Perpetual winter and learning

This winter seems to be never-ending. Slowly, the mornings are getting lighter as well as the evenings. Pretty soon, the clocks change and everything accelerates further. Those are the best days yet often taken for granted. Whilst I no longer hate winter I still prefer spring and summer. Spring is unbeatable for the feeling of hope, warmth and the buzz of nature at work.

Whilst the bad weather and extreme temperatures can be devastating to our wildlife, it can bring rarely seen species into our neighbourhoods and gardens. Just the other day I saw a Redwing in extremely close proximity. These are winter visitors to our countryside and are usually seen from afar in flocks. This one seemed to be very tame and alone. ‘Tame’ in that situation is more likely to be representative of desperation. All the same it was great to admire one so close – the red on the wing, the Thrush-like feathering, and the distinctive flash of colour above the eye.

Snow in gardens reveals its secret story. Look at the tracks making their way across the lawn, follow them. See where garden visitors enter and exit your patch. The power and accessibility of the Internet and its wealth of information means you can look up track marks to help identify animals and birds.

Maybe I don’t want the winter to end after all.

Four snow storms and a cancellation

It’s been a funny old week. Four days of snow brought things to a standstill. I, and a few others still managed to get out for a run or two. For me, the snow is a great chance to use some of my winter and mountain kit. My fell running shoes got a good run out, resulting in easy traction and bone dry feet. Much less stressful than trying to drive in it too I might add.

A half marathon that I was entered into was cancelled too, which was probably wise, given the risk of safety for not just everyone competing, but also everyone getting there to compete, marshall or spectate.

Only a few days prior to all this I entered an ultra marathon in May and my thoughts drifted towards summer days, heatstroke risk and staying cool. Next thing, I’m digging my car out of a snow drift. All this happens at the same time that my studies cover weather fronts, so I can go some way to explain this Siberian atmosphere to myself as best I can. It’s not the sort of weather I’d like to be caught up in on the hills though, even if it does make for beautiful photographs.

Outdoor life goes on though. In the snow, I have always loved the silence. The ghost-like qualities of a busy town shut down by mother nature jamming her spanner in the works. Us humans can have a snow day, moan incessantly, watch TV and turn up the thermostat. I couldn’t help but notice the tiny tracks in across the path, made by a small bird, no doubt looking for food. They can’t have a day off. Imagine that, your whole life is your job. No leisure time, just survival from dawn til dusk, birth to death. Would we still have so many ‘problems’? Would our lives have more purpose, satisfaction and meaning? Think of things from nature’s point of view and they might start making sense.

Roll up, roll up! It’s free!

It probably wasn’t a great philosopher that said it, but things are better when they’re free aren’t they?

Free drinks? Go on then! Free food? Great! Free money? Have I died and gone to heaven? What about free exercise? Technically all exercise is free, after you’ve paid out for the kit and equipment you’re going to need, because the outdoors is free.

Gyms aren’t normally free though, but let’s ignore those for now as this is a family show, geared at getting out, not in. In my opinion, the best free stuff is stuff you can enjoy with others. This also supports my opinion that sport should be accessible to all, regardless of status and income. Every weekend, I kick things off with my local ParkRun. These are free to take part in, are timed and you get a placing. At my local, we get over 300 people a week, all abilities, with multiple goals and motivation. For me, it is about the challenge through the year of chasing the elusive personal best, and largely about the community feeling that goes with it. We welcome new runners almost every week as well as running and chatting with familiar faces. If you asked everyone, you’d probably get a different answer every time. I personally look forward to Saturday mornings as I’m sure others do too. As it’s a free event, it is ran on a tight budget by volunteers. You can in turn volunteer some weeks to put a little bit back into it.

We’re very lucky in my part of the world to have free access (both physically and financially) to public rights of way, making walking in scenic or rural areas realistic for the majority. All you need to do is treat those areas with respect. Of course, aside from the physical benefits of being out in the open, there’s the mental health boost too, fighting depression and stress.

If you want to get fit, what can you do for nothing where you live? If there aren’t many options, could you create a group? The possibilities are relatively endless!

Plastic drastic – the 1000 year problem

I’m usually anti anything that’s trending as it’s usually something irrelevant to me and my lifestyle, ‘celebrity’ antics for example or getting the Royal look for your summer wardrobe so you’ll look nothing like a Royal when you’re sat on your arse watching the Royal wedding.

What is trending now though, significantly, is the problem of plastic. It baffles me it’s taken this long for the majority of superpowers to start taking action. Maybe it’s thanks to several TV documentaries on the subject, bringing it to the attention of the (voting) majority. It affects us all.

I have a deep personal regard for the environment in which I live and recreate. To me, recycling and renewable energy are the two most important and achievable changes we can make in the world now. My previous blog covered the subject of littering. There are several crossovers here. The majority of litter I see is recyclable. Plastic left sitting in the town, countryside and ocean does just that – sits. It doesn’t break down. It’s a massive problem.

Let’s look at the facts.

  • 90% of all trash floating in our oceans is plastic.
  • That is roughly 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.
  • 1 million seabirds, and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually as a result of plastic pollution.

So that’s the current damage that’s happening now. What about the long term future? Let’s see. Some plastics take 1000 years to decompose. Meaning that every single piece of plastic ever produced is still around somewhere.

Between 2004 and 2014, more plastic was produced than in the entire 20th century! And what happens to the plastic we throw away? 50% of it is only used once, and that’s it. Currently we recover a paltry 5% of the plastic we produce. But if it’s in the ground or bobbing around in the sea, it’s not causing us harm is it? Well it is. It gets into our food chain too, among other things. 93% of Americans tested, showed up positive for BPA (a plastic chemical).

Despite the bleak facts, we can do something to help and there are organisations already trying to do their bit. In the UK, Surfers Against Sewage are making great strides to fight the tide of plastic (bad pun). You can also sign up for beach clean ups, or just clean up where you live or where you walk. Recycle as much as you can, both at home and what you pick up. You can turn your back on plastic packaging altogether or just single use plastics. If you find a single use plastics in your home, be creative and think of another use for it before tossing it away. I’m considering using unrecycleable plastic food trays as seedling trays at my allotment.

I generally hate huge corporations. I also hate huge corporations that sell unhealthy food and drink. But I was impressed with Coca-Cola’s plan recently to recover all of their plastic bottles. I’m not quite sure how they will achieve it, but credit where credit’s due, it’s a bloody good start.

The bottom line is it may not be all of us to blame but all of us can make a difference.

The war on litter

I read this week that Her Royal Highness Liz has declared war on single use plastics on the royal estates, effectively banning their use. Good on her, I say. More should follow her lead (unless it’s attached to a corgi).

It has been a gripe if mine for a while seeing how much litter lies around, not only in towns and cities but also in our countryside too. Our beauty spots, areas of refuge and escape, blighted by litter and debris. I’ve spoken personally about carrying out litter picking trips in my neighbourhood recently but as yet haven’t managed to do it. It’s something I feel is very helpful for both the community and ourselves. How many of us hate seeing litter? I can say hand on heart that I have never deliberately dropped litter, yet I feel compelled to pick other people’s up.

I know of walking groups that take bags on hikes with them and pick up any litter they find, actively enjoying and improving areas they love.

I sometimes find my day job very frustrating. Amongst other things day-to-day, I find myself dissatisfied. I imagine it is to do with the nature of the industry I work in, and not being able to see results. The fruits of your labour if you like. One night I was walking to my allotment and I saw rubbish everywhere I looked, so I started picking it up. Within a few strides I had picked up an armful of fast food wrappers, plastic bottles, all sorts. I saw instant results.  The pathway was clear. I felt satisfied. That was it I thought. The reward for putting in the effort. The benefits for myself, the community (who probably dropped the litter to begin with, he says, sceptically), as well as the environment outweighed the ‘inconvenience’. Mental health organisations call it ‘ecotherapy’. I’ll cover this further in another post.

For many, we think we shouldn’t have to pick it up. I didn’t drop it, I’m not picking it up. Like we’re idiots for working for free. What if everybody thought that? Granted, it’s not our job, but the fact is, local authorities do not care. That’s the sad part. It’s too expensive to do it, so leave it. A study in the UK showed that areas where littering and dog fouling were tolerated had higher levels of crime. The general feeling is the majority will drop litter if they see litter. If a neighbourhood looks neglected, it attracts further neglect.

I bet if there was a reward scheme for litter picking (financial), we would see a shift in visible litter. In the mean time, volunteers do it for the most part. The people who really make a difference to where they live and other areas too, and I’m going to join them. Look at your own area if you can and get out and make some changes, see how you and your area change along the way. It could be really good!

If you’re in the UK, use the link below to find litter pickers in your area.

Stay tidy!

The tide.

I went back to the rough ground today for the first time since autumn. Very much like last time it was very sunny and bright, with a piercing blue sky, and shades of yellows and browns. The one noticeable absence however was the greenery. Back in the autumn there was still a fair amount of leaf cover and the whole area still felt quite private, but today, there were none to shield the outside world away. It felt very open and exposed.

As well as the world’s eyes creeping in, so too were the sounds of the urban surroundings – a cacophony of emergency service sirens, the hum of the motorway passing overhead nearby, the clang of lorries as their wheels find the weathered potholes on the carriage way. The increased noise, combined with being able to see more cars and people whizzing by, makes me feel, I notice, vulnerable. The rough ground isn’t the hidden sanctuary it once was. A guy wobbles by on a push bike that is far too small for him, weaving through the abandoned shopping trolleys, burned out car, and dumped boiler. People walk by going about their business. It just feels…less private.

But this area is not mine. I don’t own it. Is that what we want from the world? A place just for ourselves and a select group of people that we hand pick? No riff raff. No undesirables. No strangers. By doing that, we cease to grow as people and our horizons begin to shrink. We become set in our ways and spoilt by routine. If this rough space were mine, and only mine, who would join me to fight for it if the need rose up? Nobody would see it like I do because they would never be given the chance. Like a walled secret garden.

In amongst all this, I could actually hear a hive of bird song. Very spring-like. A volery of long tailed tits fluttered overhead from leafless branch to leafless branch, taking me completely by surprise. I would have expected them to be blue tits, or something equally as common. Back in the summer, I noted how quiet it was here for birds. Now it’s coming to life.

I start to make my way back to the pretty much pointless exercise that some would call my career. I note the old pavements I am walking along, revealing, beneath all the growth, the rough ground’s urban heritage. The samsara of ruralisation, urbanisation and then ruralisation. How quickly nature reclaims what man sees as a waste. The decaying fallen branches lying around, releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere shows that everything is a cycle. Birth, death, prosperity, decay. The tide giving and taking. What goes up, comes down. And every dog, always has its day.

Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent mind.

Sit down children, today’s subject is mindfulness.

For various reasons close to my shrivelled, unworthy heart, I chose mindfulness as a cause for 2018. It is a topic I touched upon in studying Buddhism over the years but didn’t truly embrace it or appreciate its importance. I find the word ‘mindfulness’ everywhere now – mindfulness cafés, mindfulness colouring books for adults, mindfulness potty training for children, mindfulness chocolate bars. I exaggerate of course, but hopefully you get the idea. It seems to be ‘trending’ which is something I hear and tend to switch off from because it usually means as many money-makers as possible hitch up to it and distort it. Protein is another one. Protein this, protein that. I’m ranting, I apologise.

Anyway, where was I? Mindfulness! Yes. I’ve began to work mindfulness in to my outdoor life. Maybe I’m guilty of distorting mindfulness too, because in my pursuits I am trying to live for the moment while doing them. Paying attention to sensations while running is one. The feel of rain on your face, the warm sensation of being two miles in and finally thawing out. The wind in your hair. It is probably best illustrated while hiking, especially if I take my camera. Paying attention to minute details like dewdrops on grass, ripples in streams, or listening to bird song. I love listening to bird song of common birds. Even though you hear them every day, it is important to never take them for granted for one day them or you will be gone. Watching sunsets and the like tend to be cliché but they’re simple and free to access. The other day, I stopped in the street to appreciate a murmuration of starlings. Who knows if and when you’ll see one again.

Mindfulness, when completely mastered is a kind of meditation, tuning in to the moment, and sounding out the everyday noise in our consciousness. There are health benefits too. Combining this with outdoor pursuits therefore seems to me to be ideal. Just got to keep practicing!

Does anyone out there have any experiences to share, or tips, or ideas? Please share!

The quote in the headline of this blog might not be completely appropriate, but the thinking is, if you can silence the thoughts whizzing through your mind, your real dreams might speak a little louder.