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.

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

 

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

Over the top display at Larmer Tree Festival. Also: peacocks.

A peacock fanning its tail

This dashing fellow had nothing on Rob and I as we delivered an eye-catching and vibrant display to festival-goers at Larmer a week-and-a-bit ago.

Perhaps not.

Hopefully we were ear-catching at least, though not for the same reasons as a peacock, drawing an engaged crowd for our discussion of Skimming Stones and why we should all be reconnecting with nature.

There were some good questions from the audience afterwards, and in particular one gentleman made the point that being aware of our surroundings and environment doesn’t just yield benefits in the outdoors. Really taking the time to look, hear and feel is related to the concept of ‘mindfulness’; used in cognitive behaviour therapy but originating in Eastern philosophy, mindfulness is a state of observation without judgement. Letting the world come to you, without distracting yourself with thoughts of conversations yesterday, deadlines tomorrow, or what’s for dinner, is a much more relaxing way to experience reality than constant analysis. This is a beneficial way to operate at any time, and while a natural setting offers a setting much more conducive to this, it’s something you can apply in your day-to-day life.

More to follow on our festival tour when Rob visits the Cock and Bull Festival next weekend…

Leo smiling, standing in quite a lot of mud.

The previous day’s bad weather had not put a dampener on proceedings.

- Leo -

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 -

The ones that got away II

Continuing the series of pictures we couldn’t use in the book itself, here are some birdies.

Click on the images to see them larger and read more…

Rob and Leo on The Culture Show!

Here is our seven-minute appearance on The Culture Show in all its glory, hope you like it!

We talk about Skimming Stones, and why it is that we need to reconnect with nature.

If you want more, do please grab a copy of the book, or if you’re in London on April 28th you can join us and Gavin Pretor-Pinney (author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide) on an urban wilderness retreat, courtesy of The School of Life.

- Leo -

Urban Wilderness Retreat with Gavin Pretor-Pinney (author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide)

Rob and I are going to be running a class with The School of Life in April, working with the awesome Gavin Pretor-Pinney to help city folk like us learn to tune in and reconnect with nature.

From the School of Life’s website:

Gavin Pretor-PinneySATURDAY 28 APRIL  2012, 10.00-17:30

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.

 From the Manifesto of The Cloud Appreciation Society

Urban life can crowd us out. The pressure of work, the hectic streets, the cramped commute. We dream of getting away. But do we really need to leave the city to escape it?

Rob CowenJoin three of the UK’s most exciting nature writers for an adventure in the heart of the city. Gavin Pretor-Pinney will show us how to appreciate the great urban wilderness of the sky and capture it on paper. Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley will teach us how to track animals and forage wild fruit.

Within earshot of sirens and sight of tower blocks, we’ll throw off our city blinkers and become absorbed in the worlds of other creatures. We’ll learn about the science and philosophy of tuning into bird song and sensing the onset of rain. In the process, we’ll discover how we can escape the clamouring city any time we like.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is a well-loved TV documentary broadcaster and author of the bestselling books, The Cloudspotter’s GuideThe Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Wavewatcher’s Companion. He is founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society and has just compiled Clouds That Look Like Things, a selection of photographs by the Society’s 28,000 members.

Leo CritchleyRob Cowen and Leo Critchley have just published their first book, Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild, a thoughtful adventure in learning simple skills that help us connect deeply with nature. They are both young Londoners who describe their project as being ‘born out of a wish to share the contemplative, reflective pleasures and joys that were well-known to our grandparents, but which are in danger of being lost and forgotten.’

 

- Leo -

The ones that got away

Canada geese in flight

Rob and I both like to draw simply for our own enjoyment, and while we were writing and travelling for Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild, we did so pretty much continually.

Given the size and format of the final book, there was only space to include a select few of these drawings, but thankfully this blog gives us a chance to post some of the others and talk a little bit about them.

First, a few tales from the riverbank (click on the images to see them bigger and read more).

- Leo -

The launch!

It’s been a remarkable week.

You can do a lot of preparatory work for something like a book launch – getting press lined up, going on the radio and so on – without having any clear idea if it’s working.

The proof is in the pudding, and I’m very pleased to say that Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild hit number 1 on Amazon under ‘Nature’ and ‘Outdoor pursuits’. This was, inevitably, short lived as the big name authors bounced back, but it’s still a lovely feeling to have seen our book above colossal powerhouses Richard Dawkins and Bear Grylls for a day!

The responses to our appearance on the Culture Show have been very gratifying, especially as it’s always difficult watching yourself or listening to your own voice on recordings. Andrew Graham Dixon was superb, and the camerawork, editing and overall structure really impressed me too – thanks to Jon Morrice, Neville Kidd and Douglas Kerr for doing such a good job, braving slippery seaweed, crumbling cliffs and sub-zero temperatures.

Skimming Stones on Amazon at number 1

Skimming Stones on Amazon at number 1

- Leo -