Words by Zinara Rathnayake
With many parts of the world still in lockdown, people have unearthed new ways of connecting to nature. Thousands have flocked to Country Life YouTube, where a new genre of content creators offers serene scenes of gardening and cooking that provide comfort and calm.
Nature is medicine for 39-year-old Maryam Alvandi, who lives in Gilan Province in Northern Iran. Alvandi grew up in the capital city of Tehran and worked as a beautician for 15 years. But after seeing country life videos of YouTuber Liziqi from China, Alvandi wanted to show Iran’s rich culture and nature to the world.
About 11 months ago, after talking to her sister who runs a popular Persian YouTube cooking channel, Alvandi started her own: The Lime Tree. In one video, Alvandi plucks mint leaves from her garden, where a brood of hens waddles. On a fireplace outside her home, she prepares a pot of thick golden syrup called sekanjabin, a honey-and-vinegar syrup eaten with roman lettuce in Iran. In another video, Alvandi grates a potato while a herd of sheep climbs down a pine-tree hill while a collared puppy sunbathes. You hear the ASMR-like sounds of the gentle mountain breeze and the potato she grates. Birds chirp in the background. “This was so peaceful,” a YouTube viewer commented. “Watching your show brings a smile to my face,” another one wrote.
Sometimes in these videos, Alvandi chats with her family, but she doesn’t directly speak to the camera. In most videos, she cooks her food on a mountain top surrounded by wintry trees. “I believe that sounds and colors of nature can heal us,” Alvandi said during a WhatsApp call in May. She’s part of a new genre of YouTube that shows slow-living in the countryside. Focusing on the healing powers of nature, these YouTubers have created one of the most soul-fulfilling spaces in an unlikely corner of the internet.
Most country life vloggers take their inspiration from Liziqi, who is often attributed for popularizing this new genre. Since posting her first video three years ago, Liziqi now has over 15 million followers. Today, country life vloggers come from all over the world. Some of them live in the cold and experience the midnight sun in Sweden. Others work on farms in remote Cambodia and tip-toe across monsoon puddles in Sri Lankan villages.
These videos grew popular during the pandemic when people found themselves at home, hopeless and uncertain about the future. Thirty-five-year-old Indian journalist S. Khan, who lived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the pandemic, said that she joined her mum browsing YouTube during the lockdown. “COVID-19 was still relatively new to us, and we were trying to navigate the scarcity of food supplies. All we heard was depressing news. And as a family, we were going through a difficult time of uncertainty,” she said over WhatsApp. “I still cherish the time I spent lounging on our sofa with mum, both of us glued to these country life videos. My mom drew me into it by saying it looks so appealing and calming to watch. I loved the self-sufficiency in these videos during a repressive time.”
Khan and her mother watched Ziqi and other country life YouTubers from regions like Sri Lanka. Among those YouTubers are the husband and wife duo behind Village Kitchen: Saminda Deepal and Anoma Siriwardena. Forty-year-old Deepal, who worked as a cameraman for a local media house, films these videos in Handapangoda, a village just 25 miles outside of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. The couple began their channel because they wanted to show nature as it is to young people.
“We are living in an age of destruction. Look everywhere, and you see our nature being destroyed. Ancient Sri Lankan traditions always focused on love and care for our environment, but people don’t know about it now,” Deepal said over the phone.
Village Kitchen streams Sri Lankan New Year traditions, home cooking in an open-air clay-walled kitchen, extracting coconut oil from scratch, and rice harvesting. “I think many people come to see our videos because we are offering something that most people don’t have,” Deepal said, “And that’s nature and organic living. Those in the cities aren’t close to our authentic environment.”
Deepal left his job as a cameraman to live with his family in the village. He refers to the clay hut in their videos and said that they made it not for filming but to relax and spend time with their children. “The calming feeling you get in our village home is something you cannot get anywhere else,” he said. The couple uses only natural ingredients to cook and shows their life as it is. In some of their videos, they share meals with neighbors while others bring them vegetables from their farm. “Some people tell us that our videos take them back to their childhood,” Deepal said. “They feel a connection to nature. We try to bring only natural sounds and minimize any music we use. Sounds of nature make the most soothing music.”
Twenty-five-year-old Laman Mukhtarova, who lives in the Ujar region of Azerbaijan, agrees. In her channel Little Strawberry Kitchen, she doesn’t appear in cooking videos. Instead, Mukhtarova focuses on the natural sounds of food preparation and the environment. “I try to put myself in the shoes of the audience, analyze how I like them and shoot my videos accordingly,” she said over the phone. “I want people to watch my videos not only to get a recipe but also to enjoy them so that they feel relaxed and find a calming space on YouTube.”
As a child, Mukhtarova watched her grandparents bake bread and cook over a crackling fire in the garden, which inspired her to have an outdoor kitchen. Now she plucks homegrown spinach and cilantro and makes pomegranate into a famous Azerbaijani sauce. During the pandemic, she said that people from across the world messaged her about how her videos made them feel good.
“Closing people at home doesn’t have a good effect on their mental health. My videos deal with natural elements: flowers swaying in the wind; the sound of the cascading water; sunlight flickering through grapevines. It makes you feel good. Sunshine has the power to make you happy,” she said.
For Alvandi, YouTube is a platform to create a relaxing space for healing. Like others, she thinks that cooking in a closed environment—like a usual household kitchen—is confining. “But come outdoors, and you feel relaxed,” she said. “Nature inspires me, and from the response I receive, I can see my videos inspire others.”
Alvandi makes her videos with the help of her husband and sister, and wants to show more natural landscapes of Iran—a place that she said is only known for violence and terrorism as portrayed by media. For now, she gets ready to brew a cup of tea using a charcoal samovar and make vegetable frittatas with fresh herbs from the garden. “I have chosen to be here, and I know this is right for me,” she said.
City life doesn’t suit Alvandi, who feels that urban living has a set of rules. For her, running after luxuries only brings temporary happiness: “I think COVID-19 proved that we were in a continuous rat race, and it’s not worth it. But when I’m in the village being close to nature, it calms me. My happiness comes from within. That, for me, is spiritual healing.”