The Long Return: an Essay on Belonging

Showing bird tracks for essay on belonging

“The key to a sense of connection is spending time in natural places. These are intimate acts of slow and patient observation.”

In her personal, revelatory essay for a new book from artist Paul Harfleet, Nadine Andrews explores ideas of belonging and connection through reflections on birds’ migration, human ambivalence and serendipitous encounters with nature.


“The key to a sense of connection is spending time in natural places. These are intimate acts of slow and patient observation. It is not about ticking species off a list, the rarer the better. No, this is about getting to know the inhabitants of a particular place – the place that I also inhabit.”

Nadine Andrews is a researcher, coach, facilitator and consultant with cultural, arts and heritage organisations, specialising in creative nature-based and mindfulness-based approaches.

When my old school friend, the artist Paul Harfleet, asked me to contribute some writing for a book he’s been working on, Birds Can Fly, which he envisaged would contain illustrations, natural history information, reflections and stories as well as conceptual pieces on ideas of nature and identity, I knew immediately I had to do it.

My strong sense was it would need to be a personal reflection on my relationship with nature, rather than an abstract theoretical piece. Until this point, my published writing had mostly been academic papers and research reports with little personal information, so this was going to be a departure for me but it felt not just important but critical.

On a walk with my friend Margaret Kerr, a psychotherapist and artist who’s been exploring the ecopsychology, history and mythology of Traprain Law in East Lothian, I told her about this invitation. As we walked around the hill we explored the idea of belonging, how migrating birds feel when they come here — do they feel they belong? I realised this was it, this was what I had to write about, my sense of belonging.

I knew the start — my feelings about the Swifts that I had talked about when interviewed by Laurence Rose from the RSPB a couple of years earlier. The writing of the essay flowed quite easily. The end took a while though. I had written something more in the style of my usual writing, which I knew didn’t quite work.

I asked a few friends and family what they thought, then left it for a while. A couple of weeks later, when listening to a module in a course on ancestral trauma, I heard a definition of shame that struck me sharply: “the intensely painful feeling or experience that we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of connection, love and belonging.” When I heard that, all the pieces fitted together — I realised my essay about belonging and connection was also about healing shame. At that moment of insight I felt this lightness, something was released. This incident coincided with an I Ching reading I did that contained the line “the flying bird brings the message” which took me to the realisation that just as the Swift flies where it will with the freedom of the skies, that I am not dependent on others allowing me to belong but that I am, and have been all this time, claiming it for myself through my nature connection practices. Now I had my ending.

Writing this essay has been a revelation, unexpectedly therapeutic. It’s also opened up new possibilities as I’ve discovered the power that comes with this different voice, which lays it out there with clarity and honesty yet somehow transcends vulnerability. So thanks very much Paul for asking me to write something!


You can read Nadine’s essay, The Long Return: an essay on belonging, on her Cultureprobe blog – where you can also explore many more of her articles and reports and her nature awareness audio recordings.

A version of this essay will appear in artist Paul Harfleet’s new book Birds Can Fly, and you can find out more about his Birds Can Fly project and other work at his site, The Pansy Project

Author: Nadine Andrews

"I specialise in creative nature-based and mindfulness-based approaches to coaching, facilitation, consultancy and research. My interest is in supporting individuals and organisations to be in more harmonious relationship with the natural world." Extensive experience of working as a consultant with UK cultural, arts & heritage organisations. PhD in psychology of pro-environmental behaviour.

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