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A Very British Nature Reserve

The wind rustled the trees, and something slipped into the water. In the darkness I could see little, but there were creatures moving in the gaps. I scanned the bushes with my head torch and sensed scurrying. Then, in a flash, fireworks exploded above. There was an exodus of birds from the treetops. Amid the mayhem, I saw a pair of eyes glinting in the forest. I crept closer. It was a Muntjac deer, tiny, only metres away. We locked eyes, then he ran into the night. 

These dramatic scenes played out in the Trap Grounds, a nature reserve in the heart of North Oxford. Its humble ten acres burst with life, home to an impressive range of habitats for its size. There are refreshing forests, shimmering reeds and idyllic ponds. There are hawks in the trees, snakes in the reeds, and voles in the water, to name just a few.

The Boardwalk

The Trap Grounds is dense, full of vines twisting in all directions, like a jungle. The plants form magical archways above the paths, and gaps in the brambles make secret dens. It is a wonderful place to get lost in- the good kind of lost, where each new sight is a discovery. I used to come here as a kid, frolicking through the meadows, swept away by the colour and complexity. You can hear screaming schoolkids and thunderous trains, but these sounds are muffled by trees, so you get the sense- if only a little- that you are removed from the world at large.

Fox, Copyright Nicola Devine

The Story

One day I met Catherine Robinson, secretary of The Friends of the Trap Grounds. She is a bright-eyed, sturdy woman in her seventies. That morning the place was at its best: an explosion of green. We watched moorhen chicks glide out of the reeds, with their mother close behind.

Catherine gave me a history lesson. In the nineties the land was neglected, and used as a rubbish dump. It was covered with thickets of bramble, humble lodgings for rough sleepers and drug users. In ‘96 she reclaimed the site for the community, mobilising volunteers to clear paths and remove invasive willow trees. Over the years they removed rubbish, sculpted ponds and planted trees. Then they let it grow. The Trap Grounds was transformed, from a trash heap to a paradise.

Catherine whispered as we joined the boardwalk, hoping to spot an animal. The walkway is flanked by skinny poplar trees, ivy-coated, rising into the sky. You can hear the wood creaking when they sway in the wind. We gazed over the reeds, and Catherine seemed concerned. She pointed out willow trees poking their heads above, and explained that they would suck the pond dry, killing the reeds and reverting the bed to scrubland. “We’ve got to do something”, she said. 

Kingfisher, Copyright Nicola Devine

Balance

If the willows had their way, the ponds would dry up. It is a constant battle to maintain the reserve in its diverse state. If left alone, the place would become covered in brambles: great cover for small mammals and nesting birds, but inaccessible to humans. 

Herein lies the balance for British nature reserves: accommodating animals and humans equally. Because at the end of the day, we are not selfless carers for wildlife- we want to get something from it. Those green trees and meadows are as much for our happiness as for their inhabitants. But it is better to use a forest for recreation than chop it down for timber. 

Keep your dogs on-lead

Share The Space

In such a small and valued place, interests clash. Walkers let their dogs off-lead, and they run off and disturb wildlife. Whether or not the dogs take chase, the animals still perceive them as predators, and flee. This wastes their energy, which can be deadly for a nesting bird, or a mammal starving through the tough winter months. 

Joggers also disturb wildlife, and both groups need to be educated about their impact. Sometimes, however, The Friends of the Trap Grounds go too far. They have shouted at people several times, including at my brother. Once a young man ran out of the reserve, and Catherine scolded him like a naughty child. Fearfully, he promised he would not run there again. 

The tone we use is critical. Someone who has been harassed is unlikely to change their behaviour, and they will feel unwelcome at the reserve. What is the point in caring for nature if we shun our neighbours in the process? We need to be patient, and listen to those we disagree with.

Community

Over the years a nature-based community has formed around the Trap Grounds, of like-minded people who appreciate its beauty. There is the talented Nicola Devine, a self-taught photographer, whose knowledge of the fauna is so good that ecologists consult her when studying the reserve. Volunteers include enthusiastic students, couples and stoic seniors. 

On work parties we get our hands dirty, planting new trees and daffodils, and constructing habitats for water voles. One memorable day, I donned waders and plunged into a pond, using a net to clear duckweed from its surface. It was cathartic clearing the mossy pond, and seeing my reflection shine back. We had made space for dragonflies to breed, and I hoped to see them thrive in the years to come. 

This summer Catherine is leading the first ‘Smelly Walk’, an interactive tour for children. She will show them the fragrant plants of the reserve, inviting them to touch and smell the scents of cow parsley, oregano and lemon balm. Interacting directly with the forest can be a formative experience for children, as it was for me, and embed in them a lifelong love for nature. Who knows? They might be the next conservationists. 

Egret, Copyright Nicola Devine

The Loss

The beauty of the Trap Grounds is bittersweet. This place feels so vibrant and alive because most places around it are not. It is the exception that proves the rule. Our nature is more degraded than 90% of nations. Since the Industrial Revolution, it is estimated that the UK has only half of its biodiversity left. I can feel the loss. The skies flutter with wood pigeons and swifts, but they should be busier. The mornings are sweet with birdsong, but they should be louder. When I was a kid, our car’s windshield was full of insects, but no more. Coming back here from Portugal, I felt the emptiness. 

The Remedy

One day I woke up depressed. Life felt tedious, and I knew I needed nature. So I got on my bike and rode to the Trap Grounds. When I arrived the trees enveloped me, soothing me with their living complexity. They filled the gaps in my mind, and I stopped thinking. The cycle of negative thoughts ceased. 

On that clear morning the air was rippling with birdsong. There was the alternating song of a chiff-chaff, the soothing coo of a wood pigeon, and the cascading rhythm of a chaffinch. I couldn’t see them, but I could follow their calls, and imagined a complex drama unfolding. There were territorial battles, hunters dropping from the sky, and romance. Watching the show took me away from myself: a moment of relief. 

In Foxglove Meadow I was floored by the beauty of the flowers. There was knapweed, musk mallow and daisies, hawk’s-beard and bindweed: a layered tapestry of purple, yellow and white. To me it was small, but to the insects inside it must have been a metropolis, full of living skyscrapers fighting for the light. Mammalian monsters would frequent the city, flattening the buildings and eating the citizens. Worker bees hustled between the high-rises, collecting nectar for their queen. When the cold came the city would collapse, then build anew in the spring: bright and bold.

The Future

There are still problems to solve, but the Trap Grounds is a triumph. The Friends have done a remarkable job in cultivating this space. In two decades they made a garden of Eden from rubble. Despite the loss of wildlife across our country, this gives me hope that nature can bounce back, if we help it. This won’t be easy. It will require hard work, sacrifices, and difficult conversations. But it will be worth it. 

In our industrialised world, I take comfort that there are still people who value life in its raw complexity, people who bathe in the forest just like me.

Water Vole, Copyright Nicola Devine

If you find yourself in Oxford, visit the Trap Grounds. Take your headphones off and immerse yourself. Walk slow. Watch the reeds sway in the wind, hear the birdsong, and feel the texture of leaves between your fingers. Nature is to be felt more than thought about; deep in the soul.

Sources:

Impact of dogs on wildlife: https://www.oregonmetro.gov/sites/default/files/2017/09/28/impacts-of-dogs-on-wildlife-water-quality-science-review.pdf

On children spending time in nature: https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/08/21/children-play-outdoors-more-likely-protect-nature-adults/?sh=7cda0d006641

The state of Britain’s biodiversity:

https://earth.org/uk-biodiversity-loss/

Thank you to Catherine Robinson for your hard work and fearless dedication, and to Nicola Devine for the outstanding photos.

Featured

How Parrots Taught Me Inner Peace

Some of my most thrilling moments happen before sunrise, that desolate time of day before the world wakes up. Stars hang heavy in the sky, yet to be dissolved by the morning light. 

I’m up at four-thirty to volunteer, at an ecological station in the Costa Rican rainforest. Theo, and I are headed on a macaw survey, which consists entirely of sitting down and counting parrots. Our destination is the nearest town: San Francisco, accessible only by canoe.

As the canoe glides across placid water, the roar of a howler monkey reverberates all around. A heron is perched on a log, dreaming of fish. Arriving at an abandoned hotel, minutes later, three mongrels greet us, who usually bark to announce intruders. However, in this fragile morning, they respect the silence. 

Our journey spans coconut-covered beaches, and crosses webs of tree roots. The sky is unfolding in layers. Blackness drips into baby blue, then yellow, green, and an intoxicating orange horizon. The nascent first light has dissolved all the stars but two, which are in fact planets: Jupiter and Saturn. I have searched for them for months in the starry skies, but never seen them. Only by waking up at hell’s hour, have I earnt the right.

Can you spot them?

San Francisco is a ramshackle town of tin roofs and wooden fences, with the occasional mural of a turtle. Cockerels and stray dogs stir in the golden light, but there is no one to be seen. We reach a dock overlooking a wide river that connects canals to the ocean. 

We are looking for Great Green macaws, a parrot endemic to Latin America. They have a green body, and dazzling tail feathers. In Costa Rica they are critically endangered, with an estimated population of only a few hundred. The almendro trees they nest in have been felled, to make way for logging and crops like bananas. For these human needs, they have lost around 90% of their habitat.

On the riverside, we have an open sky, giving a better chance of spotting a macaw. Looking for them, however, is not an active process. We don’t have camera traps, just a pair of binoculars, and plastic chairs to sit on. For the next four hours. Phones are banned. It is a nightmare: no stimulation and nothing to do.

The beginning is the hardest. I am like an encaged pigeon, squirming in my seat. The minutes drag on, and my surroundings refuse to entertain me. The trees stand still. The river flows, in the same unoriginal manner it has been for thirty minutes. I am lost in thought: planning, reminiscing, fantasising about the future. 

Strangely, the thought never occurs to me to talk to Theo, so I open up to him. I learn about his passions. We both adore nature, and aspire to save it. We have more in common than I realise, but we had not had the time to discuss it. An acquaintance slowly becomes a friend.

The minutes are moving faster now, and I notice a shift. My mind is smoothing out. Three more hours doesn’t seem so bad. My energy has shifted from the restless tempo I sat down with, to the rhythms of my environment. I listen to the flow of the tides, and feel the wind in my hair. Suddenly, the world is invigorating.

Then, the impossible happens. The air is assaulted by a piercing “RAAAK”, the unmistakable call of a macaw. We spring into action, binoculars aimed, and there they are. Two glorious green beauties flying in unison, like a royal procession, returning to declare their sovereignty over the rainforest. They fly high and mighty, blue wings flapping frantically. Just as we expect them to fly past, they turn, and land in the tree beside us!

The child-like wonder one feels when seeing a wild animal is unique. You can’t help but grin like an idiot. The Macaws bicker like brothers, fighting over nothing at all. They scratch and scrape and spin and squawk, while hanging upside down. They are the most ridiculous and wonderful animals I have ever seen. 

The Macaws eventually leave, but the warm glow we feel stays with us for a while after. The peace of the stillness, and the joy of the sighting combines into a deep satisfaction with the world and our place in it. Theo and I have shared a special experience. I realise that if you stop rushing around, you can deeply connect with your environment. 

To recreate the calm I felt that day, I practise the ‘do nothing’ meditation. Try it yourself. Set a timer for ten minutes, sit down somewhere comfortable, and just do absolutely nothing. Breathe, think your thoughts, feel your body, but there’s no need to try at all.

What struck me when I did this was how restless I was, and how easily my thoughts controlled me. I would think of ten different tasks to do, just as an excuse to get up. The truth is I found my own company intolerable. But as time went on, I became more comfortable with myself. When you do nothing, you realise how much noise there is beneath the surface, and noticing this relieves some of that burden. 

In a rapid society, with the Gods of TikTok and Snapchat commanding your attention, it is a superpower to be still. When you are waiting in line, or on a bus, you won’t reach for your phone, and you can see the world instead. You might notice some beautiful scenery, or talk to a stranger. Without the discomfort of doing nothing, I never would have appreciated that day in Costa Rica, and would not have gotten so close to Theo. Survive the initial boredom of stillness, and there is true peace on the other side.

Sources:

Thanks to Caño Palma biological station for allowing this experience, you can check out their work here- http://www.coterc.org

Thanks to Dahlia for editing, you are wonderful as ever.

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Improve or Accept? A Discussion for Life

Exercise has been a staple throughout my life. It began as play time in motion: climbing trees and running around like a monkey. Then it became dedicated, as I practised martial arts and weightlifting, which I still do to this day. My body has adapted to these years of movement, so when I am sedentary, it is deeply uncomfortable. This is a helpful dependence, forcing me to stay fit and mobile all the time. So when I work out, it isn’t really a choice. In this sense, I am more a creature of habit than an autonomous being. My actions follow the pattern of my past and are not subject to rigorous decision-making; they are automatic. This principle holds for other, less desirable habits. When you have been comfort eating for ten years, it is hard to stop. Our brains crave regularity, and fight tooth and nail to prevent us changing ourselves. A shitty, but familiar situation is often preferred to an uncertain one, no matter how good it may be. Our brains trap us, and this leads to people living in a proverbial mud swamp, a lagoon of mediocrity from which they cannot pull their feet. Trudging through a life that is just okay, but not great. If things were unbearably bad, one would have to change, but subtle misery can be tolerated forever.

This reluctance to fulfil our potential stems from an unwarranted feeling that we will live forever, giving us ample time to change, and justifying procrastination. Even if we aren’t immortal, we’ll probably make it to eighty, right? Plenty of time to dawdle, waiting for motivation to carry us home. Wrong. Any length of time will pass, and subjectively, the older we get, the quicker time goes (1). Being creatures of habit, the more we procrastinate, the more we become procrastinators, and the likelihood we will ever break through the wall of complacency narrows. Ambition that is not acted upon will, like a woodfire that is not tended to, dwindle and die. We are not static entities, but ever-changing, with each decision we make affecting the next. When it comes to bettering ourselves, there are no days off (2).

A question worth asking is: why do you want to better yourself? The workaholics of our world are rewarded with large salaries and high status, but most are not happier than the average person. There is a certain admiration for those who become obsessed with something- and this usually leads to their success- but why the obsession? Is it a desperate, perpetual attempt to prove yourself? Is it a distraction from the discomfort of existing, the suffering the mind creates as a response to unresolved trauma? And finally, is it possible to become successful without an unhealthy obsession driving your hard work? 

Let’s assume you can derive motivation from a healthy source. One can work through their demons by getting to know themselves, via meditation, therapy or other means. A key focus in this approach is to fully accept everything, as it is. No longer modifying the external environment, hoping that once they get this, that, or the other, they will be happy. Finding happiness within yourself, in this moment only. There seems to arise a paradox at this point: if the present moment is perfect, why change at all? If we are all manifestations of the universe, in no way flawed, why get out of bed in the morning?

This is a question we all must answer ourselves, because I cannot tell you what your reason for living should be. It would be nice to wrap this up in a neat little bow, to put to rest once and for all the eternal questions of humanity, but I don’t have an answer. In fact, the pursuit of the question is more interesting. A good place to start, though, is to seek joy.

Joy is allowed to be fleeting, whereas we expect happiness to last forever. Joy is lounging in the sunshine with a book, kind of reading, but not really. Joy is playing with your dog, watching the glee on her face as she runs for the ball. Joy is being swept away by the beauty of nature, on a road trip with friends, music blasting. Joy is a lazy morning of coffee and pancakes. Joy is hugging a friend you haven’t seen in a year. Joy is the creative process, starting from nothing and somehow, through inexplicable magic, creating something beautiful.

Often it feels, however, that negative weighs more than positive. The balance between good and bad seems skewed, such that those fleeting moments of joy do not outweigh the intensity of depression. Happiness is a subtle icing on the cake, compared to the immersive tragedy that sadness can be. How can happiness compete?

Despite the challenges of life, there is an intrinsic brightness to living. After all, the universe exists, when it has every right not to. There ‘is’, rather than ‘isn’t’. This brightness is often concealed, but shows itself sooner or later. During a particularly dreary summer, smothered by a blanket of cloud, I turned pessimistic. But I realised that if I got up at dawn, every day it was clear, and glistening sunshine danced on the dewdrops. The inner brightness shone through. I feel it when meditating: no matter what pain or nervousness lies on the surface, beneath that there is a warm glow, a deep calm that does not go away. The universe is content, and we are all part of it.

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.” – Alan Watts

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHL9GP_B30E&t=1664s – Illusions of Time, Vsauce- A fascinating watch

2: Atomic Habits, James Clear- An insightful, highly practical book that inspired the beginning of this post

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Peaks and Valleys: Tales from the TMB

In September I completed the Tour de Mont Blanc: nine days of hiking around the biggest mountain in Western Europe. It was an epic adventure. Here is a hodgepodge of stories I wrote in my journal during and after the trip, reflections on an arduous and spiritual journey. Hope you enjoy.

Day Three

Italy

On my left, I am faced with history. A densely packed glacier guards the high mountain pass, above which lies the distinct border between hiking and mountaineering. Up there, there are no trails, only ice picks and shivers. The tenacious land. From the base of the glacier leaks a cascading stream, which divides into petite waterfalls. Other streams flow down the mountain, like thin veins fuelling the heart of the valley below. Ancient red rock hints at millennia, boasting of a permanence that us humans cannot relate to. We are ants on the great expanse.

Borders- Day Four

Courmayeur, Italy

Crossing country borders is in some ways arbitrary, but in other ways not. Sure, ‘Italy’ is a made-up concept, with no physical reality, but many people are imagining it constantly. Identities are formed and territories drawn out. Culture is maintained, so when I go into a restaurant, there is a man flipping pizzas behind the counter, not chopping charcuterie boards, like they do in France. The mountains, however, are indifferent to these human preconceptions. They rose from the centre of the earth long before we were civilized, and stood mighty over us throughout our rise to relative competence. We draw pink lines across their ridges, divide up the ranges into ‘your mountain’ and ‘my mountain’, but at the end of the day, it is just a big rock. No person can lay claim to it. After climbing a mountain, you have not conquered it, merely participated in its grandeur for a fleeting moment. 

Day Five

Valley Del Monte Bianco, Italy

The only sound I can hear is the thunderous stream emerging from the Mont Blanc massif. It is riddled with archaic glaciers and terrifying rock faces. It looks impassable, like a dragon’s lair. It’s incredible that anyone has climbed it. In the distance I see Col de La Seigne, the French-Italian border, from which I came. There, the mountains twist and turn like a cinnamon roll, topped with jagged needles and an icing of snow.

A marmotte is vocal: high-pitched cries that echo through the land. The forest here is less dense than in France, and the peaks are gnarlier. The valley mirrors Chamonix valley, but with a more subtle, natural feel. There are no helicopters churning the air into noise. The mountains are just mountains, not obstacle courses purposed for human achievement. The place is less photographed. Things are as they are.

Alone on the Mountain- Day Five

La Peule, Switzerland

Fourth night wild camping. The tent set up is easier now, and I feel more comfortable camping under a cloud. I have been rained on already, so if it happens again I won’t panic. It’s a lovely way to spend the evening, resting alone on the mountain. No signal, but open space for my mind to roam. Halfway through my adventure. Will I be a changed man once I return? Do I need to be?

Hoping the cloud will clear and I’ll be blessed with stars tonight. The joy that would bring would relinquish any camping anxiety; all concerns of storms or grumpy farmers washed away by the Milky Way.

The Spirit Guide- Day Six

Lac Champex, Switzerland

Frazzled and disoriented, I settled in Mimi’s cafe for a tea. No mask and no health pass- no problem. I was belligerent from fatigue, but I meant well.  As I was sipping my Earl Grey, I met Max, a Swiss-German man described best by the word zen. He was so relaxed, in fact, that over the course of our conversation, my anxious tone dropped and my shoulders slackened. If you were to have measured it, I’m sure my heart rate slowed too. The man spends his time motorbiking through pristine European countryside, when he’s not hacking his way across glaciers with ice picks. He had chunky fingers and an arm full of tattoos. 

Max was on the trail later, sat cross-legged, listening to Buddhist teachings about ‘emptiness’. He was cooking a sachet meal, some kind of potato pasta twirls: cheese and flour. His plan- if he had one at all- was to camp at 2,200 metres on top of the pass. He walks at his own pace, and if he gets tired, he just pitches his tent and calls it a night. Anywhere. He reminded me to slow down and enjoy myself; his presence gave strength to my stride. Solo adventures are empowering, but there is nothing like a friend to make the journey meaningful.

Swept Away- Day Seven

Triente, Switzerland

Sometime in the gloom of early morning I felt the pangs of nausea, and knew that I would throw up. Not right that moment, probably not for a few hours, but soon- that was a guarantee. The evening before, I devoured a burger as big as my head. It came out dripping with sauce and beef blood, promising to satiate me after ten hours of trekking. Before the tour I was vegetarian, but long hours on the mountain made me crave meat. A nod to my savage roots, perhaps. The burger was as satisfying as I had hoped, albeit a sloppy mess. And my stomach was not prepared.

All the weather forecasts predicted rain with an arrogant certainty: precisely zero hours of sunshine were coming my way. In the calm before the storm, I was comfortable, because my tent had been developed in the Alps. I trusted it to endure whatever mother nature hurled at it. At five am the rain began, and the wind grew from a murmur into an anxious howl. The side of my tent rushed up into my face, and I felt cold condensation conspiring against me. The only thing holding my shelter upright was my body, and my humble dwellings were stir-fried in the sizzling storm. Despite the carnage outside, and because I wasn’t in it, I was cosy in my sleeping bag. Meanwhile, insidious liquid crept into my tent.

Then, all hell broke loose. The waterproof roof flew off, exposing me to the elements. Rain was coming hard and fast, and finally, I had to get up. It was a mad dash to grab my valuables and huck ‘em down to the hotel toilet. Phone, passport and bank card, I’ll come back for the rest. The roof of my shelter caught like a sail in the gale winds, flying off on an adventure of its own, as my adventure fell to pieces. Some school kids were camping too, and they provided a fitting soundtrack of piercing screams, in the gloomy night. 

There I was, head on the table, unwilling to move and unable to warm up. Shortly after my house blew away, last night’s burger returned with a vengeance, leaping out my stomach and dive-bombing the grass. And again. Shivering and soaked from the cold and the rain, I took refuge in an outhouse by a hotel, dressed to the nines in every piece of clothing I had. My head remained on the table for a few hours, while I pondered how easy it would be to call my mum for rescue. She was only a thirty-minute drive away. Someone offered me an apple, and I pecked at it for an hour, before my body rejected it too.

Then, through the storm clouds of my mind, a playful voice rose up, teasing me to carry on. “Go on, I dare you”. My despair underwent a beautiful transformation, into humour, and suddenly anything was possible. So I stood up, donned my raincoat, and walked back into the storm.

The biggest tribulations are not the ones we choose for ourselves, but the ones that come unexpectedly. My plan was not to scurry out of my tent at five am and throw up, but it happened. I got sick, and now I need to figure out how to keep going. The reward for finishing will be monumental, and if I bail now, I’ll have to come back. Better carry on. 

Ladders- Day Eight

Chamonix Valley, France

Buzzing with adventurous spirit, I led the way up to Lac Blanc, my spark rekindled from sleep and a vegetable curry. At the refuge in Triente, Switzerland, I stayed in a yurt, wrapped in blankets while the storm pounded the ground outside. There, I met Anale, a courageous Canadian girl who was wild camping the TMB alone. While I was coddled by the comforts of civilization, she was on the mountain, in the icy rain. We got along like a California forest fire, and were hiking together up to the French border. We had already climbed six hundred metres, but there were fourteen hundred left- my biggest day so far.

Rain steadily poured, and all was grey, except for snapshots of the valley through the cloud. We had climbed plenty, for the chalets were like matchboxes among the verdant trees. The forest gave way to hardy shrubs and bleak rock faces as we approached 2,000 metres. An anthropomorphic stone towered over us, like a spirit guarding the mountain pass. And then there were ladders.

The trail turned into a vertical wall, scaleable only by a series of slippery ladders. Anale looked concerned, so I fake laughed to exude confidence. I had not planned for this. Clutching my sleeping bag and poles in one hand, and grabbing the precarious rungs in another, I hauled myself up the cliff, leading the way. One mistake and I would tumble down the rocks, on an express train to the hospital or the morgue. To lighten the mood, I blasted disco out of my phone, making the affair seem joyful, rather than foolish. My gloveless hands ached in the cold rain, and my body temperature plummeted. The ladders came again and again, and I felt like a contestant in American Ninja Warrior. Alone, this would have been a nightmare, but with a friend, it was bearable. She joked that at least there would be someone to watch her die if she fell.

Finally, the ladders relented, and a sign informed us there was only an hour until Lac Blanc. We scanned the rocky terrain, looking for a potential camping spot. Then, the rain hardened into snow. This was a day of extremes, and winter had come early on the mountain. We scrapped the camping, and sipped Irish coffees in the refuge instead. Warm and alive.

The Final Hike- Day Nine

Chamonix Valley, France

Lingering clouds were sucked away by the icy night, and the true majesty of the Mont Blanc Massif was unveiled. Ragged needles and monstrous peaks shone bright in the ethereal blue morning, just as the sun crept into view. Slipping on flip-flops, I joined friends admiring the scenery. A wild chamois was perched on a rock below, also in awe of the world we shared. 

The last day. If all went to plan, that night I would be chilling on my sofa, drinking champagne and feasting on all the food I could find. But I still had to get there. We were cocky, Anale and I, thinking that because it was our last hike, it would be easy. We brought minimal provisions: one bottle of water and a few slices of cheese. I figured we would be finished around noon. 

No maps were consulted, and soon we found ourselves on a ski slope to nowhere. We had gone the wrong way. Refusing to turn around, I led us up a razor-thin trail more suited to a goat, so steep I had to use my hands to pull myself up it. Thirty gruelling minutes took us to the top, and with it came a painful realisation. We had wasted our energy, climbing two hundred metres just to descend right after. Our path down was fraught with tumbles, gravity hijacking my heavy bag and sweeping my feet from under me. Fatigue was taking over, and we had no water left. Anale’s belly rumbled, and there was nothing left to say. 

Finally, we found the right trail, and began the long descent towards the quaint village of Les Houches. A stream appeared at last, and I drank without hesitation, much to my friend’s disgust. “That literally came from dirt”, she said. Who cares! Water was water, and after all it had been through, my immune system was strong. The ground flattened out, and at six pm we were back in Les Houches. We passed through the ceremonial archway, and we were finished. 

It was surreal, walking so far, only to return to the place where I began. Over a hundred miles, up and down, across endless peaks, vast forests and glaciers. Blue skies, thunderstorms and snow. Sometimes I felt anxious, but much less than I do in the city. My worries weren’t about bills or career choices, but the essentials, like where to sleep that night. The people in the refuges were open and kind, with stories to tell.  After surviving storms and gruelling climbs, I wore no mask when talking to others. I was nothing but myself.

Mountains- 30th November, 2021

Brecon Beacons, Wales

Two months have passed and I have moved out of the Alps, back to a city flatter than a pancake. Stress was building up and I just had to escape, so I did. I went to the nearest mountains I could find and climbed the highest peak. It was cold as hell but it had to be done. It taught me some things.

As I rise above the world, the sky opens, and so does my mind. The anger and frustration I absorbed from the city leaks out into the atmosphere, and I can finally breathe. All those things that seemed to matter so much shrink to the size of a pebble, and are entertained as passing thoughts, before consciousness becomes boundless once more. The scale of mountains reminds you that you are small in the scheme of things, and encourages you to look beyond yourself, into the beautiful world. That shift from looking in to looking out seems to be the fix for so many of our problems. Live high, and your imagination is as wide as the heavens, live low and flat and your cramped world is all you will know. In any case, if your world feels small, make a change. There is so much more to see.

Saving Vultures, Our Ugliest Allies

The shopkeeper handed me a machete, and challenged me to a sword fight. Our blades clashed a few times as we stared each other down, before collapsing into laughter. These are the kind of antics to expect from a Portuguese hardware store. I was on another conservation adventure, in Portugal, working with biologists to support the local vulture population. We needed tools to carve a mountain of meat, to feed these neglected necrophages.

Eduardo drove the land rover. He was a brooding, serious man at first, but turned out to have a great sense of humour. His partner, Pedro, struck a lighter tone, gracing every room he stepped into with his warm charisma and perpetual banter. I was the curious volunteer, following along and asking way too many questions.

Road Trip!

Now we had our machetes, it was time to collect the meat. We made a handy deal with the local supermarkets: we would collect their expired produce, saving them the cost of disposal, and us from buying it. An employee came out in full protective gear, pushing a bin full of body parts. We hauled the remains on to our trailer, and were off.

The jeep left the smooth road and joined a bumpy dirt trail, which shook us like an earthquake. The arid land was abandoned apart from a few ancient houses and chapels: a veritable safari. We approached the feeding area, a dusty square with a high fence all around, that ensured this pop-up restaurant would be birds-only. Already a handful of vultures were circling above, spotting the jeep and knowing exactly what it meant.

The foreboding entrance

The boys got to work installing the camera trap, using a shoddy piece of rope to tie it to a post. The shutter was motion sensitive, and would hopefully capture every animal that passed before it, be that vulture, bird of prey or mammal; one time it photographed a golden eagle.

The Gore

Now was the fun part. We unloaded the meat, cutting the large pieces into manageable bites with our machetes. We smashed the bones with a sledgehammer, so the vultures could access the tasty bone marrow. It was morbid work, since in the stash there were intact pig heads, boasting eyes and half a brain. The eyes still had a semblance of sentience, so destroying them required dissociation. My body went through the motions, while my mind was gallivanting in an English meadow; anywhere but here.

Until now the work had been tolerable, but it was time to scatter the meat from another barrel, which had been marinating in the sun for a week. It smelled like death. Eduardo removed the lid, and inside were thousands of maggots, squirming as one. Rolling the barrel in front of the camera, we tipped the contents onto the ground. The juice came first, followed by a festering pile of rancid meat. With gloves on, we scattered the chunks manually, collecting a handful of maggots in the process. After a few minutes of horror I realised we didn’t need to use our hands; we could have used shovels. “Next time”, Eduardo said.

The smile of a traumatised man – by Javier Benitez

A Reason for the Madness

From our limited human perspective, maggots are disgusting. But to one species, they are a delicacy: the Egyptian vulture. This small, off-white bird is unique, as they are the only vulture that uses tools, cracking open eggs with stones- an excellent party trick. In ancient Egypt they were revered, and anyone who dared kill one would be executed. Nowadays they are less protected. Endangered globally, they are threatened by loss of habitat, poisoning by farmers, electrocution by power lines, and lack of food. Their thin beaks are adapted to peck leftover morsels and maggots from corpses- making them a crucial part of nature’s clean up process. More on that later.

The elusive Egyptian vulture

The Storm Cloud

While we were butchering, word had spread around town. The rotting smell had drifted through the wind, catching the attention of some nearby vultures. Other birds saw their friends and joined the party, and in this way the crowd grew exponentially, until a dark cloud formed a hundred strong. It was dominated by griffons: brown vultures with 3 metre wingspans, and then there were Egyptians, black kites and ravens. It was an ominous ensemble, circling like a tornado, waiting for the moment to strike.

As soon as we shut the gate, the giants descended, lowering their talons like the landing gear of a plane. They grabbed whatever they could and took off, before the next bird arrived. It was a dazzling display of colour and flapping wings, a swooping spectacle, bringing me closer to these animals than I ever expected to be. The awe I felt made it all worth it.

Coachella 2022

Hungry Vultures

As is always the case with conservation work, we were attempting to fix problems created by humans before us. With the explosion of mad cow disease in the early 2000’s, European law required that farmers remove the carcasses of their cattle and incinerate them. This was disastrous for the vultures, who depend on large carrion for their diet. Twenty years later, the disease is under control, but in Portugal this unnecessary regulation remains. That’s why we stepped in here, supplementing their diet to give them a fighting chance.

Who Cares?

Vultures are not sexy, let’s face it, but they play a critical role in the health of our ecosystems. By gorging on decaying animal matter, they burn the pathogens inside with their sizzling stomach acid, acting as nature’s clean-up crew. Just as you would be foolish to fire your garbage men, when you mess with vultures you pay the price. 

Nowhere was this more evident than in India. Three species of vulture- from ingesting a drug given to cattle- suffered a decline of over 97% between 1992-2007. This was quoted as “the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported anywhere in the world.” The vulture vacuum created a huge opportunity for rats and dogs to become the dominant scavengers, but they are far less efficient at destroying pathogens. They multiplied and proliferated disease, contributing to a rabies epidemic. The loss of vultures is estimated to have caused 50,000 human deaths.

This story illustrates that we are not separate from nature, and depend on our ecosystems as much as any other animal. Conservation can be shallow sometimes, with a fixation on protecting the adorable species and not much else. But it is far more important than that. Each animal plays a role in maintaining the balance of our interconnected world, with the loss of one piece affecting ten others. Look beyond the polar bears and the red pandas, and consider the ugly creatures, too. The insects and spiders, the maggots and mosquitoes, are all fundamental to life as we know it. But we won’t know how much we need them until they’re gone.


Thank you to to the kind people at ATNatureza, for the camera trap photos and amazing volunteering experience. They are a non-profit managing a pioneering nature reserve called Faia Brava, check them out with the link below.

https://www.faiabrava.pt/pt/

Sources:

https://india.mongabay.com/2018/02/declining-vulture-population-can-cause-a-health-crisis/

https://4vultures.org/vultures/egyptian-vulture/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11970-starving-vultures-switch-to-live-prey/

Going Home: An Ode to Nature

Today I left the comfort of the trail and headed into no-man’s land, tiptoeing through rows of bareback trees until I was waist-deep in wild flowers. It was harder to navigate, but I felt immersed in nature. The soil was soft under my feet. Oaks were covered in moss and mushrooms, and one had a rectangular hole in it like a mailbox. Ants scaled the skinny trees, which, to them, must have looked like skyscrapers. After sitting for a while, I became part of the environment, and a little bird paid me no mind as she perched on a branch nearby. A lightness expanded in my fingertips as I bathed in the magic of the forest.

Throughout my life, I never felt at home where I was supposed to. There was a lot of movement: changing schools, dashing between the houses of my separated parents, and flying across the Atlantic to start a new life in California. Change was my only constant. When things were stable, I waited for them to topple like a house of cards. Good relationships were sabotaged, because I preferred to end them myself than let fate do it for me. Returning from California, I felt trapped under the grey skies of the UK, and reminisced on the past. My house was not where I belonged.

So, in the absence of a home, I went looking for one. I started visiting nature reserves. They were abundant in Oxford, green sanctuaries with placid lakes and colourful animals, like kingfishers and dragonflies. I spent hours alone in the forest. It wasn’t just a hobby, it was a chance to reconnect with myself. I grew fond of a reserve called the Trap Grounds, where I looked for legless lizards under sun-heated mats, and watched the skies for a mother sparrow hawk collecting food for her child.

But as winter crept in, and temperatures dropped, the forest was a less enticing place to be. Most of the animals were hibernating, and it was hard to feel the magic of nature through my shivers. Robin and squirrel sightings became mundane, and the deafening roar of passing trains stole me from my natural immersion. I longed for ‘real nature’, some kind of primordial land free from human influence, with booming biodiversity. My true home.

The quest to find my wild homeland led me to Costa Rica, a tropical haven teeming with weird and wonderful creatures. The clouds were bold and the land rugged, composed of rainforest-rich mountains that undulated from coast to coast. After exploring the country a little, I went into the heart of the rainforest: Tortuguero.

Tortuguero National Park

Soft light entered through the window, gently waking me at five-thirty. Knowing there were no tasks for a few hours, I lay in bed, listening to the jungle come to life. The howler monkeys were first, rumbling the ground with guttural roars. It is a noise both thrilling and dreadful, like a horde of zombies. Then the birds chimed in, serenading the air with tropical songs, songs that sounded like love but meant war. Cicadas filled the final piece of the silence, completing the natural chorus with an all-encompassing buzz.

I was volunteering at a biological station in Tortuguero national park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Our job was to survey the local wildlife- actively looking for rare animals five hours a day. We searched for snakes in the forest at night, scoured the skies for great macaws, and kayaked down canals in hope of seeing otters. The station was nestled on the edge of the rainforest, and in many ways was a part of it. While brushing my teeth, I saw toucans, and on my way to the shower, spider monkeys danced in the treetops above.

The rainforest has a mystical quality to it. Full of life, yet all of it hiding, the air is poised in an anxious stillness. This is Jaguar territory, so to be seen or heard is to be eaten. The creatures move silent as the leaves, leaving tracks in the mud but never a rustle. Once you stay for a while, though, life begins to unveil itself. Tiny strawberry frogs hop across the muck, their bright red colour warning of deadly poison. Mosquitoes saunter over in your direction, landing on any exposed skin you provide them. Owl butterflies chase the wind. The forest is at its best when it is raining; this is how it is meant to be. Soothing downpours cause the leaves to droop, and polish them with a fresh green coat. The white noise of the rain washes away your thoughts. After some time, the sun drags itself out of the clouds, and dappled light sneaks its way through the canopy. Nature here, at its richest, nourishes the soul. 

It was a place I could just be, solely exist, with no checklist to complete. No need to listen to music, or read, just taking in the environment. Breathing the freshest air of my life, and noting delicate floral aromas that came with it. Watching ripples on the canal, and keeping eyes peeled for a cresting turtle, or the shimmering colours of a fish. Feeling the sun on my skin. Fully content with the moment at hand, no longer bargaining with the future, or longing for the past.

Despite little sleep and a hectic schedule, I never felt stressed in Tortuguero. From the moment I arrived until I left, there lived a deep calm within me. Happiness is too shallow of  a word to describe it, because happiness comes and goes. Like all emotions, it is transient. This feeling however, is deep as the oceans, eternal as the universe. It cannot be shaken or stolen. It is the true essence of being, the thing that buddhists meditate for.  Ambition, hope, passion, romance, friendship or even family- it all fades away. In the forest the ego collapses, and what is left is simple and pure. It is where I truly belong.

Big Thanks to Lucas and Theo for the pictures, I could not have made this post without them.

If you love forests like I do, consider using Ecosia as your search engine. They plant a tree for every search you do https://www.ecosia.org/?c=en

Chaos and Responsibility- Lessons from an Animal Sanctuary

Meanwhile, at a vegan animal farm in Costa Rica…

Sebastien is always ready for war

Chaos

Oh lord, another day has begun. The paradise of dream world was interrupted by the hellish screams of pigs: wild, desperate shrieks that trembled the soul. Lie-ins were not an option in this kind of ambience; one could only dawdle, praying for a different reality, before eventually putting on his boots and getting to work. My socks were coated in varying levels of grime: from the lightly mud-kissed, to the downright sodden. I tried to disconnect my nerve endings as I slipped on the cleanest pair I could find, then crept into my wellies and stepped outside. 

The tropical air was fresh and dewey, and lush green leaves glistened from last night’s rain. Thankfully, another volunteer had released the pigs, and they snuffled around on the mud, content at last. A moment of calm was granted. The next half hour was dedicated to feeding the animals. As I chopped a mountain of vegetables, a trio of discourteous cats invaded the chopping board, demanding their shares in synchronised mews. This got the dogs going, rousing the farm with their barks, until the whole damn place was on red alert. 

She’s not hungry, for now…

The biggest challenge was feeding the large animals, a mission requiring the strategic tactics of a lieutenant general. The goats had to be distracted first, or they would block your path with menacing horns. Then Palomo, the white stallion, would approach, neighing and whinnying for carrots. All the while a dark storm cloud had been moving in. It was Teresa, a colossal water buffalo with the appetite of a small village. A long, black tongue emerged, curling around a carrot and luring it into an abyss, where it was chomped to oblivion.

After the chaos of feeding time had passed, the farm became serene, and the word ‘sanctuary’ seemed more appropriate. The cats fell into beautiful sleep, and other animals wandered around aimlessly. The volunteers and I finally had time for ourselves, and we chuckled away making banana pancakes. There was no oil allowed in the kitchen, so the pancakes were black, but this didn’t matter. We had survived the morning; we had triumphed over the forces of hunger, and found peace.  

Banana pancakes baby, ft Maisy

Responsibility

At the farm I fell in love with a beautiful dog named Raja- pronounced ‘Rah-sha’- a young Pitbull with gorgeous brown eyes. She followed me everywhere, and slept on my bed at night. No quantity of cuddles was ever sufficient for her. In the past she was a street dog, and on arrival to the sanctuary she was hostile to the other animals. But the dog I met was gentle and affectionate, plodding around like a little princess. Caring for her made me feel whole. It took me out of my head, rescuing me from the depths of the misery I had created for myself. When I walked with her and she ran off, I was anxious, and when she finally returned a wave of relief washed over me. I wanted to keep her safe, well-fed and happy. At one point I fantasized about how to bring her back to England. 

My beautiful girl


It felt good to be responsible. Caring for the animals forced me to put my own needs on hold and prioritise the needs of others. You’re tired and depressed? Doesn’t matter, it’s feeding time. Sore legs and tweaked ankle? Guess what, the dogs need a walk. It was like a trial for parenthood, having all these beings dependent on you, and things going wrong at any moment. Like walking into the kitchen to find a fresh turd on the floor, or having the vegetable shelves ransacked by an invading buffalo. It was foolish to blame the animals for misbehaving, as they were only acting in their nature; it was your negligence that gave them the opportunity. 

Goaty-o and Juliet

Some say that life really begins when you have a child, when you give up your egotistical quest and dedicate yourself to another person. For millennia we lived in tribes, dependent on each other for everything. If you fell ill, you would visit the doctor next door, not the hospital. Your community would provide all your needs, from food to labour, and in return you would make your own contribution. Now, in the time of individualism, we are independent, requiring nothing from anybody- and providing nothing in return. This is empowering, but can be desperately lonely. 


It is embarrassing to ask for help when you are struggling- it feels like nobody wants to hear it. A lot of people don’t have anyone they are comfortable opening up to. So pay it forward. If you need help, reach out to someone else and ask how they are doing. If you want to receive love, express it. Show others that you care about them, and maybe they will return the favour. I routinely forget my friends’ birthdays, and rarely call my relatives. Why should I expect anyone to check up on me? Building strong relationships takes work, like everything valuable in life. Be responsible.

Asleep at last

Much love to the other volunteers who helped me from losing my mind completely, and to all the animals: crazy, cute, or hungry as hell. Thank you Maisy Wood for the excellent photos.

Assault from all sides- the effect of ecotourism on sea turtles

The prospect of seeing a sea turtle in the shell was close. The expectation had been building in my head for months: visions of these fascinating creatures surrounding me on a rugged beach in the tropics, illuminated by the stars above. I was lucky enough to volunteer with these animals, in a bid to learn about the natural world and do my small part to protect it. The time had come. The beach I found myself on was Ostional, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica, a long stretch of grey volcanic sand more suited to all things wild than to the whims of sun-tanning tourists. The waves here are powerful, giving rise to dangerous rip tides that can drag even the strongest swimmer to a watery grave. Life is abundant, from tiny octopuses in the rock pools that form at low tide, to crocodiles waiting patiently in the murky water of the lagoon. 

It is also a prime location for sea turtles, hosting the second largest ‘Arribada’ in the world. An Arribada, meaning ‘arrival’, is the synchronised nesting of thousands of turtles over a few days, a rare phenomenon that is considered one of the wonders of the natural world. In Ostional they happen every month, so if you want to see a turtle this is not a bad place to start.

Stepping on to the beach was like entering a wasteland, full of the scattered debris of trees and plastic washed up from the ocean. Shards of broken eggs were everywhere, ripped to shreds by opportunistic predators. Black vultures hopped around on the egg-encrusted sand like they were dancing on the graves of their enemies. The sheer quantity of eggs was astounding- there had to be turtles nearby.

Seeing one up close was like travelling back in time. Their shells looked weathered and prehistoric, olive tinted with a light dusting of sand. Their dawdling pace stood in stark contrast to the hustle of the world around them, and they took long pauses to breathe before trundling on. The Arribada was in its final days, and so the nesting mothers I saw were mostly handicapped stragglers who had arrived late to the party. Some were missing chunks from their shells from an altercation with a hungry shark or a fishing boat. Others were short a flipper, desperately hauling their great mass up the beachfront with diminishing strength. All the while, vultures pecked away at the flesh beneath their shells, and wandering dogs dug up their nests. Still, these stoic creatures moved forwards, determined to lay their eggs. 

There was another problem. The tracks in the sand came not from turtles but from hundreds of human feet. The beach was full of tourists. Sunglass-donning Americans skipped around en-masse, adding an air of insincerity to this important natural event. Some crept close to the turtles to take pictures, dazzling them with the bright flash from their phones. Others even got in the water with them, potentially blocking their path back to the ocean. The encroaching humans had an obvious effect, distressing the already troubled animals and interrupting their nesting process. The trampling of the sand containing millions of eggs can also lead to deformities in the hatchlings that emerge, producing babies with misshapen shells or worse.

The species in question was the Olive Ridley, considered the most abundant sea turtle worldwide. Even still, their population has decreased by thirty to fifty percent worldwide, and they are now classified as vulnerable to extinction. Their main threats include egg harvesting, poaching for their meat and ocean pollution. They hardly need more stress.

As easy as it is to blame the tourists, it is not their fault. They may only access the beach accompanied by a local guide, and it is the guide’s responsibility to educate and control their group. Unfortunately, many of them neglected to do this. For locals, this is a short-lived and abundant source of revenue, so they aim for maximum turnover of clients, skipping the educational lecture and allowing them to run around freely like school children. Some of the guides were good, of course, but greater enforcement is needed for this practice to be sustainable.

This was an example of irresponsible ecotourism, but when done well it can have a positive impact. In Costa Rica, funding from tourism has led to the development of national parks and reserves that now cover almost a third of the country’s land mass, bolstering its impressive biodiversity.  A sanctuary I visited in the town of La Fortuna was a shining example of how to do things right. They reforested a large section of land and left this open to the wild, allowing a healthy population of three-toed sloths to move in by their own free will. Tourists can marvel at these languorous creatures from a distance, allowing them to creep between the treetops undisturbed. Costa Rica is also home to many rehabilitation sanctuaries, whose main goal is to nurse injured wildlife back to health and eventually release them into the wild.

Obviously the best course of action would be to leave nature alone completely, but in our overpopulated world, where natural resources are becoming ever scarcer, expecting no exploitation of animals is unrealistic. In neighbouring Nicaragua the population is poor and tourism less common, so poaching is rife. Marine turtles are hunted for their meat, shells and eggs and are being driven to the point of extinction. Compared with poaching, tourism is certainly the lesser of two evils. The key is to strike the balance between profiting from nature and conserving it, all the while ensuring that by observing the world you are not degrading it.

If you want to see wild animals up close and help to conserve them, volunteering is a great option. The turtle refuge at Ostional was incredible, full of inspiring staff who really care about what they do. From escorting endangered Leatherback hatchlings safely to the ocean, to dodging hundreds of nesting Olive Ridleys at 2am during an Arribada, every day was an adventure.

Check out goeco.org for this and many other volunteering opportunities all around the world. Learn more about sea turtles here-https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/sea-turtle

References:

https://vianica.com/go/specials/4-sea_turtles_nicaragua.html

costaricantimes.com/the-impact-of-tourism-in-costa-rica/30363

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/olive-ridley-turtle

The hardships of a housecat

Illustration by Ethan Coyne

I woke up to the sun baking my fur. It was a pleasant warmth, but one I knew would hurt after a while. I hadn’t been unconscious, but in a quieter place- part of the ambience. The sounds came rushing back in: birds reciting pedantic songs, the clamorous mess that humans dance to, and the low growl that could only be the dog. I tried to ignore that last sound.

There were smells too. Many were bad but, being an optimist, I focused on the good ones. The neighbours were having a barbecue. The scent of sizzling meat wafted over and I could smell sausage, fillet steaks and my favourite- roast chicken. I caught myself purring at the thought. Invigorated, I scrambled down from the roof and crossed the garden. My human saw me and muttered a half-hearted greeting. I ignored him.

The dog was sleeping by the fence, using his crippled legs as a pillow. The smell from his rancid fur was powerful, and I couldn’t help but grimace. His bloody eyes opened and instantly locked on to me, as if he had been plotting this in his sleep. We entered a tense standoff, each of us waiting for the other to make the first move. I felt the wound on my tail throb as I remembered our last encounter. I wouldn’t let him hurt me again. I charged, puffing up my fur to appear larger than I was. This caught him off guard, and the beast stared at me incredulously. At the last second I dashed to the side, bounding on to the barbecue. My pursuer had caught on now, and he clawed at the metal beneath me, producing an excruciating sound. I leapt over him, and turned in mid air. His eyes were manic with bloodlust. I scaled the fence just in time and heard furious barking behind me. I had won this round.

I sauntered into the neighbours’ garden- one step closer to heaven. The smells were stronger now, and I couldn’t help biting the air as I imagined the taste. I ran towards the source, my paws touching pebbles, then stone, then wood. I was excited as I approached the neighbours, so I called out to them. One of them responded in a high-pitched voice, as if I were a kitten. This would normally annoy me, but my mind was focused elsewhere. I was welcomed with a thorough neck stroke, sending a tingle down my spine. There would be time for cuddles later.

I turned my attention to the plump, steaming chicken on the counter. One of the humans was standing guard, gouging pieces out with a large blade. I needed a taste. I tentatively climbed on to the counter and moved towards the chicken. Only a few steps more. I was within pouncing distance when firm hands seized me and lifted me into the air. I tried to remain calm, but that vital connection to the earth had been lost. My world went spinning and my paws flailed, reaching out for anything to grab on to. I couldn’t bear it any longer, so I squirmed until the hands released me. I fell to the earth and was grounded once more. Rough fingers stroked my head- a sorry apology.

My torment had only begun. I was forced to watch the humans devour the tasty chicken; each gob and smack of their mouths was a taunt, and rage spread like a fire within me. I would punish them for their insolence. As soon as one of them got up to wipe their grubby hands, I would pounce on the chicken. They didn’t need all that food, they were fat already; surely it would be put to better use feeding me. 

I tried to climb on the table a few times, but was shoved off on each occasion. The rage transformed into an overwhelming helplessness. The suffering consumed me, and I could not remember a time when I wasn’t hungry. Humans are cruel: affectionate in one moment, apathetic in the next. They are kind only when it suits them.

I had almost lost all hope when I was tossed a morsel of chicken. It was a succulent piece of breast, and for a moment I questioned its existence. I sniffed it, then ate it whole. I went to a place outside of reality, one with no loud noises or bad smells; here, I could sleep undisturbed. I stayed there for a while, and let the taste of the chicken make me whole. I knew this place was transient, so I savoured every moment. 

Slowly, reality returned, and so did hunger. I felt lost, like I’d been swept away from my true home. I needed another piece more than I needed air. I begged and pleaded, to no avail. I dug my claws into the ground and pulled, trying to tear the world apart. I wished I had never gone to that place, as reality was now painfully inadequate. Whoever instilled this ravenous hunger within me had done so as a punishment, to torture me for a lifetime. 

Some time passed, and the dream world faded until it became a distant memory. I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I began to notice the world around me. A butterfly with crimson wings flew past, glimmering in the evening sun. The smoke of a pinewood fire enveloped me like an earthy blanket. This was the real world, but it felt different. A human approached me and I winced, expecting more pain. Instead, I was coddled. They scratched me in just the right place on my neck, easing out knots that had been there for weeks. I rolled over and they rubbed my belly, massaging me into a state of tranquillity. I lay back and kneaded the warm air with my paws; this wasn’t so bad.

The Importance of Being Present

Birdsong fell like raindrops all around me. The sounds of many cars on the motorway coalesced into one perpetual roar, making the forest seem shy in comparison. I focused on my breathing, in and out, like waves lapping on a shore. The tiredness I had been struggling with moved down my body and dissipated. I opened my eyes, ended my meditation and looked around. I felt fresh to the world. Half a metre from my head, tiny mushroom spores climbed up the branch of a tree. The ground was covered in brown and yellow, autumn seeping from the leaves. A squirrel leapt heroically between fragile branches, then scampered off into the green. My mind was clear.

This was what I experienced on my walk today, and every time I leave the house I try to have the same intensity of sensation. It comes from being present. There are so many things to focus on when you step outside. Robins flitting across rooftops and calling out cheerfully for a mate. The buzz of electricity from a Chinese restaurant spilling into the streets, followed by its sweet and smoky aromas. A passenger plane high above, piercing the clouds at breathtaking speed. The world is in motion, bustling from the microscopic scale to the gargantuan. Our senses only detect a fraction of the total stimuli. Think of a dog that goes on the same walk every day for years, does it get bored?

Photography by Henry Small

Presentness is not just for walks, I’ve found it incredibly useful for mental health. If you have a panic attack, an effective treatment is to verbally describe the objects around you. White pillow, green chair, fluffy dog- you get the picture. This technique forces you to leave your distressed mind and project your awareness outwards. Most of the time, reality is far less stressful than the scenarios you were imagining. If I’m feeling depressed about the pandemic or the future, I turn my intention to today instead. Instantly it takes the pressure off, and I can focus on doing things that make me happy instead of trying to be a “better” person. You’re not a top trumps card; sometimes you have to stop playing the game of life and just live.

You can make a conscious choice to be present right now. Feel your heartbeat. That constant, determined pounding reminds you of your mortality. Everything you have and will ever experience is made possible by that beat, and it is fragile. Focus on your breathing too. Every breath of air is essential, and in no way guaranteed. Remind yourself of death and you will feel truly alive, grateful for every passing second.

It doesn’t end there. Look at an object near you. Really stare at it, like you have laser eyes and you’re trying to burn through it. Look at the textures and the colours, and imagine what it would be like to touch. Now do a similar thing with the sounds around you. Perk up your ears like a rabbit listening out for danger. The creaky boiler, the whir of a computer, music from outside your window. Open your senses to everything. Forget yourself for a second and feel it all.

When you are present, life is richer. This is important to remember, as the world is becoming more digital. We are glued to our phones, constantly absorbing information to feed our dopamine addictions. We end up missing what’s in front of us. I see people walking through the nature reserve with noise-cancelling headphones, and I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. “Look around!”, I would exclaim. Don’t be that person.

You only have one life, so savour it. Engage with the world instead of just observing it. Bask in the sunshine, stroke a puppy, chat to a stranger. You won’t regret it.

Photography by Henry Small