The rolling succession of a stream in Wales
It is a place I’d discovered before the virus: a left-hand bend in a narrow stream, a couple of steps off the footpath. There is nothing remarkable there, or not at first glance. There are breeze blocks in the stream bed and plastic bags deeply embedded in the roots of an alder tree. With a few variations, it could be anywhere in Britain: the neglected corner of a city park, the back of a private garden, behind a national park cafe. It’s just one of those spots that no one ever thinks to stop at and, if not for Covid-19, I would not have begun visiting daily, pausing for a few breaths before continuing. I saw the first snowdrops appear there, followed by primroses; then they were swamped by wild garlic and wood anemone. One morning a weasel shot out of a hole under a root and sprinted up the opposite bank. It was the first of several surprises.
I have never experienced a spring like this one: the first season in 38 years that I’ve stopped travelling and stayed, more or less, in one place. This spring, I realise, is the first to unfold before me in its entirety. And the world, having noticed that I’ve given up travelling, has started to travel past me. It is, I reckon, a kind of exploration, the kind done at the extreme outer limits of slow travel.
It was when the wood anemones appeared that I first checked the identity of the plant. I was fairly sure, but not entirely. Wildflowers are like bird songs to me: I identify them, then faster than they can fade away, I forget. This year I am determined to halt this habit. I downloaded the Picture This app and have never looked back. Simply take a picture of the flower with the app and wait for the identification.
The primroses and wood anemones are still flowering as I write, but others have stepped forward and taken the limelight. Wild garlic grabbed me by the nose, then came celandine, jack-in-the hedge, red campion, violet and speedwell. The gentle succession is what has astonished me: how one morning, quite abruptly, a new species seems to have completely taken over, only to be superseded within days by another. This morning cow parsley came flouncing on to the stage and shouted down the stitchwort. And away in the wings, in the shadows, there are cameo appearances going on that I would have missed in previous years: the satin purple of vetches and early orchids.
I am not the only one to be experiencing this unexpected lockdown bonus: watching the world on its journey past my eyes, a world refreshed and reoxygenated by a reduced human presence. In York, ornithologist and wildlife expert Richard Baines has noted that a reduction in council mowing of road verges has unleashed clouds of butterflies feeding on flowers not yet mown down. “On one short walk up my road,” he tells me over the phone, “I spotted 33 butterflies – far more than I’d expect at this time of year.”
For ecologist Dan Lombard in Scarborough, lockdown has been a revelation. “I’ve discovered several species of bird migrating over my house at night,” he tells me. “Last night I heard sandpiper, moorhens, coots and redshanks.” His daily walk has also revealed a field on the edge of town where endangered ring ouzels gather. “I’d never have found that if not for the lockdown.” He is also busy doing moth, insect and bat counts. One unexpected benefit of confining wildlife enthusiasts to their homes, he reckons, is going to be a massive upsurge in useful data.
Will Scott, an ecology student at Lincoln, has also found new insights through simply revisiting local walks. “I’m noticing changes in bird numbers that I’d never have seen without the lockdown.” One highlight was a night recording of a bittern over his house.
For me, it’s the sheer joy of observing the rolling succession of life: as each day goes by, something new will happen. Choose your spot. Take notes. Download the apps and get the guides. And the changes are occurring inside you too. One morning a shadow swept across the grass under me and I glanced up to see a sparrowhawk. Afterwards I realised I had looked immediately towards the right spot: some deep instinctive calculation of solar angles had occurred that I know, for sure, would not have happened a year ago. This is what Tristram Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, has been writing about for years and now, at long last, I finally get it.
The best moment came in mid-April. Passing that familiar bend in the stream, I saw that the roots of the alder, the lines in the water, were red. Were they always red? Had I just noticed? Then a movement caught my eye on a tiny bed of shingle over which a few inches of water was rippling. It looked like an eel, but peering closely I saw seven tiny dots along the head rather than gills. This was a lamprey. Famously, Henry I supposedly died after eating “a surfeit” of them, although his were probably the much larger sea lamprey.
As I watched more appeared and started writhing together in the shingle, sending up little clouds of silt. They were spawning. Next day they were at it again. The following day they were gone and I’ve not seen them since. Presumably, in that innocuous and inconspicuous patch of shingle, right beside the breeze block and the plastic bag, the next generation of this rare jawless fish are now readying themselves for hatching and their own journey.
Lessons from the Cairngorms in Edinburgh
Weeks into lockdown and my envy for those with a garden has grown like mould under a kitchen sink. I am based in a second-floor flat in Edinburgh, with only the windows for fresh air and no flora or fauna except for a trio of cacti and an uncatchable kitchen mouse.
All things considered I’m still lucky, with a lovely park five minutes’ walk away on the edge of the canal, and a great local bookshop still doing deliveries.
So I read nature books to escape, and walk in the park once a day to get a breath of fresh air. My latest book is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain – the Scottish writer’s legendary geo-poetic epic and love letter to the Cairngorm mountains where, over the course of her life, she spent hundreds of days hiking.
On the first page, Nan sets out to “know the essential nature” of the mountain, acknowledging: “This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems.”
It’s a remarkable sentence, particularly given that Nan was writing of the “impatience” of the late 1940s, half a century before smartphones or social media declared war on the public attention span. How rare a thing it is in the era of fast travel for someone to truly know any patch of land, anywhere in the world, in the way that Nan Shepherd knew her Cairngorms.
The Living Mountain is a book that teaches patience in a landscape. Acutely detailed but never exclusionary or gatekeeping, Nan describes the changing of the seasons in humble, unpretentious fashion. She uses her curiosity as a vehicle to investigate both the mountain and her own position within it. “That it was a traffic of love is sufficiently clear,” she writes, “but love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge.”
Many of us might walk in local nature spots regularly but dismiss, or not even consider, their beauty, having seen far greener grass or grander mountains elsewhere. Now that we are being forced to re-explore these spots by the restrictions of our coronavirus lockdown, it’s the perfect time to find these “doorstep adventures”, to rediscover the local.
So it is with this eye that I have taken to my daily walks in the local park, however modest they may be compared with a hike in the Cairngorms. I have realised that, like many, I know little of the birds that call there, or of the specifics of its trees or plants. But I have become a budding birdwatcher and can now separate the calls of bullfinch and chaffinch. Inspired by Nan’s message that “each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give”, I have begun noticing scents around the park, and touching the fallen petals of the cherry blossom. I’m finding a new peace, free from the anxiety of the daily news cycle.
Nan writes that there “is no getting accustomed” to her mountains. Let’s face it, there is getting accustomed to a local park, but there has never been a better time to become reacquainted with a park, a garden, a river or whatever you have on your doorstep. The Living Mountain is testament to the value in knowing what bird’s call is waking you up in the morning or what flowers and trees are endemic to your area. That value comes in the form of connectivity, and at a time of such national anxiety and widespread isolation, the value of that connectivity should not be underestimated.
In the conclusion to The Living Mountain, Nan notes that she has begun to “discover the mountain in itself.” She writes: “This process has taken many years and is not yet complete… The thing to be known grows with the knowing.” I’m trying to use my daily walks to know even a little more about the nature around me.
• The Living Mountain (Canongate Books, £9.99) is available at Guardian Bookshop for £8.89 excluding p&p
Skylarks and speedwell on the South Downs
Lying in the sun beside a river, bored to tears, academic and amateur poet John Buxton noticed a family of redstarts flying through a wood. The moment sparked an epiphany: henceforth he would devote himself to the study of this colourful migrant songbird and write up his findings. There may seem little remarkable about this but for one thing: Buxton had been captured while serving with the commandos in Norway and was now a prisoner of war.
Undeterred by his lack of binoculars, ornithological books and even paper (he wrote many of his observations on cigarette packets), Buxton threw himself into the task. During stints at two camps in Bavaria, he and fellow prisoners would spend countless hours watching the birds, their vigils interrupted only by meals and interminable roll calls.
The result was Buxton’s The Redstart, published in 1950 and widely recognised as not only a classic work of nature writing but the definitive book on the subject. Perhaps just as importantly, the author’s intense connection with redstarts had offered him a means of escape both mentally and spiritually during his long years ofconfinement. “One of the chief joys of watching them in prison,” he wrote of the birds, “was that they inhabited another world than I.”
While today’s lockdown can hardly be compared to the privations of wartime prison camp life, the notion that we too can escape through close observation of the natural world in our vicinity still holds true.
Having moved last year from the inner city to the South Downs national park, I’m keenly aware of how fortunate I am to be able to cycle from my home up on to green hills in a matter of minutes. I pack a flask of tea for me and a little hip-flask of sugar-water in case I come across an exhausted bee (in my experience there’s no human interaction with the insect world quite so satisfying as nursing an ailing bee) and climb the thigh-testing slopes. My goal is a spot beside a bridleway crossing a tract of exposed and wind-scoured arable land.
In fine weather, my chosen patch provides views across an undulating ridge to gleaming chalk cliffs and a hazy sea beyond. But I’m more intent on looking down, for the subjects of my survey (one very much humbler than Buxton’s) are below me: the wildflowers in a wide field margin. With just a handful of species – plantains, red campion, vetch and ox-eye daisies predominate – this highly regulated concession to nature has little of the romantic chaos of a meadow. However, I’ve found great pleasure noting down the doings of individual plants week by week.
While one prospers and blooms, another’s withered leaves cry up to the skies to end April’s unfamiliar drought, and a third defies the odds with its dogged colonisation of soil as hard as stone. And then last week came an unexpected delight: a cheeky unauthorised sprig of speedwell carving out a space below sheltering brambles.
There may be no redstarts up here, but my inspections of this small swath of downland are accompanied by the almost constant trilling of skylarks. Numbers of this bird have declined alarmingly in Britain, and their spiralling song seems charged with a reckless hopefulness I can’t help but admire.
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