Say what you like about the world and all its faults but nature never stops giving you things for free. Nice views, food, inspiration, water… haircuts. Here’s a tip. Spend five minutes in a blackberry bush and come out with the best backcombing job since Barbarella and a compelling asymmetric blunt cut that will definitely glean a few looks if not actual admirers. Nature lavishes gifts upon you, and you get to give back by leaving a clump of your matted hair for birds to use as a winter duvet. The great outdoors is a big brilliant not entirely painless swap-shop.
I spent Sunday afternoon romping around the wild sea-blown hedgerows that snake through Wakering fields, falling away into the muddy marsh rivulets of the River Crouch, filling and draining with the tides. Our mission was sloe berries and blackberries for to stew head-pounding Christmas brews. My boyfriend hacks himself up in the hedges every year in this noble boozy pursuit. I was recruited as assistant berry-hand. I can do this, I thought. I am big into nature. I like leaves as much as the next person. I might have killed every plant I’ve ever owned within a month of having it but I have spent an inordinate amount of time saving suicidal snails in the rain. My dedication to nature is proven. Not many people can be bothered with snails. There was nothing to suggest I would decimate the bushes with my deathly presence alone, I just had to fill a bag with soft ripe berries begging to be picked before the birds pecked them to death. Easy. My black fingers would have no power here. Wild nature is well hard; it’s just houseplants that turn all namby-pamby on you, because they’ve been spoilt. It’s not my fault they’ve all died.
My childhood years of tomboying around the big parks of Leicestershire, the forests and overgrown quarries of North Wales, and the beaches and backyard alleyways of Essex came back in a flash as they always do. I threw myself into the mud and the thorns. Stuff going home with a bag of berries for christmas booze, I wanted to stay out for the full survival experience. I wanted to bind weeds into rope and weave it into some sort of sleep pod. I wanted to stitch huge spade-sized dock leaves together for tent sides and blankets and canopies. I wanted to pluck nettles and make a protective border against trolls. Dig deep traps and fill them with sharp bracken to fell chancing marauders. I am Enid Blyton regenerated as Bear Grylls. I am wasted on modern domestic life. Pit me into the wild and watch me not die. I can do it.
I don’t mind the sting and scratch of the delving arm. I don’t mind my face being whipped by defensive branches. I don’t mind going home ruddy-cheeked, bush-haired, thorn-pricked, bracken-nipped and sore. It’s nice. Getting stuck into something is meditative. I like the little questions that come from those quiet moments face to face with a tight entwinement of bushes and trees. Will this pretty red berry kill me if I lick it? Why are these leaves so soft, and these leaves so crunchy? How did this butter-shelled snail get six feet up in a hazardous dog rose bush? Did it slowly slide its way up, millimetre by millimetre, leaf by leaf, just to get a different view of the ground? Are snails dreamers, chancers, or do they just get lost a lot? Or did it hitchhike up there in the beak of a friendly bird? Lovely little mysteries. Nature might give you stuff for free, but it doesn’t always give you the answers and that’s good.