urban nature

Wild Walk

Once, on the way to the allotment, I saw a heron stalking, spearing and then swallowing a fish. Its snakey neck bulged in and out: you could almost think the fish was still swimming as it travelled down the heron’s gullet. I think I held my breath the whole time.

These close encounters with wild creatures have an almost transcendent quality. When I was a child my family spent several summer holidays visiting RSPB nature reserves. I will never forget the thrill of a marsh harrier gliding above our heads; it was one of only two in the entire country at that time. I was eleven years old and felt as though something inside me had changed for ever.

It would be easy to live for these moments, to think they were the goal and end point of all our experience of wildlife. I know they can keep me going for days, and that’s as it should be … except. Except that we are missing something if we only think about the rare and spectacular in nature.

I’ve been reading Mark Cocker’s book Claxton, a collection of short pieces mostly about his walks near the small Norfolk village of the same name. There are charismatic encounters aplenty: otters, peregrines and on one occasion no fewer than twelve owls in a single field. Yet he repeatedly warns of the danger of privileging the showy and the spectacular.

‘What truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates,’ he writes. ‘A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

In the same way, those parts of the natural world that we tend to overlook – ‘the leafless trees, the dank grasses and flowerless plants, the expiring fungi and voiceless birds’ – are all essential to what he calls ‘the great gift of a walk in wild space’.

I like this calling of attention to what appears to be common. As Cocker says elsewhere, if we knew how to notice and value the everyday, we wouldn’t have got to the position where the house sparrow is one of our most threatened birds.

To help me learn more about my ‘living neighbours’, the plants and animals that live in our valley, I’ve signed up to do a ‘Wild Walk’. Wild Walks are a new project from the Willdlife Trusts and the British Trust for Ornithology in which ordinary members of the public commit to doing a walk regularly, recording what they see and then uploading their findings for the trusts to use to inform their conservation work.

My walk is easy. It starts just near our home, runs along the valley and ends at the allotment. In good weather I do it several times a week.

The starting point for my 'Wild Walk'

The starting point for my ‘Wild Walk’

What is much, much harder for me is identification. Every time I step into the wood I’m aware of being surrounded by millions of different living organisms and yet I can only identify a handful of them, mostly birds. Fungi, lichen, insects, moths and mosses: my ignorance of all these and more is shameful. Which is a bit of a problem for a wannabe citizen scientist.

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border the paths

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border my Wild Walk

Not knowing also seems like a kind of ingratitude. Imagine somebody fabulously wealthy living in a stately home full of stunning antiques and paintings. Then imagine that person saying they don’t know anything about them and they never bother to look at them anyway.

Stepping stones mark the halfway point of my Wild Walk

Stepping stones mark the halfway point

We would rightly scorn a person like that, and yet so many of us tolerate a similar lack of appreciation of the extraordinary things that are all around us as soon as we walk out of our front doors. At the back of Claxton Cocker lists the species he has seen in the parish. It runs to more than thirty pages.

Making a dent in my ignorance seems daunting but on the basis that you just have to start somewhere, I’ve made a resolution to learn one new identification fact every week. This week it was the coal tit song. It caught my attention because it really sounds like ‘tweet, tweet’, like a parent teaching their child what birds say. The RSPB has a recording here.

It’s a common enough bird with an ordinary-sounding song but it’s beautiful and it matters and my life is the richer for knowing more about it.

coal tit

Coal tit picture credit

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Tree following: July

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This month I’ve been thinking about what it means for my tree to be part of an urban street. Looking back at my previous ‘tree following’ posts I realise I tend to separate out the life of the tree – and of the ‘natural’ creatures that interact with it, such as birds and plants – from the lives of the humans who live here.

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When I took the photographs for last month’s post I was even annoyed that the neighbours had some work going on and there was an open van ‘intruding’ on the pictures.

Then I put the link to that post on Facebook and a couple of former neighbours who have since moved away commented on how much they missed the tree, and other silver birches in the gardens around here. One said how pleased she was that she could just see ‘the bird’.

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Obviously this isn’t a real bird. It’s a model woodpecker that was stuck up there a few years ago and was something to do with number 6, who were playing some kind of game with the people who then lived at number 1. The game involved placing plastic gnomes in each others’ gardens and finished soon after number 1 put an eight-foot high fibreglass model of Father Christmas in a flowerbed at number 6. (Things are not always this exciting in our street.)

The comments on Facebook made me realise this tree cannot be understood apart from its setting. I was wrong to be annoyed about the van in last month’s picture. Yes it would be nice if there were fewer vehicles in our road – and everywhere else! – but to want to airbrush them out is to be guilty of the kind of thinking that separates humans from ‘nature’, and that approach is rarely helpful.

Instead we need to be much more aware of where the overlaps and shared stories are, and of the important ways in which all the life in this street, from the human to the microscopic, is connected.

This post is part of Lucy Corrander’s excellent tree following project on her blog Loose and Leafy. I especially liked her post this month. Be sure to listen to the tree ‘talking’ at the end.

 

tree following