Nowadays most of us live our lives very much divorced from nature. We work in offices, schools, hospitals, factories and shops and we drive to and from work so there is no connection with the environment that surrounds us. I have been fortunate to have worked with nature as a ranger out on the Sudbury riverside for thirty years. Now I continue to work for the charity in a clerical capacity. However, from time to time I am still called upon to help with the work on the riverside and this really brought home to me that the reality for most people is the ‘invisibility’ of nature.
Recently on a warm and sunny autumn morning I took a group of school children for what, when I was a young boy, we called a nature walk. Of course, nowadays, such an event must meet curriculum targets which are enshrined in key stages. Boxes must be ticked! In essence, however, nothing has changed. We all delighted in the colouring leaves, seeds and berries along the way. The rosewood red of the hawthorn berry with its big, bold single seed, the scarlet torpedo of the dog rose with its many small white seeds which we used to stuff down the necks of our friends as ‘itching powder’, the deep pink capsules housing the bright orange spindle seeds, and the nutty cones of the alder tree; all there for our delight and, more importantly, as sustenance for birds and small mammals through the winter months.
The most valued of the berries grow on the much-maligned ivy. These are produced in such profusion as to feed lots of birds and the ivy itself provides a protective evergreen shelter for wildlife. Shame on all those who ignorantly saw through ivy stems and condemn our wildlife to wasting valuable energy in seeking out ever shrinking sources of food and shelter. But enough of that, for we enjoyed examining those berries in their various shapes and sizes and learned that the fleshy ones would be eaten by birds and mice and the seeds ‘pooped out’ so that new shrubs and trees would grow. However, we also saw that the alder cones opened-up to reveal weeny wafer-thin seeds that might be eaten by birds or blown on the wind to a new location. Then there were the ‘bachelor’s buttons’; the seed heads of the lesser burdock plant that cling Velcro-like to the fur of passing foxes, deer, and other animals, and so are transported to other places. That is exactly how the inventor of Velcro got his idea when he saw his dog and his trousers covered in tenaciously hooked burdock seeds.
Being Autumn, we found troops of colourful fungi too, sprouting from an old tree stump and they provided much fascination for the children. Fungi perform a crucial role in recycling leaves and woody material into nutrients for other plants and effectively tidy up any dead material. Out on the meadows the beautifully delicate snowy inkcaps even recycle cow pats. We also discovered that the leaves, now losing their colours, revealed their complex structure which keeps them in shape just as out skeletons support us.
We saw lots of birds too. A hundred or so black-headed gulls were assembled on the Mill pool; these causing confusion at this time of year as they have white heads when they are not breeding. Naturally, mallard ducks made a beeline for the children hoping for a hand-out of bread. Of course, there were regal swans still chaperoning their very grown-up cygnets. They were also expecting food and came in close so that we were able to determine which was ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ from the size of the knobs or bumps behind their bills. On a hawthorn branch on the opposite bank of the Floodgates Pool, a grey heron was enjoying the warmth of the late Autumn sunshine whilst surveying the waters below. To cap it all, a king of the river flew right over our heads, straight as an arrow, down the length of the channel providing the most colourful spectacle on our riverside.
As you can see, we saw a lot during our walk because we were looking. How long did it take to see all this bounty? One generous hour and then back to school and the classroom. We might see those children again in May of next year. Is this enough time to imbue those who come after us with a sense of wonder in the natural world? I do not think so, but it is some kind of a start.