I’ve always been keen on the small. Maybe it’s because I’m not much over five foot myself, but I’ve always preferred small houses, small cars, small decorative items rather than grand installations. The miniature rather than the wall-sized painting. The pearl earring rather than dangling hoop.
It’s the same with the natural world. Although I appreciate everything, and know everything has its beauty, its utility, and its place in the vast web of interconnection, I’m drawn more to the small. For a nature lover, I’m quite apprehensive around animals, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I prefer hedgehogs to horses, frogs to foxes, dormice to deer: small seems somehow less ‘other’ and more easily managed should the beast fully inhabit its wildness. The psychoanalyst would no doubt have a field day with that statement, but there we are. I would always be very scared around large predatory animals – even in zoos I’m wary – but I’m even nervous of some breeds of large dog, and I won’t walk alone through a field of cows.
But right now, as my third wave of nature adventuring is upon me – albeit in a dramatically curtailed manner – my love of small is sustaining me very well. I have been well-behaved this lockdown and have only had my one walk a day, without driving anywhere. So the range of amazing animal spectacles and dramatic landscapes expected on my Great Year of British Nature are reduced to what I can see in the small worlds of country lane, river bank, scraps of woodland, and – somewhat larger than small thanks to a right of way through the grounds of a neighbouring National Trust property – open parkland. And of course, there is still a vast sky above me, and distant (oh so tempting) views of the North York Moors National Park and the Howardian Hills.
So the Great Year of British Nature is metamorphosing (as nature does!) into What I Saw on my Two Mile Walk today, or Which Animal’s Poo is That on the Garden Path, or Have Those Bloody Tomato Seeds Germinated Yet??
All good stuff though. All interesting. All better than another hour’s tv – unless of course it’s a nature documentary – or another visit to the fridge to see what I can eat now. And my very local walkings and lifestyle reduction to what’s happening in the garden, or the plant pots, is being small in an enriching and sustainable way. I’d love to do the Great Year of British Nature, and perhaps I will, but – clue in the title – it wouldn’t be a sustainable activity. It wouldn’t be an everyday tale of everyday folk, to misquote the Archers, whereas my life right now is. Embracing the small and sustainable has become many people’s lives, unless you are a keyworker. And if you are, all love and blessings upon you, and I hope you get something out of these meagre words.
So let’s begin with what might become the book after all with What I Saw on my Walk Today, including some Stoatally exciting news.
Wildflowers first. Loving small is really useful when it comes to spotting wild flowers. There are apparently around 1,600 species of wild flower in the UK (I can hardly believe this – where are they all?) and although some of them such as evening primrose, foxgloves, and rosebay willowherb, are noticeable because of their height; or, like bluebells, honeysuckle, and wild rose noticeable because of their fragrance; many go completely undetected by the average walk-past. Even a walk-past by someone, like me, a wildflower lover and keen to find new species.
I have been lucky enough in the past to go on walks with a botanist who specialised in British wildflowers – although he is now helping with the proverbial daisies. And I have a lovely gardener and plantswoman friend who seems to know how to find – and identify – the tiniest little dot of colour deep in the coarser brackens, nettles and dead leaves. But she lives 300 miles away, so now it’s just me and my wildflower books. Although I have just ordered a hand lens which I know is going to be an enormous help when I’m kneeling on the earth, scrabbling through the undergrowth. And encountering off-lead dogs at their level. That’s always fun.
So, What (wildflower) did I See on my Walk Today? Drum roll please for the small but perfectly formed wood sorrel:
It looks quite tall and proud here in this photograph from the Wildlife Trusts – I chose this image because it shows the beautiful purple veining on the inside of the petals – but in fact the whole plant, with its clover-like leaves is barely ten centimetres. And they usually grow in shady woodland glades, so often difficult to spot.
But however difficult to spot some wildflowers might be, when you know they are there then there they are and there they stay – at least for a while. And if they’re perennial… well, there they will be again and again. You can find bluebell woods or hosts of (wild) golden daffodils every year when you know where to find them.
Not so our mammals. You’d think, wouldn’t you, with a mere 66 wild resident species, you’d know where they hang out if you put your mind to a bit of research. I’ve been looking for our mammals for nearly seventy years, on and off, and even with some of the larger ones such as deer, foxes and badgers, sightings are not guaranteed, except in a few local cases – and perhaps in the everywhere case of rabbits and grey squirrels. Though of course greys aren’t officially ‘ours’. But What (mammal) did I See on my Walk Today?
I’m walking along a traffic free country lane, just a short distance from where I’m living. It’s gloriously sunny and gloriously silent… apart from birdsong. It’s a straight bit of road, and up ahead coming directly towards me I see what at first I think is a squirrel. I freeze, wait, and watch. I realise from its shape and way of moving it’s not a squirrel. Too big to be a weasel, or any kind of mouse, or even a large rat. It’s closer now, though still some yards away, and it stops to check me out. I was already getting excited about a possible stoat sighting, but as it raises itself up, meerkat-like, and shows its whiter-than-white chest and belly, I beam out a smile. Oh yes, stoat indeed, and so long since I’ve seen one of those…
I remain motionless. Motionless enough for the stoat to consider me harmless and to carry on towards me until it’s only a couple of metres away. It rears up again and we look at each other for several seconds – how I love those tiny jet black jewels of eyes and twitching brown nose – until it remembers social distancing, and leaps elegantly into the hedgerow bottom. I don’t move my body, but turn my head to catch glimpses of its sleek back gliding through the cow parsley, as it passes me by on its way to wherever. When I’m sure it’s definitely gone, I move on too, still with a smile on my face.