“I NEVER TOOK IT FOR GRANTED, but nature was always in my life: I loved it, need it and it defined me. Somehow it made a connection with everything else.
As a child, we walked a lot. Not having a car, my mother was resourceful and independent and could find her way home from anywhere. Having a dog ensured good, long walks were a necessity whatever the weather and we did simple things: we played in the fields, in the river, build dens and came home in time for tea. Nature was part of me, not something separate to be sought out. But we had time on our hands.
Our parents had more freedom than us, and we had more freedom than our children. And that’s not down to a fear of what might happen to them: we lead far busier lives, there are more distractions and no time to get bored. We see the world through a screen, darkly, and it can isolate and insulate us from nature.
But we have reached a turning point and can choose to lament that loss – or we can reach out and make a connection with nature. And this is where we all come in.
So we go on picnics and walk and I try to weave a magic, creating family traditions and inventing seasonal ritual, making up or reading stories to fix things in the children’s memory, linking then to place and incident. Harvest is kite flying time; we go out on the stubble of the headland as a last hurrah to the summer, and a salutation to the departing swallows and martins. Every fireworks night in November, we listen for the thing “seeip” of redwings arriving under dark night skies, knowing daylight reveals the firecracker colours they carry under their wings.
In the damp shady wood, post-fete, we tread to avoid a proliferation of snails and the slow carnival floats of showy, frilly-bottomed leopard slugs. A slow worm crosses our path on the morning of a school trip to an amphitheatre. I hand it to my daughter and she feels a slight frisson of fear, then delight as it wraps its cool bronze body firmly round her wrist like a Roman amulet. Its tongue flicks out of a mouth upcurved in a legless lizard smile.
Organised nature activities are a wonderful thing, but to make a deep and lasting connection, it’s got to be personal. Nothing can replicate the experiences and memories made in getting lost in the woods, braving fields of lively cattle, losing willies in sucking mud and the silliness of sloshing boots. We walk in the rain, the dusk, the dark, feeling the wind in our hair, the wet muffle of fog and the rain through our clothes.
We make summer holiday pilgrimages to the “whirlpool”, a shallow ox-bow of chalk-stream, clear and fizzy as elderflower cordial. The children, in shorts and T-shirts, soon succumb to the revelation of the river’s silky, ice-cold deliciousness and walk on their hands with the fish down its flow, making a game of losing their flip-flops and returning with swan feathers.
And we make a ritual of watching the stars, packing a midnight feast of tea, marshmallows, biscuits and blankets and lie on the down to watch the annual Perseid meteor shower get underway against the chalky smudge of the Milky Way. We see 10 in a half-hour: quick white shots across our periphery, slow dives over our distant home town and at least one great streak of trailblazing, fizzing glory. Bats swoop on white moths fluttering over harebells and tawny owl calls. I think of times I’ve watched this star-storm before, when the appointed time coincided with a clear, moonless night. Sharing them with my father, or on a night huddled with the children when our tent blew down, or once, on a night road, protesting when I realised it was all over.
Childhood seems hard to hold onto, like dust through fingers. But above where we lie, a single speck of dust blazes across light years. Through nature we make connections that last lifetimes. A connection that’s about the journey and the human condition: about love and memory and wildlife and about gathering all the available light along the way. It occurs to me then that the two words that resonate now and have never felt more important are so simple: only connect.”
A wonderful article from RSPB Birds, Spring 2013, by Nicola Chester