Midsummer Midnight on Mousa

First, an acknowledgement here for this photo of Mousa. Not at midnight, but beautiful nonetheless. Now, the story: not the repeat trip I’d planned for this year, obviously, but from a few years ago.

It’s the 21st June – Midsummer – and eleven fifteen in the evening. Apart from an overnight ferry trip across the Bay of Biscay, I’ve never been on the sea at this time before. A family group climbs aboard the boat, shrieking with laughter. A couple of ASBO-looking youths stand on the harbour side, taking a last few drags of their roll-ups. Other assorted tourists, many dressed in completely inappropriate gear for an evening boat trip and a walk across an uninhabited island, step – or rather, scramble – into the boat. There is much wiping of damp wooden benches and muttering about the hardness of seats.  


This was not at all what I had in mind when I imagined – as I had done many times before – this journey out to Mousa, in the ‘simmer dim’ of the Shetland Islands. I had read about the 44-foot high Iron Age broch on the small uninhabited island of Mousa. As the tallest and best-preserved broch in the world, it’s worth seeing for its own sake, though it’s also home to a breeding colony of storm petrels.   


These tiny, black birds are not particularly rare, but they might as well be since they only come ashore to breed; only on remote north-westerly stretches of coastline; and only feed at nightfall. This way, the larger gulls and skuas find them less easy prey, and the petrels’ nests in the crevices of the broch are more difficult to locate and attack. The pair spends quality time together, and then swaps over, the recently arrived bird staying to incubate the eggs, or later in the season guard the chicks, whilst the other bird leaves for a few days at sea to feed up. I’d heard too – and seen tv footage – about the strange noise they make as they return, and how they appear to have no fear of people, dancing and diving about their heads in the bat-like, gull-confusing flying patterns they make around the broch before slipping into their own little crevice.   

 
There would be other seabirds too, and seals on or around the island, and even the possibility of whale, or dolphin. The fact that all this took place on an island-off-an-island in one of the most northerly points of the UK (beyond the 60 degree latitude, in fact) and in high summer when the quality of half-light, half-darkness – the Shetlanders’ ‘simmer dim’ – was supposed to be very special, meant this was a journey which had been high on my list for some time. 


But so far, the reality is not matching the fantasy. As well as my fellow travellers who are not taking this trip anywhere near seriously enough in my opinion, there is another problem.  The skyscape is exceptionally dramatic, because although the sun has (just) set, it’s been a bright, warm, sunny day, and the sky is still pulsating with purples and pinks and swathes of blue, as if reluctant to finally commit to night on this beautiful late June day.   


Tom, the boat owner, explains that the downside of this is that occasionally, on such a night, the birds haven’t ‘come in’ by it’s time to leave the island. From what I’d researched beforehand about the Shetland Islands, I’d prepared myself for cold, wind, rain, mist, or it being just too dark to see much. I’m not prepared for this warm balmy evening with its glorious array of colours that means the birds may not show, and yet every common-or-garden tourist looking for any common-or-garden boat trip is indeed showing. I tut at myself.  I know I have to change my mindset, or it will be me spoiling the journey for myself, not the tourists or the too-good weather.  


I don’t have to work too hard. As the boat pulls away from the harbour, and a cool breeze catches the day trippers’ bare shoulders and arms, the chatter quietens. Soon, there is only the noise of the boat engine, and the rushing of the backwash. I take a few calming breaths, raising my head and flaring my nostrils to take in the smells and sensations of the night.  I remember snatches of conversation I’d overheard earlier in the day: a pod of orcas had been seen, not far from where we are now, but in a later report, they had been further south, and swimming steadily on, rather than working the rocky coastline for seals, where the best orca sightings are often obtained. I try not to think about how it would be to encounter orca: I’d had a previous amazing experience with bottlenose dolphins; occasional sightings of harbour porpoise; twice in the past had seen distant fins of unknown species of whale, but orca… aka killer whale… and possibly close up?  


As we draw nearer to Mousa, I notice a shifting of colours in the sky. There’s now little day-blue left, and less pink, though still plenty of purples, and wide bands of navy blue, some shading into an almost green hue I’ve never seen in the sky before. I feel the thrill of anticipation: surely now the birds would soon be coming in?  

 
With this quality of light, and my poor eyesight, my vision is far from 20/20, but as we approach the jetty, I can’t miss two seals scrambling hastily onto a rocky outcrop. Seals only move in haste for one reason, and I look around, but can see nothing. At that point, the boat suddenly changes direction, moving away from the jetty, towards the open sea.   


In his talk before we set off, Tom said that if we were lucky enough to spot orcas, or any other cetacean, he would go as close as he knew was appropriate, and if safe to do so, would cut the engines, and we should keep quiet. I narrow my eyes to look out over what Homer in The Odyssey calls ‘the wine-dark sea’ (he must have been here) and there, a little way ahead, are two fins pointing out of the water, one a lot bigger than the other.  

 
On the boat, there’s much shuffling for position, and whispering and pointing between the passengers, but I am well positioned in the stern and able to stand on a raised platform and watch the fins, and then more of the backs, of whatever is in front of the boat. The animals are not swimming purposefully in any one direction, but quite slowly, meandering a little from side to side. Then, both fins disappear, and I realise I’m holding my breath and not blinking. I take a breath, blink rapidly a few times, then close my eyes for a beat of one. As I open them, a fine spray goes up, very close to where I am in the boat, and then the whole left flank of an orca becomes visible to me as it lifts out of the water. Huge, black, with the signature white patch – startlingly white in the gloaming.   


I’m not sure what kind of noise comes out of my mouth, but something unrecognisable does. From that moment, five or six minutes of pure joy as the orcas swim about close to the boat, probably checking us out. I realise there are at least three: a massive one with a fin of almost six feet, another smaller, and one much smaller still. It was confirmed later that a probable family pod of bull, cow and calf had been seen all along that stretch of coast that day and the next.   I don’t have the dramatic eye contact experience that I had with the Moray Firth dolphins, but it’s still pure magic to see such creatures close up, and to experience with them, however briefly, my sense of their wildness and freedom.  


The walk to the broch from the jetty is a little hair-raising. It’s not dark – it won’t get completely dark all night – but it is definitely dusk, and there is only the narrowest of paths, often right on the cliff edge, and with a steady incline. I want to have the experience of being alone at the broch if only for a few moments – there must be fifteen or so of us straggling along the path – so I walk ahead as briskly as I dare.


I do have to stop though. Partly to catch my breath, and partly to soak in the experience. The sound of the sea and seabirds in this strange light is other-worldly, and I can hear seals singing below the cliffs. I can’t quite believe it’s turned midnight, I’m on Mousa, and I’ve seen orcas. The Shetland Islands at last.  


I begin walking again; the cooling tower shape of the broch getting nearer and nearer until it fills my vision. I can’t see any birds that might be storm petrels but I can hear a strange squeaking noise coming from the walls of the broch. I go right up to it and place my palms on the stone walls, which still hold some warmth from the day’s sun. I can see the tiny markers the archaeologists use to check the movements of the structure, and I can hear the curious chittering of the storm petrels in their nests between the broch’s twin walls. I place my ear directly on the wall, and realise with a thrill that I must be only centimetres from the birds.   


I can hear other people approaching, but I don’t move. It’s as if I could stand here forever, feeling the wall of the broch against my face and hands, attuning to these strange little creatures living out their particular survival drama in this ancient structure where once my species lived out theirs.  


At last I step back and survey the night. Almost at once a bird circles around my head, and then another, and another. I realise the birds are coming in, and that there are dozens darting and circling around the broch.

 

With the dim light, and their rapid changes of direction, it’s almost impossible to follow an individual bird, but as I step back further still, I decide this is the best way to experience the phenomenon: I can see, and hear, birds coming in from the sea to the broch, some nearer to it still weaving and winding, and also those disappearing (with quite a wriggle and a squeeze) into their particular nest space.  

 

People are talking, but it’s subdued, and I like the view of the shadowy broch circled by the fast-moving black dots of birds and the stationary black human figures, all backdropped by the deep bands of colour in the night sky.  

 

Eventually, Tom tells us it’s time to go, and on the walk back there’s one last treat: I hadn’t realised the petrels also nest in the remaining stone boundary walls on the island, and as I approach a section of wall two birds are sitting on top of it, snuggling together. With no fear of people, they don’t bother to fly away as I get nearer, and stand for a moment watching them. Two little black birds sitting on a wall…. I walk back to the jetty with a singing heart.  

 

Two little videos here and here if you’d like a visual… thank you to John Poyner who was the guide on this wildlife trip.

Can there really be a New Normal?

As part of the Guardian’s A New Normal series they have a short online survey where you answer questions about your post lockdown attitudes towards flying, and travel generally, and to what extent lockdown may have impacted on those attitudes. I decided to fill it in, just because there was still coffee in the pot and I couldn’t be bothered to start the day properly yet. 

But as often happens with me, a simple question (and the first one as well – fresh coffee may be required) sent me off into a range of emotions.

Here’s the question – see what it does for you:

Tell us a bit about yourself (e.g. age and what you do for a living)

 

Where do I start with this, Guardian? Do you want a sentence, or a short paragraph? I’m a writer, for goodness sake. I can answer that in 10 words or 70,000. And the prompts don’t help… do you want an exact age, or an approximation? Will middle-aged do, or do you want forty seven and three quarters? (Not the right answer, by the way)

And what do I do for a living… oh dear. This is me you’re asking. Oh to have a life – to have ever had a life – where I could have  simply said “shop assistant” or “plumber” or even “teacher” which was for a few years at least a part of the truth. And in any case, why are those three questions of what do you do, where do you live, and how old are you always considered to be the most important ones? What about ‘what makes you happy?’, or ‘what moves you to tears?’, or ‘how do you want your next five years to be?’. Now those are questions worth answering.

I could tell by my belligerent attitude, something was shifting internally… more learning being delivered!

So, I decided it was worth answering as a conscious piece of work, rather than just as something to do for five minutes in order to put off doing something else more useful. 

This was my answer: 

I’m an elder: definitely not ‘retired’, ‘pensioner’ sounds horrendous, ‘senior’ too American. I do more being now, rather than doing, but I read and write a lot, engage in environmental voluntary work and still practice as a psychotherapist.

Second question was:

Are there things about lockdown that have changed the way you think about travel, flying, or the way we think about the environment looking forward?

 

If you have more than one brain cell, surely lockdown (oh and what actually happened to cause lockdown…) can’t not have changed you? And not only whether you’ll ever fly again. Almost every aspect of day-to-day life has been – is being – impacted by this virus. Not only is there no return, ever, to normal, but even envisioning a new normal is not radical enough for what we are facing on individual, family, workplace, wider community and organisational levels, and ultimately planetary.

But I answered the question anyway. Like this:

I’ve never been a keen flyer, and have felt conflicted about certain aspects of the travel industry since my environmental epiphany, several years before the pandemic, but now I have made a commitment to not fly again, and to reduce my travel within the UK. The pandemic has prodded me to review my own position in respect to travel and also to do more to raise people’s awareness about the connections between the pandemic and the environmental crisis. I can say more, if you want to hear it.

Third question:

What are your biggest hopes for the future around travel and the environment? Do you think they can be achieved? If so, how?

 

This question really took me metaphorically travelling. If I were to hope for anything from this pandemic it would be that as many people as possible make as many links as possible as often as possible between the pandemic, the amount of unnecessary local and global travelling, and the local and global environmental crises. This blog is not the place to get specific, but there is a wealth of quality writing and research being done (and accessible online) to start your ‘travelling’ into this new world. Here’s just one brilliant place to start. But yes, I admit that the best grains of wheat have to be sorted from the piles of chaff. Be a questioning consumer of what you read.

This is how I answered the question:

Personally, I have let go of the need to ‘see the world’ even though I still fantasise about so-called green travel and holidays.  I simply want to spend whatever time I have left raising awareness about using our potential as human beings in the best possible way and my greatest hope is that more of us can see more of ‘the right way’ more of the time. 

I have no idea (has anyone?) what can be achieved, but I do know that as a species we are good at keeping on keeping on. Let’s hope though that we keep on keeping on in the way that is best for the planet – not the way we have been functioning for the last however many years.

Again, I can say more… I know you ask for ‘as much detail as possible’ but I am a writer, thinker, nature lover, and knower (also gnower) of humankind, so I have plenty to say – probably more than you need here.

The final open question was this:

Do you miss travelling? Where would you most like to go if you could travel freely?

 

Another big question, turning me inward once again. I have yearned to travel (specifically, to ‘go abroad’) all my life but apart from a honeymoon on the Costa Brava in the late 1960’s when the package holiday industry was in its infancy, and a few trips to France when my children were small and I was studying French as a mature student, I hadn’t been anywhere ‘exotic’ until I went to Uganda in 2001 with a group of friends, one of whom was setting up a charitable organisation there. Subsequently, I have travelled a little more, sometimes as a tourist, sometimes as a voluntary worker, visiting Egypt, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and having several longer stays in different parts of Spain, as well as extensive travel in the UK, but I still consider myself to be someone who has not travelled much outside of the UK. 

Before the pandemic I had not made a decision not to travel overseas any more, but rather suspected that for a variety of financial, health, and choosing to do other things reasons, I probably wouldn’t travel other than within the UK. So it’s perhaps easier for me than others to commit to no overseas travel. And certainly easier for me to commit to no flying, when I hate it anyway. So I won’t criticise anyone who wants to continue travelling – I have my own bad habits and environmental transgressions.

This was my answer:

I do miss it. I haven’t travelled much outside of the UK and I have been massively impacted when I have travelled abroad. A part of me would love to experience more of other cultures, and especially to see different landscapes, living creatures, and plants. But in lockdown I have missed even more not travelling to nature reserves and the wild(er) places of the UK. 

Ironically, I decided in my personal review of 2019 to make 2020 my Year of British Nature and I had visits and ‘wildlife spectacles’ planned for every month. I managed my January and February events, and had started writing my book about the year, but the pandemic put a stop to that. In theory, I can now travel again, but apart from any anxieties I might have about catching or spreading the virus, I am learning about how much my desire to seek experiences is simply just that: a personal wish to see x, y, or z and I must question what that is about, and how useful or not it might be for the greater good.

Re-reading, I realise that last sentence sounds rather pompous and do-good-ish, but it is a genuine personal learning. I have had a lifetime seeking new experiences – occasionally, I fear, hurting others in that process – so now is the time to do what I say I’m doing in answer to the first question: doing more being, rather than doing doing. And I’m getting my ‘new experience’ fix by living that being, rather than living the next doing. 

 

But I’m not quite an enlightened being yet: I still long for that next exciting event in nature, and I still want to see more of Britain’s wildlife and landscapes. Now living once again in Yorkshire, there are a lot of old stomping grounds to visit…

 

 

 

PS The last question in the survey asked if I’d be interested in taking part in a video about my answers…

Now there’s a new experience. You can guess my answer.

 

 

Arriving at the frontiers of feeling: my life as a reader

The Guardian Online has a ‘Bookmarks’ weekly newsletter to which I subscribe. Once every few weeks or so it runs an article called ‘Books that made me’ where they ask a well-known published writer a series of book-related questions, such as which books influenced them, or  made them laugh, or which ones they’re ashamed not to have read, and so on. One question is ‘What is your comfort read?’

 

Edna O’Brien, author of Country Girls (and many other brilliant novels since) was a recent interviewee and she had a reply to that question which resonated strongly with me in two ways.  Firstly, her initial response was the opposite of mine: “I do not read for comfort”, she answered, whereas I frequently turn to books for just that purpose. But then she added, “I read to be quickened, enlightened and brought to the frontiers of feeling.” Reading that, I was quite overcome for several seconds as memories flooded over me as if it was my moment of death when one supposedly re-lives every minute of one’s life. But I remained alive after I re-visited every book I’d ever read that had left me weeping, or stunned, or overjoyed, or angry, or simply deeply reflective – usually about some aspect of the human condition. So many times books have indeed brought me to ‘frontiers of feeling’. So many times have I crossed that frontier and entered new, unchartered territory. O’Brien’s response to that simple question also brought me to a new and different frontier of something else in my life.

 

I have been trying for several years to find a way to write my autobiography. It’s not that I can’t begin: I have several thousand words for each of several different potential autobiographies, each with a different theme or focus. For an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, I seem to have had rather a lot of adventures, and, however I frame my life, I’m sure I’ve had more than the average number of jobs in a range of contexts, with two – or arguably three – of those being ‘careers’, rather than just ways to earn money to live. I’ve moved house over 30 times, and lived in family, house-sharing, intentional community, and solo situations, including a ‘lady in the van’ occasion. I also have a wide range of interests which has led me to take many different courses – from degree level to weekend workshop type events, or simply to follow up my own lines of research. I seem to have a high level of need for change and for new experiences. I have been described as “forever going off at a tangent” or “taking too many leaps of faith” or just the usual cliche of having “a butterfly mind”. It’s certainly true that apart from having my son and daughter when I was in my early twenties, and maintaining a lifelong connection to the natural world, nothing has remained constant in my life. This has been particularly so for the last twenty years, when everything seems to have speeded up, rather than slowed down – which it’s supposed to do in the ‘later years’! But finding a way to structure all this to form a readable account of my life – apart from the obvious chronological which I have always rejected – has so far eluded me.

 

 But I realised, with O’Brien’s response, that not only has there been another constant – my love of books and reading – but that my life has repeatedly led me to books, or books have repeatedly led me into another, new, stage of my life. One glorious virtuous circle. My life in one sentence is this: I have lived it – and continue to live it – by bringing myself to those frontiers of feeling. The feelings have been excruciatingly painful or full of joy or anything in between, but they are, for me, what makes life worth living. I have decided that I will organise this telling of my life around significant reading stages, and around significant books or other cultural events inspired by a book that someone has written. But a brief chronological outline first…

 

I had the most idyllic childhood. I had several siblings, a trusty dog, and was a member of the best gangs. This was in the days when a gang was a small group of young children making dens, climbing trees, wading streams and such, and the worst crimes committed were apple scrumping or getting your best shoes wet. This was in the days when a password meant entry into the gang’s secret woodland den or the dusty shed at the bottom of someone’s garden, behind the rhubarb and potatoes. With my friends or with loving, supportive parents and other avuncular relatives, I went rowing and swimming on rivers and lakes, I explored forests, alpine meadows, jungles, high moorland and underground cave systems. The whole natural world was available to me. And when not with others, I ran alone and wild in nature, climbing yet more trees, damming streams, eating leaves and berries and poking small dead animals with a stick.

 

In consensus reality terms, only the last sentence of that paragraph is true. I actually had a strange and solitary childhood with no siblings, few extended family members, and not allowed friends. When allowed out to play – my mother liked me by her side, and I was somewhat of a slave to her strict housework regime too – I would wander for hours on end in the woods, fields, and river banks around my home. My friends were the animals and plants of the natural world, and certain other creatures who might be called imaginary friends, though they looked nothing like human beings.

 

And when I wasn’t doing housework, or out playing, I would read. That’s where my idealised childhood of the paragraph above originates. In my reading life, I was a member of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, and any other gang described in any of the books I read. My siblings and friends were the girls and boys in Little Women, Swallows and Amazons, The Railway Children, The Borrowers, the William books, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and many more. Such adventures we had, in our gangs, or sibling groups, or with those loving parents or kindly relatives who took us to exciting places, showed us marvellous things, fed us picnics and allowed us to stay up late, camping outside in the garden, with torches and blankets around our shoulders. 

 

Of course, there were tough times too: I was very scared out with Pip in the misty convict-ridden Fens; and with Mary following the crying noises in the dark corridors of Thistlethwaite Manor: though the garden did make up for the frightening house. I was confused by my experiences down the rabbit hole, and like Heidi, I wept when I had to leave the Almsfather’s house with its starry canopy and hay bale bed. But generally, the worlds I entered when I opened a book were exciting, enriching, and enlightening experiences for me. I’m sure the joy and sense of inclusivity I achieved via my reading was a positive and healing part of my childhood and set up a way of being I continued – and will continue – for the rest of my life. 

 

We speak sometimes of reading for pleasure (perhaps the Guardian’s ‘comfort read’) as ‘escapism’ – and I certainly needed to escape from aspects of my childhood – but that does assume there is only one true reality from which to escape. I favour a more allowing, expansive view of comfort reading: it’s not just a narrow road leading nowhere other than taking me away from here temporarily, but a spaghetti junction of routes to take me there, or there, or there, and not just for now, but for as long as I like… not only because there’s always another significant book to read, but because reading makes me aware of other opportunities, other ways of being, other ways of living.

 

Although I have always read, almost every day for nearly seventy years, there have been two other life stages after childhood where I have read extensively: which for me means having several books on the go at once, and spending several hours a day (occasionally whole days, even into the night) reading. 

The second stage was when I became a full time student in my early thirties, taking a BA in English Literature and Language, and going on to become an English teacher. The term ‘reading’ for a degree has never seemed more apt. My children painted a skull and crossbones on the study door with the inscription “Danger Mum Reading”.

 

The third stage was a decade or so later when I left teaching to retrain in counselling and psychotherapy, and to take another BA in Psychology. As well as the obvious obligatory essential texts, I read more biographies and autobiographies than previously, and I also devoured accounts from both practitioners and clients or patients about the psychotherapeutic process. 

 

And here I am in the fourth stage right now. I no longer have children to look after, property to maintain, or have to work to earn a living, so I have more so-called ‘free’ time. I describe myself these days as ‘gone feral’: returning to the nature of my childhood and once again wandering around fields and woodlands, along river banks, looking for birds, wildflowers, and anything else that nature reveals to me. Though there is rather less tree climbing nowadays. 

A few years ago I took an MA in Creative Writing with a focus on nature, so as well as writing my own nature adventure stories, my reading includes a great deal of natural history, nature-themed memoir and other books which form part of the ‘New Nature Writing’ genre. 

 

And re-reading continues too… that’s where the comfort reading comes in: I love a book I have a level of familiarity with, and can appreciate the narrative arc without being gripped by the need to know what happens next. Or – perhaps particularly re-reading poetry – I can enjoy the writer’s skill with language manipulation. Or I can re-read to re-engage with those frontiers of feeling I chose not to cross at the time – or did cross, but find them appearing once again in my life. A book from the past can often be a mentor in the present.

Back to Nature… again (Part Two)

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 that undergrowth. And encountering an off-lead dog at his level. That was 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.

Back to Nature… again (Part One)

My third-wave nature sensibility has both nothing and everything to do with the current state of social isolation under Covid-19. What seems like a thousand years ago, as a socially isolated only child – no siblings, few extended family members, and not allowed friends – I played out for hours on end in the woods, fields, and river banks around my home. I climbed lots of trees, nibbled at leaves and berries, splashed about in ponds and streams. My friends were the animals and plants of the natural world, and certain other creatures who might be called imaginary friends, though they looked nothing like human beings.

 

In those days, the 1950’s, children played outside as the norm, and whenever I was allowed out – my mother preferred me by her side, and I was somewhat of a household slave too – off I would go to my local haunts. I usually had a stick – essential for poking in the mud of streams, for rudimentary dissection of dead creatures, or to hack down a few stinging nettles – and always my imaginary dog who was a combination of Timmy from the Famous Five books, White Fang, Old Yeller, and any other utterly-devoted-to-its-owner dog you can think of. And that wild little life, along with having a patch of my own garden, was the first wave. 

 

In my early and middle adult years, activities such as child rearing, house ownership and earning money (normal life, some might say) got in the way of my forays into nature – although having assorted pets, houseplants and growing fruit and vegetables in a variety of gardens kept me a little in touch with the natural world. But all those childhood experiences (including, some might say, my contact with nature elementals) rested dormant, like seeds, in the deep earth of my heart, waiting for the event in my late fifties that was to crack open the carapace of both heart and seeds. More about that time elsewhere, but this re-awakening into the natural world became the second wave.

 

I bought a small motorhome and after several months working as a gardener and living at the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual education community in northern Scotland, I began my own nature trips again, keeping a nature journal, and training in core shamanic practice. Soon, though, my life was focussed primarily on environmental conservation work. I stopped being nomadic, and became a conservation volunteer, doing a combination of practical and administrative work for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, and later, after my move to Devon, the Devon Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. I even gained paid work with the RSPB which although probably earning my lowest ever salary, I consider to be one of my most significant career achievements. As I moved into my sixties, health issues began to limit my physical activities so I took a more artistic approach to nature by immersing myself in reading about it: both informative natural history, and within the more creative and personal ‘New Nature Writing’ genre as it has been called. I decided to take an MA in Creative Writing, with a focus on Nature and Travel, and I consider obtaining that qualification to be one of my best achievements – along with my BA in English Language and Literature, of course.

 

Whilst doing my MA I began to formulate a plan for travelling the UK, visiting special nature places, seeing special nature events such as seals being born, salmon spawning, deer rutting and more, and writing a book about it. But once again what most folk would call ‘normal life’ intervened in the shape of caring for my father and his wife through a variety of physical and mental health issues until she died. A few months after that my father had a stroke, moved into a care home, and died himself some time later.

 

I, however, remain alive, and – if I am to live until dad’s ripe old age of 99 – have well over twenty years to go. Covid-19 (or indeed anything else, including the number 19 bus) might get me at any moment, and I’m certainly aware on a daily basis of my physical limitations, but I’ve decided – as the third wave of nature’s delights re-awakens me once again – to make the most of whatever time I have and to celebrate and promote the wonders (and the resources) the natural world has to offer. Even – in these stay-put days – the natural world as it exists just walking distance from my house, or in my own garden, or plant pots, or in the views from my window. 

 

It’s ironic that at the end of last year, some twenty months on from my father’s death, I began serious planning for my year travelling around Britain taking in a variety of landscapes and wildlife spectacles, and writing the book. So it would be boxing hares in March, for example, the machair and other wildflowers in May, seabird colonies in June, common seals pupping in August, leaping salmon in September, the red deer rut in October, grey seals in November… I’d go to the north of Scotland, the west of Wales, to Norfolk and Suffolk in the east, and to several places in between. This was the plan I was gestating whilst doing my MA, but my father was still alive (though he sometimes questioned that fact) in his care home and because this plan meant me being away many times, sometimes for several days or more – really being more away than at home – I did not want to leave him “imprisoned” (his word, but near enough true) in the care home without visits from me and without our little local trips out. But by early winter last year, I was more than ready… ready and free, for The Trip, and for the writing. 

 

 

In December and early January, my plan was coming together nicely. I had a sense of the year ahead, with general plans for every month, and with some very specific events in place, starting late January with a starling roost and the possibility of cranes on the Somerset Levels. I had also decided to leave Devon where I had been living for the previous five years and return to North Yorkshire. It felt the right time, and apart from being closer to family and to former Yorkshire friends, it would be easier to travel to Norfolk, to Cumbria, to the Yorkshire coast and to Scotland: places I would need to be for many of my wildlife events. Also, I would have no formal place of my own but just have a low-cost base at a friend’s house whilst she worked abroad. What joy. Tramping about in nature again, though this time in total freedom, seeing all the major wildlife spectacles and wonderful landscapes wherever they were in Britain…

 

And we all know what happened next. I managed my January event in Somerset (you can read my short blog about it on the Somerset Birdwatching Holiday website) and I continued with my furniture selling and plans to move north as a base for my nomadic year. But even in mid-March, on the M5 and M1 travelling north, I was aware of a reduction in traffic and even an occasional face mask in service station cafes. Well before official lockdown on 23rd March, I knew my plans were not to be. I knew the Great Year of British Wildlife would not be happening in 2020, at least, and would it ever? The doldrums descended, and I wondered what I was doing, uprooting myself yet again, living in someone’s spare bedroom (also yet again – another story!), and not even able to visit friends and family…

 

However… Part Two –  the third-wave – to follow.

Just popping back a hundred million years…

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 Paleozoic and 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.

 

Birthday Treats

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.

The time is now…

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.

Now, as Spring unfolds (a new Spring? a different Spring?), the UK has declared a climate emergency. In a few short weeks, the actions of one schoolgirl, one eminent environmentalist, and hundreds of civil activists have moved us to a new awareness – and hopefully a new urgency – around becoming carbon neutral.

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 certainly listening.

The Curious Tale of the Performing Water Vole

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…

 

 

 

Winter Floodland

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.