This weekend C and I visited a friend in the New Forest, who’s borrowing Murphy, our Ryeland ram, to use on her little flock. After we’d introduced Mr Murphy to his new ladies, my friend and I got chatting about what it’s like to live in the Forest. She was bemoaning the fact that people don’t seem to observe the natural world around them as much as those who’ve grown up in the woodland have learned to do. It was a particularly busy day in the Forest, since the weather was lovely and the autumn leaves were at their best. But as I watched people strolling by on a nearby bridleway, I couldn’t help but agree. Admittedly, many of the walkers in the New Forest this weekend probably just wanted a chance to let their kids and dogs run around, make some noise and use up some energy. But I thought it such a shame that in doing so, they were missing an opportunity to look closely and quietly at some of the finest sights that nature has to offer, right under their footsteps.
You don’t, however, have to travel anywhere to observe nature. We are, after all, part of nature ourselves, and even a half-hour or so of people-watching on a busy high street or city centre can be as interesting, if not more so than bird watching or looking for interesting plants on a country walk. We’re certainly easier to spot than some of the rarer species!
That said, if you want to look for other species, where better to start than right where you are now? If you’re indoors, do you have any house plants? If it’s daytime, have they turned their leaves to face the light? If it’s night time, perhaps they’ve folded away some flowers, they’ve certainly dropped their rate of photosynthesis (the mechanism by which plants turn light energy into food). Do they have bugs on their leaves? Is there perhaps a tiny earthworm in the plant pot? Do you think your plant is content to be indoors and is flourishing in its spot, or is it struggling? Try imagining what it must be like to be that plant, living in one spot all the time, responding as its surroundings change hour-by-hour.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been caring for one of our bantam chicks who broke its leg. We’re not yet sure if it’s a he or a she, but until we know otherwise we’ve assumed he’s a boy. He’s been living in a box in our living room while he heals, and I’ve been gradually introducing him to an outdoor pen, increasing the time he spends there daily. I check on him every couple of hours or so, but because I work in the studio for much of the day, the little bantam has spent some considerably time in his box without seeing us. Lately I’ve been wondering what it must be like for him, with only my cat for company. I know he twitters away about things, because sometimes I hear him at night. But it’s interesting to think of what it’s like for him, when he’s been settled quietly for a while, and then I come in and bustle him about, checking he has food and water, perhaps moving his legs for him to make sure he doesn’t seize up. Are those moments good ones for him, or does he prefer being nestled asleep? He certainly doesn’t seem unhappy, but then I’m not sure as he’d let me know if he were bored, he is a chicken with only a little brain after all. It’s been an interesting thought experiment imagine myself in his place for a while, and one that’s worth doing for any of our pets.
The ‘imagine you are a’ thought experiment is a great way of thinking about our natural environment too, one which helps us to develop some sensitivity about our surroundings. Just recently I’ve been thinking about what it must be like for the bees in my brother’s beehive, as they rush around preparing food from the last flowers of the season to last them the winter. Or what must it be like to be my lemon tree, which has been flourishing in a plant pot all summer, and I’ve now brought it indoors for frost protection. Or how about those big black house spiders, which scare us by running across the carpet, but are actually engaged in an epic mating tournament with males racing each other to be the first to find an unclaimed female (spoiler: even the males who win die shortly afterwards).
It’s all too easy to imagine the natural world as being something that’s ‘outside’ and separate from us. When we close the door on a dark chilly evening, it can feel comforting to have shut out the wild things, the creepy-crawlies, and in our case here on the farm, the screeching owls, the howling foxes and the persistent winter mud. But in reality, our homes are as much a part of ‘nature’ as anything else in the world. Our homes, made of brick, plaster, plastic and pressure-treated timber, aren’t ‘artificial’, they’re human. In a way we’re like the bees, who manufacture their highly-structured homes from beeswax, we simply use materials other than beeswax to make our living quarters. In short, we, and all the things that we make or synthesise, are very much natural things.
The skill we need to learn is to notice ourselves within nature. When we catch that spider (in my case safely under a glass) and throw him out of the door, we’re not throwing him ‘out’, we’re simply moving him away from us. We’re also probably scuppering his chances of finding a mate, but that’s another issue. When I shut out the noise of the screeching owls at night, is that how they feel when they hide in a tree hole in daytime away from human children playing? What kind of influence are we having on our natural companions? How would we feel if they did the same to us?
So my suggestion: on this scary Halloween night, try a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a tree by a roadside, or a rosebush, or a tiny little weed in a pavement crack, and you’re watching all the trick-or-treaters go by, with their big trampling feet, their cackling and their oh-so-bright torches. Isn’t it they who are the scary ones?