Win a copy of ‘Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons.’

 

autumn

 

Forget what the dates say, today is Officially the First Day of Autumn. Bye bye sun cream, hello anorak.

Nature has felt it coming for weeks now. The swallows are restless. Youngsters are testing their wings, growing stronger daily. A last-minute second brood is nearly ready to fledge. My children collect the blackberries, chestnuts and conkers with serious determination as if hibernation is impending.

I, meanwhile, have to fight that ‘bleurgh’ feeling I get when summer is over. A proper ‘back to school’ slump into a more indoors existence, when children argue and the television becomes more tempting. I love seasons and the sense of change, but this transition is a hard one for me. I am happiest when the swallows are here.

Still, I do know that autumn is beautiful and I try to immerse myself in its soft, muted glory. At least darkness now arrives on cue for the children’s bedtime, which certainly helps with settling them at a reasonable time.

Best of all, I’ve been curling up with Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison. It’s a rich and varied collection of nature writing. You’ll find John Clare, Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas alongside modern favourites and new discoveries; I’ve loved reading Helen Macdonald, Matt Gaw, Lucy McRobert and most fabulously of all, Jon Dunn’s moving tale of a chicken thief.

As you might expect, there are anthologies of Spring and Summer, and soon, sure as night follows day, Winter. They have all been produced thanks to a collaboration between the Wildlife Trusts and publishers Elliot & Thompson.

I am biased about loving it, for a short piece of my writing features alongside my nature writing idols.

It looks gorgeous too, perfect for gifts and very much one for the coffee table.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, then share with me what you love about autumn on Twitter @Kateblincoe or in the comments below. I’ll put your ideas in a hat and my kids will pick one out to decide the winner on Thursday 6th October (entries by midnight). The book has kindly been provided by Elliot & Thompson.

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Accidental wildness

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Back to school after the half term break and we’ve let wildness slip. Well, ‘formal deliberate’ wildness that is. We’ve nevertheless still achieved something wild every day, those Random Acts of Wildness, although not necessarily of the ‘photo and tweet it’ variety.

We’ve discovered a good climbing tree. If I give them a boost up to the first branch (at my head height) they can then get scarily high. The branches seem sturdy but there is definitely an element of risk (which is why they love it so much).

My daughter is obsessed with picking wild flowers at the moment, and the leaf mantises that we are babysitting necessitate the collection of lots of bramble for them to eat. They’ve gone to school today,  I felt like such a celebrity in the playground when I was holding them!

We also had a gardening session on our jungle (aka back garden), with both kids working well together to rescue snails and prune overgrown shrubs.

At the weekend, there was a gorgeous split second of wildness when a stoat crossed the road ahead of our car, followed by 6 or 7 kits. Too cute!

I’m heartened that whilst we’ve been a bit lacking in planned nature time, we’ve still managed to make space for outdoors discovery every day.

Next on the list; a picnic to celebrate Picnic Week!

30 Days Wild – week one

beach

It was typical that all things were against us for our first few days of being wild. The wet and windy half-term weather combined with lots of driving for a family funeral meant we were up against it to fit in moments of nature.

Day 1: A wet walk, collecting pebbles and leaves. We wouldn’t have bothered with a walk today, given the weather, but it was good to get the wellies on and get outside.

Day 2: Hours on the M25 but there were birds to be spotted through the window – we saw a kestrel, herring gulls and two buzzards in the course of our journey.

Day 3 – 5:  This is where the game changed. We went camping to a basic, natural and beautiful campsite with lots of friends. It is harder to pick the unwild moments from the day, because there weren’t any.

Wild highlights included:

  • finding toad tadpoles
  • making mudcakes
  • collecting an incredible array of sea creatures and shells at the beach (starfish, crabs, anemones, clams, bristle worms to name a few)
  • being woken early by birdsong – there was a particularly vocal robin at 5 am
  • and mainly just being outside all the time.

This was wildness that took more than one bath to scrub off.

Day 6: Back to school, but incredible sunshine. My daughter picked poppies on the way to school (her teacher is very tolerant of the random assortment of nature that gets brought in by my collector girl on a daily basis). After school, we lay in a hammock  and looked up at the trees – we are living with Granny at the moment and enjoying her beautiful garden very much.

Day 7: We’ll be trying some art activities from ‘Collect, print and paint from nature’ by John Hawkinson later. It’s very old-school (published in 1968) and we won’t be setting up a killing jar for butterflies as recommended (using 880 ammonia or carbon tetrachloride!), but the rest is lovely!

It’s been a week of extremes – days where it has been hard to fit in wildness, and days where it has been abundant. I’m glad we’ve managed to make a little space for nature whatever the week and the weather has thrown at us.

The world needs young nature geeks

They say that whatever issue you have with a toddler, you can multiply by ten for the teenager. Whilst inspiring tiny children about the great outdoors has its challenges, they are nothing compared to trying to keep young people involved with and excited about nature as they hit the often rocky, hormonal years of teenagedom.

I know from personal experience that even the most rural, idyllic childhood doesn’t prevent a rapid descent into nightclubbing and alcohol – who has time for nature then? My children are a while off that, but I wonder how I will keep them connected to our natural world.

Wonderful campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Every Child Wild’ and the work done by The Wild Network help the parents of younger children to embrace nature. Whilst there is no deliberate exclusion of teenagers from these projects (and much remains highly relevant), there is a focus on reaching out to younger children. To then lose that connection in the fug of the teenage years seems such a tragedy.

Time in nature is vital for everyone’s health and well-being and in the turbulent, exam-packed teenage years, stress relief and green exercise are just what the doctor ordered. Despite all the medical evidence, society still thinks it is more normal for a teenager to be holed up in a darkened room on social media than roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars.

A more worrying aspect is the bullying that young people can experience if they are into nature. Being called a geek, nerd or twitcher can be the least of it. In a world that values material consumption and the quick thrill of the digital, choosing to spend time, often on your own or with the older generation, can mark you out as an odd ball.

A Focus on Nature is a youth nature organisation aiming to address this. It offers a community for young people who love nature, as well as looking at the wider issue of disconnection of teens from our natural world. The website is full of stories of young conservationists getting out there and not just connecting with nature, but taking real action.

Wildlife charities do offer teenage options for involvement. The RSPB’s Phoenix membership provides Wingbeat, the only environmental magazine written by teenagers for teenagers, and opportunities to become part of and blog on the Phoenix forum. For those interested in volunteering or work experience, most conservation charities can give exciting and varied opportunities that could lead to a career in conservation.

With social media, there is a platform ready and waiting for our tech savvy teens. We would all benefit from more young voices to shock us oldies out of our comfortable complacency and to make caring about our planet the norm, not the geeky exception.

Teenagers need nature and green spaces in their life. It will bring them fun, stress-relief, new friends and turn them into true custodians of our world.

It’s been a while (ahem) since I was a teenager and I don’t yet have my own, so I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on this important issue.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

 

Glorious mud (and quicksand)

sam and annie muddy

I was fearful I had over-hyped it to the children. ‘You are going to get muckier than you’ve ever got before,’ I had told them on our way to a Muddy Harbour ramble with the National Trust at Brancaster Staithe in North Norfolk.

As we set off along the coastal path they were not impressed; ‘there is not even one centimetre of mud here!’ my demanding son complained. ‘Just wait’, I replied.

Our guide, Nita, a Senior Learning and Engagement Officer with the National Trust, took us off the well-made, totally mud free path, directly onto the salt marsh. We tasted sprigs of samphire growing there, salty and full of ozone tang. Then it was time to cross some creeks. You could jump (fun and energetic) or slip and slide into them (properly muddy).

Nita taught us how to walk through the sticky, slurpy mud, resisting its pull by keeping moving. If your boot got stuck, you had to pull on your heel to break the seal. My silly shoes wouldn’t stay on, so I was soon barefoot. Dark, black mud sludging up between my toes like custard. A rather delicious sensation when you get used to it.

At bigger creeks, you could try and stay on your feet as you made your way down them or embrace the mud. We sat on our bums and slid. Hands, legs and bottoms were soon covered with the gunkiest gloop imaginable.

I had done it; my kids were officially muckier than ever before.

Along the way, we learnt about the wildlife of the salt marsh and how the tides keep it alive. We found shells and a mermaid’s purse. Then Nita mentioned the quicksand. ‘You won’t be able to go in it,’ I warned my children. ‘It’s dangerous.’

Actually, we were allowed in. The quicksand, formed by a freshwater spring coming up under the sand, was not too deep. Or so I thought. The one I jumped into went over my waist which I had not been expecting. The children loved letting it suck them down until I looked nervous and heaved them out.

quicksand

Finally, we waded across the main creek back to the staithe. We were a group of mucky, happy kids and grown-ups ready for a shower and a cuppa back at the Activity Centre.

My childhood was full of muddy adventures like this, but as a parent today I would have felt anxious doing it alone; there are very real risks with tides and overly deep mud – and I would have been terrified to discover quicksand more than a metre deep.

I feel very lucky that we were able to do this, and am very grateful it lived up to my promises.

There is one session left this summer holidays, on 26th August. Or you could check for low tide and go it alone… beware the quicksand.

When a baby bird changed the story

bunting

The scene was perfect. A trail of animal footprints led the children to a magical woodland hideout, decorated with vintage bunting and complete with toadstool seats resting on a large tarpaulin. It was beautiful, whimsical and utterly controlled.

Then, as the children gathered on their multi-coloured wooden toadstools, to listen to a story, it happened. From the heavens above (well the generous canopy of an oak tree) a fat, naked chick fell. It landed with a disconcerting thud on the tarpaulin. It wasn’t cute, it was prehistoric and grotesque. Everyone gasped.

The chick writhed for a short moment and then became still. The shock of the fall had killed it. No one moved but the atmosphere was electric. This wasn’t what everyone had paid £4.50 each for. Then, as if one, the children sprang to their feet and crowded round to look, all thoughts of the nice story forgotten.

It was a woodpigeon chick, probably about four days old. Still covered with a scruffy yellow down, its pink skin showed through. The eyes were grey and bulbous and the beak was misshapen and over-sized for its scrawny head. This little chappy was not going to be featuring on a greetings card anytime soon.

We don’t normally see baby pigeons (in fact, a common nature ‘google search’ is ‘why don’t you see baby pigeons?’). This is because they only fledge when they are almost adult sized by which time only those who know what they are looking for can tell they are youngsters. Something had obviously gone wrong for this baby. Indeed, sometimes a parent bird will eject an ailing chick from the nest in order to prioritise healthier siblings.

Next the questions began. ‘What is it?’, ‘Is it dead?’, ‘Can I make it better?’ and finally, ‘Can I touch it?’. Some parents pulled their little ones away at this point, but I said to my two, ‘yes, you can touch it’. It was soft and felt nicer than it looked. ‘It’s a bit warm’ said my son.

‘I’m ever so sorry,’ said the lady who had been about to read the story. She promptly swept the chick into a dustpan and placed it discreetly behind the woodland hideout. While she sprayed and wiped the tarpaulin, I dutifully got busy with the disinfectant gel on our hands and then we returned to our seats. All was back in order.

The story was lovely and mainly kept their attention, although I did notice a few glances upwards, as if the trees were going to deliver another ugly chick to us. As for myself, well I couldn’t help but smile. Everyone had signed up for Nature Lite but they had got the real thing, in all its grim, sad, but fascinating glory.

PS. First published in the EDP and EADT

PPS. photo not from this particular event but it sets the scene nicely 🙂