Never Seen: A Sensory Tour of Nature

 the image shows a woman with shoulder length brown hair exploring a plant using the sense of touch

July is firmly part of the rainy season in Cape Town. Which means that the idea of organizing a half day nature workshop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens at that time of year may be somewhat of a risky thing. But that’s what we decided to do for the second phase of the Never Seen adaptive photography project.

Our workshop had two main aims. First to let the blind participants put their newly developed still life photography skills to the test in a natural environment. Second, for them to experience nature in a way they might not have had the chance to do before, and learn a little about the wide diversity of local flora in the Western Cape.

To achieve the second aim we called on the services of botanist and conservationist, Rupert Koopman, who agreed to guide us through our visit. Together, he and Karren developed a programme to give the group a sensory tour of some of the plants at Kirstenbosch that had a distinctive touch, smell or taste element.

Though our respective weather apps gave us a few nervous moments as the day approached, we were delighted to wake up to a mild Winter’s day on the day we’d selected for the workshop. Shortly after lunch we gathered at the entrance to Kirstenbosch Gardens. It was the first time I actually got to meet some of the people involved, despite having worked with them on the project for several months. So it was lovely to finally get a chance to meet in person.

In total, we were a group of eleven people touring the gardens – the three participants Charlie, Nurjawaan and Grant, each of whom was accompanied by a sighted guide. In Charlie’s case this was his guide dog, Billy. Rupert Koopman, his wife, and daughter joined us, as did Carol from the Botanical Society of South Africa. Finally, through the wonders of modern technology, Karren and Wojciech joined us via Zoom. And my husband Craig, my guide dog Fiji and I were there, of course.

Perhaps you may be asking yourself how a blind person is able to engage with nature as it is such a visual thing. It’s an immersive multi-sensory experience. Using touch to discover the texture of a plant’s various parts, each with a different feeling. Using scent to compare and contrast one plant from another, to find aroma’s that remind us of something familiar, or perhaps to experience a scent that seems completely new. Occasionally tasting plants, under supervision of course since not all of nature can be consumed without consequence. And finally, listening to the sound of the wind rustling tree leaves, the twitters of birds amongst the trees and shrubs that surrounded us. Perhaps a different experience from that of sighted people, but by no means a lesser one. Besides, we had the advantage of a knowledgeable guide who offered us titbits of information about the plants we encountered, and that was an added bonus that few visitors to Kirstenbosch have.

Rupert introduced us to a range of plants, from different types of Protea with distinctive tactile elements to an aloe that he encouraged us to taste. Grant, Nurjawaan and Charlie were given free rein to choose what they wanted to photograph during the tour. And every now and then, as I moved between the various members of the group, I heard the sound of mobile phone camera shutters snapping away, and descriptions being noted.

It was a day of touching, smelling and tasting plants, accompanied by lots of lighthearted chatter and discussion. By the end of the afternoon we had all the elements we needed to create the digital stories that would be the final outcome of the project. And this was when I began the creative part of my role in supporting the participants to craft their words to fit with the images to form a compelling and vivid message.

And that’s what my next post will be about – because the digital stories truly do require a post of their own!

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