Simon Barnes on Noticing Nature
Rewild Yourself introduces 23 mesmerising ways to find a deeper connection with the natural world, regardless of where we live. Inspiring and delightfully practical in its approach, Simon Barnes’s gorgeous book harnesses us with the means to get back in touch with our wild side. In this exclusive piece, Simon provides a few quick tips and tricks for re-engaging with nature.
So the virus struck, we put the world on Pause - and into the silenced cities the sound of birds came flooding in. Then the virus gave the lucky ones, those who escaped illness, a second gift. It was and is a gift almost beyond price: a daily vase-full of time. Time to listen to the birds.
Time we could spend in gardens and parks and find green leaves and butterflies and flowers for them to drink from. Sure, all this stuff was there all along, but many of us had never noticed. Too busy, too much work, too many screens to look at.
Humans invented agriculture 12,000 years ago and ever since then, we’ve had less and less nature in our lives. The virus has given us something quite extraordinary: a chance to reassess - to remember that there are wild things all around us, and they make our own lives better. Nature helps us to enjoy life better and to endure it more steadfastly.
All we have to do is notice it. But that has become a problem. We’re not just losing nature; we’re losing the habit of noticing it. That’s why I wrote Rewild Yourself: so we can all start noticing nature again. The virus has given us time and quietness: we can use the opportunity to get nature back into our lives.
How extraordinary that this damn virus should hit the world at the beginning of spring, and stay with us as spring advances towards summer. It would have been a great deal more terrible had it struck in November, with ever darker dates and ever gloomier thoughts.
But we were given time for nature in the weeks when nature is at its most accessible. The Wildlife Trusts annually encourage us to enjoy June as '30 Days Wild': to do one wild thing every day for the entire month: and I encourage everyone to take on this opportunity for random acts of wildness.
But there are problems. We no longer know how to enjoy nature. We don’t see it for real, instead we find it on the television. We delegate the finding of nature to David Attenborough and Chris Packham. But you can do it by yourself. You may not be able to romp with gorillas in your local park, but you can at least find a butterfly.
Not just see it, try to identify it. Then you’ve been formally introduced, and it’s no longer a butterfly, it’s a peacock. Learn the names of five common garden butterflies and you change your relationship with the world. It really is that easy, and that drastic.
Now your butterfly is no longer a piece of exterior décor: it’s an individual with a name. You look closely: you see the eyes on the peacock’s wings and you learn that they’re part of the butterfly’s startle behaviour, conning a potential predator into thinking it’s an owl. There are miracles in every park.
Another great trick is to learn a smattering of birdsong: to understand that the laidback flautist among the chimney-pots is a blackbird, that the loud trill from down at knee-height is a wren, and that complex fruity singer in the tick tree is a blackcap.
But perhaps the best trick involves nothing – though a supermarket plastic bag will help. Always keep one in your pocket: now you can sit anywhere, dry-bummed and comfortable. The rest is all in the sitting.
Let’s call it the bottomless sit. You sit in a garden or park or a nearby bit of wildness – or now we are allowed to travel a little bit further, to some favourite spot with few people around – and, well, that’s it. You can let nature come to you.
No, don’t check your phone. Bring binoculars if you have them, but they’re not essential. Just look and listen: savour the combination of time and nature. Try this by the sea: throw you heart our as far as you can and check the waves for gannets. You may see one, you may not: but it’s the looking that counts.
So one last trick: get yourself a pair of waterproof trousers. This is the nearest you will ever get to a super-power. You are no longer subject to the weather: you can enjoy a bottomless sit in the soft rain of late spring - and then you can smell, feel and taste life going on all around you. You are living in a different world.
I have always been haunted by The Chronicles of Narnia. In one sequence Lucy says a spell so potent it makes Aslan himself become visible – and it’s because of that scene that’s I wrote Rewild Yourself. It’s a book that contains 23 spells for making hidden things visible. They will all bring nature back into your life. In these extraordinary times, we have more opportunity than usual to put them into action.
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