I work as Research Manager (job share) in the School of Education. I'm a committed auntie to my nephew and nieces and I see the challenge of reorienting myself in nature as part of the cultural shift needed to achieve climate and ecological justice.
My challenge
To connect with nature for an hour daily, collect litter and discover wildlife.

Like so many in the aftermath of Covid I’m recovering slowly with ongoing fatigue and heart palpitations which the doctor tells me are no cause for concern but which jolt my attention multiple times a day. How hard it can sometimes be to stay calm and breathe evenly. I relate this frustration at my own body and mind to some of my feelings about the wider world in this time of ecological crisis and change.

Reading other blogs in this challenge has helped me think more deeply about how different system levels interact. This has been empowering but I also keep coming back to thinking about the limits of our power, not in a bad way but in the sense of relinquishing the need to control outcomes. Maybe accepting we don’t have control is also strangely empowering? For me a big part of this challenge has been to pay more attention in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or paralyse, but instead helps nurture and keep up the momentum for change. And maybe stopping to pay attention to the world and the beings of all kinds around me can help me get that balance right a little more often moving forwards?

Patience is needed. It’s hard to find the right balance between stretching or pushing oneself and abstaining and reflecting. And sometimes it’s very hard to know the right thing to do.

Twice this last week I intervened in small ways and I still don’t know if I did the right thing.

One evening walking home while it was still warm I stopped still, appreciating a yellow snail in the middle of the grey-black pavement. Without a thought I picked it up and placed it out of harm’s way in the hedge by the side of the road. But walking onwards my mind suddenly clouded with doubt as I remembered a good friend once questioning me for this exact same action years ago – who was I to know where the snail wanted to go? What if it had spent all of its day getting to that point? I’ve since learned that slugs and snails have excellent navigational abilities.

Another afternoon, walking back a different route along a busy road I found a blackbird crouched still on the pavement ahead, his orange eyes wide open, body quivering. This time, after a long pause I called my mother. In one of my earliest memories I can still see her stepping out into the middle of a pond in Birmingham Botanic gardens to rescue a goldfish stranded on a lily leaf. This evening I looked to her more for reassurance than anything. We agreed I should pick the bird up gently and place it away from the road under the bushes where it could either recover or perhaps die more peacefully, away from the stress and glare of the traffic. Aware of the current devastating wild bird flu epidemic I should also be careful to wash my hands thoroughly after.

Now, a few days and many handwashes later I can still see its bright eyes and feel its small soft beating warmth in my hands. I felt so much power and so much love in that moment, I didn’t want to let it go. Sometimes stunned birds recover. I still wonder though, if I could have done more.

We can always do more I think. It’s not easy to get the balance right but in the spirit of trying to do more, and aware of my own limitations, here are some things I want to try focus on in the coming months. Inspired by the actions of others during this challenge I want to make more of an effort to:

1. buy less stuff in general and shift more of my weekly shop to support my local refill shop and the local market rather than buying most of my foods in plastic supermarket packaging. I used to get a local veg box in Bristol and in Exeter before that, but I’ve found none yet where I live now. This can be a step back in the right direction.

2. continue to engage with the climate action community in my workplace – I’ve been hugely grateful for people’s positive feedback and inspiration, and for the chance to begin to integrate more of my ecological values into this sphere of my life.

3. continue to engage with my local community – I’ve not mentioned here about the community gardening I’m involved with, but I’d like to belatedly end/continue the spirit of this challenge with this hopeful note. Because over the past year it has been a great source of delight to find myself becoming committed and engaging more consistently with a diverse group of people in the relatively deprived seaside town where I live, with the common goals of learning and raising local awareness of growing food sustainably, and hopefully working towards all of our resilience for the future.

Last Wednesday a friend texted to say her husband had Covid. I’d been to dinner with them at the weekend and though I’d tested negative from a nose swab on the Monday I’d also developed a sore throat and tickly cough, so my sister, who’s a nurse, advised a throat swab and I promptly tested positive. To begin with I just coughed a lot and felt fuzzy and frustrated I couldn’t get outside. I live in Wales where rules are still to self-isolate at least 5 days, after which two negative tests 24 hours apart will release me. How can I pay attention to nature and look out for it when confined to my small flat?

On my first full day of confinement I’m gazing out the window watching the clouds moving fast across the sky. The wind has picked up and I think about putting on the washing machine for a clothes wash. This is one small change I’ve tried to integrate over the past year, since a friend recommended the website shouldibake.com. Set up by a team of researchers at UCL, it recommends baking only when at least a third of the UK electricity supply comes from renewables. I don’t bake very often, but I can afford to pick and choose when I put a wash on because I live alone, have no children and I’m a charity shop junkie with too many clothes. So I use it for that mostly, though I don’t always manage it. At some point in late summer or autumn last year there seemed to be endless weeks with no wind. Adapting some of my energy use to the weather makes me more conscious of both the promise and challenges that lie ahead. [As I posted this I realised the website wasn’t working, hopefully back soon, but here’s the twitter account in the meantime @baking4cast]

A few days into my isolation I felt so unwell I mostly slept or dozed and listened to the birds outside my window. This time of year I can hear sparrows chirping busily, gulls hollering to each other and a blackbird visible on the topmost branch of a tree across the road, fluting away in the early hours of the morning. I’ve even heard owls occasionally greeting each other at night. I feel lucky these are some of the main sounds of my neighbourhood, alongside intermittent cars, the odd drunken argument and sirens in the distance.

I get exhausted easily, so as I recover I’ve spent lots of time sitting and hazily reflecting on things. Illness, when I’m not in acute pain or too much misery leads me to overthinking and an uneasy sense of lazy impotence. Reflecting on this I acknowledge a similar pattern in my response to the problems of the world as I feel guilty, beat myself up mentally and then feel overwhelmed and powerless. This doesn’t help give courage to act, it’s more likely to make me depressed or bury my head in the sand. I’ve made small changes over the years, for example mostly following a vegan diet since 2010. Though more or less flexitarian in practice, I’m at the more veggie end of the Planetary Health Diet. That has sometimes been a challenge, especially in the early days, to confront people with my choices and face others’ discomfort. I’m always at pains to emphasise that I have no right to judge the choices of others, but that’s not always how it comes across. Yet there have also been signs that others are inspired by my actions too and it has become much easier in recent years as awareness is rising and people start to make connections between their own health and the health of both human and more-than-human others.

In fact, to finally share and take part in something like this in my workplace feels like a real sea change for me. Reading about other people’s challenges this month has been especially inspiring and motivating. As have colleague’s comments on my own. I’m now keen to do more to stretch myself to further minimise my own waste and consumption of unnecessary stuff. One step at a time. Feeling part of a broader effort and reframing my feelings of guilt into response-ability is a good start.

I’m still waiting for a negative test, but can be released regardless tomorrow on day 10. I’ve never missed having a garden quite so much as this past week! Once I started to feel better I spent an hour or so indoor gardening, potting cuttings and repotting plants. Just getting my hands stuck into (peat-free) compost and making a mess of my sink helped me feel so much better mentally. And those little cuttings which have been sitting in glasses of water most of the winter finally have something more substantial between their roots. I felt them breathing a sigh of relief.

The other evening I sighed with relief myself as I snuck out at dusk for a (now not so) secret solitary walk in the woods, feeling the earth at my feet, breathing in the darkening air and spring smell of vegetation and warmer soil. I could almost drink in the blackbirds’ and thrushes’ warning calls with my ears. The cool air greeted my skin, loosened my tired body. I rested lying back on a fallen tree for a while gazing at the branches silhouetted against the pinkish greying sky. I thought about the multitude of life inside the dead wood below me. I read somewhere this tree trunk will host more life now than it ever did when it was alive. This thought makes me feel suddenly hopeful. There is so much about this world we are still only just beginning to understand. I take that to mean there are also so many possibilities to become aware of, interact with and maybe change things for the better.

This is harder than I thought! I’ve taken notes each day but it’s taken a while to go live on here. With deadlines and commitments, under pressure I’m less open to the world. I’d planned to walk an hour locally each day and take a bag to collect litter but the first week I kept forgetting the bag. I start to wonder what in fact my one small change is – is it spending an hour outside paying more attention to the world around me, or is it picking up litter? Or maybe there’s a whole lot more going on once I start to pay attention.

Days 1-4: A fall and a realisation

I notice a pattern of oversleeping and then rushing to get out with enough time before work, forgetting a bag for litter. Each time as I realise I’ve been on autopilot I have to make an effort to breathe and retune, slow my walk, move away from my tumbling thoughts and focus on the world around me. I start to notice fresh sprouting green leaves, the shape of winter-worn ferns, blackbirds singing, and a wren. I alternate between my mind and the world around me, pushing myself to focus outward like I’m forcing down medicine. Towards the end of each hour my shoulders ease, I feel lighter and breathe easier. I notice small birds flitting in the branches above and a couple of times I hear the deep reverberations from a woodpecker. I get distracted and forget time a little, reluctant to return to the office. But I realise I’m refreshed, energised and more focused when I start work.

Towards the end of the week I was invited to an event at Bodnant Gardens and afterwards spent an hour walking around with my friend explaining different plants to me. We see the damage from recent winter storms, the giant redwood still impressive as it lies there, its shallow root system upturned. Further on we see a tree we don’t recognise and walk down the damp grassy bank. One moment I’m upright, the next I’m slipping, reaching out my arm to grab hold of nothing, landing heavily on the muddy bank. This is not what I meant by connecting with nature! I smile, nudging myself to see the funny side of the situation, thankful the event is over and I don’t have to carry the mud back inside for all to see, thankful that the soft bank inflicted no pain.

Later, as I wash mud off my jeans and coat I think about the old redwood, growing half way across the world from its native habitat, once so tall, now still majestic as it lies and dwarfs us humans with its roots. I reflect on my slight embarrassment and my need for cleanliness as a barrier between me and the world. Not always an unhealthy one, but more pronounced than it needs to be? Is this also why I’ve been inwardly resisting picking up litter? Or am I consciously turning my head and preferring not to see or think about it?

Days 5-6: Fairy trees and water in the air

It is easier to get out for an hour each day at the weekend, and less solitary. Drawing friends and family in means it feels less of a challenge to actually get outside, but fully engaging when I’m outside with others is harder as it’s easy to get distracted talking. Walking to a local waterfall I turn the focus of conversation outward, pointing out the stunted, wizened-looking hawthorn trees, hunched against the elements. My friend tells me in Ireland they’re called fairy trees. I love discovering this kind of old local knowledge from elsewhere, it helps me see the world around me differently, as more alive. And it reminds me how intertwined humans have always been with the more-than-human world.

The waterfall when we reach it breathes new life into my tired hungover self. The cool dark wet rock and white foamy spray are a sight and sensation for my sore eyes and body. I feel my muscles relax, tension slipping down like the water. The damp mineral air feels life-giving.

Running early next morning along the seafront with my sister I feel the same effect, despite the strong wind against me. I breathe heavily tasting the briny air. I hear oystercatchers and see other seabirds circling or picking along the shore. I feel I am noticing more and taking more in than I did before this challenge. And I can feel something inside myself responding in a good way.

Days 7-11: Overcoming internal resistance, feeling a little empowered

Finally I start taking a bag with me, at least for my morning walks. It feels satisfying to act rather than turn my head to walk by, suppressing it. It’s hard overcoming the feeling of disgust at the rubbish, the top of a soft drink with a chewed straw sticking out, a clear plastic container with brown sludge inside. I gingerly shake it out and put it in the bag, thinking maybe a litter picker could be a good investment, especially for the harder to reach bits. But picking up all this stuff is also making me think more about everything I use in everyday life which I ultimately put in the bin myself. Do I really need to buy more, to pick up more, to dispose of more? I’m still weighing that up.

Towards the end of the week I feel stronger and more motivated, but then a trip away throws me out of my routine, I don’t have my cloth bag with me and a few times I’m out and I don’t pick up the litter I see unless there is a bin nearby. Somehow it’s important to me to have a bag to put it in, rather than carry rubbish around openly in my hand, a constant reminder of the excess of human consumption and waste. I did that a few times too, and it was still satisfying to put a crisp wrapper or drinks bottle in the bin once I found one, but the feeling of disgust lingers more and distracts from my enjoyment of being out and about. I want to do my bit but I don’t want to constantly think and feel down about all the rubbish! Then I’m reminded of images of people living and working around huge rubbish dumps in other countries, inundated with the world’s waste, picking through never ending piles and piles on a daily basis.

And here I am also gaining huge pleasure from spending more time out and about in my own comparatively very privileged neighbourhood. I hear a chiffchaff for the first time this year, and then see it sitting on a branch. It’s an exhilarating moment and I feel glad that I am starting to confront my internal barriers and engage more with both the good and the bad in the world around me. I’m starting to let myself care a little more constantly.

Days 11-16: A small strategy that keeps me going

I feel better in myself since starting to pay attention and picking up the litter I see. Though sometimes it is too much for my bag, or the plastic is so deeply embedded in a river bank that I can’t get it out and I feel hopeless and powerless again. I have to remind myself that what I can do is still better than nothing.

I’ve also now got into the habit of carrying a bag in my coat pocket. I suppose I’ve created a little system for myself. I realised that I nearly always have a cloth bag for shopping (being half-German and having lived in Germany this goes back decades for me) but I don’t want to use the same bag for shopping as for rubbish – there’s that disgust factor again. So now I’ve started carrying a different, dedicated one in a little zip purse (for hygiene reasons) in my coat pocket for litter. These small actions of mine still feel miniscule compared to the huge problems of overproduction, overconsumption and the resultant waste, destruction and contamination, but at least something is starting to shift within me. Maybe more change will come.

I heard starlings this morning mimicking the screeching of swifts in summer. Momentarily disorienting, it strongly evoked for me the feeling of summers past. And brought  wonderings about summers to come. Swifts are struggling, I know. Starlings too. A reminder again of how interwoven we all are.