Tracking foxes in Wales

We headed off to west Wales to write the tracking animals chapter of the book. A hell of a drive out of London on a Friday night but the promise of a week in the countryside was enough to get us through the traffic chaos.

A fox pawprint in mud alongside a matchstick for scaleThere’s no better time to see the movement of the wild inhabitants of woods and fields than when there is snow or wet, muddy conditions on the ground. The old mill we called home for the week was close to the River Teifi and provided the perfect base for our field trips, many of which went on into the dark evenings as we followed tracks off paths and into woods. The loamy soil was perfect to record prints, like these of a fox, found close to a rabbit warren in a small wood.

An otter pawprint in wet sandWe had heard rumour that there may be otters in the area, but such things are often too good to be true. Or so we thought. Then we stumbled upon these clear, webbed tracks by the river. Only a few hours later the level had risen and washed them away. It pays to be tuned in as it is amazing what you miss when you are not looking properly.

Recording tracks as you find them brings you closer to the animal that left them. The best way is to use Plaster of Paris as described in our book. Collected and displayed on a window sill or shelf, these three-dimensional traces of their prints serve as little icons to the wild world outside our windows.

Animal tracks aren’t only found in the countryside. With a fresh fall of snow, you can see a record of all sorts of animals even in the heart of a city. Don’t forget to scan the ground and see what’s around.

Read all about how to identify, track and cast animal prints (and why it’s so good for you) in our book www.skimmingstones.co.uk.

Stone skimming video

Stone skimming video

Few things are as simple, enjoyable or accessible as skimming stones by the sea. Indeed, it gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘getting your rocks off’.

In this, our first video post for the blog, we braved the cold, windy Welsh coast near Llansantffraed, Ceredigion, to cover a few of the tips and techniques, proving that even in somewhat adverse weather, the benefits of spending time at the seaside are many.

In case you’re wondering who won, Rob did. He claims this was because he was wearing a lucky hat, but the rematches have continued ever since. Perhaps we should post all our scores sometime. A roll of (dis)honour that will one day rival Wisden.

Half way through

We are now more than half way through writing our book, and I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the process and how it’s evolved as we’ve gone on.

Having already gone through several iterations of writing introductions and sample chapters while trying to get a publication deal, and put down tens of thousands of words that will never see the light of day, I don’t think either of us had any great sense of trepidation when time came to do things ‘for real’. We knew we could hit the word count, although a hard deadline would now dictate the pace rather than our ability to free up time.

What has been more surprising is the extent to which the writing has become quicker. Early chapters each felt like a new experience, breaking new ground and understanding better how the book would work. We advanced paragraph by paragraph, checking everything with one another and discussing extensively. Our overarching theme – that taking a turn through a natural setting is all very well, but slowing down to connect more deeply yields far greater rewards – is a powerful one I hope, but teasing out the different facets of it was a challenge.

It’s now a lot easier to see how each chapter fits into the whole, however. Along with the multitude of sketches we’ve both been doing, the sense of building a larger piece of work is invigorating. The book is like completing a puzzle, and it feels like we’ve got the edges in place now.

A lot of people ask how we can be joint authors, and whether we step on one another’s toes. We were conscious of this early on, but it never manifested itself as a problem. Now our style is established, and a good few chapters written, we are both writing sizeable passages before swapping over to add our own take to the other’s work. After a few iterations it’s often impossible to say who wrote a particular sentence. Being able to work in parallel in this way, I am sure we’re writing at least as quickly as a single author would do under the same circumstances, and it’s naturally a much more sociable task.

We’ve enjoyed it immensely so far, and are very much looking forward to getting the rest done and sharing it with the world.

- Leo

Feather quill pen

Countrymen, lend me your ears

There are plenty of beneficial and health-giving funghi out there if you take the time to look. One of the most recognizable, and therefore surely desirable, is the funghi known as Jew’s or Sow’s Ear. Once located, the reason why is clear. The cold, soft, velvety texture is uncannily like an ear and always a source of intrigue, passed around friends with exclamations of delight and disgust.

A plate of jelly ear fungusAbundant in summer and autumn, when it is constantly respawning young and tender, it can be found during all seasons, only it is liable to be dried up and tougher. Simple soaking in water for an hour will restore it to its supple form, as the photo shows. Jew’s Ear grows on dead elder, with some citing its name as a derivative of Judas’ Ear (who hung himself on elder). Pick sparingly from a wide selection of trees to ensure no impact to the ‘plant’.

In the east, Jew’s Ear (known as Wood Ear in China and Japan) is much prized for its medicinal benefits. Hailed as an anti-inflammatory, it is eaten to relieve tonsillitis, swelling, etc, but is also regarded as a powerful anti-carcinogen, used to prevent, treat and stop tumours.

In the west, the influx of eastern restaurants, thai in particular, means that you have probably eaten it before, though you may not have recognised it. Chains like Wagamamas and Busaba use Jew’s Ear in their soups, but it takes on a black translucent nature when cooked.

Building igloos

The more astute amongst you will have noticed the initials ‘UK’ in our site address, yet this post is not about dear old Blighty, but the towering heights of the French Alps.

By the time we were fortunate enough to finalise the book deal, the perfect snowy weather that paralysed the country for so long had dissipated, and showed no sign of return. Our deadline is august 2011, so we had to look elsewhere.

Thankfully help was at hand in the form of the fabulous folk at Skiology. They agreed to put us up for a couple of days in one of their beautiful chalets in Les Carroz so we could build an igloo or two. And wow, did we strike it lucky with the timing! As you can see, we found an abundance of perfect snow on and around Flaine, a fantastic mountain under the peak of Mont Blanc. The French army had even been around the previous week building their rather inferior (if we do say so ourselves) snow-based dwellings.

As well as discovering the sheer joy of building igloos, we found out that nothing prepares you for a day on the mountain like a traditional fondue. Or should we say, nothing requires you to climb a mountain more than gorging on melted cheese and wine for a few hours.