Hard Talk with Environmental Psychologist, Dr Denise Dillon, on Biophilia and Covid-19

Interview by Teresa Teo Guttensohn

As a human animal, I am very much a part of nature, so I advocate the treatment of nature as I would for myself – gently please, and with love.


We hear from Dr Denise Dillon on her takeaways from the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic, mindfulness and nature.

Q: What is your take on life in the time of COVID-19?
DD: I came to appreciate how very fortunate I am. One of my life constants is a desire to be my human self, in the sense of being a part of the ecosystem as one of many animal species. In a fundamental way, I am part of the fauna of my neighbourhood, and I’m very lucky to have Fort Canning Park as part of that neighbourhood.

Q: What did you experience during the lock-down?
DD: There is a relatively rich diversity of bird life in my neighbourhood. During the time that we were staying indoors, I was able to look outwards onto the tree outside my balcony and to observe the flurry of activities in just one tree, and from bird species that I hadn’t noticed before.

Q: What is a key observation you made during the Covid-19 period so far?
DD: The number of visitors to Fort Canning Park increased during our circuit breaker period – whole families spending some outdoor time together. Our urban green spaces were filling a need for people who were seeking respite from life indoors.

People indoors were looking out to nearby nature from window or balcony views, and sharing new observations – things they hadn’t noticed before – a bird visiting the tree, weeds growing in the paths, how beautiful the grass looks when allowed to grow longer.

All photos courtesy of Dr Denise Dillon.

Q: How did you connect with nature growing up in North Queensland, in Australia?
DD: One of the things I’m most appreciative of is the good fortune of having grown up in a semi-rural area where as children we would regularly climb trees and dig in the dirt.

We spent lots of time sitting up in the trees as well as just climbing them, and we got to appreciate the different textures and growth patterns of tree branches of many trees in the neighbourhood.

Q: Which nature experience do remember the most?
A strongly reminiscent experience for me is associated with freshly dug soil – we had rich, red volcanic soil in the area I lived. After more than a decade away I still miss the tactile experience of breaking up clumps of soil with my hands, the olfactory experience of bringing a clump of soil right up under my nose, and the visual experience of the dark red colour of the soil and of the earth worms who made their homes there.

Q: How can we engage with nature through forest bathing?
Our capacity to observe doesn’t always equate to an ability to notice – noticing comes with sustained and mindful observation. We can move quickly through nature on brisk walks, and observe lots of things along the way, but noticing comes more from standing still and letting nature move at its own pace towards us.

This is the essence of forest bathing – mindful presence in natural settings opens the way for deeper and more meaningful appreciation of our own place in the web of interbeing around us. 

Whether people choose to check out a formal forest bathing session or simply engage in their own nature immersion practices, I’m definitely a champion for engagement with nature. The more we allow nature to approach us the more we’ll notice, and the more we notice the closer we can connect at a fundamental, human animal level.

Q:  What do you think is needed to save nature and thereby save ourselves?
DD: We need experiences of noticing nature and experiences that make us curious to understand more about the nature around us. The more we immerse ourselves in the pockets of nature around us, the more we’ll come to notice and the more meaningful our engagement will become. The web of interbeing is already around us – we only need to find and understand our own fundamental place there.

Q: What lesson can you share about human dependence on nature?
DD: I’m neither a great learner nor a great teacher, so lessons don’t come easily to me. I’m more about direct engagement and observation, about patiently sitting so that noticing happens sometimes without me even noticing. Perhaps that in itself is a lesson about dependence on nature.

I cherish those unexpected moments when something catches my eye perhaps as a burst of movement or a flash of colour, or even more subtly when something about a pattern looks slightly out of place and I realise it’s because an insect is camouflaged in the array before me.

Dr Denise Dillon lives and works in Singapore as a full-time academic. She is an environmental psychologist and certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide (ANFT certification # 1818009).

Her research interests focus on biophilia and nature connectedness, as well as more broadly surrounding aspects of human-nature interactions. Enjoying the best of two worlds (psychology and literature studies), she has also published research in the field of eco-criticism. 

Dr Denise Dillon was a Speaker at the Biophilia and Nature Education Symposium 2019 by Cicada Tree Eco-Place.

[Nature & Culture] Exhibition: ‘The Seeds We Sow’

by Teresa Teo Guttensohn

Exhibition view of “The Seeds We Sow” at Mizuma Gallery, 2020.
Photo: Teresa Teo Guttensohn

Human intervention in nature is age-old.

How should we tread upon the earth we live and depend on? As a thinking and caring community, we need to engage in thoughtful discourse in order to form a land ethic that can be passed down to future generations.

The ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic must surely drive us to ponder how we humans perceive and connect with nature. It presses home the message that we need to care for humans, nature, land, and the inter-connections between them.

In an ongoing art exhibition titled ‘The Seeds We Sow’, four Singaporean artists do just that by exploring the theme of human intervention in nature through photography and installations.

‘Artificial Conditions (2019)’ by Ang Song Nian – an installation consisting of biodegradable plant pots – ponders the manipulation of plants, nature, terrain and landscape.

Exhibition view of The Colony Archive by Marvin Tang at “The Seeds We Sow” at Mizuma Gallery, 2020.
Photo: Teresa Teo Guttensohn
Exhibition view of Laughing Thrushes, Scolding and Monitor, Swimming by Robert Zhao Renhui at “The Seeds We Sow” at Mizuma Gallery, 2020. © Robert Zhao Renhui, courtesy of the artist and Mizuma Gallery

‘The Colony – Archive (2019 – ongoing)’ by Marvin Tang is a study of botanical gardens established during the former British Empire. Scattered across the globe yet bearing similar aesthetics, they share a common colonial agenda to convert botany and land for economic purposes.

Robert Zhao Renhui
Monitor, Swimming
diasec print
28.3 x 49.3 cm each (framed), 27 x 48 cm each (unframed)
set of 4
edition of 3 + 1 AP
Photo © Robert Zhao Renhui, courtesy of the artist and Mizuma Gallery

‘Monitor, Swimming (2019)’ and ‘Laughing Thrushes, Scolding (2019)’ by Robert Zhao Renhui, are snapshots of the adaptive behaviour of native and non-native species in a secondary forest. Robert Zhao is well known for his constant fascination with man’s controlled coexistence with nature.

Exhibition view of Reclaimed Sculpture: Domestic Landscape by Zen Teh at “The Seeds We Sow” at Mizuma Gallery, 2020. Photo: Teresa Teo Guttensohn

‘Reclaimed Sculpture: Domestic Landscape’ by Zen Teh presents a collage of different landscapes to form a real yet imaginary cliff at Little Guilin.

The use of a refurbished second-hand cabinet is a conscious effort by the artist and educator Zen Teh to reduce waste, and is an invitation for others to do the same.

Artist, Zen Teh with her artwork Reclaimed Sculpture: Domestic Landscape.
Photo: Teresa Teo Guttensohn

The exhibition held at Mizuma Gallery at 22 Lock Road, Gillman Barracks, is on till 19 July 2020. To learn more, visit the gallery’s event site here. Due to COVID-19 safe distancing requirements, you must make an appointment before visiting!

To make an appointment for your visit, please email the gallery at info@mizuma.sg.

Foxes that Fly and Sea Turtles that Nest on Land

by Teresa Teo Guttensohn

Today is World Sea Turtle Day (16 June 2020). As we celebrate Sea Turtles, we remember the magical and fortuitous event which took place at East Coast beach of Singapore just weeks ago on World Turtle Day (23 May 2020). A critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) came ashore to nest!

The tapered head and beak-like jaw of the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) are adaptations for it to forage in coral reefs to feed on sponges. Tragically, most sea turtles will ingest plastic in some form during their lifetime. We must keep our oceans and sea shores free of marine litter! PHOTO: Kevin Li (IG: @lkevyn)

Nesting in Broad Daylight

To the amazement of the few out exercising at East Coast Park beach during the COVID-19 lockdown, this Hawksbill Sea Turtle dug into the sand and laid her eggs in broad daylight before safely heading back to sea.

The closed beaches, off-limits to humans for their own good, meant more space, peace and quiet for our native wildlife to do their thing.

Sea turtles migrate long distances between feeding grounds and hatching beaches. Hatchlings will return to their natal beaches to lay eggs. However, sea turtles have to compete with humans to find suitable undisturbed beaches to nest on. In Singapore, excessive bright lighting along our beaches discourage nesting and cause hatchlings to wander inland to die.
PHOTO: Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) by Kevin Li (IG: @lkevyn)

Flying Foxes Galore

Not long after, another rare phenomenon took place serendipitously on World Environment Day (5 June 2020) – a large colony of about three hundred Flying Foxes (Pteropus sp.) flew into the rainforest of our Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Wow! Are those birds? Are they drones? Nope, just ‘foxes’ that fly! – Flying Fox (Pteropus sp.).
PHOTO: Teresa Teo Guttensohn

Biggest Bats

With faces that resemble foxes and with a wingspan of about one metre, they are among the biggest bats in the world.

These Flying Foxes (Pteropus sp.) are members of a large colony which has come to roost in a tall tree in the rainforest on the fringe of Seletar Reservoir Park. As in the recent case of the Openbill Storks who had migrated to Singapore, it is likely that these mega-bats had been forced to leave their original home site in a neighbouring country due to disturbance of the colony, destruction of their habitat, or a lack of food sources. Unfortunately, it is currently not the fruiting or flowering season here in Singapore’s forests, which will make foraging difficult for these amazing flying mammals.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Sabrina Jabbar, who first sighted them on 5 June 2020.

Mega-bats Under Threat

Flying Foxes are found in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia and some oceanic islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They can fly long distances to forage for food. In Singapore, resident colonies of the native Large Flying Fox (Pteropus vampyrus) have long been extirpated. Many species of Flying Foxes are threatened by hunting, habitat loss and deforestation.

An unprecedented wild sighting in Singapore! A large colony of about 300 Flying Foxes (Pteropus sp.) circling above their tree top roost in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
GIF: Teresa Teo Guttensohn

Time to Turn the Tide for Nature

As we witness more of such phenomenon, and with one million species believed to be facing extinction, will our children and our children’s children be able to see nature’s wonders as we now still have the privilege to enjoy?

If we all act decisively now, there is still time to turn the tide for Nature and ourselves!

“The food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable, all come from nature. Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message: To care for ourselves, we must care for nature.

It is time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices. It’s time to build back better for People and Planet. This World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature.”

The endangered Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) has serrated jaws adapted for feeding on sea grasses and algae. As they forage, they maintain the health of sea grass beds which provide nursery grounds for marine life, and which are the only feeding grounds of the endangered Dugong (Dugong dugon). Sea grasses were once common here up to the 1960s, with extensive meadows found off the eastern coast of Singapore and its offshore islands. The most damaging impact to sea grasses is total destruction due to land reclamation. We can help to conserve sea grass by not polluting or stepping on seagrass!
PHOTO: Kevin Li (IG: @lkevyn)

Turtle Hatchery

To help save Singapore’s population of sea turtles, a protected turtle hatchery located in Sisters’ Islands Marine Park was launched in September 2018.

What can you do? To contribute to turtle conservation,  volunteer with the ‘Biodiversity Beach Patrol’ by NParks to patrol beaches at night during the nesting season.

China removes pangolin scales from traditional medicine list

A glimmer of hope for the pangolin as authorities in mainland China make a momentous decision

The critically endangered Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) is native to Singapore.
PHOTO: Nicholas Yeo

China has delisted pangolin scales from an official list of ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), raising the level of protection of the critically endangered mammal.

The news – first reported in the China Health Times in Mandarin – was later picked up by the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN), and Global Times, a hawkish tabloid known for nationalistic commentaries.

Cicada Tree Eco-Place has been rallying to Save the Pangolin since 2010. Cicada Tree Eco-Place’s very first fundraiser was a bold initiative to raise funds for a dedicated researcher to work with TRAFFIC on the illegal trade in pangolin.

Reports indicated that the 2020 edition of Chinese Pharmacopoeia aims to curb use of pangolin scales, with authorities threatening imprisonment of up to 10 years for the hunting, killing and smuggling of the animals.

Apart from the use of its keratin scales for traditional folk treatments, pangolin meat is also consumed as a delicacy by a burgeoning Chinese middle class.

There are eight species of pangolins and all are under threat due to large-scale illegal hunting across Asia and Africa.

At least a million have been killed and sold over the past decade and half, according to CITES. The massive bloodbath was documented in a National Geographic report.

Conservationists have been fighting for decades to protect the scaly mammal, and momentum has also been building within China – activists there recently released a lone pangolin seized from poachers back into the wild, vowing that more would be done.

Chinese authorities have now moved to grant Class 1 Protections to three species, which include the Chinese pangolin (Manis
), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata).

“This is a good start … but this is not good enough. We will release a lot more soon.”

Dr Zhou Jinfeng, secretary-general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Fund

Global wildlife regulator Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – of which China is a party – has banned international commercial trade of pangolin in a bid to protect the animal.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the native Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), as critically endangered.

Pangolins were a suspected host for COVID-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2), wrote scientists Lam, et al. (2020) in a report published in the “Nature” journal.

Their research — fast-tracked into publication in March to aid epidemiological research and the search for a vaccine or cure — identified cousins of COVID-19 or “SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China”.

The researchers conclude: “pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission“.


Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade and how it impacts the precious, delicate ecosystems in our world:

Shepherd, C. (2020). Monitor and the Wildlife Trade. The Green Gazette. Retrieved from: http://www.thegreengazette.ca/monitor-and-the-wildlife-trade/

Alberts, E. C. (2020) Banned: No more pangolin scales in traditional medicine, China declares. Mongabay. 
Retrieved from: https://news.mongabay.com/2020/06/banned-no-more-pangolin-scales-in-traditional-medicine-china-declares/

Standaert, M. (2020). China raises protection for pangolins by removing scales from medicine list. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/09/china-protect-pangolins-removing-scales-medicine-list-aoe

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