Saturday, 25 May 2013

Why gardening for wildlife is essential

“It takes time – loose, unstructured dreamtime – to experience nature in a meaningful way…”    “Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv
I love exploring the natural world, the things waiting to be discovered never cease to amaze and inspire me.  Its wonderful to go out on long walks in vast woodland or to traipse across moorland, or to explore the salt-marsh along a coastline…  But the wonders waiting for you at home if you ensure your own outside space is friendly for wild creatures are all the more soothing, inspiring and breath-taking

It doesn’t need to be a big space – even a window box can be as wildlife friendly as possible and bring you butterflies, beetles and birds.  My own garden is relatively small but I stepped out this morning and there were three buzzards soaring and calling overhead, swifts screeching past, dunnocks at my bird feeders, bees of all sizes busy on the various flowering plants, frogs and tadpoles in my (small) pond, butterflies fluttering through, the odd snail (they are beautiful creatures) curled up under a stone and wolf spiders waiting on logs…   I’d walked into the garden feeling quite stressed and tired after a very busy week of work - but was instantly soothed, amused and my interest awakened.
I need to feel a sense of gardening alongside nature – not against it.    I grow plants for food for me too and they grow well in my garden, I might lose the odd one to slugs but the frogs and birds help there; far more of a pest are the neighbourhood cats who see the soil in my garden as a great litter tray…



In making spaces for wildlife at home I think its vital that this is extended to the spaces in which children are educated.   I’ve worked on various schools projects to create wildlife-friendly spaces.  I’ve never met a child who has not been interested in one or another aspect of the natural world, but I’ve met many adults who don’t always see that a space for the discovery of worms, earwigs and spiders can be a wonderful educational tool.
Children need to connect with nature – and in doing so they find ways to understand themselves and the world in which they live.   They need opportunities to dig in the soil, to carefully see what lives under rocks, to watch tadpoles swim, to lie in long grass and find shapes in the clouds…   They need adults that value this and create the right spaces and time for this (and more) to happen.


I’m so lucky in my long-term residency at Dunkirk that we are developing quite a large outside space with the whole school.    We were calling it “the allotment” because it had been a place with vegetable beds; it still has those but as we have developed it in the last 3 years it also has so much more.    The children have re-named it “the Discovery Garden – the Land of Many Things” and we’ve been so busy developing the space.


Its an inner-city Nottingham site, next to the ring-road but also next the canal and a corridor of wildlife friendly areas such as the canal tow path, a local nature reserve and even the trees planted alongside the ring-road.  I’ve been so excited by what we’ve seen there – and the children are entranced.  We created a pond late last summer and its now teeming with creatures – no frogs yet but I am sure they will find it.   There are bees, birds, bugs of all kinds and so much more.    We grow food there too, we have a poly-tunnel, we have a fire area and are about to make a cob-oven, we have living willow domes, a mud-pie kitchen area, log seats and we let the grass grow long and the dandelions thrive…


Last week I spent the day there with the year two class.   We found a dead wood-pigeon chick on the grass and the children's response to this was incredibly touching.   They were really interested in what had killed it – was it a fox, a cat, an eagle, a hawk?   We certainly see a sparrowhawk regularly there and it provoked really interesting conversations about killing animals, food chains and death.   The children wanted to say prayers or words of thought (the school has children of many faiths and of no faith), they covered the bird in flowers and were incredibly respectful. 


Later I was with one of the girls looking at the seedlings in the poly-tunnel, when we found an exhausted bumble bee on the grass by the door.   She was in great danger of being trodden on, so we carefully picked her up and moved her to a place where she would be out of reach of feet.  The girl I was with was fascinated and asked wonderful questions and we were soon joined by a little group all eager to find out more and to help.  Could they feed the bee they asked?   They picked dandelions and daisies and so gently placed them nearby and were enthralled as the bee began to sup; they watched and discussed and chatted.  We talked about bees and what they need, that it was a girl bee and why she might be exhausted and what we could do to help.  They created a bee sanctuary in effect – and sure enough the bee did regain strength and fly away; at which point they danced for joy.   I don’t think a space devoid of dandelions would have let that happen.

Like many people, I adoreRichard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods”.   He makes some wonderful points in it about the necessity of children being able to study the nature in their own back yard and how “everyday nature” is the most powerful in engaging children with the natural world around them.   

“(What is) the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”
Robert Michael Pyle in “Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv
“Children learn about the rain forest, but usually not about their own region’s forests, or, as Sobel puts it “even just the meadow outside the classroom door”” 
“Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv
I’ve been so privileged to share journeys with children as they explore nature and create things inspired by this.   I’ve seen a whole day spent making dens for ladybirds and hours spent creating birthday parties for worms with stories attached that resonated so deeply inside the children that created them.  Its vital that children grow up learning to love, respect and care for the world around them and for each other.   I think its often easier to begin very complex discussions by looking at what small creatures and plants might need – children who struggle to understand their own emotions are often very easily able to connect with what a ladybird might need to feel safe and secure.


Nature is in crisis in many ways, recent reports published  such as“State of Nature” have highlighted so much that we need to be mindful of.  We risk more that we can know if we don’t give children meaningful access to the natural world.

I could go on and on about it – but the tadpoles in my pond seem to be doing a really amazing swimming display and much as I love exploring the issues around it all I need to be out and indulging in it too!
“isolated patches of wild land are valuable to know… these islands of nature are important for the young who live in surrounding or adjacent neighbourhoods”
“Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv:

“The quiet wisdom of nature does not try to mislead you like the landscape of a city does, with billboards and ads everywhere.  It doesn’t make you feel like you have to conform to any image.  It’s just there, and it accepts everyone.”
“Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv,  quoting Erin Lau.

“Nature – the sublime, the harsh, the beautiful – offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot.  Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity… Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air and other living kin, large and small.  Without that experience, as Chawla says, “We forget our place; we forget that larger fabric on which our lives depend.””
“Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv. 
“If education and other forces, intentionally or unintentionally, continue to push the young away from direct experience in nature, the cost to science itself will be high.  Most scientists today began their careers as children, chasing bugs and snakes, collecting spiders, and feeling awe in the presence of nature.  Since such untidy activities are fast disappearing, how, then, will our future scientists learn about nature?”
“Last Child in the Woods” Richard Louv







Friday, 10 May 2013

Spring is here, spring is here…

Spring is here, spring is here… “I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring, I do, don’t you?  ‘Course you do”  To quote Tom Lehrer. But I certainly don’t advocate his idea about pigeons in the park!!  (this will make no sense unless you are familiar with his song).


Spring is amazingly vivid at the moment – and the rain this week feels so very  welcome because the plants are really needing it.


I adore the winter but it felt very long this year, especially with all the heavy snow we had here just immediately before Easter, so I’ve really been drinking in all the colours of Spring this year.   In planning various projects I’ve been out in the woods a lot, I’ve been really busy with the Discovery Garden at Dunkirk Primary School and also very busy in my own wildlife friendly garden.

I love making things outside – whatever you make you also can’t help but be busy contemplating the natural things around you and thereby noticing so much more than you would inside.  Being relatively still in nature beings amazing discoveries and the spring is so rich in these.    I was in a wonderful woodland making patterns with sticks a few days ago and all of a sudden became aware of a buzzard flying through the trees quite low within a few metres of me – it passed close by and I stood so still as it passed.

Gardening for wildlife is a joy all year round but the spring is especially magical as creatures and plants awaken and emerge from winter slumbers…   the sight of small creatures such as the first bees, swallows, frogs, ladybirds are heart-warming.   The vivid greens as buds and early leaves unfurl are so strong. 


I love the early spring flowers and the blossom on trees – and the flowers of trees such as ash, maple, oak are such exquisite things which could also be overlooked.  I’ve always been drawn to the small little plants and flowers that live in woodland and hedgerows – and some of the woodland flowers that are out at the moment are so stunning.   They have the most intriguing names which tell such stories – stitchwort, speedwell, wood sorrel, forget-me-not… their names are a link to uses, remedies and stories we are in danger of losing touch with.


Amidst the clutter of collected objects I love to refer to for inspiration are several tattered second hand books which I’ve found in charity shops and various other places.   Several old books I love to use were also mine when I was a small child – including my worn and well-thumbed copies of the Ladybird “What to Look For” seasonal series, illustrated by the wonderful C.F. Tunnicliffe.     “What to Look for in Spring” is so interesting to refer to as I reflect on my discoveries amongst the woodlands and hedgerows at the moment.
In books like this, written over 50 years ago, its really interesting – but also worrying – to note the things that were once seen as common and yet sadly no longer are.   It’s also fascinating to see how common names for plants and birds have changed and how descriptive language has also greatly changed.

I love these words from  “Nature Rambles” by Edward Step (1930):
“…the great charm of the spring, when it comes, is, to most of us, that the old favourite flowers for which we have been watching come back to us one or two at a time, enabling us to admire them fully and to make note of their structure and habitats.  We know that most of these things have their special times and haunts; and the knowledge should induce us to make our projected ramble include the spots that are most likely to yield to us what we wish to see.   In finding what we sought, we are almost sure to find in addition something that is new to us.”


“What to Look for in Spring” says:
“Wild hyacinths (or bluebells) are blue underfoot, looking like patches of reflected sky.  By this time the nightingale should be singing, and most of the migrant birds are here making their nests”.

There’s a beauty and poetry (and a real quirkiness often) in the way older books describe things and I’m really interested in how the books aimed at children are full of very intense text.


Spring (like all seasons) has a real mix of weather conditions - which probably needs to be embraced!  I think being in the woods in the rain in spring is quite a wonderful experience, there’s something soothing, fresh and life-affirming about it.  When working with children outside it brings a different view-point to the weather and the seasons; I’m inspired by the things children find a delight in.    Jumping in puddles, collecting raindrops, catching falling petals as snow, daisy-chains, gathering dandelions to study, watching water-beetles…  It often feels such a real privilege to share journeys through the seasons with children and sometimes it can be a totally different take on things to that shown by some adults.


A week or so ago I was stuck in traffic on my journey home – and I watched a woman pulling up dandelions from her driveway and then applying weed killer to them.  A day or so later I was in the Nature Garden at Dunkirk primary with a group of children and we were discovering recent changes there.   One young boy was completely intrigued by a couple of dandelions in flower – he didn’t know the name of the plant but knew that it “makes you wet the bed”  (its wonderful that this bit of plant-lore passes down the generations).   He also hadn’t made the connection between the yellow dandelion flowers and the white dandelion clocks – but because the abundance of dandelions means its fine to pick some and pull them apart to discover their structure.   He was fascinated by the base of the flower petals and in puling apart a closed seed head he could see how the white seeds were getting ready to emerge.   It was wonderful listening to him discover all this and make connections.

Dandelions have so any wonderful uses and a brilliant name – taken from French and referring to the lions teeth like shape in the leaves…  They should be seen as a vital part of any outdoor space for children. 

We have a mud pie making area set up permanently in the Discovery Garden at Dunkirk, all year groups love to use this and I’ve noticed them learning and observing so much as they make various potions and mixtures.   Young children there were fascinated in the winter when their mud pies froze – and were explaining to me recently how they couldn’t make frozen pies anymore because the weather was too warm.  I don’t think you can make true hands-on connections for yourself (which are the best deep-seated learning experiences) without spending long periods of time outdoors exploring like this.   You also need to have patches of land left so that dandelions can flourish, mud pies can be left to freeze and mice can make little tunnels through the grass… 


“the deepwood is vanished in these islands – much, indeed had vanished before history began – but we are still haunted by the idea of it.  The deepwood flourishes in our architecture, art and above all in our literature.  Unnumbered quests and voyages have taken place through and over the deepwood, and fairy tales and dream-plays have been staged in its glades and copses.  Woods have always been a place of inbetweenness, somewhere one might slip from one world to another, or from one time to a former.”
The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane
“The relationship between humans and trees is one that is closer and more complicated than that between us and inanimate objects…”
“Ancient Trees, Living Landscapes” by Richard Muir

“Woods, like water, have been surprised by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape.  They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of Richmal Crompton’s Just William and his outlaws.  They hold the merriness of Merry England, of yew longbows, of Robin Hood and his outlaw band.  But they are also repositories of the ancient stories…”
Roger Deakin - ‘Wildwood’