The small, wild things

Cow parsley on wasteground

When I was a child, I was given a book about becoming a nature detective.  By today’s standards for children’s books it was uninspiring: filled with dense text and black and white photos.  Still, it captured my imagination and I longed to be able to track and investigate the natural world in the way the book described.  But I was an urban child and I thought the experiences the book presented were out of my reach.  I’ve always lived in towns and cities, while longing to inhabit the wilder places.  I wish I could look out of my window and see open spaces instead of my neighbours’ houses.  The sea has always been my local untamed place, while I believed that the town had little to offer in the way of nature.  But years after I dreamed of being a nature detective, I’ve learned that even among brick and concrete, it’s possible to live the change of the seasons and to find the wild in the everyday.

At the end of my road, there is a small park.  It’s little more than an expanse of grass and a children’s playground, a space that has been cultivated and tamed.  But I’ve walked this park nearly every day for two years and I’ve noticed its secrets.  There are five species of trees here, most of them old, including three wild cherries that burst into blossom each spring.  There is privet and hawthorn, offering cover to songbirds.  You’d be forgiven for thinking the only wild plants that grow here are daisy and dandelion.  But look closer: ragwort and ivy leaved toadflax cling to walls.  Hart’s tongue and maidenhair spleenwort grow in the shady spot under the trees.  There is a small clutch of bluebells, red dead nettle, thistle and cleavers.  Field mushrooms, glistening inkcap and King Alfred’s Cakes fungi fruit in the darker, damp patches.  The obvious birds are the seagulls and the crows, but listen to the dawn chorus and you’ll know there are many others – great tits squabbling in the trees, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and woodpigeons.  A dunnock has been singing an audabe from the privet each morning and, just once, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker high in a sycamore.

Just a little farther from home and here is the Dene, one of many deep valleys cut by streams that flow into the North sea.  This park too has been tamed, but not altogether.  Cowslips, marsh marigolds, yellow flag, water avens and shaggy inkcap all grow in the damp ground.  The pond, fringed with weeping willow, is home to mallards, tufted ducks, moorhens and the occasional heron.  I glimpsed a fox once, at the side of the road, but I’ve been told scores of them visit the Dene at night.  This week, I watched a pair of mute swans mating – he balancing precariously on her back, followed by a brief dance, where they raised their bodies and necks high out of the water and pressed them together.  Then it was over, off she swam into the rushes and left him circling the pond alone.

 

And then there is the business park where I sometimes work.  Dominated by office blocks, traffic and scores of people.  But look past the buildings and the tidy, cultivated plants and there is a host of nature here.  Follow one of the paths and you’ll come to areas tangled with trees and wildflowers.  Ponds with resident moorhens, coots, tufted duck and geese.  You may see a hare, a grey heron, or even a deer.  I’ve sat in meetings and watched rabbits at play outside the windows.  A weasel once crossed my path.

But nature always clings to the edges.  The smallest patch of waste ground is rich with possibilities.  The horsetail colony, like a strange clutch of aliens at the edge of a crane hire yard.  In their fertile form, they appear like burnt stalks, later, they turn green and feathery  The froth of cow parsley on the side of a main road.  The gull, minding her nest on a chimney opposite my office.  The bulrushes beneath the pylons.  Herb Robert poking through a fence.  Mayweed, Green Alkanet and Shepherd’s purse by the roadside.  There is a small path nearby, no more than five metres long, a narrow short cut to a housing estate, flanked by a school on one side and a tangle of waste ground on the other.  Along this short path I’ve seen a whole clutch of wildflowers that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Now, alas, it has been ‘tidied up’ and all the wildflowers poking through the fence cut down.  But they’ll be back.  Sometimes, there is a particular kind of beauty to the nature at the edges, in the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful.  And no matter how we try to tame it, it always returns.

Towns and cities distract us.  They urge movement, rarely inviting us to be still.  Their attractions draw us away from noticing the small, wild things that are with us every day.  Nature is less obvious, but it’s there.  Even a weekly, regular walk to the same location will make a nature detective of you.  You may also have to change your view of what is interesting.  The commonest flowers are no less beautiful because they’re common.  When did you last look closely at a daisy?  Have you ever noticed the tiny lilac paws of the ivy leaved toadflax or the miniature heart-shaped seed pods that give the Shepherd’s Purse its name?

Only a year ago, I was blind to what lay around me.  Now, I’m building a mental nature map of my neighbourhood.  As each season passes, I add things to the map.  I know where to go to find a particular wildflower or fungus, the best place to see a hare or a heron.  I know where to watch the seasons change.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I learn by experiencing nature at first hand.  There is nobody to tell me what I’m seeing.  Instead, I look carefully, noting colours, shapes, habitats, until I can put a name to what I’ve discovered.   There’s always something new to notice.  This week on my trip to the Dene, the buttercups have taken over.  The clover and yellow flag are beginning to bloom.  Hoverflies are everywhere and the spittlebugs have been hard at work creating their foamy dens.  I still long to live in a greener place than this, but I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.

57 thoughts on “The small, wild things

  1. Excellent post Andrea and I like the way you’re now labelling everything. I’d love to be able to learn to identify plants the way you do but I’d need someone to point and name. Here in the middle of St Helier, surrounded by roads and buildings, is Green Street Cemetery. It is deliberately kept semi-wild as a nature haven in the middle of town. I’d like you to guide me through it if you’re ever this way!

    Like

    • Thanks Roy – all you need is a field guide with good photos in it! I don’t always get it right – I sometimes think I’ve identified something and realise a few days later that it was something completely different. I love cemeteries and they’re a great place to find nature – I suppose because most of the time it’s quiet and undisturbed 🙂

      Like

  2. I love that you explore nature within your urban confines. I, too, often long for a different view than houses and streets with cars rushing down them. I need to be better at appreciating what IS around me, instead of longing for an unblemished view. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Like

    • Thanks Carrie, I breathe a sigh of relief when I’m somewhere in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nature, but it’s surprising how distant the world can seem in some of the places I’ve mentioned in the post – the Dene is surrounded by a housing estate and the business park, of course, is full of office buildings, but it’s easy to forget that when you’re walking through the green areas.

      Like

  3. Wow, Andrea you are a walking nature encyclopedia! Heart’s tongue, shaggy inkcap, water avens, Herb Robert..I needed to look those up because they sounded unfamiliar to me.
    Nature has a way of reclaiming its territory. It made me think of that documentary ‘Life after people’. A little grim in the beginning (for us the people) but fascinating to see how quickly the impact by ‘lack of people’ is noticed right away and that the earth can go along very well without us.

    Like

    • Only when I come home and look up what they all are! But that’s meant I’ve built up quite a good knowledge – I just walk around and think, hmm I wonder what that is? I saw a new flower at the coast today and haven’t a clue what it is, but I’ll be investigating later…I haven’t seen that documentary but sounds very interesting. I think we were having a meeting of minds again this week, with your post – to some it’s a weed and to others it’s a wish!

      Like

  4. Your photos are gorgeous. Really. I like this post very much because I am a big fan of nature but also of big cities. You’re right to write that we can see nature at work even through traffic and brick and mortar buildings. My personal awareness came in Paris. After a childhood spent in a very small village near a small town, three years at the university in a medium size French city, Paris was huge, noisy and smelly. Although I loved Paris before I moved there, it took me a few months to physically adjust to the crowd and my new surroundings. And so I turned to what I missed most: nature. I was surprised to catch glimpses of stray cats and dogs pretty much everywhere. They lived in small parks, squares and alleys. This is where I understood that Paris was still a village behind its big city appearance. Since then, I’ve lived in a variety of settings, and I’ve been, like you, able to spot nature at work everywhere. You’re right when you write that no matter what nature has always the last word. When people say they hate nature, to me they pretty much say I hate this planet. Because nature is surrounding us, including in cities, if we take the time to look. Thank you for the beautifully crafted post and the outstanding photos.

    Like

    • Thanks so much Evelyne. It’s fascinating to learn about how you came to terms with living in Paris by looking for nature. I lived in Manchester once, which was a much bigger city than I was used to and also far from the coast – I didn’t adjust well, but the saving grace was being able to walk by the canals.

      Like

  5. Obviously, you should write the next nature detective book, Andrea. This is wonderful narrative to accompany your spectacular photos. Oh, how I love swans. By the way, I love the header on your blog, it’s so relaxing and inviting.
    Have a wonderful holiday weekend!

    Like

  6. As I was reading your post, I was amazed that you know the names of so many of the plants and animals you come across. The naming of something gives it identity and personality and calls forth its uniqueness from the mass of, say, ‘plants’ and ‘animals.’ And I agree, it is a bit challenging to live in the city and find nature. But you are right, it is there. There is a little thrill when instead of saying, “there goes an interesting bird,” you can say, “Hey, that’s a Nuttall’s Woodpecker.” Sorry, just showing off my newly identified bird!

    And I think it honors Nature when we can name the individuals of Her creation.

    Like

    • You’re so right – I have in mind another post on that some time in the future. I do love to be able to know what something is named, even though it’s no less beautiful if I don’t – I get exactly that little thrill you’ve described when I know what something is.

      Like

  7. Fantastic post. I’ve edged my way out of (years of) central urban living to a built-up suburb to, where I now am, still staring at a row of houses knowing there are open fields and rolling hills beyond but which, frustratingly, will disapear completely when the house opposite build their extension. Yet Ive always tuned into the details, the small calling cards of nature…it used to be those little parks I walked daily with my dog, these days I jump in my car and have countryside near by. Often its the postage stamp of nature in my garden that provides me with the highlight of my day…just by filling the bird feeder, I get treated to multiple varieties of birds that I can enjoy while I work from home. As for the so called ‘weeds’ that my neighbours love to strim back in the shared driveway by the house, I just love the variety of wildflowers this small patch delivers when left to its own devices.

    Like

    • How inconsiderate of your neighbours, you must feel a little loss from knowing the view will be blocked. We had an old nursing home just down the road that was knocked down recently, which meant I could get a small sliver of a view of the river from upstairs – sadly they built a new one in its place (and much uglier than what was an old vicarage) so I no longer have my tiny river view! But it’s walking my dog that’s given me this new insight into nature, because before, I didn’t spend nearly as much time with it – but I am lucky to have some lovely parks nearby as well as the coast.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful! I’m living in a condo in an urban area right now, and don’t even have room to plant a garden–I walk a lot, but haven’t thought of being a nature detective. Such a great idea.

    There’s a correspondence today between your post and the post of another blogging buddy of mine — I’m taking it as a message to pay attention to the small miracles. Have you met Karin yet?

    http://karinvandenbergh.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/lost-found-everything-is-holy-now/

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I adore the maidenhair fern and ivy leaved toadflax – so delicate and a delight to see. Was out walking a couple of days ago and was racking my mind what the name was for one plant – it was cow parsley. I love spotting edible or medicinal plants. For tea we saw: cleavers, yarrow. For food: nettles, alexanders. For salads: gorse flowers. Elder flowers coming towards bloom. And bunnies ran across our path…twice. And two swans took off near us just to move 50m down the small waterway. Stunning.

    Like

    • It sounds as though you’re a fellow detective Cecilia. I think cow parsley is one of those very familiar plants that you just need to look at again to appreciate – it looks particularly wonderful when it’s in a mass. My dog can’t get enough of cleavers – he singles it out to eat, I believe it’s good for the lymphatic system.

      Like

  10. Andrea — Beautiful photos and refreshing with all the flowers and green life sprouting up I enjoyed going on a walkabout with you, Andrea. Nature is truly an adventure with surprises around every corner. Thank you for sharing with us. 🙂

    Like

    • Thank you Pat – I think it’s also interesting that ‘my’ nature is probably so different from ‘yours’, just because of our environments – you have some very stunning, grand habitats, whereas mine are on a smaller scale!

      Like

      • It is interesting, Andrea, in how different our environments are. It looks like you have a lot of wooded areas and trees if you have that much green. Everything is more open here and you can see for miles in a lot of places. We’re also a mile high (Denver) in elevation so it looks like the stars are closer. I love it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh this is a great post, Andrea. Your pictures are beautiful, your prose, as always wonderful. You’ve made us all stop and think, I think. Well, you have me, anyway! Thank you!

    Like

  12. I loved hearing how one book given to you as a child influenced you so much, especially a book that wasn’t that child-friendly – black and white photos, etc. You never know what book will spark a new interest in a child.

    Like

    • I still have it Letizia and I did decide I might read it as an adult to see how different my perspective was, but I still couldn’t get into it, but you’re right, just having the book sparked that interest. By the way, thanks for the tweets – I’m afraid I haven’t really got into the way of twitter, other than linking it to my wordpress account but I appreciate you sharing it 🙂

      Like

  13. Nature has a way of squeezing into every nook and cranny, given the chance. I live in a town, with a view over the rooftops to the sea from the front of my house, there’s a recreation ground over the road, and woodland leading up to the South Downs at the top of my road, so it’s the best of all worlds. But on wet days, I often walk the dog along a lengthy path with houses backing on to it on either side and garages. There are all sorts of interesting plants, weeds, and fungi growing here, and my camera is often clicking away capturing things all the year round.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Andrea, this is a beautiful post, elegant and eloquent. You were then–and still are–a nature detective. Thank you for taking me along on your adventures. The pictures are wonderful!

    Like

  15. Thank you for taking us on these walks with you and reminding us that Nature can be found everywhere—if we only stop to look. If I wrote fantasy or even magical realism, this post would be a wonderful source of ideas for a story about the hidden worlds within our own. Maybe another writer will take up that challenge…. I hope so!

    Like

    • I do love hidden and abandoned places – I’ll be doing a post on that at some point in the future – but they’re such a source of inspiration and it’s those places that often have the best range of wildlife.

      Like

  16. Oh Andrea, what an exquisitely beautiful post. How wonderful to be a nature detective (I would have loved your book, I remember our Observer Book of British Birds and used to take it in to the woods when me, when I was also looking for fairies!!) and I’m so impressed with your knowledge of all the plants growing right on your doorstep! So often I don’t know the correct names so this is really helpful and informative too!
    I love how you shared your spectacular photographs not just from the play park but from the business park too and it really does remind us all that nature and wildlife are all around us, urban or not. This post, your photos and your narrative, give me a feeling of peace, relaxation and a deep gratitude for the simple things of life…if we just take the time to really look!
    Thank you so much 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks Sherri – I’ve got quite a few of those books now, all with lovely colour pictures – and children’s ones are still sometimes the best! It’s a pity there wasn’t a fairy identification guide – or maybe there was! I’ve just been reading about ‘fairy ointment’ which you could spread on your eyes so that you could see the fairies 🙂

      Like

  17. This is interesting to me, because I’ve recently found myself getting transfixed by small details in objects — even ones created by humans such as tables and stucco walls. Human-made objects may appear flat and uniform from a distance, but in reality, no two are ever fully alike. Seeing the world at that level can be overwhelming but, I think, adds to the richness of my experience.

    Like

  18. Nature detective…LOVE it! You know I’m pretty much urban gal for the most part, but I am enraptured by nature as well. So, obviously this post rocks.

    I loved that you said: “I’ve learned that wherever I am, I can always find a little wildness.” And, I totally agree. Even a brave bunch of flowers on a busy city block can be just enough loveliness to bring us down to earth.

    Like

  19. Back in a time long ago and not very far away I would have paid quite a sum of money to see a rabbit out the window during one of the countless boring business meetings I had to attend! 🙂
    Lo – and behold…
    I loved your post and thanks for stopping by one of mine today!

    Like

    • Thank you! It’s amazing what you can find if you look for it and no doubt your nature detecting would turn up things very different to mine given our locations. I’ve just been in a car for 200 miles today and just looking at the road verges and spotting the wildflowers there made the journey so much more interesting!

      Like

  20. Pingback: Rare mushroom found in the Netherlands | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  21. Pingback: A harvest festival | Harvesting Hecate

    • There are so many great posts out there to read. I’ve noticed a couple of people using the ‘random’ facility to read old posts on my blog, which is great and something I hadn’t known existed – but I have trouble just keeping up with the new ones 🙂

      Like

  22. Andrea, now you are an adult nature detective! And one who writes so well too 🙂 As for seeing grey heron, or even a deer, I am the same here. We occasionally see them in the area as we are close to water (hello Mr and Mrs Heron) and have a lot of trees and bushes (hey there deer-ie). Rabbits too sometimes and squirrels. I love being around greenery and it’s such a huge part of BC here. The air feels fresh, you know? I loved those photos!!

    Like

I love comments, please leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s