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.

Newsflash: Princesses can climb trees

As the mother of a strongwilled delightful four year old girl, I try to fight the pink stereotypes that threaten to engulf her every waking moment. I try to help her see that 1) ‘pretty’ isn’t the top objective in life, 2) clothes should first and foremost be cosy and comfortable and 3) that girls can take on the world. I’ve succeeded with 3), she takes no prisoners and has a natural authority. Take on the world? No problem, but expect collateral damage.

However, I’ve so far lost the battle on appearance. Like every other little girl she meets, she adores the Disney princess way of dressing. Four outfit changes a day? Well of course, darling, that is standard. She thinks girls should wear dresses all the time. Leggings are permissible if a skirt is worn over, but jeans and sensible trousers are just ‘too scruffy’.

I’m letting her have this phase. Often, disagreeing with her just cements her view and in the end, it is her body to dress as she will. My small stamp of authority is this: the pink/frilly/yucky/frothy numbers are all secondhand or hand me ons. That way, if they get ruined when this princess climbs trees, makes dens, fights with sticks and rolls down grassy hills, then we are all smiling. It’s what we do, not what we wear, that counts.

Ditch the dictionary and get outside

I don’t blame the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) for removing a host of gorgeous natural words from its pages and replacing them with ‘blog’, ‘celebrity’ and ‘committee’. A dictionary charts our changing language rather than directly altering it. The OJD is simply responding to the sad state of a world where technology and popular culture are considered to be more important than natural heritage.

You will never learn what a ‘catkin’ or ‘bluebell’ or ‘adder’ is from the pages of a dictionary. No formal, two-line explanation could do justice to the sway of catkins in the breeze, that touchable tassel of pollen. Or the scent of a carpet of bluebells, heady and rich, buzzing with bees. Or that brief, heart-stopping glimpse of an adder, slipping silently into the undergrowth.

As Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “I sincerely believe that for the child… it is not half so important to know as to feel.” A dictionary won’t help you feel, smell, touch, hear, taste and ultimately enjoy nature.

However, as I write this ‘blog’ (oh brave new ugly word), I also believe in the power of words. Without them, we cannot share our experiences or truly communicate those feelings.

Now, I believe that I bring my children up to touch catkins and know they turn in to hazelnuts, but I put it to the test. To replace some of the lost definitions in the OJD, here are my six-year-old’s suggestions, unedited. I’ve scored each one out of 10 for accuracy and level of detail.

Acorn – thing that falls from an oak tree and turns into another oak tree 10/10

Adder – fish in the sea 0/10

Ash – fire burnt down and a tall tree that can get a disease 7/10

Blackberry – spikey brambley plants grow blackberries and when they are purple you can eat them 10/10

Bluebells – flower comes in spring in woods. Not really blue, is purple. 10/10

Buttercup – flower that you get in meadows and gardens, yellow, put it under your chin to see if you like butter 10/10

Catkin –  brown, like acorns but fluffier and longer 8/10

Conker – falls from a chestnut tree, nice to collect 7/10

Cygnet – a baby turtle that lives in the sea 0/10

Dandelion – starts with a yellow flower that you can eat, then the dandelion clock comes with seeds you can blow to tell the time 9/10

Kingfisher – sparkly bird that goes in the water and catches fish 9/10

Newt – a type of frog, they are green or brown 5/10

I was shocked that my son had no clue what an ‘adder’, ‘cygnet’ ‘pasture’ or ‘fern’ is, but other than that, he did pretty well. His knowledge is based on what he has seen and touched, not on a book or television programme.

Yes, I am sad that the OJD has removed such beautiful, evocative words, but we had a battle on our hands well before that. We are losing nature at a scary rate and our children do not experience wild places on a daily basis. Losing words is a tiny problem in comparison.

The solution is in all our hands – get outside with your children or grandchildren every day and support charities such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts who are working hard to reverse natural declines. Then talk about it and share these underused words, for voices and experiences keep them alive, not dictionaries.

Step away from the gym

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So you want to be healthy in 2014? Lose a little weight? Feel less stressed and more energised? ‘Ah,’ many of us think to ourselves, ‘well in that case, I simply must join a gym. Within days I’ll have a six pack and biceps to die for’.

Don’t do it, you have a choice. The January gym fad is unlikely to last. We do it because we are so desperate to take some action that indicates our intention to be different this year.

However, the reality is that you will probably go once or twice. The rest of the New Year’s resolution crowd will be there, incompetently clanking the weights or standing idly queuing for the Powerplate. It will feel like hell on earth and it will be easy for you to find excuses to avoid going in future. The direct debit will continue to leave your account and the chains of a year’s contract will feel heavier than the dumbbells you tried to lift.

Actually, I enjoy exercising in a gym, but have seen for myself how, after that initial January rush, so many new members’ workout cards end up untouched at the back of the pile. If you still want to join in March, then go for it. You’ll probably get a better deal too.

Instead, try stepping outside. Yes, it’s freezing, but that burns calories. Yes, it’s dark, but wear a head torch and go with a friend. The benefits of exercising outside are massive and Mother Nature makes no charge.

A report by the University of Essex explains that exercising outside may feel easier than doing so in the gym. When allowed to self-select walking speed, participants tended to walk faster outdoors than indoors. Paradoxically, they reported a lower rating of perceived exertion. You are likely to end up fitter without so much mental effort!

Green exercise is also strongly linked with improving self-esteem and reducing negative feelings such as tension, anger or depression. This is vital for children and teenagers too, so lead by example.

Chilly, gloomy January is undeniably the hardest time in the year to get out there, so do it now and, in just a matter of weeks, the gradual awakening of spring will keep you hooked. You will hear birdsong and see nature busy around you, not caring that your lycra is somewhat past its best. Snowdrops, courting birds and mad hares are all waiting to distract you from the fact that you are exerting yourself.

It’s so simple too – all you need is a pair of trainers or walking boots (and of course the all clear from your doctor if you’re not used to exercising) and a park, pavement, footpath or country lane.

I mentioned that there is no charge, but I forgot to tell you about the contract imposed by the great outdoors. It will make the gym’s commitment of 12 months seem paltry. This is a lifetime arrangement, because once you build a little time into your routine for green exercise and start feeling the benefits, you will be addicted for life. 

First published in the EDP and EADT

Rewild parents while you’re at it

 

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George Monbiot wrote for his Guardian blog this week that children aren’t feral enough. They need to spend more time outdoors doing wild, active stuff.

Well, yes. This is one of my passions, and nature deficit disorder is well documented by organisations such at the National Trust

However, this weekend, I slightly reviewed my opinion. I organised a 5th birthday party for my son. It was in the woods and involved a troop of 4 and 5 year-olds rampaging with sticks, building dens, climbing over obstacles and having a trailer ride in my brother’s truck. 

The kids took it in their stride. They had fun, just as they do at the softplay or the go-carting. They really are pretty easy to please (space to run, food to eat, a bit of a party atmosphere). 

However, it was the adults that were euphoric. They said how lovely it was and how unique. Grown-ups forgot their worries to get involved in den building and were delighted at having a cup of tea from the thermos, while actually in the woods.

Focusing on rewilding kids is wonderful and essential. But we forget the grown-ups at our peril. They are the ones that set the weekend’s agenda. If they are not happy in the woods then it simply won’t happen for the children. Whilst many of them will have had a more outdoorsy upbringing than today’s little ones, it was, for most, still far from rural idyll. That is a large part of the reason why today’s newest generation are cut off from nature. Their severance began before their births, back in their parent’s childhoods. 

Schools can help reach today’s children, but we all know that the real education happens at home, and outdoors. Rewilding of parents is urgently required.

Meet me in the woods with your conkers, 2pm Tuesday.