Since become disabled, my interaction with nature has changed. My last couple of blog posts have raised some of the issues that come with this but it has given me an opportunity to reframe how I interact and create new ways which give me a new intimacy.
There are subtle changes in weather which once were easily overlooked – throw on a coat, grab an umbrella and so on – but which now act as a backdrop for the play that is my life. Rain and electricity don’t mix well, so I have to be aware of this when I’m going out. The level of precipitation dictates where I go, how I get there and even if I can go out. Ice and snow and ungritted pavements go about as well as you can imagine. Then there is the effect of weather on my body itself. Warmth helps my pain levels, cold does the opposite and worst of all is when days are noticeably warmer than nights and my pain levels flare up. Hot days stresses out my autonomic system, making me feel faint, breathless and generally yukky.
The way that the weather plays out in my life, on my body, means I am much more aware of it than I once was, much more attuned to it and by extension to the changing of the seasons. I also find I am more aware of light levels, possibly in part because I tend to spend my morning drinking tea in the same seat. A seat which faces into the sun as it rises over the houses and then later in the day, it reaches me from the other side, through my kitchen window.
When I am outside, whether its considered wild or not, I struggle to lose myself in my environment in the way that many people speak of doing in the wilderness. It is not possible to engross yourself in the land around you if you are always scanning for roots and holes and puddles to avoid – this also doesn’t fit with the image of the romantic ideal of nature
“Detailed scanning of the environment is part of disability culture’s everyday adaptation and troubleshooting”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler
There is, necessarily, a constant adjustment and awareness of the environment, a sensitivity and responsiveness to changes. In man made worlds, that might be an intimate knowledge of where the drop kerbs are, where the pavements get too narrow for a wheelchair or where the path is in need of repair. Take that same intense scanning into a more natural space and you will find the intimate relationship now becomes about roots and twigs and soil. This is not capital N Nature as some people see it, but this is personal and is another model for being in nature. One that often focuses on the smaller things in the landscape, and in doing so can mean you are attuned to other beautiful aspects such as fungi and leaves. Back in that man made world, I see the tenacious plants that weave through the cracks in pavements and the feathers that have floated down to the tarmac. It is a different experience, but different does not mean inferior.
“Disability narratives can widen the emotional repertoire of possible responses to nature”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler
Another way in which I connect to nature in an intimate way is through the birds that visit my bird feeder. I have predominately house sparrow visitors and have been able to watch the parents rush back and forth taking food for their babies. I have seen those babies venture out to sit on the bush by the feeder, waited on by mum and dad until they are old enough to get food for themselves. One little baby pushed this and, even though I knew it could feed itself, still begged some mealworms from mum… Unless I had seen this family virtually everyday, I wouldn’t have known that was the case.
Aside, although I tend to call the sparrows my babies or the sparrow family, the correct name for a group of sparrows is a flock, but can also be called a knot, flutter, host or quarrel… I think my birds might be best described as a flutter…
Similarly, there is a single starling that has been visiting since it was a chick. I have no idea why it has ventured here alone but it’s been incredible watching it grow and develop it’s iconic starling markings. There have been a few scuffles between this starling and the sparrows but I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months a peace agreement seems to have been made. Yes, it does seem like they both give each other sly glances and they aren’t going to be best friends any time soon but on the whole it makes for a much more serene experience. Except when the lone starling was joined by about thirty friends… It’s only happened on a couple of occasions but I did think that maybe the apocalypse had arrived… Thirty black birds descending on one small feeder less than a metre away from me, with only the window between us… The sparrows looked horrified – yes I may anthropomorphise my little babies – and because the starlings were just fighting for feeder real estate, none of them actually got any food anyway… On the last occasion, when the mob left the feeder vicinity, they joined a black cloud of other starlings and I was slightly concerned an entire murmuration might descend… thankfully they didn’t, I’m not sure the window would have stood up to that…
As well as being a great and accessible way to engage with nature, whatever the weather, bird feeders help people become more aware of their local wildlife and the types of birds that visit. Watching them eat means I’ve got to know the different beak shapes and the different ways they use them. Feeding birds has also been shown to change human behaviour, for example being more concerned about cats that visit the area or being more aware of a sudden increase in the number of birds.
“These human responses were in some cases tied to people’s emotions about their observations, particularly anger.”
– Observations at bird feeders
If you’re thinking about getting a bird feeder, there are different options out there, some will work better than others for you and for different birds. I currently have two bird feeders, one which is a hanging feeder that is attached to the back fence and gets filled with fat balls, and one which is stuck to my living room window and is filled with mixed seed and mealworms (it took a while to find the food that my birds like, they’re surprisingly fussy…). I also have a couple of ceramic poppies which collect rain water, or can be filled with water in the summer. If you’re lucky and have some privacy in your bird feeder location, you could add a camera! I did research, it’s not ok for me to point a camera at my feeder because it takes in a large view of the pavement and street… boo!
Anyway, I hope that by touching on a couple of ways I engage with nature, I have made an argument that having a disability does not mean your interactions are inferior. I also want to make the point that more inclusive ways of engaging with nature are more accessible to people who might not go hiking or bird watching otherwise.