Wholehearted Nature

Wholehearted nature

I was sitting, sifting shingle through my fingers on the beach at Charmouth. This is not an unreasonable pastime – right on the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of Dorset, it is a prime spot for fossil-hunters. And I have found one of the best ammonites I have seen anywhere, museums included, along the shore.

The sky was grey, the wind stiff and the sea like pewter; when it was not curling into ‘crash and shhhhh’. And I was alone. The more sensible elements of my family had found a slightly more sheltered spot to hop across boulders. But it is here I find myself as close to meditating as I get. Absorbed in the quest for patterns; the regular curve of ridges that indicates an ammonite or the smooth needle of a belemnite. Time can fly by with my head down; eyes focussed on the myriad stones, evolving and revolving into sand. But this time I was distracted. Someone else was braving the elements with their spaniel.

Suddenly I was pulled out of my reverie and felt self-conscious. I did not want to be seen questing for hidden treasure and sat up, looking poetically (well, one likes to think) out to metallic sea.


I felt bothered about that all night. Perhaps it is related to the difficulty I have in doing yoga without the permission of a teacher?

But the conclusion I have reached is that I was embarrassed by my wholehearted absorption in having fun. It is something that children do so well but we withdraw from as we age. What is there to be ashamed of in just allowing oneself to be absorbed in the moment of nature? Why should we not embrace a wholehearted love of nature with pride?

This is something I learnt from the ambassadors in The Beauty in the Beast. As I travelled around the country I found people who were able and willing to let me into their bubble of enthusiasm. Some even talked of the very meditative nature of time spent in nature. Best-selling novelist Kate Long gave up trying to explain what she did down by the small stream each day – she said that she went to think of ideas. But that was just what she was not doing. She was placing her stool beside (or even in, when I went … banks had burst) and sitting in quiet. Hidden from walkers by reeds, warmed by sun and relaxed by the gentle gurgle of water filling our shoes (next time I will wear boots) it was easy to slip into that wholehearted state of awareness that eats time for breakfast. Water voles were our prey – and they did not disappoint.

There is no embarrassment for Chris Sperring either, even when the first two species of owl refused to return his calls, he persevered and took me deep into the darkness of woods behind his home where we waited for tawny owls to grace us with a reply. Which came in the most hauntingly delicate touches of wing, or wind of wing, passing by our cheeks.

I found that state of grace most readily in my least favourite environment, with the team from the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unity out in the Moray Firth, looking for bottlenose dolphins. I get seasick and the thought of being on a wallowing rigid inflatable boat for a day filled me with fear. But thanks to some wonderful medication I was able to, for the first time since I was two, really enjoy the sea. And as I let my gaze take in the undulating fields of water, looking, again, for patterns, I slipped into a state of near bliss as I wholeheartedly committed myself to thinking of nothing but the nature around me.

On thinking about this it seems that my apprehension on the beach was probably to do with my solitude. I had no reinforcement giving me permission to have fun. And as adults I think that is something we need – unlike the unhindered children who can vanish into their own worlds’ at the mere hint of a request to do something.

So my mission is to find ways of wholeheartedly, unashamedly and joyfully immersing myself in nature – and sharing them. For a start, though, I would love to have some thoughts and guidance from you. How do you lose yourself? How can we all shed the satnav of adulthood and just enjoy the wonders of what is outside beyond the door?

As it was I returned to my mining after man and dog had retreated – and was swiftly lost again until so cold that I had to put on my gloves and then, when the ends started to fray, decided to find which boulders the rest of the family were bouncing across.


11 thoughts on “Wholehearted Nature

  1. That’s interesting, Hugh. I never feel self-conscious when I’m out in the field. I quite like it when people come over and ask what I’m doing, because they almost always give a good imitation of being interested and it gives me great joy to share my photos and sightings. I’ve no doubt some of them go away thinking I’m a touch unhinged, though.

  2. Hi Hugh. There’s something wrapped up in your post here about embarrassment, shame, being spotted that is really very important for questions of how we relate to nature. I, sadly, often seen out an excuse to engage and immerse myself in nature – that is, through voluntary work (‘I’m here for a reason, see my badge?’) or complete isolation, so as not to be seen. I don’t know why I feel embarrassed to be seen in nature, seen enjoying myself or loving nature – but I feel it is something to do with a shame that is learnt in childhood. Might take a few deep conversations to work that out! I’m working on a ‘green feelings’ project, trying to figure this stuff out. I got stuck on green fatigue… maybe time to move on to shame!

    On a much more joyful note, there is a beautiful moment in The Peregrine where J A Baker, the old man he is, literally jumps up and down with an immense childish glee at spotting and following the peregrine he’s been tracking all year. Considering the lack of first person (ego) in the book it is a wonderful moment.

    And because you put wholehearted in the title of the post, I’ll recommend Brene Brown’s social science work on wholeheartedness – it’s a wonderful read and, although she is not writing about environmental issues, has important things to say about this relationship with nature.

    • Well said Hugh, and Alex. We’re very reticent in Britain about our own rapture about nature and wild things, yes. I think this shyness/shame must be causing problems to our collective health.. and cramping our creativity. Is the issue also connected with the fact that most of the land and its wild places belong to the fewest people, and therefore to display our own private connection is a kind of trespass – I certainly felt this whilst writing ‘Otter Country’ (which I’m talking about in Hexham on 26th April..) And any sort of spiritual connection is doubly taboo..

    • Alex – that is great – you pick two of my favourite communicators in one response – Peregrine is one of my favourite books – and certainly one of the most given away as presents. And I had the pleasure of seeing Brene Brown talk in London … I guess you are seeing what I am not -my influences! I recognise the need to label – I too find it easier if I have a badge that says I am allowed to be like this … which in a way is like having a child with you – gives you permission. Green feelings sound interesting … keep me posted.

  3. Lovely stuff. I know that I get into the same state when photographing plants. I can lose hours!

    What you are describing sounds very much like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s description of the state of mind known as ‘Flow’. One of the characteristics of ‘flow’ is total immersion. I wonder if the embarrassment you describe is not so much about being caught “questing for hidden treasure”, but is the same feeling that a musician, for example, would get while playing a cello and suddenly realising they were not alone. The interuption of total immersion – being rudely reminded that there are other things in the world apart from you and fossils(!) – is a very uncomfortable feeling. You have to shift your whole being into a different phase of awareness. I think we translate that ‘being caught’ feeling into embarrasment about the subject we are immersed in, rather than just recognising it for the phase shift that our brains have been forced into.

    There’s a lot of information about Flow as a state of happiness online. Worth researching.

    • Yes! It’s all about Flow. That’s why I chose otters as my creative role model. Are animals in a state akin to this ‘Flow’? I think so. We have a lot to re-learn from them. That’s why animal tracking is such a useful exercise – it trains you to ‘Flow’.

    • Thanks for that insight Erica – fascinating idea and one I can relate too – I am not ’embarrassed’ about what I am doing, but I find myself distracted from the immersion on interruption … One of my favourite experiences of this was when I was out with the dolphin watchers, researching for The Beauty in the Beast – and all six of us on the boat were absorbed in just watching the sea for signs of whales and dolphins – beautiful and meditative – the only interruption being the success of seeing one!

  4. Hi Hugh, much enjoyed your post. But isn’t this absorbtion wonderful while it lasts. It’s the only place in the world to be – just there and then. I like this idea of flow, particularly descriptive of listening to birdsong, absorbed in the slow development of themes and species.

    As a listener, I don’t get embarassed when others enter my solitude, but it does make me self-conscious. Not so much if someone comes along on foot: we’re sharing the same soundscape, and can voice an acknowledgement. But If I’m stood by a roadside, listening into the distance and a car comes along, I’m self-conscious, aware that I look pretty vague, stood in apparent contemplation of nothing, visually. Anyone in the car is perceptually isolated from the world I’m engaged with, in their own bubble of the intra-car soundscape, though there may be a rich interplay of songs and calls spread around outside.

    Also, in its passage, the vehicle creates a surging destructive wave of noise that, at its peak, often saturates the sonic environment: so I am stood there doing literally nothing, just waiting for the vehicle to fade into the distance, and my sound world to return, hopefully with some continuity from earlier. Maybe I’ll raise my bins to my eyes to appear to be doing something, while actually looking at nothing.

    I suppose it’s what gets alot of fisherman as well – ‘caught be the river’. For many it’s not so much the material objective of catching fish that drives us, it’s the world of the river itself, or the rocky foreshore or whatever, and an absorption in the creatures and natural patterns running through the spot.

    • Thanks Geoff – I had not even thought of the fishing link, it is just not a world I inhabit. But I am sure you are right – absorption into the moment is such a wonderful thing.

  5. Hi Hugh,

    Kate and I spent some of last summer on the Jurassic Coast too – bliss. Holding on to our childishness is something we are discouraged from doing, even in childhood itself, constantly we are told to put away childish things. But why? Why can’t being an adult mean you embrace and even enjoy the freedoms and responsibility it brings, without still living in the present moment.

    You are lucky, right now, you have young children and they are the greatest guides to losing yourself in nature and enjoying just where you are. They are often captivated by what is in front of them, not the search for the rare or elusive.

    And, who cares what passersby think of you? You are harming nothing; if they stop and talk, then chances are you will each learn something, or bring something to each other’s day. If they wander past tutting, then why worry? They are just in a different place from you right then and you will probably never see each other again.

    Enjoy the moment and the fossil!


    • thank you Helen – yes, the excuse of children … just hope I can keep going when they don’t want to come with me. What I found interesting was that my head knew I was being irrational, wondering what might be thought of me, but my heart quailed a little …. something to be dealt with!

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