It’s a curious thing that whilst most of our childhood memories vanish in the annals of our mind never to be seen again, certain memories take up permanent residency, popping up now and again to wave hello to our consciousness across the cerebral garden fence. These memories are often from the smaller moments in life and can seem insignificant and random. It’s easy to dismiss them as having become lodged in our brains quite by chance but I am not sure that this is the case. I am beginning to believe that these memories have stubbornly persisted on purpose, because there is something they want us to pay attention to.
An idyllic Cotswolds afternoon
One of my strongest memories is of a weekday afternoon spent in the garden of one of my primary school teachers. She lived in a mellow stone cottage in an idyllic village in the deepest, darkest Cotswolds and I remember clearly her pretty, flower-filled English country garden that sloped steeply down to a bubbling stream at the bottom. I’ve always felt that a stream, brook or river at the bottom of a garden was a magical thing and her garden felt like one of the most wonderful places I’d ever been to.
After a packed lunch of sandwiches (so thrilling and exotic when one is used only to school dinners) I can remember my classmates and me sitting on our haunches investigating the minutiae of the stream. I have forgotten most of creatures we saw but I do remember marvelling at dragonfly and newts and returning to our classroom with a glass jar filled with frogspawn.
How much of this memory is accurate, and how much of it my brain has embellished over the years is unclear, and is perhaps unimportant, but lately this vivid recollection of a small afternoon has been presenting itself to me with increasing regularity, lately it’s been almost daily. A few weeks ago I started paying heed to this insistent nudging and turned my focus inwards on it and there I found an instruction to go smaller and to go deeper, in order to rekindle a sense of wonder at the natural world.
Visiting alternate worlds
For a while now I’ve been mulling over a thought in my head that one of the most effective cures for a sense of boredom or a lack of purpose is to leave our everyday life and spend a little time in an alternate world. We can enter different worlds through a myriad of ways, by opening a book or watching a film, by visiting a historical house and imagining the lives that lived there. We can spend time with people who are new to us, or take a trip to a beloved place. Sometimes all we need to do is put down our smartphones and allow ourselves to get lost in our daydreams.
What I now believe is that my persistent memory is telling me that the most fascinating other world of all is being played out right under our very noses, right now, in nature. We have a curious relationship with nature as human beings, we are part of it but at the same time we stand apart from it. Nature is quite literally all around us but we don’t always see the beauty of the epic stories happening in miniature every minute of every day because we are not looking closely enough.
The wonder of small nature
Many of us feel so removed from the natural world that we find the everyday nature on our doorsteps underwhelming, being impressed more with panoramic views and jaw dropping vistas of our trips to faraway places. We walk stridently to the top of a hill for the reward of a promised view, ignoring the tiny dramas happening in the hedgerows along the way and we scuttle along paths with our heads down in a hurry to get home from the chore of a dog walk without noticing the subtle changes that herald the approach of a new season. It’s no wonder we can find it hard to connect with nature when all we often do is pass straight through it.
What I have learnt lately, triggered by making a conscious effort to read more about nature, and most particularly by reading Simon Barnes’ enchanting book ‘Rewild Yourself‘, is that all we need to do to fall in love with nature again is to stop, to be still, and to observe. And so this is what I have started to do, I have begun to go outside and stand still. Almost immediately I discovered that Simon Barnes is right, that once you stop, nature really does reveal itself to you. Suddenly the white berries on bare stalks became snowberries, the fleeing shadows of small birds in trees in my peripheral vision became pied wagtails and those small dogs frolicking on the hillside revealed themselves to be fox cubs playing.
Mindful learning and recording
My renewed focus on the lilliputian wonders in front of me has lead, inevitably, to a desire to educate myself. I have found myself thrilled at my newfound ability to successfully distinguish between a great tit, a coal tit and a blue tit and to be able to identify a tree from its fallen leaves. I have gleefully opened the pages of my bird book to identify my first ever great spotted woodpecker and to see that the magnificent bird soaring alongside our car in Scotland was a peregrine falcon.
Since I have started practising this mindful naturalism I have felt a strong desire to record what I have seen, and to understand it. I have stopped taking my phone on walks with me and instead take my Pentax film camera. The act of composing a shot, setting the light and the mechanical opening and closing of the shutter cannot be matched in intention by mindlessly pressing the camera button on my phone. I bring items home with me and draw them and I copy birds and animals from my newly purchased reference books. The grip that my phone has on my life in general is lessening as my drawing and painting skills improve, both of which are resolutions for me this year.
Through drawing the flora and the fauna that I find along the way I find I easily drop out of the present and fall deeper into the natural world. I lose hours in ‘flow’ and my anxieties dissipate as my brain ceases turning over innumerable worries and turns instead to trying to work out why a robin’s beak is shaped how it is, how to paint the sharp point of a holly leaf and wondering how on earth a pair of geese from Egypt end up sitting on a buoy on the surface of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond.
And now I’ve started I can’t stop, I’m building a library of reference books and reading everything I can about our connection with nature. I am writing what I feel and drawing what I see. It turns out that nature never went anywhere, it just hid itself from my unseeing and undeserving eyes. All I had to do to make it reappear was to stand still and let it reveal itself to me, just as it did when I was six years old, marvelling at a newt by that little stream in Gloucestershire.
This New Year we stayed at the newly opened Glen Dye, the Home of the Brave, and found a way to have fun outside on the darkest, coldest days of the year.
Swimming in the ponds on Hampstead Heath is one of the most magical things to do in London in the summer, but is something few Londoners have actually done.