Connecting to nature for 30 Days Wild

Will talks about the importance that 30 Days Wild has this year coinciding with our coronavirus lockdown; there couldn’t be a better time for us to make the effort to connect with nature.

Important concerns 

There are things we do and don’t need to concern ourselves with, I would suggest. Do we, for example, need to worry about photons and electrons behaving as both waves and particles? It shouldn’t make us lose sleep, at least. So, no. Should we be uneasy about the prospect of living in a simulated reality created by the media, government spin doctors and by social media echo-chambers that re-confirm our own beliefs and thus contribute to a more and more divided society? Actually, that’s probably a yes. Do we need to be bothered about the state of the environment and our severed connection with it in the face of looming ecological and environmental catastrophe? Unequivocally, yes, we do. If we don’t all concern ourselves with this, we’re in very real trouble. 

With this in mind, my family and I have been embracing our enforced staycation to really get familiar with the wildlife close to home, and 30 Days Wild is a useful reminder to us to make every day one in which we get closer to nature. 

 

Getting closer to nature 

I don’t think it is crass to be extolling the positives of the Covid-19 crisis at this stage. It doesn’t imply a belittling of the deep personal and economic problems it has caused if we consider, in a hopeful light, that the ‘new normal’ could be better for the environment if we choose to re-set the country along different lines. One benefit of the situation has undoubtedly been a recognition of the value of our green spaces for our mental health, another a deeper appreciation of our own localities. 

Lockdown, and whatever form that takes in the next few months, is an opportunity for us practice a whole new level of scrutiny and appreciation of our gardens and local spaces. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up and thought, “Surely today is the day when the yellow rattle and ox-eyes daisies will flower in the lawn”, as I did this morning. I see this as an improvement – a strengthening of the connection between me and my wannabe meadow of a ‘lawn’. By which I mean ‘I want it to be’, rather than ‘it wants to be’; there is an important and frustrating difference, which involves quite a lot of trampling and currently, for some reason, the decapitated heads of Lego people. 

Will blog 1

Clues in the landscape 

One of our local footpaths from Northleach takes us from the front door, down to the young river Leach (barely a stream at this point, close to its spring-fed source) and past the sewage works to a small lake. We didn’t really know this walk prior to Covid-19, but now we love and deeply appreciate it, despite the sewage works. On our random act of wildness for 30 Days Wild yesterday, my wife and our two children set out with inadequate nets (found in the attic in a pile of old fish-tank paraphernalia) and jam jars, small sharpened stakes for demon-killing (don’t ask) and a sense of jubilant exploration. The etiquette of meeting people en route is still fraught with awkwardness, even now. When unexpectedly encountering other walkers, a complex kaleidoscope of expressions flashes across their faces. Initially it is of surprise (although quite how anyone within three kilometres of our children can claim surprise mystifies me) and affront, as if I’d just taken a match to the hem of their trousers or asked them the circumference of their nipples. Then a wry smile of solidarity – a recognition of shared experience - and a cheerful hello, but still with a hint of wariness and suspicion in the eyes. 

Having negotiated the narrower paths and corners in this fashion, we entered the fascinatingly contoured fields around the town, where the paths are brocaded with wildflowers and the fields spangled with buttercups. These fields are corrugated with the eroded remnants of ancient stone walls, the whole area moulded by the wool trade in one way or another since medieval times. On walking down to the stream, we discovered a concrete pipe-surround, jutting into the stream and crowned with a pile of otter droppings.  

No ecologist worthy of the appellation (although I, for one, am not worthy) should claim to be one in the absence of the unhealthy scatological obsession that urges them to examine poo. So, of course, I picked it up and sniffed it. If you believe some of the literature around how to identify otter droppings (known as ‘spraint’), it will tell you that it smells of all sorts of things, including jasmine tea. Now, I’m no tea connoisseur, but if an establishment of any quality served me a cup of tea with my scones and it smelled of otter spraint, I would definitely be alerting the manager. But it doesn’t smell bad, by any means. Slightly sweet and slightly fishy, like a hay bale that has been accidentally rolled over a prawn sandwich at a picnic (in the days when you could roll a hay bale without a forklift telehandler). It is encouraging to see evidence of otters right up here near the source of this river, and hints at a healthy population of bullheads and other fish, the bones of which were liberally distributed through it. 

Will blog 2

Some way further downstream and presided over by gnarled and blossom-laden hawthorns, the stream flows through a (now crumbling) concrete channel, with evidence, in the form of an eroded groove, of an old sluice gate. On investigating this piece of agricultural archaeology further, it was evident that a pipe led from this in-stream corral to a concrete pad, which still bore the remains of a tank and the fixings for what was presumably a generator. So, this was an old sheep dip, where the sheep would, in the past, have been driven into the river, the water held back to form a pool, and chemicals pumped in from an adjacent tank to rid them of their parasites. There is an interesting correlation between the presence of the otter spraint and the very defunctness of this sheep dip. If the latter was still working, the former would be absent; by which I mean that the use of such dips (and other ways of leaking agricultural chemicals into watercourses) was the very reason why otters became extinct over most of Britain in the first place. Toxins, building up in the food chain, reached concentrated levels as they made their sinister way to the top, where the otters swallowed lethal doses, or at least doses that prevented them from breeding successfully.  

 

A nettle sting 

I am pleased, therefore, that the sheep dip is now obsolete. It nevertheless tells an interesting story – both agricultural and ecological – and its presence in the landscape creates an interesting sense of history; a sense of place. I’m reminded of a passage by Rob Cowan in his book ‘Common Ground’ which spoke of landscapes retaining memories, in some intangible way, that could be passed on to inquisitive walkers through some sort of molecular union, or like the sting of a nettle. I would love this to be true, and in some ways we can make it true by taking an interest in the place where we live, or other special places where we enjoy spending time. By getting to know and love the local area, by appreciating nature on our doorsteps, we take the first steps to encouraging ourselves and other people to take action for it. 

Let us be localised (as when a wave function collapses and a photon becomes a particle, although we’re not worrying about this, are we?). Let us understand how we have shaped this landscape around us and, now more than ever, let us understand how it can shape us. If we develop an understanding of our local landscape’s past, and are interested in its present, then we might just end up caring about its future – enough to ensure a more connected, more balanced relationship with the land that nurtures us.