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.

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.

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

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!

Forage for wild food: The Movie!

When Leo and I travelled about the great outdoors trying out the activities in our book Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild, we filmed some ‘scrapbook’ videos of our exploits, like this little Oscar surety. Here we find what wild food grows on the average British beach (in Kent) and try the best ways to tuck into it.

Certain things really lend themselves to photographic record and wild food is definitely one of them – both recording your own and checking you are picking the right stuff. In an age when we can carry information in our pockets to rival any tribal elder, there is no reason to fear finding your own supper. iPhones, smartphones, access to the internet, etc. all help in the identifying and answering any questions you may have about your finds.

The sea kale in this video is a great example; every book told us the leaves are green and yet we knew what we’d discovered met every other criteria – save for the fact it was bright purple. We reasoned that many plants start with purple/reddish leaves as a form of light protection and some shore-time spent searching Google proved we were right.

Hope you enjoy the film and remember – always pick sensibly and considerately. Never destroy the whole plant or colony and always leave enough to regenerate for tomorrow or someone else to enjoy. Come and see us talking about wild food at Cock and Bull Festival, Salon London and Chateau Marmot restaurants.

FORAGE FOR FOOD from robcowen on Vimeo.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Win tickets to Wilderness Festival!!


We have two FREE tickets (worth £260) to giveaway to the whole of Wilderness Festival, the UK’s greatest ‘outdoors’ festival located at the beautiful Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire between 10th and 12th August. As a setting for celebration it remains peerless, combing the pastoral grandeur of huge rolling lawns with wide lakes, deep woods and winding rivers.

With music from the likes of Wilco, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Crystal Castles, Spiritualized, Stornoway mingling with food tents featuring the world’s greatest chefs and restaurants (Yotam Ottolenghi, Moro, Fergus Henderson & St. John, Valentine Warner), all senses are sure to be sated.

But the real stars here are the arts and nature experiences intertwined within this unique landscape. The range of things happening is unbelievable: banquets under canopies, wild swims, tented talks, wild food forages, campfires, lectures from ‘School of Life’, midnight masked balls, barefoot dancing, pop-up cinemas, parkland processions and ritualistic revelry. Oh and probably the greatest thing – ‘Skimming Stones’ a talk delivered by your very own Rob and Leo!

Yes, we will be there with bells on, both speaking and doing some workshops in the woods. If there are enough skimmers, we may even hold a stone skimming competition. Wilderness will always be defined by its passions: award-winning curators, pioneering arts and breathtaking landscapes. For three days and three nights come and find yourself in the Wilderness.

The lovely people at Wilderness have given us two tickets to give away so you can be there too. The tickets are for two people from Friday 10th (access from 9:00am) until Sunday 12th and include camping. Campsites have stewarded fire pits, hot showers, loos and lots of space.

TO WIN THE TICKETS: All you need to do is ‘Like’ Rob and Leo’s Facebook page AND write ‘I love wilderness’ on our wall to enter a prize draw. You must do both however in order to be in with a chance of winning. One name will be picked from a hat at random at 1800hrs, Friday 13th July and will win the tickets. Good luck and see you there!

Latest reviews of Skimming Stones

Of course you have. I mean, who hasn’t bought Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild? Precisely. It’s as vital as five fruit and vegetables a day. But, should you need any further encouragement or reason to prompt your friends and family to get on Amazon, here are the latest reviews. We’re pretty happy with them!

‘Essential reading’ - The Express
‘A brilliant book’ - Huffington Post
‘Two of the UK’s most exciting nature writers…a thoughtful adventure in learning simple skills that help connect people to nature.’ – The Guardian
‘Deeply engaging…appealing and original framed by personal experiences that offers a fresh perspective to nature writing.’ – The Good Book Guide
‘I was simply carried along by the authors’ sense of awe, and their quiet belief that our lives can be enriched through a deeper connection with nature.’ (Four stars) – BBC Wildlife
‘A great book…it somehow manages to say something about nature that the rest of us can’t.’ – Country Walking Magazine
‘Permeated with all the infectiousness of two boys going outdoors for the day on an adventure.’ – Countryfile Magazine
‘Indispensable. You’ll never want to go back indoors.’ – Welsh Coast Magazine

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin