The Lore of Nature: Two for Joy

magpies

One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never told….

The year is 1646. In your small Cornish farming village, strange things have been happening and there is unrest brewing. Whispering in corners and dark looks cast over lowered shoulders. Men gather round pints of ale and plot. Women congregate around baskets of washing with furrowed brows, hands cracked and raw from the starch and water.

You overhear their stories; how John Nancekivell’s cattle have been taken by a mysterious disease, Peran Menhenick’s crops have failed despite the recent good weather and young Tegen Gwinnel has been suddenly taken ill. On the outskirts of the village, you know the elderly widow Anne Trethick has been raising suspicion. Your mother tells you to steer clear of her, your father curses her name under his breath. Up country, Matthew Hopkins is continuing his legal slaughter as he steam rolls across England.

One day, whilst fetching water, you pass Anne’s cottage. A bird with white feathers, piercing black eyes and shiny black beak sits at her window. And as you pass, you hear it talk in a human voice.

What would you think?

Without a doubt, the magpie is the British bird most embroiled in superstition.  All over the country, you will find people spitting, saluting and spinning around when they spot the bird, fearful of the negative luck the species is suspected to bring. But does the demonization of these beautiful corvids have any founding?

One of the most common myths suggests that magpies are attracted to shiny objects and will steal jewellery and trinkets. This fable actually derived from a 19th century play, La Pie Voluese or ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which was later turned into an opera by Rossini, titled La Gazza Ladra .The story is about a servant who receives the death sentence for stealing from his master, when the actual thief is revealed to be her pet magpie. The opera is famous and the superstition that magpies have a fondness for shiny objects remained, despite being debunked by research in 2014 that revealed that they are actually frightened of reflective items. The myth is so ingrained that a psychological disorder is called ‘pica’ after the birds Latin name. The disorder refers to people who compulsively eat things such as dirt, mud, nails, chalk or other items which have no nutritional value and relates back to the mis-belief that magpies take such unnecessary items for themselves, either to collect or even to eat.

But magpie distrust goes back a lot further than 200 years. Their vocalisations were found to be a source of frustration during Shakespeare’s era and there have been stories circling that refer to biblical times; magpies were accused of being the only creature not to join the other animals on Noah’s Ark. They have also fallen foul of the accusation of being the only bird that didn’t mourn the death of Jesus. Some say that the magpie represents the devil and in Scotland, magpies are thought to hold a drop of the devil’s blood underneath their tongues; if you cut the tongue out, they would be capable of human speech. In Yorkshire, the species used to be associated with witchcraft. In fact, it was once believed that magpies sometimes embodied spirits who would help witches and would speak to them, as outlined in the opening paragraph. This may have come from the incredible vocalisation range that magpies have and the fact they have the ability to mimic other sounds, including the human voice. In the past, superstition and strong religious values meant that people were extremely suspicious. Not a lot was needed for accusations to fly and the idea of a bird speaking in human tongue would have been considered a bad omen and associated with the devil.

Today, the common nursery rhyme ‘One for Sorrow’ is still uttered regularly and many people have rituals to avoid the bad luck this bird will reign upon them. ‘One for Sorrow’ has many different versions and is thought to date back at least to the 16th century with the poem first documented by John Brand in 1780 with the following version:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth

with each alternate version predicting a different outcome; even numbers bring positives and odd numbers negative

This suggestion that the birds are bad omens and bringers of disaster is found in several different aspects of life. To see a lone magpie at the window of your house is thought to suggest there is to be a death soon. It was also suggested that a lone magpie foraging during the spring signifies bad weather which may threaten crops. Many of these myths revolve around one bad omen in particular; a lone magpie. This may be down to the fact that magpies are social birds; they often work together in groups and communities and will flock together in large groups. They tend to be monogamous birds too and will mate with the same partner repeatedly, working as a team in breeding season to build nests and rear their young. One really fascinating behaviour that has been observed is that magpies grieve and are thought to hold ‘funerals’. A quick browse of Youtube reveals several videos of magpies gathering to mourn a dead member of their community. One bird will stand by the lifeless body and call out, as other birds flock to the scene to pay their own respects, with some observers recording that the birds have even left small gifts such as bundles of grass besides the corpses. As well as evidence of the complex social societies of the corvid, it is also demonstrates the birds’ intelligence. All corvids have displayed signs of a high IQ and are believed to be amongst the most intelligent species. They are extremely curious and have shown to be one of the only animals’ species in the world that can recognise themselves in the mirror. They also have good memories and will hoard their food; digging a small hole filling it with excess food and covering it up, returning to it later when food is scarce.

There is a suggestion that some of the bad feeling from magpies may actually derive from bird breeders relating to the magpies’ predation behaviour; a smear campaign of sorts. Magpies feed on smaller birds and will get into their nests and eat their chicks and eggs. This is not the sort of thing that is usually found endearing and, in the past, when breeders would be trying to rear birds for commercial use, magpies may have been a nuisance; getting into the nests and destroying the ‘stock’. In fact, the anti-magpie feeling became so bad in the 90’s that gamekeepers began to use Larsen traps, a specially designed trap to catch ‘pest’ bird species (i.e corvids), to kill the birds legal due to a loophole in the law. The traps were being used to catch magpies during the breeding season, the adults in the cage left without food or water so they would starve to death, their hungry chicks left to the same fate in the nests. The horrific practice was labelled a ‘massacre’. At the time, supporters of the birds fought back, stating that bird numbers had been proven not to be affected by magpies, whose diet is also made up of carrion, insects, plants and berries. Some studies have shown that 70% of the birds’ diet is actually made up of insects, meaning their predation percentage would be relatively low.

I chose the title ‘Two for Joy’ instead of ‘One for Sorrow’ for positive connotations, and in some cultures, magpies are seen as good omens. Native American folklore suggests that magpies are bold and fearless, as well as friendly and helpful. In Korea, magpies are seen as the bearers of good news who bring good luck and happiness. Chinese folklore suggests magpies mean good fortune, and should you hear one sing, it is telling you of your good luck to come.

These beautiful and intelligent birds should not be dismissed because they are plentiful, or because we don’t fully understand their behaviours, or because they have been carrying around a lifetime of bad press. Invite them to your garden, because they are good at pest control, observe their behaviour and celebrate their quirks. And keep saluting and nodding and tipping your hat, but do it because these mysterious birds deserve our respect and admiration, not our fear and disdain.

 

Image source: Pinterest

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Lest We Forget

Poppy field

Every June I make a pilgrimage. I leave the car at Holywell Bay car park and begin a 10k walk. Trudging over sand dunes, ambling along the coast path, fighting the gusts around Kelsey Head and ascending the headland towards Polly Joke.

And here awaits my Mecca. A field of blood glistening in the midday sun.

The flowers stand tall, stretching up towards the warmth. Their delicate papery heads flutter lightly in the breeze, bending coquettishly to reveal their jet-black centres. In amongst this field of crimson, buttery yellow marigolds peep from between the stalks, the vibrant carpet contrasting against the deep blue sky. I sit for hours, listening to the waves break over the shore, watching these blushing ladies as they dance to the will of the wind.

Poppies are an important wildflower; however their numbers are dwindling due to the increasing use of herbicides. In fact, they are one of the fastest disappearing species of wildflowers from British soil. This year we mark the centenary of the Great War, the symbol of which is the bright red wildflower. Yet these flowers are losing their own war against our damaging agricultural methods. 100 years ago, when John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’, wild flower meadows in Britain were not uncommon, the traditional methods of farming helping to promote the natural growth of vitally important species. However our ever-increasing population means that farming methods have had to intensify in order to meet demand, but as a result, our countryside is being decimated. We will all bow our heads at 11am tomorrow to think about those who fought for us, but we need to think about ways in which we can truly honour them. For me, the wreath on my front door and the badge attached to my coat lapel just isn’t enough; we need to engage in our own fight to keep the British countryside happy and healthy. Because otherwise, what was it all for?

Every June I make a pilgrimage. I just have to hope that next June will not be the last.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow 
Between the crosses, row on row 
That mark our place; and in the sky 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

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. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw 
The torch, be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders fields.

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Read It!

Book review: Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley

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Standing at the foot of a small tor of the edge of Dartmoor, I gazed up at the cloudless sky. Above my head, shapes danced before my eyes in the black of the night. Suddenly, my phone beeped, ‘Night Sky,’ the text from my boss read. The name of an app which would help me to decipher the illuminations before me.

The next day, after a journey up Hay Tor, I stopped into a tourist information hut where a beautiful book caught my eye – Wild Signs and Star Paths. Within its pages, Tristan Gooley promised to give me the thing I had been searching for the previous night; how to understand the natural world without the unnatural use of an app.

Gooley takes you on a journey of rediscovery; looking for our lost sixth sense and how we traversed the planet before the technological inventions that we rely on today. By dipping in and out of research, animal behaviour, the study of tribal activity and drawing on his own experiences, Gooley is able to put across the relationship our ancestors had with the environment, and how that is still inside us if we simply allow ourselves to engage with it. Beautiful written, Gooley has managed to interweave myths with tips and skills, all backed up with scientific anecdotes.

This book is more than just about how to tap into our natural instinct. It is a commentary of the current situation we find ourselves in; a species which is tearing its way through time like an out of control dog, destroying everything in our sight as we desperately look for technological quick fixes. In doing so, we are getting further and further away from our own natural history and wreaking irreparable damage on both ourselves and the rest of the planet. Wild Signs is a great way to help you reconnect in both a practical and a mental sense.

Just so you know, I never downloaded the app. And whilst I may still not quite be able to pick out my Casis Major from my Ursa Minor, I do now understand how to gauge my direction using just Orion and by letting myself engage further with the natural world before me, I hope to continue to tap into the intuition that we have lost along the way.


Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley. Hodder and Stoughton. £20.

Country Crafts: Wassail

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If there is one thing that I need when the cold weather sets in here in Cornwall, its wassail; a mulled cider drink that warms you up on a chilly evening. Wassail had both Norse and Medieval importance and the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning to ‘be healthy’. Traditionally, wassailing took place nearer to Christmas, but with the weather dropping to nearly zero degrees overnight now, it’s never too soon for wassail.

Wassailing was intended to celebrate the apple harvest – a way of ensuring it is a good. Partakers believed that it would awake the apple trees and frighten off evil spirits who might spoil the harvest. Many villages would have their own celebrations, appointing a Wassail king and queen who would lead a procession from orchard to orchard, playing music and signing. The queen would then be lifted up into the boughs of the trees where she would place a piece of toast in some wassail as a gift to the tree spirits. Then the group would recite some sort of chant such as:

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town;
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

The whole crowd would then bang their drums and shout, before gunmen who let loose a folly into the trees as a way of honouring them. Although this might seem a little out there, there are people who still enjoy this celebration in the West Country today and there are many more who enjoy the drink.

Original versions of wassail was a sort of mead with a crab apple dropped inside, however these days the drink involves a more intricate mixture of spices. Also, there tends not be toast with the more modern versions!

Here is my recipe should you wish to make your own:

Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 bottles of dry cider
1/5 of a small ball of nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
2 oranges quartered
1 star anise
1 dessert spoonful of sugar

Method:

Pour the cider into a pan on a low heat. Let it warm to do not let it boil; if it begins to boil, then lower the heat. When the mixture begins to steam, add in the spice mixture, continuing to stir. At this point you can add a couple of drops of rum if you want it to have a kick. Keep it on a low heat for around 15 minutes then bring it off the hob. Serve whilst still warm in a glass or a tankard and squeeze some of the juice from one of the oranges on top. Enjoy!

Sing-a-song of sixpence

robby

Dawn is the best time of the day. Before the anthropogenic noise takes over, all you can hear is nature. Getting outside as the sun rises is an incredible musical experience. Before the sun has even peeped over the horizon, many birds are already active and starting to sing, but as the world is filled with light, the dawn chorus erupts.

Birds make noise for a variety of reasons. Vocalisation is the best form of communication for many species, as it means they can communicate over long distances. Various types of sounds indicate different messages. As vocalisations can be exhausting, it is important that birds get their message across succinctly.

Birds don’t make sound the same way that we do. They have a Syrinx, a specialised voice box which is located where the trachea splits into two separate bronchial tubes. This means that some birds are actually capable of making two sounds at the same time, with some species able to sing two different notes simultaneously and others able to make 30 sounds per second!

Singing is a useful tool for males as it is a great way to attract females. A strong, healthy song indicates a strong, healthy male; a male worth breeding with. As well as females, this message is also projected to other males, letting them know that the songs’ owner is not to be messed with. Some scientists believe that by singing first thing in the morning, the males are telling the world that they have survived the night and are ready for action. This is important because many species of female are most fertile in the early hours, so may be looking for a male at that time. Others have suggested that the dawn is the best time for singing due to other reasons, so the sound carries better or simply that the world is quieter so the birds know they have a better chance of being heard.

There are studies currently going on looking into the effects of anthropogenic noise on bird song and it is feared that the impacts are negative. With human noise getting louder, there are concerns that birds are struggling to get themselves heard. In fact, in cities, many birds sing louder and at a higher frequency than those in rural areas, potentially to try and be heard over the lower frequency sounds humans tend to produce. Birds living in cities are also thought to have a higher pitch, potentially to reduce the echoes as their voices bounce off buildings. This was originally reported as birds having “accents”, however the reality of this may be a bit less quaint.

As well as song, some calls you hear are warning calls. You may have never noticed, but there will be times when you are innocently walking somewhere and without realising it, birds will be warning each other of your presence. An alarm call, a sharp chirrup or tweet, lets other birds in the area known that danger (for example you) is lurking. One non-British species, the yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) is thought to warn other species when humans are in the vicinity. The oxpecker’s feed on parasitical ticks living on the skin of cape buffalo. It is thought that oxpeckers will sound an alarm call not only to warn each other of an approaching human, but to let the cows know as well, part of the symbiotic relationship these two species share.

For many birds, song and calls are innate, but this isn’t the case in all species, some learn through mimicry. Why birds mimic is still unknown. The main explanation is that it is a great way to expand the repertoire of calls a bird already has, potentially catching the interest of new females. These calls may not be just about attracting other birds, but also repelling them. By imitating noises perceived as alarm calls or threats, birds can use these sounds to put off any potential predators, either to safeguard themselves, their territory or even their food. Of course, some of these noises may be learnt simply by mistake as birds who mimic can pick up all sorts of interesting sounds and have been known to copy chainsaws, telephones and car alarms.

In fact, I recall a being in a zoo many years ago and listening to a mynah bird repeatedly call out “Son! Come and look at this!” – well it’s certainly one way to blow your trumpet hey?

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Her skeleton lay unceremoniously on the beach.

Her bare bones, rotted to the core, were casually dumped in her final resting place. I gazed at her and wondered about her story; the seas she had sailed, the storms she had fought, the passengers she had carried, the life she had led. Until finally she was left, forgotten, to decay on the sand. There was something about her, lying alone, the water lapping gently around her. She was hauntingly beautiful, as though completely out of place, yet in the very home she was built to belong in.

To us, boats go hand in hand with the ocean, yet from a natural point of view, they don’t belong.

She was made of wood. Possibly oak, it was too hard to tell, her former glory now a distant memory. Her decomposed panels barely clung to each other, desperately holding on, keeping her together. Just. The hull, now non-existent, was just a bed of sand. Her port side, merely vertical planks which jutted unceremoniously up into the sky. Minute flakes of white paint still visible on what was left and I considered them; in all the time she had lain there, what chemicals had she seeped into the ocean? What serious damage she had unintentionally done?

I ran my fingers across what was once her bow. The wood, now soft, crumbled lightly under my touch. I bent down, looking closer at her, and noticed, in her crevices, she was not as bleak as on first suspicion….

Barnacles were encrusted in small patches where flat, undamaged wood remained; tiny, rough mounds, sharp to the touch. Some were closed tightly, others now just empty spaces. Amongst the small white blotches, limpets also clung on. Tiny radula marks in wayward, erratic lines across the wood, revealing their short journeys, undertaken when no one was watching. Kelp fronds had moved in on top of them, anchoring themselves to the conical curved tops. I imagined the plants, rising with the tide then engulfed by water, fluttering in the current like torn flags on a ghostly pirate ship.

Ragged clumps of sea weed hung between the gaps where her stern once was. I pushed a section aside, loosening some salt water which trickled down my fingers. A louse, disturbed by my sudden intrusion, flitted wildly, in random directions, succeeding in its aim to confuse its ‘attacker’. Empty mussels adorned her sides. Their inhabitants had long gone, leaving the shells open like butterflies heating their wings in the sun, delicately painted by mother nature in hues of opalescent blue and white. Glistening alien blobs hid in dark, damp crevices of her wood, lying in wait for the water to rise again, when they could unfurl their tentacles and once again bloom beneath the waves.

I noticed a crab hiding in the shadows and bent towards it. It’s claws, tentatively open, hovered near its face as though waiting to go 6 rounds with an invisible opponent.  Two pinpricks, sat atop conical tubes, swivelled erratically, nerves causing it to be wary of everything. It took a few steps back, further into the shadows, and I realised I was the source of its fear.

I had overstayed my welcome.

I stood up and cast my eye over the vessel in full. The boat, which from a distance had appeared a sparse, empty shell, had been brimming with life up close. A tiny world, barely noticeable to the untrained eye.

I continued my walk along the beach again; hands stuffed into pockets, face towards the bitter wind and watched as the waves rolled along each other before they burst like white fireworks and flitted away.

I took one more glance back at her as I walked. She looked so different now. Not lonely, not sad. She had new purpose.

Man may have given her up to the sea, but nature had given her life again.

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Lifecycle

graveyard

In true British spring style, the recent weather has been unpredictable, but a few days of clear blue skies and hot sunshine helped the season finally burst into action.

On one of those hot sunny days, I found myself heading home from a work thing at Camborne. It was early evening and I had no reason to be home straight away, so I drove over to Treslothan woods. I visit this place often; it is a sanctuary amongst the trees and one of the greatest places to visit during bluebell season. I knew that bluebells wouldn’t be in bloom yet, but I was hoping the wild garlic would be. Driving along the track to the tiny church car park I could see over the low walls that it wasn’t yet, but pulled into the car park to take a look a closer look anyway.

Not wanting to leave straight away, I decided to take a look around the tiny church. Despite being a regular visitor here, I have never been inside. Heading through the creaky gate, I walked towards the entrance. Outside, an elderly lady was bent over a mop, cleaning up the tiled floor outside the door. We greeted each other shyly and on a sudden whim, not wishing to disturb her work, I turned suddenly and made for the graveyard instead.

The graveyard dates back to the mid-1800’s along with the church and many of the gravestone have fallen into disrepair. Despite their negative connotations, graveyards are fantastic habitats, death bringing new life to the earth once more. Many of the older spaces are no longer cared for and left to nature to reclaim the land. Bathed in sunlight, the grass tall and lush, the floor of Treslothan was covered in a smattering of creamy butter primroses and daises. Bees flitted between the flower heads and groups of flies hung in billowing clouds, dancing around each other, the reason unapparent to me. The area was silent, except for the birdsong; blue tits, robins and sparrow song all came together like an out-of-sync orchestra, each musician vying for his instrument to be the main focus.

I spent some time wandering through the graves, gently lifting the vines that covered the gravestones, fingering the imprinted letters and learning more about the bodies that now inhabited the land. It occurred to me that many of the graves were for young people; Edwin Emmet, a gardener, lost his life aged 34. Bessie, died aged 11 years old. John Case, 6. There was nothing fearful about this space, but instead the air had a tinge of sadness to it. Not all the graves were for those under 40 and one in particular which caught my eye was for John Harris, the famous Cornish poet. His long, rhyming tomes of life in the county made him famous, including many about the mines and the men who worked them. The gravestone marks his death in 1884 and was in a good state and completely clear of overgrowth, one of the few, his legacy earning him a privilege not extended to the forgotten souls he shares this space with.

As I edged further into the graveyard, I became aware of an access point in the low wall at the back of the graveyard. Pushing through the long grass, I headed over to it and found myself in the most beautiful place. Sunlight fell through the trees and illuminated a thick carpet of green plants, dotted with the occasional primrose, buttercup or bluebell peeking through the top. Sycamore seedlings fought for their own space on the woodland floor. The air had a sweet floral note to it, an intoxicating smell that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I carefully made my way through the undergrowth, along the tiny path which looked as though it had not been used for some time, following a stream of golden sunlight which poured in from the west side. The trees suddenly stopped and opened up into large glorious fields, a huge breadth of space which chastened me. I stood staring out over the tangle of bramble which separated the two habitats, gazing dreamily at the horizon where the land met the sky. A robin landed on a nearby branch, just a few feet away. It hopped about, pecking at insects and scraping its beak along the wood. It stood and cocked its head on one side at me, measuring me up. Deciding I was not of any use, it continued to move amongst the trees, further and further away. Standing here, I felt as though in another world, where time stood still, and nothing mattered but the moment I was in.

After a while, I traced my footsteps back towards the graveyard and hopped over the broken wall. I passed a large, gothic crypt, the inside bathed in shadow. Two huge iron gates secured the family grave inside. Having not been opened for years, moss had grown on the stone and brown, curled leaves had gathered inside. I pressed my forehead to the clod metal entrance and reflected on the sort of funeral they would have had; an extravagant affair which would have been another example of asserting the family grandeur over the poorer locals. Lockable places for coffins were big in the Victorian era; a time when people were terrified of zombies, vampires and grave robbers. I headed back up to the church door, passing the modern-day graveyard which was now for cremations, a space for ashes only. It was the antithesis of the older space; neat, tidy, bright. Fresh bunches of flowers decorated the neat granite and marble slabs, the inscriptions picked out in neat, clear letting. I walked over the newly cleaned floor and up to the door; a huge, ancient slab of wood which had weathered over time. I pushed it gently, but it remained staunchly closed. I mused about the large rusty keyhole, the key which unlocked the door must be comically large. On the wall next to the door, a noticeboard informed parishioners about the goings on. One notice read out the rules for mourners; ‘no artificial flowers’.

As I made my way back to the car, a flash of colour behind a low wall caught my eye – a pile of fake flowers had been slung down on a heap of leaf litter. Algae had gathered around the petals and begun to turn them brown. No chance to break down into the soil and continue the cycle, they remain, their only moment to bloom, lost.

 

Flower of the moor, to nature dear,
And sweet as thou art free,
I turn aside from crowded paths,
To muse in  peace with thee.
Thou fillest with thy pleasant smell
The down in mosses dress’d
The gentle breeze flows freshly by,
And fans thy yellow vest.
The housewife loves thee, treasuring up
Thy fragrant form with care,
Should sickness come, or wounds, or sprains
For thou hast virtues rare.
How oft, when hands and head were tired,
I’ve paced the common brown,
Or stretched me by your scented banks,
As the great sun went down;
And heard mysterious murmurs sound
Along the solemn sod,
The whispers of omnipotence,
The silent speech of God!
Dear child of Autumn, sweetest when
The robin pipes his quill,
Among the early harvest sheaves,
Delicious chamomile!

The Chamomile By John Harris

The best medicine

woodsy

For many years now, I have suffered with insomnia. According to doctors, it is due to having an overactive brain. This sounds a lot more interesting than it is; the truth of the matter is that when many people are comfortably dreaming at 2am, my brain decides it is the perfect time to try and see if I know all the words to the ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General’ (I don’t, I never have done. I don’t know any more than that line) or pondering Alien Hand Syndrome or whether camel humps will be reduced if they are fed constantly in captivity or if I know all the dance move to the Macarena (I do, thanks very much Moulsham High School disco of 1999).This excessive activity spills over into my waking life too; I am always talking to myself or planning my next move.
I struggle to find that ever needed quiet.

This means I spend a lot of time searching for help to relax my mind. Of course, one of the many things that people recommend is mindfulness and meditation, but what I find so surprising is the amount of people that use a nature substitute to find this peace. If you do a basic search, there are a ridiculous amount of videos and apps which fake nature as a form of relaxation – despite the fact that in fact all you are doing is making the situation worse by staring at a blue screen. Nature is proven to have many benefits to our health; both physical and mental, and for me, this is true. Taking moments in nature is one of the only times that my brain is calm, quiet and the change is palpable.

Today was one of the first really warm days of the year. The sun was shining in a clear sky and there was barely a breath of wind. I was at work all day, so missed a majority of it, but managed to slip out of the office to take a walk around site, sneaking off to my secret undisturbed place for a while, in some woods where the Helford river goes from a stream and flows out into the estuary. I stood down by the rill, listening to the water rushing over the rocks on its march towards the mudflats. In the dappled sun, it was warm, my knees burning through my black jeans. As I stood, my ears tuned in and out of the surrounding sounds and movements and I heard a cacophony of activity; a bumble bee hummed as it went about its daily business, weaving in and out of plants across the woodland floor. The songs of different birds were being performed by individuals scatted around the tree tops, each trying to be louder and more attractive than the other, the songs mixing and jarring, set against the background bass of a woodpecker; the hammering of bark ringing out around the woods.

Despite the warmer weather, the trees were still bare, meaning that it was much easier to pick out each bird amongst the branches. Wrens and tiny willow tits sneaked from place to place, hunting for insects amongst the bark. Blue tits chirruped out to one another from the tree tops, swooping down to gather up nesting materials; moss, bits of feathers and leaves. There was so much activity today, as wildlife prepared for the warmer months ahead. The woodland floor still has many curled, dry leaves scattered, however the bluebells are nearly fully grown; they are yet to sprout flowers, but the plants are lush and green and plentiful. Soon, there will be movement amongst these shrubs. Lots of pygmy shrews will be here, known only because of the movement of the flora and the high-pitched squeaks as they encounter each other whilst snuffling for worms and grubs in the soil, leading to territorial tussles. For now though, the leaves stay motionless. The shrews are elsewhere; although where they go to fight off the winter cold and keep their fat reserves up I am not sure: they need to eat regularly and cannot store enough fat to hibernate so I presume there is somewhere more suitable than here.

When I did finally head back towards the office, I took my time, walking slowly, on the backs of my heels so that each footstep is as soft and quiet as possible. As I walked, the sun illuminated parts of the path as I weaved through the trees. The light glimpsed off undisturbed spider webs, woven between the trunks by an unseen arachnids. I spied two moths, no bigger than a few millimetres flitting around each other. In the distance, a large creamy-yellow butterfly, too far away to identify, floated by, its wings warmed by the rays. I slowed my steps to barely moving as I heard the sound of shuffling and through some brambles I saw a flash of red; my favourite bird. The pheasant eyed me as it took large strides through the undergrowth, elongating each step and stretching its claws with each footstep as though the floor was unpleasant. I watched for a while, it seemingly unperturbed by my presence, until I turned to continue my walk. The movement seemed to frighten it and it took off; like a sudden orchestral crescendo, bursting through the trees and soaring over the river to a nearby field, negating the air in that way that only gamebirds can – both graceful and awkward at the same time.

As I continued out of the woodland and up through the little meadow, everything about me was calm. I had not thought about anything but the moment; the light, the warmth, the colour, the activity. And even though everything around me had a touch of chaos to it, there was order and nothing was more relaxing than that moment.

Nature is restorative, and I know it is to be one of the few things that can change my attitude. At each point I stopped; taking it in, trying to make memories of each feeling my senses were enjoying. So that later, at two in the morning, when my mind would explodes with energy, instead of staring at a beach on a screen I have never been to, an ocean I have never tasted, a mountain top I have never experienced all whilst actually aggravating my already fitful mind with blue light, I can simply delve into my memory bank and transport myself right back to that exquisite moment of peace in the woods, where the sights and sounds are tangible and where the only thing I have to worry about is trying to take it all in.

 

Seal Pup release

Originally published on The Cornish Seal Sanctuary blog:

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The Cornish Seal Sanctuary, where I work, had their first official release of the season with 6 pups being released back into the wild.

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Grey seal pups Alfred, Charlestown, Grambler, Warleggan, Ted and Crofty were all released at Porthtowan Beach. The planned release is a major operation involving several members of the Sanctuary team. The rehabilitation pool was drained, and then each pup was herded into a cage and then transferred to a trailer which was then driven onto the beach to be safely released.

Usually as soon as a pup has reached 40kg and has received a clean bill of health they are then released back into the wild.

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There are a variety of reasons as to why grey seal pups need to be rescued, from malnutrition to being separated from their mum at just a few days old. This particular release included two pups who have had amazing recoveries from serious injuries.

Ted was rescued on 16th December from Gwithian Beach with a broken jaw, suspected to have been a casualty of the storms. After the vet had stabilized Ted with antibiotics and pain relief he was then given general anaesthetic to wire the jaw back together. Two months later the jaw was solid and the vet was finally able to remove the wire, and Ted has been feeding throughout, other than a wonky smile you’d have no idea what this brave little seal had been through.

Charlestown only has full vision in one eye. He had a badly ulcerated eye that required 2 months of eye drops and antibiotics and regular vet check-ups.  The eye is now healed but he has little vision in that eye. The team have been watching him closely to assess his ability to find fish and compete with the other seals.  No one has told Charlestown that he doesn’t have the same sight as the other pups – these amazing seals just learn to adapt. He has competed so well that he is now one of the larger pups and was ready for release.

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Tamara, the Curator at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary said “We are all so pleased to have been able to release the pups today; the first release is always particularly special and even more so as it’s our first release as part of the SEA LIFE Trust”

“We’ll miss them because we’ve got to know them all so well,” she added, “but at the same time it is great to see them back in the wild where they belong.”

The sanctuary plan to continue releasing Pups as soon as they are a healthy weight and well enough to return back to the wild.

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All photos by Alex Pearce