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Gökotta: How to experience nature the Swedish way

The early bird gets a symphony.
a small bird perched on top of a pine tree.
Credit: Andy Holmes / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • Gökotta is a Swedish concept that involves waking up early to experience the stillness of the morning and appreciate the beauty of nature, particularly birdsong.
  • Studies have shown that being around nature can improve our health, reduce feelings of isolation, and increase community cohesion.
  • To experience the benefits of gökotta and “nature therapy,” try camping, spending time in a garden, or leaving the city. Set your alarm clock and listen to the birds.

You know it’s too early to wake. Everyone else is fast asleep and the house has that indefinable stillness that is telling you to be quiet. At this hour, the walls frown at unwelcome noises. With a sigh, you get out of bed and put on some clothes. This was meant to be a holiday, and today was meant to be your lie-in. Lost for ideas in an unfamiliar home, you make yourself a coffee, open the door, and step out into the garden. It’s a big garden. It’s the kind of garden that is big enough to feel wild. There are dark canopies and dense bushes. There’s long grass dotted with strange, radiant flowers. There’s a rustling far away that might have been a fox, a deer, or a goblin, for all you know.

You sit at a table, take a sip from your coffee, and you listen. Here, it is not still. Gone is the muffled silence of a house at sleep. This place is of loud, jubilant worship — a morning symphony of birds in chorus. The trees are curtains, behind which sparrows, jays, and larks sing in the new day. There is beauty here. It stirs a deep something in your being. It’s not quite “oneness,” but it’s the appreciation of the moment — a unique encounter that feels personal, somehow. As if the birds have gifted you, alone, this song.

This feeling, this moment, is what the Swedes call gökotta.

Gökotta is for the birds

There are two equally powerful aspects to the concept of gökotta. The first involves waking up early and experiencing that part of the day that very few people tend to see. The earliest hours of the morning are typically reserved for sleep-deprived parents, night-shift workers, insomniacs, or Mark Wahlberg types. Yet there’s depth and richness to be found in those still hours of the morning. Waking up before the hustle and bustle acts as a kind of preparation. It’s like a great, deep breath before the busy trials of the day.

The second aspect to gökotta, though, is the wonder that is found in nature, and particularly in birdsong. At dawn, you are not alone. You are part of the great abundance of life that sees joy in the early hours. The unique thing about listening to birdsong is not just the beautiful melodies you can hear. It’s the sense of appreciation. In the moment of gökotta, it feels as if you are an audience and this is the theatre. You are gifted the privilege of witnessing a performance that is as old as humankind. That moment of sitting and listening, lost in the birdsong, is what gökotta is about. It’s a visceral, primal sense of gratitude for the simple pleasures found in nature.

Where the wild things live

Only in the last two centuries or so have the majority of humans decided to live in artificial, urban environments. For most of our species’ history, we lived close to or within nature. It’s often argued this has lessened or damaged humanity in some way. Yet, it’s too simplistic and naïve to argue “cities are bad; nature is good.” Cities have given us great works of culture, world-changing innovation, and previously unknown comforts. Meanwhile, nature is not only pretty birdsong. It’s also earthquakes, floods, and predators. The stories of our ancestors are just as much about circling wolves and cold winter nights as dancing naked in sun-dappled glades.

A great way to illustrate this point is to look at Buddhist holy texts. Today, there is a great deal said about the Buddhist’s love of nature. It’s a religion that focuses on harmony and the mutual respect between humans and the natural world. Buddhism is often about the meditative stillness that comes in gökotta moments. This is all true. But in the depths of the Indian jungle, nature was no tamed, landscaped garden. It was, instead, “the terror-filled forest… empty and desolate.” Here, nature is sometimes portrayed as a place of fear and distraction that the good monk must overcome if they are to find peace. Consider the following from the Samyutta Nikaya 6:13:

In places where frightening serpents abide,
Lightning clashes and the rain-god thunders,
In the blinding darkness of the deepest night,
There he sits — the monk who’s vanquished his dread.”

Natural remedies

Nature, then, is not all about national parks and pretty flowers. And yet, it’s impossible not to feel a certain pull of nature. You can’t have missed the fact that being outside and going for walks feels good. It’s probably fair to say that, evolutionarily, humans are much more suited to living in nature than outside of it. The sounds of the woods, the songs of the birds, and the crash of the waves have been the background soundtrack to our lives for 200,000 years.

There’s a great body of evidence to show that being around nature is good for us. One study from 2019 shows that two hours of being in green spaces per week means that you’re more likely to “report good health or high well-being.” Another study showed how gardening reduced feelings of isolation and lifted mood (among psychiatric patients). In the UK, when thousands of people were given more time out in nature, there was an increase in community cohesion and reduction in crime rates. Even Florence Nightingale, in 1859, noticed the therapeutic powers of nature. Patients healed faster when given flowers to enjoy and there was “the most acute suffering when [a] patient can’t see out of the window.”

Today, there’s a small library’s worth of books making plausible and persuasive cases in favor of “nature therapy.” But the best argument is made by doing. Try it yourself. Make space for a bit of gökotta in your life. Go camping. Enjoy your garden. Leave the city. And, of course, set your alarm clock.

In the bleary eyed first moments, you might be cursing yourself (and the stupid word gökotta) but give it time. As you sit listening to that dawn chorus, remember you are enjoying a moment the very first humans did as well. Let the birdsong in and let it settle your restless, febrile mind.


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