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Alex Douglas-Kane shares her experiences and understanding of Discover Nature Awareness

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Tree with Spines

In September 2009 I attend the 7th Wilderness Therapy Symposium in Boulder, Colorado where I presented Natural Awareness to a group of wilderness therapists from all over the world. During my six hour workshop I took a group through Meet a Tree. One of the members in the group was from South Africa who I shall call David as I watched him moving through the forest blindfolded it became clear to me that there was some resistance within him to engage in Meet a Tree. He made several attempts to find his tree however; he kept heading in the opposite direction from his tree.

It is important to beware that the activity is not always about finding a tree; it is very much about exploring who we are and looking at the situations that are presented to us within the game and our relationship with self in nature. While people are taking part I am watching them very closely, I am looking at their body language and I am checking out their energy and where I feel it is appropriate I intervene in a very supportive way. I usually ask them what is going on for them, what are they feeling and what can they relate that feeling to, together we explore their response to the questions and what they feel the answers to their experience/feelings might be.
When we have done exploring and they are happy to continue I then get them to refocus by carrying out a small exercise and asking them to tune into their tree by feeling it with their heart, then I set them off again. Their sight-guide in the meantime is observing the whole process from 5m away and in my experience they are without doubt are gaining lots of insight about their partner and more importantly about themselves during this time.
Once David was happy he set off again, this time taking a direct line to his tree which was a good 50m away and required him to move through a cathedral of trees to get to it. I observed him continually trying to get to the trunk of his tree through some very long branches; these branches were all located on one side of the tree, reaching from the ground upwards, the other side was relatively clear of branches.
As I watched him trying to connect with his tree, an image of hedgehog's spines came to me.
At the end of the activity we processed people's experiences of the activity. I asked David if the branches had anything to do with his life right now. He replied yes, and went on to say that his family were dumping all their problems on to him, he felt this was because he was the only non-addict within his family and that he no longer wanted their problems, he wanted to push them away and the long branches were an expression of how he feels about them, as he explained this he was clearly quite emotional about his situation.

I have no idea how David got on, on his return to South Africa and do you know what, nor do I need to know as I have learnt to let go and trust that things will work out for the greater good. I am not here to fix people. I am but a small part of their journey and that for me is an honour and a privilege.

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Tunnel of Silence, where is the Sparrowhawk?

I was teaching a lost track drill session while over in Sweden last week. When I became aware of a flock of song birds singing joyously in the tree tops, I suspected they were Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra). As Peter got close to locating one of the lost tracks, the birds suddenly fell silent, so silent it was deafening.

I stepped back and looked up expecting hoping to see a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) sailing through the air, in hot pursuit. Nothing, I looked around and in the distance I clocked a flash, plugging into the long grass on the far side of the bank.

Photo by Miguel Lasa


As it took off and turned towards our side of the track it was clear for all to see, it was of course a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). I have never experienced the tunnel of silence with a Kestrel, only ever with a Sparrowhawk.

The silence remained for a long time. And only after the Kestrel moved off from its tree top advantage point, did the songs begin again.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Treecreeper visited my Sit-spot...

A Sit-spot is a place where you can sit in silence and spend time alone. But are you really alone? This is a place to allow your senses to take in your surroundings. Sitting still and being quiet is very relaxing, but perhaps not the easiest skill for some to master. With children I usually start with a fifteen minute sit-spot and building it up to a maximum of twenty minutes, depending on how much time I have with my group.

With adults I get them to spend up to an hour in a sit-spot. However, for their first time I would normally get them to do a twenty minute sit-spot. I ask them to be aware of how insects behave around them; and how does their presence affect the wildlife around them, are they setting of alarm calls from nearby birds which, in turn, alert other animals.

This is known as a ‘concentric ring.’ The longer you stay in a Sit-spot the more the animals will become aware that you mean them no harm and the more they will visit you, and the more you will become aware of your surroundings and the events that take place within it. By staying still and quiet and by changing how you are feeling you will find that wildlife will no longer recognise you as a typical human. As your energy settles down, animals will begin to come closer to you, thus presenting you with an opportunity for some amazing close encounters with nature.

On one occasion I had a Treecreeper fly straight towards me and land in the tree directly above my head where I was sitting for my sit-spot at Tom Brown’s Tracker School in the States, in all my years of bird watching I have never experienced such an event.

At the same time a Red Squirrel was calmly eating a nut within a few feet of me, and only when I changed my energy, by switching back into my head with excitement as the Treecreeper alighted directly above my head, (the Treecreeper was so close I could feel its tail feathers on my hair) did the squirrel realise I was there and alarmed and moved off slowly so as not to draw attention to its self.

This was a very powerful moment for me as were many of the other activates Tom had us do throughout the course.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Sailing to South Georgia


While serving in the Falklands, I had the opportunity to sail down to South Georgia some one thousand miles from the Antarctic. Ten days sailing (round trip) on the Grey Rover, I spent the majority of my time out on deck bird watching popping inside every so often to drink hot sweet tea and then back out on deck again. Everyone on board thought I was mad.

I saw many wonderful things, like awhole bunch of pilot whales which ran into the bow of the ship, and there were the Tunny fish way off in the distance, a cross between a mackerel and a tuna fish. Plenty of birds were to be seen like, Black-browed and Yellow-nosed Albatross and there was one way of in the distance that reminded me of a B52 bomber namely the Wandering Albatross, what a magnificent bird to behold sailing effortlessly over the waves. One day we had a Wilson's Storm-petrel land on board; it was amazing to be able to hold such a delicate bird in my hands.

We sailed past Bird Island docking later at Grytviken, South Georgia. I went for a walk along the coastline to take a closer look at a glacier when I came across a Weddell Seal just lazing away on the beach; what a moment that was to be so closed to a wild animal. The seal seemed to be just as curious about me as I was about him or her.

The whaling stations on the Island were something else, even though they had been abounded many years previously, there was still an eerie feeling to the place; you could imagine the whales being dragged up the slopes to be prepared for human needs. I also had the privilege of being in the presence of Earnest Shackleton's grave, and strangely enough, buried close by to his grave was an Argentinean Officer.

There was one evening on board ship it started to snow and as I watched it come down I realised that the snow was settling on the sea I had never seen this before, the snow remained for a long time on the surface of the sea. There were of course ice bergs everywhere from small to ones that dwarfed the ship, I even got to see an ice berg flip over 180 degrees.


I had three attempts to get to South Georgia as I was hoping to see the 4.3 million King Penguins that breed there, alas it was not meant to be, but none the less I had a wonderful time and to have the privilege to experience something that very few people on this earth will ever get to see and for that I am very grateful.

All photos by Geoffrey:

Looking out from Shackleton's grave at the Grey Rover and Grytviken in the distance.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The San Bushman and the Dance of the Roller


As I walked with the San Bushman, a Roller flew overhead. He pointed to it, whistled the call of the roller, it seemed to me he was asking it to roll for him.

He then moved his body in a way that, had the roller not been there I would have known for sure that he was mimicing the flight of a Roller. Then, right on cue the Roller rolled straight after him.

It was like they were connected to each other and were enjoying each other’s company through dance. In fact I know this was the case. We are also capable of this connection, it’s just that most of us have switched off to it… with the distraction of our modern lives.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Inner City Kids and Bird Language

I am soon to start a programme working with young adults from the inner city. I have been giving a great deal of thought on how to work with them. I have been looking at ways of taking them on a journey ending in a rites of passage, by employing varying methods like hunting, drumming, sit-spot and so on, mostly traditional type of approaches.

However, I am always looking for different ways of approaching things. For several reasons one of which is by trying different ideas I know from my own experience by doing this, it opens you up to other possibilities, which is something I talk about in my Discover Nature Awareness books.

After attending an Intense Bird Language course in the states I began to consider the possibility of using bird language as a means of connecting with the kids. I have a few ideas on how to do this which of course includes the awesome sit-spot.

I even thought maybe there is a way of getting them to connect with the birds through rap, drumming and dance, which they take ownership of and create themselves. I have no idea how this would play out. I tend to let things evolve which means I must pay attention to events as they unfold and be in the moment to and aware of my own creativity, of course I must also follow certain guidelines as well.

Then I got an insight of how it might play out. I was reading chapter four the Sit-spot in Jon Young’s book ‘What the Robin Knows’. Jon talks about a young man’s experience of birds and his sit-spot. At first the young man does not see any birds due to his level of awareness and noise making as he approaches his sit-spot to by the end of the year he is talking about how a Bewick’s Wren is in dispute with another wren, and from this he was able to say where the boundaries of their territory’s where.

It might sound like I am plugging Jon’s book. We’ll let me tell you I am. It is rare that I read a book or attend a workshop where I agree with everything that is being discussed because I like to question and explore, and I still do this with Jon but in  new way one that feels inspirational. I have been birding since I was eleven and while I knew about and have experienced many of the things Jon talks about. None the less Jon brings a new and refreshing look at the world of birds and our relationship with them, from doing a group sit-spot to giving us an insight on how he worked with and experienced young adults and their relationship with birds over a 12 month period.

I am feeling excited by the prospect of working with the young adults and who knows they may get to a stage were they can tell if danger is approaching their area through their new found relationship with birds, or they may find a new way of communicating with each other, perhaps through dance, or song?

In other words their new understanding may allow them to explore their area through new eyes; it may even lead them to new discoveries about themselves.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Cunning Hunter


I was reading Jon Young’s book ‘What the Robin knows when I got to page 46, here Jon talked about his observations of a Coopers hawk bringing around 66 song birds to its chicks in the nest over the period of his sit-spot.

This reminded me of an experience a close friend of mine had at our nature reserve in Germany called the Zachariassee which I would like to share that with you.

One day while observing the birds at the Zach. Peter observed a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) hunting juvenile Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) 

The Kestrel sat on a fence post in the north eastern corner of the reserve. The fence ran alongside the water’s edge of this disused gravel pit. He watched as the Kestrel killed three young plovers in a very short space of time. Always, after the adults had given the 'all clear' and the immature birds started walking around again.

He slammed into them, each time the adults gave the call clear. The result was none of the young survived the Kestrels onslaught. It seems the Kestrel was able to convince the adults that he presented no threat to their young?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Death of a California Quail


I am cooking dinner one night, when I hear the intense alarms of the California Quail, and I look outside the kitchen window to see one of our cats stalking across the driveway. A male quail is sitting on top of the gate alarming loudly, and a female is cornered against the fencing. Instinctively I scream and run like a banshee out the front door, just as the cat pounces and grabs the female quail.

Feathers explode into the air, and the cat scrambles into the drainage ditch, bird in mouth, and I jump after her, scaring her into dropping her catch, and the wounded quail escapes and flies into the plum, oak and bramble patch. The male quail flies after her, alarming frantically.I snatch the cat and lock her indoors, and then rush back to see the damage. Feathers are everywhere. Too many. Some are clumped with blood and there are tail and wing primaries. It doesn’t look good. I feel terrible.

At this point, most of the birds in the neighbourhood have come to rubberneck. The local raven family (2 adults and their 2 juveniles) swoop in from nowhere, cawing like crazy and flying in big excited circles right over my head. The Scrub Jay family arrives too, making an unbelievable racket. They seem upset but also interested in a possible easy quail meal.

I chase all of them away, flailing my arms and yelling: ”go away! there’s nothing to see here!” I’m the policeman at the scene of a bird crime. I’m glad they obey. I’m too upset to take any corvid nonsense.
I can hear the California Quail in the bushes. I reach out with my heart and mind, and speak softly to them, telling them how sorry I am that my cat did this. They are both alarmed and I don’t want to disturb them anymore, and so I offer my apology, and then stand still in silence, and listen.

And then I hear them. They stop alarming, and begin calling softly to each other, in the sweetest, quietest, most loving way. They are calling “chi-ca-go!” gently, back and forth. It is intimate and private. It touches me deeply. I can’t explain this, but somehow I know what they are saying, and as plain as day I hear them “don’t leave me” “I’m going now” “please stay” “I have to go” “I need you“I’ll miss you”… They are saying goodbye to each other, and it is the saddest thing in the world. Gradually their calls slip into silence. I know that she’s gone, and my heart aches for the loss of life.

Six days later, I look outside the window, and see the male California Quail sitting where his mate was killed. I watch him out the window for a long time. He is perfectly still, his head held low. There are no other quails around. No other birds. Tufts of feathers from his mate are circled around him. He is sitting in the exact spot on the driveway where she is most present. I can’t explain this, but I know that he is grieving. It breaks my heart, but I also feel honoured to witness one bird’s connection to his mate, and to know that this is real. That birds remember. That birds have feelings. That birds know grief. That the truth is birds are not so different from ourselves.

Raven

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Dark and the Light held them.


The torch is but a distraction from being in the moment. It allows us to move into our heads, unable to see beyond the light in our eyes, causing us to stay in the tunnel that is the beam, this place of false security, which prevents us from venturing outside of the artificial light and into another world long forgotten.

The Dark and the Light command us to pay attention to our sense of place through our awareness of all things, from the rustle of the spider moving through the undergrowth to the blinking of an owl’s eye hidden in the foliage of the tree nearby. We need these things in order to help us understand our sense of community with Mother Earth.

"Do we need torches"? She asked one night as we were about to take the children up into the woods to build a fire under the cover of darkness. I answered "no, if we give them torches they will be off into the woods and we will have trouble keeping them together, the best way is to allow nature do the work for us, with their help".

So, off we set into the darkness, they followed each other in single file, some holding onto the person in front because they did not want to be separated from each other in the dark and in the woods. Once we reached the place we were going too, they set about building a fire in the darkness from the wood that had been collected earlier that day, there was about eight of them and the fire was built in no time. They had practised many times before in day light.

Out came the fire steel, it was struck several times, the char cloth caught the ember and held it ready to be transferred to the tinder bundle, blowing it into a reassuring flame it was transferred to the pile of wood that looked like a tepee, this was to be their fire. Up she roared, giant flames leaping two to three times the height of their heads, embers looking like firefly’s drifting off into the night air of the surrounding wood. Then out they came, the marshmallows, and as we sat warming them over the embers, the story telling began.

The fire had done its job; holding the children together while it listened to their tales and their laughter, keeping them safe and warm. Just as the darkness had done its job in keeping them together until they reach the safety of the camp fire.

Who needs torches when you have the Dark and the Light?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Golden Eagle or Whimbrel

Some years ago now I spent a week with my friend Jeremy Hasting who runs Islay Birding/Bushcraft on Islay. We lived in a cave along the coast were we shared story’s and experiences as well as exchanging ideas like Nature Awareness.

On the day of our return it soon became clear how relaxed we had become as a result of living out in the wilderness of Islay. We were birding on our return when I said to Jeremy I feel a Golden Eagle coming on and we both agreed that would round the week off very nicely. We were not disappointed a short while later we spotted a Golden Eagle.

Adopting the prone position we both spent some considerable time watching this magnificent bird when I heard what I first thought was a Curlew but turned out to be a Whimbrel. I decided to call out to it and almost immediately I got a response so I whistled to it again, once again it returned the call as it was moving from our front along to the right of our location.
Once more I called out with another whistled and sure enough the Whimbrel responded again this time I was aware that it had changed its course and was heading back towards us. The calling continued between the Whimbrel and myself and we could hear the Whimbrel getting closer the whole time my eyes were firmly fixed to my binoculars so as not to miss out on the rare opportunity of seeing a Golden Eagle.

As the Whimbrel got even closer I decided to look up from my binoculars just in time to see the Whimbrel gliding in just 3-4” directly over Jeremy’s head and then landing just out of arms reach from me. In all my years of bird watching never have I been so close to a Whimbrel as this, it was interesting that not even the bright coloured plastic bags that contained our sleeping bags even bothered it, it was clear to me that we were so relaxed and in a different state of being that the Whimbrel did not recognise us as humans.

I motioned to Jeremy to get the camera out to which he rightly replied this is not a camera moment. We spent some twenty minutes or more with the Whimbrel walking in and around us with just two brief moments were it very briefly alarmed and at one point lifted of the ground only to land again immediately, this I believe was because we had moved energetically from a heart space to a head space. Eventually we had to move on and I found it difficult to end such a truly magical moment.


Some months later I was running a course with Hannah from Natural Pathways during the introductions one of our clients said she had a question for me and I invited her to ask it. Her question to me was “Golden Eagle or Whimbrel” I immediately smiled a big smile and replied in a soft voice “without doubt Whimbrel”.
Since then this moment has become something that Jeremy and I pass between each other when we know someone is going to visit either one of us. Jeremy many thanks for being a part of that never to be reported once in Life time special moment.