My latest Friday book review, George Monbiot’s Feral.
My latest Friday book review, George Monbiot’s Feral.
As I walk to the top of the hill, I see the unmistakable long ears and angular head of a hare. She is big, bigger than Lady, who chases her off into the undergrowth, her lithe brown body quickly blending into the land. A momentary glimpse of my totem animal and she’s gone. But that glimpse gives me a profound feeling of privilege and awe. The next morning I’m still thinking about her, about our brief encounter, about how my sense of awe and wonder was matched by her fear and flight instinct.
I am lucky to live in a spectacular part of the world. Our little village is remote. There are few cars on the roads, we’re generally off international flight paths, so the blue sky is clear of jet trails, and the vast landscape is, for the most part, devoid of human-made noises. To walk through the countryside, along trails made by humans, sheep, goats, deer, wild boar, is to be immersed in both the natural history and the human history of the landscape, although the human history is the more subtle of the two.
In April, after years of begging, I finally succumbed to Lily’s and Katie’s wishes to get a dog. Lady was born in February, on a plot of land not far from our house. She was the only bitch in a litter of six puppies. I fell in love with her on sight, when she was three weeks old, and we brought her home at seven weeks. Her mother is a Spanish water dog and her father, we think, is either a fox terrier or an Andalucian bodega rat terrier. She’s a wonderful addition to our family, very playful and lovable and full of energy.
Walking in the countryside with Lady has opened the landscape up. Lady and I have been walking 10km each day this summer – we walk for 3km each morning, and about an hour before sunset each day we set out on a 7km walk.
The trails I have previously associated with bees, ants, lizards and birds, and the occasional snake, now turn out to be rich with mammals too. Of course, I’m used to seeing fewmets (deer droppings) along the trail, holes dug by snuffling boar, and the prints of many different animals. With Lady along for the walk, however, animals hidden at very close quarters have now become visible. Lady can smell them. Or she can hear them. Or she can, by some other means, sense they are there. She gallops off at top speed, up hills, over rocks, into bushes. Of course, the animals she chases are too fast, or have a head start, or are on their home turf, so Lady, thankfully, doesn’t stand a chance. But suddenly I realise that, in a landscape seemingly devoid of mammals, I’m walking past them all the time. I’m now conscious of hidden eyes on me, and that gives me a wonderful thrill to know the animals are there.
One day last week, we were walking along a dry river bed, when suddenly, Lady dashed off towards the hill that rises steeply from the northern bank of the river. I looked up the steep hillside to see three wildcats, dun coloured stripes and long tails, racing up the hill. The next day, along the same river, it was a doe among the bushes, and the day after that, up in the hills north of Sanlúcar, it was a stag with majestic antlers. And last night it was my beautiful totemic hare.
As I’ve written before, I feel such a sense of privilege and awe to live, and have formerly lived, in places where seeing animals in the wild is not just a possibility, but a surety. Indeed, I’ve had the great privilege of encountering many wild animals over the years, not seeking them out, but simply as I’ve been going about my daily business – deer, caribou, polar bears, seals, beluga whales, common dolphins, wild boar, hares, humpback whales, orcas, minke whales, and even a tundra grizzly bear once. I’ve seen snowy owls, falcons, eagles and hawks, and I’ve had the great privilege to scuba dive amongst incredible and beautiful fish and turtles.
At a time when every single one of these animals is threatened by habitat loss, climate change and pollution, encountering them in the wild is a rare and precious privilege that moves me to redouble my personal effort to not only not contribute to their demise, but to make a positive effort to undo the damage we (including me) have already caused. The former is the easier of the two. My challenge now is to figure out how to contribute to the latter.
I would like to point out my error in thinking that a modified version of this article went unpublished (as I stated in a previous version of this blog post). A version of this article was, indeed, published by Green Parent magazine in October 2018.
Foraging: An immersive way to learn about nature
On the morning of the day my younger daughter, Katie, was born, I was out amongst the hedgerows with her big sister, Lily, gathering blackberries. We ate at least half of what we gathered, Lily’s seventeen-month-old face and hands stained purple with blackberry juice, and returned home with the rest in tubs. Two days later we were once again out amongst the hedgerows, blackberry juice staining the sling in which newborn Katie slept. At two days old, this was her introduction to foraging and she’s been at it ever since. By the time she was two-and-a-half, Katie could identify and gather wild carrot, fennel and mint, and recognised a handful of inedible plants.
Besides fantastic opportunities to put healthy, organic, wild and free food on the table, foraging is an active and productive immersion in the natural world. Through foraging, children come to understand ecology and local environments, to learn from and about nature, and to develop a sense of their place in, and obligations to, our planet.
As a nomadic family, we foraged for food in the middle of England, along the coasts of Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia, and in southern Spain and Portugal. From trees growing in green city spaces to rural woodlands and open countryside, we have gathered almonds, apples, apricots, carobs, figs, hazelnuts, lemons, loquats, olives, oranges, plums and pomegranates. From seashores we have gathered clams, cockles and mussels, sea beet, rock samphire and wild carrot. We have gathered alexanders, asparagus, chard, fennel, lavender, mint, nettles and rosemary from woodlands, scrubland and walking trails, blackberries from hedgerows and camomile from fields. Lily and Katie have accompanied me as I’ve picked prickly pears and their dad as he’s gathered edible mushrooms.
As humans, we are increasingly disengaged from the natural world. And the more disengaged we become, the less we appreciate the incredible world around us, or understand our place in it and our obligations to it. Providing our children with opportunities to be immersed in the world helps them to develop that sense of appreciation, understanding and obligation. Immersion helps us to become part of the world again as we learn about the seasons, ecological niches, how plants depend on each other, and the lives and behaviours of animals. When we engage with the world, when we come to know it intimately, we are in a greater position to care for it, and to recognise our obligations to it.
Among the most ancient of ways to engage with the natural world is through foraging for food. Our ancestors have been doing it since before we were human. Until the late 1960s paleo-anthropologists believed that language, tool use and group organisation – those cultural characteristics that make us human – were developed and honed through hunting. The earliest tools, it was believed, were those used to hunt, kill and process wild animals; the earliest forms of communication were in the organisation of hunting parties. But in the late 1960s, female anthropologists began to study the previously ignored lives of women in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. And what they discovered radically altered our understanding of the development of human culture.
Rather than hunted meat being the mainstay of most hunter-gatherer diets, it is foraged foods – vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts, eggs, honey, shellfish, grubs and insects – that are the staple and daily elements of the diet. From these observations of contemporary hunter-gatherers, a new theory of the development of human culture emerged. Rather than hunting tools being the first forms of material culture, it was foraging tools – bags for carrying foraged food, and slings and straps for carrying infants. (However, unlike stone tools, these leave almost no trace in the fossil or archaeological record.) Indeed, the organisation required to communally care for infants and young children while women foraged was most likely what necessitated the development of language and complex culture. Forget man the hunter. Human culture blossomed around woman the gatherer.
Our ancient ancestors were intimately acquainted with the world around them. They had to be. Subsisting on foraged food required a deep knowledge of edible and inedible plants, of where, when and how wild foods grew, of how their growth was influenced by the plants and animals sharing that ecosystem, of weather and seasons, and of how foraging practices protected or destroyed plants for future use.
While we no longer rely on foraged food to survive, the practice of foraging draws us into the world around us. My family has discovered that the more time we spend in search of wild foods, the more intimately acquainted and attuned we become with the natural world. Not only do my children remember the location of the best patches of asparagus from previous years, for example, but they have learned, through experience, the environmental conditions best suited to this plant and, thus, where and when to look for it in new places. They have grown to know the seasonal changes that plants undergo and the other plants that share and are vital to the health of that habitat.
When we forage, our senses are caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape. We walk up and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, through woods and across fields, our hearts and breaths racing with exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks as we leap across streams or sinking into muddy tidal flats. Stopping to enjoy the sound of buzzing bees, our children learn from which plants bees forage at different times of year. They learn that other animals like the same foods as we do – wasps and birds on plums and pomegranates, the snuffling marks of a wild boar that got to the delicious asparagus tips before we did, the hollowed circles of grass made by a badger amongst the blackberry brambles, or our horse friend who makes short work of carob seed pods. And they can observe how wasps, ants, bees, birds and other small animals are linked to the life of each plant.
Such observations connect children to the natural world, allowing them to indirectly observe that the wild foods they collect are part of complex ecosystems. Further, they come to understand that they themselves are part of that ecosystem, just like the badger, the ant and the honey bee. They also learn that, to a far greater extent than any of these other animals, humans have the power to nurture or to destroy the environment. We teach our children, by example, to not take more than we need and to take only a little from each individual plant or area. Our children observe for themselves the destruction caused by wanton use and thoughtless disposal of plastics, metals and other industrial products, or by the needless felling of trees.
Foraging is a deeply rewarding activity. We spend quality time with our children, engaged in activity together towards a common goal. The wild foods we bring home are transformed into delicious meals for immediate consumption or preserved or dried for use at some later date. When we return home after a few hours of walking, talking and foraging, we are often tired and grass or mud-stained, but our spirits soar from all we have seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape. And with that immersion comes a stronger sense of care, compassion and empathy for the natural world and its many and varied inhabitants.
My latest book review via Song yet sung
I remember this time of year about a decade ago. We were living in rural Cambridgeshire, about four miles from Cambridge. It had snowed heavily overnight and the flat southeast English landscape was blanketed in white. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go for a walk. I left by the back gate and headed across the fields. The land around our house was owned by Trinity College, one of the Cambridge University colleges. It was heavily cultivated and, although the fields were accessible, walking was restricted to signposted tracks or to field perimeters. As I walked, the sky grew more overcast and it started to snow again. After twenty minutes I was well out of sight of my house and the quiet country road on which we lived.
Instead of the joy I had anticipated feeling at being out in the snowy landscape, I felt unease. This walk along the familiar hedgerows was one I took regularly, and it was not uncommon for me to encounter a hare or a deer. Indeed, on this particular day I found fresh hare prints in the snow. But, somehow, I felt decidedly uncomfortable. I was on a circular walk and at this point I was equidistant between going on or turning back.
I was aware that I had quickened my pace and I was perspiring under my winter clothes. I had the sensation of being a hunted animal as I kept furtively glancing around. Suddenly, the reason for my fear became clear to me – polar bears! There, in the bucolic, highly-managed, symmetrical landscape of rural Cambridgeshire, something had subconsciously brought me back to the Kivalliq. It wasn’t simply the snow. I had been in the snow at least a couple of times since I had last lived in Arviat, and I hadn’t feared an encounter with a bear. But that day, there was a certain quality to the light, a certain texture to the air that tricked my brain into thinking there might be a bear around.
Despite being in a landscape where the largest carnivore I could possibly encounter was a badger, I found myself feeling the way I had that spring day seven or eight years earlier when I had walked out to Huluraq. Arviat was more than a 40 minute walk behind me and all around was the flat west Hudson Bay landscape, where the undulating snow-covered land reached a snow-covered finger, Huluraq, out onto the frozen seascape of Hudson Bay. As I turned to make the slow snow-hampered walk back home I saw two sets of prints in the snow – a mother polar bear and her cub. My blood ran cold. I was unarmed – although I doubt that, armed, I would have stood any better chance. I had no idea how old the prints were. They looked fresh enough, clearly defined and without an accumulation of blowing snow.
The walk back to Arviat was the longest of my life. I expected at any moment that the last sound I would hear would be the fluey-sounding grunt of a mother bear coming up behind me, turning me into a meal for her cub. I walked as fast as my cumbersome clothes and boots and the terrain would allow me. There had been other encounters with bears, some where I’d felt threatened and some where I’d felt awe and gratitude for being in the presence of such a creature. But no encounter was as frightening as that non-encounter that day near Huluraq.
And then, years later, what should have been a pleasant walk across a snowy English landscape turned into an anxiety-filled power walk, as I raced to escape from my subconscious fear. I realized at the time how ridiculous I was being and I forced myself to slow down, relax, bring myself back into the moment. But in a very short time I found myself once again anxiously speed walking towards my little chocolate-box English cottage.
I’ve often thought of that snowy day in Cambridgeshire and the subtle sensations that caused my mind and body to subconsciously make connections between past and present. We all subconsciously make these connections all the time as our senses trick us into time travel. The smell of a 2-stroke engine immediately transports me to the west coast of Hudson Bay; the theme music to BBC Sports Roundup puts me back in the busy little kitchen of my childhood at 5pm on a Saturday evening, me, my cousins, our parents, aunt and granny and the smell and texture of fried bread; tin-foil wrapped ham sandwiches take me back to the Canal End of Croke Park.
It’s not simply memory or nostalgia. Rather, it is a triggering of the senses that awakens reaction, muscle memory, feeling, sensation, emotion. Perhaps it’s the closest we get to time travel as we are transported backwards through time to catch glimpses of what were, perhaps, the moments that defined us. We may not have known at the time but those would be the moments that would remain, imprinted on our souls.
God knows, there are worse views. From high up in the village, our house looks southwest over the orange village rooftops and beyond. Below us lies the whitewashed church, perched on its own hill in the centre of the village, and beyond, up on the next hill, two picturesque windmills and the green field below where white and chestnut horses peacefully graze. I can’t see the river, but the hills of Portugal are almost within touching distance and the river runs between them and the village.
It’s like a scene from a Hollywood movie, a cardboard cutout of an idyllic southern European village. Imagine Mama Mia, or Chocolat, or Jeremy Irons in the final scene of Damage.
It’s just as well that it’s such a pleasant view. Since September I have been staring at that view for more time than I ever could have imagined. To coincide with moving into the house (indeed, because of moving into the house) I slipped a couple of discs in my lower back, leaving me severely incapacitated. I can’t walk very much, I can’t do most of the things I love to do. All those things that draw me to life in the village and the things that make me feel part of village life are, for the moment, out of reach. It’s a strange and unpleasant feeling to be in the village and yet not in the village.
But I have the view. Despite the picture postcard quality of the place, I know this is no cardboard cutout. Behind those pretty whitewashed walls and under those orange roof tiles there is love and laughter, joy and sorrow. And in the hills beyond, the seasons bring change, there are lambs and rock roses and wild flowers.
I am reminded of (though in no way compare myself to) Seamus Heaney’s poem Field of Vision* as I sit looking out on the view from my office desk or from the sitting room. For almost six months I have watched the seasons change, the parched sun-baked golden brown of summer giving way to the bright rain-fed greens of winter and spring. I’ve watched the sky, the bright blue empty sky, and the immense clouds sometimes bringing torrential showers of rain. These mornings I look down on fog, an inversion over the river, like steam rising from a witch’s cauldron.
The changing life of the village is harder to observe from this remove. Like those subtler changes in the landscape, one has to be in the village, rather than observing it from afar, to understand and appreciate its changing moods. I cherish those rare occasions these days, when I get out, when I feel sociable enough to be a part of village life again for an hour or two.
I long for a time when I can once again take a carefree stroll down to the bar and have a coffee or beer with whoever happens to be around, chat with my neighbours when we pass on the street, be spontaneous in my socializing. And I long to get beyond the village, to take long walks in the hills again, to be nose-to-nose with wild flowers, to row across the river in my little red dinghy and walk the smuggler’s trail in Portugal.
I am optimistic that all those things will come my way again. I expect I’ll appreciate them all the more for the months I have spent merely observing life through the frame of my front window.
*Field of Vision
I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.
Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.
She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.
Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see
Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.