And the nights are officially drawing out — we are rattling lungs-first into the long mosquito summer, people of the northern hemisphere!
Here in Bournemouth, the earliest sunset of the year passed last Sunday, at 16.02. We are already five days into the race for rebirth.
But, David, I hear you roar — what about the winter solstice, isn’t that supposed to be the shortest day in the northern hemisphere on account of the tilt of the earth on its axis?
Keep your macs zipped — it very much still is. In Bournemouth, we’ll scrape a mere 7 hours 57 minutes and 32 seconds out of next Tuesday, a full 54 seconds less in the barrel of time than today. That’s enough time to boil an egg. (And get food poisoning. five minutes, people, five minutes.)
So why, for the love of daylight, do I insist that the nights are drawing out?
Ah. Because, my dear friends, a day is not the twenty-four hours our capitalist calendars would like us to imagine. Twenty-four hours is but an average. (And not a particularly accurate average either, hence leap years.)
Yeah, I know. It’s like learning that you don’t get paid £13 for every hour you work, but rather on a pay schedule designed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian ‘the slit-nosed’:
Okay, so when you clock in, you’re on about £10 per hour, but that quickly drops to nothing until the caffeine from your first three mugs of tea have kicked in. By lunchtime, however, you’re cock of the roost at £16 per hour, before getting whacked by the dreaded afternoon slump.
I don’t know what’s in your 3pm choccy-biccy, but it’s probably against some sort of substance misuse company policy because, come Happy Hour down the Dog & Duck, your wage is topping £30 per hour.
Unlikely as it seems, this rollercoaster of a wage structure averages out to about £13 per hour and, frankly, HR works off that figure because, by this point, they need a lie down.
Solar days are measured as the time between the solar noon of one day and the solar noon of the next.
Because of the elliptical shape of the earth, these solar noons are pretty much never exactly twenty-four hours apart. In fact, the precise ‘time’ of solar noons fluctuates throughout the year. Right now, solar noon in Bournemouth is 11.56 — and every day it’s getting later.
That explains why, even though the amount of daylight in a day is still going down, the exact time of sunset is already drifting out, following the later solar noon.
For the first time this winter, the minutes and seconds being shaved off our daylight hours are not being taken from earlier sunsets, but only from later sunrises.
In fact, dawn lags more than two weeks behind: the latest sunrise of winter doesn’t roll around until New Year’s Eve. It’s almost as if the sun wants us to stay under the covers a little longer.
So celebrate our later sunsets, celebrate (on Tuesday) the returning of our star from the Tropic of Capricorn, and ignore the astronomers who say that winter is yet to begin…
Brownsea Island is a nature reserve — nature refuge more like — adrift in Poole Harbour on the south coast of Britain.
If you’re an avid reader of these pages, you’ll know that I’ve written before about my conservation work with Dorset Wildlife Trust on Brownsea: bruising bracken so that we could clear the forest floor, making breathing room for the pretty little heathers that do so much for carbon capture and biodiversity.
Yesterday, we were scrabbling around in the gorse, using loppers to remove the prickly bush that dominates the springy heather.
Our job was to dive into the needles, gloves first, and trace the tight curls of the white-stemmed gorse back to its root while sparing the delicate red-stemmed heather.
The job was part exterminator, part detective. See if you can spot the strands of heather suffocating in the grip of this flowering gorse:
The patch of Brownsea that we were working on had been tucked away behind fences, meaning that gorse-trimming rabbits couldn’t keep the growth back to the forest floor. The fences hadn’t deterred the deer, however, and their dietary browsing had encouraged the gorse to become thick and bushy.
Over the course of four hours, a team of twelve volunteers cleared an area the size of a large living room. About forty huge bags of gorse went on the fire that billowed smoke signals on a southerly wind.
One of the surprising elements of the ongoing conservation project on Brownsea is the mass felling of trees.
This winter, 3,000 trees will be cut down, chopped up and carted off the island. The felling isn’t indiscriminate: the National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust have carefully identified individual trees whose felling will do most to promote a stronger ecosystem.
This happens in two ways. Firstly, by thinning the woodland, there are more nutrients available to the remaining, healthier, trees. One of the knock-on effects of this is that the nut harvest for Brownsea’s famous red squirrels will be, not smaller because fewer trees, but greater because those trees will be much more productive.
Secondly, fewer trees means that more sunlight will hit the forest floor and it is this sunlight that nourishes the ecologically important heathland. The soil under heathland captures more carbon per hectare than the soil under forests does. As I’ve said before: surprising, but true.
I find conservation work to be patient, a steady tempo in a companionable silence. Arriving on Brownsea after such a busy week (and a stressful near-ferry-missing cycle, teeth into a strong sea breeze) was better than a rest cure.
Screen eyes down in the soil, keyboard fingers plunging into the minutiae, uncovering the new worlds of stubborn gorse, plucky heather and squishy puff ball fungi.
Since December 2019, for all bar the first month of lockdown last year, I’ve been enjoying the sonic fruits of the labour of two large construction sites.
First a purple-hued Premier Inn crunched its way to the skies on our northerly face, an 18-month auditory treat that climaxed with a midnight road resurfacing so stimulating that I simply couldn’t sleep.
As that vast undertaking drew to a close, the ageing hotel to our west decided that what it most needed to get beach body ready was a three-month-and-counting refurbishment, clawing itself clean from the inside out.
It’s 8.30am and I count no fewer than thirty-three vans and trucks parked opposite. Fluorescent tabards flicker in the sunshine, fluttering from flagpole scaffolding. I’m listening to the sound of drilling.
The concrete funnel around us means that the sounds bounce up to the eighth floor with a clarity that sometimes makes me want chip in on workers’ conversations or sing harmonies when they do karaoke.
I spent last weekend in the company of, among others, a 400-year old called Bob.
400 years is a lot of years—something we can rarely grasp when thinking about trees.
To put Bob’s antiquity into perspective, 1621 saw the invention of these things called ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Gothenburg’, ‘the violin’ and ‘the merry-go-round’. John Donne and Thomas Middleton were still breathing; Shakespeare had only just kicked the bucket. The Palace of Versailles and bottled mineral water did not yet exist; the Royal Mail was still exactly that—for royal use only.
400 years is a long time to be alive.
But did you notice that cleared ground around Bob’s feet? That’s the result of something called ‘halo-release’. As trees age, they become less tolerant of shade and so rangers at Bob’s home on Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns are thinning out the canopy competition around the oldest residents of the forest.
400 years is a long time to be alive but, remarkably, halo-release could extend Bob’s life by another hundred years or so.
Imagine still being alive in 2121.
In a few weeks, we’ll all be gawping in admiration at the sweat and tears of the planet’s fastest, strongest athletes at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. In the summer of 2121, Bob’s Oak will still be around to hear the synthesised pants and grunts of the artificial athlete robots competing in the LVII Olympiad taking place on Moonbase One.
A lot can happen in a hundred years.
Halo-release costs about £500 per tree. You might think that’s incredible value for a century’s life extension. But there are an estimated one thousand veteran and ancient trees in the Ashridge Estate woodland and £500 per tree escalates fast.
It’s no small irony that Ashridge Estate is in the heart of the territory being stripped to make way for HS2, the new high speed railway line between London and Birmingham.
The government itself recognises that these ancient woodlands are ‘irreplaceable’ and yet here we are.
Earlier this year, famously, I bought a car. That doesn’t stop me thinking that cars are a pretty selfish way of getting around—often one that we are forced into, rather than freely choosing, because of a lack of viable alternatives.
Today, after an absence of four months, I finally made it back to Brownsea Island to help with the bracken bruising. Bracken is a bit of a pest on the island: completely taking over the understory and blocking light from reaching the gentler heathland species.
Armed with metal-tipped sticks, we spent the day wading through the chest-high bracken, swishing our weapons of destruction with abandon: backhand, forehand, overhead smash.
The idea of ‘bruising’ is to damage the bracken without breaking the stems: to inflict a wound, but not a mortal one.
Bracken grows from rhizomes—subterranean plant stems that send out roots and shoots from beneath the earth. Once it’s taken hold, bracken is bloody hard to control and can easily take over a forest, throttling other species with its persistence and resistance.
Rather than killing the shoots outright, bruising encourages the rhizome mothership to funnel its energetic resources into repairing injured shoots, rather than colonising the rest of the planet with new roots and shoots.
Bracken is incredibly resistant: it will grow back after bruising. We found shoots that had been whacked a month ago, smashed to the ground—but the growing tip had somehow found the energy to curve back from death’s door, up towards the sunlight, putting on a foot or more of new growth. Bracken will always grow back, but, with its resources drained, only more feebly.
We use bracken’s greatest strength against itself and, in so doing, hope to bring new light to the forest floor, where heather and other marginal species can flourish. Or, as one of the volunteers said: ‘Killing nature in the name of conservation.’
The best solution, as to so many of life’s gnarlier problems, is pigs. Pigs love eating bracken and, during the winter, when nature’s larder grows bare, they will even rootle around in the soil and dig up the rhizomes. Dorset Wildlife Trust hope to have swine in residence on Brownsea in Spring 2022. I can’t wait!
But the creepiest experience of the week goes to the dread moth tree:
Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night.
Moving closer, the brain doesn’t trust the eyes and it becomes horrifyingly clear that something really isn’t right. A cluster of trees are not themselves: these mighty, long-lived beasts of carbon and chlorophyll have been usurped by thousands upon thousands of tiny caterpillars.
Ermine moths live in communities of thousands and, every spring, club together to weave layers upon layers of silken webbing over every inch of their host tree. It’s protection for their babies from birds and other predators.
Beneath their safety net, the growing caterpillars have free range over the tree’s larder of leaves. It’s shocking to see spring’s bounty stripped before summer, but at least someone’s eating well.
With every leaf throttled, every twig shrouded in silk and the bark crawling with life, it’s a challenge to identify the victim: I think a bird cherry. Partly because the leaves of neighbours look similar, partly because of the riverside location, and partly because one species of small ermine moth LOVES to call the bird cherry home.
Despite their horrifying aspect, these poor cherries should make a complete recovery over the summer. Ermine moths rarely pick on the same tree twice.
Thanks to H.S. for hosting and introducing me to the wondrous moth tree!
Since we last met on these pages, I’ve spent a day learning about the weather with the Met Office.
I learnt how to interpret a synoptic chart. Well. I say that. What I mean is I learnt what the heck a synoptic chart is…
Nah—to be fair, the instructors were great. I learnt, at least temporarily, loads of potentially useful meteorological gubbins. I never knew, for example, that veering and backing have technical definitions: veering is the shifting of winds clockwise around the compass and backing is the opposite.
I even learnt what most of those funny black lines on the map mean. The thin black ones without the triangles or semi-circles are called troughs. They predict vicious showers, squally winds and thunder and lightning, particularly in summer when there’s more energy in the atmosphere.
Squall! Another word that I never realised had a technical definition. Whereas a gust of wind is a short, sharp increase in wind speed, a squall is a sudden increase in wind speed of at least 18mph that lasts at least a minute. When you’re out walking on the hills, squalls are those strong winds that stop as suddenly as they started and make you, leaning into the wind, fall on your face in the mud!
The closer you are to the centre of an area of low pressure, the higher chance there is that the weather forecast will be radically wrong.
If your cloud has defined edges, it’s made of water droplets. If your cloud has fuzzy edges, it’s made of ice crystals. Your cloud is not made of water vapour, which is invisible.
In the northern hemisphere, if you stand with your back to the wind, then the atmospheric pressure is low to your left and high to your right. This is called, mystifyingly, Buys Ballot’s Law. I have literally no idea how this is useful. I should look that up.
In the UK, all rain begins its life as snow.
Amazingly, there was a man called Mr Buys Ballot. Sadly, he was Dutch so it probably isn’t pronounced the amazing way.
I’m looking forward to sharing vaguely knowledgeable meteorological facts with my expedition group tomorrow. It is somehow comforting to look up at the drizzle and say, ‘What ho, chaps, looks like this nimbostratus is settling in for the long haul!’
Firstly: thanks for all the lush comments on last week’s bushcrafting story, Forget the kit list. And my sincere apologies to those of you who I made spit out your tea in mirth. I’m happy you found my failure amusing.
But I also didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that I had an entirely miserable time. Once I got my fire going, the rest of the week was an unalloyed delight—so much so that, after only five days in the woods, it felt distinctly weird to be indoors.
For someone who lived in London for the best part of sixteen years, it’s really saying something to declare that I now find Bournemouth ‘too hectic’.
Last Friday, I was welcomed back to the sleepy seaside town by an extraordinary chorus of construction as asbestos recyclers drilled their way through the guts of the hotel opposite. Lugging my firesmoked bushcraft backpack across the car park, a phalanx of gardeners advanced on me with roaring hurricanes.
But it wasn’t just the terrorising leaf blowers employed on the denuded concrete that put me on edge. It was the silence.
Mucking about in the woods and sleeping in an arctic lean-to, I had been open to the elements for five days. Perhaps the most obvious difference between living indoors and living outdoors is the untidyness—hence the urbanite’s obsession with leaf-blowers. But the most striking fact on my return to ‘civilisation’ was the change in acoustics.
Even our most cherished homes are, unromantically, nothing more than a box. We live the days of our lives tightly enclosed by the six sides of a cube. Most of us have completely adapted to this foreshortened life and would never suspect what we sacrifice for the vaunted comforts of interiority.
But after a week in the woods I could literally hear the tightening of the trap. Even in the silence after the leaf-blowers, I could hear the shrinking of my acoustic horizon. Everything closed in. Like a bat in a belfry, my senses, even my thoughts, seemed to reverberate at an uneasy frequency off the close walls. Also like a bat in a belfry, I felt a bit lost.
The woods have no walls. Sounds travel for miles and you can hear the openness and opportunity. Of course, the unimpeded travel of noise is the bane of my delicate ears in the city, but in the woods the noise is restorative. The wishful hoot of an owl, the crackle of a Vaseline-induced fire, the slip-slap of rain against the deep thatch of a watertight shelter. (Ahem.)
I don’t think I would ever have noticed this acoustic variation if I hadn’t made my home in the outdoors for a week. A long sojourn in the woods felt good for my brain: disconnected from the attention-sapping digital workday and restored by birdsong, the antibacterial air of pinenes and the dappling of sunlight through the fractal canopy.
If you can disconnect and experience being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.
I’m back in the great outdoors this weekend, getting paid to help kids go on big walks. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. For these expeditions, the young people are usually forced to camp overnight on the Saturday, cooking their own stove-top dinner and learning how to put up a tent (and with each other).
This weekend, however, they get to go home on Saturday evening. This is great news for me because it means I’ll also get to sleep in a nice warm bed, but both me and the kids will be missing out on something important.
Without the direct connection to the environment that camping brings, outdoor expeditions can easily just feel like a walk in the woods—wonderful in itself, but missing much. We usually think of ‘nature’ as a leisure destination to travel through before returning to civilisation, but bushcraft is the art of making the outdoors a comfortable home that you never want to leave.
Last Thursday, in the woods, I rose before dawn to sit in a quiet spot, camouflaged with my back against a western red cedar. I hoped to watch the hares, fallow deer, pheasants and robins as they shook off their sleep and foraged for breakfast. An hour later, frozen stiff, it was almost comical how little wildlife I’d seen. One crow in the mid-distance.
But what I heard, that riotous dawn, was something else. Chitter and chatter, cackles, calls and caws, hoos, honks and hoots, yips and pips. By the time I stumbled back to camp, on a swell of brainwaves, sunlight was sneaking across the understorey.
Saturday. Back in Bournemouth, back in bed, back in the box, I was awoken by a wild beast. Chuffing, rumbling, huffing, clanking. A bin lorry. I checked the time: 5:50. A riotous dawn. A headache.
If the woods taught me anything it’s that the sum of my experience is far more than the naming of my senses. What possibilities do we not realise through decades of habituation to boxlife? Let’s learn some skills and make the woods our home.
My problem wasn’t so much the construction of the lean-to, but rather my decision-making during the construction process. And the fact that we only had three hours to build something that would keep us warm and dry as the rain clouds rolled in.
After spending half my allotted time building one shelter, I decided to tear it all down and start again between two different trees. I now know why building sites have architects as well as bricklayers.
Ultimately, the decision to move turned out to be a good one, but it meant that my shelter was only three-quarters finished by the end of the day and, psychologically, I felt under pressure.
And what do I do under pressure? I comfort eat.
Comfort eating wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but a five day bushcraft survival course isn’t designed to be ordinary. On day three, we were expected to be cooking for ourselves, on our own fires that we’d lit ourselves using nothing but a fire steel and birch bark. That pesky ‘survival’ word again.
Naturally, on Tuesday afternoon, in front of the instructors, I’d had no problem at all in getting the tinder-dry birch bark to burst into flame with nothing more than a few strikes of steel on cerium. Wednesday morning, waking up with my feet in a puddle after a night’s steady rain, was a different matter entirely.
Suddenly, my bundle of soggy dead nettles and rotting strip of birch looked much less promising. But there is literally no other way to turn a baggy of flour into a damper bread breakfast than to add water and fire.
Without really meaning to, I’d built my shelter far from the other students on this survival course slash death camp so I couldn’t even commiserate with my fellow inmates. Instead, I imagined them all merrily tucking into their hearty breakfasts, feet up and toasting in front of the bonfires they’d all lit with careless competent ease.*
After spending two hours of showering the woodland with 3,000 degree sparks, I was feeling somewhat dejected. So I dipped into my snack pack for the last of my dark chocolate trail bars. That’ll pick me right up, I thought.
Reader: the last of my dark chocolate trail bars was nothing more than the evanescence of a memory, shrouded in the empty plastic wrapper that crumpled around my grasping claws.
Fire by friction
Needless to say, I did not dine on a breakfast of damper bread that morning. I hastily filled the empty hole with my penultimate banana and half a pack of corn cakes smothered in peanut butter and ran to the main camp for the morning demonstration session: fire by friction.
The fire by friction demo was led by Ian Nairn. The thing you need to know about Ian is that he loves a wisecrack. Whether you need a basket weaving-based innuendo or an impression of a muntjac in heat, Ian’s got gags and bon mots for every occasion.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ian boasts more quips than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace if you took every one of the Russian epic’s 587,287 words and replaced them all with the word ‘equipment’. He’s quippy as fuck. That’s what I’m saying.
Anyway, as I was struggling to light my fire, I felt justified in asking Ian for what I described as ‘some expert advice’. Without missing a beat, Ian replied:
I’m not an expert. An ‘ex’ is a has-been and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure.
Ian demonstrated two fire by friction methods: the hand drill and the bow drill. The idea of both these methods is to use a simple stick of wood to drill through another flat piece of wood called the base board.
The drilling action shaves tiny fragments of wood from the base board and the friction between the two pieces of wood generates enough heat to turn one of those fragments into an ember: the embryo of fire.
It took Ian a couple of minutes to ‘bang out’ an ember using the hand drill—usually considered much the more difficult of the two methods. As the name suggests, Ian was using only his hands to twizzle the drill into the base plate.
The bow drill is a little more complicated, but if you’ll allow me to paint a picture with words, then imagine a Robin Hood longbow twisted around a wooden drill and then using a sawing motion to get the drill to twizzle into the base board. If you prefer pictures with pictures, then this video of Ian bow drilling in Sweden will do the job.
The mechanical advantage bestowed by the bow drill means Ian can boast that, under pretty much any conditions, he can ‘bang out’ an ember in under a minute.
For some reason, however, during the demonstration, Ian struggled. For some reason, for twenty minutes or more, his embers weren’t banging out like they should.
But he didn’t struggle like I did. There was a lot less swearing, a lot less cursing of bad luck, bad tools, bad birch bark. There was a lot less finger pointing and he didn’t comfort eat, not even once.
Ian struggled with patience and perseverance. That twenty minutes was a calm demonstration of strategic problem solving.
Instead of raising a sweat, sawing away at a base board that wouldn’t give up its embers, he paused after each failure, reassessed the situation and tweaked his approach. He tried different drills and different base boards; he tried cutting new notches to catch the wood shavings and tried working with a larger ember pan to protect the heat from the cold earth.
Eventually, Ian’s tweaks paid off. Wisps of smoke rose from the base plate and, among the coal black shavings, the ember glowed like mined ruby. Ian cupped the jewel into a bundle of tinder and blew it into fire.
Later that night, Ian shared how embarrassed he’d felt that the so-called instructor had been seen to struggle. But his virtuoso demonstration of patience and perseverance was a far more valuable lesson than mere demonstration of mechanical technique. Would that I could learn that lesson.
Monkey see, monkey throw shit at walls
Suitably inspired by Ian’s methodical struggles, I trudged determinedly back to my camp to light my fire. Not by friction, but by any means necessary. If I’d thought there was a time imperative for making my breakfast, the deadline of twelve o’clock for lunch was far more pressing. I had ninety minutes.
Ninety minutes later, I had run through the last of my snacks and my hands were red raw from gripping the cold fire steel in the rain. I staggered, hypoglycaemic, back to the instructors to collect my lunch ‘ingredients’: one pigeon (deceased).
I may have spent the last year as a vegan, but even I know that pigeons are most nutritious after the application of a heat source.
After taking out plenty of my frustration during the butchering process (sorry pigeon), I shuffled over to Ian, shame-faced, and told him that, nearly twenty-four hours after collecting my fire steel, my fire still wasn’t lit.
The other instructor, Jay, later told me that, in that moment, I looked ‘utterly dejected’. I can assure you that Jay was being surpassingly polite in his assessment of my mood.
Wet feet, no fire, no breakfast, no hot tea, no snacks—and we’d barely reached the halfway point of the five days’ survival.
I suggested to the instructors that, for now, perhaps I should cook my lunch at the main campfire. Ian and Jay told me to sod off back to my own camp and light my own damn fire.
Please note: Ian and Jay said nothing remotely like this. They were hugely supportive the whole week through. But my hungry brain was in the midst of what can only be described as ‘a wobbly’. My brain didn’t want a learning opportunity; it wanted pizza.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but, standing there in the rain with dead pigeon breast in my hand, I honestly felt like I was losing the fight for survival. After precisely fifty hours in an Oxfordshire woodland. Ridiculous.
No prizes for going hungry
Back in reality, Ian and Jay did me the biggest favour they could as instructors. They didn’t give my wobbly brain an easy way out. They didn’t let me cook over their blazing campfire and they didn’t schlep up to my camp to light my fire for me.
Instead, after some gentle words of encouragement, they showed me, not an easy, but an easier way out of my cold fire syndrome. One that still allowed me the satisfaction of solving my own problems.
Side note: This can’t be an easy teaching moment for instructors faced with a hangry student who’s run out of trail bars. Sorry Ian and Jay! In my defence, all I can say is that snack fear is real, people.
Ian told me to grab an ember from the main campfire and carry it over to my gaff—transporting fire in exactly the way cavemen would have done. And do you know what? I made a fucking fire and I ate my fucking pigeon.
From that moment on, I learned how to keep a fire going. I learned that, when the fire goes out, I can blow up a fire from an ember. I learned that, even when there are no embers, I can use the heat from the ash to get a flame from my own tinder supply. Sod collecting wet dead nettle stems: my tinder was toilet paper coated in the petroleum jelly that I’d brought for my chapped lips.
It might have felt like cheating, but, as the instructors liked to say: I was using all the resources at hand. Vaseline and a lighter might not be the way they teach in all the show-off bushcraft books, but there are no prizes for going cold and hungry.
And what a difference a fire makes. I could boil a billy can of water! I could make a flask of tea! I could warm my feet!
For the first time, I understood the identity of ‘hearth and home’. Despite the fact that the instructors were periodically handing me dead animals to cut up and eat, I genuinely felt a little bit self-reliant. The fact that I’d picked a campsite far from the other students became a source of pride, rather than anxiety.
Rising before dawn yesterday morning, I propped myself against a western red cedar and listened to the chorus of birds greeting the new day. Then I went back to my camp, blew up a fire from an ember, and baked myself a massive banana Welsh cake.
Life is good.
Did you see that asterix earlier?
* In the woods, I’ve learned, my imagination is an enemy. It turned out that my fellow students were all struggling, each of us in our own way. One student spent their first night lying in a steadily expanding pool of rain water and, soaking wet, was eventually forced to swap shelter for tent at three in the morning, cackling with incipient hypothermia.
I think every one of us resorted to lighters or meths to get our fires going at one time or another. If only I’d pitched up next to them, I thought to myself, I would have been reassured by our shared struggles. But I’d never have realised the satisfaction of self-reliance and, above all, the patience and perseverance needed to earn that self-reliance.
In spite of—no—because of my mid-week struggles, the Woodland Ways 5 Day Survival Course is highly recommended. After a farewell fry up and a billy can hot shower on Friday, I really didn’t want to leave this beautiful, comfortable, hospitable woodland.
There are still nine places available on the October intake. Forget the kit list: pack your patience and perseverance.
Tomorrow is the 89th anniversary of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, when three coordinated groups of ramblers converged on the Peak District’s highest point to protest the exclusion of the common people from the common land.
Although walkers’ right to roam on common land and uncultivated upland was not legally protected until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout became a potent legend that showed avaricious landowners that they wouldn’t have it all their own way.
Today, in 2021, we need trespass more than ever.
Criminalising the countryside
As I have written about in previous newsletters (here and here), the government is currently trying to force through legislation that will make trespass a criminal instead of a civil offence.
Outside of the landowners and their cronies in government, it is hard to find anyone in favour of this new law. Not even the police are in favour of powers that would have made TS Eliot liable for a prison sentence.
My MP assures me that this will not affect white middle class ramblers (he didn’t use those exact words, but he didn’t have to) and is only designed to exclude and incarcerate poor people who choose to live their lives closer to nature: Travellers.
The key word there is ‘designed’. Laws have a nasty habit of getting used for the convenience of those in power. Designed to imprison Travellers, used to imprison protestors. Why not?
What’s so depressing about this law is that the ruling minority even feel like they need the open threat of violence to keep us in our place. The vast majority of the land—our land—is already off limits.
Law breakers are law makers
92 percent of the countryside—our countryside—is already shut away behind PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs and, when I see one of those signs, personally, I keep out. Whoever put that sign up is clearly a bit of a dick so why would I want to risk bumping into them?
But access to the countryside is an inalienable right for all. Not only for the few who can afford to buy country estates or who have inherited titles thanks to ancestors who slaughtered peasants.
White middle class ramblers should stand up to support the Travellers who are rightly fighting to defend their livelihoods, but we should also take this moment to open up on all fronts.
As we’ve all found over the last year, that last scrap of land, that 8 percent, is not enough for us. We are not only a few, we are tens of millions. We want more and, to get what we want, we are going to trespass and trespass and trespass until the law collapses under its own weight. Law breakers are law makers.
It’s not even that we ask for much. We only ask that the Countryside and Rights of Way act be extended to include the right to roam on private land. This is already the law in Scotland. Scotland!
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly.
For our environment to survive, for our society to thrive, our countryside cannot simply be the preserve of those fortunate enough to own it. We want to be a part of the countryside; we urgently need to reconnect to nature. And until we can have a conversation about how best to make this happen, respectfully, we will keep coming back.
Will I be taking part tomorrow?
In a beautiful coincidence, I’ll be spending tomorrow out in the countryside, helping a group of young people take some of their first steps in the great outdoors.
As this is a professional engagement, I certainly won’t be encouraging my students to trespass, but I will ask them to help me count the number of PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs we see that seem to bar us from land ripe for roaming.
Our young people, no less than ourselves, need the natural world for the sake of their physical and mental health, but also—I learned this week—we need access to nature for the sake of our continuing existence on planet earth.
Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.
Last week I mentioned the research of Miles Richardson and the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. Specifically, I was intrigued by their recent study, which suggests that it’s ‘moments, not minutes’ that influence how we feel after our encounters with nature. It’s quality, not quantity.
Richardson et al. suggest that ‘simple everyday activities’ that help us notice nature, like birdwatching or smelling flowers, are what drive down our scores of stress, anxiety and depression. So, this week, I decided to take them seriously.
On Tuesday afternoon, I dug out a blank notebook, grabbed an HB pencil and stomped up to Branksome Gardens (one of my recent nearby nature discoveries). I wandered around a bit, scoping out a quiet place where I could do my dirty work in peace.
I sat down on a bench. But it only offered an open vista: churned mud, a chain link fence, a stand of denuded birch around a foetid pond. I needed something I could get lost in. So I stood up again, stomped over the mud and squelched down to the pond.
I rested my notebook on the rotting timber of the fence and scrutinised the bark of a silver birch. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted around the curves of ivy against the peeling ash of the shadowy scrolls of bark. And I began to draw. Badly.
It’s worth confessing right away: yes, I can see that these are pretty crap. But that’s not the point. For the thirty minutes they each took to draw, I could forget everything that’s happened in the past year and suspend judgement over everything that is yet to come.
But how did I feel as I tramped back down along the prom, wind in my hair, notebook in my pocket? I’m not sure. It’s hard to separate out the effects of nature, the effects of a half hour break and the effects of the so-called artwork. But I definitely felt lighter—elevated, somehow.
I’ve been out drawing every day this week and I already look forward to the creative hiatus in the merciless pings of the workday. Drawing is a convenient excuse for a freelancer always looking for productive value. I’m not aimlessly gawping up into a tree (although that is always worthwhile), I’m creating something real and I’m learning something new.
And, boy, have I got a lot to learn. I have deliberately started with nothing more complicated than a very small notebook and an HB pencil. With these two tools, I hope to grasp the fundamental skills of drawing before I ever contemplate anything more ambitious.
Inspired by Bob Ross, a friend of mine has really got into painting over lockdown. For him, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or two away from laptops and smartphones. I got excited about the idea, watched a couple of wonderful little episodes, but was ultimately put off by all the kit I’d have to buy—easels, acrylics, brushes, canvasses, oils. I wanted art supplies that I could pick up, put in my pocket and take out into the wild.
(Side note: Bob Ross seems to exclusively paint bucolic landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains. Art and nature make a hell of a pair.)
Oil painting might be a step too far, but the crap landscape I drew on Wednesday, looking between a mess of pines out to the wave-washed sea, might have benefitted from a few coloured crayons. Once I’ve graduated through the shades of pencil, I might look into what I can learn about colour. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to search far for inspiration.
Earlier this week, a talented friend of mine kindly shared her ‘study of tree mentors’. Here is Naomi Pratt’s drawing of a pair of copper beeches that stand in the cemetery at the end of her garden:
Now there’s something to aspire to! I feel like I could stare at this drawing all day—it’s almost as good as resting there among the quiet gravestones. Here’s what Naomi says about her friendly neighbourhood copper beeches:
Their height makes you feel very small in a comforting way and they have a tremendous foliage. I tried to capture this in a drawing last summer, but it is a challenge to draw a tree—there is so much going on!
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to create drawings half as beautiful as hers. And, even if I can’t, I mean to persist with my scrawlings because, as Naomi wrote in the email that accompanied these images, drawing ‘is an activity which allows me to look more deeply at the world’.
And that’s exactly what Miles Richardson et al. were hoping for.
You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.
Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.
There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.
Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine
Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.
So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.
The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.
As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.
Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.
I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.
I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.
As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.
Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.
I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.
I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.
I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.
How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing
Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.
The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.
According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.
I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.
So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.
How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation
A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.
Notice 5 things you can see.
Notice 4 things you can feel.
Notice 3 things you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Notice 1 thing you can taste.
This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!
Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.
I think everyone can use a mentor. Someone to listen, support and guide you when times get rough or the way ahead is shrouded in confusion.
Mentors are usually human beings, older and wiser than you. But what being could be older or wiser than a tree that has stood firm through wind and rain, fortune and misfortune, for perhaps many decades in your local neighbourhood?
So here’s something a bit different: a practical exercise to meet your local tree mentor and start getting the nature feels that I wrote about last week.
1. Identify a tree mentor (or likely candidate) in your nearby nature
Google Maps does an excellent job at showing you nearby nature, but switch to satellite view and turn off those ugly labels. Click the menu button (three ‘hamburger’ bars in the top left), select ‘Satellite’ and deselect ‘Labels on’.
Another great Google Maps integration is this circle drawing tool. Here you can plop a 3km circle around your house and find nearby nature within range. You can also throw down another circle around your friend’s house to find nature that’s nearby for both of you.
If you’re based in the UK, then check out the OS Maps ‘Greenspace’ layer. This overlay highlights all your local greenspace—and even shows you where the pedestrian and vehicle access points are. Also in the UK, you can plug your postcode into the Woodland Trust search bar to find your nearest tree party.
If you live in a famous city, then check out Treepedia, which uses Google Streetview data to show you where your greenest streets are. Note that this does not include parks.
See if you can find two or three clusters of greenspace that you haven’t visited before.
2. Choose a name for your tree mentor
Personaly, I think it’s a bit rude to go into your meeting without knowing what to call your mentor.
Taking my inspiration from Jack Cooke’s The Tree Climber’s Guide, here are some suggestions: The Peacock Roost, The Tree of Knowledge, The Royal Perch. Don’t overthink it. If you can’t come up with anything right now, call it Dave and see how you go.
3. Block out time in your calendar for your one to one
Seriously. Put it in your diary. You’ll want at least 20 minutes for this first session, excluding travel time.
All done? Great!
AGENDA: Get to know your mentor
When the time comes for your scheduled one to one, I’ve drafted an agenda for you and your mentor. Feel free to pick and choose elements and leave plenty of time for A.O.B.
What species is your mentor tree? Bark, buds and (fallen) leaves, seeds or flowers can solve the mystery. The British Trees app by the Woodland Trust can help you if you’re based in the UK or northern Europe. Elsewhere, or if you need more help, give PictureThis a whirl—it includes tree ring analysis!Note: Using your phone while out in nature can undo its beneficial effects so don’t get sucked into this agenda item. You can also pick up a fallen leaf to help with your identification back at home.
What does your tree feel like to touch, smell, admire? Try staring up into the branches for 60 seconds to enjoy the fractal patterns and develop ‘soft fascination’.
Are there any other trees nearby? Does your mentor have any friends to play with?
Hypothetically speaking, how would you climb it?
Practically speaking, and if you can—go ahead and climb your tree! Cling to its branches, sway on the boughs and feel its roots become your roots.
I hope you have some fun and make this a regular check in with the wise trees of your local neighbourhood. Did you feel any improvement in your stress levels? Or notice any bursts of creativity? I’d love to hear how you get on.
That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.
After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.
Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.
An indoor species
It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.
It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:
We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total. ~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)
By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.
Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.
It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.
What has the outdoors ever done for us?
A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.
As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:
If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.
Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.
In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:
There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.
‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’
A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.
Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.
Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.
In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.
As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.
I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:
It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly! ~ Yu Huan, Weilue
I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.
~ John Muir
Are you worried that you are ‘degenerating into a machine for making money’? Do you feel the urge to ‘break away’, but find all your plans blocked by the pandemic? Do you wish that you could somehow rewild your job?
At a time when we most need the restorative power of the natural world, I’m one of many who cannot ‘get out into the mountains to learn the news’. The solution is to go deeper into local pockets of nature and bring the outdoors indoors by rewilding our homes and work spaces.
This one hour workshop will show how nature can:
reduce your anxiety and work-related stress, while increasing your work performance (in as little as 40 seconds)
boost your immune system and help you sleep better
improve your creativity, the quality of your ideas and your memory
make you feel $10,000 richer and 7 years younger (really)
And, if you are in quarantine or self-isolating, we will learn five ways you can bring the power of nearby nature into your home.
During the session, I will introduce you to the scientific evidence and help you put your rewilding strategies into practice:
The problem with bananas is that their rubbery skins take up to two years to decompose—and when they finally do, the high levels of potassium throw off the nutritional balance of the local ecosystem. We’re effectively poisoning the soil. On top of that, animals have trouble digesting the skins—bananas aren’t a native diet for British wildlife.
So let’s take our banana skins home with us and either compost them or throw them into a smoothie and eat them (seriously).
If we can’t do either of those, then let’s take different snacks on our walks, ones we can devour in their entirety: berries, nuts or dried fruit. My number one hiking snack is apples—and I eat the core!
When I saw these panels in the Tintin adventure The Seven Crystal Balls, I confess to thinking, ‘Gah, I hate it when Tintin goes all sci-fi—I much prefer it when he’s fighting real baddies!’
As this particular bande dessinée was first published while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, I can understand why Hergé went for a vague, supernatural kind of an enemy, but still. Give me The Blue Lotus, with its vile business tycoons, opium wars and belligerent Japanese, any day.
At the end of my particular library edition, however, there was a section that explains to the reader the source of Hergé’s inspiration for the story. And I was astonished to read that the ball of lightning depicted in these fantastical panels hadn’t stretched Hergé’s imagination past breaking point.
Ball lightning is… real?
Although rare, ball lightning is well-attested throughout history. On Sunday 21 October 1638, during a violent thunderstorm, four people died and scores more were injured when ball lightning wreaked havoc through the parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor.
The extraordinarie lightning came into the Church so flaming that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the scent of brimstone.
Some said they saw at first a great ball of fire come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so much affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they all giving up themselves for dead.
The revelation makes for delightfully grisly reading, particularly on the demise of one ‘Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds’:
his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church ; so that hee perished there most lamentably.
I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘Warriner’? It’s someone who keeps rabbits. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re also thinking that Hergé let Tintin and Captain Haddock off lightly.
But can we really trust the ‘true revelation’ of 1638? Might it not have been embellished for popular effect? After all, this was the century of Shakespeare and nobody looks to his Antony and Cleopatra as a reliable source for the toxicology of the asp.
If you are wont to ascribe hysteria to the medieval denizens of Dartmoor, then perhaps you are more convinced by the reports of U.S. airforce pilots, who spotted ball lightning during the Second World War.
In a mission debriefing on the evening of November 27, 1944, Fritz Ringwald, the unit’s S-2 Intelligence Officer, stated that Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase them through a variety of high-speed manoeuvrers.
These meteorological freaks were not so rare that the pilots weren’t moved to give the terrifying phenomena a more colourful name. They called them foo fighters.
(Actually they called them fuckin’ foo fighters, but that kind of nomenclature won’t earn you twelve Grammys and four Brit Awards. Any excuse…)
But if even the U.S. airforce are too hysterical for you, then how about this couple from Gwinn in Michigan, whose home was invaded by ball lightning in the late 1980s while they were entertaining friends. How rude.
A bright blue and white sphere the size of a football floated across the party room before imploding on the television set. As the hostess described:
It was just a very loud bang and—poof—it was gone. And everybody’s kind of standing there, staring at each other.
And if an ancient anecdote delivered by a camera-shy, cocktail-loving couple from the American midwest doesn’t convince you of the reality of ball lightning, then, frankly I don’t know what will.
Oh, actually, maybe I do—science!
During a thunderstorm on 5 August 2014, a red ball of fire 40 cm in diameter was witnessed entering an office through an open window at the local Water Conservancy Bureau in Xinjiang, Shanxi, China. The ball lasted for less than one second and then exploded loudly. Five computers in the room were damaged, which is a direct result of high-power microwaves.
At the tip of a lightning stroke reaching the ground, a relativistic electron bunch can be produced, which in turn excites intense microwave radiation. The latter ionizes the local air and the radiation pressure evacuates the resulting plasma, forming a spherical plasma bubble that stably traps the radiation.
Don’t panic: here’s a video demonstration of the effect and an explanation of the theory, using a microwave oven and a grape.
In this video, a microwave gets trapped inside the ‘bubble’ of a grape and creates plasma. Fun. What Dr Wu is suggesting is that ball lightning is what happens when a microwave gets trapped inside a bubble of plasma. Epic.
Wait. What is plasma? According to the writer’s saviour, WordWeb, plasma is:
A fourth state of matter distinct from solid, liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons.
Great. So we now have a theory of ball lightning that we kind of understand and that sciencifies the fantastic plotline of The Seven Crystal Balls. But Dr Wu has more revelations in store for us.
Dr Wu’s theory not only shows how ball lightning could pass through aeroplanes and glass windows, but might also give credence to the bloodboiling injuries of the poor Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds back in 1638:
Theoretical analysis reveals that rapid temperature rise leads to a thermoelastic expansion of tissue, which launches an acoustic wave travelling by the skull to the inner ear.
Enough to make a brain explode? Dr Wu confesses that he didn’t pump quite as much energy into his balls (err…) as a lightning strike, but does state:
In our theory, the microwave reaches ~1 J/cm2 for the ball formation, which is enough to induce both microwave hearing and nerve damage on witnesses.
So there you have it: an entirely plausible explanation for the ball lightning phenomena witnessed by Tintin et al. in Hergé’s thoroughly researched comic science book, The Seven Crystal Balls.
Hold on—what’s that you say? The rest of the plot depends on a ‘mystic liquid’ found in coca that puts people into instant comas and the use of voodoo spells to punish wrongdoers thousands of miles away? Oh for pity’s sake…
Last weekend I saw my first adder. I didn’t take a photograph because I was instructing a group of teenagers and we don’t do screens when we’re outdoors. Instead we watched in awe as it slalomed across the sandy path and into the tree root undergrowth.
You might not have much sympathy for the adder personally, but they are an indicator species: if adders are struggling, then so too are unheralded species who share the same habitat.
While no one wants to be bitten by a snake, adders are not aggressive animals and adder venom toxicity is relatively low compared to other vipers. There have been 14 fatalities from adder bites in the UK since 1876, and none since 1975.
If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately: there’s a buffet of at least eight different antivenoms to enjoy.
I grew up in a swathe through beech forests so it’s no wonder that I find the pines, redwoods, sequoias, cedars and cypresses of the south coast alluring.
Today, Bournemouth is famed for its vigorous tree culture — famous enough in 1948 for poet laureate John Betjeman to take the piss out of the modernising town clerk who longs to build blocks of flats over the town’s clifftop pine woods:
I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine
And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
Floodlit at night with green electric lights.
My view from the eighth floor of one of those ‘cliffs of flats’ is dominated by city and canopy, a testament to a centuries-old commitment to greening and salubrious landscaped woodland.
But it could all have been so different.
From heath to health
Two hundred years ago, Bournemouth was at the arse-end of what Thomas Hardy imagined as ‘the Great Heath’ and described as follows in Return of the Native:
A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!
At that time, stretching right away from Christchurch to Poole was a vast, desolate heath, covering an area of probably twenty square miles.
Meanwhile, at some point before 1875, a contemporary writer nailed Boscombe as ‘a scene of indescribable desolation’.
The turning point for the blasted land came in 1809, when, out of nowhere, a pub appeared. Where there is booze, retired army officers shall not be far behind and Lewis Tregonwell and family became the first official residents of the budding hamlet in 1812.
Latching on to far-fetched rumours that ‘pine-scented air’ was beneficial for popular nineteenth century maladies like tuberculosis, Tregonwell and Sir George Ivison Tapps, the owner of the pub, conspired to cover the heath with hundreds of pine trees, all the way down to the seashore.
Over the ensuing decades, these two wily entrepreneurs somehow transformed Hardy’s inhospitable heath into a miracle pine health spa.
But what’s almost more remarkable about this story is that those rumours about the health properties of pine were bang on the money.
Pine trees vs cancer
The scent of pine trees comes from its resin and specifically from two isomers of pinene. If you’ve ever used turpentine: it’s the same chemicals and the same woody smell. (Enjoy responsibly.)
Pinenes are a type of chemical called phytoncides. You might recognise the -cide ending there. Yep: pinenes kill stuff. It’s the pine tree’s all-natural antimicrobial killer defence spray.
And it works on us too.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has been investigating the effects of phytoncides on the human body since the early 2000s.
In one, frankly astonishing, 2009 study, Li invited 12 men to come and stay with him for three nights at an ‘urban’ hotel. If that sounds dodgy, wait until you hear what happened next: every night, he pumped vapour from the pinene-rich oil of Hinoki cypress trees into their bedrooms.
At the end of the study, the poor men showed a significant increase in the activity of their natural killer immune cells (this is good: these cells kill cancer) and a significant reduction in noradrenalin (AKA norepinephrine), which usually increases when we’re stressed or in immediate danger.
They also reported feeling less fatigued compared to a control hotel stay that lacked the vaporous phytoncide air.
And so back to Bournemouth, where the tradition of ‘taking the tree air’ continues with the council’s healthsome Tree Trail. (Betjeman’s town clerk was fired, I hope.)
Untold riches — of Redwoods, Cedars and Cypresses
The trail is heralded as ‘a two hour circular walk through Lower, Central and Upper Gardens’, but so far I’ve spent over four hours and have only rather shakily identified half of the 14 mapped trees.
I could spend two hours alone at the foot of Bournemouth’s Dawn Redwoods, a species once believed to be extinct, forgotten for five million years, rediscovered in its native China during the Second World War, and now lording it over the social distancing picnickers and parkour traceurs of the Upper Gardens.
Or I could cosy up for an afternoon with the Blue Atlas Cedars, re-seeded from the mountains of North Africa and now almost shyly gathering around the Hedgehog Kiosk, as if waiting to be invited for ices.
I must find time enough too, far from their Mississippi swamplands, for the Bald Cypress, those of the tree knees, whose canopy has that fibrous quality of ferns writ large, leaves that are hardly there, yet diffuse the sun into soothing colour.
And this walk of almost infinite discovery scoots over the single greenway of Bournemouth’s central gardens. The verdant chines — of which Betjeman’s Branksome is but one — are a tree trail tale for another day.
Thanks to A.T. for discovering and then sharing the Bournemouth Tree Trail with me!
Imagine a world high above the world, a world full of budding life, far from the ills of the world, where even the strayest human passes distantly beneath the world; a world of nooks and canopies giving out onto blue skies and blackbirds, a world we can explore anew, like we did when we were new, when hours would pass before anyone came calling; a world of secret hideaways and free isolation, where perspective comes easy, far over and above schooldays and workdays; a world where we might find refuge, shelter and peace.
Crouched in the branches of a pine that grows like a climbing frame over the gate to our garden, watching the toings and froings of pensioners and parents in their two metre bubbles, I am struck by a memory of one of the first short stories I ever wrote.
Perched was written more than ten years ago, during the dying days of my office-based career, written while sitting at the foot of a willow along the banks of the Thames in August, on an evening before and after long days as a stifling data entry clerk.
It wasn’t obvious until a month later, when I walked out of the job without notice, what this story was about. Now, as I perch on this flaking old pine, I’m jolted back to its secret yearnings to escape the day-to-day, up and away, into the canopy.
He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he were about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal.
If you’re keen, you can read the rest of the very short story here.
Last weekend I spent four, five, six, seven hours a day rambling in the Peak District. It’s the perfect isolation activity. Solitary, wondrous: an easy way to free yourself from the invisible bonds that are tying you down.
Staggering down from Bamford Moor, I stumbled into a shady grove of stripped oaks, clad in living moss. I climbed over a crumbled drystone wall and sat with my back to the rocks and listened carefully for the sound of carbon-based lifeforms.
Back in Bournemouth, I’ve been breaking the isolation with walks along the seafront, watching the ceaseless, sleepless tide, in-out, ti-de.
I always make sure to ramble through the copse that stands on the clifftops and, invariably, my footsteps slow and I’m drawn upwards, climbing up through the stepladder branches that spiral a pine or holm oak.
My companion on these climbs is Jack Cooke, author of The Tree Climber’s Guide:
Trees anchor us in nature’s cycle; lining our pavements and filling our parks, they remind us of another kind of time-keeping, a vegetable clock that keeps ticking to an alternative rhythm.
In this strange alternative reality, trees are a comfort. All is not rosie in the garden: trees wrestle with their own diseases, of course, but they are a warm embrace when another warm embrace could be infectious.
The awakening buds and the loud birdsong remind us that life is still growing strong. It’s easy to spend my time in front of screens, refreshing, counting time until recovery. But the trees give me a reason to trust in time.
Space and time
Are not the mathematics that your will
Imposes, but a green calendar
Your heart observes
~ R.S. Thomas, Green Categories
I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that there’s a tree’s roots growing underneath me and that its branches reach up above me. That some people believe me and some people love me.
My last night in the Peak District was fresh and bright. I strode away from the acid lights of the youth hostel, found a sheep-cropped clearing, and looked up. The milky clouds rushed overhead, pulling back like a curtain on a light show for the rapture.
Seeing more stars than I had done for a long time, I stretched my power of imagination and learned a few nice things.
We are all poorer for our light pollution. The night sky outdoes any of our tawdry displays — but only when you can see the constellations that come alive in the dark. This is a map of the UK at night, with light pollution marked in colour from green through to yellow and red in our cities. Aim for the blackness: the Dark Sky Reserves.
The famous Plough is actually a small part — an asterism — of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in the darkness. In most of our skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
I connected the dots and found Leo for the first time. Leo is not a difficult beast to conjure, but if you don’t know where to look… He follows the Plough in the sky, facing the wrong way, with a question mark head and an isosceles rump. It’s really more spectacular than I make it sound.
In times like these, we can seek refuge in the infinite universe and feel the love come down.
Last Saturday night, on Day 2 of a weekend bushcraft course, I slept in a shelter that I’d built out of dead branches, pine fronds and compacted leaf litter. As you can see, it was cosy…
When I woke up after my eight hours to a bright sunrise, I was actually a little disappointed that my shelter-building skills hadn’t been tested by the heavy rain we’d been promised overnight.
I don’t know if you remember the storm last Saturday night, but it turns out that, contrary to intense scepticism, our instructors were correct: compacted leaf litter is not only solidly stormproof, but soundproof too.
A fine skill learned, but I couldn’t help reflecting that this bushcraft course would have been laughable a hundred or so years ago.
As we threw ourselves pell-mell into foraging, fire-setting and shelter-building, the instructors asked us questions like, ‘Have you made bread at home before?’, ‘Do you know how to find the North Star?’, ‘What’s a good firewood?’ and ‘Who knows how to gut a trout?’
We weren’t a particularly naive group, but all these question were met with shrugs — not unanimous shrugs, perhaps, but certainly majority shrugs.
Surely these questions would have been batted off by our ancestors, laughed at by those who preceded us by a generation or two.
That said, you could make a case that none of the things we learnt on the weekend are much use in the modern age.
Who needs to know how to filter water through a thick-weave cotton shirt when it comes clean from the taps?
Who needs to know how to gather dry firewood in winter when we have central heating or can buy fuelwood from the local garage?
Who needs to know the waterproofing qualities of leaf litter when we have four walls and a roof — or, at the very least, a tent?
And yet everyone on the course — even the young woman whose main priority was to protect her impressive acrylic nail art — found a weekend in the woods somehow nourishing, in spite, or perhaps because of its primitivism.
So what is it that makes learning bushcraft skills valuable, even today?
I think the answer can be summed up in a single word: competence.
It’s not necessarily the case that I’ll use my newly-won knowledge of natural shelter-building ever again, but there’s something reassuring about knowing that I know.
Competence breeds self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-assurance — all soft skills transferable to the rest of our lives.
Can you find your way out of a pickle?
Can you fix things that are broken?
Can you survive?
One of the mantras of the instructors was, ‘In a survival situation…’. They invited us to imagine a catastrophe that left us all alone in the wilderness, with only our wits to feed, clothe and shelter us. (The phrase was usually followed by the description of something highly illegal in the UK.)
But I am not a prepper. I have no interest in building these skills for self-preservation. I only want to become a competent member of the tribe. Someone who can be relied on when needed. Someone who can help others become stormproof.
Being outdoors can look a lot like being for oneself, in isolation. But, for me, being outdoors is being for others. I would not be interested in learning these skills if not to share them with, and use them for others.
I’m lucky that I have an outlet or two for the skills that I’m learning. Over the past couple of years, and almost by accident, I’ve become an outdoor leader.
This summer I’ll be part of a team helping 60 cyclists travel some of Europe’s wildest corners, camping all the way.
Last year’s adventures on Thighs of Steel were quite possibly the greatest outdoors experience of my life thus far. Not because of being for myself, in isolation, but because of being for others.
Earlier this week, I got my first ever contract for outdoor instructing, working for a small company that delivers DofE expeditions for schools.
I’ll be part of a team that introduces dozens of children to the outdoors, perhaps for the first time. My competence is central to the success of the programme and I take pride in that responsibility.
One of my fellow students on the bushcraft course, an affable retired police officer, loves the outdoors. Beside the fire every night, he told stories of wild fishing in the icy lakes of Snowdonia, his eyes flickering in the flamelight.
He’d caught the outdoors bug as a schoolboy fifty years earlier: on his DofE expedition. These journeys can last a lifetime.
My own appreciation of the outdoors can be traced back to Christmas and Easter family holidays to the Lake District, the Brecon Beacons or the Yorkshire Dales.
My memories are of splashing through trickling, gushing, freshet becks, hopping from stone to stone, and scoffing Kendal Mint Cake.
I’m writing to you from Edale, in the Peak District. Yesterday I walked up Kinder Scout to see the boulders of the Wool Pack and the ice fields of Kinder Downfall, but the origin of this walk can be traced back to before I was born.
In the early seventies, my dad came here after handing in his PhD thesis: relief that it was over, looking forward to a year of adventure, travelling overland to Australia with his young wife.
My mum has even older history here: a photograph of her on Mam Tor in the sixties, feeling the same breeze that whips my hair from my scalp, decades later.
I spent Valentine’s Day on Brownsea Island with a pitchfork. No, sadly not at the head of a Medieval peasant lynch mob; instead I was part of a volunteer conservation team that spent three hours sort of ‘tidying up’ a pine forest.
To the outside observer, we must have looked very Sisyphean: raking up tonnes and tonnes of pine needles and dead bracken only weeks before the spring growth and in the spitting teeth of the inevitable autumnal drop.
So why, why, oh why — tea and biscuits aside — were we there?
There are a lot of Scots, Monterey and Maritime Pines on Brownsea Island, a small island in Poole Harbour, Dorset. Pines grow quickly and tend to dominate. Very little flourishes in their shade, not least due to their poisonous habit of needle dropping.
Beautiful as they are, pine forests aren’t known for their biodiversity.
Two plants do thrive beneath the needles of Brownsea: bracken and rhododendron. Both of which are arguably even more antisocial than the pines who shade them.
There is, however, one unsung habitat on the island that is both a nourishing hotbed of biodiversity and, coincidentally, vanishing under the cities, forests and motorways of the mainland: heath.
Heath, as a landscape, is kind of meh. Underwhelming at best, if you’re not an ecologist. You can sort of see why it gets ripped up and paved over. Sorry.
We all love walking barefoot on the tickly needles of a pine forest, gazing up in awe at the shelfing branches, watching red squirrels scamper up and down the ruddy trunks.
But heathland is all scrubby with plants that are either prickly like gorse, knobbly like ling and bell heather, or slippery like moss. Basically: heath is a bit annoying to wander through if you’re not wearing full body armour.
I’m told, however, that the heath is positively teeming with life: butterflies, bees, spiders, lizards and invertebrates of all flavours. It is the amenable counterpoint to the inhospitable pine forest.
You can see where we’re going with this one, can’t you?
On Brownsea, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust are working (with the help of brute unpaid labour like me) to extend and connect the pockets of heath on the island, creating corridors down which the wildlife can mooch.
That’s why we spent three hours today raking and pitchforking bales and bales of dead bracken and rhododendron from the forest floor.
This work is a precursor to a ‘thinning out’ of the pines (the winter storms have made a start — I counted six felled trees in our little working acre alone) and a human-assisted return to open heathland.
Heather seed is everywhere on Brownsea, but in the forest it’s buried under a foot of mulch and will never taste the sunshine it needs to pop out and start singing.
I did find one tiny sprig of heather as I raked over the forest. The green filigree shoots were roundly cheered and the pathetic, heroic stem became a sort of totem for the work we were doing. You can spot her in the proud parental photo above.
But, hang on — knee-deep in a climate emergency, doesn’t it feel a bit wrong to be putting so much energy into felling trees? Shouldn’t we be planting them?
In general: yes.
However, also: no. At least, not here.
As one Brownsea conservationist explained to us, heathland is arguably more important to the health of the planet than the dominant, almost monoculture of the pines — and not only because heathland is a vanishing habitat, rich with life.
We all know that the headline climate crisis is too much carbon getting released into the atmosphere. Trees are good because they ‘capture’ (‘sequester’ if you want to get fancy) carbon. Ergo: plant more trees.
But did you know that most of the carbon captured by trees is stored in the soil and litter on the forest floor, not in the trees themselves? (I didn’t until today, to be fair.)
And — here’s the topper — the soil under heathland captures more carbon per hectare than the soil under forests does.
You could argue that, rather than interfering with conservationist projects like the heathland conversion on Brownsea, we should ‘let nature do its work’: let the pines march triumphant across the land, let the rhododendron and bracken crowd out every other species.
But for me this smacks of the similarly bogus ‘let the markets decide’ logic that some conservative economists are fond of trotting out.
No. We’re already interfering in nature for we are nature. The rhododendrons were brought here from Nepal, for goodness sake. Some of the pines were planted as a fuelwood crop. The cattle, pigs and ponies that once kept the Brownsea forests at bay were kept animals, not nature’s own convenient gardeners.
Dorset Wildlife Trust run volunteer conservation days on Brownsea Island every Friday. They’re very welcoming to idiot newbies like me. Peruse their events page for these and other opportunities across the county.
If you don’t live in Dorset (who does?), then seek out your local wildlife trust and volunteer. You won’t regret it. Unless you take a wrong turn with the pitchfork and get burned alive as a witch.
There is something ineffably childish about a hammock. It shouldn’t be allowed: to spend half an hour gently rocking between the boughs of a tree. Certainly not on a Monday lunchtime.
But that is exactly what I did, once I’d figured out — and learnt to trust — the soft shackle fixings of my new sling.
It weighs scarcely more than a third of a kilo and can hold two of me (although that’s against the rules laid out in the instruction booklet, and not only because cloning humans is ethically dubious).
Tucked up in the canvas, I feel swaddled. Staring up into the fractal treeline, there is nothing to do here except relax. So I let myself gently down into the golden apricity.
Watching the birds fly overhead, the squirrels skipping from branch to branch and the pigeons wooing from the upper boughs.
I’d love to hear from you if you’re joining me on my attempt to spend thirty minutes in nature every day for thirty days. Give us a shout and let me know. We can swap notes. There’s only one rule: don’t miss twice.
It’s like how branches branch off into smaller branches and smaller branches branch off into twigs and twigs into leaves and leaves into leaflets and leaflets into veins and the whole set is mirrored underground in the roots.
Anyway. It turns out that a specific range of fractals are good for us.
In one of a series of remarkable studies, physicist Richard Taylor and psychologist Caroline Hägerhäll found that viewing images with a fractal dimension of between 1.3 and 1.5 easily led people into the alpha brain state (‘wakefully relaxed’) associated with increased creativity and reduced depression.
Nature adores these low- to mid-range fractal dimensions and they are found everywhere, from the patterns we see in snowflakes, coastlines and clouds to the structure of our lungs and neurons and even the movement of our eye’s retina.
This is an important discovery: our eyes work over an image in the same fractal patterns of which natural landscapes are composed. In nature, then, our visual cortex feels most at home: confident, comfortable and, assuming no tigers are detected, wakefully relaxed.
Such ‘visual fluency’ is stress-reducing in the same way that ‘French fluency’ is stress-reducing when you step off the ferry in Calais.
This is not, when you think about it, a surprise. Our eyes evolved to seek food and spot danger in natural landscapes, after all.
What’s mind-blowing is that scientists have studied and uncovered this and can point to our city streets and say things like: ‘The fractal dimensions are totally wrong here. You’re going to feel stressed’, or: ‘Looking up at those trees gives your visual cortex a fractal dimension of 1.37. You’ll feel wakefully relaxed.’
And doesn’t this computer-generated fractal pattern look like the outline of a winter’s tree against the sky, or a lichen’s tattoo on bark?
When I got in from my tree staring, I went online and bought a hammock as a promise to my future self to spend more time among the branches. I know that I want to spend more time outside, but I struggle to make it happen.
I’m not alone in this.
Humans are terrible at forecasting how great we’ll feel if we only get outside.
People may avoid nearby nature because a chronic disconnection from nature causes them to underestimate its hedonic benefits.
It’s hard to prioritise the great outdoors when we persistently fail to draw a line of connection between going outside and feeling good. Would you keep going back to a doctor who you thought was a quack?
Somehow, we need to force ourselves outdoors and trust that nature will do its work whether we credit it or not. It’s not easy, in fact you might call it a challenge…
The 30×30 Nature Challenge
The David Suzuki Foundation run an annual challenge in which participants try to spend 30 minutes in nature every day for 30 days. That might not sound like much, but I for one don’t hit those kind of numbers, especially not in winter.
Since 2013, the Foundation have added science to their 30×30 nature challenge and have tested what happens to our wellbeing when we make a regular commitment to more outdoors.
The first thing to note is that, even before the challenge, the 1,896 participants were already getting their 30 minutes a day on average. But that wasn’t not the point. The point was to make a commitment to getting outside every day for 30 minutes – not just on average.
That commitment saw total time spent in nature double over the course of the challenge – an extra 8 hours per week.
Of course, those 8 hours have to come from somewhere and, on average, participants in the study spent 52 minutes less per week on their phones and a ridiculous 3 hours 57 minutes less time on the Internet.
None of the other measured categories of time use – shopping, at the gym, in vehicle, and sleeping – saw statistically significant increases or decreases.
Except one: visiting friends.
The challenge participants spent, on average, an extra 92 minutes with friends every week. That’s a huge increase. Apparently, humans love to share nature.
We haven’t even got to the proper results yet, but you can see where this is going, can’t you? Surely any activity that means less screen time and more friend time is going to be good for our sense of wellbeing, isn’t it?
Positive affect (being content, enthusiastic, relaxed, joyous) went up over the course of the study. Negative affect (being anxious, sad, irritated, hostile) went down. Fascination (awe, fascination, curiosity) went up. Vitality (feeling alive and vital, having energy and spirit) went up. All results passed the test for significance (p<0.001, stats fans).
Topper: the more participants increased their time in nature, the stronger were the positive effects on their wellbeing. Good news for those of us who struggle to get outside: we’ll feel the most benefit.
Awe is an experience that reminds us of our puny position in the universe. Awe subsumes us into the whole and can help us forget our struggles, strife and stress for a moment. It’s mindfulness, only much more fun.
Paul Piff, psychologist at the University of California, has also found that nature is really good at delivering awe and that humans can convert awe into prosocial behaviour.
Now, my stubby Bristolian park is no grove of mighty eucalyptus, but as I finished my run, I decided to try my tree-gazing minute again.
This time I didn’t check my watch until more than 90 seconds had passed.
Ideas for a nature fix
Stand at the foot of a tree and stare upwards for a minute.
Get fractal and gaze into a fire (or a Jackson Pollock painting).
Do a sit spot in nature. Go to a favourite place and, um, sit there. Go back tomorrow. Nature Mentor has a great introduction to sit spotting, but it’s really no more complicated than sitting and spotting.
Climb a tree and find a comfy branch.
Watch the ripples of rainfall onto a river, lake, canal or – in extremis – a puddle. Alternatively, follow the traces of droplets down your window pane.
Hypnotise yourself with waves wherever you find them.
Look up at the cloudscape.
On a sunny day, watch the shifting shadows cast on the ground by the wind and the trees.
Watch a lightning storm.
Inspect the weeds between cracks in the pavement or the lichen on a wall.
If you really want to get sciency, commit to being out in nature for 30 minutes a day, every day, for 30 days. I’m on Day 1!
99 percent of the research for this post came from the excellent book The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.
‘Have you got decent bins?’ I’m asked by a man wearing a cagoule.
Well, isn’t that an intrusive question! And I’m about to muster indignant excuses for forgetting to take the recycling out when the man waggles a pair of binoculars and adds: ‘They really help you get up close.’
I’m on a boat in the middle of Poole Harbour, in the squalling rain and the huffing wind of a gale blowing in. The boat has a full cargo of people in cagoules with decent bins, here for an RSPB bird tour of Brownsea Island.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a birder. And yet here I am – and next week I’ll be cycling around the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. Maybe you don’t choose birding; maybe birding chooses you.
‘Great Northern Diver at eleven o’clock – no he’s dived. Shag at one o’clock. Spoonbill on the beach. Merganser pair just taking off – three o’clock.’
A running commentary sends us birders lurching from one side of the wind-lashed deck to the other, hunting through our misty bins for flecks of white on the storm-grey sea.
For the hobbying birder, this trip is all about spotting new species. When the commentator announces a Slovenian Grebe at four o’clock, there is quite the commotion, let me tell you.
I stare blindly over the hunched shoulders of twitching bin-bearers. I’m as astonished as anyone: Slovenia is all but land-locked – I wouldn’t have thought it’d be known for its sea birds.
Slavonian Grebe. Slavonian. They can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers. And they’re so rare that they’re on something ominously called the Red List.
Despite frantic Wikipedia research and my rapid identification of a Swan at eleven o’clock, I think it’s fair to say that I’m still not a birder.
My favourites are the bobbers: those birds who bob on the tide, waiting patiently until I catch them in the rings of my borrowed bins before beating their wings against the spray or pulling a dive into the choppy waves.
Other than that, I still rank my birds by the romanticism of their names. Avocet. Little Stint. Black-tailed Godwit.
And, of course, the Wigeon. ‘Isn’t that just a wet pigeon?’ I ask a friend, also not a birder. ‘I thought Wigeon was a Pokémon character,’ she says.
After two hours of chasing feathers, we dock at the John Lewis castle and make our way onto the island.
Brownsea Island has been a National Trust nature reserve since the sixties, after the people of Poole somehow raised £100,000 to save their island from Billy Butlin, he of holiday camp notoriety.
But the only reason there was ever any question of Brownsea becoming a nature reserve was thanks to the whim of a monied misanthropist.
Mary Bonham-Christie bought the island in 1927 and immediately ordered the mass eviction of the 200 people who lived there, then banned the Boy Scouts from their historic campsite and finally hired goons to eject any meddling intruders.
By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil (the ultimate act of any self-respecting misanthrope), only she and her boatman lived on the island. It’s fair to say that Bonham-Christie was not a people person.
But her loathing for the human race did open up a hitherto overcrowded corner of the ecosystem for other wildlife. Red squirrels most famously, but also other cute animals including voles and sika deer (the pretty ones with spots).
This imposed haven from humanity made the island an appealing acquisition for the National Trust who completed the purchase in 1962 with help from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Scout and Guide Movements and John Lewis (whose staff holiday in the castle). Now goon-free, Brownsea Island has been open to the public for nearly sixty years.
Birders in particular are drawn to Brownsea thanks to the work of another, shall we say ‘energetic’, aristocrat, Colonel William Petrie Waugh.
When he bought the island in 1852, Waugh saw an opportunity in the shallow water to expand his territory. With a bulk order of over a million bricks, he and his lackeys built a wall in the middle of the sea, enclosing a vast paddling pool from which wind-powered pumps extracted the water. Hey presto – pasture for grazing cattle.
But you can’t keep the sea out forever, not without constant investment (see also: the Netherlands), and gradually the sea wall started leaking. As the salt water joined forces with freshwater leaking from inland, an enormous lagoon was created.
Cue cheers of delight from a multitude of invertebrates – and the sea birds who prey on them: the Shoveler and Teal and Turnstone and Dunlin that us birders had all come to inspect through our rain-splattered bins.
One morning wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a glimpse, a respite in a day battered by storms. We can, if we allow ourselves, be bewitched by nature. I returned to the fraying town doused and refreshed, content.
On Monday, I was stomping through the Millennium Wood in Cholsey when I spotted that it was the nineteenth birthday of this pretty little clutch of hazel, birch and ash.
Growing up as I did in Cholsey, I remember the close-cropped grass that used to occupy this land; banishings for cigarettes and fights on the outskirts of the football fields.
I remember the planting of the wood and thinking how my successors at the primary school dug into the earth on that cold November day while I worked a temp job and saved for university.
It warms the cockles to remember that hundreds – thousands – of communities across the UK chose to celebrate the turn of the millennium, not only by setting fireworks off in the sky, but also by planting trees down in the earth.
Once you start noticing the humble stone plaques that commemorate the hopes of those millennial tree-planters, you start seeing them everywhere. Two weeks ago, when staying at Castle Cottage in Wales, we tramped every morning up to a hilltop formerly known as ‘the lonely tree’, now a maturing copse also entering its twentieth year.
Today, we are in the midst of another mass planting that will dwarf the millennium celebrations.
On Monday, I was given this ridiculously good-looking book as a birthday present. On Tuesday, I spotted a line of limes politely shielding All Saints graveyard from the impertinence of neighbours.
And so I began to turn the pages…
The book is a twenty-first century update of John Evelyn’s Sylva, a comprehensive ledger of Britain’s trees published in 1664.
Evelyn had this to say about the lime tree:
the carvers in wood use it … for the trophies, festoons, fruitages, encarpia, and other sculptures in the frontoons, friezes, capitals, pedestals, and other ornaments and decorations, of admirable invention and performance, to be seen about the choir of St Paul’s
Four words that I don’t understand, and one not even known by the Oxford English Dictionary.
The New Sylva adds the following:
Limes are among the few insect-pollinated trees in Britain and do not flower until June or July. … Planting of small-leaved lime is greatly encouraged by those seeking to increase biodiversity in woodlands. Lime seeds have no invertebrate predators, and the ripe fruits are eaten by birds, mice and voles.
The weekend was spent ‘shadowing’ a Duke of Edinburgh Bronze practice expedition. Not in preparation for my own attempt – they tell me I’m too old – but as something of a ‘trial shift’ for future employment as an instructor on said expeditions.
What I learned from my shadow
1. Even the bronze expeditions are hard work.
These little guys (they were 13-14) have to carry 65 litre packs across two days of 8-12km hiking. Some of them were lugging 85 litre packs stuffed to the hoods. Lucky fools.
2. Why can’t most people get camp cooking right?
For millennia, humans just like us cooked out of doors. So why did even the instructors (at least those who didn’t drive back to their warm home, or slide open their luxury camper vans) make do with rehydrating packet noodles, or reheating leftovers?
For the kids, camp cooking is part of the syllabus and, for fear of getting it badly wrong, they exclusively plumped for easy cook pasta and ready-made stir-in sauce. The most accidentally ambitious of the kids brought along bacon lardons to add to his pasta – but only because he thought they were pre-cooked.
I have perused (in a scoffing sort of way) campfire cookbooks in the past, but if I am to commit to broad enjoyment of the great outdoors, then it’s time to take campfire cooking seriously.
On a continental bike tour in 2016, we took a humungous Camping Gaz hob burner. Nothing in our packs brought greater ridicule from other tourers; nothing brought greater pleasure to us.
3. I still can’t sleep in a tent.
I could blame the mummified claustrophobia of the sleeping bag, or the pattering of rain on canvas, or the rowdy teachers up late, or the ironic anxiety that I would oversleep, but where does that get me?
4. Kit is crucial.
Between the 50 or so kids and the half dozen instructors, we showed off the full range of hiking kit.
Within 10 minutes of leaving, we knew who had the right rucksack and who didn’t. By the end of the second day, you could easily see (or hear) who had decent walking boots.
It’s easy to be smug when you recently dropped £100 on boots and another £50 on a rucksack, but these two make such a difference to your enjoyment of an expedition that they have to be worth the investment.
If it’s going to rain more than a little, you can add waterproofs to that list.
5. There will be moments when it’s all worthwhile.
Walking and talking with people more than two decades younger than me; watching the sun rise through the morning mist; strolling alone through a dappled beech forest as I waited for the expedition teams to come past their final checkpoint.
6. I’d like to do more of this.
For too long I have equated ‘typing at a computer’ with ‘making a living’. This new outdoor office is a whole new liberation.
Computers are all well and good, and I am lucky to be able to write for a living, and join people up with words. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do right now is help kids enjoy the outdoors.
As the lead instructor said: ‘our interventions make a difference to the lives of these young people’.
What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?
Of course, it’s impossible to know, but it’s a reasonable bet that my writing will outlast me. Certainly the writing that’s kept in the BBC archives and (still can’t believe this) in the British Library.
My notebooks will probably outlast me. And any of my other digital writing stored on servers with a life-expectancy of greater than 50 or 60 years. That’ll all outlast me.
To a certain degree, my reputation and memories of my existence will outlast me, but probably not for long. My birth certificate will outlast me.
I work for a few organisations that will probably outlast me. Every morning I wake up and do my bit to perpetuate systems of control that will probably outlast me: capitalism, democracy, the British legal system.
I’m contributing my fair share of carbon emissions: their effect will outlast me.
It’s odd to remember that what is mine will outlast me – what does it mean to be ‘mine’ long after the referent has passed away?
In what sense are any possessions ‘mine’? What we call possession can only ever be temporary. To the survivor, the spoils. So too with the planet.
Abstract concepts have a habit of outlasting individuals of course – that’s how we have somehow conspired to cede ownership of Britain to the Forestry Commission, pension funds and the Crown Estate. But these fictions are held together only by a collective delusion.
For the same reason, I find it hard to credit the land to similar fictions like ‘God’ or even ‘Mother Earth’. Are there no corporeal entities who will outlast us in possession of this soil?
But of course there are: the trees.
In this country, there are more specimens of a single tree species – the ash – than there are specimens of homo sapiens. We are short-term tenants on this land and the landlords – in the most literal sense of the word – are our arboreal lessors.
Even the most flippant of trees lives their life on a time scale almost inconceivable to humans. The horse chestnut is considered flighty with a life expectancy of only 300 years. There are yew specimens that were sinking their roots into the soil when the Romans first arrived.
Britain is on loan and the debt is coming due. We would do well to get to know our landlords and call them by their names. Be good tenants.
There is a tree in a cow pasture near where I grew up (W3W: plotted.brain.forgotten) whose roots make a sublimely relaxing sun lounger.
Until last week, I never knew it’s name. Now I know: it’s an oak, one of a family strung out along the hedgerows, but its siblings don’t make such fine company.
In some ways, it makes complete sense that it took us 10 years to be properly introduced. That’s tree-time. But now I have a dependable friend to share the sunset with. And I know from the calls of half a dozen different birds that I’m not alone.
Whosoever plants a tree
Winks at immortality! Felix Dennis, poet and planter of trees
Lime trees wrap their greenery in a metaphor. The buds, with one small and one large scale, look like mini boxing gloves, spoiling for a fight. But they unfurl with the light into perfect heart-shaped leaves for loving.
The flowers are hermaphrodite so, perhaps understandably, the lime tree is well-known to aid fertility. And, like the toughest love, lime wood doesn’t warp. It’s still used to make piano keys.
Pick the leaves for a summer salad, particularly when covered in aphid poo, which makes them all the sweeter.
It’s a great time of year to be a Horse Chestnut. Many other trees are yet to don their leafy cover, and you are already bustling with green, and holding your blushing flower-candles high.
The Horse Chestnut is generous, offering not one but five or seven leaflets to a stalk. By Autumn, those pink-white flowers have been pollinated into the back to school bounty of those famous conkers. Don’t try eating them.
I left it late to climb a tree in April, but here I am, high up in a holm oak, with what appears to be a dislocated jaw.
The holm oak is an evergreen, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was brought over here in the late 1500s and isn’t fussed about sea spray, which explains why there are a number scattered along the clifftops here in Bournemouth.
The leaves are glossy dark green, and the younger ones are spiny like the leaves of the holly – which explains why this oak is called ‘holm’, an old form of ‘holly’.
As a climber, this tree is a safe bet, with thick branches and helpful forks to wedge in. Snapped upper branches are evidence of recent high winds. The dense leaves make the holm oak a perfect hideaway for miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. After all, an Englishman’s holm is his castle.
I’ll leave it to the Woodland Trust to explain why you might want to explore this pleasing oak for yourself:
In ancient Greece the leaves of the holm oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people. The acorn was seen as a sign of fertility and wearing acorn jewellery was believed to increase fertility.
I recently read The Atlantic essay Walking by Henry David Thoreau, published in June 1862. Firstly, how thrilling it is to read that by-line set in the 21st century medium of the Internet. Praise The Atlantic for doing such a beautiful job – imagine Punch or The Times delving so deep into their archives.
Walking touches upon an almost scatter-brained variety of tangentially related topics. I’m never sure whether the 19th century mind was more nimble, or simply that writers of yore lacked the affection of competent editors.
The essay is worth reading in its entirety – if only for his enthusiastic side-swipes at the small-minded European mentality (even the moon looks smaller there!) – but I wanted to pick out three themes that particularly caught my eye.
The Value of Time Spent in Nature
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The Inexhaustibility of Local Walks
My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. … Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.
The Re-Wilding of Humankind
I saw one day a herd of a dozen bullocks and cows running about and frisking in unwieldy sport, like huge rats, even like kittens. They shook their heads, raised their tails, and rushed up and down a hill, and I perceived by their horns, as well as by their activity, their relation to the deer tribe.
But, alas! a sudden loud Whoa! would have damped their ardor at once, reduced them from venison to beef, and stiffened their sides and sinews like the locomotive. Who but the Evil One has cried “Whoa!” to mankind?
This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?
One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’
It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.
I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.
I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.
As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.
The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.
It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.
Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.
Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.
On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’
I’m not the first to notice that trees are operating on a completely different time scale to us puny humans.
Take this wild cherry, for example, just now coming into blossom in the park outside my house. She’s about as old as I, and yet still doesn’t have her own BBC radio sitcom.
Some trees – most trees – live lives that are unfathomable on our human scale.
What could I possibly have in common with a Norman gent of the Middle Ages? And yet, only twenty minutes’ cycle from my blossoming park is the Domesday Oak, a portly 8 metres in girth, perhaps trodden into the ground by one of the conquerors themselves.
There’s a yew in Wiltshire that’s been carbon dated to 2,000 BC.
We gaze in awe at the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other man-made wonders of the ancient world, but forget the astonishing ancient bark living and breathing beside us still.
‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Nothing beside remains, Shelley might have written, except a stand of oak trees, a churchyard yew, a scattering of larch, a copse of juniper and pine, a mighty beech and a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen.
There’s a small park less than a minute from my house. Squeezed between residential side streets and the A4032, it boasts no unbroken vistas, no soaring heights, nor even, in winter at least, a single startling flower bed.
This is, instead, a landscape for tree watching.
I count 34 living in the park and in the neighbouring playground. All but three have long since left their leaves to litter the lawn and their deciduous branches hold still in the dry air.
The sun splits the empty branches of a London Plane, and chases the shadows across the grass towards me.
In the playground stands a palm, its pineapple crown surprised to be here. Side by side in evergreen solidarity are a pine and a mature holly.
The pine’s cones have fallen barren below their mother, but the needles are shelved out of my reach, and well beyond my powers of identification. Scots or Black. No idea.
The gentle waxy leaves of the holly, on the other hand, wreath her unmistakeable berries. At her feet is a prickly child, keen on the shallow sunlight of the open parkland.
The sound of construction filters across from the street beyond the Plane. The workmen are from a company called Maple. The litter on the bench beside me is a bottle branded Oasis. Trees, huh.
But I’m not alone. A pair of magpies strut their way over the grass, turning over dead leaves, looking for lunch. The shoots of next month’s daffodils, meanwhile, go about their quiet business in the soil.
The dual carriageway bawls a background sludge of white noise, but I can still hear twittering hidden in the holly, while the magpies chatter companionably among themselves.
I’m less than a minute away from computers and phones and notifications and emails, but I could be on a different planet entirely.
I’ve only been here half an hour, but I could be a different person entirely.
My fingers grow cold, my Thermos runs dry. Sometimes we go outside to return indoors.