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.