Tag Archives: nature

Sea life

When I was twenty-one, I was bitten by a turtle.

It was the first summer of the new millennium, and we were in the middle of an incredible family holiday in the Seychelles. I was standing in a natural lagoon where the sea met the shore, watching with wonder as turtles swam around me. There were plenty of other people there too, but the turtles seemed quite happy as long as they were left undisturbed. I remember being conscious of wanting to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible, standing stock still so as not to disrupt the sand or cause ripples in the water. And then I felt a sharp pain in my calf, and looking at my leg saw two little dribbles of blood. I had been bitten.

Apparently, this just didn’t happen. The locals were as surprised as me, but once I’d got over the initial shock of it we laughed it off as just one of those things. We were, after all, in the turtles’ habitat – it was perhaps not that strange that they might get curious eventually about these unusual tree trunks in their midst.

It certainly didn’t put me off feeling that in some way the sea was my territory, too. It has always mesmerised me – to be near to it, floating on it, swimming in it, is the closest I get to perfect happiness. For many years that pleasure was reserved for holidays: the excited glimpse of blue from a car windscreen or aeroplane window, that gulp of fresh, salty air, that feeling of cool water on skin. I dreamt of living by the ocean, with windows overlooking the waves and a desk for writing.

It’s always a little odd to remember that when I’m sat here, writing at my desk overlooking the sea.

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When we first moved to Brixham six years ago a new goal manifested itself: to be one of those people who swam through the winter. Each year, as spring turned to summer, I would relish the first swim of the season, that sharp intake of breath as the cold water engulfed me, washing the winter away with every stroke I took. But when it came to autumn I would falter.

This winter, though, something changed. I didn’t stop swimming as the days got cooler, found that as long as I went in at least once a week I didn’t experience that sharp intake of breath and the increasingly icy dips brought a sense of summertime even to the dullest days.

Hence why I found myself, in the middle of January, swimming in the sea with a lovely group of new aquatic friends, clad in a tankini with socks and gloves and hat for warmth – not forgetting my trusty swimming shoes.

We were almost back at Breakwater beach after a bumpy swim across to Ladybird cove when something grabbed my calf. It felt exactly like a large hand. Disconcerted, I looked behind me to see if one of my companions had reached out – but they were all ahead. My mind briefly considered divers, until my eyes widened as I realised the more likely explanation. Trying not to panic, I kicked my feet to scare the creature away and quickly swam the few metres into shore, grateful to feel the familiar stones as I stood and stumbled up the beach.

Looking down at my leg, I saw dribbles of blood running down my calf. Something had bitten me. Our spotters on the beach, realising what had happened as my fellow swimmers gathered around me, confirmed that a large seal had been following us.

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My leg didn’t hurt – in fact I was more concerned about the fact that I’d lost a shoe! Until I looked at the remaining one and realised that its mottled grey and green design quite possibly looked an awful lot like a mackerel meandering in the water behind me. I am very, very glad that the seal did not go in for a bigger bite.

My companions cleaned me up, and sent me home with strict instructions to get it checked out – seals carry all sorts of interesting diseases apparently. Cue an evening at A&E on my GP’s advice, resulting in several intrigued and amused medics and a hefty dose of antibiotics.

Having spoken to some other wild swimming friends this is, you’ll be glad to hear, not something that happens very often. Maybe once a year, amongst the whole community of sea swimmers in this part of South Devon. Once again (now that the adrenaline has died down) I can write it off as just one of those things. Even if I am getting a little worried that I might exude a  peculiar allure to sea creatures!

I am not going to stop my swims – the winter sun outside the window is reflecting off the waves as I write this, and I know it won’t be long before I’m in again. I might just be a little more mindful of the animals I share my element with the next time though…

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

I was up in London again this weekend, this time with Leigh to catch up with old friends.

It wasn’t really an occasion that Arthur could join us for, so he went to stay with Grampa and Mimi. He was so excited in the couple of days leading up to it. It took us ages to be comfortable with leaving him overnight, and all the while we were warned that our reticence would make him way too clingy. It is really lovely now to see him so self-assured that he relishes his opportunities for independence.

Mind you, when a sleepover with his grandparents involves picking apples and blackberries to make pie, collecting sticks on evening walks in the woods and playing ball games with his doggy friends, it isn’t really surprising.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

A natural playground

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-four

Arthur loves purpose-built play areas as much as the next kid, but it’s watching his growing confidence as he interacts with the natural world that really makes me smile.

He is especially keen at the moment to clamber around on rocks. The seawater pool that I help run is perched (when the tide is right) on the most incredible coastal moonscape, and whenever we venture down there Arthur is desperate to climb.

I had a meeting there yesterday, and unusually was organised enough to leave early so that Arthur could have a serious play before he had to sit and listen to me discuss pool business. Even though the tide wasn’t super low, there was still plenty of the rocky terrain exposed for him to have a good explore. In fact the encroaching sea forced us to explore round the corner a little bit further than we usually venture, which I couldn’t help but find fascinating too.

Arthur’s main objective was to practise being Spiderman – running across the uneven ground and leaping over gaps between the stones. I had to bite my tongue even as my heart was skipping beats at times – and in doing so found myself marvelling at his ever-increasing agility and balance.

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He loves his gymnastic class, but there is something about the irregularity of this natural playground that really pushes him to the limit I think.

And he did, at one point, fall. He grazed his knee and hurt his finger – not badly, but enough to force him to pause for a cuddle. And then he ventured down to the rocks again – not leaping so confidently this time, but slowing down to notice the rock pools and the seaweed.

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It was one of those moments when I could not help but revel in the beauty of the place that we call home, and swore that we would do this every day – just get out and breathe in that sea air, communing with the landscape that we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep.

It’s not always easy as the storms roll in and the days become darker, but there really is no better place for us to learn.

Very hungry caterpillars

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-five

After the success of our tadpole project, I’ve been on the lookout for another opportunity to explore metamorphosis in action. A couple of weeks ago one appeared, in the shape of several very hungry caterpillars eating their way through our lettuces.

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We picked out two, and created a little habitat for them in the fishtank, complete with the remains of one of the lettuces they had been munching so that they could continue to prepare for their transformation.

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They were already pretty big when we found them, and it wasn’t long at all before they each settled into a crevice in their new home and began to spin a web of silk around themselves.

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This was fascinating to watch, as was the way their bright green bodies slowly went brown and hard as they pupated.

Whilst we waited for them to hatch, we read up about the process – Usbourne Beginners ‘Caterpillars and Butterflies’ had lots of interesting facts, and of course we re-read Eric Carle’s classic. I also did a bit of googling to try to find out what sort of butterflies we might expect, and discovered that actually the silk cocoons suggested that we were more likely going to be welcoming moths.

And indeed about ten days later first one then the other broke out and spread their wings.

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We watched them for a couple more days, and when we were sure that their wings were strong enough Arthur reluctantly agreed to let them go.

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Once they had flown away, he was keen to have a closer look at the empty cocoons. He felt the sticky silk, and prodded at the shell of the pupa within.

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And after that, whilst I attempted to tidy up our overgrown veg patch, he even washed out the tank, ready for his next pets.

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As it happened, he didn’t have to wait very long. I had a feeling that the latticed spinach and calendula might be hiding some more little creatures and, in fact, it was teeming with them.

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It made for some very interesting conversation, around how these bugs are interesting to watch and study but are also pests, especially when they’re competing for our vegetables! We transferred some of the caterpillars we found to another part of the garden, but because they looked different to the first ones we’d found we decided to keep a few back so we could observe the metamorphosis process again and see if we noticed any changes.

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After this lot I think we’ll be done though, at least till next year…

Anyone have any ideas how we can make the remains of our crops slightly less attractive to the very hungry caterpillars? After all, it would be quite nice to be able to enjoy some of our vegetables too!

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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

It has been a strange few days. The EU referendum result has ignited such shock, grief and anger – not just amongst me and my friends, but amongst many millions of people in the UK and beyond.

I have spent hours dwelling on the impact that impending Brexit will have on the life of this little one – the identity shifted, the opportunities missed, the unity unknown.

We had to escape on Saturday morning, taking our van to a campsite not far away but far enough to immerse ourselves in nature for a while. It didn’t entirely drag me away from social media and its outpouring of emotion, analysis and dismay, but it stopped me from going completely mad.

There was something strangely comforting about the fact that most of the weekend was mired in cloud and slow drizzle, belying the forecast of sunshine we had been looking forward to all week. It was as if the universe was grieving with us for all that we have lost.

And then this morning the sun came up, and bathed our campsite in warmth and beauty. We went for a swim in the sea, cool and invigorating, and I began to see things with fresh eyes.

I still believe that something terrible has happened to our country, but I am beginning to see the referendum result as a symptom rather than a cause – and as a call to act, for all of our futures.

Looking at this boy, poised and full of wonder at the heart of an ancient tree budding with new life, gives me hope that we, too, can find a way to bring ourselves back from the winter that has befallen us.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Venturing into the forest

The unschooling diaries: week eighteen

I am always on the lookout for new and exciting learning opportunities where Arthur gets to hang out with other kids, and in the past couple of weeks we’ve found a brilliant one.

My main motivation for leaning towards homeschooling as a vehicle for Arthur’s education is the complete pedagogical divergence between how I know children learn best and the constraints and controls being put on our schools by our current government. I am not anti-school per se, and I’m definitely not anti-teachers: I just wish our education system was able to be fed by the wealth of research over the past fifty years that advocates a child-led approach, steeped in creativity and the natural world. It is just so depressing that instead our schools, and our children, have been hijacked by a government obsessed with data and narrowly-focused assessment.

It’s not like there aren’t real alternatives to the system that is currently stagnating in the UK. Finland has had amazing results with an approach that is much more closely aligned to my own beliefs. One of the cornerstones of that approach is the dominance of forest schools, particularly in the early years: and I decided a couple of weeks ago that I owed it to Arthur for that to be part of his early-education experience.

And so, for the past two weeks, we have travelled to the little village of Stoke Gabriel on a Tuesday morning to join in with their forest school. It’s a bit of a mission – I still don’t drive (though I’m determined to do something about that this summer) so with the limited bus service it means getting taxis. But we are rewarded by our efforts with four and a half hours in the wilderness, which without a doubt makes it all worthwhile.

Weeks alternate between a community orchard and the forest, depending on whether the tide is too high to cross the weir. We were in the orchard for our first week, and I was struck by democratic, respectful atmosphere that pervaded – children were trusted, and they rose to that challenge. There were planned activities – from worm charming to clay modelling – but around that there was plenty of time for children to just play, inspired by each other and the world around them.

This week, we ventured into the forest. And it was amazing. The journey itself was rich in challenge and learning: navigating along the shore of the millpond, walking carefully across the weir and climbing up into the woods. Along the way the children were encouraged to be mindful of their environment – of plants, and insects, and the (metaphorical) need to tread carefully so as not to leave too significant a footprint.

After close to an hour, we reached Mr Magic Tree, the guardian of the woodland playground, and passed into a world of natural balance beams and fire pits and bug hunting and wooden xylophones. Again the time was punctuated by shared experiences (like cooking nettles to see if they lost their sting), but largely the children just played, and   no doubt learnt more than we could ever truly compute, let alone measure.

I think we’re going to have fun at forest school, Arthur and I. There is so much to learn, so much to experience.

And underpinning it all is a pedagogy that makes my heart sing.



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“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

Leigh and I had a very rare trip up to London this weekend, just the two of us.

Arthur stayed with my mum, and though we were only away for a night it was remarkable to see how much he seemed to grow up in just those twenty four little hours. This picture is hers, from a walk in the woods that they took before bedtime. I love the look of wonder on his face, the way he is poised for exploration and adventure.

It took us a long while to leave Arthur overnight. I could not imagine anything I less wanted to do in the first few weeks and months, and as time went on people were full of cautionary tales about how he would never be able to cope without us if we didn’t start to reduce the attachment that felt so natural for us to nurture.

In fact the opposite has proved to be true. We still hang out together an awful lot, but when Arthur is given the chance to be more independent he rises to it – confident that we will return, and full of excited stories to share with us when we do.

And cuddles, of course. There were lots of cuddles too.

 

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project.