Feeling Wild

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Of recent I have been pondering what it means when something is ‘wild’ and what it is we experience in ‘the wild’. The word ‘wild’ has an attractiveness of late, a trendy currency, with many television programmes and articles featuring the word in their titles. If you watch such programmes you can expect scenes of extreme environments and their survivors, be they vegetative, animal or human, pushed to their limits. Though these are undoubtedly wild scenes they are there for our entertainment, usually from the warm, safe comfort of a sofa, sheltering us from any true experience of ‘the wild’. And yet does leaving the sofa in order to experience the wild mean going to the extremes? I think there is more to the meaning of ‘wild’ than perhaps such television programmes suggest…is it really just about extreme conditions or is ‘wildness’ something we can experience on our own doorsteps?

Our own doorsteps, if you live, like me, in a suburban place like St Albans, are not places that necessarily conjure up images of wildness in the mind. Instead, more often, they are fully domesticated scenes, even sanitised, designed for safety and security, for routine and predictability. Paths are marked, areas mapped and signed with noticeboards and hi-viz worn even, oddly, off road. Nature is pushed to the margins and squeezed into the small pockets inbetween. Human activity in this environment tends to be routine and predictable and can be neatly classified by purpose: driving to work, walking the dog, returning from work and so on. There is not much room for ambiguity or uncertainty – in shops we are prompted to move towards a decision, we walk well-marked paths with places and times to cross, a simple dog turd threatens major disruption. Small children, the most likely to ‘run wild’, are carefully strapped in and guided along safe paths.

While all of this is understandable and necessary, I wonder if we have lost the ability to ‘run wild’ ourselves and have become disconnected from the places where we could do so, even if we had the inclination? Out walking we are never just wandering for its own sake, but walking with purpose: ‘walking the dog’, ‘burning off excess calories’ or maybe ‘going for a walk in the park’ – a finite place, so the walk is pre-defined with a clear beginning and end. To wander, to ramble, to walk without some higher explanation other than to simply ‘be’ runs the risk of being viewed with suspicion. “Where is his dog? What is he doing?”…and then, with relief: “Oh! He has binoculars, he must be birdwatching!” I empathise with Richard Mabey when he says, “I am beginning to be looked at as if I had just jumped out of a bush – or was just about to jump into one.”![1]

While it is possible that these are just the insecurities of a minority, including me, they nevertheless hint at a limiting of ourselves by our ordered, domesticated environment that precludes an experience of something quite opposite: the unknown, the untamed, the unsafe…the wild. I think there is something in most of us, maybe all of us, that is drawn by the idea of ‘the wild’ and ‘wildness’. Maybe it is simply that ‘the wild’ represents a kind of freedom form the hum drum, the confines of health and safety, of routine and predictability? I relate to what George Monbiot describes as his ‘ecological boredom’: he says, “Somehow – I am not quite sure how it happened – I had found myself living a life in which loading the dishwasher presented an interesting challenge”[2]. Monbiot goes on to suggest that what is needed is nothing short of a ‘rewilding’ of not just the places we live in but of our very selves too. I find myself agreeing with him. I think there is a latent longing deep within the human spirit, perhaps a genetic memory, for something more raw and fresh, more elemental and basic, of a life more connected to nature.

I think this, at least in part, is what draws me out of my suburban comfort into the surrounding countryside and green spaces around. While I know they can never rival the truly wild places on earth they nevertheless offer glimpses of wildness, links with the wild, rooted in the same resourceful and resilient DNA, living to the rhythm – not of the 9 to 5 day – but to the seasons of the earth and vulnerable to the elements and whatever change or catastrophe accompanies them. This search for the wild on the doorstep has led me to break with routine, walk off the path and search out the less visited places in the hope that I will experience a remnant of the wild and in turn feel connected in my core and maybe be ‘rewilded’ in the process.

To be continued…

[1] R Mabey, A Brush with Nature, BBC Books (2010)

[2] G Monbiot, Feral, Penguin (2014)

Winter Flocks

If there is one thing that characterizes this season, as far as birds are concerned, it is the fact of flocks. Whether it is the growing rafts of ducks on the lake in the park, the flocks of gulls in the ploughed fields or the chattering groups of Redwings and Fieldfares – wintering thrushes from Scandinavia – feeding on the berried bushes at Heartwood Forest, if you venture out, you will undoubtedly be greeted by birds in flocks.

I came across a flock of some thirty Goldfinches whilst out walking the other day. Feeding astride teasel heads they were almost lost in the multitude of brown hues around them. On closer inspection however, each appeared as a cluster of bright jewels, brightening even the most lifeless twigs and sprinkling the air with their canary-like twittering.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch on Teasels

At this time of year, birds, by and large, exchange their solo performances of the spring and summer months for great group expressions, often witnessed across our skies. Instead of song and courtship, of secretive nesting and the raising of young, many species throw caution to the wind and join their brothers and sisters in great group displays. Caution and secrecy after all are luxuries only afforded by the leafy cover of summer and with all now exposed and the demand for sustenance in the bitter days of winter, security must be found in strength of numbers instead.

This exposure makes the birds far more visible but I was struck recently as to how the flock itself may act as much needed camouflage even in the most open of spaces. As I crossed an open, ploughed field I watched brown leaves dance across the furrowed earth and then settle before being picked up again on their tumbling flight. It wasn’t until I raised my binoculars that I realized these were no leaves but instead a fluttering flock of skylarks, buntings and pipits. I wondered how many Sparrowhawks had also dismissed this little flock as a tasteless bunch of old leaves!

Survival is the order of the day, but I wonder, perhaps having in mind our own seasonal tendency to flock festively, whether birds find any higher pleasures in being together other than the basics of warmth and security. Does companionship feature and do the shared moments warm not just little avian bodies but also the little cockles of their hearts? I’d like to think so on the hardest winter days but it is hard to deny the singular mind of the flock in flight – perhaps triggered by a passing predator – the movement is as one with no room for individual performances.

I watched Starlings fly into roost on a pylon one evening this week. A bird famed for its massed flocks but perhaps more familiar during the day as a noisy, squabbling garden bird: the Starling exchanges its jostling daytime antics for a truly synchronized and artistic display of flocked flight prior to roosting at dusk. As I watched, beginning with just one bird, a lonely sentinel guiding others in, the pylon wires soon filled with clamouring birds, a hundred in all. A moment’s silence, as if to establish decorum, and then the whirring of wings as the flock lifted as one body for a pre-roost circuit. Not quite large enough for a proper ‘murmuration’ but nevertheless a unit twisting and turning in unison, with the makings of that smoke-like shifting form of larger flocks that inspires awe and wonder in the observer.

Murmuration

Starling Murmuration

For me, all these flocks, with their hundreds of little beating hearts, bring a welcome warmth and movement into our cold, wintry landscape that would be just that little bit colder without them.