I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny village in West Sussex. I spent all day outside as a child, until it got too dark to see. I grew up knowing the names of the butterflies and flowers around me. Knowing I could find a dock leaf next to a stinging nettle to relieve the pain if I got stung. Knowing that if I headed over to the buddleia trees in the garden, I was guaranteed to find a myriad of beautiful butterflies. Knowing that slow worms weren’t snakes and weren’t to be feared. Knowing that fruit always tastes best from your own trees and bushes. Watching my dad grow fruit and veg. Learning that fallen apples almost always have a slug hidden on the bottom.
I remember the smell of the earth from making endless mud pies, the smell of the lilac on the gnarled old tree my granny planted that had been struck by lightening, the different smells of different coloured roses in the rose garden that we used the petals from to make pretend perfume.
I was lucky to have an amazing childhood in nature, and it’s something that I often think back to now that I live in a city and I’m raising a child in the city. Now that words like acorn and dandelion have been taken out of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Now that councils mow down the wildflowers along our path to the local park. Now that the school my daughter goes too has astro-turf and fake plants.
I almost feel physical pain as I write that and I feel an overwhelming need to do something about it. To help more people reconnect with nature. To make sure my daughter knows what catkins are and how frogs come from the spawn in the pond. I can’t recreate the childhood I had because our lives are different from my parents, but I want to inspire love for nature in her and in others. Because we can’t love and respect what we don’t understand. The reason people treat nature so badly or indifferently is often because they either fear it or just don’t understand it.
Ruth Allen writes in her amazing book Grounded – we need a relationship with nature not just a connection. “..simply going outside is not enough… it’s what you do with the time outdoors that matters…” It’s not a passive relationship. Nature is not simply a resource, not a tool for us to use for our own benefits. We need to give back.
Robin Wall Kimmerer says in Braiding Sweetgrass: “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.”
There needs to be more community green space, there needs to be more gardening and nature contact as part of primary school education. As Ruth puts it: “We need to let ourselves become re-enchanted with the world like we were as children”. This is hard when we know so much more about the problems nature faces and the damage we have done to it as human beings, but it’s about going back to really noticing the little things, taking proper time to be in nature rather than passing through and being curious and open to learning again.
Do you have friendly neighbours with a big garden that you could maybe share a space to grow veg in? Do you have a park nearby that you could ask the council about creating a wildflower strip in? Could you talk to a local school about planting up some veg and flowers with the kids? (This is what I’m offering to do at my daughter’s school). Is there a community garden where you live?
You might be surprised to find how many nature projects there are around you. If there is a long waiting list for an allotment, ask the people with plots if they have some space to share as they may not need all of it. If there is a parks litter picking group, you could join in on a litter pick. Perhaps there is a local farm veg box or flower delivery service you can choose instead of buying from supermarkets or Interflora?
Notice the wild spaces on your doorstep. My studio is in an ugly industrial estate, but tucked away down the path opposite is an incredible untouched wildflower meadow full of sloe bushes and bramble. And we’ve created our own mini garden here too. All you need is some planters and tubs to make a barren concrete space come alive. We planted up old drum kits and tyres at the studio, and built some planters from pallet wood which is always going spare on the estate. And now we have so many bees and butterflies here in the midst of huge trucks and wire fences. They cut down all the buddleia that was growing wild here, so I’m filling more planters to try and make up for it. We have sunflowers growing tall and chard growing wild and it makes me happy every day I come to my studio.
I definitely don’t have all the answers and I feel overwhelmed by the scale of the environmental issues we face a lot of the time. The statistics that we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows in the UK since the 1930’s are hard to comprehend and it’s hard to know where to start, but like so many things in life, it’s about starting somewhere. It’s about wanting to learn, and wanting to give back not just take. It’s about talking and sharing knowledge and resources. I hope that whatever I share here can help give ideas and inspire action rather than overwhelm.
What one thing could you do today to give back to nature or help the planet?