Leo’s feature in Western Mail

Leo wrote a lovely feature recently for Wales’ fantastic Western Mail all about fishing on the Teifi using homemade rods that we fashioned from hazel saplings. (Chapter 10 in the book as you ask…). If you didn’t get a chance to read it, check it out and let your mind relax with the drifting, delightful prose.

Unlike the violent attention-grabbing of traffic lights and car horns, the varied attractions of the riverside float up gently for our inspection. It is a feast for the senses. At times, only the sound of the river seems present, at others only the warmth of the sun and the chill of the water around your ankles, or the endlessly recreated sparkling eddies.

Watching a river can become a kind of meditation on the passage of time and thought. Nothing is ever exactly the same from moment to moment, but still the same patterns recur endlessly.

Fishing had given us a reason to get to know a stretch of river, and heightened our experience of it. Catching a fish was icing on the cake.

Read the full feature here.

– 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 -

Give your kids a present to remember this Easter: nature

Asked to picture our favourite childhood memory, many of us will remember something outdoors, but we may well be the last generation to do so. Ask the same of today’s children and they are likely to answer their bedroom, in front of a TV or games console.

A new National Trust report ‘Natural Childhood’ is a welcome and much-needed spotlight on the issue and reveals the extent that our children are suffering from ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Leo and I are honoured to have been asked by the National Trust to be involved in the campaign and ongoing consultation. We will be writing guest blog posts, but also hopefully getting our hands dirty in helping show kids and parents alike the simple things that we can all do to reconnect with nature and the great outdoors. But you can start today. Whatever the weather this week, forget the chocolate eggs and endless film re-runs, get outside and try one of our simple activities; it is a present that your kids will never forget.

For inspiration, we thought we’d show you a few of our own homemade videos so you can pick up some tips:

We recognise that even those of us that want to reconnect and feel the urge to be in the countryside have lost the skills and sense of play that older generations enjoyed with the landscapes around us. That’s why we wrote Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild in the first placeto give people from 8 to 80 the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ to connecting with nature. So, if you want all the techniques to building your own kites, foraging for food, building an igloo, finding fossils, making a woodland den, wild camping, carving a whistle from elder, navigating from nature, damming a stream, tracking animals, making rod and tackle to catch a fish…and, of course, the simple skill of skimming a stone well…please buy the book! It will provide you with the all you need to the start your own adventures in the wild, whatever your age.

  – Rob -

Drawing of a robin

A ‘brilliant book’: The Huffington Post joins the call of the wild

We often receive requests to try to boil down the activities in our book into bite-sized bits of information. The difficulty is that this is somewhat at odds with the ethos of ‘Skimming Stones‘, which was written to get across the value of the slow learning of these skills in the great outdoors; the pleasure and rich rewards of slowing down, taking our time to do certain activities and allowing ourselves to really be in nature.

However, when the mighty news site The Huffington Post called, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. They wanted to provide ten things that might get people out and into nature this Easter, especially young people that might otherwise be tucked up around a TV or games console. Now we have nothing against games consoles, indeed we have both owned and enjoyed a few in our time, but it is a question of balance. Recent research states that fewer then 10 per cent of children in the UK play in natural spaces and ninety per cent of Britons live in an urban environment with most never taking or finding the time to be in the outdoors. This despite evidence that spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues; nature improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness; exposure to natural settings is widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms; exposure to environment-based education significantly increases performance on tests of critical thinking skills; our stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces and nature enhances social interactions, vital for community and relationships.

So we decided we would put our best editing hats on and summarise ten of the activities in the book with the aid of our illustrations. Here’s hoping people are inspired to try them out and take their kids along to have a go too. You can read the feature by clicking the image below. Please share it, then get outside and enjoy the sun!

 

 – Rob -

Drawing of a robin

Listen for the real twitterati

Our latest column in The Independent is out and this month it’s all about the splendour of birdsong, plus a few suggestions for places where you can catch the dawn chorus line in full voice. Hop on over via the link below and see what we’re chirping on about.

 

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 -

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 -

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.

Listen here

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 -

Prints in the pinewoods

This week involved a trip so brief, bizarre and beautiful it seemed almost dreamlike. I was asked to write a feature for Crufts Magazine that required I spent 24 hours in deepest, darkest Scotland in the company of a couple of dog sled racers and their thirty Siberian huskies.

The journey north was fairly arduous and involved an evening train ride to Edinburgh before I hired a car and navigated the hour and a half through driving snow to a remote area of Perthshire. The final miles were in complete darkness with just the snowfall and black sky. As the Scots pine closed in around the single track road, Highland cattle wandered across casually out of the trees, their caramel, shaggy coats with a fresh crust of white.

The accommodation was basic (a cabin) and cold, but the welcome from owners John and Mary warm and whisky fuelled. At dawn we were up to see a copper and duck-egg blue sunrise glowing over the white landscape and dark tree tops.

The husky racing was thrilling to behold and I have never seen animals happier; it is as if running with a sled somehow scratches an itch that would otherwise drive huskies mad. After an hour or two watching these furry athletes accelerating into the trees, my gaze was drawn to the snow beside the trails. Near the dogs’ unmistakable prints, I noticed other tracks. Rabbits had been lolling through the snow and, close by, another dog-like animal had taken a keen interest.

Fox prints in the snow. Note the clear space between front and side pads.

Joined by John and Mary’s toddlers, I followed the fox tracks up and into the thick Scots pine. A carpet of pine needles was disrupted in places by roe deer tracks and we started to see the mini motorways used by the animals that call the woods home. Footprints, chewed stems, pine cones nibbled by the red squirrels; the joy of animal tracking is piecing together the stories that unfold in such places. By taking the time to walk away from the usual trails, slow down and read the ground around us, we enter into a new way of looking and relating to the landscape.

Once they had learnt what each was, it was lovely to see the kids picking out the prints for ‘Mr. Fox’. In our chapter on animal tracking in the book, we discuss how tracking elicits a physiological as well as psychological change, one that brings us closer to every landscape. We connect on another level, down amongst the leaves. Perhaps at the heart of this ancient art is this sense of ‘becoming’ with the landscape and its inhabitants. Their natural inquisitiveness sparked off a wonderful creativity. They told me about their favourite ‘rooms’ in the woods and where they met ‘the leprechauns’ for dinner. I asked what other creatures they’d met in the woods and their answer stopped me in my tracks: ‘big cats’.

I studied the snow and mud even more intently as we drifted back to the husky trails. A noise from the hill behind and John came whizzing past with a dog team of six, the huskies bounding en masse in perfect synchronicity, ears pinned back, tongues wagging. Later, over tea, John and I talked about his children’s wonderful playground and I related the beauty of their imaginary worlds, mentioning the stories of big cats. “Ah.” said John. “That bit wasn’t a story.”

- Rob -
Drawing of a robin