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6 November 2017

The Only Natural Remedy For Me...

Real panic chez Kane this morning as we turned up in school to find all the other reception class kids clad head to foot in waterproofs and wooly hats. We'd be wondering when they'd be doing their Monday morning class in the woods, and now I knew. Cue a quick dash home and back with the right kit.

But the stress didn't last long as I took off on my regular Monday morning run up the Ouseburn river valley where I live. This wondrous green corridor slices through the east of Newcastle and you hardly get a glimpse of the surrounding suburbia. We get kingfishers, otters and even deer and yet we're 20 minutes walk from the city centre. But, most importantly, it is incredibly relaxing and I need it – I've got two jobs (this one and as a local councillor) and three primary school age kids. As a family, our default outing is to an area of natural beauty (the pic above of middle child was taken a couple of weeks ago at Allen Banks) and nobody complains about not having their iPad there.

As regular readers know, I'm seriously intolerant of new-agey nonsense, clean eating (give me a 'dirty burger' any day), and every 'natural remedy' except one: nature itself. And there's plenty of evidence behind the idea that nature is good for our mental health (such as this UK Government report).

And you can take this over into the corporate world: I've seen plenty of examples of on-site biodiversity areas, composting, bird feeding, plus all kinds of off-site conservation volunteering. This will help your colleagues feel good about themselves and their work, and the link between those two things and the natural world helps conversations about, say, waste disposal, clean energy, pollution prevention and even product design (e.g. biomimicry).

So why not bring a little of the natural world into your workplace?



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28 July 2017

What does 'natural' mean anyway?


I love a bit of serendipity. I hadn't really been paying attention when Mrs K suggested a few days camping in Norfolk to kick off the summer holidays and I didn't have a plan in mind. The first morning we headed off to the beach at Sea Palling but I was a little underwhelmed (we're spoilt for beaches up here in the North East). So I wandered off to get a coffee, and found an interpretation panel which mentioned nearby Hickling Nature Reserve was the sole location of swallowtail butterflies in the UK. This caught my attention.

It didn't take much persuading to get the rest of the family to leave the beach and check it out. As soon as we walked in to the visitors centre, they asked us if we fancied a boat trip on the Broads and we said 'yes'. As we waited at the jetty, a bittern flew overhead – my first ever spot after years and years of trying.

Now, I knew that East Anglia used to be almost all marsh but that extensive network of ditches and dykes had been used to drain the fertile land for agriculture. I had kind of assumed that waterways of The Broads were a remnant of that ancient marsh, preserved for the future by chance or design. But, as Richard our boatman explained, I was wrong – The Broads are entirely manmade; the legacy of industrial-scale, but pre-industrial peat and clay extraction, flooded accidentally at first, then maintained for game hunting and pleasure trips via wind-powered pumps.

In other words, everything in Norfolk was artificial to some extent. This is no surprise as I am currently reading the superb 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that every time our species colonised a continent, a massive extinction event happened pretty much immediately. Humans have been shaping eco-systems on a mammoth scale (pun all too appropriate) since the days of nomadic hunting and gathering. When we started farming, then very little wilderness survived.

I mused on this the following day as I cycled around the county, passing some signs campaigning to protect 'unspoilt countryside' by some proposed project or other. I think it is important that we remember that what we see, and conserve, as the natural world is anything but. Neither should we get too romantic about our ancestors living in harmony with the eco-system around them – as Harari points out, this is twaddle. The sustainability movement is trying to develop that harmony, but we're probably going to have to look to the future and not be constrained by some rose-tinted view of the past.

By the way, we never did see the butterfly, but we did see its caterpillars. The future!


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1 June 2016

Wild(ish) in Wooler


I wasn't planning on blogging today – in fact I had intended to be waking up for my fourth morning under canvas (well, nylon) at Wooler at the north end of the Cheviots. However our deliberations on the weather came to an abrupt conclusion when the cheap gazebo we used for cooking took off yesterday morning, leaving me standing in a field, holding a full cafetiere in a stiff northerly wind, with a surprised expression on my face. However difficult it was to dismantle the tent in the wind yesterday, it was going to be easier than doing it with the same wind plus precipitation this morning.

But before that slightly dramatic end (thank god most people left our field on Monday – that flying gazebo could have done some real damage) we had a fantastic time. Breakfast with buzzards soaring overhead then swooping down and scattering rabbits, some really gorgeous walks with picnics, the boys playing in the stream that runs through the camp site, dinner al fresco and bedtime stories as the sun went down (see pic). I also got to sneak off for a 46 mile coffee ride on my brand new carbon fibre road bike (well I have just turned 45 so I had to buy one).

I try not to get too romantic about the 'back to nature' element of camping – all the high-tech fabrics, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, gas cooker and cool bags make our annual family forays very comfortable. But there is something wonderful about being buffeted that wind, hearing the peep of the oystercatcher protecting its young in the middle of the night and watching the kids really get down with nature (although the 'slug licking' maybe went a tad too far).

Is the model of embedding oneself in nature while wearing a Polartec fleece and a Gore-tex cagoule the one for our sustainable future? Appropriate technology allowing us top quality of life in harmony with our fantastic natural world sounds like a winner to me.

Although the fate of our gazebo, now lying mangled in Wooler's household waste recycling centre, reminds us what happens when we get it wrong.


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15 June 2015

The Wonders of Nature

We've had a very educational Spring chez Kane with our camera-rigged bird box hosting its first blue tit family. The video clip above shows the mother – 'Melody' – bringing in food and removing a fecal sac. Having watched the parents build the nest, lay the eggs, feed and brood the young and, finally, a quick glimpse of the fledgelings making their way in the world, we feel a bit sad that they've moved on.

But our attention has now moved on to our Painted Lady butterflies. A friend gave our boys a kit where we could see the caterpillars fatten themselves up and then move into a chrysalis and now the first one has emerged, stretching its wings, fastening the two sides of its proboscis together and expelling shockingly bright red meconium – basically all the poo it has stored up since it last ate. As Mrs K put it, when you see the magic a caterpillar does to become an adult, there's a long, long way for technology to go.

mands green wallNow you can watch all this stuff on Springwatch – and we do, religiously – but there is something about experiencing the joys of nature right in front of your eyes which can never be replicated. It is no surprise that 'eco-therapy' has been shown to help those with mental health problems, that nature is an interesting start point for engaging employees or the general public in sustainability (our local Nestlé factory kicked off the process with a butterfly garden), or that bringing nature into the urban core is becoming the in thing (see M&S's living wall in Newcastle, right).

But you don't have to think about all that, you can also just relax and enjoy it!


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14 April 2014

Nature and Industry in Harmony (-ish)

little egret teesside

On Friday I took school holiday boy down to Teesside for a treat - not words that often go together, but despite having worked in the area for six years, I have never checked out the wildlife before. We visited the RSPB reserve at Saltholme where we notched up 45 species of bird plus a fox, and stopped at Greatham Creek where the pictures shown here were taken. All around us, heavy industry loomed large - literally and figuratively.

In many ways Teesside is a candle of hope. There was nothing here until the 19th Century when discoveries of iron and coal led to an industrial explosion. This was followed by explosives factories during the wars which were demobbed into fertiliser production and then later came the petrochemical industry. By 1960 the Tees was biologically dead, and the seals that gave the northern estuary its name, Seal Sands were gone.

Fast forward to today and the seals are back - the only colony in NW Europe to have been wiped out by industry and recovered. The seals, the fish they must live on and the large number of wading birds such as the little egret (above) show that the local pollution has been successfully dealt with. This hasn't happened by chance - instead it has been driven by a mixture of legislation, protest groups and a massive effort from the industries themselves.

seal sands

Of course, the petrochemicals, inorganic chemicals and iron works on Teesside are still not sustainable in the global sense of climate change and resource depletion. But it goes to show what you can do if you really try.


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24 April 2013

Our Place in the World

Harry WWT

My eldest son, Harry, is mad about nature. If you ask him "What would you like to do this weekend?", he'll respond with the name of one of half-a-dozen nature reserves. At six years old, his knowledge of birds in particular is quite remarkable - he'll spot a nuthatch or a reed warbler from quite a distance.

As most boys of his age do, he asks lots of questions, many of which start "Dad, does nature..." Sometimes I tease him "Well, you're part of nature, what do you think?" He always gives me his nervous not-sure-about-this laugh.

And I think that this is the default, anthropocentric position of most if not all of us, that we somehow float above the natural world, observing it remotely. We like to point out to Harry that he still has to poo, just like everything else alive. That breaks the tension if nothing else.

Yep, we all have to eat, drink and poo - we are all part of nature, like it or not. There are three different dimensions:

  • Spiritually: Everybody gets a spiritual lift from the natural world - evidenced by everything from higher hospital recovery rates amongst those with a natural view to higher prices on houses with river/sea views. Some take this to the extent of neo-spiritual nonsense with its healing crystals, prayer flags and Paulo Coelho books, but we don't need to go all hippy-dippy to commune with nature - just walk to the top of a hill and breathe in.
  • Physically: Everything physical we need, we get from nature - animal, mineral or vegetable - plus all the eco-system services we rely on like stable climate, screening the sun's rays and waste disposal. Many businesses forget this, but they are embedded into the natural environment and highly reliant upon it. Therefore it makes practical sense to nurture the natural world rather than ravaging it.
  • Intellectually: the scientific discipline of 'biomimicry' has shown us many ways we can learn from the way nature does things. Nature has been pretty sustainable for over 2 billion years so it has much to teach us whether on a macro level like the circular economy or in micro level solutions like emulating sharkshin on boat hulls to avoid using toxic anti-fouling.

And if you want to really experience nature, take a young child with you. They get it.





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22 February 2013

Enjoy Nature, It's Good for You!

bike at big waters

By the time this post hits the blog, I should be off looking for otters with my eldest, Harry, who's on half term holidays. The natural world is a big part of our lives -  I spent last Friday cycling between local nature reserves (above), Sunday the whole family spent the day at Washington Wildfowl and Wetland Trust and on Wednesday Harry and I went on a guided bird walk just up the valley from where we live, spotting dippers, a kingfisher and a goldcrest amongst others.

Although I can be quite brutal about wishy-washy tree-huggers here, I love nature with a passion. I'm never happier than hiking over a moorland or pedalling along country lanes, and we pretty much bought our house on the basis of it being in a wooded river valley despite being near the centre of a major conurbation. And, it appears, there's a good reason for this. The theory of Biophilia says that, as we are intrinsically part of nature, we basically freak out a bit if we are deprived of it.

Studies have shown that patients with a view of nature recover faster than those looking out at a wall. Reoffending rates are said to be lower from prisons with natural vistas and interactions with nature have been shown to ameliorate the symptoms of a number of serious disorders including ADHD and autism.

So it looks like, as with so many other things, protecting nature is an opportunity as well as a challenge. By designing nature into our urban environment, we can bring in major social benefits as well as providing ecological sanctuaries. By providing natural areas in our places of work, we can soothe and inspire employees. And at home, there's usually space for a bird feeder in even the smallest flat to cheer us up.

The otter hunt will probably be a wild goose chase, but we'll enjoy ourselves anyway. Have a good weekend!


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