It’s not often you get the chance to jump in the car, drive for fifteen minutes or so, step into an ordinary house in an ordinary street, and arrive 100 million years before even your most distant ancestors were the proverbial twinkles…
The adventure began as Robert, guardian of the ancient treasure, sat me down at his suburban dining table, surrounded by the usual family paraphernalia, and showed me the stars: specifically, fossilised brittle stars. I was able to touch them, smell them, look at them through a microscope.
They were just about as dead as you can get, having been embedded in limestone for millennia, but I saw life. I saw those inordinately long arms floating balletically in primordial oceans; their round bodies pulsing them through waters both dark and clear.
I became embedded myself in the deep past, and yet saw too the future carried in their design: the scales and skins and body parts of creatures yet to come; the intricacies of patterns and shapes that artists living now embed in their work…
Suddenly, a moment even stranger: the sense of my own nowness, my own petty little life as one speck of nothingness on this planet exploded with a flash into alltimeness and everythingness. I had, or perhaps became, my own Big Bang.
And if that wasn’t enough for one normal Tuesday evening, more to come as we headed upstairs – Robert’s two black cats close on our heels – to The Collection.
In an alcove of the spare bedroom, hidden by plain white curtains covering rows of narrow white shelves, lay dozens of fossils. Robert carefully removed the curtains. There rested the tiniest fragments of teeth or bone, scale or shell; there rested great round chunks of ammonite some twenty inches across; there rested ancient pieces of ages-dead life in all shapes and sizes. I gazed on creatures, or parts of creatures, from the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and the Paleozoicand I, currently alive and well in the Anthropocene, could scarcely breathe.
Nor scarcely knew where to look next, until Robert’s mutterings and pointings brought me back to 2019 suburbia. Here and there, among the neutral whites and greys and bland limestone shades, lay an occasional jet black hair. Here and there, Robert adjusted a tiny shark’s tooth a few millimetres this way, or a five-pence sized sea urchin a few millimetres that way.
“Bloody cats,” he grumbled. “They get in behind the curtains and walk along the shelves. They move everything out of place”.
I thought of the endless YouTube videos of cats knocking things off shelves with gay abandon – or perhaps with strategic planning, who’d know, with a cat? – in a single swift swipe. I wondered just who Robert’s cats were. These two black cats who carefully picked their way through fragments of a dead and fossilised past, leaving behind fragments of their very alive and vibrant selves.
In my last blog post I said I was listening, and somebody or something has definitely spoken, and been heard! This week – my birthday week – I’ve had two of the most glorious days of my life, visiting two special places, experiencing the natural world in all its Spring vibrancy, and meeting some friendly people.
The first of these days I wandered the extensive grounds of Dartington College and explored the Great Hall there, had fabulous food in the Green Table Cafe, then returned via the bluebell and wild garlic banks of the River Dart to Totnes where I am now living. The whole day was spent communing with blackbirds, spring flowers and oak trees.
And the second, today, even more spectacular in a variety of ways. I went to Sharpham House (part of the Sharpham Trust, an educational and conservation charity) in order to talk to people there about volunteering. The Sharpham estate occupies another corner of the River Dart, a couple of miles south of Totnes. Perhaps, at 550 acres, ‘corner’ is a misnomer. The photo below is the North Quay of the estate.
Although I have known about the work of Sharpham for some time – since my connection with and time living at the Findhorn community – I’d never visited, apart from online. I was inspired by the staff and volunteers I spoke to there; surprised by the extent of the work of the Trust beyond what I knew about mindfulness retreats and courses; and – to use a word reserved for special occasions from the Yorkshire half of my ‘dual nationality’ – gobsmacked by the wildlife, the gardens, and the wider landscape.
I could, and probably will (friends beware), go on and on about how the place – the physical place, and the organisation itself – took my imagination by the hand and led it to several exciting half-open doors, passageways, and woodland paths. For now though, suffice to say that I am going to be writing stories (true ones, of course) for their website; helping out with open events; and perhaps getting my hands dirty in the stunning fruit and vegetable walled garden.
Abundant nature, purposeful writing, lovely people, beautiful landscapes… what a birthday present indeed.
In case you thought it was, climate change is no longer just one of those issues a few hippy folk drone on about. Even if you were not a climate change denier, you may have been unwilling, unable, or uniformed enough to realise the seriousness of the situation.
As someone who writes about the beauty and benefits of the natural world – specifically native British species and landscapes – I am asking myself an urgent question: how can I best use my skills to be of service to this particular landmass? The whole globe seems rather an ask.
Suddenly, my writings – stories of my experiences in wilder landscapes, or descriptive pieces about natural beauty – seem to have an emptiness, a pointlessness. Even at their literary best, and however enjoyable they might be for others to read, I am not sure what purpose they are serving, not sure about their utility…
Of course there is a long standing argument that art (if indeed my efforts can be called that) does not have to have utility. It has to serve nothing or no-one but itself. I’m not sure that I have ever been totally comfortable with that notion, but I’m certainly not comfortable any more in relation to my own attempts to create art. Specifically, to write about the natural world for its own sake. I have to ask myself what am I writing this for…?
As someone trained in psychotherapeutic and facilitative approaches to helping others raise their awareness and develop emotional competence, the question “What are you doing this for…?” is one always useful to ask. Many of our behaviours are unexamined, until a personal crisis occurs, and not always then. We do many things because we were brought up that way; because some authority figure has told us to do it; because we always have done it that way; because we’re supposed to/should do/ought to… and so on.
Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Socrates supposedly said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I have lived all of my adult life questioning why we (and I) do the things we do, and the last thirty plus years of it learning how to facilitate others (and myself) to make the changes they desire in their personal and professional lives.
Now it seems to me that this most crucial time – this time of emergency – requires us to widen that personal or relational view. Requires me to, at least. What changes can I make, or what actions can I take, that will have value and benefit wider than my own personal life, or that of my immediate circle of friends/family/colleagues etc?
From this moment on, I am working consciously with this question. My belief and my experience (and certainly my hope) is that I will be assisted in a non-conscious way too. I hope Terence McKenna’s words are correct: “Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.”
I’m thrilled to report that three pieces of my nature writing are to be published in an anthology later this year, so I thought I would celebrate with one of those pieces here. And any excuse to post photos and words about water voles suits me! So here they are:
As with many of the other native British species I’ve been encountering on my feral forays, I was familiar with water voles as a child. When I wasn’t hiding away in my favourite hawthorn tree, or trying to have Famous Five adventures when there was only one of me, I was forever poking about in streams with a stick, or skipping along river and canal banks.
It was along such banks I’d often hear the characteristic ‘plop’ as voles dropped into the water for cover. Occasionally one would see no need for cover and I would spot him (they always seemed male to me), hanging from reed stems or nibbling away at some water plant, showing his tiny yellow teeth. Sometimes just staring at me with equally tiny round black eyes, looking deep into my soul… or whatever my seven-year old equivalent of such a notion was. I fancied those I saw always appeared curious about who – or rather, what – I was.
But move on almost a lifetime, and it was a thousand years since I’d seen one. In part, this is because for a thousand years I’d rarely gone looking for one, but also because in many areas of the UK water vole numbers have become worryingly low. Water quality deterioration and poorly designed drainage schemes haven’t helped, but also poor Ratty (he’s the Wind in the Willows water rat) has been eaten in vast numbers by the voracious American Mink. This particular Yank may not be overpaid or over-sexed, but having been released from captivity in mink farms in the 1970’s, he’s most definitely and inappropriately over here.
Today, with various habitat changes and other initiatives including mink control projects and water vole reintroduction programmes, vole numbers are rising, and things are looking a little less bleak – at least in some places – for this cutest of rodents.
Rutland Water Nature Reserve is one of the sites where there has been an active, and successful, reintroduction programme, and after many searches elsewhere looking for Ratty, I hoped I’d see one whilst I was there. It was late August and I was volunteering at the annual Birdfair event – in music festival terms, think Glastonbury – so free camping for me for a few quiet days after the chaos of the festival itself.
Vole-wise, I did all the right things during those few days: going out early in the morning, or the evening; choosing the right kind of watery environment – they prefer shallow and moving water – and keeping quiet and still whilst I watched. Four attempts, no sightings, although the fourth time I did hear that familiar plop noise so was fairly confident that one, at least, was present in that particular area. They tend to favour their own little territories, so on my last evening at the Reserve, back I went to the plop area.
It was warm and sultry, very still. The only movement seemed to be in the sky as it slowly weaved its pre-sunset colours. Above a row of distant poplars, a faraway plane travelled inch-by-inch across the sky’s pattern, marking an edge with its contrail. It was a perfect late summer evening: perfect for nature’s magic, though perfect too for midges, as I was to discover.
I crept slowly and quietly up to the little wooden bridge crossing the stream where I had previously heard the noise, and prepared to wait. Immediately, the wildlife I did not want to see closed in, and I wondered how I could waft away midges and other biting beasts whilst being simultaneously motionless. I couldn’t of course, so chose the latter, letting the midges have their fun.
As I stood there, silent and still, I began to have the experience I often have when outside in nature: that I am slipping out of everyday consciousness, leaving behind ordinary reality and my sense of daphne-ness in it. I lose all sense of time, though sense of place becomes more acute. It’s as if I become part of that place, not separate, not a human being any more. I am invisible, I meld into my surroundings.
At that moment, a shaft of late evening sun suddenly lit up one small leafy patch of a low branch where it entered the water. A circle of sunlight… a tiny spotlight. Showtime! Through my binoculars, I watched the circle, and into it moved a water vole, complete with waistcoat, cane and dancing shoes. Well, maybe no outfit, but he certainly gave a performance. He ran through a whole series of cute vole behaviours: face cleaning with both front legs, scratching with both back legs, a little leaf nibbling, and then, unbelievably – I must not be invisible after all! – he looked directly up at me, full on eye contact, for a good few seconds. I remembered those voles from my childhood: watching me, always as if they were interested in me, but this one was obviously not impressed at all with what he saw. He slid into the water and disappeared.
That was the point at which I returned to everyday reality and remembered I was living flesh and blood, and that there was not a lot of it left. The munching midges had homed in on my raised binocular hands and bitten them to shreds. I suppose I should have been thankful that at least my face was partially protected by hands and binoculars. I returned to my van, hands beginning to turn into balloons, but happy nonetheless. And in my dreams that night, the vole danced in the spotlight…
The warning sign at the side of the road tells me the bridge ahead over the river is closed, because of recent flooding. For the last half an hour or so, I’ve been driving aimlessly around, trying not to go home, because there are boring tasks to do. I prefer to be out – even in a car – in this end-of-January-afternoon curious half-light.
It’s a flat and some would say featureless landscape I’m driving through – a quiet rural road with nowhere to go at the end of it because the river has once again broken its banks. I expect to see little traffic, or people about, and indeed see neither. I drive right up to where road meets floodwater, stop, turn off the engine, get out of the car. I take a couple of deep breaths and look around this mysterious new world. Little waves lap at my tyres, as if I’ve driven my car onto a beach somewhere, down to the very edge of the ocean. It’s strange to see a road, normally with stretches of fields on either side, suddenly become one massive waterscape. I find bodies of water fascinating, and particularly so when they appear as unexpectedly as this.
I stand still a moment, feeling my way into this liminal world. Border territory: earth and water, dark and light, civilisation and wilderness. A nothing zone: no breeze, no noise apart from some distant lapwings calling, nothing to be seen except for a village in the distance looking like something out of ancient legend, completely surrounded by water, apparently deserted. No people, no vehicles, no movement. Nothing stirs.
I pull on my wellingtons, and binoculars round my neck, step into this mystical waterscape. I know I’m just walking along the road, I can feel it beneath my feet, but can’t see it, and as the water level doesn’t appear to be getting much higher, I continue walking into this newly created sea. Slowly moving further into this other reality, I too am surrounded by water, and my car has become smaller.
The rational part of me – sensible brain, I call it – knows this is probably not a particularly safe thing to be doing, in flooded terrain on a darkening January afternoon, with gathering grey clouds and more rain imminent. But I am enchanted by the oddness of this transformed landscape, and now I see a pair of swans sailing along together down this minor B road. I scan for the lapwings I heard
earlier. There’s a small island of earth over to the right, with a few shreds of vegetation showing, and there they are feeding, presumably having found rich pickings in the mud from the broken riverbanks. I watch them through my binoculars and see other birds there too – a couple of crows, a few mallards. A long-legged bird I cannot immediately identify.
I’m now in water almost to the top of my boots. I close my eyes, to better absorb what I hear. The lapwings are calling again and as the sound becomes louder, I open my eyes to see them flying over my head with their characteristic slow flopping movement. I watch them until they are out of sight.
It’s now completely silent apart from a quiet lap-lap of the water around my boots. I close my eyes again, hoping to shift deeper into this altered state of consciousness. I feel as if I want to just walk on, until I need to swim, or even better turn on my back and float as I love to do in natural bodies of water. I want to become one with this watery environment, and it annoys me that I feel I must resist the temptation. I walk on further, and look back at my car, pleased it is now just a toy.
Sensible brain is still keeping me aware this is not a good plan. It runs the media stories: abandoned vehicle found at water’s edge… pair of women’s shoes next to it… no trace of the driver… but it’s not until I get the shock of water slopping over the top of my boots that I return fully to ordinary reality. A breeze has sprung up, and a few drops of rain touch my face. But when I try to turn around to walk back to my car, I feel my feet stuck in mud beneath the water. I must have stepped off the road.
I feel no fear, just an odd curiosity… perhaps some part of me is still in an altered state. Perhaps this is how it is for people who drown themselves by walking into the sea. No fear or panic, just a simple one foot in front of the other until their legs are buoyant and their body floats away.
I can’t see the swans any more, and there’s nothing on the little island. Somewhere in the far distance I notice car headlights, but not coming this way. A few lights are now twinkling in the village, making it seem like a distant cruise ship, moored in some vast ocean. I feel as if I have been here for hours, walking and standing in this watery wilderness, though when I check my watch, I’m surprised to discover it can’t be more than twenty minutes.
I wriggle my toes, twist my ankles a little, and try a couple of tentative steps one way, then another, and soon find my way back onto the submerged road. I’m almost disappointed, and reluctantly set off towards my car, but I enjoy the water squelching satisfyingly in my boots.
Today’s full moon low tide is exposing areas of the beach normally covered by the sea. I walk, and walk, and watch and wonder. I enjoy the effects of low banks of heavy cloud and patterns of low winter sunlight. Bladderwrack covered reefs, one as tall as myself, are there to be explored: to study close-up, to feel with fingertips inch-by-inch over barnacles and bladders, and to photograph… though my header image doesn’t do them justice. Atop the reefs, in multiple little pools of sea-water, it’s business as usual: they are full of tiny delicate shells, tentacle-waving anemones, minuscule shrimps. Nothing in these pools seems to know it’s midwinter.
Scanning the wider landscape (seabedscape, really) I am particularly attracted to the rib cages of fine gravel and how some of the ridges, reflecting the heavy sky, look deep and dark; others touched by a brief ray of sunlight, look shallow and bright. Again, my phone images are a poor replacement for a proper camera (and a proper photographer!) but I can’t resist… I take one after another, obsessively.
This is one Google has ‘improved’ for me…
Better in a way, but somewhat brighter than I remember! And there wasn’t a trace of blue sky in sight, nor is bladderwrack this green. Google randomly does this when I take a few photos: the ‘improvements’ often look to me like a child’s colouring-in with neon highlighters. Or maybe an adult’s, since we are all colouring-in these days. Nothing wrong with that: there can be mindfulness in mindlessness.
I walk on, a little preoccupied with my own thoughts once I move away from the beauties of the sea’s rib cage. I’ve just received a diagnosis of spinal osteoporosis and spent last evening researching online and looking at more images of osteoporotic bones than was perhaps ideal. So when I come across this rather-the-worse-for-wear though nonetheless exquisitely formed spiral shell, I feel a degree of empathy for my spine – I feel sorry for it, though not for my self. Whatever the self may be: that’s most definitely another story…
I don’t feel a victim at all – or that awful phrase used so much in the clinical world: ‘a sufferer from…’, though the shell does seem to encapsulate some sense of self-right-now for me. It’s battered and a little broken from its life in the ocean, but there it still is, serving a purpose – if only to give one person a moment of joy and illumination – and it sits, calm and quiet on its gravelly ridge, away from the turbulence of the ocean, for now. I take artistic liberties by deliberately placing a nearby piece of sea belt (the only green scrap of anything I can see right now) and take another photo.
Wandering on, I meet a couple of friends and chat for a while. A routine social exchange, then into a more meaningful and heart-warming conversation. By now, the tide is coming in, and little ‘desert islands’ of sand are forming. I decide I will take one last photo today. Or rather, ask my friends to take it. Sitting there, calm and quiet, a realisation: a small epiphany. Like a seaside shell, I am slowly – I hope slowly – disintegrating; yet here at my own seaside, among friends and the beauty of the coastal world, I’m also happy, and feeling blessed.
What a wild wind this morning. What a furious sea. Thrashing and crashing against the sea wall. Further along – technically the beach, but most of its sand is on the pavement above – bubbles of seafoam dance on the curving surface of the sea’s kaleidoscope of jetsam. There are piles of kelp and weed, twigs and branches, whole and crushed shells, fragments of glass, dead sea creatures, pieces of rope and lobster pots, the inevitable plastic items, small and large. A whole tyre, most of a child’s scooter, part of a faded Fairy Liquid bottle – though not faded enough that the price cannot be seen: 2/6d. How long has that been living its life in the ocean?
There is nothing like a winter storm to make the sea disgorge its past – and its nutritious present. Gulls fill the air – as turbulent as the sea beneath – manoeuvring of wings matching curves of waves as the birds circle and hang, circle and hang, waiting for yet another meal to become visible in the maelstrom of surf. How do these wind-dancing creatures see one small crab or clam in that foaming mass? Then dive down, snatch it up and fly off to eat in a calmer place? Others choose a different strategy: they patrol the promenade pavement above, fighting over scraps of fleshy bodies exposed in an assortment of smashed mussel, clam, razor and crab shells. In a storm like this, the sea does the work for them: other times they will fly above the prom, dropping shells onto the pavement below to get to the juicy morsels within.
At the Point, where sea becomes estuary, moves into the river mouth, and begins to calm, oystercatchers trundle up and down the sandbanks like small tanks, dividing their energy between gobbling up the feast and defending it from their neighbours. If one gets too close to another, it lowers its head and sets off on the scaring mission, screaming meep-meep, red light – or rather orange bill – a vibrant flash of colour on its black-white body.
There is so much wild activity in the whole scene. The sea is star player, but everything is on full alert, everything in movement. On the wooded cliff top opposite the estuary mouth the branches of Holm oak and Monterey pines thrash about like the waves, dropping their small acorn and cone bombs into the sea beneath. The few people braving the storm are almost running along the prom if they have the wind at their back; or if they are facing into it, they struggle slowly, bent almost into an L shape, hair and scarves flying chaotically about them. Even the few vehicles parked on the promenade car park jiggle as the wind catches them, or shimmer as sea spray glistens on paint work. Alarms sound.
A few months ago, flying home from Spain north over the Bay of Biscay, the sky must have been unusually clear, for there below me, bright as stars in unpolluted skies, I saw where Gaia had sprinkled a handful of her sparkliest glitter.
The Isles of Scilly were reminding me I had not yet visited. Known to me since my West Country childhood, and especially via my love of myths and legends from the Matter of Britain, I’d been wanting to go for a long time. In recent years, since working with conservation organisations and writing about British wildlife, more of what the Scillies has to offer had been revealed to me.
But for a short first visit, I did not want to island-hop. I’m old enough and wise enough now to have stopped multi-tasking: stopped skimming the surface of life. I wanted a single-island focus.
So, partly because of its particular ‘management style’- perhaps guardianship is a better word – and for its world famous sub-tropical garden, I chose Tresco as my first island to explore. And after all, Gaia actually lives there, in the beautiful form of David Wynne’s sculpture.
I may have reached the bus-pass years, but there is a life for me to live on Tresco. The island may only measure a little more than two miles by one, but there’s a vast landscape to explore. The permanent residents may only number around 150, but they have a thousand multi-faceted stories to tell.
I have fallen in love, and like every new lover, I want to talk – incessantly – about my new love. So there will be more. Much more. For now, to end as I began, but in reverse.
Last night, I enjoyed a wonderful meal at the Flying Boat restaurant watching the sun set. When I left to return to New Inn, where I was staying, I stepped out into the dark night. The properly dark night: there are no street lights on Tresco, and the gibbous moon had not yet risen. I stood for a moment, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. But perhaps it wasn’t that dark, after all… I looked up, remembering those few months ago, when I was in the sky myself, looking down. There above me, in unpolluted skies, I saw a million handfuls of the sparkliest glitter.
The nature thread of this website is all about celebrating the beauty and wonder of the landscapes, plants and creatures of the British Isles: the land where I was born and have lived for almost 100 percent of my life; the land I walk daily, the land I think I know well, yet repeatedly have new discoveries, even within my own locality. As I have become older (not sure about wiser) I realise that here, in William Blake’s Ancient Albion, I want to remain until I die.
For most of my life I have been excited by the possibilities of visiting other countries, and when that has happened I’ve always found the experience challenging, rewarding, and full of learning, but the ‘medicine’ I’ve received from paying attention to my own land, especially recently, has told me I’m to stay here. More of this in another post.
However, I do also want to honour some of the wonderful experiences I have had in nature in lands other than my own, and perhaps especially in Spain – a country I have visited frequently, considered living in twice (stayed around a month, in each case), and would be my land-of-choice if I didn’t live in Britain. A while back, I had an amazing trip to the Coto Doñana with the wildlife holiday company Naturetrek and had a piece published on their website. After losing a lot of my written work in cyberspace when I changed from a steam powered Microsoft desktop to a Chromebook, I’m pleased to say I found it in their bit of said cyberspace and have cut and pasted it here.
‘Looking for Iberian Lynx in Spain’ by Daphne Pleace
Being stared at long and hard by a full-grown male Lynx only feet away is disconcerting. Even from the safety of a vehicle, and even knowing they don’t attack homo sapiens, the experience was heart-stoppingly exciting. And when he dismisses us, for all his proximity and size, this fabulous creature simply vanishes into the scrub, with not even a trademark ear tuft showing. Some of us in the van just stare at each other, wide eyed. Did we really experience that?
Yes we did, and wonderful as it was, there are many more amazing wildlife experiences to come as we make further excursions into Andalucía’s Coto Doñana National Park.
El Rocío, home for two nights, is definitely not just another little Andalusian village. There are more locals on horseback – often bareback – than in cars, dust roads, clouds of Spotless Starlings (with spots – how can a body learn this stuff?); and our lovely hotel situated on the very edge of la Madre de las Marismas – mother of all swamps. (Main image, above)
Wetland wonderland is a less accurate translation, but a more accurate description of this magical, wild area. I need only look out of my bedroom window to see several species, and huge numbers, of water birds, including Egrets little and large; flocks of Greater Flamingo; Glossy Ibis … all standard fare, apparently, but for someone who only knows British wildlife, many are first ever sightings for me. Plenty of mammals too: Red Deer on the far bank, wild horses in the shallows, a vole running over my foot as I stand rooted to the spot. I am starring in, not just watching, a wildlife documentary.
In the next few days, I have many more treats: no rare species or giant beasties, but for this inexperienced wildlife traveller, I have a ball.
We see Wild Boar a few times in the woods and scrub but the young one, pottering along on his own on the side of the road as we drive slowly past, brings a smile to my face. As does encountering my first Hoopoe and Azure-winged Magpie. ‘Ordinary’ European birds, I know, but how extra-ordinary.
The highlight for many on this kind of holiday is the number and range of birds of prey. We see more than a dozen out of 20 possibles on the all-season tour list, but my eyesight is poor, and I have low expectations of seeing such creatures, or at best seeing them as distant specks. But someone at Naturetrek has clearly rung ahead to the pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles who sit, imperially, for almost an hour in a tree close enough to give me good views through my own binoculars, and stunning ones through someone’s scope. I retract what I said about not seeing any ‘giant beasties’!
We see the eagle pair whilst we’re in the Sierra Morena and scanning for the Lynx we can hear calling, but can’t see. The longer stay in one place is a great opportunity for me to hone my skills in scanning for some of my ‘own’ birds and mammals, and to wander off a little and simply feel my way into this vast, open landscape.
I understand the need, on a wildlife holiday, to ‘target’ species, and get the ticks, but I do enjoy it when we stay a little longer in one place, and have some quiet time absorbing the ambient sounds and smells, waiting to see whatever reveals itself.
This happens again when we visit the beautiful, ever-changing Río de Jándula. I can’t remember what our ‘target’ is, but I enjoy the sounds of water and woodland birds calling. I enjoy watching the sinuous movements of the river, and the splashes of fish, but I’m intrigued most of all by the way that our guide stands, silent and motionless on the bank, clearly on full alert. I notice him raise his head and flare his nostrils, although when I ask him later if he was smelling for anything, he says not.
We easily forget that our layer of ‘civilisation’ is thin, and we use our sense of smell more than we think we do, albeit unconsciously. My experience of wildlife guides is that as ‘hunters’ they can operate on the same animal level as their ‘prey’ (as well as using their extensive intellectual knowledge), and the best ones can access that atavistic element.
However he did it, he was the first of us to spot the Otter, only her sleek head showing, swimming silently in the semi-darkness behind a wall of tree roots growing out of the bank into the river. She appeared to be trapped in a cage. We watched her, watching us, for some moments before she too, like the Lynx, disappeared without trace.
Just to manage your expectations before you waste five minutes of your life reading this – no so-called ‘magic mushrooms’ were used in the making of this blog. But oh, the magic that came anyway from my two fungi feasts.
In the clinical mental health world, mind-disturbing events are called ‘episodes’. I tend to avoid the clinical lexicon, but this word I shall claim because I like its literary connotation: I’ve had two wonderful episodes in the strange world of mushrooms. And ‘episodic’ implies there might be more…
The first was a Fungi Foray Walk I experienced with the Woodland Trust I was writing a piece for their website about the trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed the finding, touching and smelling of a variety of mushrooms – including some very psychoactive ones – under the auspices of the mycologist guide. Tasting was definitely not on the menu, and we were given strict instructions about hand washing with soap and hot water before our post-walk tea and biscuits.
I did as instructed, so in discussion with the mycologist about what happened to me later, he said he had noticed me intensively smelling and touching all our samples and had meant to tell me not to be such an enthusiastic smeller! But he let it go: he said it was very unusual, though not impossible, that spores had entered my respiratory system and subsequently my digestive system even though I’d not eaten any.
That night, after the walk, I had one of the most astonishing dreams of my life. Months later, I can still see the vibrant colours of whatever natural environment the dream had put me in. Certainly not one I recognise from anywhere on this planet! I can still hear the strange discordant music playing, and I can still see the gigantic butterflies and dancing woodland creatures who resembled no animals I have ever seen in this reality. There was an all-pervading rich heady smell of damp undergrowth and earthy foods such as mushrooms, potatoes, radishes, celery… the foods the mycologist had told us to look – or rather smell – out for when sniffing the fungi we discovered.
Unfortunately, I woke from the dream feeling – and then being – sick. And sick. And sick. Then, activity moved downwards. I will spare you the detail, but suffice to say, as the dream was an experience such as I’ve never had before, or since, so too was the sickness and diarrhoea.
The fun aspect (truly!) was the subsequent inability to consume anything except warm water and bites of dry toast for quite some time, meaning I lost almost a stone: for me, a good thing! And for many weeks afterwards, I continued to have wonderfully vivid dreams full of multi-coloured flowers and bizarre – though always benign – animals and insects.
Later, when normal eating had resumed – and, weirdly, I was craving mushrooms – I bought something slightly more exotic than the usual supermarket tasteless white blobs, but they were just brown and equally tasteless. I also experimented unsuccessfully with some dried products from an oriental delicatessen – might as well have poured salt down my throat. Then… oh, happy day… I came upon the Forest Fungi Cafe in Dawlish Warren, close to my home.
This second fungi episode was more routine – just brunch out with my grandson – though a magical experience in its own right. The display of the different edible mushrooms for sale was a treat in itself and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten growing things which looked, and tasted, so divine. Feast your eyes on these images of shiitake, yellow oyster, and hen of the woods, cultivated in Forest Fungi’s own growing sheds. And on that steaming bowl of tasteful morsels. Look and drooooool… they were delicious. Even their names are something other.
So, like my first fungi episode, this experience was on another planet. Though I hasten to assure you that unlike the first episode the following night, and days, were happy ones. My insides remained inside. I can also assure you that more heavenly ‘sprouting bodies’ (that’s what a mushroom is, apparently), floating in butter and served with truffle oil, will be consumed. My own body will be sprouting, as the lost stone returns.