Yesterday, I started reading Stonecrop Review: a journal of urban nature writing, art and photography. I’m only about halfway through the journal but it’s prompted such reflection that I felt compelled to write about it.
It is a wonderfully thought out publication: the writing is insightful, the illustrations immersive, and the overall aesthetic so clean and appealing that it causes you to linger over every page, to submerge yourself in the pleasure of reading it. But all of that is secondary to its true beauty. What Stonecrop Review achieves is to create a space within which you are drawn to the experience of nature, wherever you are. So compelling was the picture of urban nature drawn in its pages that earlier today, as I prepared for the daily morning dog walk, I – somewhat to my own surprise – chose to forego my headphones.
Ordinarily, our morning walks are accompanied either by my current audiobook or some Spotify soundtrack that matches my mood, or that I feel will help me establish the mood that I want for the day. This morning, I realised that the only soundtrack that I wanted to hear, and one that I’ve neglected far too much, was that of the natural world around me.
Bear with me whilst I meander through the contemplations that followed…
Some time ago, I introduced a group of 11-year-olds to the beautiful book The Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris. The stunning collection of poetry and illustration captures the language of nature that is slowly becoming lost to children and young people. I remember feeling both despair and joy as I watched the faces of these children at the turn of every page. How was it possible that they did not know the name of the bluebell? How could they have reached 11 years old without knowing what an otter is? That the words for fern and sycamore and foxglove, and the name of the wren and the sparrow and the raven, had disappeared from their childhood vernacular filled me with sorrow. That I had the chance to teach them the words and names of these most simple yet beautiful elements of our natural world filled me with happiness.
This morning, as I wandered around our local park, I came to the realisation that I too had lost some of the language that connects us to nature. Without earphones blocking out the sounds around me, I could hear the morning song of at least three different birds but I could not have named them if I’d tried. Who did that gentle trilling belong to? Who was it who called with such gusto across the park? The knowledge dawned on me that I probably still wouldn’t have been able to name them even if they perched right in front of me. It occurred to me that at a different time the names of those birds might have come to my lips as naturally as my own name. How sad that it wasn’t the case now.
Similarly, as I walked and my eyes roamed over the marvellous shades of green that covered the trees edging the path, I noted that I could name only a few. I also do not know the name of the vibrant pink flowers that appear so suddenly and spread with such vigour in front of my house every spring. I do not even know the name of the flowers I planted myself in my own back garden. I felt ashamed. How is it that we have become so very disconnected from the natural world that surrounds us, feeds us, that we call home? There is so much joy to be found in the gifts of nature: moments both miraculous and seemingly mundane.
Some of the most profound experiences of my life have been out in the natural world.
Lying under a midnight blue sky with the faded heat of a day in the Atlas Mountains still clinging to my skin, surveying a sky so filled with stars that there seemed more light than dark.
Drifting down a stream through a pitch black network of caves, in Waitomo, New Zealand, the only sound the lapping of water at the sides of our raft. Blinking in the darkness as the ceiling above us slowly became lit by the luminescence of hundreds of thousands of glowworms.
Feeling the burn in every aching muscle as I hauled myself to the top of Ben Lomond, then forgetting the pain and struggle it took to get up there as I surveyed what seemed to be the whole wide world laid out before my feet.
Pausing for a break in the back garden after replacing the fence panels, watching in wonder as a magpie alighted on top of the concrete post just feet away. Marvelling at the delicate turn of his head to and fro and the delicate sheen of blue in amongst his black and white feathers: so perfect they seem to be painted.
Walking through the field near to our house with an excited not-quite-a-puppy-anymore springer spaniel and being startled by the sudden streak of russet fur running across the field before us. Feeling a sudden surge of elation and privilege that I should get to see this fox in such close quarters, followed by a twinge of concern hoping that he is okay and wondering what brought him out of his den in the light of day.
The list of these tiny moments goes on and on and on. I could write them for ever. Nature has been both a constant and startling source of joy in my life and I have the deepest love and respect for it. But it’s a funny truth that we often neglect the things we love.
Reading Stonecrop Review has reminded me that I should give more time and notice to nature. For all the joy it has brought me, the very least it deserves is my attention. I’m going to resolve to be more present to nature. In fact, I’m trying to do that just now, even as I write. I am not, as you might expect, sat cloistered my behind my desk, staring at my screen but instead walking around the very field where I saw that handsome fox . I’m not typing but dictating (although I suspect there will be a significant amount of typing to correct what will undoubtedly be an interesting version of what I’m saying – yep!). My headphones are slung around my neck rather than in my ears, just close enough that the microphone will pick up my voice. My eyes are not on the screen but on the beautiful world around me.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that this vibrant green space is nestled in the suburbs of bustling Manchester but, in keeping with the urban nature celebrated by Stonecrop Review, as I pass into the far field I can hear the rumble of a train and the whirring of cars underneath the evening’s medley of birdsong. Just poking up above the oak tree at the edge of the open space is the bulk of the nearby hospital building – I hope the people within can see the trees out here as well as the inside of the hospital walls. A blackbird has just flown across in front of me: a streak of orange tipped black against the green. The grass around my feet is scattered with buttercups and dandelions, some still bearing their yellow flowers others with those oh so appealing seedheads, just waiting to be blown. Some stand there with only the stalk left in amongst the grass, seeds blown away by the wind. I delight to see the long grass jewelled with raindrops and the scattering of baby oaks sprouting under the grand old tree in the centre of the field. Luna, running her usual laps around the field, startles a rabbit that was peacefully nibbling grass a little way up the path in front of us and it now darts into the hedgerows, out of the way of my boisterous Springer Spaniel, who – to be perfectly honest – wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a rabbit even if she did manage to catch one.
So much splendour to be enjoyed in such a small and commonplace space. It is comforting, somehow, to know that nature is always close at hand. So here I will leave you, friends, with the encouragement to go and seek out nature wherever you happen to be. And, if you are so inclined, head over to Stonecrop Review and read their wonderful work for yourself.