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

 

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

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

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

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 -

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.

 

Live for the outdoors: the beauty of birdsong

The fantastic website www.livefortheoutdoors.com has been a source of inspiration to us for many years. It is responsible for many of our wild camping exploits (although they are careful not to encourage it!) and is the encyclopaedic online presence for magazine titles ‘Trail’ and ‘Country Walking’. It was lovely to read this morning that they have posted a little review of Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild:

It somehow manages to say something about nature that the rest of us can’t. Yes, there is a practical side to it, but there’s also a philosophical message that comes through as well. A great book for anyone who loves nature and wants to get more in touch with the great outdoors.

March is a phoenomenal time to wander outside into any of the rural spaces that exist around us and I urge everyone to take advantage of the brighter mornings and longer evenings. You don’t need to plan trips to our stunning fells or sweeping coastline; in parks and gardens and any rough scrap of land with vegetation and trees, we find nature stretching its limbs after the long sleep of winter; the bursting forth of green leaves and fleshy, furry buds. Slow down. Stop, look and listen.

Birdsong becomes a powerful and peaceful morning wake-up call through our bedroom curtains even in towns and cities as winter migrants return from international tours and battle it our for territory. It’s nature’s X-Factor, only far more impressive and tuneful – the humble wren sings a song that contains 740 different notes per minute and which can be heard more than 500 metres away. All too often we take such things for granted, yet they are enchanting to stand and listen to. Learning to identify the differences between birds is rewarding work; birdsong has been proven to improve our mood and enhance cognitive abilities.

We should learn to value the fringes of our towns and cities where such wonders take place, the forgotten lanes and stands of trees, the scrappy rough ground behind the buildings, the places were urban and rural meet. These are hidden worlds filled with nature, playgrounds for young people and places to just be.But they are also the places at risk if the current planning legislation is passed. For my thoughts on the matter, you can read my guest blog for the National Trust. I believe we must protect and celebrate such spaces, improve our access to them and ensure that nature has a free hand to flourish. We should all live a little more for the outdoors.

  – Rob -

 Drawing of a robin

 

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 -