Why going wild makes us feel good

It’s time to slow down and smell the river mint, according to Park Ranger Jim Szonyi.

Ranger Jim roams Royal Park with a sketch pad and a case of small magnifying glasses, on a mission to help us focus on our wild surrounds.

‘When we go for a walk, we often focus on the destination. But when we do that, we’re not observing nature in a deeper sense.’ Ranger Jim said.

Jim is one of six rangers in Royal Park. He’s been running workshops with local kids for 10 years – introducing them to flora and fauna, studying water bugs, watching birds.

Since COVID, the focus of these sessions has naturally evolved.

‘Teachers told us they’d noticed anxiety was higher in kids as we came out of lockdown,’ Jim said.

So Jim and the team devised new tools to help us put the world in perspective, offering stealthy techniques that participants could apply in their everyday life.

In groups of up to 60 students, perched on rocks under river red gums, Jim hands out a little magnifying glass known as a jeweller’s loupe. He encourages people to really look closely at a leaf and describe what they see.

‘We’re encouraging people to think like a naturalist. It’s a great way to reduce stress, and a sneaky form of mindfulness. A tool that kids can use in other places.’

A ranger studies a leaf in a park

Ranger Jim Szonyi

Having grown up a country kid in Daylesford, Jim moved to London to work in IT, before returning home to embark on what he now calls a ‘career tree change’.

After retraining in environmental science, he made his way to the City of Melbourne’s parks team.

Thousands of kids have come through the park’s school and kindy program, and the Junior Rangers holiday program. Jim and his comrades are now keen to extend the program to include adults as well.

‘Royal Park became a safe space for people of all ages and backgrounds during the pandemic, especially during lockdowns.’

‘We began to see all these “desire lines” – paths worn into grass from foot traffic – appearing as people disappeared up into the wilder parts of the park.

‘We’d see them hide behind a tree to take their masks off for a moment and just be in nature.

‘Lots of people took up birding, particularly near the Trin Warren Tam-Boore wetlands, which are the “kidneys” of the creek, filtering the water to make it clean and beautiful.

‘That area became really important to locals. Really important to their mental wellbeing.’

Four ways to tune in to nature

Head for your favourite local wild space with a sketch pad, and go wild.

A wild place with rocks and trees

Royal Park

1. Make a sound map: draw a small circle in the centre of a piece of A4 paper. This is you. Then listen before you map all the sounds you hear on the page. Is that birdcall behind you jagged or round? How will you capture a whoosh of wind or passing footsteps?

2. Count the colours: sit on a rock and study what you see. Without using the words ‘brown’ or ‘grey’, find 10 ways to describe the shades you see in the rocks. Melted chocolate. Sparkle ant armour. Dawn Wall morning. Where will your imagination take you?

3. Contour drawing: choose a flower or plant (take care not to disturb the ecosystem). Hold it in front of you and put your pencil on a fresh page. Without looking at the page, or lifting the pencil, draw every feature of the specimen. The picture will look weird. That’s okay.

4. This is my leaf (a two-person game): choose a tree each, preferably with leaves at eye level. Now choose a leaf. Draw every blemish, every vein and wiggly line. Now lead your friend to where you stood and pass them your drawing. Can they find your leaf from your sketch?

Ranger Jim runs activities like these and more with groups of kids from schools in the municipality and within walking distance of Royal Park. To get back to nature, visit our parks and open spaces today.