Staff blog: Seeking the white noise of nature
John Muir Award Scotland Education Manager Rebecca Logsdon uses a 'Wild Day' in nature to help her rediscover her own lost words
Stories and writing are a big thing in my life at the moment. I’m trying to support my eight-year-old son to find a love of writing. At work with the John Muir Trust's John Muir Award I’ve been writing about literacy and nature and, in an outdoor nursery, I’ve been learning about early literacy through storytelling.
A recent inspiration has been Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words. It’s a wonderful wake up for any would-be writers. Reading this with my son, we both enjoyed finding the hidden words (acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker, fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren) in the beautifully illustrated landscapes. I felt some relief that he knew the nature words depicted. With two parents working in the environment field you would expect nature might be a focal point of our child’s upbringing. But I want this to be more than a crass patting on the back, ticking off exercise and to ask ourselves ‘do we really know these nature words’?
I’ve certainly lost the stories about these words. I haven’t been passed on the lore from an older generation and I haven’t shared it with the next. I am now researching stories to share and it’s hard to find one where the woods are not a place of darkness, where wolves are not depicted as evil or where certain trees are given traits that enforce certain stereotypes. For example the ‘king of the woods’ (oak), the ‘ lady of the woods’ (birch). I know that we have lost the easy, rich connections around these words. It’s time to get out there and make our own stories.
This is where my thoughts take me on my ‘Wild Day’. [As part of our work, the John Muir Trust encourages staff to take two days per year to be immersed in wildness, in whatever way we choose]. It leads me to ponder about the words that I might have lost sight of in my daily life and how nature helps me see them again.
This is the first of my lost words that comes to me, journeying through a landscape that is opening up to bare mountains of Glenshee as I drive north. I have to turn off the radio as it starts to jar my senses; the thrum of the vehicle is enough for now. I need something to move me from the noisy thoughts of the everyday. I’m seeking the white noise of nature: the traces of the wind blowing through the woods, giving each tree a distinct musical rhythm; the regular slap of water on the loch edge. It’s a quietness of mind that I am mostly looking for.
I remember this morning that I asked my son to ‘focus’ on his writing homework. I’m struck by how little I can actually focus in my busy daily life. This is how I start my walk in Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve: with a camera, using the lens to really start focusing on the small things, a note pad to capture words.
I’m all too soon overwhelmed with beauty and I’ve only walked a few hundred yards. I’m getting down low, popping out from under trees and behind walls where people don’t expect me. I’m looking for the light in the woods to counter the perceptions of it being a dark scary place. It becomes a focus for my attention.
Later nature will help me to lose focus, as my eyes start to soften staring at Loch Kinord. An evening fire will draw me in, take all my concentration as I choose the right twig and work at keeping the fire safe. I will be shocked awake by the bright stars of the night sky, pulling my head upwards, round and round I gaze. In the morning I will focus on picking up every bit of burnt wood and take it with me to leave no trace.
I write poems, focusing on the words for each element of the landscape. I want to collect, to make marks, to get them down. My usual struggle with words doesn’t feature. It’s like I’ve opened up the top of my head and the wind has blown out all the cloying, confusing mist of words. I write. I want to write. I have fun with it.
What’s really happening is I’m slowing down. This is a ‘small’ adventure, I don’t have any pressure to reach a certain point at any given time. Slow isn’t something I have a lot of in my every day, as I rush here and there. Its possibly not even part of my character. I start to think of words that describe travelling fast and slow.
Fast: rush, run, hurry, stride, speed, propel, straight, direct, purposeful
Slow: aimless, amble, dawdle, meander, wander
Is it just me, or do the slow words seem to be more negative? I have more time to think about the context of words and how they shape us.
Now I’m listening, it seems like certain places along my walk ask me to do different things.
One tree asks me to climb, a collection of leaves ask me to throw them, a rock face asks me to scramble. I play with shadows. I want to run through the young birches, swinging from one to the other in a joyous ‘strip the willow’ ceilidh. But something holds me back from this last request.
I know children hear this call to play, but somehow as adults we lose our moments to play and then forget how much we need it. I witness adults ready to play at the Vat, eager to climb through a gap in the stone. They lose their cautious nature and get their feet wet on the way. They may well be thinking of the incredible geological formations, but I’m sure they will also be thinking of magic as they enter a witch-like caldron.
On my own and away from home, gratitude for all I have comes into sharp focus. The signs of other people are all around, the old walls, the island where a crannog stood, field margins and stone circles. These ancients knew this place much more intimately, a knowledge of necessity, a rich tradition of storytelling. I want to come back to this place and share it with my loved ones. Now I’m here fending for myself in the wilds and I’m grateful for the modern comforts I have.
I’m grateful to find my way back to words. For the reminder to seek more quiet, to focus and slow down, be playful and give thanks.
Most of all I’m grateful for all the joy. For the sun warming my face. For seeing the last flowers before the winter takes them. For time in the birch woodland that feels endless. Of being granted these days.