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

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


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 Afternoon about 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

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

 

Paws for thought

Our monthly column in the Independent starts again today after a hiatus to allow us to finish writing the book, which came out on Thursday. Click the link below to read the feature and learn a bit about tracking wildlife around you. What animals frequent your street, garden or nearest wood and fields?

I understand it’s easy to track the Hollywood star, Will Smith. You just scan the area and look for Fresh Prince…

 

A busy week and a bit of press

If you picked up yesterday’s Yorkshire Post, you may have noticed the lead feature was entitled ‘Rediscover the wild world around you for some perspective on modern life‘, an insightful and fascinating article that really tapped into the main arguments of our book. The author? One Rob Cowen. Guilty.

For those of you not in the know, the Yorkshire Post is rightly regarded as Yorkshire’s ‘national newspaper’ and the feature, and accompanying images of Leo and I looking fresh-faced and fancy free on the stretch of Jurassic coast running between Robin Hood’s Bay and Staithes, will hopefully help to highlight the importance of reconnecting with nature to the lucky residents of the UK’s largest county.

This heralds the start of a busy week ahead of us. Over the next few days we will be undertaking all manner of promotional and press work as the book finally hits the shelves (wooden, metal and virtual) on Thursday. On the same day, I will be taking to the stage to present to the Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheon; a fine tradition of speeches given by incredible authors such as Pam Ayers and Michael Dobbs, it is also a platform for terrified first-timers like myself.

Then Saturday sees the rekindling of our monthly column in The Independent, starting with the ideal activity to help you slow down and reconnect with the fields and forests: animal tracking. We spent a fantastic day last February tracking a fox through a wood in Wales, waiting up as darkness fell to see his return. He was wolf-like in his wildness, a thick-maned manifestation of the dark wood itself; a very different experience to encountering the more  urbanised Reynard, as this image of one queueing for a cash machine (courtesy of @Alsboy) shows!

We are then appearing on BBC2′s The Culture Show, which airs on Saturday evening at 6pm. Viewers will get to see us skimming stones and building dens with presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon as he attempts to get to the heart of the book and understand why slowing down and undertaking simple activities in nature is so beneficial to us.

Please watch/read/enjoy and let us know what you think!

 - Rob - Drawing of a robin