School of the Wild

Top Cat Spotlight: School of the Wild

Interview with Nigel Berman

Our Business and Operations manager Lu-Lu Evans caught up with Nigel Berman from School of the Wild, one of the UK’s leading nature connection companies and one of ONCA‘s Top Cats.

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Can you tell us a bit about School of the Wild?

Nigel: At School of the Wild, we help leaders and teams from purpose-driven organisations build stronger relationships and improve culture, by bringing them into nature to build a more meaningful way of working together. We combine walk-and-talks, activities like foraging and fire-making, with meaningful conversations around a campfire, to help teams listen to ideas, welcoming everyone to contribute and think creatively around a question. We’re excited because we’re just launching some new programmes that focus on sustainability and social responsibility, wellbeing, legacy and purpose, the future of work, and collaboration.

Does the work go beyond Brighton? 

Nigel: We work in various locations.  A lot of the time we’re in Brighton and East Sussex, sometimes in London, occasionally in Forest Row. It generally depends on where the organisation can get to – if they are a London based organisation or an international organisation and they are happy to come to Brighton then we’ll do it down here. We recently worked with a group from America, we were based near Firle over two days. A lot of the sessions are run in the woods, in Stanmer Park or woodland near Lewes. It’s partly where the client is happy to go, access (transport etc) and what the different locations offer. 

When did you set up School of the Wild and why?

Nigel: I set up School of the Wild in 2014. Before that I was running another business (Nigel’s Eco Store) that sold design-led eco-friendly gadgets and products online. It was a very successful business at the start, but then we found ourselves competing with the likes of Amazon and Facebook. Towards the end I became quite unwell as a result of the stress of running it.

I came across someone offering workshops in nature, and felt like that was what I needed. I started working with different people and attending various workshops in the woods, doing creative things: making pottery and baskets, making fires and foraging. I started to see a noticeable improvement in my mental health, my blood pressure went down and I started to sleep better. 

From this I started offering workshops to the public; the sessions were creative and very popular. Then we started working with organisations, running team away days. This has become more powerful and impactful than the public sessions, so our energy is more focused on this at the moment.

What I’ve discovered through running this business is that we’ve never spent so little time as a species in contact with plants and animals as we do now. For most of our human history we lived in contact with the land, but now something like 90% of the UK lives in towns and cities. And we spend as much as 95% of our time indoors. There is research that shows how just 20 minutes in nature can reduce stress and improve our health and wellbeing. Nature also has a way of bringing people together: there’s something that happens when you’re in nature, the barriers and prejudices fall away… it’s a great leveller. I’ve really noticed how people come together as human beings rather than as just colleagues or associates. This is crucial about the work we do.

It’s important to say I’m doing this work from an environmental and ecological position. I believe that we only care about what we know: if you don’t have a relationship with nature how can you protect it? That is what happens when you live in a city. You get so much stimulation from the city, you sort of lose interest in the natural world.

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What is the link between building connections in nature and creative thinking?

Nigel: It turns out that we need a relationship with a place, even if that’s just a tree that you make a connection with. It’s really important to us as human beings to have a connection with something specific in nature. Research shows nature can boost our creative thinking by as much as 50% and also it is a remedy for distracted thinking. With the rise of mobile phones and smartphones we are constantly being distracted by beeps and notifications and social media. Nature restores your attention, there is something about it that is deeply stimulating, that’s a solution to these issues. All of these things combined create a rationale for why it works to bring a team out into the woods, and sit around a fire and talk.

Recently I’ve started thinking about rewilding organisations, and how we learn from observing how nature does things. There are things that we need, with the challenges that are coming, particularly with the climate and the ecological crises… organisations need to adapt and evolve – we cannot do business as usual anymore. There is a lot you can learn from nature that can help with collaboration and creativity. 

Can you give us an example?

Nigel: Yes, beavers! Beavers are amazing. They are ecosystem engineers. They work in tribes… they chew through trees to make a dam, and by slowing down the flow of rivers the water spreads out into the land rather than rushing down the river. The effect of this is to attract all sorts of other creatures and plants, and starts to boost habitats and ecosystems. There is something about slowing things down – if you can translate that kind of thinking into organisations, that allows for more collaboration and conversation to happen. If you slow things down, if you create spaces within your building where people unconsciously are encouraged to stop, even if it is just a coffee area with some plants where people can chat to each other, those kind of spontaneous conversations can lead to more collaboration and more creativity.

If you are thinking about how do we survive and thrive in the next ten years where everything is going to change, we need to transition to a low carbon economy. We need to be more socially responsible; we can’t carry on with short term thinking and being purely profit driven, because it is getting us deeper into a mess. How are we going to change that? Only by coming together and having some great ideas, and working together and collaborating with each other. But how do you do that? How do you encourage that? 

Nature doesn’t work in straight lines. So if you’re going to an office and everything is in rows, you could start to break that up and make it more curvy – it sounds simple but if you can encourage people to have more conversations with each other, then that’s the kind of grease that makes the wheels turn.

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Why are you involved with ONCA?

Nigel: I love what you are doing – the arts are so important. It’s about communicating something which is quite hard to communicate – provoking a conversation and challenging people’s thinking. I think that’s what I like most about your projects and exhibitions. They make you think. Whether it’s about lost species or plastic waste turned into a shop.

Could you suggest something that people could do to reconnect with nature, particularly for those of us living in urban environments? 

Nigel: Try and spend 20 minutes a day outside in nature. It could be in your garden, it could be in a park, somewhere where it’s really quiet; or somewhere you’re drawn to. There’s a thing called a ‘sit spot’. It’s a place where you go to the same place as many times as you can, every day, every week, every month. And you just sit there quietly, and you observe what happens. It takes about 30 minutes for the baseline of nature to come back. When we walk somewhere we tend to scare off any birds, creatures and insects because we’re noisy, and we’re clumsy. If you go and sit quietly, after about 30 minutes it all starts to come back. And if you do that repeatedly, then you start to make a relationship with the inhabitants of that area where you’re sitting. Maybe there are particular birds or squirrels or other wild creatures, they’ll generally come back, and they’ll just ignore you if you’re quiet. And then you recognise them, and they recognise you, and the plants that are there, you’ll see them through the seasons, and you can see the cycles that they go through. It’s just a good thing to do. Making a connection with a place, and with nature. 

How can people become involved in School of the Wild? Have you got anything coming up?

We’re always interested in speaking with organisations and individuals about how we can work together. We will be restarting our Lead with Purpose campfires for leaders in the new year. Find out more and register your interest here.

Find out more about School of the Wild on their website: schoolofthewild.com

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Posted on November 25, 2019
Categories: Top Cats

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