I was interested in. It was a great moment of feeling trusted and a part of the natural world.” 

Another, from Canada, said: “Any time I meet with an animal is a special occasion. An encounter with a black rat snake stands out. She was threatened by us initially, rattling her tail in the leaves to mimic a rattlesnake. When we quietly sat down and didn’t make any aggressive display she gradually calmed down and then proceeded to go about her business which was to climb a tree near us. We got to watch her negotiate the various branches and when she got up to head height, we stood up to take her picture and she curiously extended her head and neck towards us. It was a very special moment of what felt like a true connection.” 

These quotes suggest that the possibility of moving away from a hierarchical view of nature, in which humans are at the top, to a more egalitarian view, in which humans are simply one part of nature. 

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Further Questions

Other questions we’re exploring with our data include when people experience awe. That is, are there particular conditions when people are more likely to experience awe, such as when they see animals or mountains, and when they don’t see buildings or roads? Furthermore, does one’s religious affiliation shape when and how they experience awe?  

Another issue concerns ritual. Can walking and hiking be considered ritual practices? What leads walking or hiking to become more than just a mere routine, but a ritual? 

Ultimately, thinking about lifestances through the lens of hiking and trekking can help us to move away from a Christian-centric understanding of nature. 

Who is involved?

Results and Publications

Lori G. Beaman discussed early findings from the Trekking project in her Leibniz Lecture at the University of Leipzig, “The Transformational Possibilities of Immanence: The Rise of Nonreligion and its Implications for the Climate Crisis,” held on October 14, 2022.

Results from the Trekking project are also discussed in Lori G. Beaman and Lauren Strumos’s article, “Toward equality: Including non-human animals in studies of lived religion and nonreligion,” Social Compass (2023)