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This was the pattern formed on a small area of still water trapped behind a partly-submerged branch beyond a stretch of more turbulent water beneath a bridge across the River Pinn in Uxbridge yesterday. My eye was drawn to its pattern against the shadowy water beneath the bridge. Foam does occur naturally when the presence of small amounts of fatty acids in the water derived from decaying organic matter act as surfactants and interfere with the surface tension of the water, allowing it to mix with the air above it more easily. However artificial detergents or high levels of fertiliser runoff causing algal blooms are also a cause and I suspect their presence in this instance, although without proper testing of the water it’s impossible to know exactly its origin. What I do know is that where testing has taken place along the streams and rivers that crisscross urban London the levels of water pollution - including untreated sewage - have been shocking. The Wealdstone Brook that flows through Harrow and Brent is one that particularly comes to mind. Urban rivers can be wonderful sinuous conduits of life joining and weaving together precious islands of biodiversity in our towns and cities. Unofficial green infrastructure with enormous significance for the sustainability of urban environments. I remember watching common sandpipers feeding on Autumn migration along the River Brent close to the Welsh Harp in the 1980s. There is still resilient life in these waterways as Citizen Scientists are discovering. And amazing river restoration projects such as along stretches of the Yeading Brook in  Harrow show just what can be done to rewild our neglected waterways.  But whilst interesting patterns on their surface may tease my artistic curiosity, their current state is still really nothing short of scandalous…

 Spring is in the air. Well it certainly was yesterday. Sunday had been dull and cold and windy with squally pulses of rain. Yesterday couldn’t have been more different: the sun was warm and the sky was a tie-dye of blue and white. As I wandered around Little Orchard with a mug of tea after work it was astonishing the transformation from the day before. The first cowslip. The first snake’s head fritillaries. A tiny wood anemone. And celandines. Everywhere. Rising from the ground almost as if some invisible lever had been pulled or button pressed. And then there was the smell. A perfume so subtle it is hard to describe: the combined scent of the myriad blossoms emerging from the damp soil. Yes, the dampness. As moisture transfers through evapotranspiration to the air as the sun strengthens, there was a humidity and warmth tangible in the lungs. And life. I could smell life. The sward beneath these celandines was alive with the frantic movement of ants, themselves highly sensitive to temperature.  But there was still something else. Petrichor and more. Microbial. Earthy. Geosmin. The smell of everything waking up, from bacteria to springtails to my olfactory nerve. All enabled by the stillness. Nature - just being outside after a Winter of being indoors - can be so healing. Quality time indeed. Not just for the body, but the soul…

Walking through the car park at Amersham Tesco I often stop to listen for the house sparrows that frequent the ivy-clad willows along the River Misbourne. Looking up and staring at something indiscernible often attracts a small crowd. Or bemusement. Or both. I couldn’t care less about ‘odd looks’. Never have I suppose, and I consider myself fortunate in that respect. I’m always stopping to look at things that catch my eye. The self-consciousness that can inhibit us from doing what we really would like to do. It can take a long time to cultivate the confidence not to be worried about being perceived as ‘nerdy’, ‘geeky’ or, as was in the news this week, a ‘boff’. I meet so many students who disguise their passions - and I’m talking about anything here, not just natural history - with feigned indifference in order to fit in. To avoid scrutiny from the contextual crowd that can evolve into ridicule and bullying. I mention this because I got quite a few sideways glances and a comment of ‘stick man’ (which I thought was quite funny until subsequently I thought I may have misheard ‘stick’) as I took photographs of an ash tree branch covered in these amazing male flowers that was overhanging the car park from the river. Amazing in the sense that they don’t have petals, the purple anthers splitting to release pollen to the wind. I really would recommend further reading about ash tree reproduction because it is genuinely fascinating. There is so much variation and complexity: each tree contributing uniquely to the wider population. Just like us, they make up the fine grain of a bigger image, individuals within a society. The uniqueness that’s not about being different - which in a sense, we all are - but being yourself, whoever that may be…..

 I visited Hog and Hollowhill woods nature reserve as part of my challenge to visit all of the BBOWT reserves this year. It’s a stunning area of deciduous woodland dominated by beech trees on thin, gravelly calcareous soil. Although the high, airy canopy is thinning, allowing a little more autumnal sunlight to percolate towards the woodland floor, it remains relatively dense due to the unseasonably warm weather that we have experienced and so despite the sunshine it was quite dark down in the leaf litter. I was heartened to see so much dead wood left to moulder and crumble as it should, pools of light punctuating the gloom where fallen trees had created a window to the sky above. On one atypically damp slope I came across several magpie inkcaps  Coprinopsis picacea at various stages in their development. Some were just emerging and had conical caps whilst this more mature one had started to show an umbrella shape with upturning of its edges. The exposed black gills of a few were almost liquified, their spores dripping earthwards in a process known as deliquescence. Nuthatches and treecreepers called from above and leopard slugs, like perfectly coordinated accessories, brazened out the daytime on the stumps and logs around me. What a fabulous place and although the Chiltern beech woods share typicality, edaphic factors relating to slight variations in aspect, relief and the combination of species present means that, as I have discovered on my travels, no two are the same. Some are damp and dense with ramsons in Spring, soft and deep soils yielding tiny flies, whilst others are dark and dry and prickly with holly leaves and sweet chestnut husks. I have noticed the nuances of nature, the almost infinite variation that reflects the subtleties of the relationship between living and non-living that are the basis of biodiversity and something of which we are very much a part, like it or not. As the year begins to peter out, I have nearly visited all of BBOWT’s reserves, but my instinct tells me that there is still so much I have to discover….

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I had the privilege to take my sixth form students to a series of lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, itself a long overdue opportunity for reacquaintance with old friends and familiar faces. But afterwards I booked myself into the cathedral to nature that is the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. It has always been my favourite time of year to visit, the winter gloaming somehow a perfect foil for its intricacy and splendour. I approached along Exhibition Road in the warm pinkish-grey light of the late November London sunset, my heart beginning to beat faster in anticipation of returning to what has always been a place of wonder for me. One of the lectures I had just attended had been about the concept of place and what different places mean for us as individuals. ‘Layers of meaning’ was the the rather functional, academic phrase used. Well here is a place I can tell you that has layer upon layer of personal meaning for me. Like a lasagna of my life. My dad used to bring me here as a little boy, often a cheeky visit when it was almost empty and we had the place to ourselves at the darkening of the day. The iguanodon’s thumb used to fascinate me. As a teenager I used to bunk off college to visit and spend a day making notes in what used the be the Geology Museum, now known as the Earth Galleries. I know. Hardcore, right? As an adult, I even spent a Museum Night here, sleeping at the base of the main staircase (bad move: cold air sinks and for several hours seeped down the steps and straight into my sleeping bag). A restless, wakeful experience where I kept coming around from light sleep to stare upwards at Dippy’s tail and backside. Not a place I suspect I would have chosen to rest millions of years ago. And yesterday, after a pandemic-induced hiatus, here I was again. Back at the Cathedral of Nature. The place where I suspect I will continue to worship for the rest of my time on this earth….

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During an ephemeral burst of slanty rainfall whilst walking along the Regent’s Canal yesterday lunchtime, I stepped from the path to seek cover beneath an overhanging wall-forest of arching buddleia and long, hanging strands of Virginia creeper. New artwork had appeared on the brickwork, overlaying what I remembered from my last visit, bold colours against silver shouting for attention. The buddleia’s drowsy summer scent suffused with unsubtle hints of cannabis. A wren, also hiding but perhaps not from the rain, briefly scolded me in clear indignation that I had stepped from the conveyor path of humanity into its space. This old tyre sat unnoticed just a few feet from lots of feet. Partially submerged in a bed of plantain and the wonderfully-named pellitory-of-the-wall, the circular frame of rubber enclosing it’s metallic centre gently succumbing to oxidation. All around me was fusion in profusion. Old and new. Native and alien. Cultivated and wild. Creativity and destruction. Growth and decay. Stationary and passing. Relationships converging in time and place. A truly urban ecology with little succour for the purist. And then the rain stopped as quickly as it had begun and I was gone….

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‘My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as though of hemlock I had drunk…’ William Keats, Ode to a Nightingale (1819). I suppose it’s fairly apparent that I love words - written, spoken and sung - and these lines have stayed with me ever since I first read them as a student of English Literature in my late teens in the early 1980s. A reflection on the transience of life and the immortality of the nightingale’s song in the darkness of night, I was reminded of them when I stood beneath the towering umbels  of hemlock Conium maculatum alongside an overgrown footpath near Tring. It is an extremely poisonous plant that flowers in June and July after the first flush of cow parsley from May has started to die back. The tall stems, liver-spotted with purple blotches, and feathery foliage are quite noticeable in the hedgerows at the moment. It also has an unpleasant odour but if I’m honest it’s not one with which I am familiar as I tend to give the plant a fairly wide berth for obvious reasons associated with its toxicity. Seeing the lacy flowers against the vibrant blue sky, however, took me straight back to my youth and those words written by Keats. Nature can be such a potent catalyst for memories, transporting the mind in an instant to times not consciously remembered. My classmates. My friends. The long flycatcher-filled evenings. The places now changed beyond recognition that were once a stage for youthful adventure. That plant is part of me. My past. My identity. The amalgam of thoughts and experiences that has contributed to the person I am. And that’s why, collectively, we must not lose nature from our lives - and especially those of today’s young people - because in doing so we will lose part of ourselves….

Little Orchard rests on a knoll of raised pastureland overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury and the damp meadows that represent the floodplains of the Cuttle Brook and the river Lyde. Drained and cultivated, it’s a land of lost lapwings haunted by the ghosts of evicted curlews and ploughed-up snake’s head fritillaries. But echoes of its soul remain. The ditches that drain the fields are full of meadowsweet and Norfolk reed. Black poplars rise from the hedgerows alongside willow and alder that the annual cutting still struggles to suppress. Dabchicks trill from ponds that hold feeding little egrets and breeding Cetti’s warbler. Feral flocks of greylag and Canada geese commute across the big sky to feed on the fertile grassland along the margins of which hunched herons sit. And wait - for unsuspecting voles - and sometimes, I think, almost for the Wild to return. It feels like a landscape yearning for its former self. Reed buntings, like this fabulous male just beginning to acquire its Spring breeding plumage, mingle with the linnets, yellowhammers and corn buntings that roost in the dense blackthorn hedge that runs beneath the row of walnut trees where they meet at dusk. To see out the night. Clinging on through the wintry darkness to the thinnest of branches until the light of the next day and survival. In some sense, a mini metaphor of the predicament in which the land too also now finds itself…

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Green shoots… I took the opportunity yesterday - spurred on by a bright forget- me-not sky - to explore an area of the Chiltern escarpment relatively local to me but not one of my regular chosen paths. I had already made the decision this year to spend a lot more of my time scrutinising the local landscapes that perhaps through familiarity or routine are overlooked in favour of the draw of more distant places.  One new path I took was a sunken one through a stunning beech wood standing tall in all its skeletal Winter glory on the slopes of a classic chalk dry valley. From the deep, luxuriant layer of bronzen leaf mould were the shoots of wild garlic. Not just in patches away from paths and trodden feet or adorning the disturbed mounds and spoil heaps giving away the presence of ancient badger setts. They were everywhere. A green sheen of hope rising from the earth with a reassuring inevitability. I am genuinely excited to return to this new path in a few weeks as the risk of frost subsides and before the canopy closes for Summer to witness what I already know will be a stunning display. I’m a geographer. I love travel. It broadens the mind as the saying goes. But sometimes staying closer to home and perhaps discovering the profound in the prosaic deepens it. Stopping to notice the details. New perspectives on old views. Therein lies not only contentment, but adventure….

I came across this old truck alongside a footpath that I had not taken before. It had clearly been abandoned for decades and was slowly being subsumed into the landscape. The missing headlamp offered a knowing wink of acknowledgment as I knelt to examine the felt-like leaves of great mullein growing through the long-fallen grille. And as I pondered the fate of this mechanical beast, blistered with bubbling oxidation and flaking paint, its windscreen vision dulled by years of algal bloom, from the dark recess of the engine, there was suddenly life. A wren appeared, upright of tail and full of staccato scolding. Loud. Really loud. Clearly startled by my presence but almost simultaneously deciding that it had important things to do, it set off purposefully in a low straight line towards a pile of concrete posts from which it picked off ridiculously large clumps of loose moss before returning with it in the form of an extravagant moustache. As it was swallowed by the mechanical mouth into which it flew, inwards and upwards, it looked for all the world like a miniature dipper flying to a nest site concealed under an overhang on a riverbank. A dipper of the drylands, high in the chalky Chilterns. I think I will be revisiting this place…

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Over the course of my lifetime - and I’m now on the slippery slope to sixty so I think I can speak with some qualification - I have witnessed a diminution in the natural world that pains me in the manner of a dull ache that won’t go away. Some of it personally anecdotal, most of it supported by an increasingly vast body of research and evidence. In that context, I applaud the announcement at the end of COP 15 in Montreal of a Global Framework for Nature. A plan to restore biodiversity. By its very nature, its enormity of scale inevitably requires broad statements of intent. All genuinely laudable. But therein lies my concern. Targets in my experience often seem to end up as a great way of postponing action for somebody else. Goals that buy you current credit without actually needing to score. The timescale is necessarily urgent: 2030 will hurtle towards us at speed but I suspect as a destination it will still be beyond the political timeframe of many of our current decision makers. Decades of inexorable erosion of the ecosystems that underpin our own existence are unlikely to be reversed through a sudden, awakening spurt of action. If I ever thought that were actually likely to happen. Much can be achieved but I fear that the blurring that vague targets create leaves too much wriggle room for those in political power to duck and weave around their responsibilities in a way that justifies inaction and leaves their successors with an even bigger pile of problems. Just more hand-wringing and more illusory goals. So I am left in that quandary of what to do. Collectively, as communities, communicate. Converse beyond the bubble: through art and science, words and numbers, images and music. As an individual, say what I think. Try to negotiate those difficult individual decisions, flawed as we are, that mean we all make less of a negative impact on the natural world and more of a positive difference, however small. When it all seems too much: that is precisely the time to remind those in political ‘power’ that with their position comes responsibility and accountability. I will listen. I will speak. I will act. I will vote….

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Foxglove blooming against a blank wall. Bringing back biodiversity is all about celebrating the marginal land, the overlooked hedges and edges. Over the last few years we have been sowing seeds and planting trees and shrubs to give the formal, well trodden thoroughfares of my school an untidy embrace full of blackbirds and bees, foxes and flowers. And despite sporadic strimming and spraying, it’s working. Nature is painting a picture again on a blank canvas…

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When I was a boy growing up in north west London, spotted flycatchers were everywhere. They were particularly abundant around Harrow on the Hill where they seemed to like the wooded slopes and mature gardens. I remember sitting on a wall revising for an exam during a long teenage Summer and being surrounded by the sound of beaks snapping shut as the adults sallied energetically from the branches around me to pluck midges and flies from the air for their recently fledged young. The sad thing is that they are no longer there. The animation they brought to the landscape has ceased. I first noticed their absence from former haunts in the mid 1990s. According to the BTO their population declined by 92% between 1967-2020: effectively my lifetime. The reasons are likely to involve a combination of declining insect numbers and climate change and a hazardous long-distance migration to sub-Saharan Africa. Although there are a few reliable sites for them, they have become very localised in the Chilterns and so I was thrilled to see a pair building a nest behind an old security lamp against a wall at a farm that I recently visited. They were filmed using a telescope so as not to disturb them. It’s fascinating to observe how the bird snuggles down to make a cup in the assembled material. Despite such a catastrophic decline in numbers, it’s reassuring to know that these birds do cling on in hidden corners of the landscape and may, perhaps, with the right conservation strategies in place, return to their former haunts in time. I hope so….

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When I was a boy growing up in north west London, spotted flycatchers were everywhere. They were particularly abundant around Harrow on the Hill where they seemed to like the wooded slopes and mature gardens. I remember sitting on a wall revising for an exam during a long teenage Summer and being surrounded by the sound of beaks snapping shut as the adults sallied energetically from the branches around me to pluck midges and flies from the air for their recently fledged young. The sad thing is that they are no longer there. The animation they brought to the landscape has ceased. I first noticed their absence from former haunts in the mid 1990s. According to the BTO their population declined by 92% between 1967-2020: effectively my lifetime. The reasons are likely to involve a combination of declining insect numbers and climate change and a hazardous long-distance migration to sub-Saharan Africa. Although there are a few reliable sites for them, they have become very localised in the Chilterns and so I was thrilled to see a pair building a nest behind an old security lamp against a wall at a farm that I recently visited. They were filmed using a telescope so as not to disturb them. It’s fascinating to observe how the bird snuggles down to make a cup in the assembled material. Despite such a catastrophic decline in numbers, it’s reassuring to know that these birds do cling on in hidden corners of the landscape and may, perhaps, with the right conservation strategies in place, return to their former haunts in time. I hope so….

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Every time I pass this photographic hoarding concealing the HS2 works at Great Missenden it makes me think. Is it a sympathetic attempt to blend incongruous and landscape-transforming earthworks? An attempt to somehow soften the blow, to appease? The reality for me is that for most of the year it jars my senses to see a beautiful Spring woodland scene with fresh low-tannin foliage set against Autumn and Winter skies. It is somehow just discordant. Whatever its intention my overriding feeling is that it is a perfect symbol of what we are fed. Public relations and image over substance: the fake landscape of fake news. The merits and demerits of the HS2 project continue to be the subject of much debate, but I have seen with my own eyes the mature trees disappear from the landscape in a broad swathe across its path. I am sure that as part of the trade-off there will be thousands planted in mitigation.

My concern is the extent to which, certainly in the short term, we are really replacing the complex entity of relationships that a mature woodland represents with rows - why rows? - of saplings in plastic guards. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge supporter of planting - and those who plant - the right trees in the right places, native species suited to the local conditions and landscape. But trees are capable of colonising land remarkably rapidly. If we are serious about our commitment to afforestation we need to have the courage and patience to allow the process of succession, where appropriate and not damaging to more open and biodiverse habitats, to take place, a genuine rewilding of our landscapes. Of course I welcome the announcement from COP26 yesterday regarding deforestation but I worry that it will again be empty headline-filling rhetoric that will ultimately end up as public relations smoke and mirrors symbolised by photographic woodland hoardings, the physical embodiment of blah blah blah….

Gardening is very much about our relationship with the earth. The soil that surrounds us. The decisions that we make. And it is almost inevitable that we exert a level of influence over what is included through our planning and planting and what is, quite literally, weeded out. That’s why I find visiting other people’s gardens so fascinating because we inevitably express so much about ourselves through our surroundings. I have made a conscious effort with Little Orchard to try and let go and listen to what the land is saying to me, to rejoice in its spontaneity and engage with  it in a less dominating way. I came across this goat’s beard  Tragopogon pratensis seed head in the meadow the other day. I hadn’t planted it. They are tall plants with elegant yellow flowers with extended bracts that generally close by midday ( hence the country name of Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon ) and thrive in the hedgerow along the lane, their striking clocks standing like flowery fireworks above the nettles. This one had arrived, airborne and unnoticed. If I’m honest I hadn’t even seen it flower. But I will let the wind do its job and take the seeds on a serendipitous journey to wherever. It may be a modest gesture in the grand scheme but it’s very much part of rewilding, not just of the landscape, but also of me….

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For the six years that I have called Little Orchard home, Jenny has been a constant. Reassuringly ‘there’, whether with a greeting whinny or a friendly follow along the footpath. And at over forty years of age she has been as much part of the local landscape as the meadow itself. A steadying influence on her many equine companions and an observer of the wildlife that shared her field, from sleepy hares to singing skylarks. It was a sad day yesterday to go out early, as I often do, on a bright, sunny Winter morning, to discover she had passed, peacefully asleep in the grassy place that had for so long been her home. Jenny will always be fondly remembered and loved by the many, young and old, who encountered her as a fixture of village life over so many years. May her gentle soul Rest in Peace.

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 A few years ago I treated myself to a hammock. Well, it’s more of a suspended seat to be honest, but the principle behind it is the same. Make a conscious effort to stop. Stop finding things to do. Stop looking. Stop seeking. Being busy. Just stop. Sit down. In fact, lie down. Make time, as they say. And take in the world around you. Or, just close your eyes. Listen. Smell the scents. Just for a while, let the world come to you. It’s amazing what you can see. Like the partridges that emerged from the meadow and passed right beneath where I sat, communicating with each other in a low, barely audible purring burble I’d never heard before, either oblivious to me or really just not bothered. Or this fox, hunting in the meadow a few feet away, at dusk. Focused on food, not me. Vole-catcher. In the spinning swirl of everyday life it is sometimes just important to stop. And be. Let the world, instead, move around you. It’s wonderful what can happen…..

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Beautiful, Spring-like day in Regent’s Park yesterday. Spent the morning exploring along the canal towards Camden and found this tiny orange beauty emerging from the crusted, almost boulder-field bark of a fallen poplar, itself lying in a bed of emerging celandines and covered in tiny shoots presumably germinating from seeds wind-blown and trapped in its craggy crevices. Carbon cycle in slow time, the long, almost lethargic process of decomposition bringing new life and enabling subtle, imperceptible change. Truly urban decay. Taking its time, so to speak. And certainly in contrast to all around it: the heady, selfie chatter; the coffee-fuelled blur of bloggers and joggers. Passers-by in every sense, both of time and place. But just as much part of it. As was I, and I loved it. Happy Valentine’s Day….

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Time. However we measure or allocate it, the natural world is its ultimate marker as our lives entwine with the relentless throb of day and night and the more subtle pulse of the seasons. I discovered this wonderful display of snowdrops next to an old cemetery, itself a reminder of our own transience, on my travels last weekend. Badgers and rabbits had disturbed the soil beneath the bleached elders and old man’s beard. With a root still in the ground, this tree appeared not to have been felled but instead to have fallen, perhaps in a long-forgotten storm. Its trunk was soft and crumbly and completely cloaked in moss. At the junction where it met its leafy resting place, little chalky grey spoil heaps gave away the presence of wood mice and voles beneath. And the snowdrops spread in all directions like a living echo of the tree’s erstwhile impact. Snowdrops spread mainly by bulb division but also in some instances through a fascinating method of seed dispersal. After flowering and pollination, the globular seed pods are lowered to the soil as they become heavier and the leaves wilt. Attached to each seed is an elastiome, high in proteins and oils and very attractive to ants which take them to feed to their larvae, leaving the seeds untouched but planted at a suitable depth underground for successful germination. These particular snowdrops extended continuously to the field margins and the road that bordered the site. It must have taken many years for them to have extended so far. This wasn’t a rapid colonisation. It felt like a place where slow natural processes were at work, in contrast to the cars that sped by alongside like mechanical totems to our hectic lifestyle. They will soon be gone, to wither soilwards again but hopefully I will be back to visit them next February to mark the passing of another year in my life. Time…..

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As the evenings have darkened I have spent some of them going through old photographs. Last night I came across this one… the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum in London when ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus had pride of place greeting visitors as they arrived. It’s a place I very much associate with dark winter evenings. I was born at the old Charing Cross hospital opposite the station and we lived near Russell Square. Towards the end of rainy days exploring the London I called home we would gravitate towards the museum as the crowds dissipated homewards, stepping over and around colourful puddles mirroring the Christmas lights. For a brief time, we more or less had it all to ourselves. As a small child surrounded by huge dinosaurs I was in awe of the scale of everything. The warm lighting cast shadows and hid recesses in which lay mystery and discovery in equal measure. I remember, of all things, the iguanadon’s thumb and the scales of a coelacanth, a ‘living fossil’…. the wonder of it! I was even fortunate enough to spend a night at the museum about ten years ago as an organised event - a surreal and unforgettable experience for sure - and I remain drawn there, especially it seems at this time of year. In part the naturalist acutely aware of how much there is yet to learn and in part the little boy still holding his dad’s hand…..

I often wonder where fascination begins: that urge inside to want to know more. To learn. To find out. To have a passion that is so strong and consuming that you don’t really care if it sets you out as ‘different’. I came across this very old, slightly washed-out slide taken in 1967 at Kew Gardens. The earlybirder in early days. I love the bemused onlookers, the mild concern in the body language of the bird and the focus of my concentration demonstrated by the hands held behind my back. And of course the hair, remarkably coordinated with the shoes, which sets this out as a rare image indeed. I suppose there are no definitive answers to the question I posed earlier, other than the fact that for me my love - and it is a love - of the natural world began demonstrably early and has only intensified ever since. And the real wonder is that, with every new day, you never quite know the journey on which that love will take you….

Trees. I love them. Without any exaggeration, I really do. I have planted many and will undoubtedly plant many more. And I know I am not alone in feeling this way. The collective connection we have with them goes well beyond a biologically transactional one. They are more than simply providers of oxygen. It’s emotional. And shared. The loss of trees for any reason stirs our feelings in a way that can be  hard to articulate. But simple words suffice. I saw this today, weathered and disintegrating, on a tree beside Link Road in Great Missenden. A physical echo of protests to save a tree that still stands along with others threatened with removal. The voice of a community. A physical message of simple eloquence, and I suggest a tacit acknowledgment that in saving them, we know we also save ourselves……

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Looking through some old photographs recently, I came across this. One of the great things about exploring outdoors is that you never know what you may find. What serendipitous discovery will you make? Who, or what, will cross your path? Catch your eye? Will the day be one of immersive being or brimful of talking-point highlights? Part of the fun is never quite knowing. Wandering the wave-cut platform at the base of the cliffs at low tide along the stretch of coastline between Cuckmere and Birling Gap a few years ago, I was looking seawards at passing gulls, upwards at soaring fulmars and peregrines and downwards at the stranded pools around my feet. And then I came across this, carved into a narrow cleft in the cliff. Relatively Inaccessible except at low tide and at an angle so as not to be visible unless upon close scrutiny of the rock face. It was no more than a foot tall and framed within an aureole of freshly exposed chalk. There are the inevitable questions. Who sculpted it? Of whom is it a depiction? Why here? Questions for which there will never, I suspect, be answers. Which, to my mind, doesn’t really matter. Chalk by its very nature is easily weathered and eroded and it is certain that this little work of art has either disappeared altogether or exists only as a tiny dissolving shadow melting into the vastness of coastline and time. I am certain I would struggle to find it again. I stumbled, almost quite literally, upon it. But in many ways I think it is precisely that ephemeral relationship with the creativity of others and their bond with the environment that makes it, and Indeed all art, so special….

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Dalston, in Hackney, was briefly part of my early childhood. We lived in a flat not far from Balls Pond Road and I remember rain grey days looking over rooftops and smokey chimneys from the balcony. Snow even. Yesterday I decided to pay my former 1960s toddling ground a visit. It was raining again. But this was a different place to the one I distantly remember. It was vibrant: full of creativity and colour, diversity and inclusivity in equal measure, history and now. I could imagine Benjamin Zephaniah soaking in  this place to write one of my favourite poems, The London Breed. And hidden at its heart, this place: The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. Fashioned from an old section of railway line, the moment you walk through the entrance you sense involvement, acceptance, community, hope. A distillation of everything wonderful about this part of the city. And especially for me, a place where wildlife and people can be together. Goldfinches twittered from the birches above. Flat-topped fungi rose from the deep bark mulch. Even a bed of yellow-sapped greater celandine, one of my favourite wildflowers, offered a verdant showcase for beautiful pots and artefacts. Vegetables, herbs, wildflowers, tables, sofas and chairs: all offering a place to sit and be with others. Or just be. Or be with bees. All beyond a sign proclaiming ‘Keep Cities Wild’ in true celebration of the spirit of urban ecology. If you are ever nearby, or stumble upon it as I did, go in. Your wild self will thank you…

The moon over the wild hedge at Little Orchard. I ventured out to listen. The grey partridges in the fields were calling by its light. Despite the cold they are in full Springtime breeding mode. The coveys have divided into pairs. By day they keep a low profile, feeding in the fallow fields or sitting in the nettle stems alongside the hedges that will offer cover for their nests. But at dusk in particular - agitated and upright - they pace the invisible borders of their territories and call repeatedly into the darkness. A strange twisted rattle that seems to carry long distances. They run or fly to meet the source of any reply in a hormone-fuelled display of togetherness towards invisible interlopers. It’s magical to observe. Their desire to maintain their territory often exceeds their fear of humans and these disputes often play out all around me like some noisy avian soap opera. And then they fall silent. Boundaries set and sexual egos satisfied they huddle tight in pairs against the cold. And leave the pallid landscape once more to the moon…

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 After much anticipation and a number of visits to the newly-discovered wild garlic wood, a layer of floating floral snow now rests on a carpet of fragrant green leaves that stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see. As the beech canopy has responded to the lengthening days and started to filter out more light, the bluebells have begun to fade to be replaced by the angular white starbursts that seem popular with small flying insects. I wonder if the large leaves of the garlic enable it to cope with the shadier conditions until it too succumbs to the darkness of the woodland floor in high Summer. As I stood and let the trees hug me, ravens called to their noisy nestlings high above and marsh tits and firecrests sang from the stands of holly that form islands of dense cover amidst the openness. Yellow archangel and woodruff crept unobtrusively through the dominant ramsons and the deer slots in the yielding, moist leaf litter. Sights and sounds and smells. It felt, in every sense, that this was a place to be, to live in the moment as well as for it. I have a strong suspicion that I will be back before too long…

I’ve been exploring. Trying to discover new places close to home. The overlooked or hidden. The locations that I often pass by on the way somewhere else. I suppose it’s an innate spatial curiosity in me that I’ve always had. That geography gene that has given me an urge to go and experience things beyond the familiar. As a boy I would pour over maps and try to visualise from a flat, two-dimensional image what a place would be like. In a world before the virtual,  more imagination than image search. To experience what geographers refer to as a ‘sense of place’, a term that I like but have always felt a little too academic and formal to convey the uniqueness of somewhere or anywhere. The geography of place is one of flavour. The subtlety of taste. The ingredients of sights, smells and sounds blended into a unique recipe. This linear beech woodland runs along the side of a valley overlooking flower-rich meadows. I discovered it earlier this year. Hidden through relative inaccessibility, but feeling just like those lost valleys described in old adventure tales. Wild garlic is everywhere, stretching in a verdant carpet as far as the eye can see. Its scent hangs already in the air despite flowering still being a couple of weeks away. It’s quiet. No traffic. But marsh tits call and roe deer bark. My imagination takes me to when the garlic will bloom and floral snow will cover the ground. The sun reaches this side of the valley in the late afternoon. I will return. Later in the month, but not too late in the day or the sun will have dipped below the trees on the slope opposite. And next time I’ll bring you with me…

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Donkey Lane Community Orchard in Chinnor. Lying at the foot of the Chiltern escarpment, I came across this wonderful place on a recent walk aimed at taking advantage of the first sunny day after a run of uniformly-bleached, sunless ones. Apricity. That wonderful warmth against your cheek and the sense that life is once more being coaxed from the ground. I grew up with apple trees and I’m still set amongst them now. The thing I think I love about them most is their resilience. They are like living books: all of them stories of lives uniquely lived. The trees at Donkey Lane Orchard were covered in scars, splits, holes. Many were horizontal, the historical legacy of past storms across the Vale, or twisted and misshapen as if caught in a struggle to escape the weight of wild clematis or the vigour of elder. Some were undermined by badgers or rabbits, leaning across as if to inspect the excavations below. And yet new branches strike upwards from the old. And will bear fruit. And with the help of volunteers, this place will no longer be a symbol of survival despite abandonment, but will begin to live again…

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Observing the countryside yesterday from the more relaxed perspective of a train journey to Oxford, it really struck me how vulnerable our land has become. Dessicated and cracked through the lack of rain and an unrelenting blank sky, it was a scene of tawny tans and shrivelled browns. Overexposed in every sense and prematurely Autumnal. The last time I saw anything like this was as a boy during the famous drought of 1976 on a similar train journey to Rye in East Sussex. I remember the sheep standing in the shade of dark green trees in sandy tinted fields of tinder dry vegetation. Grass is nothing if not resilient but my worry is that in the decades since, we have incrementally eroded the capacity of our landscapes to hold moisture. Pelleted fertilisers have replaced humus as satisfactorily as vitamin pills could substitute for a balanced diet. An obsession with flood defence, rather than prevention, fuelled by a combination of ever more unprecedented flood events and political expediency, have created an obsession to move water on, speed it up, send it somewhere else. Undoubtedly needed, especially in those places prone to the misery of flooding. But in reality, we need to be slowing it down, storing it in wildlife-rich places where it is safe to do so. Most of the damp meadows around Little Orchard have been drained since World War 2, the last one as recently as three years ago. The curlews and lapwings that bred locally have gone, as have the fields of snake’s head fritillaries. If this dry Summer is a hint of things to come, as I more than suspect it is, we need to prioritise the sustainable incorporation of water into the land in an imaginative and sustainable way -such as the pioneering work with beavers - that can support not only our insatiable demand for it but also restore the biodiversity that we have simply let drain away. If we don’t, we will leave ourselves as exposed  and vulnerable as our poor, parched land….

theearlybirder in his natural habitat. Surrounded by books. Thousands of them. It’s a strange feeling visiting a precise spot haunted by your own ghost. Camilla’s Bookshop in the Little Chelsea area of Eastbourne, a papery shrine to the printed word. Musty, dusty and with that faint but strangely not unpleasant hint of mildew that comes with old volumes. As a place it is like a concentrated antidote to the all too easy immediacy and accessibility of the internet that, for all its technical wonder, can simply not replace books and the relationships we form with them.  I appreciate that for some, if not many, sifting through the chaotic stacks of books would be a nightmarish, off-putting prospect. But I love it’s intimacy. The claustrophobic corner where all the natural history books, from the familiar to the forgotten, are stacked in themed piles. There is the joy of discovery and the frustration of failure to find. Life in a nutshell, I suppose. I spent many rainy, Novemberish afternoons there over three decades ago, stumbling upon - sometimes quite literally - books that now share my current home and have followed me from one residence to another in the manner of a cerebral snail shell. These books and their authors are like friends with intellectual benefits. I call on them for advice. Reassurance. Constancy in a scarily shifting and unstable world. And sometimes just for pleasure. To look at pictures or read words my childhood eyes absorbed and fell in love with in a way no transient Google search can ever replace. They are a defiant stand against the fading physicality of an increasingly virtual world. And for that as much as anything else, I love them. And yesterday, of course, I acquired some more…..

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I often find myself drawn to the plants and creatures that sneak an existence alongside us in urban areas, mentally cheering them on as I note their existence. This was a space intended for a street tree, now long gone. I can think of few things as wonderful as a fabulous urban tree. I sometimes just stop simply to take in their presence. I don’t want to be a passerby. ‘Tree hugger’: a term often used disparagingly. That’s definitely, defiantly me. There’s equally nothing as soul-destroying and disheartening as a forgotten dead one, left as a testimony to our neglect. In this case, the space remains and the natural process of colonisation has begun. Plant succession pioneers. Weeds to some, awaiting a visit from someone wielding a sprayer and wearing a white boiler suit. But to me, overlooked and downtrodden, they actually represent in their own tiny way, hope: that tenacity and resilience will mean they don’t just cling on but eventually return to green our urban spaces. Truly wild flowers, rewilding in miniature….

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By its very nature, weather has a certain volatility and despite increasingly sophisticated technology remains at times stubbornly unpredictable for forecasters. It was T-shirt weather a few days ago. This morning I am scraping a thick crust of ice from the car. In one sense, it was ever thus. Cold snaps happen. It is only March after all. I remember daffodils stoically protruding from thick snow at Easter when I was a child. My worry is that these wild swings in conditions are no longer anomalies from a general background of mild and dull weather but a baked-in pattern that seems to repeat itself each year. It will have an impact on species lulled into nesting early or emerging too soon. There is evidence of migration arrival dates for summer-visiting birds becoming earlier but premature heat waves followed by rainy and cold early Summer weather is rarely a good combination for fledging chicks. So much in the natural world is about timing and synchronicity that the implications of our capricious weather for our wildlife go way beyond the personal disappointment of having to go back to wearing a coat…

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A self portrait. After arriving early for my course, I saw my reflection in a frosted window outside the Royal Geographical Society. And reflected. As a soon-to-be 57 year-old,  I’ve been visiting this part of London since I was a small boy and it just made me think. I love the place. It’s part of me. And my life geography is part of it. Mapped out, embedded but transient, like all existence…..

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An ancient oak tree at night. I love the way you can piece together the life events of a tree from the the physical clues they set before you. A storm that tore away a crown. A lightning strike that permanently charred and darkened a trunk peppered with the perfectly rounded holes of woodpeckers long gone. Strands of rusty barbed wire - reflecting our own ephemeral attempts to enclose and own the landscape - embedded in bark bleached grey with age. A life of resilience and recovery. They are indeed living history, a unique physical chronicle of the landscape in which they stand and I always feel a sense of occasion when I meet one…..

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We are frequently urged, more often than not wisely, not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes, however, it is possible to become lost in it. At this time of year leaves are everywhere. The Chiltern leafage at present is an almost intoxicating palette of golden yellows and russets and deep burgundy browns as the chlorophyll breaks down and the trees reclaim their nutrients before their Winter dormancy. Against this glorious backdrop of collective colour it is perhaps easy to overlook the wonder that is each individual leaf. After a morning yesterday surveying a stretch of the Yeading Brook in Harrow, I was shown this beauty that had been noticed and picked up by my great friend Alan. To photograph it I placed it on some white paper so that nothing could distract from it. The shape, the serrated margins, the intricacy of the venation and the subtle blending of the colours make this single leaf a world of wonderful in its own right. Beautiful. Not because it is perfect or blemish free, which it isn’t. But in all this abundance of collective glory, it is an individual. Its own unique infinity. Like each one of us…..

A face is in the sky, or just my imagination….? The sky above Little Orchard, just as day ended. This morning…the start of a new term. A New Year, educationally. Number thirty five for me. It will, admittedly, be a low key celebration. I shall, as ever, be up early. I am theearlybirder, after all. Watching the shifting sky as my life resumes its circadian synchronicity with the season. But always looking forward, upward, beyond. Skywards I suppose. Education must be about optimism. Dreams, dare I say? An exploration of the possible. Discovery, in every sense: of the world and of self, in equal measure. And certainly not just grades, important as they are. A necessary indication of achievement…’passing’ …but never a holistic gauge of self worth. To assume so would be a form of alchemy in reverse, reducing the fledgling humanity in our care to no more than numerical data requiring intervention which, most certainly, they are not. They are the faces in the sky. They want teachers. And I look forward, once again, to meeting them all…..

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On a recent lockdown walk I found myself passing down a lane that was treacherously icy. I decided to leave the road and take a narrow animal trail through the small copse running parallel to it. It was well-used, with not only numerous badger tracks but plenty of roe and muntjac slots and fox prints too in the snow. I love using the network of routes followed by generations of creatures that crisscross our human infrastructure and desire lines. Around the periphery were a few tall, slender trees with very cracked, almost scaled bark. Their branches were tantalisingly too high for me to get a good look at the buds but they were small and rounded, not pointed. I checked the leaf litter for fallen leaves but there was too much snow. They were intriguing. I’m usually quite good with tree identification but I must admit, I was stumped ( sorry 🙄). I spent some time looking at one particular tree that had drawn my curiosity because of the convoluted patterning of its bark but it was only after I peered in closer that I realised it seemed to be looking, with a disapprovingly-raised eyebrow, back at me. It seemed for all the world as if it was not so much disappointed by my inadequate identification skills but by being woken from its winter sleep by an overly-inquisitive stranger. Or perhaps  it was both. On reflection afterwards, I don’t think it really matters that I failed to identify it. Or whether my perception of the moment was shaded by an overactive imagination. It was a fabulously-serendipitous encounter with a beautiful old tree that enriched and warmed my life on a desperately-cold afternoon. And that, in these dark times, matters far more....

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It’s tempting in a city to look up. Skyscapes between skyscrapers. The history of the place captured in the physical fabric of the architecture. The creative and emotional investment of past generations all captured in a delicious mixture of presents. But I also like to look downwards too. I find pavements fascinating. Who has walked in this place before? What lives have worn them smooth or left their mark? I looked down at these paving stones and was taken by the chatter marks that echoed across them in convoluted patterns and pondered their origin. Geological? Or, dare I say it, the work of a mason…

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