Finding stillness in nature is both immersive and rejuvenating, and can bring nature close to hand. Lucy Wallace is finding solace under lockdown in the sights and sounds of her garden.
I’m going to start this piece somewhere very wild and currently out of bounds to me. I’m sitting by the footpath in Glen Feshie, and I can hear my group’s voices echoing in the trees ahead. They’ve stopped for lunch and spirits are high. I’m not sure if they know I’m there, but I can see gangling shapes between the pines, bouncing around in the way that teenage boys do. I’m quiet and enjoying the solitude of my work, when I become aware of a new sound, sensed rather than heard. Training my ears, I detect a scratching and almost noiseless brushing of body against leaf. I hold my breath. To my right, a squat, dark shape emerges from blaeberry thickets. Trying not to move my head, I squirm my eyes around. The shape takes form, familiar but also new. A black grouse, a hen, and she’s not noticed me. Pecking at her feet, she is intent, head down. She is waddling towards me, and I’m still holding my breath. She is at my feet now. She pecks the ground inches from my boot, cocks an eye upwards at me, and makes no bones of it at all. I can’t believe she hasn’t seen me. She plods on, and a few metres down the path to my left, she exits and I breathe again.
I first learned to hide in plain sight more through necessity than any kind of higher goal. I’m a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition supervisor; my job is to support and keep an eye on groups of young people on expeditions, without intruding unless for safety reasons. I confess that I have spent quite a bit of time hiding behind rocks and bushes, which has obvious ethical problems. With time I have learned to simply sit quietly by the trailside, blending in to my surroundings. If groups want to see me they only have to look, but most simply walk on by. Sometimes I bring a book, but the act of sitting quietly brings so much to my attention, that I rarely get around to reading.
Why is this interesting?
Explaining why I am so fascinated when sitting like this, is not easy and there is a danger of sounding cheesy. It is true that it is possible to learn new things about wildlife through this process, but for me, there is something more than that, something intangible that actually brings me peace and a kind of healing. Like meditation or mindfulness, (practices that I’ve never got the hang of), I would say that I experience something bigger than myself, when I immerse myself in this way.
The romantic naturalist Mary Oliver describes this in her poem How I Go to the Woods:
“Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”
Oliver describes how by sitting she becomes an insignificant part of the landscape- as an uprise of weeds, which allows her to not only to become invisible, but also to experience things that are not perceptible under normal states of consciousness. In the roses singing, she finds magic resting somewhere lovely, but actually quite ordinary. This heightened awareness fuels her understanding- adding new dimensions to her experience of nature.
In these days of coronavirus, when horizons are shrinking and we can only find ourselves in nature that is close at hand, it is this process that is unveiling new worlds to me, both external and internal. Unable to explore beyond my village, I’m finding undiscovered country in myself, whilst investigating a place as mundane and familiar as my back garden.
I appreciate that currently not everyone has access to the same outdoor spaces as me. Just in having a garden, I am lucky, and there is woodland behind, filled with birds and squirrels. I live in a rural area, which is currently even sleepier than usual. If I venture out of the house for my permitted exercise, I am unlikely to be moved along if I am still for a little while. If this is not your reality right now, I hope that this article will give you new ways of tuning in, when you do get the opportunity. Many of the following skills and methods of paying attention can be used in other ways, for example, becoming aware of and really listening to layers of birdsong that are going on outside. You may have jackdaws and starlings coming and going amongst the rooftops. Even the complicated lives of urban pigeons can be revealed with a bit of applied nosiness (trust me, they are sweet and often hilarious). Every time I do something as simple this, I feel calmer and more optimistic.
One of the hardest parts of absolute stillness is precisely that- being still. Our bodies are not used to resting on the ground, and our hands are not used to being idle. The desire to pick up the smart phone and scroll is strong! Firstly, find a way of sitting that your body will accept for a long period of time. Some people are able to sit cross-legged; others need to rest their backs against something, perhaps a tree or a wall. Experiment with a few positions and relax in to them until you find one that works for you. Also, make sure that you are warm. When you sit initially you may feel quite comfortable, but before long you will chill down. A warm jacket, a hat and gloves may be appropriate in the spring air, as is a cushion or mat to sit on. Unfortunately, if you live in Scotland like me, at certain times of the year, midge repellent is a must. Finally, breathing is important: quiet and slow breaths will help your mind relax. Try to avoid heaving sighs, although they also feel nice and soothing, they won’t make you inconspicuous to your surroundings.
Once you have found a rhythm to your breath, you can focus outwards. The natural world is never really silent or still. Now is the time to become aware of external sounds and movement. Initially you might be a bit underwhelmed but the more time you spend like this, the more you will notice. This is partly because you will tune in, but also probably because any wildlife in your space will be relaxing in your presence, perhaps even forgetting that you are there. Almost imperceptibly, nature will draw closer and you should start to experience new sounds and sensations. This may be something subtle, like being able to feel the breeze created by the wings of bumblebees, or powerful, like being really close to a blackbird in full operatic throttle.
If something grabs your attention, go with it. If it is really interesting the hardest part for me then becomes not wriggling with excitement. I’ve made new (to me) discoveries about very familiar species this way, for example, did you know that some robins hum quietly to themselves when foraging? I have only learned this since Lockdown and couldn’t have known it without one coming close enough for me to hear. Just this week, I noticed for the first time that rival woodpigeons like to call out in rhythmic unison. It’s a competitive chorus that from now on will make me smile every time I hear it.
Sometimes it is less glamorous insights that come, but to me these are no less interesting. On a long journey through France, I once spent an entire night bivouacked (but not sleeping) watching nocturnal insects go about their business under a bench. A miniature universe was taking place under the noses of my companion and me. We were captivated and distracted from our discomfort. Not ideal perhaps, but it turned a grim experience in to one that is memorable in a good way.
There will come a time when you have been sitting and you will need to move. That itch on your nose needs to be scratched, or you have pins and needles in your feet. No matter how much you try to ignore this, it intrudes on your calmness, and movement becomes necessary. Movement is what many birds and mammals are most aware of, and it is at this moment when they may suddenly notice you. When you do move, try to think about the shape that you are making and aim to be as slow and deliberate as possible. If you have to move your arms, keep elbows tight to your body and limbs within your “silhouette”- the outline shape you are making. Similar advice goes for if you want to turn your head to look at something. You can scroll your eyes around as far as they can go, and gradually move your head and shoulders until you can watch comfortably.
Next level: on the move without being noticed
Less relevant to our gardens, but something to think about when we get back out there in the wild, is how to move as hill walkers around the landscape, without disturbing wildlife. For me, these skills are very much a work in progress, and how I do this may depend on what it is I am hoping to see. Getting to know the target species is a huge part of this.
Normally, I make a living in part from guiding clients to see otters on the West Coast of Scotland. From this I have learned that otters can become very easily habituated to human presence, as long as we don’t do anything too surprising. At my regular spot, I can chat normally with my companions, and we make no effort at concealment, however we keep to the footpath at all times, and don’t raise our voices. To do otherwise would create an unfamiliar situation that is likely to cause alarm. I’ve also learned that otters are much more relaxed when they are in the sea than on land. For this reason, I’m wary around the regular haunts that otters use on the shore- I don’t linger near to the small burns and ditches that run down to the waters edge, in case an otter wishes to exit the sea and head back to one of its many lying up places. Mothers and cubs are particularly fearful and I make sure I never come between them. If I’m lucky enough to spot an otter away from my usual patch, I’m even more cautious, as the animal may not be used to humans. On these occasions I stay downwind, and only move when the otter is under water.
Study the behavior of the wildlife you see on your walks and you will get to know their concerns. In essence, by getting to know your target species, you can avoid actions that may frighten them away. For example, if you’ve ever spotted a buzzard in a tree and stopped to watch, only for it to fly off (usually as you go for the camera), you may have noticed that birds of prey don’t like us to stand and stare at them. If you keep moving, you may be able to pass right underneath its watchful eyes. Conversely mammals such as deer and foxes are more likely to allow you to observe them if you keep still.
Putting wildlife first
These skills and techniques that I have shared will hopefully open up new worlds for you to enjoy, whether on your doorstep or in the mountains. You may well experience magical encounters with wild birds and mammals that you will never forget. It is important to note, and probably goes without saying, that in doing so, you are allowing nature to come to you not the other way around. This is not a technique for staking out nest sites and burrows (probably illegal), or sneaking up on wildlife going about its daily business. The time and place for using these skills is best when sitting somewhere that is not particularly sensitive, and simply taking the time to see what comes past. Lochsides, beaches, well-trodden paths and parks, all never too far from human influence, are good places to do this. Sitting quietly, and letting whatever will be, be.
Top tips for going unseen
Clothing: Drab colours will help you blend in, but many creatures don’t see colours like we do, so this I find is less important than you’d expect. What is helpful though is to think about breaking up your human shape, with disruptive patterns, or even different coloured top and trousers. Wear quiet fabrics, and avoid shiny surfaces and things that flap in the breeze.
Shape: As above, try to conceal your human shape. Staying low, crouching or curling your knees up can help. Think about what kind of silhouette you are making. Positioning yourself in the shade or with your back to something like a tree trunk, works well. This rock pipit photo was taken when lying pan flat in the shingle along the strandline of the beach.
The face: Some animals seem to be very aware of faces and particularly eyes, which is no doubt a way of spotting potential predators. You can, try and hide your face with things like caps, hoods and buffs. Even just keeping your head slightly lowered will make a difference.
Smells: You smell, I smell, nature smells too. We humans don’t use this sense much but many mammals in particular are highly attuned to odours in their environment. Being clean, but avoiding heavily scented soaps and perfumes, or even the lingering whiff of smoke, is a good idea.