Visions from Epping Forest

Epping Forest is an unexpected find – a huge area of ancient woodland (over 6,000 acres) in Essex that you can get to on the Central Line. It’s so important for our wellbeing to get out into nature, especially for those of us living constantly in the chocking fumes and concrete pathways of the city – and Epping offers a possibility to escape and explore in the quiet, under green leaves, and there is always beauty there no matter the season.

 We’ve been there in the Autumn when a glittering blanket of blood red leaves covered the forest floor. We’ve been there in Spring just after the frost had thawed and the streams were shimmering and the bright shoots appeared. Last weekend we were there in the dying days of summer, as the spiders began to spin their webs and the first leaves fell. I try to keep these visions of the forest with me, throughout the city days and in my dreams. Moments of peace and purity, moments of quiet beauty. I remember the silence of the forest and long for it as soon as it is gone.

The photos below were taken by me and James, at Epping Forest, over the past three years

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The Halloween Crabs of Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio is full of animal life. Green iguanas bask by the beaches and parakeets fly in the clear skies: but I’ll always remember the sight of the Halloween crabs meeting their deaths on the road.

My brother and I found the Coca Cola bus station in seething San Jose, and took the four-hour journey to to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. We arrived in Manuel Antonio at night; the bustling strip lit up with neon restaurant signs.

The next day we walked to the national park- a thick rainforest where the calls of howler monkeys echo through the canopy. We followed the tour in front of us, and the guide spotted a bright green tree frog hiding under a leaf. A three-toed sloth made his way slowly across a telephone wire above us, with that contented smile sloths have.

We found a hidden beach rimmed with rock pools and sat down to bask in the sun. We were joined by a troupe white-headed capuchins, who feasted on leaves above us.

Later that evening, we were walking down the road by the beach to find a place to eat. We turned a corner and heard a strange rustling. It was as if the whole undergrowth was swarming with insects, coming alive with clicks and scuffles and rasps and crackles. But what emerged from the foliage by the hot tarmac were not insects, but crabs

Halloween crabs: beautiful, with their obsidian backs, bright red legs and purple claws. They darted across the road, like shimmering, scuttling hands. 

We stood mesmerised by the colourful bodies of these little creatures.

But a moment later, a car came speeding round the corner and drove straight over the carpet of crabs. There bodies crunched under its wheels.

Some of them lay waving their legs in the air until another car came to finish them off. The road was littered with their corpses. It was almost impossible for a crab to cross before another car appeared. We could only bear to watch for a few minutes, but even in that time, less than a quarter of them made it to the other side.

The saddest thing was that when the crabs heard the cars coming, they stopped and raised themselves up on their hind legs, waving their claws angrily at the cars. I imagine this tactic works pretty well against another crab, but it’s not much good against a 1996 Ford Fiesta hitting you at 40 miles an hour.

Early next morning, we watched the street sweeper clear the bodies from the road, as if the crabs were fallen decorations from a party that had taken place the night before. I hoped that enough of them had made it to the beach to continue their ancient ritual in the light of the moon.

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Halloween crabs, also known as moon crabs and harlequin land crabs, are found in the mangroves, sand dunes and rainforests along the Pacific Coast - from Mexico to Panama. These nocturnal crabs live in burrows in the forest, but need to return to the ocean to breed. They choose to make this ancient journey when the moon is full and pulls the tide to its highest point. The arrival of the Halloween crabs is said to signal the beginning of the rainy season.

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The earth has music for those who listen

Life seems to be filled with things like the ghost orchid – wonderful to imagine and easy to fall in love with – but a little fantastic, and fleeting, and out of reach.
— Meryl Streep, Adaptation

What can be written? What should I write?

It’s easy to ramble; I can be a rambler. But I am a writer - I was born with words in my veins. Writing for me is not a hobby or an idle pleasure or a nice-to-have: it is a necessity.

All human beings have the compulsion to communicate and connect with others, to ask the questions ‘do you see the world as I do?’ and to have the question answered ‘yes’. We seek and seek for those who will answer the question ‘yes’ and we go on searching, even if we never find them. We go on speaking, we go on singing, we go on telling stories and some of us go on writing.

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
— Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

In choosing to write a blog, and choosing a subject for it, the answer to ‘what should I write?’ came to me clearly. I would write about something dear to my heart: the natural world. I am no scientist, I have no training for this sort of thing. My love of nature is simply one of passion; my impressions are intensely personal and unverified by peer review. 

Yet still, on experiencing nature’s wonders, or learning of some new fantastic living thing, I have a desire to know more and to understand – and so I hope this blog will be a means to share not only my experiences but things I have learned, interesting ideas and facts about the natural world, in a hope of sharing an understanding and respect for the extraordinary world we live in.

The earth has music for those who listen
— George Santayana

I never believed in Santa Claus (the ethics behind his global gift distribution seemed dodgy to me) and people often think that’s sad – that I missed out on some magic in the world as a child. But that’s not true at all - I saw the possibility of magic everywhere. 

To a child the world you inhabit is so small and safe, and yet you glimpse all the time the great vastness of what’s beyond, the unknown, what the unknown might contain – even just round that next corner of the street that you can’t turn round until Mummy catches up with you.

The golden autumn sunlight and dry leaves scattering down streets of terraced houses takes me back to that time. On walks in woods or parks I raced and jumped under the trees, amongst the branches, curling under the ferns and catching green caterpillars in my hands that dangled on fine, silk threads. When the sunlight filled the forest clearings just so – or the fields opened up, rolling, on and on to who knows where, and could I live there, and could anyone live in such a place, on their own- imagine the freedom! These, and a thousand other thoughts and dreams, transformed the world around me into a possible place. I can be here, within these four walls, eating my dinner or sitting at a desk at school, but I know there’s so much wonder waiting in the world for me to find.

Terror: when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.
— Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Life can change abruptly and all at once. We left my beloved Wimbledon Park when I was 11 and our family moved to a Tory-voting town called Tunbridge Wells. Many find the Kent countryside charming: I find its flatness and neat hedgerows at the same time measured and hopelessly sparse. A year after we moved to that town my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and two years after that, on a cold night in January, she died.

There was a rupture that night; I split with the world. The world I had lived in before no longer existed – I had found myself in a replica filled with automatons and inanimate objects with malevolent intentions. I stopped writing. I stopped reading the fantasy books I had previously so adored.

My unfathomable loss was largely unacknowledged by those around me and so I felt as if I was living in a muffled unreality for years. The sound gradually came up, and came up loud – rising to a fierce, deafening boom by the time I was 20 years old. Life was too vast, too terrifying, too much. I was walking along the edge of a chasm, every step, and everyone else was on the other side, laughing and playing in the grass under sunny skies.

The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.
— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Now, I still do find life has sharp edges. I do still hear the booming silence of the abyss, and am aware of death, always by my side, and the emptiness of space and of where others have gone and where we shall all go in the end. I try to keep busy – try to drown it out, distract myself from it. Computer and television on at all times, radio too, or keeping busy with a million things to do, and always sounds, and images to take me away from the silence I can’t bear to hear.

Except in nature. When I step out into a clearing beyond the forest in the afternoon.
And the trees, like lungs, fill with air.
And they sigh.
The light shifts, quietly. I can breathe clean air and there is no one here. I can touch the grass, feel its softness and also its rough edges. Touch the waxy tops of leaves. Let the sun warm my face.
There is no judgement in this place, and the sounds are safe.
The sounds are pure. My mind is calm.
There could be gods here; there could be nothing. I know no fear.

And the birds are singing.

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To put it simply: this is a blog by someone who loves the natural world, for those who love it too.

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