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

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.

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

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

Natural harmony? Listen to your elders

Our latest column in the Independent went in on Saturday. It is all about making elder whistles. To some this may seem an unusual way to spend a day – especially when you can buy a whistle fairly cheaply in a shop – but, as with all the activities in Skimming Stones, the secret is what this simple restorative ritual engenders. It is striking the right note to start a relationship.

Elder is only tree for the job because of the soft pith that runs through the core of its branches, which can be hollowed out very easily to leave a wooden tube that may be used for anything from pipes to primitive paintball guns. Identifying it requires us to look more closely at our surroundings; we have to differentiate between that tree and all the others. Immediately we are drawing closer to the land and to the wood.

Just as we learn to recognise one tree, to handle it and work with it, so too can we begin to familiarise ourselves with others. Soon the whole forest becomes transformed from an amorphous green mass on the edge of our vision to something far more interesting and rewarding. It is somewhere to walk through, to dwell in.

Revisiting at different times of the year we see the different tree types in metamorphosis. Not only do we learn to pick out species, we pick out individual trees. Woods become places to see old friends and watch as they transform through the seasons.

Read our column Natural harmony? Listen to your elders in the Independent here and start your journey back to the woods. 

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Rob and Leo on BBC Radio 2

Last week saw your favourite ‘outdoors enthusiasts’ wandering through the hallowed doors of BBC Radio 2 for a joint interview on ‘The Big Show’, aka Steve Wright in the Afternoonabout our book Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild. For everyone who missed it, you can listen again below.

This is not just essential for kids, but for adults as well. Why does anyone pay more for a room with a view if nature is not good for us?

Our appearance was perfect timing and coincided with a busy press week that has seen the issues of getting children outdoors and the joy of simple activities in almost every newspaper. The National Trust released the great ’50 things to do before you are 11 ¾’ list which includes many of the activities in our book. This has driven more interest in the Outdoor Nation project, as well as generating some welcome debate. The fact that these topics are making the headlines is fantastic and will hopefully get people outside and enjoying nature. We will continue our support where possible, writing more for the Trust over the next few weeks.

Listen to Rob and Leo on BBC Radio 2 here.

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

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 -