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

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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.

 

Eco-gifting for the family

Are you one of the smug people who has nearly finished their Christmas shopping? Or are you a last minute, dash around the shops type? Either way, you are currently being bombarded by marketing galore.

Constant emails and cutesy catalogues will try to persuade you that all women desire purple silk underwear or fluffy ear muffs. Meanwhile, the man in your life absolutely requires a designer leather iPad cover embossed with his initials and the children will have a Christmas to remember ONLY if you buy them their own body-weight in overpriced, branded plastic.

We will all receive items that we don’t want or need and we will all spend a bit more than we should have done. Whilst our bank balances can hopefully recover in the New Year, it’s not so rosy for the environment because all consumerism has a direct impact on the planet. Now I’m not so mean as to suggest we don’t give presents, my children would still be crying by New Year’s Day if I was that horrible. However, burying them in an excess of new possessions doesn’t do them any favours.

Over-gifting your kids can result in them acquiring a spoilt, entitled attitude, not looking after their new toys properly and expecting even more next year. You know what over-gifting looks like: the child is swamped by presents which they open in an increasingly mechanical, zombie like way, finding it hard when the supply eventually stops.

To try and rein myself in (because it is so easy to get carried away) I love the gifting advice that goes ‘Want. Need. Wear. Read’ and try to apply it to shopping for the kids.

Want
A present is never wasted if it is what someone really, really desires. If you have no clue, then ask, or at least give vouchers rather than buying them the thing you secretly want. Yes, Dads with that Star Wars Lego, I’m talking to you!

Need
So it’s a little more on the boring side, but for children this is where the more sensible purchases come in, such as a new duvet set, furniture for their room, hairbrush or swim kit. Although my cousins were given toothpaste every year – I think that may be taking it a bit far.

Wear
Much as I love a festive jumper, giving it on Christmas Day means it is hardly going to be worn. If you must, then size up so growing children can wear it the next year too. Onesies, special dresses and organic cotton pjs make excellent choices here.

Read
The gift of a book is the most wonderful of all. What could be more perfect than giving them a whole world, for you to read together or for older children to discover alone? I don’t think anyone can have too many books.

Stockings
What about stockings? That’s helping Father Christmas plan your child’s stocking obviously. I try and keep to the above rules when, er, suggesting ideas to the elves. That is, something from each category of: want, need, wear, read – but we do have a whole stocking to stuff.

Eco-friendly ‘consumables’ are great filler options, such as Fair-trade organic chocolates, dried fruit, an all-natural bath bomb or lip balm, or shower gel. I also feel Santa should always provide useful items such as pants, tights, vests and socks.

When you are tight for time, it is easy to just grab the nearest available items, however eco-unfriendly. Don’t worry though, I’ve collated some green and thoughtful stocking ideas that will help!

Baby and toddler stocking ideas
I honestly wouldn’t go crazy for this age group – a couple of nice, eco-friendly toys and then a few practical items will be plenty.

I love these lovely sustainable wooden grasping toys by EverEarth.

A gnome leaf stacking toy.

Felt animals (3+).

Wooden letters for the bedroom door, like these.

Wooden cars (these mini ones are 3+).

Cutlery and plate sets.

Gorgeous Stockmar beeswax crayons.

Primary age stocking ideas
Eco action trump cards – a fun way of learning about taking care of the environment.

Mini boxes of a favourite ‘treat’ cereal.

Learn about natural energy sources with a potato-powered clock.

A new water bottle – this one is made from recycled plastic and has a charcoal filter.

A wind-up torch.

Wooden jewellery.

A flannel with their favourite character on.

A grow your own carnivorous plants kit.

Lavender and wheat filled teddies, that can be microwaved and will make the bed all cosy (so you can turn the heating down).

Teenager stocking ideas
A bead and hoop necklace, fairly traded and made from all natural materials.

Star wars origami.

These gorgeous birch candle holders.

Vouchers – probably iTunes.

An adult colouring book inspired by nature.

Pretty glass earring dish.

Slightly crazy, but low eco-impact, face drinks mats.

Who says money doesn’t grow on trees? Grow your own money (plant).

I also enjoyed these eco-gift suggestions from River Cottage HQ, and don’t forget second-hand items are perfect too. Now is also a great time to take any outgrown toys to the charity shop so someone else can benefit!

Above all, don’t go overboard on the pressies, do get out for some fresh air and do remember that possessions don’t bring happiness, it’s all about being together in your very own crazy, unique way.

Kate Blincoe is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting (Green Books) and is a freelance writer.

Taking the stress out of going green

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Photo by Phil Barnes

It was an identity crisis moment. Sitting sobbing on the bedroom floor with a crying baby and another soiled cloth nappy that had splurged all over the baby, carpet and me. I’d had enough. I was obviously a terrible mother and now the eco-warrior in me had died too. Pass the disposables, sod the planet I was just trying to get through the day.

My baby’s bottom shrank overnight as the bulky reusable sat in the corner glaring at me and the slim, weird smelling disposables changed the way my child felt to cuddle. It had just been too hard; the cloth nappies had not fitted properly and I’d run out of the cash and will to do anything about it.

Then that good old parental favourite, guilt, jumped on to my back like a big ugly monster, taunting me with phrases like ‘those nappies will never biodegrade you know’ and ‘you are condemning your child’s planet to be a landfill site’. Still, my baby was happy and I gradually found my way through those early crazy months. I did feel sad though, not to be in the green parent tribe.

Once the brain fog had reduced I realised it wasn’t so black and white. There are in fact at least 50 shades of green. Anyone who has ever written a birth plan knows that from the very start, parenthood is about compromise and constantly reviewing your expectations. So what if I wasn’t using cloth nappies, there was so much I was doing right.

I found a green lifestyle that would make my family life better, happier and healthier, not worthy, guilt-filled and exhausted. This meant changing things that would benefit us and letting fun and family activity be the guide. I learnt that with the right information, even cloth nappies could have been easy, but hair shirts and hand-knitted muesli would be strictly banned.

Here are my top seven ways to be greener, happier and healthier without the stress:

  1. Make intelligent swaps.

That means using British grown rapeseed oil instead of imported olive oil to save carbon, whilst enjoying the bonus that it’s also lower in saturated fat, higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and cheaper. Also, it is easy to ditch marine polluting laundry detergent and opt for the wonderfully freaky soapnut shells. They are the dried fruit of the soapnut tree and clean clothes brilliantly without polluting or upsetting sensitive skin.

  1. Don’t be afraid of using technology to lure children outside.

Whilst we need to create a balance of screen time and outside time, it can be helpful to harness the power of the app for a fun activity. Try treasure hunting with geocaching, star gazing with an app like Star Walk and using the Wildtime app for nature inspiration.

  1. Do a better job of reusable nappies than me.

I totally messed up because I didn’t know some vital information.  For example, it’s best to try out a few different types before you invest in the 20 or so that you’ll need. Some types just won’t be the right shape for your baby and having loads that don’t fit will be disheartening and expensive.

  1. Make your milk feeding green

Breast feeding is best for the environment and your baby but that knowledge doesn’t help you when it doesn’t work for emotional, physical or logistical reasons. Step away from the guilt and make sure your bottle feeding is as green as possible. For example, you can buy safe glass baby bottles and make sure you keep your kettle de-scaled for efficient boiling.

  1. Learn a few tricks to cut your food waste

Did you know, the banana is one of the most wasted food items which is made worse by the fact that they have come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. Here are my tips for being a banana saver!

  1. Care about carbon, but don’t be ruled by it.

Get the basics like insulation sorted, try not to choose clubs and activities that involve lots of driving, choose local products with limited packaging, but then be kind to yourself. There is much, much more to being a green parent than carbon counting.

  1. Make your outdoors space count for wildlife.

Plant a pot with lavender to provide nectar, put up some bird feeders and have a messy ‘nature reserve’ corner with a stack of logs and sticks and long grass. Now is also the right time of year to plant some wildflower plugs such as oxeye daisy, corn poppy, ragged robin. These will bring colour and life in even the tiniest space.

So don’t be an eco-worrier; forget the guilt, take some fun steps and be an eco-warrior instead. There are happy green days ahead.

Something to beef about

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Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I once ate a stone cold ‘roast’ dinner rather than complain in a restaurant. I have that terribly British affliction of too much politeness. It stops many of us making a fuss or asking questions unless something is really, really bad.

I’ve had to get over it recently, and become that demanding and slightly annoying customer. A recent volunteer role with the Soil Association involved discovering more about children’s food in restaurants. I was so shocked at some of the responses to my questions that since then I’ve made it my business to overcome my reserve and find out more about the food on offer.

Unless you are in a restaurant that makes a real selling point about their food sourcing, then the most uncomfortable question to ask is ‘Where does your meat come from?’. I’ve tried this in half a dozen smart eateries over the past month or so and it was awkward.

Either the waiting staff had no idea about the provenance of the meat, or they did, and sheepishly replied with a far flung location such as South America or Thailand.

It is evidently cheaper to raise and slaughter animals in Thailand, then fly the meat across the globe than it is to produce it here. Urm, does that reassure you about production methods and animal welfare abroad?

Many of us try to buy British when we shop for the Sunday roast or weekday Bolognese. A YouGov poll revealed that nearly 60% of UK consumers prefer to buy UK-sourced meat than imported meat. However, in some ready-meals and high street restaurants we are not given the choice. The meat is cheap, possibly mechanically reclaimed, unlikely to be free-range and from the other side of the planet. It’s this sort of situation that gave us horse meat lasagnes.

We’re too good at avoiding thinking about where our meat comes from. When you are out for a nice meal, it’s hard to be the difficult, fussy customer and we don’t like thinking about dead animals.  It should be the legal responsibility of businesses that we are trusting to feed us to make sourcing information easily available – then we can vote with our mouths.

This worked for eggs. Back in 2004 the European Commission made it obligatory to label eggs as coming from ‘caged hens’ which led to the growth of the free-range market and eventually the banning of battery chickens.

Every time we eat the cheapest imported meat we are messing up – we are failing to support our British farmers, neglecting animal welfare and risking filling our bodies with the nastiest form of protein.

A meal out should be a treat – not an exercise in interrogation of the waiting staff or blindly swallowing poor quality food. At the moment, the average high street caterer is relying on our ignorance. Until things change, I’m a restaurant vegetarian. I won’t give my money to supporting an unpleasant, cost-cutting industry.

First published in the EDP and EADT

Somewhere near you, a banana is in trouble.

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Somewhere, in a fruit bowl near you, a banana is in trouble. Eric the Bananaman is busy, so it’s down to you and only you to save the day. Yellow capes at the ready, pants on the outside; you are the Banana Hero.

The banana is one of the most wasted food items. That perfect moment between too green and brown and squidgy can be hard to achieve. It’s a big shame to waste them, especially as they come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. This staple fruit comes with quite a carbon footprint when compared to locally grown apples or pears.

So how can you save that past its best ‘nana from the bin? Read on…

  • If you have the luxury of time, then you can’t beat a banana loaf and you certainly can’t beat Mary Berry’s. This is a lovely recipe for kids to help with (mine do enjoy squishing the bananas by hand so extra clean paws are a must!) and they will love the results too. It uses two bananas, if you only have one then try this choc chip version.
  • If you have not a spare minute, so busy you might cry, haven’t even had a shower this morning, then this is your option. Simply peel and slice the banana, put in a little bag (one per banana) and freeze. Then when you want to make a quick sugar-free smoothie another less crazy day, your banana chunks will be ready. Try this healthy banana and strawberry smoothie (it works well without flaxseed and using cow’s milk too). Simply chuck the frozen banana chunks into the blender instead of the fresh ones. It will go super creamy and chill your smoothie to perfection.
  • For another frozen banana idea, it has to be the incredibly virtuous dairy and sugar-free banana ice-cream. All you need to do is food process the frozen bananas until smooth and creamy. This blog will talk you through it, as well as giving ideas for other flavours to add. The children will hoover it up and think it’s a naughty treat, although you could legitimately have it for breakfast.
  • If the banana has gone so far that it is beyond human consumption (this is often the case with the forgotten one in the bottom of a rucksack) then you can still save it from being wasted. Wildlife visiting your garden or balcony will be glad of the energy. Read here about creating an autumn feast for butterflies before they hibernate. Or, for a winter option, simply peel it and put it on the lawn. Blackbirds do enjoy a nice ripe banana.

Now, however busy you are, there is no excuse to chuck a banana in the bin. I’ll put my yellow cape away… until next time.