Archives for posts with tag: Nature

Why do you swim in cold water? Do you really do it every day? Doesn’t it give you a shock? Isn’t it dangerous?

You may as well ask me, Why do you write? And people have done this. They have also said, You must have to be very disciplined – do you really do it every day? And: Isn’t it hard?

Neither swimming in cold water nor writing come easily. Both require a certain amount of discipline; if you give up regular practice you lose your edge. This is true for many things in life. I know from bitter experience, having played musical instruments every day for years until I was pretty good, then once working life intruded, letting the daily practice slip, and finding that, years later, I was not so very good at playing any more.

Yes, I get a shock when I plunge into cold water. I am acclimatised now to the point that I can stay in for a lot longer than I used to and I don’t get the chills afterwards, but that doesn’t diminish the sharp seize that grips my heart when I lower myself in. And, yes, there are days when I get to the water’s edge thinking, ‘I am too tired today/too cold/not in the mood.’ Just as there are days when I look at a blank page and think, ‘I have nothing to say/don’t know what to write/am too tired/too cold/not in the mood.’

Yesterday I ran down to the cove and heard the sea’s loud whispers long before I could see its peaks and troughs. I told myself that a swim would not be on the cards today, and that in any case I didn’t feel like it. I had slept badly and was feeling melancholy, yet I kept on following the path, telling myself I would ‘just sit and look’. I pushed through the blackthorn and gorse and saw that, yes, the sea was choppy and, yes, the sky was dark grey and threatening rain. But there was not so much of a swell and the rain wasn’t likely to fall right overhead for a good ten minutes or more. Before I could talk myself out of it, I was throwing off my clothes, pulling my costume from my bag and heading to the edge of the rocks.

The cold made me shout and I paddled furiously towards my destination – a large rock about 25 metres away that my kids call Island Tosh. Once there, I was already grasped by the tingling sensation that is the addiction I crave, and the journey back to shore was blissful. I had stopped shouting and was swimming at a normal pace, enjoying the dark green glass of the water sliding over my hands, the feeling of warmth moving through my core, the mixture of greys and blues swirling in the sky overhead. I swam back out to Tosh one more time, grinning like an idiot, feeling the push and the pull of the sea as it played with me, making it harder to swim the closer I got to Tosh, but giving me a gentle shove back to the rocks as I turned around for the last time.

I pushed myself up and out, buzzing, talking to myself about how it felt to have swum a hundred metres in the sea in the second week in December. My dog watched me from a distance, disapproval written loud on her soft, loyal face. Why do you do this? she was asking, as so many people do.

The answer is the same as the reason I return to the page every day, however I am feeling: because I have to, because there is no other way to feel that I am truly alive. Writing, like swimming, is my own personal factory reset. The minute I plunge in – be it into cold water or a fresh new page – I am switching myself off and on again. Music used to do this to me. As a teen, if I were in a filthy hormonal mood I would run to the piano. An hour or so of crashing chords and tumbling scales and arpeggios, and I would re-emerge; washed clean, purified, my anger lost somewhere in those black and white keys.

Now it is the black and white of the words on the page. Or the black, blue and grey of the sea. The two things are so intertwined that I can hardly see the seams. When I am swimming, I am writing in my head. And often, like today, when I am writing, I am swimming in my head too.

Taking the plunge sometimes brings a shock, yes, but it always brings rewards.

This morning I woke to the news that, thanks to a National Trust project, beavers have built a dam on Exmoor for the first time in 400 years. The timing is perfect as tonight is a full moon, which is sometimes known as a Beaver Moon. This is because First Nations in America knew that beavers built their dams at this time of the year.

Image from Nature Month-by-Month, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

Beavers have had a hard time in this country – they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century because people used to take their fur to make hats and other clothing. Also an oil called ‘castoreum’ which beavers secrete from glands in their body was believed to be good for humans, so it was put in medicines and perfumes.

The beavers on Exmoor have been reintroduced in a controlled way, under a special licence, to help prevent flooding and restore streams that had dried up.

Image from Nature Month-by-Month, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

This new beaver dam on Exmoor is very special as it is the first one to be seen in the UK for almost half a millennium. As well as being a superb natural way of managing the flow of the river, the dam creates a wetland for other species. This means that creatures such as my favourite bird, the kingfisher, are likely to be seen there and it will become a breeding ground for lots of other wildlife.

So three cheers for the beavers on this, the night of the Beaver Moon!

I am trying to coax a new book out of the ground. Some days the words shoot out of my hands and on to the page. Others I dig away and nothing but specks of dust float out. On days such as these I usually give up the writing and choose to walk instead. I go down to the sea and, if the tides and the waves will have me, I plunge in, shouting at the water which gets colder with every day that passes. If the sea is not in a mood to welcome me, I carry on walking – up to the cliffs, higher and higher, feeling my blood swirl, my heart pound, my muscles stretch. I follow my dog who leaps ahead of me, making light work of the steep, mossy ground as she chases after squirrels who dart up trees and sit above her head, swearing and taunting.

I make my way to my favourite oak at the top of the cliff. She is a Turkey oak, her leaves longer and more elegantly elongated than those of her sturdy English cousin. She leans out over the precipice beneath her, her branches stretching towards the sea. Her body language is one of yearning. She leans away from the wind, longing for the light, her bows spreading over tumbling walls and the smaller saplings that she seems to be protecting, taking them under her wing.

Some days I go straight to her and put my arms around her, resting my cheek on her moss-soft bark. I breathe in time to her wind-rocked movement – if I close my eyes it is as if we are breathing together. We are, of course, I know that; it is not just the illusion of the wind. What I breathe out, the oak breathes in. The chemical exchange gifts me oxygen and the spiritual one inspires me; holding her, feeling her move, I know that everything will be all right. Not in a glib way like some childlike belief in an answer to a simple prayer, but in the sense that, with a longer view, knowing that we are but specks on this planet compared with this ancient oak, things will turn out to be as they should. This oak knows this, she who has been here since the previous owners first planted these cliffs with daffodils over one hundred years ago. She has seen my husband’s grandfather walk beneath her with his young twin daughters, she has seen his grandmother walk alone here after her husband’s death. She has seen my children rush down the path below her, shouting and laughing, fishing nets and buckets bouncing on their arms. And now she sees me – a middle-aged woman, tired and anxious, worrying about my future and the future of my family.

I stand back and take in her perfection. Yes, she is old and bent; yes, she is marked and spotted with lichen and moss and sprawling ivy. But the shape of her is perfect. She bends as gracefully as an ageing ballerina; her grace spreads out to me as I stare and marvel at her. When I stand back and take a proper look at what Nature is doing without us, I can see that she always finds her own shape. In that moment I know that I have to have more faith in the natural order of things. I have to keep going, keep breathing, keep writing, just as that tree keeps growing. And if I lean a little too far away from the wind, or I let moss creep along in between the paragraphs or ivy choke some of the phrases, that is all right. The text will grow if I keep letting it. And once it is done, I can stand back and see if I like the shape.

At last! We can all go for longer walks and even meet a friend with whom to share the beautiful spring weather. Now that we are allowed to drive further to go for walks, there will be many of us who have been shut up in towns and cities who are desperate to visit the countryside. Most people in this country now live in urban settings, so even before the coronavirus kept us in our homes, a trip to the countryside was a treat rather than a normal part of daily life. This means that a lot of us don’t perhaps know that there are some helpful things we can do while we are walking to make sure that we don’t make life difficult for farmers and the animals and crops that they are taking care of.

When I was at school (a long time ago…) more people lived in or near the open countryside, so as well as learning about how to be safe in the town, we also learnt something called The Countryside Code. When I was researching things to put in the next Nature Month-by-Month book for 2021, I was surprised to find that this code still exists in exactly the same way that it did fifty years ago. When I mentioned it to my children, I discovered that they had not heard of it, so I thought it would be a good idea to put it in my next book. So here is a sneak peek of that page which will appear in next year’s book:

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I hope that you do manage to get out into the countryside this week and that you enjoy birdwatching and looking at all the beautiful wildflowers and the new leaves on the trees. If you do, remember to follow the simple code above as it will make your walk more enjoyable and you’ll be helping the wildlife and farmers too.

Stay safe and keep well.

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Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

 

When I went out into the garden with my dog this morning, I saw two goldfinches on the grass! I very rarely see them so close up, so I stopped and made the dog sit quietly so that I could watch them.

It’s a good time of year to spot goldfinches, because they love the seeds that are around right now. They particularly love dandelions.

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Thinking of the goldfinches’ favourite food got me thinking about the sort of plants people call “weeds”. I am actually a big fan of weeds! My grandmother always used to say that “A weed is simply the name for a plant in the wrong place.” In other words, a plant is only a weed if you are a gardener who prefers a tidy garden – and I am certainly not that! My favourite places are wild patches of land where “weeds” come and go, depending on the season. And it seems that the birds agree.

Not only the birds, in fact. I read last week of a woman called Sophie Leguil who is going around London chalking the names of weeds on to the pavement next to where they are sprouting! She is taking photos of them and putting them on Instagram, too. Her idea is to teach people to look more closely at pavements, walls and building sites to appreciate the little bursts of beauty that Nature offers us in the most unexpected places. You can follow her at @more_than_weeds. Here is one of her recent posts:

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Wherever you go today on your walk, I hope that you spot something beautiful like a goldfinch or an unexpected “weed” to lift your spirits – a little flash of gold in the gloom.

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Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

Today is May Day – or Beltane. Both are festivals which celebrate the fact that summer is around the corner and the darkness of winter is finally past. We are now at the halfway mark between the spring and summer solstice: the evenings are longer and lighter and we are no longer waking up in the dark – so lots to be thankful for.

It might seem odd to be thinking of festivals during lockdown, but festivals are a good way of marking changes in the seasons. They give us pause to stop and take stock of where we are in our lives. It can be helpful to look outside, go for a walk and take time to notice how the trees and flowers are blooming, especially if you’ve been feeling low. 

Where I live, the bluebells are an intense blue now, the red campion has gone crazy and there are ox-eye daisies sprouting on the cliffs in places where you would not think a flower would be able to grow. I walked this way in the winter and had to hunch my shoulders against the howling wind and roaring sea and driving rain. It was a bleak and unforgiving place in winter. Today, it is warm and gentle and everything seems to be smiling down on me. I sat on the cliff this morning to write in my diary and thought how impossible that would have been in winter.

So, however bleak and unforgiving lockdown may be feeling for you right now (and believe me, it has done for me at times) try to take hope and comfort from the way Nature is celebrating the light and warmth. Nothing ever stays the same – there is always hope and new life around the corner. Nature knows this, and she’d like to show us if only we’d take a moment to stop, look and listen. Why not try doing that, this May Day?

 

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Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

 

Today, 22nd April, is Earth Day. This is a day to focus on what we can do to help the environment and protect our planet.

The first Earth Day was in 1970 – fifty years ago! It was set up by an American politician called Senator Gaylord Nelson because he thought it was important for children to be taught about the environment in schools. On this day (in “normal life” when schools are open and we don’t have to observe social distancing…) many schools get involved in local clean-ups in their streets, parks and along their rivers and coasts.

 

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Here are some things you could do to celebrate Earth Day:

1 Walk or cycle to get your daily exercise.

3 Turn off lights when you leave the room.

4 Turn off electrical appliances such as the TV, kettle and computer at the wall when you are not using them.

5 Try not to use a computer or the TV at all for just one day! (Difficult at the moment, perhaps, but what else could you find to do – it’s only one day…)

6 Take time to look at the trees, plants, birds and insects – you could do this from your window or doorstep. Make notes or drawings of what you see.

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7 Ask your parents if you can swap from chemical cleaning products to more environmentally friendly options. Did you know that you can do a lot of cleaning using natural things such as vinegar water and lemon juice?

8 Remember to take a cloth bag or a ‘bag for life’ when you go shopping to avoid using a plastic bag.

9 Did you know that meat production uses much more energy than plants? Try eating vegetarian food for one day. There are lots of delicious recipes to try – some are on this blog!

10 Take a refillable drink bottle out with you instead of buying water or juice in plastic bottles.

 

My sister and I used to love making ‘petal potions’ when we were younger. It was the kind of activity my grandmother encouraged because it involved a little time outside looking closely at plants and then a lot of fun and mess in the kitchen afterwards which kept us out of mischief inside while my grandmother got on with her sewing.

It’s the kind of activity you can do even on a rainy day in spring, as you don’t need to be outside for long to gather what you need. A quick race out into the garden, and you can easily gather enough petals, leaves and small flowers. Remember to ask first in case your parent or carer doesn’t like the idea of you picking flowers. It’s easiest and safest to go for things like daisies, buttercups, dandelions and other wildflowers that are around at this time of year such as the ones I mentioned in my last post. You can add grass to your potions too.

Here are some of the flowers in my garden right now. They are, from left to right: magnolia, primrose and camellia. As long as you are careful and don’t pick too many, you could add any of these into a potion. You would only need one or two of each flower and a few leaves to make three or four potions.

Once you have chosen your flowers, leaves, herbs, grasses and so on, bring everything you have gathered indoors and lay it out on a table or work surface. Then ask for some empty jam jars. If you haven’t got any then you can use drinking glasses. (It’s best to use something see-through so that you can get the best effect from your potion.)

Half-fill the jars with tap water, then put your petals and so on into the water and give everything a gentle stir.

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Abracadabra! You’ve made a potion!

The sweetest-smelling potions are made from flowers like roses or from herbs with a strong scent such as mint or rosemary. But you might be going for colour rather than perfume, so choose what you like. It’s up to you!

If you don’t have a garden, ask if you can take a few petals or herbs from any pots you might have on the windowsill or patio.

And if you don’t have any pots at home, you can make weird and wonderful potions with other things that you might be able to find in the kitchen cabinet, such as food colours, small amounts of rice and seeds. If you add bicarbonate of soda to your jars, they will bubble over and look like magic witchy potions!

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Whatever you do today, stay safe and well – and remember never to drink your potions!

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Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

 

You’re probably having to do some lessons at home now. Baking is a great way to learn about weights and measurements while also being a fun and tasty activity that you can share with all the family!

These Ostara buns (also known as hot-cross buns, eaten at Easter) are traditionally made to celebrate the pagan festival of spring. They are delicious and comforting when eaten warm and with a bit of butter or non-dairy spread. They also freeze really well, so you could make a big batch and stick some in the freezer to enjoy later if you can’t get out to buy bread.

Why not make a few extra and take them round to a neighbour who hasn’t been able to get to the shops? You’ll be sure to raise a smile.

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If you haven’t heard of Ostara before, here’s a little bit of information. See how many other springtime festivals you can find out about! The news might be grim, but spring promises new life and growth, more daylight and the hope of better days to come – so it’s worth celebrating!

 

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Whatever you do today, stay well and keep safe.

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Nature Month-by-Month – a children’s almanac by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz is published by Nosy Crow and The National Trust and is available to order online.

Your independent bookshop can take orders over the phone and post books out to you, too. Give them a call!

Screenshot 2020-03-05 at 16.38.18March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”. It feels that way today! The wind and the rain seem never ending this year. So much so that I couldn’t bring myself to write much last month, which is why there is no post for February. I know I am not alone in finding this winter hard: a lot of people have found this winter tough with horrendous flooding making life awful for so many of us up and down the country. So, let’s hope that the old country saying is right and that by the end of this month we’ll be basking in “lamb-like”, sunny, spring weather!

At least signs of new life are all around. Even on the greyest days you can find daffodils and primroses in the parks and gardens, and maybe magnolia and camellias too.

My favourite tree in the woods near where I live has kept me going this winter. I have loved going to visit it to see what a wonderful array of life there is inside the old tree stump, using the rotting wood for food and shelter. At first glance, it might look like a sad old broken thing…

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But if you look more closely, you’ll find that woodlice have burrowed deep inside the soft, rotting wood to make their homes, and wasps have been chewing away at the papery wood to make their nests. And those fungi are incredible! (Just remember not to touch them.)

Once I get outside, I am reminded daily of the lessons that Nature has to teach me. It sometimes feels as though I am being gently told to stop looking down at my feet and inside at my miserable moods, and to look up and outside of myself instead at the wonderful signs of life all around me.

I think that must be why there are so many hopeful festivals being celebrated around this world at this time of year. Today in Cornwall we are celebrating St Piran’s Day. St Piran is the patron saint of Cornish tin miners who spent so much of their lives deep down in the dark mines. He is a saint who gives hope as he was thrown into the Irish Sea by the kings of Ireland but is believed to have floated to safety to Cornwall! Other festivals this month which celebrate new life and hope are the Hindu festival of Holi, the pagan celebration of Ostara and the Muslim celebration of Isra and Mi’raj.

Finally, on 29th March we get an extra hour of daylight when the clocks “spring” forward one hour! So lots to look forward to as March marches on. Enjoy the extra light each day brings by getting out and about – and looking up and out, not down and in.

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