The need to get out into the field, to enter ‘green’ space, is something that most of us can identify with. The reason why we have such a need comes in many forms: a release from everyday mundanity; an antidote to modern life and technology; a connection with the natural world; an opportunity to observe wildlife; fresh air and exercise; a chance to contemplate and clear the mind. For some of us it is all of these things, and, no doubt, most of us can come up with many other reasons for why we do so.
One of the suggestions in the paragraph above is ‘a connection with the natural world’ but maybe that should rather read a re-connection. It wasn’t that many years ago - 300 or so - that the vast majority of our population started to leave the countryside and head towards towns and cities to seek regular employment with the hope of better housing. The countryside that they left behind was not necessarily the manicured and tamed panorama that we see today - the idealised vision of village greens, charming country lanes, roadside inns and singing Skylarks are really a modern construct. Our ancestors, from the time before the Industrial Revolution, had yet to suffer from the prohibitions brought on by the Enclosures Acts, but even though they could roam freely across the open land, to do so was not done out of pleasure. For one, leisure time was at a premium, plus there were few tracks in existence and those that were would have been heavily rutted, almost impassable during the winter and - away from their home village - a risky venture. Lawlessness was almost an acceptable response towards strangers. But even so, their relationship with the countryside around them was intimate. They used it as a free resource, they harvested food, gathered firewood, and as such would have had an understanding of the nature around them, which had been passed on down through the generations. This familiarity is more than born out by the many, many names that birds and flowers were given throughout our isles, and by the deep knowledge of which plants were edible and could be used medicinally. Can we have, in the course of a handful of generations, lost this relationship with the land? As much as our ‘fight or flight’ instinct still kicks in - even though we have, by and large, no need for it - it seems almost absurd to suggest that our closeness to the land has been wiped out or can be considered irrelevant.
So, do we really have an in-built ancestral desire to lose ourselves in our ‘wild’ environment? If our forbears had little time to do so, and were most probably wary of wandering far, is this hankering for time spent in a green space built upon more modern needs? Is our mental evolution speeding up? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and this has been further stirred up by recent on-line discussions about patch watching and the adoption of ‘special’ places as bolt holes. Why do I choose where I spend my natural history time? Why does anyone?
Can it be as simple as finding any old place to watch and study natural history? To be honest, most of us never switch off. Even a trip to central London will find me checking for Peregrines and taking note of the pavement ‘weeds’. If our reason for getting ‘out there’ is not strictly, 100%, down to the wildlife then why do we choose where we go? And here we all widely deviate. Coastal headland, reservoir, local park, gravel pit - all worthy of our time, but why are they chosen? The likelihood is that they are adopted because they have a proven record of supplying what we want to see - that they are good for birds, or plants, or insects, or all three. And here we find various stages in what can be construed as ‘good’. Canons Farm can be good, but it is not as good as Holmethorpe, which is not as good as Staines Reservoir, which in turn is not as good as Dungeness. So why do we not just all cut out the middle-patch and go to Dungeness? So maybe we do not use ‘good’ as a requisite for where we go.
Natural beauty? The idealised countryside that our First World War troops fought for, to protect and longed to return to, was one of rolling hills, wild flower meadows, thatched cottages, bustling hedgerows, swaying reedbeds and verdant woods. But with such places freely available to us, why then choose sewage farms, concrete reservoirs and industrial wasteland instead? Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but a pile of effluent or a stark wall of cold-grey reinforced cement is not examples that spring to mind.
The truth may well be that ‘why’ and ‘where’ we go is of a more cerebral and spiritual choice. A decision that is made to vacate what passes for normal life, even if that life is one that is pleasurable. Since the Industrial Revolution our lives have been largely governed by time and machines. We wake up to alarms; have to be at a certain place at a certain time; get to those places by car, train or bus; sit at a computer or operate machinery; have deadlines; shop and bank online; look at phones, tablets or computers to glean information; sit in front of televisions in between operating more machinery to cook, wash and clean for us. This life is incessant, sound-bite driven and rotting away our attention spans. We move on with a speed that borders on manic. Our information overload never stops, and with social media the voices in our heads are rarely switched off. Is it any wonder that we crave some peace and quiet?
I feel confident as to why I choose where I go to get my nature fix. It isn’t because a place is good. It is an amalgamation of natural beauty and escape. My downland sites can be considered visually striking. The woods, farms and heaths close by to them are pleasant on the eye. And they are all quiet. I will see people, but even at a popular beauty-spot like Box Hill, you do not have to wander far to find emptiness and tranquility. Yes, my choices are not of places that would get most birder’s pulses racing, but they all have their moments. But they are, botanically and lepidopterally, of national importance, which gives me great pride and pleasure.
So I walk these considered places largely alone, aware that I walk along footpaths worn by fellow travellers over the years. I can look across the flat lands towards the Greensand Ridge and even the South Downs beyond. I can look along the line of the North Downs. My mind is bathed in balm. Time stops. Thoughts are slowed. My soul is transported back to the time when my ancestors collected wood for the fire, mushrooms for the table and acorns for the pigs. Fanciful? Maybe, but to this birder, who sometimes finds the 21st-century a place of confusion, it is my very own safe place.