Posts in Musings
The Slow Everyday

“Slow living is conscious, intentional, mindful, and living deeply.”

(source)

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The slow living philosophy is growing. We are (slowly) coming to the realisation that a fast-paced consumerist society is not the key to happiness or fulfilment. Instead, we crave a less-is-more approach with a focus on quality of life, in whatever form that takes for each individual.

For some, that might mean a huge lifestyle change - opting for a tiny home; changing jobs; keeping chickens - but for others it might just be that extra twenty minutes in the morning, sat in candlelight with a simple breakfast and mug of tea. The varied individual approaches matter very little; of more importance is the idea we should savour every minute instead of count them.

Last month, a break away from the norm forced me to explore my own vision of slow living, and question whether or not I’d been embracing it fully; perhaps unsurprisingly, I returned home with a head full of changes I wanted - needed - to make.

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Family-owned Warborne Farm sits in the south of the New Forest, not too far from the coast. Run on organic principles for the past three decades, it is very much still a working farm, and tractors chug in and out of the yard daily, much to my son’s delight! Dan and I visited with Monty (18 months at the time) and stayed in the Grain Loft, a rustic barn conversion on the first floor. Monty’s favourite part was - by far - the walk on window, through which he could see chickens pecking all day long. Each morning of our visit began with a request to go see the chickens, but 6am was a little early for the birds, and all was still dark below until around 7.

With no real agenda, the days began slowly, wrapped up reading books in bed and padding through to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee and begin making breakfast. Candles were lit at every meal, and instead of rushing to finish and move on to the next activity, we lingered at the table, happy to chat and read a few pages more.

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Staying in the New Forest meant a daily walk was of course on the cards. We ventured into the woods searching for ponies and falling autumn leaves, and stretched our legs on the heath to find cows, cobwebs and drizzling rain.

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Back at the farm, we picked tomatoes, herbs and garlic for dinner that evening. Eggs from the chickens were a staple during our stay, too. We’re no strangers to growing our own - our veg patch feeds our extended family throughout the year, and we’re self-sufficient in many things over the summer months - but in a different location I was reminded how enjoyable these tasks can be. Every action can bring pleasure, if approached with the right mindset.

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Almost a month has passed since we returned from our trip to Warborne, and slowly, I’m making some changes. A single beeswax candle burns in the centre of the table for each meal; a celebration of the meal ahead. We’ve slowed our morning routine to incorporate reading in bed as a family, not rushing to move downstairs too soon. I’ve also stopped pressurising myself to do activities and trips with Monty, choosing instead to embrace the slow everyday; collecting windfall apples, meandering around the top field, pausing to look at berries and leaves, tractor-watching around the village. Sometimes a look at someone else’s everyday is enough to make you re-prioritise your own. Thank you Warborne Farm for being that reminder.

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Collaboration Note:  Thank you to Fanny and George at Warborne Farm for inviting us to stay.  All words, thoughts and images are my own. 

A Negotiable Nature
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Have you ever experienced one of those moments when something is said, and you know, for whatever reason, that it’s hugely significant, even though the reason for this might not be immediately apparent? I remember one of those moments now, only because it has finally gained the context that allows it to make sense, kind of like blinking yourself out of a dream and into the wakeful clearness of the day.

This particular moment happened at university, in a packed lecture hall during a lecture on Wordsworth’s 'Tintern Abbey'. Not only did the poem immediately establish itself as a firm favourite (even to this day vying for the position of absolute favourite with Keats’s 'To Autumn') but something else seemed to strike a chord when the lecturer, discussing Wordsworth’s walking tour and views over the landscape, said: “When you leave here today, remember that whatever you look at, someone, somewhere, either owns it or controls it in some way.”

For years after, that sentence swilled around loosely in a dark, neglected corner of my memory until eventually my interests meandered through the world of angling and its writers, spilling over into a more panoramic interest in nature writing and the wider natural world beyond the seas and estuaries and rivers I knew so well. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me: George Monbiot’s theses on “rewilding”; the often parochial, intimate observations of Deakin and Blythe, the country-crossing ramblings of MacFarlane and the ecologically-tinted wilderness wanderings of that great modern-day voyageur Sigurd F. Olson, to name just a few. I became fascinated with my own self-built grand fantasies of “wild secluded” Canadian wilderness and the “deep seclusion” of remote Scottish highland forests, lamenting the fact that there were no such comparable things near to me, vowing that ‘some day I would...’, a burgeoning sentence whose wide open spaces were filled with a rolling sequence of overblown, romanticised ambitions that would arrive and then disappear almost as suddenly, carried away upon their own energy as twigs in a stream.

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But then, something happened. With further reading, came an awareness of the deeper themes and arguments that ran across decades and continents, leading me onto some strange assimilation of all these factors, and it was whilst I computed all of these ideas and influences into my own understanding of the natural world that the old phrase from my university lecture that seemed so long ago finally found a niche into which it could click, where it began to cast light upon these new ideas, kick-starting a new process of understanding.

I quickly realised that the phrase “natural world” belonged within quotation marks. Why? Because I could no more define it than could anyone else. My understanding of the “natural world” is uniquely my own, and thus, should be taken with a pinch of salt by anyone other than me, as should anyone else’s version. Perhaps the “natural world” as society has come to understand it is a concept that doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it never existed in any one true, idealised sense. This revelation was finally hammered home when, as chance would have it, I returned to the source of my early fascination, re-reading Lyrical Ballads, this time in preparation for teaching it to A-Level classes of my own.

I devoured the book quickly, looking for remembered phrases and lines as I might scan for friends on arriving at some party. There they were, tripping off the tongue once more until, that is, I returned to Tintern. The powerful words and images were still there alright, as majestic and poetic as ever they had been on my first reading years before; they had lost none of the Romantic power. But there, nestled alongside them were other more subtle things that I had long since forgotten, or perhaps missed entirely in the first place. For all of the seclusion and tranquillity and restorative power, there was also a calm and unfussy acceptance from Wordsworth, present in the “plots of cottage-ground”, “orchard-tufts”, “hedge-rows” and “pastoral farms” that were framed by “wreaths of smoke/Sent up, in silence, from among the trees”.

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Here was a genius of the English pastoral, searching for silence and solitude and quiet contemplation, and having to find, instead, a negotiated version of the natural world. In a landscape as used and farmed and tamed as the British countryside, even the great searchers who had come in search of their own idea of nature had been forced to settle upon the version of it that was afforded them by the other people and purposes with whom they shared it: Wordsworth’s vision of Tintern; Keats witnessing the seasons change in the fields and granaries. Even the great Robert Frost could only find a road “less traveled by” in his American landscapes rather than one never before walked upon.

And here it was, laid bare in black and white lines of iambic pentameter: it is okay to negotiate. I don’t need someone else’s wilderness when I can find solitude whilst fishing an empty beach at dusk; I don’t have to hike through some distant forest when I can walk the slopes of the hills behind my home, following my well-worn route through its tree-tunnels; I can hear birdsong and wind-sifted leaves in Margam Country Park, a beautiful green space once owned by the Talbot family, and only ten minutes drive from my home, just as well as I can anywhere else. 

To some, this might be unacceptable. Maybe they are not prepared to settle for less, needing the raw confrontation of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, but that is for them to search for and discover on their own terms. Good luck to them. I am perfectly happy to give a little, working with my negotiable nature, so that I can continue to receive so much in return.

MusingsSimon Smith
'Our Place': A Call For Change
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Intensive agricultural practices, skies devoid of birds, fields with very little insect life – we’ve all read or heard news items talking about the plight facing our countryside.  However, what many of us have little understanding of is just how rapid a decline in wildlife our British landscape is facing.  These are the issues which Mark Cocker seeks to explore and address in his latest book, Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late?

As a naturalist and environmental tutor, Cocker’s writing and broadcasting on nature and wildlife have featured across a wealth of national media.  His work spans across the genres of biography, history, literary criticism and memoir including noted titles such as Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014) and Birds and People (2013).  His book, Crow Country, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and won the New Angle Prize for Literature in 2009.  He has also been The Guardian’s country diarist for almost thirty years.  The release of Our Place this year has seen him explore a topic clearly close to his heart - the fate of British nature since the twentieth century. 

Our Place begins with Cocker’s take on the history of the conservation movement through the exploration of six special places.  From the flatlands of Norfolk to the rugged terrain of Scotland, the book considers the ‘green’ ideas which led to the creation of institutions such as the National Trust and how in turn this has shaped our wild spaces.  Charting the achievements of notable figures such as Victorian visionary (and founder of the National Trust) Octavia Hill and key characters like Max Nicholson, the pioneering environmentalist, ornithologist and founder of the World Wildlife Fund as well as Derek Ratcliffe, one of the most influential naturalists of his generation, Cocker seeks to demonstrate how they helped change the face of conservation.  It is from this that we can begin to understand how and why our landscape looks as it does today.    

This is by no means an easy read for anyone with a love of wildlife and the outdoor, of green spaces and their preservation.  Cocker’s intention is not to mollycoddle, it is to bring awareness.  Our Place is a bold statement on the state of nature in Britain today.  However, running through the narrative is the constant reminder of Cocker’s deep love of the countryside.

We could see the landscape curving away westwards, quivering even at this hour, and ribbons in blue or pastel where plots of reed and marsh entwined.  And far off was the mill.  It was Cley.  I was there.  It was hot.  A love affair had begun.’

We all share this love to varying degrees – that much is true if you look at the membership of the large organisations Cocker details in the book.  Organisations which are dedicated to preserving and protecting vital parts of our national landscape.  However, what Cocker really wants us to think about is how many of us really play our part in keeping that landscape alive and well?  What will it take for our society to affect real change?  Can we achieve this before it is too late?

Replenishing our collective spirit involves our immersion in nature’s unfathomable and obliterating otherness, so that it can purge the travails and toxins of our own making. Nature’s great and irreversible continuities – the passage of the clouds, the turning of the seasons – measure all our smallnesses.  They put things in perspective.  They render us humble.  Nature is the go-to place when life seems too full of self-generated woe.’

Recently I attended an assembly at my daughters’ school where the headmistress talked about words being lost from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  Words such as otter, kingfisher, conker, acorn – all part of a natural world lexicon that has been ousted to make room for new vocabulary for the modern age like broadband and the phrase ‘cut and paste’. 

It seemed to me that this struck a chord with the very point Our Place is trying to highlight.  If it so easy to erase these words from the dictionary with little notice or outcry, how long might it be before the very embodiments of these words are lost to us forever too?  Perhaps as Cocker emphasises so passionately, we simply aren’t doing enough to preserve our countryside. 

Our Place is a thought-provoking read which highlights the need for more action.  It’s a book which calls for change beyond the ‘kitchen-sink choices’ we all try to make in a bid to think and be more green.  For as Cocker cites in his final pages, if as a nation we are to quote William Blake and describe our landscape as a ‘green and pleasant land’ then we all need to do more.

Our Steps
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I kept feeling the pull to hike, but I was so cozy in the white chair with the dog, a couple of blankets, and a wonderful story.  And, the rain kept floating in after the sun would finally peek through. As the sky brightened again, I unfurled from the chair and stretched my legs.  I put on mismatched wool socks and plodded down the steps. My husband and son rose to join me. As I tied my favorite hiking boots, I heard my son comment, “You know, it’s still actually raining.”  I could hear a few drops falling from the sky, but wondered if maybe they were falling from the leaves. 

The sky seemed to continue its quest for brightness as we pulled in the parking lot of a familiar, but not recently traveled trail.  The three of us set off down the path.

Three.  I am still working to balance this number.  We are a family of five. We are raising triplets, but so far this summer, two of the three are off on trails of their own.  At age 14, one is exploring paths through Europe with her violin and an orchestra of new friends. She is taking pictures and soaking in experiences on her own.  The other is with family in Los Angeles, also setting off on trails of her own. The one in LA will be home this week, the one in Europe still has two more weeks.

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My momma heart is out of synch with this newness.  While there is so much beauty to seeing the world through the eyes of our two adventurers, there is also joy in having one at home to savor.  These three have been together since birth (before actually) and one to one time is something we have to be intentional about. It doesn’t happen as much as it should.

 

So this day, as the three of us took off down the path together-it was different, but also wonderful.  I trailed behind my husband and son who bounced, rolled and laughed in to the woods. I smiled as their silliness soaked in to my soul like the rain moistened earth.  Maybe it was their contagious joy, but my eyes immediately landed on a splash of purple just off the path. I knelt low to photograph a tiny purple flower with a stunning yellow center.  Rain drops delicately sprinkled on its petals. A few more steps, and movement caught my eye-I knelt down to get eye to eye with a bright green frog. A few more steps….and they boys turned to laugh.  They were sure we would miss dinner if I continued at this pace. I managed to make it a little longer between stops. They continued their banter, and I continued to notice. At one point my son joined me, hand in hand.  He even turned around with me when I worried I had missed an amazing pink flower. I looked. I inhaled the smells of post rain summer-earth, flowers, the microscopic beads of oil being released from the trees surrounding our path.  I noticed how the drops of rain in the sunlight looked like someone had opened a jar of glitter and sprinkled it from above. I delighted in how the world reflects in each drop of water. We gasped in unison when we saw a black snake slithering off the path, and then laughed at our response and that I did not stop to photograph it-we are not snake people.  We stopped to talk to a couple on the path. We noticed the level of the water, the way it enveloped trees that were once on land. Eventually we ended up back at the car. With moist earth in our boots and eyes twinkling from the fresh air, movement, and laughter.

 

As evening came, I treasured in my heart not only the images of beauty from along the path, but the laughter.  It was different from a silent walk alone in the woods, but equally as precious.  Their silliness lightened my heart, and maybe even opened my eyes.  My steps and their steps looked different, mine slow with deliberate stops, often.  Theirs weaving, slipping, and bouncing along-stopping only to turn and look for me.  All three of our paths coming together-hands, arms, lips to cheeks.  This is actually a lot like parenting teens, our pace, our steps-especially this summer, are moving differently. We are all joyfully taking it in, in our own ways, in our own places, at our own pace.  And yet, our paths come together-via phone calls, or pictures sent, and then eventually upon the landing of planes and the holding tight-hands, arms, lips to cheeks.

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I imagine looking from above at the actual prints of our feet, marking the earth today-perhaps each of us in our own color.  I would watch the pausing to notice, the laughing, the bouncing, the slipping, the steps. Each marking our own way, with beauty and adventure, back home.  

MusingsAnna Bonnema
An Organic Canvas of Soil and Soul
   Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris), one of several new plants I’m experimenting with this year.  Their rounded shape and vivid whiteness offsets strikingly against the different greens of leaves and ferns in the background.

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris), one of several new plants I’m experimenting with this year.  Their rounded shape and vivid whiteness offsets strikingly against the different greens of leaves and ferns in the background.

A thousand visual soliloquies that combine to weave a powerful narrative: gardening is a silent act of creativity.  And it’s also a pastime that is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. And this resurgence is truly multi-faceted.  From the hashtags and hipsters of Instagram that are fuelling a thriving trade in exotic houseplants, to the swathes of gentle souls recognising that gardening offers true freedom from frenetic living, gardening is very much in vogue.

   A real success story from my local market last summer.  Its common name of Lamb’s tail (Chiastophyllum oppositifolium) needs no explanation.  Its hanging fronds form clumps of fascination: the red and silver of the huechera (silver scrolls) in the background give it an even crisper vividness.

A real success story from my local market last summer.  Its common name of Lamb’s tail (Chiastophyllum oppositifolium) needs no explanation.  Its hanging fronds form clumps of fascination: the red and silver of the huechera (silver scrolls) in the background give it an even crisper vividness.

Cultivating curiosity in the garden (or a balcony, where my early exploits took place) is increasingly offering people a raft of reasons to re-connect with nature.  And for me, that can only be a good thing.  Slower living, reconnection with food, the need for patience in a throwaway world: gardening is a teacher we would all do well to heed.

But this article seeks to celebrate the creativity that gardening can offer: a call to arms to embrace the aesthetically pleasing and commit to a life of creative experimentation.  I guarantee that your soul – and your soil – will be all the richer for it.

   Huechera (siver scrolls).  Purchased last summer for its evergreen nature, although that label is somewhat of a misnomer.  Silver, green and a warm maroon underneath, this plant surprised me this year when it issued forth great stems of budding flowers.  A shared favourite of both myself, and the many bees that visit it contentedly throughout these warm days.

Huechera (siver scrolls).  Purchased last summer for its evergreen nature, although that label is somewhat of a misnomer.  Silver, green and a warm maroon underneath, this plant surprised me this year when it issued forth great stems of budding flowers.  A shared favourite of both myself, and the many bees that visit it contentedly throughout these warm days.

Finding your own eye is key.  After a decade of gardening (from crops in pots, an allotment, to my humble garden), I’m only just starting to scrape the surface in terms of what I truly like.  And what you like will be different.  So much of garden ‘design’ and ‘landscape gardening’ can feel elitist and isolating; dictatorial: I urge you to pursue what you like with joyful abandon; creativity, not conformity.

Secondly, anyone who knows me will know that I like to wax lyrical about the joy of pots.  Tiny canvases, they offer a mobility that affords a freedom and playfulness to proceedings.  As seasons progress, plants bloom at different times (bolt at different times), flower at different times: pots offer the ability to re-create displays and move things to create new micro landscapes.

 

 

Embrace beautiful failure.  I’m in my eighth summer in the Peak District and I’m still watching glorious disasters unfurl and unfold in the garden!  Experimentation is part – perhaps the – joy of creativity in any discipline.  So many of the plants, structures and arrangements that I’ve developed lifelong love for, have been serendipitous, accidental, stumbled upon by chance.  Sticking to ‘guaranteed results’ results in precisely that: a formulaic act with all mystery surgically removed.

Get started.  I germinated my passion for horticulture on a balcony in Hackney, growing vegetables and flowers in a space that was smaller than a standard-sized double bed.  It can be oh-so-easy to feel that you don’t have a big enough space, so if further validation is needed, seek out the small gardens feature on this series of Gardeners’ World.

And lastly, I’d urge everyone to focus on the details, rather than the overall picture.  Embrace the small details.  One of the many pleasures I derive from my own tiny garden, is the micro, rather than the macro.  Of course, my aim is to nurture a vista of totality, but my joy is in the tiny details.  The bladder wort that is finally in bloom; the lamb’s tail that attracts an endless cycle of tireless bees; the meadow buttercups that bask in the stored heat of the drystone wall: a microcosm of magnificence.

Plants offer a canvas of creativity that is fluid, continual and indulgent: if you possess a creative bent, and even the smallest inkling of love for nature, I urge you to experiment with the colours, shapes, textures and structures that gardening affords.  Your outlook will be both physically and mentally all the better for it.

MusingsCallum Saunders
Think Like a Tree
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Sarah Spencer believes that all living things share natural principles that allow them to grow, stay healthy, be adaptable, develop resilience, become connected and pass on what they’ve learned. She maintains that if we can learn to access the wisdom of the forest we can live happier, healthier and more productive lives ourselves. Today, she tells us a bit more about her work and outlook on life...

 

The Think like a Tree programme was created as a practical and accessible way for anyone to harness the wisdom of the natural world, and apply it in their own life.

Whilst designing landscapes, gardens and woodlands, I realised that the same principles that make natural ecosystems so successful and enduring could be applied to our own lives. There are a set of natural principles that all living things share, and by looking at these principles, through the lense of trees, we get back to the basics of what is really important in life, like growth, resilience, health and positive relationships.

We share a common ancestor with trees (about 2 billion years ago!), so these are the fundamentals of life.  But trees have had a 280 million year head start in solving the problems that life throws at us, so we would be foolish to ignore all that evolutionary wisdom. 

Think like a tree came into being following my own struggles with ill-health and coping with it forced me to re-evaluate my life and how I can live a fulfilling life, but within my own limits.  And I took a long hard look at how my environment was affecting me, both in terms of my immediate surroundings and the wider world.   I decided I needed to start living more consciously, both in terms of my own wellbeing but also that of the people and other living things around me.  This way of living radically improved my life, allowing me develop my own unique solutions to my problems, and regain my health from a low point of spending over a year in bed.

The principles are taken from permaculture, a nature-inspired design system, and biomimicry, which uses nature to design products and find technical solutions.  And some of them are simply observed whilst I was walking in the woods. 

Once I embarked on this process people kept asking me about it and so I developed the courses where I live in woodlands in South Derbyshire to share my learning.  I am now also working on an online course and a Think like a Tree book, to be published next year.

I'm guided by the natural principles every day - they are really easy to follow, you can observe them in your immediate surroundings and you interpret them in the way that’s relevant to you.   Anyone can do it!   If you see a dandelion pushing through the cracks in the pavement it has something to teach you about resilience and determination. A tree that harbours an ecosystem of insects and birds can teach us a lot about developing co-operative relationships.  Some of those that I use every day are “slow and small solutions” that help me achieve my goals in a more effective way; “use your energy where it can have the most effect" guides me to focus my attention on the important things, and not waste time on the pointless ones (like overthinking things);  “value diversity” helps me to see the good in everyone I meet, when so often it’s easy to gravitate away from those who are different; and my personal favourite is “use your edge” which reminds me step out of my comfort zone and take risks, because that’s what allows exciting new things to happen.   That’s exactly what a birch tree does when it colonizes new ground.

When I teach shorter workshops I can see that even after an hour’s session lightbulbs start going on and I get reactions like “I’ve never thought about it like that!” or “I’d no idea I had so much in common with trees!”  “I didn’t realize what I was feeling is perfectly natural!”.  I think people like the fact that this is about learning from the natural world, and goes beyond simply enjoying the benefits of being in the outdoors (of which of course there are many).During the six week course we go into the principles in depth and the more people engage the more benefits they get.   It’s called Think like a Tree for a reason – you really do have to think!  The feedback has been overwhelming.

The full course follows a 12 step design cycle that allows participants to design for their own unique circumstances, incorporating the principles each week.  So far people have used it for designing a career move, their retirement, their health, their confidence and wellbeing, and to design ways to support others.   But essentially it can be used for every circumstance, from corporate culture, to bring up children. I like the unique approach – every tree is unique so why should we think that a one size fits all method should work for our own problems?

Many people have busy and stressful lives these days so it’s understandable that getting out in nature is not always a priority.  But mindsets are shifting as to the benefits to health and wellbeing, and that is a great motivator.  Usually it’s the thought of getting outside that is the hurdle and when we do we love it.  If you ask people about their most exhilarating moment, when they felt the most alive, it’s usually in the outdoors – like seeing an amazing sunset, or even sitting round a campfire enjoying the company of others.  I wish we could bottle that feeling and sell it!

With all that in mind it’s important to find a way to incorporate contact with nature in your routine, by simple switches, like substituting going to the gym for a going for a walk, or walking to the shops via the park rather than driving.  I love gardening, and seeing new life emerge from tiny seeds at the same time as my own energy levels rise in the spring is exciting (and I get to eat the results!), but each person can find their own sweet spot of wellbeing or their “flow”.  I can guarantee it doesn’t happen sitting at home in front of a screen.

Young people are growing up in a world where they don’t have the freedom or the exposure to the outdoors in the same way as in the past, and they have many more pressures.  I trained as a Forest School leader and initiatives like this are making fantastic strides, but if you grow up divorced from the outdoors you risk becoming scared by it.  There are many children and adults who fear the outdoors, and don’t like getting dirty, and that makes me very sad.

It’s a societal problem – billions of pounds are being spent encouraging people to spend their weekends in shopping centres, and very little encouragement is given to being outside (which is free), essentially because big corporates are losing money every time we do so.

Parents, schools and the government all have a role to play in giving young people a reason to get outside, and from that they can learn to gain enjoyment and find purpose from it.  Children are also very capable of learning from the natural principles and a good one to start with is “feed your roots” asking them what that might mean in making sure they are growing up healthy and strong.

 

There are some great ways to start thinking more like a tree:

  • Get out in nature every day.
  • Observe the patterns in nature and in your own life – sleep, food, exercise, energy.
  • Think about your core values. Trees have a strong purpose and people are happier when they have purpose too.
  • Improve your surroundings – small and slow solutions every day.
  • Nurture your relationships.
  • Embrace change and challenge – develop resilience.
  • Think for the future  - every tree that has ever lived has contributed to the creation of the soil and the abundance of our planet, so never think your own actions can’t change the world.  Just make sure it’s in a positive way.

 

Further Details

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Six week courses take place in south Derbyshire, at Sarah's smallholding and at Whistlewood Common, a new community woodland social enterprise that runs practical courses on a wide range of sustainable subjects.  The woodlands are in the National Forest in a beautiful location in the heart of England.  Sarah can also tailor workshops to corporate or other groups and schools. She will also be running a free workshop at Timber Festival, 6-8 July.

For more information and to sign up to the email list see www.thinklikeatree.co.uk or follow on Facebook or Instagram @thinklikeatree where Sarah regularly posts interesting things about trees.

 

Adventure Trail
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About a mile in to the strenuous hike she saw the sign at the same time that her energetic triplets did.  “Adventure Trail,” it said in printed in black letters, pointing to the right.  Her children’s voices rang out like enthusiastic bells, “Lets go!  Let’s go!  Let’s go!”  she heard them chime.  As she cautiously considered this path, she tasted fear as a bitter lemon placed on her tongue.  Adventure trails were not for 41 year olds - especially ones like her. 

She listed the reasons, very persuasively, in her mind: “I’m not in good shape, I’m afraid of heights, I don’t like tight spaces, I’m scared.”  Her self argument fell on deaf ears as she found herself making the turn and descending a rickety wooden ladder nestled in to a crevasse.  Her hands shook as she slowly descended. 

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As she dropped heavily to the ground from the last rung a cool breeze enveloped her and she exhaled slow as this reassuring touch surrounded her.  The smell of damp rocks and rich earth greeted her as she turned to catch up.  Though her knees wobbled after the first obstacle, her confidence grew and she raised her head high.  She moved slowly along the path, savouring the beauty. 

For a time, she struggled to catch up, as if being last was a voice whispering that she was not enough.  But as she continued to crawl on her hands and knees through tunnels of rock and pull herself up on to small ledges, she realised being last was allowing her to savour the experience.  Savour the adventure.  Savour the journey.  To fully realise that adventure trails were made for 41 year olds, just like her. 

MusingsAnna Bonnema
The Call of The Wild
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Rebecca Robinson renews herself through Shinrin-yoku

For many years, I have worked in the city. My mornings have passed me by, breakfast-less, in a blur of rushing. I have been on trains full of commuters staring at their phones, never looking up to see the world passing by their window at 120 mph. I have been one of them. But sometimes, something jolts me out of autopilot. I suddenly notice my surroundings and the people around me, a sea of suits and briefcases. I smell the coffee that other passengers gulp from their overpriced cups, barely noticing the taste. I watch as everyone strides purposefully through grey streets to make it to work on time – for many their only exercise before sitting at a desk and staring at a screen for 8 hours. As we walk, the congestion of the roads and the sound of car horns assault our senses, and the sameness of the daily grind makes us switch off. Our awareness shuts down and we stop seeing life around us. We walk past the homeless man who is in the same spot every morning, yet we no longer even notice him, and we fail to see the small flower that has struggled to grow between the cracks in the pavement.

Wake up and smell the coffee

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Being caught up in city life can feel thrilling. The fast-paced nature is exciting, and the multitude of department stores and coffee shops to indulge in on your lunch hour can be one of life’s little pleasures, but the temptation to shop and spend money we don’t have is a strong one. The occasional treat is nice, but when it becomes an expensive habit that keeps us in debt and prevents us from connecting with our selves and nature, we need to stop and think. I became aware of how often I had been treating myself, using hot chocolate with cream and slices of cake as a conduit to ‘me time’. A costly habit; one where you lose pounds from your wallet yet add pounds to your hips. Modern city life has its appeal but leads to apathy and a disconnect from real life. We miss what’s happening right under our noses in our natural environment because we stay cooped up indoors, tethered to our screens.

When I had my epiphany, brought on by a combination of reading about Shinrin-yoku (the Japanese wellbeing practice of ‘forest bathing’) and looking at my bank statement - which had landed with a particularly heavy thud that month - I realised something had to change. Materialism was becoming too big a part of my life, it was costing me money and I was losing a part of myself in the process. Being indoors all day at work and on my lunch-break was severing my connection to the natural world that I have always loved. We are part of nature, and reconnecting with our wild inner self is something that calls to us all, yet we often dampen down and anaesthetise our yearning for something more real with the pulsating lights of city life and an accumulation of more ‘stuff’.

Aside from materialism and the negative effects on our wallets, I had read about the negative physical effects of living in a city. Air pollution from particulates - such as black carbon from car engines - can seep into our bodies and make us ill. I became acutely aware of the lack of trees - which pump out oxygen and absorb pollution -  and I craved more of nature. The effects on our mood and mental health are well-documented with studies showing that noise pollution and city-living can make us anxious, stressed and depressed. The city was losing its allure, and I began my quest to claim back nature for my own wellbeing.

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I bought a digital alarm clock to wake me with a simulated sunrise and the song of birdsong, yet neither I nor my husband could make it work correctly. Again, I had reached out to ‘buy’ a piece of nature rather than opting for the real thing. After I returned it to the shop, I then began to open the curtains and let the real morning light flood in. I embraced the seasons. I listened to actual birdsong in the morning as I dressed, tuning in with the natural world around me. I began meditating on the train to work, looking at the landscape flash by. I was amazed at how much of the natural world I had tuned out of. It was there to see, but I had just stopped looking. I noticed trees growing at the side of the railway, grass growing wild and abundant between the tracks, clusters of snowdrops forcing their way through winter’s cold, hard earth, and moss growing on the entrance of damp, north-facing tunnel walls. Nature was all around me, and the more I looked, the more I saw. A v-formation of geese flew overhead, symbolising freedom. I made it my mission to carry on looking for nature in my everyday life. I started to go out on my lunch break, just sitting in nature and writing poetry about the natural world within the city around me.

Into the Woods

My reignited senses and focus on reclaiming the wild had started to make me feel better – happier, calmer, with renewed concentration, awareness and vitality.  Yet I was keen for more of nature and wanted to try Shinrin-yoku. ‘Forest Bathing’ does not involve stripping off to a bikini, but instead means walking deep into woodland and soaking up the atmosphere.

It is a type of nature-mindfulness which began in Japan in the 1980s and has long been a part of Japanese medicine, with extensive studies showing the physical and mental benefits of immersing yourself in the forest. Trees are believed to give off compounds that boost the number of natural killer (NK) cells we have in our body, thus boosting our immune system and helping us recover more quickly from illness. The NHS state on their website that ‘access to green space … reduces cortisol (stress) levels, increases physical activity and speeds recovery if you have been ill’. Since 2009, the NHS Forest project has seen 150 NHS sites plant thousands of trees on NHS land, enabling more people to access green spaces whilst at hospital to improve patients’ lifestyles and aid recovery processes. For more information, visit https://nhsforest.org/.  Reading the evidence that shows how our environment and health are linked is empowering. A walk in the woods seems to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, improving our energy levels and mood, making us happier, calmer, more relaxed, with increased focus and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The woods were calling to me, just as they have called to others throughout time, urging us to reconnect with our true nature and renew ourselves. ‘It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.’ So, I began my journey to a local area of woodland. Even if you live in a city, there will be somewhere nearby with trees if you look.

When I arrived at the opening to the woods, I stood still for a moment to take a deep breath, drawing in a lungful of air so pure you could almost taste it. It is true that when we are around trees the air seems fresher. I walked slowly, meandering along paths that snaked across the leaf-covered earth beneath my feet. Using my senses, I drank in everything. The feel of the ground, the pebbles beneath the soles of my shoes, the air on my cheeks. I noticed the colours of the leaves, the patterns etched into tree-bark, even spotting lovers’ names carved into the trunks. Dappled light shone and danced through the canopy of leaves above my head. The rushing of a stream cut its way through the forest. I walked toward the sound. Sliding over rocks, crashing over waterfalls, it energised the air. Its sound mingled with the chattering of wildlife and the singing of birds. As I breathed in the scent of the evergreens, breathing slowly, deeply, rhythmically, I entered a meditative state where I felt aware, focused, yet deeply calm.

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After 45 minutes of forest bathing, my hunched shoulders had dropped, tension had drained from my body, and I felt rested and restored. After my mindful walk through the woods, I slowly made my way home, promising myself that I would make more time for the healing powers of nature in my life. As conservationist John Muir wrote, ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.’ I promised myself that I would look for the wild in the every day, I would notice nature wherever I went, and I would keep the countryside within me, knowing - in truth - that it had been there all along.

Find Rebecca on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using @rrobinsonwriter








 

MusingsContributor
Forests: Fables, Folk Stories and Fairytales
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I grew up with a forest fascination. My mother’s side of the family are Polish, so there’s always been a tradition of folk stories; I remember one in particular about a little girl whose stepmother demands roses in midwinter, snowdrops in summer and so on. She hides down the well and meets twelve mysterious figures who each provide her with what she requires in order to appease the wicked stepmother.

The forests I grew up exploring were, in actuality, smaller areas of woodland. Deciduous woods with a wonderful variety of fungi, berries and flowers. Streams and silver birches, oaks and sycamores, sweet chestnut and ash. Occasionally we’d go hunting pinecones in the fir plantations near the local reservoir, but we generally spent most of our outdoor tree time in the leafy woods. Ferns and wild garlic in the spring, conkers and rosehips in the autumn. The kind of woods you see in those old Ladybird books.

But now we reside in Scotland. The north of Scotland, to be precise: the Hebrides. Most of our woodland here is of the evergreen variety; pine and spruce. Real fairytale forests, where the light is dim and the ground is soft and velvety with mosses and deep, deep layers of dropped needles. There’s a kind of silence that’s very particular to a pine forest. The low boughs and thick carpeting deaden any outside noise. All you’ll hear is the odd crack of a breaking branch or the call of a bird. There’s an atmosphere very specific to this type of woodland.

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It’s easy for the imagination to run wild when you’re standing alone in a pine forest. Everywhere looks the same, like you’re surrounded by mirrors. It’s dark and suggestive and strange shapes manifest themselves; wind whispers eerily through the branches. It doesn’t take much to envisage hungry wolves weaving stealthily past or goblins hiding in the roots of fallen trees.

It may be a subliminal thing, but recently my reading of choice (from the library) has been all about the woods. I just finished Pollard by Laura Beatty, a novel about Anne - a girl who doesn’t ‘fit in’, subsequently leaves her family and takes up permanent residence in the woods near her home. It’s set in the present day and makes for a wonderful read. In turns brutal and whimsical, the story is told both through the eyes of Anne and the ever-watching trees.

Next up is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest promises many evenings of indulging my love of fairytales and forests by exploring the relationship between the two.

Some of my all-time favourite stories are set within the woods, from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series to Hansel and Gretel. Likewise, my favourite parts of stories are those where adventures unfold amongst the trees: The Wind in the Willows springs to mind. And who could resist the beautifully-illustrated storybooks of childhood? Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, Winnie the Pooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Some of the most evocative writing I’ve ever read is by Angela Carter, in the opening pages of The Erl-King (one of the short stories in The Bloody Chamber). The dank foreboding of a secretly inhabited autumnal forest, explored alone, is described beautifully. You can almost feel the damp, still air and smell the dying vegetation as it slowly collapses back into the ground.

So here we are. Those pine forests which looked so enchanted just a few short weeks ago, snow-covered and twilit, are now hosting signs of life. They’re beckoning. It’s time to find a little-used, winding path and follow it into a secret world where talking creatures, witches and magic might just exist.

MusingsSarah Hardman
The Folklore of Snowdrops
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A tiny, fragile milk-flower clustered resolutely in the bitter and frosted winter’s soil - bringer of hope to some yet loathed by so many. Believed by some to have been brought to England by monks, the humble Snowdrop hails from the mountainous Alpine regions where the world is much colder and winters much harsher. Today, although not native to this country it’s commonly found in the British Isles, rearing it’s pearly head in time to coincide with celebration of Imbolc/Candlemass around the beginning of February;

‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,

First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’ 

-an excerpt from an Old English floral calendar dating back to the 19th century.

One of my preferred folklores that surrounds the plant is an ancient German tale;

At the beginning of all things when life was new, the Snow sought to borrow a colour. The flowers were much admired by all the elements but they guarded their colour’s jealousy and when the Snow pleaded with them, they turned their backs in contempt for they believed the Snow cold and unpleasant. The tiny humble snowdrops took pity on the Snow for none of the other flowers had shown it any kindness and so they came forth and offered up to the Snow their colour.

The Snow gratefully accepted and became white forevermore, just like the Snowdrops. In its gratitude, the Snow permitted the little pearly flowers the protection to appear in winter, to be impervious to the ice and bitter chill. From then on, the Snow and the Snowdrops coexisted side by side as friends.

Fascinating little flowers, according to hearsay the plants are able to generate their own heat, however, there’s little in the way of proof. Known to have medicinal properties, the Galanthus nivalis currently being used in treatment for Alzheimer's. Their Latin name is dreadfully pretty as it translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ - this is possibly my favourite variant on the name as well as a Welsh word for them, ‘Eirlys’ which translates as ‘Snow Lilly.’

A much-adored sight around the bleak late winter days in modern day Britain, the ‘Fair Maid of February’ as they are also known, favour shady areas such as woodlands and are perhaps most notably and somewhat grimly found clustered upon graves and carpeting the floors of Britain’s churchyards. Perhaps this is the reason for some darker lore that surrounds the Snowdrops; for some say that they are an omen of death.

In Victorian superstition, it’s told that you must never bring the Snowdrop into the house for that will bring ill-fortune and in some more extreme versions of the tale, death will occur in the family within the year. Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed. Other old English superstitions dictate that by bringing in a Snowdrop, the milk will turn sour and eggs shall spoil. I’d rather not believe that picking this beautiful little flower would be a bringer of ills and sadness, however it’s most probably for the best that it’s not plucked from its roots and taken indoors where it’ll only wither but instead left with its fellows, creating a wondrous blanket of white across the woodlands and churchyards.

Better than a bringer of death is the flower’s associations as a bringer of hope and purity; the green coloured stem of the snowdrop symbolises and links with the Pagan ideals of health and wellbeing whilst the white symbolises the light of the winter sun which is now beginning to grow stronger as the days lengthen.

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One of the most popularly documented stories surrounding the origins of the Snowdrop is actually a Christian creation tale. It tells of the moments following Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden where hopeless and dejected, they shiver as the snows swirl around them and the frost bites at their toes. An Angel descends from the Heavens to relate the message that Eden is no longer their privilege and that they must swiftly move on. Frightened and awed by the Angel and apprehensive of the nameless world that lies beyond, Adam and Eve take each other's hand and wander towards the unfamiliar and cruel new lands, heads bowed and tearful.

It is here that the Angel feels deep sorrow in his heart so he reaches out a hand where the soft snowfall lands in its perfect kaleidoscope of shapes, twinkling crystals in his palm; perfect and unmelting. The Angel brings the snowflakes to his face and breaths upon them, transforming the glittering ice into soft, pearly flowers; the first Snowdrops. “Take these little flowers,” says the Angel to Adam and Eve, “take them as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.” The Angel casts the tiny flowers into a halo that surrounds the two people and they carry this blessing of hope with them out into the world beyond.

Whether you believe the many dark superstitions that surround this flower or not, you cannot deny that it is a messenger of the seasons, that the darkest moment of winter has passed and that there are happenings of life in the roots beneath the earth; spring is imminent.

The Scottish poet George Wilson concludes his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’ with the lines;

"And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ; ”

MusingsSarah Porteus
Changing Habitats: from the familiar to the new
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At the end of last year, we made the move from the Lancashire Pennines to the Inner Hebrides: the Isle of Skye, in fact. I grew up in the Pennines, in a valley of mill towns and stone villages surrounded by moorland. It’s a place I know intimately: the topography, the quiet places, the history and the people. I loved the familiarity of it all, the paths and walks, the way I could tailor my expeditions to my mood, the amount of time I had, the seasons or whether I was walking alone or in company. Some were favourites, others came into their own for foraging or gathering. 

I could climb onto the hills for heather and bilberries, wander into the woods to find bluebells amongst the birches or follow the river in search of wild raspberries. It was a varied landscape of wild moorland and green, sheltered valleys. The only thing missing: the sea.

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And so to Skye. Our new home presents us with an entirely different prospect. Yes, there are similarities (an abundance of sheep and heather, all that wind and rain). But for the most part, it’s so very different to what we’re used to. Prior to holidaying here, I had an imaginary picture of Skye - rainbows, mountains, mist. What I didn’t know was just how big an island it is. Miles and miles of stark, harsh moorland. Those mountains are vast, often disappearing into the clouds. Gargantuan cliff faces and crashing waves, fearsome storms and deep, silent pine forests.

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I’m a complete coastal-living rookie. I know so little about the birds of prey which sit, sentinel-like, on fence posts as we drive past. Other than herons and cormorants and gulls, I’d struggle to identify anything we see bobbing about in the bay. I’m perhaps a bit more knowledgeable about the plants and flowers; as winter melts away and spring arrives (we always used to visit in May), there are masses of violets, primroses, orchids, and ferns. One of my favourites is the cotton grass, the pale tufts of which seem magically suspended above the ground as they blow in the wind.

As well as exploring this new landscape I’m keen to learn more about it. About the machair, that low-lying and sandy ground, fertile and floral (when not closely-cropped by sheep and cattle). About the birds and deer and butterflies. I want to educate myself on the weather here, on the tides, shells, and seaweed. And to discover stories, folklore, and traditions. This is a place not so much shaped by people, but which shapes those who live here. It’s an island of contrasts: winter quiet, summer activity as the tourists descend. Blue skies and turquoise seas, lashing rain and howling gales. It’s not just about going outside and experiencing it on foot; for me, I need to know and understand too. 

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The island library has a comprehensive section upstairs on Scottish and local history. It spans both the social and natural heritage of Skye, and I fully intend to study my way around those shelves.

How much do you know about where you live? Was it shaped by an industrial past or by previous inhabitants, centuries ago? Are you aware of plants and animals specific to your particular region? It could be worth prescribing yourself a little course where you choose the content and then do the research. Read, speak to people, explore. You never know: you may end up unearthing a few surprises.
 

MusingsSarah Hardman
Borrowed Landscape

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Visits to famous gardens in the winter never fail to get me outside cutting and digging in my own patch. I've already cleared a small bed in my front garden just 2 x 3 metres, ready for switch and spangle grasses inspired by the Hauser Wirth garden in Bruton. This one is a big open space some 1.5 acres where the designer Piet Oudolf has used drifts of grasses from the Prairies of North America to echo the reeds, rushes and willows of the Somerset Levels. I like the way his garden has this strong sense of place which makes for a calming yet energising space. Closer to where I live is Croome Park near Pershore originally laid out by Capability Brown where you'll find the gardens spreading seamlessly into the pastoral landscape by using wide ditches on one side and a woodland on the other;  it's a lovely place for a country walk with delightful features at every turn. Both designers borrowed the landscape by choosing plants that blend well and by using views to their best advantage and you can too. You'll probably have to learn to love all shades of brown and green keeping showy seasonal flowers to dress your porch or patio, but I promise this gardening style will beguile and sustain you for many years.

So how exactly do you borrow from the landscape to make a garden that feels right? Maybe start with the bigger picture and consider these questions: What was there before the land was developed and built on? What about the lie of the land? What grows well? Then make choices for your garden that are compatible with the land beyond its boundaries. In northern Europe, woodland areas, raised beds for vegetables, small orchards and swathes of grass bound by hedges all look well because you'll be restoring what was there before.

Repetition is an important principle: shapes, textures and colours all need to be used repeatedly because this is what happens naturally. Have a good look at neighbouring gardens and green spaces and repeat those plants choices, for example a silver birch the other side of a fence would look well with two more planted on your side. Trees do better planted in groups and the existing tree gives lots of information about summer shade and its winter silhouette.  If there's an established beech hedge in view, create inside walls with new beech whips to outline a secret garden or to hide tools, pots and compost. You should find that sympathetic planting softens boundaries and gives your garden an expansive feel. I'm a great fan of low impact boundaries:  featherboard or chestnut paling fences and picket and cleft gates look lovely planted with native hedging. I realise full height braced gates are needed sometimes, to keep the dog safe in my case but choose low fences and hedging elsewhere.

To add charm and loveliness add features which don't have to be plants at all: a timber archway or an arbour, a winding path with a change of surface, stone spirals or a container used as a focal point, all work well in your outdoor room. Seasonal plants in pots and troughs like the green and white viridflora tulip or a dark blue lavender in spring and later echinacea and calendula look stunning with a green backdrop.

Every garden I've tended has had an unappealing feature or two, a towering Leylandii hedge which I had to make my peace with, house building at the bottom of the garden, and orange fence panels, for example. Hiding them in plain sight might save you from disliking the whole plot: you can use the fence panels to hold up natural willow hurdles, or plant some woodland trees in front of them like hazel and hornbeam which will take a few seasons to make an impact but then gardening is always a long game. The orange tones will fade in a couple of seasons especially if you water the timber with muddy water. To mask the new rooflines at the end of my garden I planted a fast growing maple where there was a gap which will do the trick in the summer and for winter frost and snow I put up a shed with a pitched roof to repeat the shape of the gables of the new build houses. But the best solution is to make the most of vistas and views from further away.

You can look up the Piet Oudolf garden here: www.hauserwirthsomerset.com and Croome Park here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/croome and if you get the chance to visit in person you won't be disappointed. My grasses are now planted in my small front garden and seem happy in the rain and above average temperatures. I imagine them grown up, swaying in the breezes that sweep up the river valley their straw shades augmenting the colour of the pale oak door.
 

MusingsFrancey Bunn