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The nature experiences that stay with us forever

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
11 min read
A dark navy coloured whale fluke viewed from behind, with a curtain of sea water dripping off it. In a wide, calm sea.
The tail fluke of a humpback whale. Credit: Chris Baraniuk.

Late on Tuesday night last week, I was scrolling absent-mindedly through Twitter when an unusual request caught my eye:

“It’s my birthday today, so if you read this, could you please tell me all about the best nature experience you’ve ever had? A thread of everyone’s best nature stories would be a wonderful gift. Thank you!”

Kerrie Ann Gardner, an artist and writer based in Devon had posted it that evening. Her tweet was already racking up replies at that point and now, a week later, it has amassed close to 700. Many of the responses are illustrated with photographs or video clips.

I shared one of my own top nature experiences with Gardner – whale watching, which I’ll tell you more about later. But the sheer diversity of everyone else’s comments left me marvelling.

Nature has moved people, and changed people, in so many different ways. From tiny moments such as spotting an unusual bug in the garden to much more exotic encounters. One of Gardner's respondents recalled chancing upon a wild tiger in India, mere metres from their vehicle, for instance.

It made me think about how nature can inject itself into people’s psyches and life stories. That’s a very personal thing, I know, but the sum total of these experiences is a world full of people who may come to think of nature as an infinite tapestry brimming with possibilities. A vast fabric, some random corner of which might unexpectedly strike you to the core. Leave you breathless. Magic.

Not everyone thinks about nature this way. And I’m not even sure we all ought to. I should also note here that nature can sometimes scare or harm us, we shouldn't ignore that. Plus, I realise that taking pleasure in nature for nature's sake is a privilege that certain people in some societies can afford, not all.

But evidently many of us revel in moments of wild delight, moments that go on to shape us and our culture. That's what this week’s article is all about.

Three figures stretch out their arms as they watch water tumble from a huge waterfall.
Credit: Sam Kolder from Pexels.

After seeing Gardner’s tweet and becoming fascinated by the replies, I couldn’t resist getting in touch with her to ask what she'd choose as her own best nature experience. Like many of the people who responded to her on Twitter, however, she said she was unable to pick just one memory above all others.

“After asking the question myself, I really should have an answer,” she says. There are some worthy candidates, though. The raven that swooped low through her garden and then stared right into Gardner’s eyes, “like some sort of feathered dragon”, as she puts it. Or the wren that fluttered in through a window and landed on her shoulder at a time when she was experiencing great sadness.

“It was the first time I'd smiled in days, and for that I'll always be grateful,” she recalls.

Gardner was amazed by the hundreds of replies to her tweet. I ask her if she thinks people sometimes react to a particular plant, animal or moment in nature because of who they happen to be. Perhaps stories or folklore influence our response to a certain species, she suggests. Culture likely also leads us to elevate some creatures above others, perhaps problematically.

Either way, we probably can't choose what will move us. As Gardner hints, part of the joy of nature is stumbling on things that you only realise are wonderful in that very instant.

To fling the net wider still, I asked a couple of friends and contacts what experiences in nature have impacted them.

Joshua Clarke, an ecologist in Belfast whose photos of wildlife have lately captivated me, mentioned finding aggregations of solitary mining bee nests while living in Bristol. They were made by species such as the ashy mining bee. Having become aware of these interesting insects and the sort of habitat they prefer, he was thrilled to find them in Belfast when he returned to that city later.

“I had walked past this location for years as I lived nearby but just never took note,” he says. “From here, I’ve started to see other species of bees, associated parasites and much more.”

The bee perches on a white flower. Other flower heads are visible and the background is out of focus.
An ashy mining bee. Credit: Joshua Clarke.

And for the journalist Lu-Hai Liang, who lives in Hastings, it was a search for “true wilderness” in Southeast Asia that led to an unexpected realisation. He visited jungles and forests seeking such wilderness. However, the densely populated metropolis of Singapore left an even greater impression on him.

“Living in the city for a month was a revelation,” he says, recalling Singapore's botanic gardens, widespread urban greenery and sustainable resource management. “Singapore is by no means perfect but it expanded my horizons, more than trekking through a jungle did — a surprise.”

The idea that nature has this potential, to deeply affect someone or change their perceptions, is littered throughout human culture, from poetry to music. Among the books I’ve been reading lately that pull at this thread is Rob Cowen’s The Heeding, a collection of poems illustrated with stark, monochrome prints by Nick Hayes.

Many of the poems describe particular instances in which nature’s complexity or significance breaks through. Interactions with ants. Sightings of beautiful birds. In one poem, “The Ivy”, it’s the winter-long tenacity of this sprawling, creeping plant that fascinates. “Look at me, it says. Give me your focus. | And I do,” Cowen writes.

Giving this attention to nature matters because it opens yet more doors, more opportunities for appreciation. Sometimes, it can seem as if nature has something to say about our current situation. Through observing or reading it, we might order our minds and place things within a larger, cosmic context.

In Cowen’s poem “Moon over Skipton Road”, he shares his memory of watching the full moon, a “perfect disc of polished bone”, with his son just before the UK went into its first lockdown of the pandemic: “There was just us three; | The moon, you and me.” A fleeting moment of comfort, and isolation, in uncertain times.

A monochrome illustration showing a circle of standing stones in a hilly area.
Standing stones, as realised by Nick Hayes in Rob Cowen's latest book. Credit: The Heeding.

In light of this, I thought about how nature experiences can become linked to significant episodes in people’s lives. Take Chris Packham’s latest film, The Walk That Made Me, which is currently on BBC iPlayer. It’s a moving journey through memory and personal history that links life to place.

During the film, lots of reasons emerge as to why this walk, covering more than 10 miles along the river Itchen from Eastleigh to Winchester, became important to Packham. But kestrels were a chief factor.

“That’s what brought me here, if I’m very honest with you. I didn’t come here just for exercise. I came here with a quest and my quest invariably was to look for kestrels. Because I was obsessed with kestrels. I don’t know what it was about that bird. But everything about them just lifted my spirits. And when I kept one myself it was the happiest time in my life.”

By now you might be able to tell that one of the things I think is interesting about memorable nature experiences is how they can be foundational. They may set a fascination in motion, a fascination that can quite easily continue for the rest of a person’s life.

A concept I stumbled on recently that captures this is that of the “spark bird” – the bird you saw that intrigued you so much, you decided to become a birdwatcher (or birder). I can’t find much information about the origin of the term “spark bird” (if you can enlighten me, please do!) but it seems to have surfaced in the US several decades ago.

Some people question how appropriate this is. Does a person’s interest in birds, or nature generally, really begin with the sighting of a single individual, at a specific point in time? Or is it more of a gradually unfolding journey?

I identify with the latter myself, I suppose. But, that said, I do remember the first bird that fascinated me. Around the age of 10, I remember noticing pied wagtails everywhere as soon as I had learned their name in a book. I loved watching their constantly wagging tails (no-one knows for sure why they do that, by the way) and I was very curious about the fact that they always seemed to appear in car parks.

A small black and white bird on a hard, stony surface.
Pied wagtails, unlike many birds, seem to benefit from concrete, tarmac and similar human-made surfaces. Credit: horslips5 via a CC BY 2.0 Licence.

Pied wagtails eat insects and have learned that tarmac is a great, open place to hunt for them. It is thus easy to spot the little black-and-white birds scurrying around and darting out from under parked cars. Anthropogenic ornithology.

Was it the bird that truly sparked my interest, though, or that first nature book?

I read a fabulous blog post last week by fisheries researcher Patrick Cooney that made me ask this very question of myself. It’s about the field guide Cooney read as a child that he says inspired him to become a fish scientist.

Cooney had forgotten what book it was and, 35 years later, was desperate to read it again. He trawled through old family photographs looking for clues that might jog his memory. Eventually, he found enough information to lead him to the volume he had once loved so much, Fishes: A guide to familiar American species.

“I can honestly say I have never searched for something for so long in my life and then held the object in my hand. Perhaps I never will again.”

Cooney has vivid memories of the first time he saw a live pipefish in an aquarium, having previously pored over an illustration of the species “hundreds of times” in his original copy of the book. The book itself is a crucial, treasured object but one that is also inseparable from the living things Cooney has since witnessed in real life, the things towards which that book led him.

That's another point I want to make, actually. That the experience of finally encountering a species you have longed to see with your own eyes is usually much, much better than meeting your human heroes. It rarely disappoints, I find. And I have what I think is a good example to share.

My own arguably “best” nature experience, as I explained to Gardner, was when I went whale-watching off the coast of Boston nearly a decade ago.

Three very dark, almost black, rounded forms breach the surface of a calm sea. Some white waves encircle the whales.
The backs and diminutive dorsal fins of three humpback whales. Credit: Chris Baraniuk.

I had bought my ticket on a whim. The crew warned us that not every tour group sees a whale – it could be an uneventful trip. But it was anything but. We were swarmed with humpbacks. These giant, lolling, marine mammals, ploughing the sea right by our boat. There were screams of excitement and oh-my-god’s from the Americans.

But the sound the humpbacks made.

That was the thing that struck me most, and even now stays with me. A deep, guttural groan as they went about their business. It seemed to reverberate up through the deck beneath us. It was not something I had thought about or expected and it was immediately enthralling. Their noise made them real. Viscerally real.

Out on the water, I could see them breaching, tail flukes arcing up into the air before slipping effortlessly back underwater. I took time to absorb it but couldn’t help snapping dozens of photographs, too, and I’m glad I did.

Seeing the humpbacks that day was frankly one of the best moments of my life. It altered my goals in terms of what I wanted to write about as a journalist. And it reshaped my understanding of what was out there in the world. Just waiting to be discovered.

Gardner sums it up better than me, though. I’ll leave the last word to her but, before I do, feel free to message me with your own examples of special or transformative experiences in nature. If I get enough responses I’ll try to mention them in a future newsletter!

You never know what will seize your heart, do you? Nature is so full of the colourful and the plain, the fast and slow, big and small. Any of it could hold meaning for you.

As Gardner says: “I wish, so much, that everybody was interested in nature because, once you are, it's impossible to be bored.”

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Did you know that more than 10,000 collisions between birds and aircraft, known as bird strikes, are reported in the US every year? The Verge has a very interesting and fact-filled video about the scientists working to lower these numbers. This includes measures to reduce the density of wildlife in and around airports, and forensic techniques that can identify which species were involved in a strike after the event.

Separately, the rewilding discussion continues with more commentary on how reintroduction programmes, especially of large predators, sometimes meet with resistance in local communities. Joshua Powell writes for The Conversation about South Korea’s progress in restoring the country's population of Asiatic black bears.

There are now 70 in the wild but sightings of these powerful mammals are becoming more common, raising questions about how people and the bears can live comfortably within reach of one another.

Staying with that theme for a moment, you may also be interested in this quirky but thought-provoking piece in High Country News, told from the point of view of an American deer (but, ahem, “transcribed and submitted” by John Yunker). It urges tolerance and thoughtfulness, given that deer often wander into towns and onto people’s lawns.

“Rewilding is not just about letting a few species run free far away from human civilization. It’s about allowing our world to cross over into your world. But we’re willing to give it a try if you will.”
The spiky flower head of a sundew, with glossy red spikes on a yellow ball-like structure.
A carnivorous sundew plant. Credit: Pixabay from Pexels.

I also recommend this enlightening jaunt over wetlands near Manchester, by Jon Dunn for BBC Travel. Dunn writes about the work of Joshua Styles, a local naturalist and ecologist who is on a mission to restore populations of carnivorous plants, such as sundews.

Speaking of plant life, take a look at this story from AFP/RFI on a group of Finnish monks who have turned to forestry in a big way, in order to soften the financial blow of the pandemic. With revenue from visitors to their monastery way down, they have decided to fell – and replant – four year’s worth of trees in the forest all at once.

Finally, I cannot neglect to mention this extraordinary project from The Third Pole – a multimedia guide to Bangladeshi songs associated with rivers. These are stories of love, loss, flood, displacement and all the other chaos of life.

As the singer Prerona Roaza, from the town of Rangamati, says:

“Our music and arts are influenced by the green hills, rivers and the rain. Our songs are a medium of storytelling, an expression of our feelings and emotions.”

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.