A Sea Kale Regale

Just now, in Bulverhythe, East Sussex, the pungent aroma of sea kale (Crambe maritima) wafts strongly and sweetly over each passer-by on this secluded beach.

As I walk through this wildlife haven, the aroma draws my attention to the clumps of flowers dotted around the beach, which remind me (for some reason) of balls of tumbleweed in a spaghetti western desert.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to reproduce smells online. But for now we’ll have to suffice with these words and pictures. Which is fine, because there’s so much to love visually about these plants…..

Not only their effervescent yellow-white florets – the source of that sweet aroma…

But also the way rain drops gather into silvery globules like pearls on their succulent leaves – providing watering holes for little creatures….

And then there’s the striking purple stems….

Sea kale is a popular plant not only with human foragers, but also with tinier diners. Soon, as in previous years, we’ll no doubt see Large White butterfly caterpillars on these nourishing plants.

At the beginning of May, however, before the flowers had unfurled, I was overjoyed to find a more special, less commonly seen larva on the sea kale at Bulverhythe – this very handsome Garden Tiger Moth caterpillar (also known as a Woolly Bear):

Thank you, sea kale, for giving so much to this area, both nutritionally and aesthetically. And thank you to the Ultimate Source who feeds the birds (and insects) and clothes the fields (and beaches).*

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I’ve also written a book, Coming Home for Good (available on Amazon). Autobiographical, it’s more about homelessness than nature, but do take a look if you think it may be of interest. You never know!

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*Jesus, in Matthew 6

In Celebration of Spring

English weather rarely follows any sort of predictable pattern. It’s all jumbly, bumbling around all over the place like a drunken bee in winter.

This year, though, a period of spring-like weather has coincided neatly with the official start to Spring. How very un-British.

Just in these last couple of weeks I’ve already seen 7 species of butterfly – a very good start to the year:

Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Small White, Brimstone, and Holly Blue.

In sheer celebration of this colourful and rapid emergence of Spring butterflies, here are a few photos taken over the last few days, all on the sun-kissed edges of Summerfields Woods, Hastings:

Peacock
Peacocks: two for the price of one
Comma
Holly Blue, on rhododendron leaves
Small Tortoiseshell:
a butterfly that’s been making a remarkable and very welcome comeback in recent years after suffering major decline for many years

The Eternal Resilience of Nature

It takes more than the destructive wake of extreme weather like Storm Eunice to stop Spring life from displaying her finest robes.

Tree in Alexandra Park, Hastings, brought down by Storm Eunice

Even if it means growing horizontally!

Crocuses and daffodils, still emerging from the base of the fallen tree

I can think of ordinary people in the news today, and many others closer to home, whose lives reflect the same kind of inspiring resilience. Downtrodden but not defeated. Rising up, proud and strong.

When Life Brings Storms…

…pick up the flowers.

Seaspray in 60mph+ winds at Hastings Pier

Last Friday, when Storm Eunice hit, they advised to avoid the seafront here in Hastings, where I live.

Horizontal waves at Harbour Arm, Hastings

Well, that was an invitation for some photography if ever I heard one!

Harbour Arm, Hastings

I had to get down there with my camera.

It was definitely a walk on the wild side, but so worth it!

Not only was I pleased with these results, but our local press used some of the pics as well.

Wave being whipped up vertically, then horizontally, by the wind
Gulls somehow managing to fly against the wind

Like a lot of people, we suffered some storm damage at home. Nothing too dramatic – our next door neighbour’s cherry tree fell on our fence. That is, one major bough toppled on to a fence that was already in need of some repair.

My neighbour and I chopped and sawed the fallen tree, and we’re getting the fence fixed. No lasting harm done.

(I didn’t think to get a picture of the tree first. Sorry for that missing bit of the story!)

Not one to waste an opportunity to delight in the gifts that Nature brings my way, I picked up a few of the snowy blossom-laden twigs to brighten up the kitchen.

Janine and I have enjoyed their presence the last few days as they’ve slowly shed their tiny, white petals over the worktop.

I started this post with my own version of the old “When life gives you lemons…” platitude*:

When Life brings storms, pick up the flowers.”

I’m not much of a fan of far-too-easy platitudes, but sometimes they do resonate.

I’ve experienced a storm of stress and anxiety with physical symptoms recently, which is all calming down now, and I’m beginning to glean some bright fragments of blessing from the debris: things I’ve learned that will carry me through into a better future.

The Divine often has a way of speaking to us through Nature.

Whatever the weather, whatever the season, there’s always something to be received, to connect with, to draw us closer to Divine Reality and therefore closer also to ourselves and others.

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(All photos mine, but I’m not precious about copyright, so feel free to use any of them if you wish, with my blessing.)

*For an “alternative”, less platitudinous version of “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, check out Kaitlin Shetler’s version. It’s brilliant.

The Magic of Nature

Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”, according to Vincent van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode, Vincent and the Doctor.

Dragonfly in Newgate Woods, where I walk my dog, Gorka, most mornings

A wealth of artists, from poets and singers such as Van Morrison[1], Mary Oliver and The Unthanks[2], to writers Richard Mabey[3], Brian McLaren[4] and Mackenzie Crook[5], to the genius Vincent van Gogh himself, have helped and inspired me to delve further into the ‘magic of nature’ – to dive deeper into its divine depths.

Combe Valley

Maybe it’s me but I feel that both science and theology sometimes reduce the world around us to a utilitarian thing. An ‘it’. Call me picky (and I have been known to be picky about words), but the religious use of the word ‘creation’ for ‘Nature’ slightly jars with me….

…like Nature is seen as an inanimate object – there simply to ‘give glory to God’….

….rather than being a living, breathing entity given to us, to enjoy and love for her own sake, in her own right….

… to dance with, sing with….

enjoy being a part of.

Be family with.

My daughter with an exquisite male Orange-tip butterfly

I think this delights God’s heart.

Like tree-hugging: an exchange of vital gases, of complementary textures. A sharing of lives, of life. Of the Love that flows through all things.

Religion can sometimes be so intent on trying to worship God that it misses the wood for the trees – literally.

Highwoods

Likewise, science can be known to scrutinise, compartmentalise, to explain away in binary detail, until all awe and wonder have evaporated in the heat of cold analysis (I do like a paradox!).

Of course, it needn’t be – and isn’t always – like this. We need science and religion, both of which have the potential to lead us into the sheer, incredulous amazement that our souls were born for. Brian McLaren’s book, God Unbound: Theology in the Wild, is a great example of this.

As for me, my ever-deepening immersion into Nature, and my habit of talking to birds and trees, has led me to question whether I’m straying from my Christian faith into something more pagan. Fearing that my love for the created world exceeds my love for her Creator.

It’s good and healthy to question ourselves, and my self-query led to self-reassurance.

I find myself walking in the steps of St Francis, who acknowledged the consciousness and unique personality of each wild animal and addressed them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.

…St Francis, who in turn walked in the steps of Jesus, who in turn followed the pattern of thousands of years of wisdom teachers and prophets, who walked in and with Nature, learned and taught from Nature, found God in the everyday and not-so-everyday miracles of the wild.

My dog, Gorka, bedraggled and yellow-spangled, after running through a rape field!

And, as one of Jesus’ own best friends, John, made clear, our love for other human beings – and by extension all our fellow creatures – is a good barometer of our love for God.[6]

Rather than drawing us away from God, our deepening love for people and Nature is in fact an accurate expression of our love for God. And this is true even for those who profess no religious faith!

Our Western society and, sadly, Christendom, have a poor record of respect for the Earth, preferring largely to conquer rather than acknowledge and celebrate our oneness with her.

And the more industrialised, commercialised and technologised we become, the more we lose touch with Nature, with the Earth – and in the process lose something of ourselves and our experience of the God who lives and shines humbly and vulnerably from the natural world: incarnate through every creature, as well as in the infant Jesus.

Little Egret, at Cuckmere Haven

As we desperately try and reverse our tragic destruction of our home planet (and therefore our self-destruction), it’s surely more vital than ever that we as a human race recapture our oneness with Nature.

I rather like this quote that I recently came across: “Prayer is the act of resacralizing the desacralized world.”[7] I think that a prayerful approach to any situation enables us and those around us to (re)discover the inherent sacredness of anything and everything.

And I realised that when I enjoy my contemplative walks through woods and wilderness, I’m simply enjoying the sacredness, the magic, the holy wonder of Nature (of Creation, if you like!).

Trees – the Earth’s ‘lungs’

Although I do sometimes pray with words during these walks, I often try and avoid using words, even in thought, because words can be so superficial, so one-sided, and a hindrance to the experience of God in the presence of stillness, silence and songs of Nature.

My wife and daughter on Bulverhythe beach

Photos all mine and taken in glorious East Sussex.


[1] E.g. Sense of Wonder; In the Garden.

[2] Folk group featured in Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[3] Author of Nature Cure

[4] Author of God Unbound: Theology in the Wild

[5] Writer and star of Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge

[6] 1 John 4:20

[7] Andy Squyres

And Heaven and Nature Sing

Joy to the world! The Saviour reigns
Let men their songs employ


While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains


Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing


And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Nature singing with joy to their Source this Christmas Day (all photos taken in Hastings, today – 25th December 2021).

Hearts and Trees Entwined

I will be yours, you will be mine, together in eternity

Our hearts of love will be entwined, together in eternity, forever in eternity.”

My wife Janine and I sang these words from Brian Doerksen’s Eternity at our wedding 25 years ago today, on 21st December 1996, as a celebration of our union both with God and with each other.

I was reminded of the song recently when I came across these two chestnut branches wrapped round each other in Newgate Woods, the quiet woodland where I walk the dog most mornings.

I wondered if they were branches of the same tree….

…..so I stepped back…and back…

…until I could see that they were reaching across from two separate trees, fusing together at this point in the arboreal canopy (top left in the photo below).

It’s been said that the goal of all religion is the union or reconciliation of all things. For example, according to Paul, the end result of Jesus’ death, is that:
all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies” (Colossians 1, The Message version).

I think that’s rather wonderful.

The entwining of branches is, of course, just a picture, an analogy, but one that beautifully illustrates the highest goal of humanity: our union with each other, with Nature, and with God, our Source.

“The Naturalist too often loses sight of the essential oneness of all living beings, in seeking to classify them into kingdoms, orders, families, genera, species, etc…. while the eye of the Poet, the Seer, never closes on the kinship of all God’s creatures, and his heart ever beats in sympathy with great and small alike as ‘earth-born companions and fellow mortals, equally dependent on Heaven’s eternal love’.”

John Muir

Reconciliation between individuals and between people groups; increasing respect and care for our environment; appreciation for Nature; the growth of faithful love between people; and the emergence of peace-giving faith all point towards a brighter, unified future.

Ivy supported by birch.
“Ivy uses trees and walls for support, allowing it to reach upwards to better levels of sunlight. It is not a parasitic plant and has a separate root system in the soil and so absorbs its own nutrients and water as needed. Ivy does not damage trees and its presence doesn’t indicate that a tree is unhealthy, and it doesn’t create a tree-safety issue.” (Woodland Trust)

Over our 25 years of marriage, our mutually supportive relationship with each other, with God and with Nature has evolved and grown. I hope that the entwining of our hearts and lives reveals something of that ultimate universal union.

In recent years, our – and especially Janine’s – love for and appreciation of trees has steadily grown. I dedicate this blog to her, with love.

Happy Silver Wedding Anniversary, sweetheart! x

The Colours of Winter

I’ve always tended to think of this time of year as as a season of dying back.

I’m increasingly discovering that that’s not the whole story, as many examples of wintry life become apparent, from tiny insects to fungi to migrating birds, as well as the endless regeneration happening beneath the surface of trees and soil.

The very colours of nature tell us that, even in the winter of our discontent, in the ‘valleys’ and ‘deserts’ of our lives, in the challenges and difficulties, when all hope seems lost and it feels like dying in our souls, something vibrant and luminous may be happening at a deeper level.

…as these winter leaves teach us.

Something seen only by the One who creates and shapes us.

I’m full of colour when You’re with me

You are the artist and You set me free

I’m still unfinished, You’re shaping my heart

You carve every detail, I’m Your work of art

Bright City – Colour

(Photos taken in my back garden)

Loving Local

One of my favourite places in the world is Bulverhythe, a short stretch of coastline just down the road,

which, amongst our stony beaches, boasts expanses of smooth sand at low tide…

…cut off from the main road by a railway line,

giving a sense of seclusion for wild walks, runs and bike rides…

…where a wealth of wildlife can be found,

including this cool cormorant standing guard…

…and these terrific turnstones,

clambering about on the rocks.

I feel very lucky to live in Hastings.

It’s good to appreciate our local surroundings.

[All photos taken on this incredibly cold but beautiful winter’s day (28/11/21).]

(In the background in this photo, you can just see the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, which gave its name to the Sovereign Light Cafe in Bexhill, the inspiration for a song by local band Keane.)

What do you appreciate about where you live?

Autumn: Nature’s Finery

I love Autumn.

It’s right up there in my top four favourite seasons – as I often joke – in the same way that each of my children is one of my favourites.

Newgate Woods, Hastings

In other words, each season has its own special qualities.

Rivelin Valley, Sheffield

In late August, as summer slips away, selfishly taking her warmth and wealth of wildlife away with her, I grieve as for a departing friend.

But when Autumn gets into full swing, I revel in her kaleidoscope of colours….

Peak District

crunching through the crackle of fallen leaves as I walk Gorka, our dog, through our local woods…

Gorka in Summerfields Woods, Hastings

…her juxtaposing shades of dark and light…

Norman’s Bay, Sussex

And running off-road through Autumn’s extravagant finery in these cooler conditions is the perfect cathartic activity for my work-stressed mind and body.

The colours of the Peaks

Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” (John Muir, adapted)

Even driving is a pleasure as ornate leaves dance to the beat of seasonal winds in front of my car wheels.

Roadside, Rivelin Valley

Countless poets and writers have been inspired by this time of year to produce breathtaking pieces of literature.

I can’t possibly do justice to them or to Autumn herself, but I leave you with these photos (all taken in recent weeks) and these stumbling words of mine.

Mandarin duck: originally introduced to the UK from China, now found in various parts of the country, including here in the Rivelin Valley

…and this final quote from John Muir:

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”

Rivelin Valley

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

You can also find my book,

Coming Home For Good, here on Amazon.