What do you get out of slowing down and spending time in nature?

Yesterday, I had a very pleasant chat with Sean Moncrieff on NewsTalk Ireland.

Listen here

We talked in particular about the transformative effect that spending quality time in nature can have.

As you become an adult, there’s a lot of other pressures, and these things fall by the wayside… there are parallels with meditation; little rituals that help you become mindful and bring yourself back into the moment…

There’s so much in favour of spending time reflecting on and experiencing nature. We all know this instinctively, we prefer a room with a view or a house with a garden, and yet many of us rarely take advantage of the abundant (and potentially free!) resources out there.

Listen to Leo on NewsTalk Ireland

– Leo –

The benefits of being in nature; are children losing out?

Rob spoke to Hannah Murray at Talk Radio Europe: Spain a couple of days ago.

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Nowadays, less than a quarter of children visit a local patch of green weekly. What sort of damage could this do in the long run?

The human animal evolved to live in nature, and it has a very powerful effect on us when we spend time in nature – when we slow down and spend time in it.

Are we so worried about the risks of letting children roam, that we are exposing them to the larger risks of becoming disconnected from the world around them, of becoming too used to fast-cut media and 2D screens?

Listen to Rob on Talk Radio Europe

– Leo –

Manufacturing a strong mind

In the January 6th edition of the Times Literary Supplement (yes, it sometimes takes me a while to get round to reading these), Andrew Scull discusses Raymond Tallis’s book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, a valiant attempt to rout the advance in popular science of the conviction that all human activity can ultimately be explained through neuroscience.

(You can read the article online, but the TLS website is pay-only.)

Hand gripping a stone

The opposable thumb in all its glory

Scull notes that:

When our ancestors descended from the trees and began to walk on two legs, our forelimbs were free to evolve in radically new directions. … [We] developed a large opposable thumb, and the human hand evolved into “a stunningly versatile organ for interacting with the world”.

He goes on to observe that the ensuing increase in the use of tools appears to predate language by perhaps millions of years, and that our gradually enlarging brains “were a necessary, not a sufficient cause of the change in human nature and consciousness.”

This leaves tools themselves as a key transformative mechanism in human development. In our book we talk about Lambros Malafouris’ related notion that tools form a sort of external support structure for our brains, with cultural artefacts outside our heads just as important to our way of thinking as the neurons themselves.

What Tallis seems to be getting at is that the real situation is still way beyond our understanding. What we know in the scientific sense about the mind is incredibly limited when compared to the vast complexity the mind has generated: myriad cultures and indeed science itself.

I think the takeaway for me is that what you do profoundly affects how you think.

Because we haven’t got to the bottom of this mechanism by a long chalk, it’s always risky extrapolating from it, but that’s never stopped me before, so I’ll have a go.

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods gives a number of detailed examples of the mental health benefits a natural setting can lend when it forms one of these external mental structures for children. He also shows how the destruction of a specific environment a child feels connected to can cause reactions akin to those of bereavement.

Because we evolved in situations wildly different from the settings most of us are now in, it’s important to take time to ‘reset’ and get back to the wild in some small way. Maybe one day we’ll understand our own minds well enough to bring them up to date, but that’s a very long way off.

I suspect many of us harbour these mental landscapes from our youth, even if we spend less time in them physically now. I know how important my own childhood experiences of nature are to me, how about yours?

– Leo –

Let’s go fly a kite

Drawing of a lone kite over Camber SandsFew of us forget the utter joy of sending a kite soaring skyward for the first time; the control of the inanimate object, riding the thermals, but making one takes the fun to newer heights. Getting a piece of DIY to fly is an enriching experience that appeals to the child in all of us.

Britain is Europe’s windiest country and, as we found walking over the soft dunes onto Camber Sands in Kent, it is blessed with many breathtaking beaches to act as runways. Under a cloudless blue sky, we took it in turns to be launcher and pilot, shouting ourselves hoarse with joy each time the kite caught the wind and snaked its way into the atmosphere.

Soon we learnt the trick that pulling the line gained altitude and slacking allowed maneuvering. The darting diamond was staying airborne for ten minutes at a time and we found our consciousness following the slender path of string upwards to join it. Nothing else mattered.

People spend years trying to achieve meditative states that allow them to forget themselves, to have an ‘out-of-body’ experience, but this was the perfect short cut, one that every child can attest to watching a bird on the wing or leaf caught in the breeze.

By building a kite, we turn the seaside and coast into another kind of playground, one that really lifts the spirits. For the technique and detailed how-to make a kite from bamboo and bin liner, buy our book now at www.skimmingstones.co.uk!

Drawing of a hand holding a thread tied to a leaf pulled by the wind

Respect your elders: the joy of Sambucus Nigra

A tree reflected in a puddle in a woodThe spectacular Nidderdale in North Yorkshire lies a little west of (and inexplicably outside) the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Yet, as we found, this relatively unexplored land more than repays with breathtakingly uninterrupted views and undiscovered, delicious treasures of the season: elderberries.

We strode out from the village of Lofthouse, following the river Nidd north. The autumn sun shone weakly but reliably in an unending blue sky and ungainly pheasants grown fat for the shoot clucked angrily out of the grasses and trees as if fired from cannons. Through the occasional, remote farmyards and up a steep path to the side of the dale, elder flanked us in thick fringes, hemming in the old track we walked on. Like stumbling into a vineyard, each trees’ fruits drooped with the weight of miniature liquid, red-wine-black clusters.

It was an opportunity too good to miss. We liberated two large paper bags, gratefully guzzling the pork pies they contained, and set about filling them with the rich fruit. Perhaps it was the altitude and the fresh breeze, but these berries were untouched by birds and soon both bags were full to burst.

A glorious sunset over a hillside with two treesAside from the obvious boon of being free and plentiful, elderberries are incredibly good for you. As well as containing Vitamins A, B and C, they are pumped full of the antioxidant anthocyanin, said to cleanse the blood of toxins and free radicals, improve circulation, reduce swelling, alleviate cold and flu symptoms and boost memory.

Also found in red, blue and black fruit, like blackberries, grapes and red cabbage, anthocyanin is a darling of the nutrition world at the moment. Although bland when picked straight from a tree, the berries can easily be made into a healthy cordial that, when mixed with a little water, can be enjoyed hot or cold with a slice of lemon.

We returned to the car via Scar House reservoir watching breathtaking sunsets frame lone trees on the horizon. Night had fallen as we shed boots and wound drove down the valley avoiding the suicidal pheasants. Sat by the warmth of the log burner we used a fork to remove the berries and put them on to boil with enough water to cover them completely. After thirty minutes simmering and stirring occasionally, we poured, squashed and sieved the elderberry broth into a bowl, creating a reservoir of black liquid reminiscent of Scar House reservoir’s dark waters.

A bottle and bowl of elderberriesA pan of elderberries on a gas hob

To create the famous ‘Cowen & Critchley’s Elder Tonic Cordial’ it was a simple matter of adding 400 grams of granulated sugar, the juice of half a lemon, seven cloves and a thick slice of ginger for every pint of elderberry juice and putting it all back to simmer for an hour. When bottled in glass that has been boiled thoroughly in clean water, cordial prepared like this will last all year round.

Toasting the successful stroll, we drank in the rich aromas of the hot cordial letting Nidderdale’s elderberries nourish our bodies as effectively as its views had our minds.

Build a shelter

There was a lush green glow in the glade; the smell of fern and mulchy ground. A chiffchaff and a robin sang over each other unperturbed by our crashing through the leaf litter hunting for logs. We were on raised ground in the woodland and a small river gurgled down a bank to our south as, beyond our patch, which was darkened by the canopy, thick sun settled on the greenery like honey. A perfect place to build a shelter…or, as us slightly less survivalist like to call it, a den.

Just being in any wood is a treat and building a simple ‘A-frame’ den is the perfect way to get more closely acquainted. It is a magical place to secret yourself away, to watch the wood come alive and a cheap, warm way to camp the night.

Leo Critchley in a debris shelter in the woodsUnless very dry, old clothes or a jacket are a good idea as the majority of the work is moving fallen leaves. Then it is just a case of finding two dead logs with ‘Y’-shaped ends and interlocking them with a long ‘spine’ to form an elongated, tapering tripod. Lay sticks along each side like ribs, before covering the whole thing in dried leaf litter until it is deep enough for you to plunge your arm up to your elbow into it. The whole thing should take less than two hours.

Rob Cowen in a debris shelter in the woods with a fireKids love to build dens but it is a joy that shouldn’t be left in childhood. On our knees, working with the sticks and leaves, we draw close to the wood in a far greater way than when merely passing through on a dog walk. Build an A-frame den right and it will keep you insulated, soundproofed and dry. With the addition of a small fire and a sleeping bag, it provides the perfect overnight shelter to watch wildlife or just retreat to when you need an escape from the urban world for 24 hours.

Drawing of a primrose and hoverfly

Cornish delights

With our eyes still stinging from the news that Lonely Planet has rubbished Great Britain as a tourist destination as ‘overpriced, overrated and overcrowded’, we headed down to an area of Cornwall that proved to be the antithesis of all three. Our base for a week of writing and building dens was Morwenstow near Bude.

We probably encountered less than twenty people during our visit. Even on the Marsland beach, a few miles away through a nature reserve, our only company was seagulls and lively waves. Pocketing some of the liberally growing rock samphire for dinner, we returned back to the fields and forests surrounding Gooseham and set to making dens.

Debris shelters are easy enough to create, fun and quick to construct (for more details, look out for the next Independent feature and video). The only distraction is the landscape. Overrated it is not.

We were in woods filled with hazel, birch, oak, hawthorn, holly, ash, lime. Broad green canopies that sheltered us from the sun, dappling the forest floor as birds struck up melodious conversation.The lanes were replete with bluebells, wild strawberries, campion and orchids and restorative strolls through them to the pub after dinner left us both returning to London feeling energised and renewed. It is easy to knock this country and if you only analyse its landmarks or ‘tourist destinations’ you may be left with a negative skew. Scratch the surface by doing something different and a world of beauty and fascination awaits.

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