Rob’s new book ‘Common Ground’ to be released in May

Rob’s new book ‘Common Ground’ is out in May, 2015.

Phew. It’s been a busy old twelve months. After all the fantastic press and promotion of Skimming Stones began to die down towards the end of 2013, I was finally able to sit down and start writing what would become this, my new book – ‘Common Ground’.

This week I’m just going through some final editing with the fantastic team at Hutchinson (cracking imprint of Random House/Penguin) which will be publishing the hardback on 7th May, 2015. So, how to describe it…well, maybe I’ll turn to Amazon for the description:

“Immersive and exquisite; evocative and powerful, Common Ground is a unique evocation of how, over the course of one year, Rob Cowen came to discover a forgotten realm and its inhabitants.This was not some distant jungle or craggy peak, but half a square mile of wood, meadow, hedge and river on the edge of a northern town, to which he’d moved to after seven years of living in London. An old map given as a Christmas present revealed this little patch of green to be just out of his door and beyond the last housing estate.

This was the beginning of a total absorption in this seam of land and the animals within it. Through daily and often nightly pilgrimages, voices began to rise from the fields, woods and old railway line. And over the course of that year, the stories and histories of this place and its occupants began to mirror and illuminate events happening in Rob’s own life.

Common Ground offers nothing less than a new way of writing and reading about nature and our experiences within it. Here, the perspectives of this edge-land’s inhabitants are set before us in kaleidoscopic detail: a fox; tawny owl; hare; badger; butterfly; swift; mayfly; roe deer; nettles; people across the ages. Through the lives of all of these – and the passage of Cowen’s year – we are offered a layered, intimate and startling portrait of a single piece of common ground. For it is a microcosm of our world at large: beautiful, connected, terrifying, growing closer to the edge every day.”

Pretty much says it all. Suffice to say there was much pleasure and not a little pain in writing up 150,000 words of notes taken over a year, especially when that year was two years ago and had a few hairy (pun half intended) moments. However I’m utterly delighted with the way it has come out and glad I stuck to my instincts and wrote in the most honest way I could. More to follow and who knows? Maybe I’ll post lots of insider stuff here as we near release. I’ll certainly let you know of dates for festivals and talks. I might even try and get Leo to come along with me.

Now what are you waiting for? Head over to Amazon or Waterstones and pre-order. x

- Rob -

 

The Ospreys of Loch Garten

Walking beside Loch Garten, here in the eastern Highlands of Scotland, it feels like I’m crossing an invisible line. It would be easy to believe I have somehow strayed through time as well as space and wound up in a wild, primeval world, a hidden world worthy of C.S. Lewis and magic wardrobes.

Stretching for 50 square miles on the southern fringe of the Spey valley and lying just north of the rugged Cairngorms, Abernethy Forest is the largest remnant of native pinewood left in the UK, a last relic of the millions of hectares of boreal forest that once stretched across Europe. The lynx, moose, brown bear and the wolves may be gone but it remains a non-human landscape of Scot’s pine, loch and mountain, and it still supports an immense diversity of rare flora and fauna, most of which can’t be found anywhere else in the British Isles. Every spring a charismatic creature returns here to nest; a bird whose remarkable tale of survival is more than just the story of its own victory over persecution, it is a history of conservation itself. The osprey.

My journey to discover this bird’s history in the landscape was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday night, as part of the station’s ‘Twenty Minutes’ documentaries. Researching, recording and writing it was about as good as a job gets! You can listen again here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02x9cmd

Camp Bestival 2013

We’re very excited to announce that we will be appearing at Camp Bestival in Dorset, August 1st to 4th. Popping in to the Guardian Literary Institute tent, we will be delivering an hour-long talk entitled ‘How to be wild with Rob & Leo’.

In other exciting news, the paperback of Skimming Stones is now out and replete with lovely reviews. You can grab it now at Amazon:

For more info on Camp Bestival and to come and get your copy signed, head over to www.campbestival.net

See you there!

R & L.

You are… craving time in the wild

Hands up if you’ve ever skimmed a stone.

Chances are you’ve had a go at some point, maybe when you were a kid or holidaying on the coast. What feelings do such memories stir in you? A sense of fun perhaps, of a challenge, or an impression of being in the moment?

Skimming stones is a simple activity, it may even seem childish, but in keeping with the other activities in our book Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild, we believe it is deeply valuable.

That moment, skimming a stone over the waves, can lift us out of the ordinary rhythms and demands of day-to-day existence. When skimming stones, we enter a different way of being in landscape – we slow down and look more closely at the things around us. Scrabbling in the sand and rockpools in search of the perfect stone, the salt tang heavy in our noses, passing time in the alien terrain of the seashore, we can’t fail to interact with the landscape more deeply.

A great fossil-hunting zone, broken rocks below high cliffs and the sea

And it’s not just skimming stones. Do you remember building dens, making dams, and sleeping out by a fire? These are skills previous generations knew but that are disappearing from our society.

For many of us, growing up and trying to carve a place in the world means submitting to the demands of modern life, letting the daily grind dictate our every move. As urbanites we forget the riches that lie around us, drawing the curtains against the call of the owl and cry of the fox, spending our rare breaks in jet-fuelled escapes or at carbon-copy resorts. At home our experience of nature is filtered through laptop screens and HD TVs, our meals are shrink-wrapped and from around the globe, our daily movements via the climate controlled cages of cars, buses and trains. If we do spend time in the outdoors, we march through it from A to B; we ‘do’ a walk or ‘climb’ a mountain, projecting goals onto the landscape rather than taking the time to really be in it.

It is this unhealthy state of dislocation that Rob Cowen and I set out to redress in our book. As cell-mates imprisoned in the concrete and glass of a central London office, we found we shared a yearning for the open spaces of our childhoods and struck on an idea for a book of simple activities that would help all of us draw closer to the landscapes we evolved to exist in.

When Rob and I first went looking for reconnection, we started out setting challenges for ourselves and trying to push to the extreme, or at least our extreme. We wanted to conquer mountains, but in the end it was the simple things which gave us what we were looking for. From tracking animals through a forest to making kites out of bin bags and bamboo, our book shares techniques that help ease us out of our day-to-day lives. At the same time we explore the scientific and philosophical reasons why time spent doing these things in the outdoors so enriches our bodies and minds. It invites the reader to look more closely at natural world and, in so doing, their own nature.

Our journey showed us that by taking some time to reconnect with nature, you can throw off a layer of exterior concerns, relax, enjoy who you are and the world around you, and gain a more philosophical outlook on life.

The seeds of the sycamore tree, with distinctive 'blades' which make them spin when they fall

There’s a tendency for self help and personal development books to put themselves forward as the one true route to happiness. That can be hubris, certainly, but it’s often part of the efficacy: the placebo effect is very real, but the placebo effect doesn’t function unless you believe it.

Will reading Skimming Stones change your life? Of course it will, but how much so is up to you. Connecting with nature has the advantage over more esoteric approaches that it is something with a growing body of research and evidence behind it, and a reasonable claim to having millions of years of evolution in its favour. That said, it’s all about what works for you.

Ultimately, whether you see a route to inner peace in it or not, skimming a stone is great fun too, so why not give it a go? Skim a stone! Buy the book! Take the time to support the foundations of your character.

- Leo -

Postscript:

We wrote this book so you can open it on any page and find something to take away.

  • The ‘How To’ for each activity is explained so you can try it yourself.
  • It is supported by our reflections on why and how doing these activities has such a profound and important effect on us.
  • Each chapter is also a narrative of our own experiences, which can be enjoyed from an armchair without needing to recreate them.
  • More adventurous readers may want to use the instructional elements as a basis for day trips and long weekends and all the facts and techniques are provided to enrich a personal experience.
  • We also dig up of the ‘lore’ of the land – historical and cultural odds and ends, as well as topics as broad as geology, myths and legends.

Our hope is that you will ultimately discover a new side to yourself and be driven to uncover your own ways of being in the wild.

Ash Dieback: you never miss it ’til it’s gone

At a time when most people in Britain couldn’t even identify the ash tree, the grim sick blight of ash dieback has seized the public consciousness to a surprisingly powerful extent. The reason is clear to anyone familiar with woodland: our connection to trees is innate and profound; they are more than mere decoration fringing our lives, our woodlands are repositories of our imaginations and histories.

Researching and writing Skimming Stones required Leo and I to spend inordinate amounts of time in trees. I say required; I’m not even sure if we conceived the book as a permission, an excuse to be allowed to spend longer in our forests. Sleeping under a soft canopy in April cutting green bark back, slicing and sculpting in summer, burning back dead fall in winter, our closeness to the trees became something greater than mastery of practical skills; we became aware of the layers of memory we were tapping into. Once days have passed in the silent company of these vast entities a change occurs in the human animal; time becomes irrelevant and a perspective is imparted as powerfully transformative as walking on the moon. We return as strangers to the towns and cities, bodies reset to a greater rhythm.

Much has been written on ash dieback and we will have to wait to see the full extent of devastation rendered on our tender landscape and wildlife. One thing is sure: along with the scientific assessments of areas to be affected, we need great dedications to, and appreciation of, the wider impact our woods have on us, on our minds. Only then might we start to value woodland as powerfully as our ancestors did, not merely for what they give us in a physical material sense but psychologically too.

Check out the brilliant ‘Woods’ series on BBC Radio 4 that started last Saturday.

At the edge of the city

I gave a very enjoyable talk on Saturday in the pretty northern town of Beverley. This was my first solo gig, as Rob’s first born is due any second now. When the rushing efficiency of the King’s Cross to Doncaster line gave way to the locomotive amble of the branch line I began to feel some nerves building. Discussing our work publicly with another writer was new to me, and opened up a world of undefined variables.

My fears were unfounded however, not least because the other speaker was the extraordinary Nick Papadimitriou. Nick describes himself as a ‘deep topographer’, a practitioner of ‘radical walking’. These terms encompass an approach to exploring on foot that serves as a kind of research into the nature of reality, and a mode of expressing it that is difficult to describe.

Picture of the dust jacket for ScarpTo say he walks the road less travelled is somewhat of an understatement. His latest book Scarp traces a path over the fourteen-mile ridge of land on the fringes of Northern London, through time, in and out of consciousness and between fantasy and truths that are stranger than fiction.

I’ve mentioned the Michael Drayton poem Poly-Olbion a few times in this blog and in Skimming Stones.  It attempts to express something inherent in the landscape both by describing it in detail and by anthropomorphising its features: having them speak about the layers of history and legend that they have witnessed. Though it is utterly different in form, I found Scarp strikingly similar. It creates a compound impression of physical landscape superimposed with the stories that give it meaning.

In a number of ways though, I think Scarp is more successful. This may simply be because it is more accessible to modern sensibilities in its choice of which stories to tell, or that prose is better suited to the task than iambic hexameter. I think, however, it is something deeper. Drayton raises up well-known legends, and the rivers and hills anyone would see if they visited each area. But by trying to be universal, he weakens the personal connection to the land; in trying to review all of Britain he is obliged to move at a fairly high velocity, there’s no time to stop and talk to the locals. It may be a sign of the age that Nick’s book does the reverse, slowing down to take in minute detail, and indeed associating speed and an inability to pay attention with death at a number of points.

Nick, despite describing himself as “quite an angry man”, was more than pleasant, and it was very gratifying to discuss Skimming Stones with someone who had read it closely and had so much to say about it that went to the heart of what Rob and I were trying to convey, and indeed roamed beyond its borders into ideas I had not considered.

A good example of both can be seen in the documentary about Nick The London Perambulator (which I’ve included below – well worth watching). There is a moving moment in the documentary when Nick talks about finding in the landscape around him something larger than the forces which he felt had rejected him in the world. This touches something at the heart of what Rob and I are talking about: that sense of stability is of such huge benefit to our individual peace of mind in a world that is increasingly rootless. Nick’s experience goes beyond Skimming Stones as well, by searching for this encompassing geography within the structure of the city, where it is not easy to perceive, hidden under the paving stones, alongside A roads or behind shopping centres.

The London Perambulator

 

Nature is a birthright

Yesterday I attended the National Trust’s ‘Natural Childhood’ Summit, designed to bring together stakeholders and influencers to work together on curing the disease of disconnection from nature in children. I use those words knowing that they are both problematic and provocative – you might argue that everything around us (cars, buildings, TV) is in fact ‘nature’ as it is created by us – yet we are talking about something specific here: people’s continuing and worrying absence from time spent in the natural world, the grass, trees, hills, rivers, seasides and fields of our landscape.

In contrast to the (usual) landscape in autumn, it is a depressing picture out there. Extensive studies and research now clearly links an absence of free time spent slowing down and being in nature as having a tangible detrimental effect on the human animal and yet funding for conservation projects or schemes that get people outside are being routinely cut. Schools cannot afford to run the kind of residential programmes that took kids into nature anymore and misunderstood health and safety fears have put pay to us letting our children play out. The problem is serious, getting worse and children are suffering for it, as Stephen Moss’ brilliant report for the National Trust details.

Conversely, we all know nature is good for us, physically and psychologically. As Leo and I ask in our book Skimming Stones and our talks and workshops…why would anyone pay more for a room with a view otherwise? And we’re not talking about grand nature here either; research shows that as little as half an hour spent in a green space (think of a back garden, the waste ground just over the garden fence, the city park) can have affect a profound transformation in our levels of stress, anxiety, depression, etc. I wrote a blog post for the National Trust which went live yesterday during the event which covers something of how I feel about the situation. You can read it here.

I believe nature is a birthright; our access to it and time spent in it should be protected like any other basic human right. Yet the mechanisms for change in a government and many national organisations can be frustratingly slow. Mankind’s gift of objective thought, self-awareness and ability to predict the what will happen in the future is blunted into uselessness by our incessant selfishness and innate inability to come together as a species and work to fix future issues.

That’s why the summit yesterday was an optimistic experience. There was a glimpse, albeit a small one, of the many disparate groups that are totally committed to addressing these issues coming together, thinking creatively and looking at how we can affect a change and gain some ground. The ideas of the brilliant David Bond of Green Lions are a great example: making a film on his attempts to start a ‘nature’ brand to compete with all the other products that vie for our children’s attention, starting up ‘Project Wild Thing‘ to get people to pledge the same amount of time outside as they do in front of a screen and suing brands that appropriate a natural symbol (Apple, The Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, BP, etc) but without any benefit to or connection with nature. These ideas may be doomed to fail, but they are intentional failures to make a point; the team is creating statements that resound in any viewer. Similarly inspirational are organisations like Good For Nothing, where super-smart folk with creative power share skills, work on providing solutions and making things happen for conservation and outdoors charities. With people like this on the team, the weight of the larger conservation and ‘nature’ charities have a real chance of creating change.

The standout speaker yesterday was naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham. Ruthlessly self-critical and self-aware of the paradox of being a TV presenter and yet calling for more people to engage with the outdoors, he is that rare thing: insanely knowledgable, committed and passionate about conservation and nature. His talk touched on many of the points we explore in Skimming Stones and few in the room were left in any doubt about the depth of his conviction and obsession. Childhood stories about tracking animals, collecting fox skulls, keeping an obsessive nature diary (aged 11) and going into mourning over the death of a kestrel were poignant and particularly relevant to me, given my current writing project.

His final point about the real dying breed in Britain being the naturalist was something I have talked about before and had covered in the National Trust blog. Getting children outside at an early age to appreciate the splendour and unworldly wonder of watching a butterfly emerge or a trout rise, seeing roe deer in the morning mist a mile from a busy urban road – these are the experiences that draw children and adults outside and get them to fall in love with their environment and the natural world. There is no such thing as a retired naturalist for a very good reason.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Why re-tread old ground? Holy Island revisited

In our book Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wildwe talk about the value you can derive from visiting the same spot across the seasons, rather than always plumping for somewhere new.

This is never more true than when visiting somewhere as inherently changeable as Lindisfarne, or ‘Holy Island’. I spent some time in Northumberland recently; I revisited the island as part of the trip and was surprised with how different it seemed.

The tides sunder Lindisfarne from the mainland every six hours, which means at certain times of year travelling by land requires heading off before the natural curfew, or staying the night. The same is true when travelling by boat because when the tide is too low there is a risk of getting beached.

Going by boat at the height of summer proved quite unlike the same journey by car in autumn. Instead of long, brooding beaches under low cliffs, it was a land of bright grasses, flowers and the sparkling of gentle waves. You can almost (almost) understand why St. Cuthbert chose to sequester himself on one of the relatively tiny Farne Islands to the south.

Having been there twice I would firmly recommend staying over on the island to witness it in both its aspects, and the rest of coastal Northumberland is of course as beautiful as ever too.

Rolling hillside covered in pink flowers

The nature reserve at the foot of Bamburgh Castle

A white sandy beach, blue sky and a rainbow

The beach near Alnwick

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory

Cocks, Bulls and Hedgerow Pesto

Perhaps the greatest thing about being asked to give talks and workshops is we get to see the practical application of Skimming Stones; we have the pleasure of spending time among people who may be like-minded but perhaps haven’t fully embraced the idea of getting out there and trying the activities in our book. Yesterday, at Cock and Bull Festival was one such experience.

After a long drive from Yorkshire to the countryside around Bath, I followed signs to the farm that played host to this lovely festival. For anyone that doesn’t know it. Cock and Bull is put on to raise money for charity ’Jamie’s Farm‘, which takes kids from the inner city  and gives them a taste of rural life on a farm for a few weeks. it is worthy and profoundly affecting for all involved, as this video shows.

Travelling through the demarked windy lanes (stenciled bulls and cockerels tacked to boards among banks of meadowsweet) I eventually arrived during the Graveyard Shift of any self-respecting festival: Sunday late morning. Bleary-eyed revellers staggered from tents and trance still boomed from barns for those refusing to give up their Saturday evening. A bearded man in a dress, an obligatory sight at many festivals, still clung to his vast jar of cider like it was a baby.

Mercifully, after most people started to shake away sleep with strong coffees, the talk commenced in the cool shade of a stone barn. The bales of hay/seats soon filled with people until it was standing room only. The talk seemed to go down very well with plenty of crowd participation and half an hour of questions and answers before a book signing. Then it was time to put my money where my mouth had been rabbiting for the last hour.

I was volunteered to lead a forage around the farms hedgerows with anyone that might be interested. Twenty five or so people were. A multi-cultural lot, I counted Bulgarians, Italians and even Scots among our numbers. Thankfully, our summer hedgerows rarely disappoint for wild food and I was soon pointing out and chomping on some old favourites (nettles, burdock, meadowsweet, dandelions) as well as some lesser known greens (chickweed, vetch, cow parsley). In a field off the track, chamomile grew in waves, interspersed by pineapple weed, dock and rat’s tail plantain. In the boundary hedges, sloes had formed early, as well as hawthorn and green blackberries. Finally we came upon some Jack-by-the-hedge – currently enjoying its second wind of the year and a subtle, garlic flavoured leaf and member of the mustard family.

The group followed with cameras, notepads and cries of ‘that’s REALLY bitter’ (dandelion – it needs storing in water for a few days or forcing by covering when young) and ‘absolutely lovely’ (Jack-by-the-hedge, vetch and chickweed). All said they couldn’t believe the variety and range of things to eat or brew up only a few metres from the gate. As we write in the book, foraging focuses us; it stops us from just pacing over a field or past a hedge and gives us a new way of looking and interacting with the landscape.

After a good walk in the sunshine, I wanted to offer refreshments and had fortunately made a jar of Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto the previous night for the drive down. I had eaten the bagels I was going to dip into it before even leaving Yorkshire, leaving a jar of cracking stuff for my new students.

Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto recipe

This recipe is so easy and provides a delicious, citrusy, garlicky alternative to the Italian stuff. Gather two good handfuls of Jack-by-the-hedge leaves, a bunch of sorrel (wood or field), some nettle leaves and blend with toasted walnuts or hazel cobs. Add olive oil or Yorkshire rapeseed and salt and pepper to get that pesto consistency and you are done. You can add parmesan too (or Wensleydale if you are in Yorkshire) and then blend again. Serve over fresh pasta with vetch flowers on top, as a dip for bread, or as a side for roast chicken.

To feed the hungry foragers, I opened the jar and sliced a lovely white bloomer donated by the friendly bakers at the festival.  Before I could even get my camera out, the jar and the plate had been wolfed down. Still, it was great that everyone enjoyed it so much!