Eden in East London?

Today’s wildlife adventure took place a couple of hundred metres from my office in Aldgate East, in the innermost city part of the City of London. I stood for 20 minutes at lunchtime and tried to work out how many species I could spot on the patch of waste ground I normally walk right past. Because I’d neglected to take notes, I lost count. But I definitely saw some ferns unfurling, docks, thistles, more types of grass than I could recognise, and nettles covered in various snails. Oh yes, plus different flies, bees and wasps (sorry, entomologists, I’m especially bad at naming insects).

What does this gloriously fecund area look like? Here’s a picture.

Eden or Wasteland? 30 Days Wild

You’re looking at a total eyesore, aren’t you? Well, not quite. There’s beauty there – you’ve just got to work out how to recognise it, because it’s beauty of an unconventional kind.

From Eyesore to Ice Age

Let me tell you a story. This (and every) patch of waste ground hosts a small-scale replay of what Britain went through after the last ice age. As the ice gradually retreated, it scoured the earth clear of pretty much all life, just as waste ground is stripped at the beginning of dereliction. After such a profound purge, all new life must come from elsewhere, whether that’s local colonies of survivors, or places of refuge far away.

When life arrives, it occupies the territory in waves: first in are the pioneer species like mosses and lichens. These break up the surfaces they grow on and begin to create soil. You’ll often also find free-living blue-green algae, which enrich the soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere to soil-based nutrients.

Next come grasses and flowering plants, followed by perennials, then woody plants like brambles. Finally, if the site is left to its own devices, trees will grow, and eventually become woodland. This wave-like process of colonisation by plants has been much studied by ecologists, who call it succession.

A Miniature Eden

Because waste ground is uneven, and full of all sorts of rubble and junk with varying textures, it tends to contain a really large number of micro-habitats. And as succession moves on, more and more micro-habitats emerge: for example, grasses and brambles offer shelter to tender plants and seedlings, and also to animal life. It might not be what we normally think of as attractive, but every plot of derelict land is potentially a miniature garden of Eden, giving rise to all kinds of life.

And if that’s not a special kind of beauty, I don’t know what you’d call it.

Too Tidy for Wildlife

Contrast the patch of waste land above with the two manicured and very pleasant parks in the same area (pictures below). They’re lovely in their own way, and I’ve eaten my packed lunches in both of them, but they’re not bursting with wildlife in the same way. It’s important to know that whenever a derelict patch of land is developed, the variety of wildlife in the area tends to decrease.

Need this be the case? I don’t know, and indeed it seems defeatist to say that it does. What I do know is that I’d love to see more urban planning which really takes wildlife into account. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Green and Pleasant, but Where's the Wildlife? 30 Days Wild Tidy but Lacking in Wildlife - 30 Days Wild

What do you think? Is there a compromise between a tidy area and wildlife-rich one? Have you seen any interesting wildlife on waste ground?

Do We All Have Nature Deficit Disorder?

In Norwegian there’s the concept of friluftsliv: literally, ‘open air life’, or the culture of spending your free time outdoors in nature. There’s no pithy phrase for this in English, so perhaps that’s why we’ve become so bad at it. Tellingly, there is a term for the opposite condition: nature deficit disorder.

Named by author Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, nature deficit disorder is the consequence of losing touch with the natural world. Louv cites this estrangement as an underlying cause for common first-world ills like childhood obesity and depression.

It sounds far-fetched to make the lack of nature in your life into a medical-sounding condition, but Louv could have a point. I was never more removed from nature than when studying it academically, and I’ve never felt more ill than during that time. Plus, I’ve heard amazing stories from friends of friends about improved eyesight after long periods spent outdoors, and I believe there’s even some research to support the phenomenon.

This is why fun challenges like 30 Days Wild are important. They give us all a much-needed push to get out and renew our relationship with nature. Yesterday I discovered that this is possible even when you have a jam-packed work and commuting schedule. Since then I’ve been having a think, and I’ve come up with a few different themes for my wild walks. I may end up walking the same route many times throughout the month, so I want to try and mix things up a bit with different themes. I offer them to you to try as well.

Engage Your Senses

The real trick to communing with nature is to engage the senses. Going barefoot might not work so well on the cold, windy days we’re having at the moment, but there are other things to try. Simply listening to the sounds around you can be profound: trees swish, birds vocalise, fish and amphibians splosh. And feeling rough tree bark against your knees as you try to photograph camera-shy ants makes quite an impression (in your knees, if nowhere else).

Use Your Camera

If you can’t bear to go anywhere without your smart phone, this is the theme for you. Whenever you’re out and about and happen to see any wildlife, photograph it. The real joy of this little project comes when you adopt a broad definition of ‘wildlife’: see that tiny daisy struggling through a crack in the concrete? It’s wildlife. Before you know it you’ll have enough photos of nature to make yourself a nature picture gallery.

Sharpen Your Identification Skills

Learning to identify different species builds a special relationship with wild plants, animals and fungi. It’s satisfying and fun: pick a different organism each month and set yourself the task of cataloguing every specimen in your locality. If you’re a nomenclatural novice go with trees, which are large and stay still. For a real challenge, pick insects: they’re fast-moving and plenty of species have not yet been named. I must confess that I’m rubbish at identification, so with the help of social media I hope to get better throughout the month.

Become a Researcher

Ever wondered why some trees lose their leaves in winter and others don’t? Whatever your age or level of formal education, if you ask questions you’ve got what it takes to be a researcher. Start by looking for answers to your specific queries, or pick a plant, animal or fungus in your neighborhood and build up a dossier on it, illustrated by your own photographs.

Get to Know Your Local Birds

Ever hear about the 8 year old girl who started to feed some crows, and became the recipient of their gifts? Forget all those wisecracks about bird brains: birds have a keen intelligence and sophisticated social skills. So make their hard lives a little easier by feeding them and they may repay the favour in surprising ways, not least by amusing you for hours on end with their antics.

Between the pressures of work and the day-to-day hustle of family life, it’s easy to overlook the importance of spending time in nature. But as I re-discovered yesterday, you don’t have to journey into the wilderness to cure your nature deficit disorder. An appreciation of the wild things on your doorstep can be just as rewarding, and is certainly much cheaper. 30 Days Wild gives us all the chance to see how it feels to live more closely with nature for a month.