Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Knowing the territory

Ever since I was a girl I've enjoyed being able to name things in the natural world. Walking the woods and waste grounds of my childhood I would feel a flush of recognition and pride if I came across a tree or a wild flower that I knew. I don't know that there were a huge number that I recognised -  wild garlic in the spring, the oak tree and the bluebell were perhaps the only names that came easily to mind - but even this basic knowledge helped me feel part of that landscape. I felt I knew my neighbours.

There were all the usual special places and secret spots - up in the trees or in tangled dens beneath them - long summers were lived in these semi-wilds. I loved them without thinking and when one little patch of woodland was threatened by someone extending their garden, I was angry and grieved for the lost trees when they were gone.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about the need for children to be familiar with their own natural neighbourhood and the occupants of it before they can be expected to care about the earth on a grander, more abstract scale. Faced with the entire planet to worry about, we can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. When so much of our natural world faces extinction it makes sense to start with what we know and can name; learning to care about 'the environment' comes as a result of learning to care about our own backyard.

All this feels particularly pertinent in the light of the threat to ash trees. Having read this heartbreaking piece about ash die back, in which the writer gives the bleak view that most people are oblivious to the tragedy happening in our woodlands, this seems more true than ever. If it is the case that 'many people couldn't identify an ash' then what hope is there that they would feel any sadness for its loss? If the general feeling is that one tree is after all much like another, how can we hope to truly be of use to our ailing planet? Diversity is what makes this world go round. The exquisite uniqueness of literally every living thing on or under the surface of this spinning rock is what provides the wonder and magic of our existence.

My naturalist knowledge hasn't improved a massive amount since my early days scrabbling through tatty woods, but I continue to be an earnest learner and I'm trying to encourage a similar curiosity in my children.

This year, as Monty's legs have grown a little longer, we have spent more time walking, looking and gathering than ever before. Eli has become a keen spotter of wild foods and ash saplings and Monty has fully immersed himself in any berry-picking activities he's been involved in. They have become connoisseurs of dramatic skies and Eli often urges me to 'take a picture!' of a lovely view or a striking flower.

Helping them to know and love the play of light in the woodland, the eerie silence and bleak beauty of the moor, the brooding Pennine skies and the capricious moods of our Northern weather is a constant pleasure. Forging a connection with this place is the key to connection with all natural places, helping us to understand that 'the environment' is something immediate and necessary. No need for worksheets, a pair of sturdy shoes is all that's required. Together we map the seasons of our own backyard,

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nurture Photography Finale

This autumn has been a season of many photographs. Taking part in the Nurture Photography Challenge has prompted me to take my camera with me whenever I leave the house and to really discover beauty in the detail. A a result of all that looking I've got a fairly comprehensive record of this moment in our lives.

From the early stirrings of the season at Equinox to the bare trees and bleak skies that are the accompanying features of our current wanderings, each mood is captured. The light and landscape have changed, low winter sun now slants louchely through almost naked branches, illuminating surviving vegetation in a random and magical manner. Temperatures have dropped, there's a sniff of Christmas in the air.

The boys and I have walked widely during our autumn adventures and re-visited many favourite spots. If I'm honest, it will be harder for us to find the enthusiasm to get ourselves out there when the world looks barren and wet from our window, but I know we'll find a rhythm and joy with our winter explorations eventually. Promises of hot chocolate upon returning to the house will help to encourage us to pull on our boots and brave the elements. No doubt I will take my camera and continue my lessons in looking.


I'm incredibly grateful to Bumbles and Light and Live and Love out loud for this opportunity to share a season with others and for providing inspiration and focus for my (very amateur!) photography. It's been a real treat to browse through such delicious pictures and see how other bloggers have documented the changing year.

Here's to the next challenge...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

And the land waits with us

It is fully the season of decay. We've passed through the mellowness of late summer, the splendour of mid-autumn and arrived at the gate of winter. The trees are almost bare, a few fluttering leaves cling to otherwise empty branches. The ground is mud and mulch, waterproof shoes are no longer optional. Smoke spirals upwards from houses where the inhabitants of these valleys shut out the growing darkness and seek comfort in hearth and home.

Evenings are long and daylight scarce. The night-time frolics of Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night have been and gone. We make our peace with the months ahead. In these dark days we plan for the return of the light. We sow our seeds and nurture them, turning them over in our minds, watching them grow in our dreams, ready for the first licks of a clean spring wind.

We walk. To remind us that the land waits with us, to smell the rot and taste the damp. To feel the solidity beneath the soil, the great vastness of the earth under our feet. In this dark womb roots gather goodness to feed the growth of the future. We are supported, we are nourished.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Big Smoke

There's something about the idea of so many people living in one place, closely packed together but largely unconnected, that makes me feel overwhelmed. Just the logistics of how all of those people move around the city every day without large amounts of disaster and trauma baffles me.

I can get quite anxious when I start to think about the consumption that happens here. I don't just mean the unrelenting temptation to spend money, but the simple things like a carton of milk...how on earth are dairy farmers managing to produce enough milk for all those millions of people? What is happening to all that plastic? Is it even possible to feed this many people ethically? My ideas and beliefs about how we need to live smaller, closer to the land and to each other seem somewhat naive in the face of such complexity and scale.

Because of this, I generally approach visits to London with some trepidation. One of my oldest friends lives here with her family and seeing them is reason enough to brave the journey but since having children I have found little pleasure in the city's other offerings. It always seems to take an age to get anywhere, a long walk at best, an assortment of buses and undergrounds at worst. The boys are usually exhausted and emotional before lunchtime, and by the end of the day I've joined them in a chorus of despair.

But this time, something different happened. Something surprising and affirming. Maybe it was because the boys were a little older; maybe it was because they had their scooters so that long walks became fast and fun; maybe it was managing a significant trip across town with the boys on my own with no tears; maybe it was the sunshine; or perhaps it was just a growing sense of familiarity...but I genuinely enjoyed my stay.

I'm starting to understand that without big cities, there's no big architecture, big mass gatherings of people, or really big ambitious, seemingly impossible, ideas. It's been said before but London really is the universe in a nutshell; pavements full of the pounding feet of people from all nationalities, ages and social backgrounds, buildings that beggar belief, movement and action, history and knowledge. I am so grateful that my children will be familiar with this place, confident with the mayhem and the scale

And this time, on the way to Highbury play park - I realised that London's parks are everywhere. From the wide sweeping vistas of Hyde Park to the little greens hidden at the hearts of the various villages that make up this city. These parks are full of incredibly old and noble trees; their branches filling the sky whilst their relinquished leaves fill up the pavements. Places to stop and breath, to rest the eyes and restore the spirit.

As my two very energetic children will also attest, London's parks surely contain the very best play equipment in the land.

I have a feeling this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Purple city

I've missed a couple weeks of the Nurture Photography Challenge. My 'red' themed post was too late to submit and 'orange' just passed me by completely. I was feeling slightly worried then by this week's theme 'Halloween/purple'.I got too caught up in the fun to take any decent Halloween pictures and was perplexed as to where I might discover purple things at this time of the year, particularly as we were heading to London for five days.

Being a bit of a nature girl, I'm hard on London. I think of it unfairly as a barren metropolis, whose inhabitants are starved of the stuff I find so essential. I was very happy to be proved wrong however, and it turned out that London was 'the' place to find just what I was after. These berries on Newington Green were an incredible perfect purple, such an unusual berry - I snapped some shots quickly in case it was the only chance I got.

But no! There were lilac hebes against a sunny wall, and in Islington's Freightliners farm airy verbena bonariensis, surrounded by fennel against a purple bench backdrop, and even a few fragile flowers managing to hang on into mid autumn though looking increasingly doomed. I was surrounded, it seemed, by a colour I had assumed to be difficult to locate.

I thought my job was done. Then just as we were leaving - about to catch a bus to the train station - I saw those same berries I'd spotted on the first day of our visit, but lit up this time with the sun of the late year. My family was already at the bus stop but I had to try and catch some of that sun. So with seconds to spare I unpacked the camera...I didn't quite miss the bus, but it was close.

Thank you London, for reminding me that beauty truly is everywhere if only we know how to look.