Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A Swift Journey: Inspiring Phenology in Children

Definition of Phenology: The cyclic and seasonal changes of natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant & animal life.

Beautiful Autumn blusters have been whipping and whistling around the north east for the past week, and this evening another telling sign of summer's end has made itself notably clear to me; the imminent absence of one of the more endearing soundtracks to our British summer. Since their return to Britain earlier this year screams of Swifts have been welcoming me home from dawn bat surveys, and wishing me well on nocturnal wildlife escapades. Now, the unmistakable calls of this estate's breeding population of Swifts has rung silent.
And just like that, as though the Autumn winds themselves have gently whisked these summer migrants along their southern route, the dominant audible summer phenology of this estate has ended. I wonder what audible phenology Autumn will bring to this part of suburbia? The rustling and crunching of crisp leaves? The travelling calls of young Tawny Owls vocalising the boundaries of their new territories?

Perhaps the clunking of falling Conkers will be the next sound?

With every crisping deciduous leaf swaying in the morning's Autumn breeze, I get a yearning for all other telling signs of the auburn season to storm my senses. I look forward to the phenological encroachment of Autumn each year, since my early childhood; from the first time my mum and I first kicked up the huge piles of temptingly crisp leaves that the Burn Valley park attendee had so neatly 'tidied'. Swirling Autumn gusts would whip up and take hold of each leaf, as though the essence of Autumn itself became entwined once more in a dedicatory dance of its antecedent; Summer. Dancing leaves would trap us both in a moment of Autumn at it's purest; our senses, gratefully invaded. Beams of golden light from the low sun would break through flickering shades of amber, hazel, cinnamon and fawn; a visual display to the uprising redolence of damp bark and earth. An enrapturing swarm of rustles; a sound, to me, with a whispered affinity to the sea's flow over pebbles on the shore. As an adult, each rustle of a leaf, every scent of damp earth, takes me back to childhood moments of escapism such as this. As natural surroundings adapt phenologically, so do we.

I still adore being amongst fallen leaves

Now, before I become labelled as a 'bunny cuddler' (which, by the way, isn't as cuddly as you'd think...), behavioural reactions to seasonal shifts isn't a new-age philosophy. It's science. To be more precise, it's neuroethology; the study of behavioural reflexes which certain external stimuli can induce within us.
Have you ever come across the same scent of someone you love, and had the same surge of emotions that being with them can cause? Have you ever smelt a particular food, which you ate throughout your childhood, and it made you reflect on memories of your childhood home? This 'olfactory (scent) memory' is caused by 'neuromodulation'; a smart tool within us which connects the scents we receive with the emotions we're feeling at the time of smelling them. Neuromodulation exists within mammals (yes, including us!) and is an evolutionary tool we've so cleverly maintained to help us survive. Many of us may notice behavioural, physiological and emotional changes within ourselves as the seasons shift; our very own phenological changes which are cyclical, repeated and strengthened each year.

So how important is it, that we understand phenology in children? Emotionality in children is considerably higher than it is in adults; meaning that the emotional memories which children create often last throughout adulthood. Olfaction is the strongest medium for the emotional retainment of memories; and has allowed the autumnal scents of damp earth and dusty leaves to take me back to the freedom of kicking up leaves with my mum.

My sister, Hazel, and I acting like children again with a huge pile of Conkers last year 

Living in a society with an a linear, "go forth and don't look back", outlook is problematic. Children may grow older in a linear fashion, (I am yet to see a real life Benjamin Button), but their cyclical phenology is recycled year after year, and embedded into their behaviours into late adulthood. Two things which children yearn for are; stability, and to feel that they understand the world. Encouraging children to look closely and discover the seasonal changes that are taking place in the natural world surrounding them is a sure way to fulfill those desires. Nature is the only feature in this world which will always have some involvement in all our lives; it offers a promise of stability, understanding and connection. Just as we rely upon phenological natural phenomena, it relies on us; if the majority of us do not acknowledge seasonal changes such as the screams of swifts, how will we know if they disappear? I was disappointed to realise that not once this year have I spotted anyone living in this estate stopping to acknowledge the beguiling sights and sounds of the Swifts, which share the buildings of our own homes: not even the children.

I'd love you to share any seasonal changes which stir your emotions, and how they take you back to any childhood memories.

After all, to understand the phenology of Nature in the places we live, is to understand ourselves. 

- Heather-Louise

Friday, 1 August 2014

Welcome to The Den of Wild Intrigue

"A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood."
- Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder.

My 18 month old self, discovering flora & fauna. 
I have been wondering lately how my childhood might have led to the endurance of my deep sense of wonder and 'youthful' adoration for Nature. For those of us who spent time our childhoods with muddy, grazed knees, sky-gazing eyes, and pockets full of feathers and eggshells - it seems our curiosity and 'inner wilds' have decided to stick around beyond the age of 12. My car (and hair, for that matter) can usually be found to have the occasional scavenged flower or feather in it.
Reflections of my childhood spent in Nature often wander back to the same memories, such as :
Fox cubs on a rail line.
Eating chocolate cake under an Oak and feeling safe.
Scavenger hunts instead of school.
Squawking back-alley gulls.
The chilling scent of Autumn.
Tiptoeing over jellyfish.
Baskets of foraged berries.
...Sneaking foraged berries from baskets.
Searching for newts in the beck.
Crying uncontrollably at boys kicking a pigeon.
My crippling fear of bugs.
Weeklong heartbreak upon discovering Canada's Seal Hunt.
I believe all of these, on some level, have influenced my adult life so far, including:
Researching South Africa's invertebrates, and being intrigued.
Tears of disbelief seeing my first wild leopard.
Spending spring evenings with families of foxes, and feeling welcome. 
Feeling secure in woodlands.
Constantly watching/thinking about/working for wildlife.
Waking for the country dawn chorus, appreciating the melody.
Yearning for Autumn, and its lingering aura.
Acting for the voiceless. Not shedding a tear.
Graduating in Wildlife Conservation.
Rewilding young people.
Questioning everything & having an endless sense of wonder.
My 'childlike' wonder of Nature showing itself when feeding Coal Tits in Loch Garten last year.
As a child I played endlessly outside. Rollerblading, skipping, climbing trees, climbing walls (falling off walls), being stung, being bitten, being chased... being happy.
I played freely, I learnt about the world I was growing up in, and I survived!
With threatening echoes of punishments being handed from police authorities to freely playing children, ball games, woodland exploration, and den building are on the decrease, soon to be whispers of childhood past. Glorious summer days are passing, neglected; streets are wintry - devoid of inspiriting giggles, excited screams and water-fights.
Reflecting on my own childhood, I now understand how opportunities for heuristic play and cognitive development are crucial for children to be healthy, happy and inspired. Whether a child's home patch is urban, suburban or rural, the availability of free land for that child to play, learn and discover, solely and socially, is essential. So, how is it that only approximately 3% of England's landscapes are registered as 'common lands'; half of which are less than 1ha in size, with the majority being protected sites such as SSSIs.
The safeguarding of wild spaces in communities, bursting with natural curiosities inviting children to smell, touch & adore; for children to adventure through constellations with friends & family, needs to be a priority. Before it really is too late.
Who greater to inspire, teach and motivate children; to give these young, porous minds such important lifelong lessons, than Nature?
With every gull's squawk sailing through a back alley, every fox's haunting yell, every slugs invasion into a shoe, every school-field daisy opening in the sun; there are opportunities for children to be inspired, to learn, and to get that unforgettable buzz of connecting with something wild (you know the one).

I get a buzz from all intimate wildlife encounters; including camera trapping this fox cub recently
Nature freely offers infinite lessons and memorable encounters. A self-preserving army of ants marching on a curb is a lesson in biology, a memorable muse for storytelling, and encouragement in the face of fragility. The rise of a Blackbird's melodic dawn call may invoke the wonder of how a song with such determined intent, can be articulated with effortless, desirable grace. In a world where human communication is becoming so detached and undignified, the enlightenment of composed self-expression gained from hearing a Blackbird's song is boundless.
To be a child is to be inspiringly wild, to be endlessly intrigued. I am passionate about affording children opportunities to be wild and intrigued in their schools, and I would love to hear any stories from my readers who are doing the same. Whether you're a teacher, parent, naturalist...I'd love to hear how you're sharing your timeless, childlike curiosity for all things wild with young people.
Welcome to The Den of Wild Intrigue.

- Heather-Louise