Ecosystem services are benefits that people receive from nature that make human life on earth possible and pleasurable. Cultural services are the intangible benefits from nature, like relaxation, recreation, inspiration and education. Because they are intangible, they are also often difficult to evaluate, and thus consider when making management, policy and planning decisions concerning nature. This has been an even greater challenge in deserts, where vegetation and animal life are less prominent in the landscape than, say, forest and prairies.
In order to more clearly define and evaluate the cultural benefits provided to humans by desert ecosystems, we developed and tested a new research methodology called “walking and focusing” interviews. Walking interviews, in which the researcher interviews the participant as they walk, are commonly used to understand people’s experiences in different environments. Focusing, which is new to this field, is a form of meditative thinking drawn from the work of philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin. In the research, 30 participants representing a wide variety of ages and backgrounds, are asked, while walking on a trail in Israel’s Negev Desert, to focus on all of their senses and convey what they are feeling, seeing, smelling and hearing, as well as what they are thinking about. Participants speak freely and are uninterrupted by the researcher.
The results of the “walking and focusing” interviews revealed that the walks in the desert catalyzed an unleashing of the imagination, curiosity and knowledge about the desert ecosystem, triggered expressions of mental and physical wellbeing and calmness, and stimulated memories of social interactions with friends and family. The process of focusing also inspired participants to pay greater attention to the nuances of the desert landscape, including its geology, biology and climate.
Participants in this research perceived the desert as a holistic entity – taking into account all of the ecosystem’s various components at once when considering the diverse benefits deserts offer. As such, planners and policy-makers should aim for preserving not only the vegetation and animal life, but also the other components of the holistic desert experience, including open space, geodiversity, and quiet.