How The Light Gets In

I have been asked to appear at Hay-on-Wye’s fringe festival ‘How The Light Gets In 2012′ on June 7th to talk nature and how we define it and, in turn, it defines us. Appearing at the event ‘Red in Tooth and Claw‘, in reference to Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, I will join a prestigious panel of leading writers and lecturers to discuss literary ecologies, including Jonathan Bate, Joanna Kavenna and Lavinia Greenlaw.

It would be great to see you down there, but don’t worry if you’re not around; Leo and I are now being booked for lots of festivals over the summer and we will probably be coming to a town near you soon! Watch out for our dates as we add them over the next few weeks.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Win a Great British Day Out worth £2K

We love to reward our lovely, loyal readers sometimes and the opportunity to help one of you access £2,000-worth of fun courtesy of the National Trust seemed an opportunity too good to miss! All you need to do is ask yourself what your dream day out would be if the trust opened up its vast array of venues for your enjoyment? Perhaps it might be sipping elderflower wine in the soft glow of a woodland glade, a great dinner with friends around the table of one of the trust’s sprawling stately homes or a warming seafood stew on the beach after a day of wild swimming with your mates.

Whatever it may be, now’s your chance to bring it to life. All you need to do is head over to the National Trust’s Facebook page, click ‘Like’ and enter your great idea for a great day out. There are nine types of venue to choose, from lighthouses to Beatles’ childhood homes, and then you can really let your imagination go to town on the shape your ideal day would take. Finally, you just need to get your Facebook friends to vote for your idea.

To provide some inspiration, here are the venue types to choose from: castle, abbey, gardens & parks, historic house, pub, woodland, Beatles’ home, beach, lighthouse.

You’ve got until 31st May to enter so get your skates on. Maybe take me and Leo along too if you win!

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Natural harmony? Listen to your elders

Our latest column in the Independent went in on Saturday. It is all about making elder whistles. To some this may seem an unusual way to spend a day – especially when you can buy a whistle fairly cheaply in a shop – but, as with all the activities in Skimming Stones, the secret is what this simple restorative ritual engenders. It is striking the right note to start a relationship.

Elder is only tree for the job because of the soft pith that runs through the core of its branches, which can be hollowed out very easily to leave a wooden tube that may be used for anything from pipes to primitive paintball guns. Identifying it requires us to look more closely at our surroundings; we have to differentiate between that tree and all the others. Immediately we are drawing closer to the land and to the wood.

Just as we learn to recognise one tree, to handle it and work with it, so too can we begin to familiarise ourselves with others. Soon the whole forest becomes transformed from an amorphous green mass on the edge of our vision to something far more interesting and rewarding. It is somewhere to walk through, to dwell in.

Revisiting at different times of the year we see the different tree types in metamorphosis. Not only do we learn to pick out species, we pick out individual trees. Woods become places to see old friends and watch as they transform through the seasons.

Read our column Natural harmony? Listen to your elders in the Independent here and start your journey back to the woods. 

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Make a ladybird house: guest blog on Miss Thrifty

This week I was asked by the wonderful Miss Thrifty, that one-woman money saving expert, to write up my adventures in making a ladybird house. With lots of elder gathered and dried for whistle making in my log store, it seemed a simple enough procedure to turn some of it into a cosy, new residence for our new garden guests.

Read all about it at www.miss-thrifty.co.uk.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

 

Allergies and open skies: nature at every level

It comes as no shock to us that a range of recent reports has found time spent in nature as beneficial to the human animal, but it is welcome research nonetheless. Once again the transformative powers of slowing down and being in the outdoors has been shown to have a positive impact at every level, from the microbe to the mass consciousness.

A Finnish report entitled Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ has found more diverse microbiota on the skin of teenagers living in farms or near forests than their counterparts in urbanised areas. One class of such bacteria is linked to the development of anti-inflammatory molecules, stimulating an immunological response in people that is known to suppress the swelling caused by allergy to pollen or animals.

With rates of asthma and allergies on the rise, this has led the doctor who conducted the report to call for city planning that includes green spaces, green belts and green infrastructure, an issue I blogged about for the National Trust recently.

A study published in the journal ‘Landscape and Urban Planning’ reveals that such a measure would reduce stress levels too. By monitoring levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, found in residents’ saliva, the team could directly correlate a link between stress and the lack of green spaces in urban areas.

In Skimming Stones we draw a similar conclusions about simple activities in the outdoors and the positive, transformative effect on the body, from the tangible (the ‘fiero’ pride in completing an igloo) to the imperceptible (the shift from cones to rods in our eyes as our senses adopt night vision in a darkening wood).

One thing is for sure: the human animal adapted over millions of years to live in the natural environment. We are hard wired to respond to it and, as such, we need it in our lives as surely as five fruit and veg a day. It explains perhaps why I felt the need to abandon my car last week and run back to photograph the coming storm as it rolled over the fields of impossibly yellow rapeseed. As J A Baker once wrote, “The solitude of horizons lures me towards them.” I couldn’t tell you why, but I needed to stop and take in that sky as surely as scratch an itch.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin


Go fish

When as the salmon seeks a fresher stream to find
(Which hither from the sea comes yearly by his kind,
As he in season grows), and stems the wat’ry tract
Where Tivy, falling down, doth make a cataract,
Forc’d by the rising rocks that there her course oppose,
As though within their bounds they meant her to inclose;
Here, when the laboring fish doth at the foot arrive,
And finds that by his strength but vainly he doth strive,
His tail takes in his teeth ; and bending like a bow,
That’s to the compass drawn, aloft himself doth throw :

Then springing at his height, as doth a little wand,
That bended end to end, and flerted from the hand,
Far off itself doth cast ; so doth the salmon vaut.
And if at first he fail, his second summersaut
He instantly assays; and from his nimble ring,
Still yarking, never leaves, until himself he fling
Above the streamful top of the surrounded heap.

Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion

This passage is from Michael Drayton’s poem Poly-Olbion. Verse by verse, this lengthy work moves across the whole landscape of Britain in remarkable detail, and took Drayton decades to write. It’s worth dipping into, if only to find what he has to say about your favourite bits of the country.

I think there is a lesson here on how people forge their connection with nature. Drayton versified the physical geography and anthropomorphised its myths and legends, a highly intellectual approach and one he seems well aware risked boring people, claiming that any such effect “proceeds from thy idleness, not from any want in my industry”. Charming.

Izaak Walton’s lyrical and instructive tome on fishing, The Complete Angler, quotes these lines as an example of what the salmon is famous for. He says Drayton is an “old friend”, but his footnote on Poly-Olbion is rather lukewarm: “Though this poem has great merit, it is rendered much more valuable by the learned notes of Mr. Selden”. Why so half-hearted?

Conversely, Walton’s instructional work is much more accessible, and was much more popular at the time and to the present day. Drayton’s poetry on the salmon seems to me more attractive when it’s set amongst Walton’s affable instruction on where the tastiest salmon are to be found, and what the record for largest ever caught is.

Diagram of how to tie fishing tackle

This is something we have tried to echo in Skimming Stones. We’ve wanted to make sure there’s some depth to it, but never at the expense of alienating someone new to all this outdoorsy stuff. As a city child myself, this was important to me, and I think the simple activities function as a kind of passport to engaging with the land. Rather than holding it up as something to be worshipped, something we have to make a great effort to involve ourselves with, it becomes accessible and inviting.

(N.B. I actually quite like Drayton’s poetry, despite Poly-Olbion not quite working. I think it was more the overall concept than his level of skill that doomed him. If he’d written a series of smaller poems on individual areas I think he would have been much better received.)

- Leo -