Bringing the Outdoors In

Today is the first post from our new Nature Editor, Sarah. If you haven't seen our introduction to the new editors yet, head over here to find out more.

I always associate spring with the nature table. At primary school we always had a little display in the corner of the classroom with pussy willow stems in jam jars and a plastic tray filled with frogspawn. As the tadpoles sprouted legs, our teacher would prop the tray up at one end to enable them to crawl out of the water.

We were lucky to attend a village school with beautiful countryside on our doorstep. On hot days lessons would be abandoned in favour of walks outdoors, impromptu games of rounders simply having our lessons on the field.

Our headteacher, the charmingly-named Mr Chalk, would place a jar of seasonal stems or flowers on top of the piano at the beginning of each week – daffodils or teasels or holly. And during our daily assembly he’d tell us little stories, often with a nature theme (I always remember one about a man mistaking a priceless rare black tulip bulb for an onion and eating it). There’d be an annual autumn fair and we would make corn dollies to sell alongside the cakes and bric-a-brac.

Several years ago, Country Living magazine ran a campaign to bring the nature table back into schools. It stressed the importance of children not becoming isolated from the natural world, of their knowing about food sources and of spending time outdoors for physical and mental wellbeing. Of course, that holds true today and it’s something many of us feel very strongly about. Children are the future custodians of our countryside, after all. And there’s something incredibly fulfilling about watching them exploring and adventuring outside. To youngsters, the world seems a huge place where everything is amplified and where anything is possible. Insects and plants, woodland and water hold boundless opportunities for learning and imaginative play.

Finding and collecting natural things to touch and feel and study is hugely beneficial. An understanding of the seasons and curiosity about plants and animals are just two things the traditional nature table can foster.

But what about us grown-ups?  What relevance does the nature table hold for us?

I’m a collector. Partly because of my vocation as an artist – my workroom has jars of shells and dried seaweed from holidays by the sea, pots of feathers, pieces of driftwood and countless specimens of dried flowers and leaves – but also because I just love having these things around my home. When I was very little, my auntie and uncle lived in a beautiful old cottage. There was an occasional sitting room replete with rich velvets and tapestries where nobody really ventured, but I always tiptoed in there when we visited. A huge, dark oak dresser held all kinds of treasured antique china but there was one tiny detail which fascinated me: a twig with three little pine cones attached. I don’t know why I was so enamoured with it, but I was. And to this day I always have bits of nature in the house. My mantelpiece even holds a tiny, fragile bird’s skull found on a beach on the Isle of Skye. Pheasant’s feathers, too. And always a vase of simple seasonal blooms next to my mum’s photograph.

Because a nature table doesn’t have to be just that. You can adorn a windowsill, a shelf or a gap in a bookcase with finds and each time you see them you’ll feel connected to the outdoors and the seasons.

You can arrange, style and admire to your heart’s content. Or (like me) study, draw then press or preserve your little collection before going out and gathering again. These details can also be a source of inspiration or comfort on a dark day.

So what’s out there right now to bring indoors? Well, a great deal. Not just from fields and hedgerows either. Rather than picking wild flowers*, scout around the garden for snowdrops, daffodils, early cowslips, muscari, hellebores, fritillaries. Stems of catkins or magnolia and other early-flowering shrubs look beautiful in a simple stoneware jug or bottle. And consider having some flowering bulbs, too. There’s something particularly lovely about seeing living, growing things indoors during the colder months and bulbs do signify the end of winter for me.

Other items can be placed alongside to make a small display. Feathers, blown quail’s eggs and (if you’re lucky enough to find one) old nests which have been blown down. For those stylists amongst you – and I confess to being a bit of an aspiring one myself – consider leaving drawings, cards or beautiful nature books lying open ready to read. Following on from vintage Observer guides, Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady (both published posthumously and taken from her collected nature notes) is seeing a resurgence. The watercolour studies are exquisite and evocative. I found my second–hand copies online for next to nothing and I now treasure them.

Of course, this isn’t all a case of simply prettifying the home. Not that there’s anything wrong in that. But bringing nature indoors increases our sense of closeness to it. It’s wonderful to watch the seasons from the window but even better to get out there and experience them fully: the smells, the textures, the sounds. We all have access to somewhere green where there will be little gifts to spot and put in a pocket, later to be brought back home and admired.

One last thing, though, and it’s an important one: always be responsible if you’re collecting things to bring home. Never dig plants up from the wild or disturb bird’s nests which are still where they should be (as opposed to having been blown down). Likewise, always take just a small amount of any one thing. Wildlife depends on many flowers and berries as a food source.

*You can find a list of our protected plants and flowers here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/protected-plants-protection-surveys-and-licences.