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by Nathania Gilson
A new breed of podcasts is helping people reconnect with the natural world. But can the crunch of leaves through headphones substitute for the real thing?
n 2005, Sydney-based journalist and audio producer Sarah Allely had a bicycle accident. The mild traumatic brain injury she suffered left her unable to read or write, and she found it difficult to cope with intrusive and artificial sound, such as television, podcasts and audiobooks, as well as ambient noise in busy restaurants and parties. This led her to search for more peaceful spaces and natural sounds on her path to recovery. The result, she says, was transformative.
Now she has created Brain on Nature, an independent documentary podcast that charts how reconnecting with nature helped her heal.
“I wanted, on a practical level, to understand how nature actually helps people so that I could self-medicate,” she says. “Is it better for me to go for a walk every day in the park at lunchtime? Or go to a national park on the weekend instead? Or should I take time off and go camping once a month?” The answer was some combination of all of them.
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Allely isn’t alone in trying to activate nature’s medicinal properties. Research from the UK has demonstrated that microdosing on nature has become a common way for people to cope with everyday stress. Studies even claimed that listening to nature sounds was more effective in reducing stress and anxiety than guided meditation apps.
But can a podcast that celebrates the sounds of the wilderness have the same beneficial effects as immersing ourselves in the real thing? And can it help us reconnect with the natural world?
“Field recordings are nothing new,” says US journalist and nature writer Jon Mooallem. Earlier this year, he launched a podcast series, Walking, consisting entirely of ambient noise recordings made from walking around Seattle’s Bainbridge Island. A lo-fi unrehearsed experiment, the series has amassed a global cult following, much to the amusement of its creator.
“Even a recording of rain or whatever you might hear in a spa waiting room ... there’s not a whole lot of difference between that and what I’m doing,” he says. “Maybe it’s like when you look at a diorama in the Natural History Museum and you’re listening from the outside of the glass.”
There’s a sense of communal time in Mooallem’s recorded walks, whether listeners are in an office cubicle, hospital waiting room or on a commute. Sometimes he’ll sign off on an episode by thanking listeners for coming with him, adding an unexpected “that was nice”.
Appreciating the health benefits of nature is a global phenomenon, says Dieter Hochuli, associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Sydney. “Europe’s got a rich history of people engaging with cultivated green spaces. In Japan, there’s forest bathing. In Australia, elite rugby league coaches take their players out walking barefoot around the grounds.”
Hochuli says that increased exposure to the natural world can lead to people being more proactive about it. “They want to engage in pro-environmental behaviours: planting a tree or interacting with animals in their natural environment.”
ABC Kids’ newest podcast, Noisy by Nature, wants to encourage preschool-aged kids to engage with the natural world by showing them how weird and wonderful it can sound.
A spin-off of Radio National’s long-running podcast Off Track, Noisy by Nature is hosted by Dr Ann Jones. She is unselfconsciously warm and good-humoured, avoiding straightforward factoids in favour of interactive storytelling that gives all kinds of creatures a recognisable voice. Elephant seals, fruit bats, lyrebirds and motorbike frogs are just some of the creatures that feature in the first season.
“We wanted to encourage kids to use their ears to appreciate nature and notice things when they’re outside,” says Noisy By Nature’s writer and producer, Joanna Khan. Each episode reminds its young listeners to pay attention to the natural world regardless of where they live. “It doesn’t have to be out in the wilderness; it can just be out in their street.”
Hilary Whitehouse from James Cook University, whose research focus includes environmental education, believes nature-related podcasts are finding an audience due to the rapid rates of animal and plant extinction across the world.
“On the one hand, it’s bringing our attention to all these different species that exist,” she says. “But it means we’ve started fetishising all of it as a way of coping with how quickly we’re losing everything.”
For Allely, making a nature podcast was also about questioning who misses out in the age of climate crisis. She wanted to remind people that nature should be protected, and not just for the benefit of those who could afford it. “It’s about governments making sure that they don’t allow developments to take over green spaces. That schools still have decent-sized outdoor grounds and that kids aren’t just forced to sit in classrooms. We have to make sure that accessibility to nature still exists.”
Eight podcasts that embrace nature
Brain on Nature – Sarah Allely
A documentary following a journalist as she recovers from a mild traumatic brain injury and realises that nature can be a form of medicine.
Walking – Jon Mooallem
An experimental ambient podcast that involves walking – and very little talking – recorded on Seattle’s Bainbridge Island.
Noisy by Nature – ABC Kids
An educational podcast that introduces preschool-aged children to the weird and wonderful sounds of nature.
Look at Me – Guardian Australia
Animal lovers Benjamin Law and zoologist-turned-filmmaker Chris McCormack turn the spotlight on some of Australia’s most unusual and interesting creatures.
Forest 404 – BBC Radio 4
A scripted dystopian eco-thriller that takes a three-pronged approach: as a radio play, nature audio documentary and set of experimental soundscapes.
David Attenborough’s Life Stories – BBC Radio 4
A series of talks by the master of nature documentaries on the natural histories of animals and plants from around the world.
30 Animals That Made Us Smarter – BBC World Service
A series on all the different and unusual things humans have learned from observing animals.
HumaNature – Wyoming Public Radio
An interview-based series which explores the human experience of the natural world across the US.