WILDLIFE author, campaigner and blogger Mark Avery may have scaled back the frequency of his blog posts, but thankfully his weekly book reviews are still offering a helpful snapshot of the latest nature book releases.
With so many titles weighing down the nature shelves, it’s helpful to have an old friend casting an experienced eye over the latest releases, and in the meantime Mark assures us he has been making excellent progress with his next book since he stopped his daily blog posts.
“If I have written 1000 words by breakfast around 0830 then it’s a good day. If I am still writing by 1030 then it’s a really good day,” he says.
Visitors to his blog can sign up for his monthly “news blast”, which includes links to his latest Sunday book reviews.
THE insects in today’s picture choice are so vivid and lifelike that it’s hard to believe they were painted more than 350 years ago.
But the painting on copper panel actually dates from 1657 and is the work of Jan van Kessel the Elder, a versatile Flemish artist known for his meticulous studes of insects and flowers (along with marine and river landscapes).
Born in Antwerp in 1626, van Kessel belonged to a dynasty of famous painters and a couple of his works are in the National Gallery.
But despite the vivid realism of the colours in his sprig of redcurrants lying alongside an elephant hawk moth, ladybird, millipede and other insects, to modern eyes the study may feel uncomfortably lifeless.
But of course that stems from our ability to capture the natural world in all its splendour without trapping, killing and impaling them in cabinets of curiosities, as early natural history enthusiasts were prone to do.
Ironically van Kessel – a keen observer praised in his day for his precision and attention to detail – was perhaps more radical in his artistic approach than we might initially appreciate as 21st-century observers of his work.
“Cabinets of wonder”, as they were also known, were early forerunners of museums – private collections of notable objects which emerged during the 16th century and helped to establish the socioeconomic status of their curators.
Filled with all kinds of disparate objects, from preserved animals, horns, tusks and skeletons to minerals, sculptures or clockwork automata, such collections often helped to promote scientific advancement when their contents were publicised and discussed, and the desire to collect and categorise the natural world inspired artists to achieve the same in painted form.
By the Victorian era, the pursuit of collecting was held in high esteem and formal parlours functioned as private museums with which to impress and amaze guests, the age of scientific exploration and discovery fuelling the popularity of taxidermy as an all-consuming obsession.
But for van Kessel way back in the 17th century, a collection of studies of flowers and insects engraved and published in 1592 in Frankfurt was to influence his work, and his studies differ from the dispassionate approach of predecessors who arranged flora and fauna in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet.
Van Kessel created a more dynamic arrangement of insects, where his message of nature as a mirror of God’s power would not have been lost on contemporary audiences.
As art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst wrote in a recent reflection on the work: “The juxtaposition of Van Kessel’s animated painted insects with the redcurrants and two moths delights the viewer. There is a certain cheerfulness that emanates from these paintings.”
Perhaps that means van Kessel’s painting from 1657 has more in common with the vibrant portraits in modern nature journals than the grim drawers favoured by Victorian collectors, who kept their insects and butterflies so neatly and systematically arranged and ordered.
POPPIES. If there’s one iconic image of what the Chilterns landscape should look like in June, it’s that vibrant splash of colour we see when the corn poppies come into bloom.
Of course, those scarlet fields herald the coming of summer across western Europe and have long been associated with the terrible sacrifices made by the millions who fought in past wars.
The poppies – papaver rhoeas – spring up naturally in conditions where soil has been disturbed, and just as the destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century transformed bare land into fields of blood-red poppies growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped open again in late 1914.
During the war they bloomed between the trench lines on the Western Front and after the war ended, they were one of the few plants to flourish on the barren battlefields of the Somme where so many men had died in one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
As Mary Tebje recalls in her 2017 Chilterns blog post, the sight of those poppies inspired Canadian surgeon John McCrae to write In Flanders Fields, a poem which would come to cement the poppy as a potent symbol of remembrance:
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
The poppy quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces.
This distinctive red flower is not the only June highlight in the great outdoors, though. Along with poppies, this is the month of the intense blue of linseed, of brambles and bee orchids, dog and field roses, towering woodland ferns and ripening crops.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote in his fairy tale The Flax: “The flax was in full bloom; it had pretty little blue flowers as delicate as the wings of a moth, or even more so.” Certainly the striking blue of a field of flax in full flower is a remarkable sight – and the stem of the linseed yields one of the oldest fibre crops in the world: linen.
Like wheat and barley, the crop is believed to have originated in the fertile valleys of west Asia, including Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and was certainly being made in ancient Egypt, with drawings on tombs and temples on the River Nile showing flax plants flowering.
Linseed oil is also traditionally used in putty, paints and for oiling wood, especially cricket bats, and the flower even features in the emblem of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court in Parliament Square, representing Northern Ireland, in recognition of the fact that Belfast was the linen capital of the world by the end of the 19th century.
And yet one of the strangest features of flax is the fact the flowers open only in full sunlight and usually close shortly after noon, the petals normally dropping off the same day if there is the slightest breeze.
It’s not just the floral displays grabbing our attention in June, though, as Laurie Lee recalled in Cider With Rosie. We may live at a faster pace today, but we can still relate to many of his images of rural life from almost a century ago, even if the wildlife is less plentiful and chance of hearing a cuckoo much more remote.
“Summer, June summer, with the green back on earth and the whole world unlocked and seething,” he wrote, “with cuckoos and pigeons hollowing the woods since daylight and the chipping of the tits in the pear-blossom.”
From baby birds leaving their nests for the first time to millions of tiny baby frogs and toads emerging from lakes, ponds and ditches, this is the month when the countryside really springs to life, from baby bunnies lolloping around the fields in the warmer evenings, fox and badger cubs play-fighting in the woods and some dramatic-looking moths on the wing, like the large pink elephant hawk moth.
Colourful damselflies are flitting over the ponds and baby bats the size of 50p pieces can be spotted in the warm evening air over the river. Early risers can watch the mist rise over the water at Spade Oak, or down by the Thames.
There may not be the same plethora of natural life Laurie Lee wrote about, but at times you may still have that peculiar sensation of which Melisssa Harrison writes: “…of the past coexisting with the present, the England that existed for so long and exists no longer haunting the modern landscape, almost close enough to touch”.
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for August, contact email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
MAY may have ended in a bank holiday heatwave, but for most in the Chilterns it was a damp, drab and chilly month, with intermittent downpours and lower-than-average temperatures.
Gardeners, growers and farmers were glad to see the rain after the drier weather earlier in the spring, but the late cold caused other problems, with late-season frosts, chilly nights and thunderstorms contributing to the impression that summer was being temporarily put on hold.
As walkers and riders found the dry earth of April transformed into muddy slippery morasses once more, fledging and flowering patterns were delayed compared with previous years.
Photographers up and about early and later were still able to capture spectacular backdrops, but the delay in budding had a knock-on effect on the hatching of caterpillars, impacting on early brooding blue tit families, for example – though some bird species flourished despite the rain.
As our April pictures showed, spring brought an explosion of life and colour into the Chilterns countryside, with swathes of bluebells from Ashridge to Cliveden surviving well into May, while the hedgerows and woods from Hedsor to Penn were awash with purple rhododendron flowers.
Back in May last year our slow emergence from lockdown at last allowed walkers to stray a little further along local byways at a time when interest in the natural world was at its height.
These were the weeks where the slower pace of lockdown life allowed many families extra time to savour those small precious sights around us that we so often overlook, from eye-catching hedgerow blossoms to unfamiliar wildflowers or insects emerging from winter hibernation.
From the white surf of hawthorn to the pinks, whites and reds of the horse chestnut trees, there’s a welcome explosion of life in the meadows and woods alike, and the insects are making the most of the array of food on offer.
From fox cubs and goslings to woodpeckers and treecreepers, fresh life is emerging all around us, even if much of the fledging and migration is taking place a little later than in previous years.
Last year the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside.
This May may have been colder and less welcoming for family rambles, but nature lovers on local wildlife forums have been sharing their queries and pictures again, and savouring the growing intensity of the dawn chorus as it reaches its seasonal peak.
Wildlife photographers have been out early and late, some covering impressive distances in their search for an unusual subject: the chance sighting of an adder or water vole, perhaps, or an opportunity to capture the exotic colours of a green orb weaver spider or fast-moving damselfly.
Much of our wildlife can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods but as always, our contributors have often managed to find the ideal spot to capture that perfect picture of an elusive butterfly, rare flower or striking sunset.
Their pictures capture some of the brighter moments amid the May monsoon, but by the Spring Bank Holiday temperatures were rising again and families flocking to the seaside to take advantage of the sunshine.
Back home the Chilterns basked in the warmer weather too, with the weather forecasters promising dryer and sunnier weeks to come.
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for July, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
THOSE who love an early morning walk in Slough’s Langley Park or Black Park may already be familiar with the work of landscape photographer Kevin Day.
The Slough-based photographer has contributed a number of pictures to a gallery linked to the Friends of Langley Park website – and the story of one major photography project is told in an old profile article in Amateur Photographer.
“I often get up at five or six in the morning and go to the park, which is a ten-minute walk away,” says Kevin in the article. “It’s the light that interests me, and the way it affects the landscape. It’s constantly changing, at different times of the day, different times of year.”
His studies of a gnarled tree in Langley Park showed how you can return to the same subject again and again and get a different picture every time. But Kevin goes on to explain how the tree was also a symbol of his photographic renaissance.
Today, his personal work continues to complement his professional output and a selection of his nature pictures reflect this. “It’s more of a little hidden gallery occasionally people stumble across!” he says.
For those who share Kevin’s love of those two local parks, it’s a real treat – with dozens of pictures to choose from – and the option to purchase copies too.
Thankfully one year on, those glorious vistas of dancing bluebells are not the only symbol of hope to cling onto.
They still may be the ultimate symbol of the Chilterns countryside, but other colours are also fighting for our attention: the swathes of cherry and apple blossom, the cowslips dotting local fields or wild garlic springing up by a country roadside.
Oil seed rape is beginning to flower, the creamy coloured leaves of the blackthorn have been joined by hawthorn blossom, and there’s a positive frenzy of activity among those colourful hedgerows.
Between nest-building and feeding new families, our garden birds are frantically busy with their household chores.
There are all those young mouths to feed, tasty morsels to discover and take back home to deliver.
It’s not just the birds who are on the lookout for food either: our resident mammals can also sometimes be spotted out and about on breakfast duty.
Living close to water we’re lucky enough to be treated to an array of delightful wildfowl too, all very individual characters.
But the circle of life can be cruel at this time of year. One day a proud mother duck appears at the door with 15 delightful fluffy chicks waddling in her wake.
But then we have to watch and wait as the family gradually gets whittled down in size by hungry herons and other local predators.
Soon there and nine…and then six…and then five. A week or two later and there are still a trio healthy looking ducklings snapping at insects on the pond, though their small size still makes them look a little too much like tasty snacks for mum to relax entirely.
Close by, a cheeky starling has set up home in a neighbour’s eaves and has become a colourful and precocious addition to the characters round the feeders.
Prone to strut about in his smart distinctive plumage like a Cockney costermonger donning their Pearly King outfit for the first time, he is disproportionately cocky for his size, elbowing the bulkier ducks and pigeons aside as if it is they who are intruding on his patch.
April sees the emergence of a whole array of insects, reptiles and butterflies, like the striking orange tip butterflies which have spent the winter months as a chrysalis hidden among last year’s vegetation, or the speckled wood, which seem to have been thriving in both numbers and distribution over the past 40 years as a result of climate change.
Now they’re on the wing, feeding on spring flower nectar and looking for a mate, another welcome splash of colour in a landscape that has fully awoken from the drab, dreary days of winter.
If the colours provide splashes of detail worthy of close inspection on those backroad rambles and woodland wanders, they also provide a striking backdrop of hues for distant vistas too, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.
There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements, and now there’s something new and exciting to discover at every turn in the path.
For the earliest risers there are sneaky glimpses of the natural world preparing to meet the day…deer browsing in the woods or a fox returning proudly back to its den with its prey.
“For some, spring is making confinement feel worse,” she wrote. “But I find it immensely comforting to sense the seasons’ ancient rhythms, altered but as yet uininterrupted, pulsing slow beneath our human lives.
“Onwards spring romps, as miraculous and dizzying as ever, whether humans are there to witness it or not.”
Luckily, this year it is indeed possible to witness it again at close hand, not just in our own immediate corner of the woods, but with the freedom to travel a little further afield, even if our awareness of the pandemic dangers is as real as ever.
Last year we could not stray far, and it helped to focus our minds on the beauty of the natural world that we so often take for granted.
Once more offered the freedom to travel a little further in search of the natural wonders around us, it’s a time to appreciate the true wonder of that annual “miraculous” reawakening.
“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell,” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte all those years ago – and from Ashridge to Cliveden, Hodgemoor woods to Watlington Hill, those vivid symbols of nature’s beauty that were so very precious 12 months ago remain as eloquent as ever, carpeting woodland floors across the Chilterns.
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for May, contact email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
YOU don’t need perfect vision to enjoy a deep and sustaining relationship with nature.
No one knows that better than Andy Shipley, who has been visually impaired for much of his life but whose love of the natural world is matched by his belief in an inclusive society – and his absolute determination to bring those two passions together.
Over the years he has channelled his experience into his work as a facilitator, campaigner, speaker and coach – and he has even developed a fortnight-long sensory odyssey designed to deepen everyone’s relationship with nature.
“I believe our future depends on people acquiring a deeper relationship with those around them, and with the natural world,” says Andy. “To achieve this, we need to open people’s hearts to the value of nature and awaken their sense of belonging.”
The multi-sensory nature immersion experiences he has developed enable people to start to fully notice the textures under their toes, the breath of the breeze and the banter of the birds.
“They help reconfigure and rebalance your sensory relationship with nature, and shift your perspectives in everyday life,” says Andy.
“Nature is our life-support system. As well as providing us with the air, water and food vital to keep us alive and breathing, time spent connecting with the natural world sustains our physical and mental health.
“By spending time experiencing nature’s diversity more deeply, we have the opportunity to propagate a life-sustaining relationship that will support us from here on.”
His sensory odyssey was all the more relevant with so many people in isolation because of coronavirus or finding more time to explore nature on their own or as a family.
The programme involves a series of daily audio messages lasting a few minutes which encourage participants to develop a more intimate relationship with the natural world.
Each sensory exercise includes a link to “little nuggets of inspiration and revelation” – about how plants communicate, for example, or how the human nose can detect a trillion smells, along with other audio stimuli ranging from wind in the trees to the dawn chorus – or even the sound of rhubarb growing.
Participants can do the sensory exercises standing, seated or lying down, outdoors or even in the living room with the windows open wide.
And the resource allows visitors to repeat the odyssey, spending more time on the detail, changing the sequence, or repeating the exercises they enjoyed the most.
“Like any exercise, the more you flex your sensory muscles the richer your experience will become,” says Andy, an experienced campaigner and project leader whose activities have ranged from blindfolded team-building exercises, adventure activities and dining experiences to workshops exploring how natural heritage sites could become more inclusive for the visually impaired.
He explains: “Healthy habitats are those which are abundant with diverse species occupying all strata of the web of life, filling their particular niche, but also contributing to the health and well-being of the whole.
“It seems to me therefore, that for our own human communities to become healthy, we need to work to create the conditions for all, whatever their background and circumstances, to find their niche, flourish and contribute to the well-being of our world.”
ONCE upon a time, on her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, a young girl grew up sketching the plants, animals and insects she stumbled across with a particular eye for detail.
From those humble beginnings, Beatrix Potter would go on to become one of the most famous and successful children’s authors of all time, renowned for her precise and enchanting illustrations reflecting her fascination with the natural world.
She became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.
She also visited her former governess, Annie Moore, and would send letters with amusing anecdotes to the Moore children, often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, which would provide the basis of some of her later books – including one about a particularly naughty rabbit named Peter.
Flash forward a century and a half, and a new generation of young people are exploring their interest in the natural world through art, painting and photography.
This week our Picture of the Week featured photographs by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya taken on family walks around the area.
And if one good thing has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, it might be the number of young people and their families reconnecting with nature.
Adults too have found local landscapes a continuing source of inspiration and delight, with more than a dozen professional artists featuring in recent Beyonder articles about their work.
On social media too, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with nature journal entries, sketches and photographs recounting people’s encounters with the natural world.
In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife.
“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.
“Our modern lives are so frantic, often filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, (try to) worry less, be more grateful, and kind.
“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I’m trying to keep going. Nature is a great healer, teacher and an inspiration to me. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for the earth, and all its life forms. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”
Up in Northumbria, naturalist Stewart Sexton is a bird enthusiast whose paintings and photographs attract plenty of attention on Twitter @Stewchat, although he modestly claims: “A Northumbrian born and bred, I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. I take photos but I’m no photographer, I paint but I’m not an artist either.”
That’s all very well, but if you lack Stewart’s obvious talent but still want to explore your artistic talent through nature, how do you get started?
Maureen Gillespie, an Oxfordshire artist whose chilly lockdown walks at Blenheim Palace saw her singled out as The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week recently, has some advice: “Probably the easiest way to develop your artist talents is to get outside and really observe nature.”
Not that you have to go far to find inspiration, she stresses. “Your local park, trees on your road, flowers in your garden or window box, all these amazing things are there to see, smell and touch and when you really study them you can bring them to life in a drawing or painting.”
Fellow Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side agrees: “I focus on close looking with my young learners. We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture,” she says. “The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.”
Photographer Graham Parkinson found his lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked as a six-year-old by the popular I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.
He wasn’t alone. The famous spotter books were first published in 1948, with Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell the man behind the publishing phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s.
A believer in active learning who devised the spotter guides to keep children entertained on long car journeys, he saw the idea rejected by eight publishers and could hardly have known quite how popular they would prove when he set about self-publishing them (just like Beatrix Potter).
“Spotters” gained points for finding the contents of the books in real-life situations. On completion, they sent the books to Big Chief I-Spy, as Mr Warrell had become known, for a feather, an order of merit and entry into the I-Spy Tribe – which by 1953 had grown to half a million members.
The 40-odd titles went on to sell some 25 million copies by the time Michelin relaunched the series after a seven-year gap in 2009-10. Big Chief I-Spy himself died in 1995 in Derbyshire at the ripe old age of 106.
The National Trust lists keeping a nature diary as one of its “50 things to do before you’re 11 and three-quarters”, whether that means finding an old notebook or making one out of an old cereal box and decorating it with doodles, paper, leaves, feathers or any other natural items you can find nearby.
You certainly don’t need to have any specialist equipment to have fun – and who knows, the next Beatrix Potter could just be out there somewhere!
See The Beyonder’s Nature guides page for some more activity sheets, and check out the Local landscapes feature to meet more artists who have found inspiration in the Chilterns landscape. If you are a photographer, we welcome contributions to our monthly Chilterns calendar feature. Just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR millions of Christians around the world, a month-long season of prayer culminates this weekend with the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.
The idea of celebrating September 1 as a day of prayer for creation began in 1989 at the wish of the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, a leading figure in the Eastern Orthodox church whose successor Bartholomew I is also seen as something of a “green” source of spiritual inspiration.
In 2013 Pope Francis – formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio – chose his papal name in honour of St Francis, reflecting both men’s concern for the world’s poor, as well as the future of the planet.
The Pope subsequently urged the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and all people of good will to take urgent action against the injustice of climate change and the ecological crisis, to protect the poor and future generations.
The Season of Creation has become an annual celebration uniting Christians in prayer and action for the protection of the earth, with many viewing this year’s event as being of particular significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic and global climate concerns.
In July a cross-section of faith leaders urged the UK government to develop a new shared vision for the future ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next year, when the UK has the COP26 presidency.
The faith leaders spoke of the need to “restore balance in the very systems of life, affirming the need for equality, justice and sustainability” in the sharing of the earth’s resources.
They pointed out how, amid the fear and the grief for loved ones lost, many had found consolation in the dramatic reduction of pollution and the restoration of nature.
“Renewed delight in and contact with the natural world has the capacity to reduce our mental stress and nourish us spiritually,” they wrote. “We have rediscovered our sense of how interconnected the world is. The very health and future of humanity depends on our ability to act together not only with respect to pandemics but also in protecting our global ecosystem.”
On the plus side, less travel and consumption and more kindness and neighbourliness have helped us appreciate what society can really mean, they pointed out. But in times of crisis injustice becomes more obvious, and it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most, as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development stresses in its climate campaign.
“All this shows us how precarious our previous ‘business as usual’ was, socially, economically, ecologically and spiritually,” the faith leaders wrote.
“Our faiths teach us that our planet, with its rich resources and inspiring diversity, is lent to us on trust only and we are accountable for how we treat it. We are urgently and inescapably responsible, not just before God but to our own children and the very future of humanity.”
The Season of Creation ends on October 4, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, but the call to action looks beyond the annual event and focuses on protecting biodiversity, reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change and pushing sustainability to the forefront of government decision-making.
Pope Francis phrased it as the need to “listen to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”, a message that resonates across the centuries from when Saint Francis chose to take the Gospel literally and lead a life of poverty in the name of the Lord.
“If God can work through me, he can work through anyone,” the saint said, yet on Sunday, almost 800 years after his death, his message about our intimate connection with God’s creation sounds more relevant and important than ever.
IF ONLY trees could talk, what secrets they could tell…
The ancient oaks and beeches of Burnham Beeches have provided a place of solace and refuge during difficult times this year.
Through the long summer holidays that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions, the woods have been alive with the cries of children and lolloping spaniels, a safe place to socially distance away from the pressures of supermarket shopping and public transport.
Paths wending through overhanging branches have provided shade from the sweltering heat of early autumn and shelter from the rain, a place for bug hunts and Pooh sticks, of family adventures and solitary wanderings.
From hungry ducks and moorhens to foraging ponies and cattle, the woods are home to an array of wildlife, from the ubiquitous pigeons and squirrels to the industrious ants, colourful dragonflies and elusive reptiles.
Spread across more than 900 acres, Burnham Beeches soaks up visitors and provides a cross-section of different habitats, from heathland ferns and heather to lily-covered ponds and carefully grazed wood-pasture.
A national nature reserve for almost 30 years, it is an oasis of calm in a hurried world, and one which hundreds of local families will remember with affection for the part it played in making the long difficult summer of 2020 just a little easier to cope with.
FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.
Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.
locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian
balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and
service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the
virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of
is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global
recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship
with nature and the world around us.
trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus
could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow
humanity to reset its values.
Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?
The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.
Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.
“It seems we are massively
entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just
with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten
book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design
and architecture magazine Dezeen.
The woman named by Time magazine
in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of
the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking
planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.
With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.
“Suddenly the fashion shows look
bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem
invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we
have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”
It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.
But if it offers the prospect of resetting
the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the
ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it
will come with a heavy price tag.
As well as potentially millions
of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies
wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and
airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.
Going cold turkey in changing our
shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country
shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and
reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the
Of course, there’s little room
for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s
hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the
impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the
loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health
issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already
Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.
Yet clearly the shutdown will
also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new
ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media
puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in
ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”
We are not at that stage yet.
But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of
pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the
selfish stockpiling of the greedy.
For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.
For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.
Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?
We’ve suffered pandemics
before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a
profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on
How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.
FROM stately homes to steam railways and spooky caves, from wildlife sanctuaries to woodland walks, The Beyonder’s What’s On pages have been updated to include more than 50 of the Chilterns’ top attractions.
The at-a-glance array of picture buttons offers ideas for days out that range from free museums and rural rambles to palaces and zoos across four counties.
The buttons link directly to the websites and Facebook pages run by various organisations from the National Trust to town museums.
Attractions for animal lovers range from the Living Rainforest or Beale Park in Berkshire to Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire.
If rescued hedgehogs are of more interest than lions and tigers, there’s always the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hsopital in Haddenham, and youngsters wanting to get up close and personal with lambs and baby goats can visit Odds Farm or even foxes and ferrets at the Green Dragon Eco Farm.
History lovers aren’t forgotten, either – from stately homes like those at Stonor Park, Waddesdon or Hughenden, not to mention the majestic delights of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.
Museums include those in Amersham, Stevenage, St Albans, Tring and High Wycombe, while those preferring a steam trip can venture out to Chinnor or the Bucks Railway Centre at Quainton Road.
If youngsters need to escape from their smartphones and get the wind in their hair, they can always connect with nature at one of the country parks scattered across the region – or blow away the cobwebs with a walk in Wendover Woods, Penn or Burnham Beeches.
For something that little bit different, there’s always the model village at Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, the gloriumptious Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden, the mysterious Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe or the exotic attractions of Kew Gardens.
Or what about stepping back in time at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, finding out more about science at the Look Out Discovery Centre or discovering more about the lives of writers like John Milton or CS Lewis by visiting their homes in Chalfont St Giles and Headington, Oxford.
Many of the websites featured offer a regular programme of special one-off events, displays and attractions too, so there’s always more to discover – with further buttons linking to the National Trust, English Heritage, Wildlife Trusts, Chiltern Society and National Garden Scheme for more ideas about places to visit and things to do.
With a host of additional events listed in the monthly What’s On pages too, there’s something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. For more information, click on What’s On whenever you need a little inspiration about how to make the most of your free time.
The website has also launched a “Where to go” section on its Further afield pages, which in the past have featured attractions which might involve Chilterns readers driving just a little further afield, to London, Surrey and Sussex.
The first half-dozen attractions listed include Winston Churchill’s family home at Chartwell, nearby Hever Castle in Kent which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and the steam railway centre at Didcot, much loved by railway enthusiasts.
Feeling left out? If we have inadvertently missed an attraction out of our listings, get in touch.
THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.
The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.
Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?
Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.
The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?
Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.
The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.
Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.
From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.
Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.
Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.
Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.
For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.
Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.
One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.
Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.
A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.
With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.
Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.
Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.
Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.
Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.
As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.
Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.
From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.
Raynor Winn and husband Moth lost their home just as Moth’s diagnosis with a terminal disease also appeared to rob them of a future together. Not knowing what else to do, they began to walk – and the true story of their journey along the South West Coast Path turned into a surprise bestseller
IF YOU owned a bookshop, it would be hard to know quite where to place Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut, The Salt Path.
It’s not a nature book, yet the significance of the natural world is inescapable throughout. It wasn’t planned as a spiritual journey or a pilgrimage, yet it certainly was a journey of self-discovery. It wasn’t meant to be a sociological study. But it contains plenty of trenchant observations about homelessness in Britain today – and about human nature.
Nor was it ever planned as a book about long-distance walking. Back in August 2013 when Raynor and her husband Moth set off from Minehead in Somerset to walk the South West Coastal Path, they were a couple in their 50s without any clear plans for the future.
The spur for that decision was a combination of life-changing twists of fate – a toxic investment which led to them losing their home in a devastating court case, coupled with a shock diagnosis that Moth was suffering from a rare degenerative brain disease and probably did not have long to live.
“You can’t be ill, I still love you,” Raynor told the man she had
met at sixth-form college more than three decades earlier. But with the
bailiffs banging on the door it seemed that choices were limited – and tackling
some of the 630-mile South West Coastal Path seemed as good a way as any of buying
some time to figure out the next move.
With a friend storing their few remaining possessions in a barn,
they set off pretty much broke, equipped with thin sleeping bags, a tent bought
on ebay and with access only to the few pounds a week they were due in tax
Their journey – split over two summers, with the winter spent in a
friend’s shed – ended in 2014 in Polruan, Cornwall, when their lives changed
again with an offer from a kind stranger of accommodation on the coast path
they had been trekking along for so long.
Raynor’s story of that walk, originally an article for The Big Issue, turned into an inspiring, lyrical and emotional story of human endurance against the odds – and about what homelessness really feels like in 21st-century Britain.
in 2018 and shortlisted for the Costa book award, the couple’s epic trek also proved
to be an eye-opening examination of a divided society where our preconceptions
about the homeless are often misguided.
Forget the stereotypes about people with addictions and mental health problems, Raynor suggests – what about the rural poor, many of them in temporary, seasonal or zero-hours jobs in communities where housing costs are astronomical?
As she revealed in a Big Issue interview in 2019 this problem is largely hidden, as local authorities eager to support their tourism industries want to keep the streets clear of rough sleepers.
Wild-camping along the coastal path in the footsteps of guidebook author Paddy Dillon, the bedraggled pair feel pretty out of place in the picture-postcard villages they pass through along the way – and not always welcome visitors once people discover they are homeless.
But if that heart-breaking loss of identity and self-worth is hard to handle, along with the physical hardships, it’s not a dark and depressing journey.
Writing with warmth and humour, Raynor manages to remain surprisingly free of bitterness about the circumstances which have combined to push them out on their journey, and equally unsentimental about what they have lost. While being forced to desert the Welsh farmstead they had transformed into their family home and business is tough, it’s the loss of sense of self which is the fundamental issue about becoming homeless, she explains in a 2018 Guardian interview.
Plodding along the path – and doing it together as a couple – helps to offer a sense of purpose and a new perspective, that home is not about bricks and mortar but a state of mind, about family, and about being at one with nature.
Alone for weeks in all weathers, that immersion in nature is inescapable, and Raynor is good at immersing the reader in the experience too, so that we can share in the highs and lows, the uplifting encounters with people and animals as well as the more depressing ones.
Thankfully, despite the aching bones and blisters it seems that the experience helps Moth regain some of his physical strength too, and straddling that void between life and death makes each experience all the sweeter, whatever the elements throw at them.
Walking the path hasn’t changed Moth’s diagnosis, but it may have helped stave off his terminal illness a little longer – and his routine of walking and physiotherapy has continued since the couple finally found their new base in Cornwall.
It’s that reconnection with nature that is perhaps the book’s overwhelming message, and while some readers may not be convinced by the health benefits of surviving on fudge, noodles and pasties, the pair emerged from their roller-coaster journey leaner, fitter and better equipped to face an uncertain future.
Growing up on a farm, Raynor was aware of nature being a fundamental part of her daily life. But most of us have lost that connection and need to rediscover it again. As she told The Big Issue: “Nature doesn’t just make a nice TV show, it’s what we actually need to survive, it’s the most important thing we have.”
Whatever the future holds for the Winns, it’s clear we are going to hear a lot more from Raynor this spring when her second non-fiction book, Wild Silence, is published by Michael Joseph , about nursing an over-farmed piece of land back to health.
Expect Raynor to explore some familiar themes here – of lifelong love, nature and what it means to find a home. And expect an army of well-wishers to be toasting her success as a writer as she and her beloved Moth continue to explore a new chapter in their lives.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is published by Michael Joseph at £14.99 and in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). The pictures reproduced in this article were taken by Raynor Winn.
PAUL Kingsnorth has chilled out a lot since the days when he was chaining himself to bulldozers and saw direct action as the best way of changing the world.
We saw this very clearly in the recent documentary by the Dutch TV channel VPRO, which visited him at home in Ireland for a few days to make a film themed around his essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.
But that doesn’t mean the writer and environmentalist has given up fighting for what he believes in – as a recent post from his Facebook page shows. And since it speaks for itself, here is Paul’s post in full, complete with links to his own websiteand that of Mary Reynolds, whose project he is discussing.
It’s by no means an isolated project, and the theme has been repeatedly reflected in other Beyonder stories and Tweets, as well as on the most recent series of BBC’s Springwatch. But that doesn’t make the story any less important, so over to Paul:
“Here is something entirely unrelated to my books, etc, which I want to tell everyone about, because I think you should all hear of it.
People often ask me ‘what can I/we do?’ about the ongoing grinding-down of life on Earth by industrial humanity. My twin answer is: nothing. And also everything. My other answer is: action, not ‘activism.’
What I mean by this is: future climate change is inevitable, and we are unable at this point to halt the momentum of the industrial machine, which needs ‘growth’ in order to sustain itself. ‘Growth’ in this context translates as ‘mass destruction of life.’ The human industrial economy is like cancer: literally. It metastasises, it must grow in order to survive, and it grows by consuming its host.
At some stage, this thing will collapse; I would say this is already happening. This creates despair in many people – as does the inability of ‘activism’, argument, campaigning, rational alternatives presented in nice books by well-meaning people, etc, to make any dent in the greed, destruction and momentum of this thing we all live within.
So far, so depressing. And yet, on the human scale, and on the non-human scale too, everyone reading this has the power of rescue. Everything I have just written is, to some degree, an abstraction. Reality is what you live with, and live within: grass and trees, hedgehogs and tractors, people and pavements. Reality is land, and how it is used. The planetary crisis is a crisis of land use. We are using it disastrously, as if it were a ‘resource’, not a living web. We think we own it, and can control it. The Earth is in the process of showing us just how wrong we are.
The alternative is to do the opposite: to build an ark, in which life can thrive. Or rather: a series of arks, all over the country, and the world. Here is a new initiative, set up and run by an Irish woman, Mary Reynolds, who calls herself a ‘reformed landscape designer.’
It is beautifully simple – home-made, very local, accessible to everyone. Its aim: not to ‘save the planet’, but to build small ‘arks’ in our own places – and then to tell people about them. To spread the word, and the idea. Whether you have a field or a window box, this is possible and inspiring and entirely doable. It is real action, and it has real, deeply valuable results. Best of all, it mostly involves doing nothing: just leaving things alone. Which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best way to ‘save the planet’ in the end.
I’d encourage you all to look at Mary’s website, and to ask yourself how you can build your own ark – and tell the world it exists.”
WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.
Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.
With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.
Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.
That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?
In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.
So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.
Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.
So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…
For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.
This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.
Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.
There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.
On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.
Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.
A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.
Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.
Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.
It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.
Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.
In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.
Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.
There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.
So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.
We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.
BIG PICTURE: pondering our place in the universe [PICTURE: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash]
THE MOST startling thing about Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline (Seen and Heard – Books) is just how much of it sounds as if it were written yesterday.
And yet his round England journey was undertaken well over a decade or so ago. Which begs the question – why didn’t we all spot what was happening at the time?
Well, of course we did: we all had those bleak conversations echoing the book’s central message – moaning about those idiosyncratic pubs and cafes and shops being swept away amid the violent regeneration of our town and city centres.
And of course it wasn’t all bad, by any means. Many of those awful greasy spoons and appalling backstreet boozers were the very epitome of what was wrong with England. Those famous publicans who took pleasure in being rude to their customers, for example. Those village pubs empty on a Saturday night long before the smoking ban or the soaring cost of a pint had made a real impact on trade.
But as the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and in fact the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi would make a pretty good soundtrack to Kingsnorth’s expose of a country which seems to have lost its way.
PRICE OF PROGRESS: high-rise city centre offices [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]
What resonates most about his book is the cumulative effect of all this so-called progress – of its dehumanising effect on us, creating a culture of dependency on the consumer machine created by the apparently unstoppable march of global capitalism.
“We expect. We demand. We are like children. Everything must be instant and, if it isn’t, somebody must pay,” he writes.
This is the real tragedy and it’s a growing selfishness that we see around us every day, in impatient queues at the till or blaring horns in traffic queues, the careless dropping of litter or the way tempers flare up so quickly over the most minor disputes.
The problem is that we have lost our ability to relate to other people, to empathise with their plight, share their concerns. Instead, we are living in a world of artificial reality, fuelled by our self-absorbtion, our narcissistic Instagram uploads and Facebook selfies.
We tap our feet in the supermarket when the person in front of us has the temerity to chat to the check-out assistant. We thump on the horn if someone takes a micro-second too long to spot the traffic light has turned green. We are patronising and sarcastic or downright aggressive when hard-pressed rail staff or shop assistants struggle to cope with problems beyond their control.
And all the time we are taking pictures of our food or the concert or the view and telling our friends how cool and happy and chic and contented we are.
CONSUMER CULTURE: global brands dominate our lives [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]
And it’s this disconnect from any local community that poses the biggest danger to our wellbeing, not our reliance on global brands. It’s how we choose to use new technology that is the problem, not the fact that new technology exists.
And that’s nothing new. Joni Mitchell recognised the problem back in 1970 and we are far better informed today about the practical impact of our actions on the environment, as well of ways of starting to turn back the tide.
But if there is a more important message to be drawn from such a dystopian vision, it’s that there IS something we can do about it. As individuals, we can make choices. And as individuals working together we can be powerful.
That philosophy lies at the heart of what The Beyonder is about. At one level it’s about families exploring and enjoying the great outdoors so that it doesn’t feel as if we have totally lost touch with the landscape – or as if nature has just been contained and fenced in for our enjoyment (“They took all the trees / Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em”).
It’s about youngsters feeling as carefree building a den in the woods or a sandcastle on the beach as they do battling dark forces in the latest computer game. It’s about having the patience to keep listening to the old boy in the pub rattling on about the way things were. And it’s about sharing our enjoyment for some of the simplest things in life – the new ducklings on the lake, the screech of an owl at night in the woods, the glimpse of a hare or badger disappearing into the undergrowth.
SIMPLE PLEASURES: taking delight in the natural world [PICTURE: Olivia Beyonder]
Kingsnorth recognised that if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in rediscovering the essence of the place itself, not just the field and stream, but the town and village too.
Human beings are social animals and enjoy being part of a community. We feel more anxious when we feel isolated, remote, separate from our environment, so it makes sense at every level to know our place – and the other people who inhabit it.
We can’t bury our heads in the sand, turn off the news and live in a bubble, pretending the problems of the world don’t exist. But we can take a moment to share our appreciation of the natural world, our joy of living and our recognition that thousands – millions – of other people feel the same way.
Just as a sneak theft or random verbal attack by a stranger can spoil our mood and our day, so a random act of kindness can bring not just a smile to our face but a deeper inner joy.
There may be plenty wrong with the world, but there are other people out there who care just as much about what’s gone wrong – and who are working out the best way to put it right, one little personal step at a time.
Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99
BACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]