Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Natural solutions

I’ve had nature on my mind this year. That’s hardly surprising, as I’ve just published a book about it, along with my good friend Trish Whillans, who took the rose photo you see here. Our book is called The Answer: How Nature Can Help You When Life Seems Too Hard (for more pop over to my website,
The Answer is not about global warming, or climate change, or carbon footprints, or compost, or recycling. Instead it’s a little book with a simple storyline that imagines a conversation between ourselves and the natural world. It’s based on the notion that getting in amongst the green, slushy, gritty, tangled stuff that makes up the wild world can do us good - because nature can tell us things.
It took a Malaysian conservationist called Osman to remind me of that last year. I was staying at the Andaman Hotel on Langkawi Island. It offers an early morning nature walk. Always a sucker for such delights, I turned up the next morning and off we went into the humid dawn.
Osman was a quiet, still sort of guy. Never raised his voice above a murmur. But his eyes were sharp and alert. To everything. “You might like to step back,” he suggested at one point, indicating our feet.
A broad, seething ribbon of large ants was surging close to our toes on the jungle path, fast and urgent as a black river swollen after rain. “They have a very painful bite,” Osman mildly observed.
As we strolled with him, he pointed out amazing birds, like the racquet-tailed drongo, and all manner of plants, both healing and toxic. Many had steely barbs.
“But nature always has a solution,” he pointed out. “If there’s a plant that can hurt or give you a rash, you can guarantee that there’ll be another plant growing nearby that can fix the hurt. Problem? Solution. Problem? Solution. That’s how nature works.”
I liked that. It set me wondering whether there was a message in there for me too. As in, does nature in more temperature climates, like where I live, have solutions for different sorts of problems – such as fixing emotional woes? And decided that of course it does. I know all too well that if I’m feeling itchy with frustration or mad as a snake, a walk on a forest track always sorts me out.
As Trish kept on taking her photos and we were putting the book together, I had my ears open for ways in which others were seeing (or not seeing) the nature of nature all around them.
I did a wonderful waka tour down the Whanganui River in April and listened to our guide, Niko Tangaroa, as he talked about leaving his structured life as an engineer in Australia to return home and set up a business where he could share the river’s delights with others. With a big grin, he said, “Every morning when I get out on the river, I look up at the sky and say, “Thank you, Ranginui [sky father], for my new workshop!”’
By contrast, in July I had a short, startling encounter next to a rose bush in a French garden with a young American woman. She was so unaware of nature that her only connection with its smells was via the cosmetic industry. I pointed out a pink bloom to her because it had the most beautiful fragrance. “Mmm,” she sighed. That’s so beautiful! It’s just like rose oil. So this is a rose, huh?”.
Then in Fiji, in September, I saw such a warping of nature that it chilled my heart. I was in a bus with friends as we drove through a valley filled with emerald jungle. But the tree profiles were strangely lumpy. The leaves were a densely packed, uniform, brilliant green. We came to realise we were looking not at the rich variety of specimens that should have been there, but at a vast leafy blanket that was smothering miles of native forest under a thick duvet of curling vines . “What is that?” we asked. “Killer vine!” spat a local man. “The Americans brought it here during the war to use as camouflage. Now it is everywhere.” It can overcome the tallest trees and nothing can stop its spread.
Like most pest introductions, the kudzu invation started innocently enough. Japanese gardeners brought it to a Philadelphia garden expo in 1876. Americans loved it. They wanted it for their gardens, too. And now it’s strangling huge areas of the south-eastern United States, too. No wonder they knew it would be good for concealing soldiers in the tropics. Kudzu is very polite in Japan as winter frosts knock it back every year. But deprived of cold it becomes a maniac, growing by as much as a foot per day.
It’s a problem. Out of control. Just like so much of the stuff going on in our lives. But I remember wise Osman and his quiet observation : Problem. Solution. Problem. Solution.
Our little book can’t stop kudzu, but in its small way it might untie a few other knots in modern life.

1 comment:

"The Answers to Life" said...

I am just extending our outdoor classroom.
We are creating a place for the children to grow sunflowers,gourds and veges over the Summer in our old sheep yards.
Our garden has become a place for kids...big and little,to come to "log off" properly.
Some schools are recognising this need and allowing kids out of school to climb trees,row the boat,garden,cook and indulge in a good old-fashioned wander.
Teaching families to simply play?