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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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.

Somewhere near you, a banana is in trouble.

bananas

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.

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.

Someone spat on the rose bush

My book has some strange things in it – the kind of yucky, weird things that children find absolutely fascinating. The odd and wonderful way nature works, just outside our front doors, brings my family endless entertainment, giggles and fun.

Just yesterday, I heard someone complaining that the local teenagers kept spitting on her rose bush as they walked by to catch the bus. That really would be on a par with dog fouling, but when I investigated a little, it became clear that it wasn’t actually human grog (sorry, that word came to me from my teenage years), but something altogether more interesting. It was the frothy foam that surrounds the froghopper nymph, which really does look exactly like spit!

If you gently probe the froth, you will find the tiny, bright green young froghopper looking a bit disgruntled at being disturbed (well, I think it must be disgruntled but it is very hard to see its little face).  It surrounds itself in the foam as protection against predators. It is known as ‘cuckoo spit’ because it is seen around the time (now) that the cuckoos are calling – not that many of us hear them these days, but that’s a whole other story.

I was keen to feature the froghopper in my book, but how to capture its weirdness? Luckily, the book’s very clever illustrator Stephanie Laurence was able to help. Here is the froghopper in all his weird glory, thanks to Stephanie

P.S. My photo of the illustration is a bit dark but you get the idea.

froghopper

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.

Sleep is for losers

Image

Your speech will become incoherent and indistinct, and you won’t be able to think properly or concentrate. Meanwhile your physical coordination will plummet resulting in clumsiness. Grumpiness and irritability are guaranteed and you will almost certainly find your social functioning is impaired. You are unlikely to be safe operating machinery and you may even hallucinate.

This is not the result of some illegal drug or the impacts of a neurological condition. This is what sleep deprivation does to you. Insomniacs and the parents of young children know it well, and bedtime can be a daunting time.

Forget all that, if you can. Being tired is indeed rubbish, but its only rubbish if it is for no reason. If you are up all night partying then the next day’s fatigue comes with a sort of satisfied glamour.

One of the best ways of not sleeping is to go camping. You will sit up late chatting and putting the world to rights, then find it hard to get comfy and warm on an air-bed. Next minute, it is light, the darn birds are making a racket and the tent has turned into a sauna. Or, even worse, rain is pattering down noisily, like bullets hitting a shield.

The groggy post-camping feeling the next day is well worth it though. We are so accustomed to our electricity, heating and entertainment systems that escaping them for a night or two makes for a massive adventure. Camping reminds you how much we take for granted and how much carbon we burn in daily life.

It is also an incredible way to experience nature. Living under canvas, even for a short while, opens up all your senses. You will smell the morning dew mingling with the scent of the earth and, once you forget to care that you aren’t asleep, that dawn chorus will be breath-taking.

For children, it is a chance to run free from routine and experience a simpler, wilder existence. They will thrive on the campsite tasks of putting in tent pegs and fetching water.

As holidays or weekends away go, it is also one of the cheapest ways of gaining a change of scenery. This is especially true in places such as the Norfolk or Suffolk coasts where a week’s cottage hire, particularly in the school holidays, can cost a lot more than a super posh tent.

Camping is perfect for a micro-adventure too. Leave the office at five pm, head to a campsite with your tent, sleep the night and then wake up early (oh you will!) and put your suit back on and return to work. That is certainly more interesting than just going home and watching a box set again.

This month, people around the country are combining their love of camping and nature with the RSPB’s Big Wild Sleepout. It involves sleeping outside, either in your garden or at your local RSPB nature reserve and fundraising a little for wildlife too.

Beds are boring and sleep is overrated. A nocturnal adventure is so much more fun, so pack up your sleeping bag and don’t forget the marshmallows.