The Park

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks. It was written as an entry to a competition for an anthology of stories by amateur writers to raise money for PTSD victims from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Sadly it wasn’t good enough, but hopefully you can find some pleasure in it.

The girl sat on the worn wooden bench, gazing out over the small parcel of green and brown that the council called ‘the park’. It paled in comparison to London’s other great parks, of course, but to the local community it was everything. It was Hyde Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park all rolled into one, and it was their little patch of urban wilderness. A garden for the gardenless.

She’d been coming here for as long as she could recall, but over the past five months she’d found herself drawn to the same spot almost daily. Early morning was her favourite time, when the park was empty and beads of dew glistened on the unmown grass. London was never truly silent of course, but at this hour the sounds of traffic and life were an unobtrusive hum, yet to reach the discordant crescendo that would last until nightfall. The hum of the waking city comforted her in her parkland sanctuary. It had been almost six months, and she thought about them every day.

A small number of regulars used the park at this time, and she’d come to recognise them all. The young man with the briefcase was usually first, dashing along the central footpath towards the bus stop on the main road. He never spoke, but they occasionally exchanged a friendly nod if eye contact was made. The elderly lady with the tubby beagle was an ever present, shuffling slowly through the east gate at around half past six before completing a slow lap around the small, unimpressive pond. The lady puffed, and the beagle panted, but they always made it round. She’d known of the lady for years, a local character, but they’d never spoken. Not until today.

It was the dog that stopped first, coming to a wheezing halt on the path in front of her. “Lazy sod” the old lady remarked cheerfully, gently lowering herself onto the bench beside the girl. They exchanged pleasantries, passing comment on the weather as all Londoners are duty bound to do. A brief lull in the nascent conversation followed, only ended with an excited whoop from the old lady. “Orange tip!” she cried, startling the girl and making her jump. The old lady’s eyes shone with delight. She seemed to be watching something, but the girl couldn’t see what.

The source of the excitement soon became obvious, as a small white butterfly took to the wing from a nearby mess of nettle and bramble and floated lazily over the concrete path past the bench. “Just look at that. Beautiful”. The girl had never paid any attention to the myriad of bugs and beasties that shared the park before but, enthused by the old lady, she looked at the butterfly. What had originally appeared to be a floppy white smudge was revealed as anything but. As it’s name suggested, the butterfly had vivid orange tips at the end of each wing, as if carefully dipped in paint by a skilled craftsman. The underside of the wings were equally beautiful, etched with a calligraphy of rich greens and yellows. The butterfly was a masterpiece, and the girl felt a knot of excitement in her stomach. It had been months since she last had that feeling.

“They’re common, you know. One of the first signs of spring”. The girl confessed that she had never noticed butterflies in the park before, in fact she’d never noticed anything beyond the ubiquitous pigeons that covered every inch of the city. Sensing that the girl was interested, the old lady began to talk. Clutching the girl’s arm she told of the wildlife that inhabited the park. Their park. She spoke of hedgehogs and house sparrows, of bees and blackbirds, of peregrines and parakeets. She described the old dog fox, a mange-eaten shadow that slunk around the park at dusk. She even described the trees, giving names to the vegetation that surrounded them. Faceless forms became oak, sycamore and rowan. The untidy hedge became hawthorn, masses of white buds preparing to burst into flower. Sensing that the old lady was in storytelling mode, the beagle lay spreadeagled and began to snore softly.

She had lived in the same part of London all of her life, born in the mid 1930s less than three miles from where they sat. The borough has been very different back then, of course, with factories and terraces occupying that land that the high-rises would later colonise. The war would change the landscape irreparably, and she described the sounds and smells of the blitz as remembered from the bedroom that she shared with a younger brother. The blitz had devastated the area, whole streets flattened in the blink of an eye, but she seemed to remember this period with an unexpected fondness. “We were like a family, everyone helping everyone else. There we no squabbles or divides, just a sense of togetherness”. She explained that it was during the years after the war that her life-long love of wildlife had taken hold. “The plants soon started to grow on the bomb sites you see, fireweed and poppy turning the ground mauve and crimson. Then the plants brought the insects and the birds back. They’ve been here all my life”.

A ring-necked parakeet, one of London’s newest and most beautiful arrivals, shot overhead like a noisy green firework as the lady got slowly to her feet. The beagle barked excitedly at the prospect of returning home for second breakfast, getting tangled in his lead as they bid the girl farewell. “It’s nice to have someone to share this place with. Nature has been a friend to me all my life, through bad times and good”. After a few steps she hesitated, turning back to look at the girl, still sat on the bench. “Things will be alright”.

The girl sat thinking, long after the old lady had gone. The old lady’s spirit was infectious, and her unexpected introduction to the healing power of nature filled her with an excited glow. The community would always remember, but she knew that they would heal in time. Old and young, black and white, united by a shared experience. She resolved to spend more time in the park, observing and enjoying, and she knew she would bring her friends here too. Love and nature would be her constants, just as they had been for the old lady.

A robin sang joyously from the top of a dog bin, and the girl felt happy.

Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most special, or at least that’s what I was told frequently as a child. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

First Light

I’m often out before the world awakes,
Earning my keep as the folk slumber on.
Studying old Albion before first light breaks,
Observing the changes that come with the dawn.

Night into day is a gradual progression,
Ephemeral twilight whilst the two overlap.
The sun brings relief from night’s sombre oppression,
Brightening the sky and banishing the black.

The colours of daybreak are subtle and strange,
Showing shades of rich indigo and burgundy red.
The new sky signals time for a natural shift change,
As songbirds serenade the night beasts to bed.

Dawn is the place where old magic still dwells,
The air thick with traces of enchantments and spells.

Polemic With Blobfish

It’s something that we rarely contemplate, but we humans are a species. Arguably the most intelligent species, and unquestionably the most adaptable, influential and destructive species, but a single species regardless. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’.

If we strip away the ego and artifice that we have constructed to describe ourselves, we are a simple taxonomic unit, sitting on a list with fellow units such as the naked mole-rat, the blobfish and the potato. Admittedly the blobfish has yet to evolve the ability to shape the entire planet in its own image, but who can truly say that there isn’t an alternate reality in which the blobfish has dominion (the multiverse theory at the heart of quantum physics makes blobfish world a genuine and wonderful possibility).

There are many species on earth that wield huge influence over their ecosystems. These are generally described as keystone species: those species that are fundamental to the successful function of a particular ecosystem. Beavers, for example, fundamentally change the structure and hydrology of their home ranges through dam building, creating habitat for species that could otherwise not survive. Many apex predators are also considered to be keystone species because they control populations of smaller herbivores, which in turn allows diverse botanical communities to flourish. A sound example is the Eurasian lynx, a large cat that predates species such as rabbit and small deer that could otherwise graze out vast areas of vegetation. A common theme that unites all keystone species is that they are relatively few in number, and their influence on their ecosystem far exceeds their abundance. This is where any attempt to portray mankind as a keystone species begins to crumble somewhat. We are certainly not few in number, and we don’t inhabit a particular ecosystem. In fact, with the exception of the marine world (for the time being) there are few terrestrial ecosystems that we have not found a way to infiltrate and change. Our influence is extraordinary. We are legion, and we transcend the definition of a keystone species. That puts us in our own category, where many of the adjectives we use to describe other organisms just don’t fit. Some authors have referred to humans as a virus which, whilst technically false, does act as a useful metaphor to describe our influence.

Over a relatively short period of time we have developed the ability to engineer our environment on a massive scale. Deforestation converted much of our wildwood to agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand, leading to further deforestation. Huge tracts of land have disappeared completely beneath cities and roads, which require extensive quarrying to plunder the land of its resources. Fossil fuels have driven the expanse of industry, which in turn has influenced the climate. This has subsequently altered the oceans, the one ecosystem where mankind has yet to gain a foothold. Ocean warming, coupled with changes in chemical composition and the drastic effects of manmade plastics on many marine species, means that although we haven’t colonised the ocean, we have still influenced it hugely, and not for the better. I don’t approve of the influence that humans have had in the planet, but I can accept that it was inevitable. Had any other species evolved so greatly in such a short time then doubtless the planet would have been shaped in their image instead, with equally disastrous results. Especially those sodding blobfish.

The success of our species is a product of our ingenuity, which has allowed us to overcome the things that would normally inhibit the growth of populations. As mentioned above, apex predators generally occur in small numbers that are restricted by the availability of prey, and the balance of predator and prey tends to find a natural equilibrium. If the predator reduces the prey population too much then weaker individuals can’t feed and die out, at which point prey numbers increase and predators feast, thus beginning the cycle afresh. We humans have found a way to stay ahead of the game in this respect by developing a diverse diet and giving over huge tracts of land to the farming of crops and livestock to sustain us. This has traditionally been very successful, but there are many shocking examples of where our control over nature wains and the needs of a rapidly growing population can’t be met. The horrific scenes of African famine from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day provide a stark example. In recent years there has been a shift in political rhetoric, and the fact that we live on a small orb with finite resources has finally been realised. It is, however, only 30 years since the concept of sustainability was first introduced to global politics by the Brundtland Commission. With hindsight it seems like a case of ‘too little, too late’. We can’t cheat the system forever.

The rate of measured biodiversity decline over the past century is astonishing. A pessimist might say that this is just the beginning, and that the habitat loss required to sustain further exponential population growth will prove the death knell for global biodiversity. A slightly more optimistic view is that the value of nature is now realised, and that this value encapsulates more than just pounds, shillings and pence. For this reason there is a genuine desire from some quarters to retain and protect the jewels of the natural world, and even to redress some of the damage we have inflicted by creating and restoring new habitats. I don’t know which of these views I most closely align with, but suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m heartened by efforts to enhance biodiversity and to think beyond the immediate needs of people, but I also feel that protecting a few trees whilst the rape of the rainforest continues is little more than tokenism. A more fundamental change is needed to have any kind of measurable benefit on a global scale, and it’s hard to see where that change might come from.

It’s sad to think that in a few generations iconic species like the giant panda, the tiger or the mountain gorilla might be little more than photographs in dusty old textbooks, but it’s also realistic. It’s very clear that we, as the most influential species by a great margin, have assumed stewardship over our planet, and therefore it’s our responsibility to address these declines in biodiversity. We each need to realise that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it, a species like any other. By destroying biodiversity we are slowly destroying ourselves. It might already be too late, the flywheel effect of actions already committed may have taken us across the Rubicon, but we have to try, if for no other reason than the act of immersion in nature is one if life’s purest pleasures, and one of the greatest releases from the pressure and stress of modern existence. We owe it to ourselves to resist.

As you read this there are teams of scientists working day and night on developing a means of terraforming mars, effectively creating a backup earth for when this planet can no longer sustain us. The virus moving to new host, if you’ll forgive a moment of indulgent hyperbole. Personally I’m investing my time in creating a wormhole to the blobfish world.

Sampo

The lake was her refuge, the place that she came when she wanted to be alone. Recently she had wanted to be alone often.

Her family, like many other Finnish families, owned a summer cabin that was used as a weekend retreat on hot summer weekends, a welcome break from their busy lives in the small city of Kuopio. The cabin was nestled amid pine and birch on the southeastern bank of Hirvijärvi, a modest lake about an hour’s drive to the west of the city. Hirvijärvi meant ‘moose lake’, referring to the huge, subarctic deer that made their home in the area. Rather aptly she had once seen a moose swimming across the lake, impressive head and mighty antlers held proudly above the surface as strong legs worked frantically, unseen.

Although the summer exodus from the cities was tradition, their cabin had seen little use in the past three years. Her parents had always had a turbulent relationship, a product of two hard upbringings creating two equally combustible characters, but they had always loved each other fiercely. Things seemed different in the past few years, however, with the eruptions of anger becoming more frequent and protracted. She suspected that something must have happened to cause this change, but she was too scared to ask. Asking led to talking, and talking made unspoken things real. She preferred not to know, so she increasingly chose solitude.

As an only child solitude was no stranger. She found it comforting, and lately she had chosen to spend her solitary time at the family cabin away from the verbal sparring at home. This spring was the first time she had ever ventured to the cabin alone. At seventeen she was still a year away from being old enough to drive, however the key to her freedom had arrived in the form of an inherited moped from a recently departed great uncle. The moped, named Tunturi after a Lappish mountain, was far from perfect, having grown tired and sluggish from many years of use. It’s two-stroke engine buzzed and gargled, spitting out thick puffs of rich, acrid smoke, but it hadn’t let her down yet. It didn’t need to be fast or quiet, the moped was her freedom from the disquiet of home life and she adored it.

She had ridden to the lake early that morning, arriving when the mist still clung to the surface of the water and dewdrops glistened on the rushy margins. The sun would burn the mist away before nine, but until then she sat at the edge of the water, basking in the ethereal beauty. Her mind invented shapes and figures in the swirling vapour, heroes and villains playing out tales from the Kalevala. She saw brave Väinämöinen battling Joukahainen, saw the hunt for the swan of Tuonela, and saw the first kantele being forged from the jawbone of a monstrous pike. If she concentrated hard enough she could almost hear the soft bell-like tones of the kantele, a lilting soundtrack to her rampant imaginings. She had been taught about the great epic poem of her people from a very young age. Many of her friends found the tales unspeakably dull, but she had always enjoyed the stories that the teachers told. As a child she imagined herself as the brave hero, but recently she found kinship with beautiful, tragic Aino. The drowned maid frequently stalked her dreams.

As the mist faded her mind turned to more practical matters. She walked slowly to the cabin, a fifty yard trudge through damp, coarse grass. Her shoes were soaked with dew by the time she arrived at the tatty wooden door, the key sticking slightly in the lock after years without care. A firm tug separated the swollen door from it’s tight wooden frame, and it swung slowly outwards with a protracted creak. The interior of the cabin was basic yet functional, and everything was arranged just as she had left it three weeks before. Nobody had entered the cabin since her previous visit, which meant that the small stash of firewood that she had stowed in a wicker basket had remained untouched. Sometimes she was impressed by just how organised she could be when she put her mind to it. Sometimes. Slipping the rucksack from her back she unzipped a side pocket, rummaging inside for the tools needed to create fire. The cabin used to have a gas burner which was a far more practical means of heating water and food, but the gas hadn’t been replenished for years. She didn’t mind though, making fire in the wood burner was an enjoyable challenge. She lay the tools on a small folding table, and pulled two slender birch logs from the basket. Birch burned much better than pine, which was filled with sap and filled the cabin with acrid smoke unless fully dried. Her first task was to prepare kindling to start the fire, which she did by using her puukko to shave thin strips of bark from the lengths of birch. The puukko, a small yet functional knife carried by most Finns as a rite of passage, was the perfect tool for the job, creating paper thin strips of dry, curled wood that practically begged to be consumed by the flames. Whereas her father would have gamely tried to ignite the tinder with a flint and steel, she found the quick strike of a match to be far more efficient. The warmth radiating from the burner soon filled every corner of the cabin, and a pot of water quickly came to the boil and was transformed into thick, strong coffee. She sat at the foot of a steel-framed camp bed and gnawed on a piece of tough rye bread, a local delicacy, as the hot liquid poured life into her tired bones.

The woodland surrounding the cabin was dissected by a nexus of narrow pathways, some of which were the remnants of old byways through the more ancient parts of the forest. These paths, created by ancient foresters, reminded her of the old caminos that they had walked during the Mediterranean holidays of her childhood. She knew relatively few of the vast array of paths with any degree of confidence, but had learned a couple of circular hiking routes that began and ended in the woodland to the rear of the cabin. It was the second, slightly easier of these routes that she chose for a mid-afternoon stroll. This particular path took her alternatively through bands of mature and young birch and pine, eventually depositing her in an area of recently felled forest where heather and bilberry flourished and woodlark sang joyously. She had walked this route the preceding autumn, and had stumbled on a rich harvest of mushrooms, bilberries and lingonberries, but it was too early in the year for such treasure to be available. The bilberries were beginning to appear, but were still tiny and bitter compared to the luscious indigo orbs they would become. Come August and September a frantic race would begin, as locals fought to harvest the natural bounty before it could succumb to the hungry mouths of deer, mice and songbirds that shared the woodland floor. Autumn in Finland was a particularly wonderful time for rustic cuisine, with seasonal mushrooms and berries providing perfect accompaniment to fresh grouse, salmon and venison. She could almost taste it.

She eventually came to an area of swamp, all rush and willow and reedmace. This was the place where the cloudberries grew, although few people could stand the mosquitos long enough to pick them. Cloudberries made a particularly delicious jam that reminder her of her maternal grandmother, five years dead but still remembered vividly. Alongside the swamp was the remnant of a lofty larch that had succumbed to the weather and now lay fallen and broken. The larch was a waypoint, reminding her to take the left hand path that looped back to the lakeside. This path almost entirely passed through old pine forest, dominated by vast specimens that had long avoided chainsaw and axe. The narrow, sinuous pathway wove between the trees, showing no evidence of having been straightened by man. She liked how the path deferred to the trees, rather than the other way round. A rich green carpet of mosses cushioned her steps and silenced her movement, the eerie quiet broken only by sporadic birdsong and the distant jackhammer bursts of a woodpecker, carving holes into the soft bodies of the birches at the woodland edge.

The shimmering surface of the lake was visible through the trees when a scent hit her, sharp and acidic like spoiled wine. She traced the smell to the edge of the path, where a large mound of pine straw and birch twigs confirmed her suspicion. Wood ants. The ants were swarming over their nest, clearly agitated and spraying a cloud of formic acid into the still air. She eventually spotted the source of their annoyance, in the still form of a decomposing adder half buried in the nest. She had seen adders occasionally in the forest, but never anything like this. She watched the ants milling around the olive form, almost entirely camouflaged against the dry plant matter from which the nest had been meticulously engineered. She couldn’t fathom how the snake had ended up in this situation, and wondered whether it had entered the nest of its own accord or had been found by the ants and dragged inside as a chance source of protein. Either option made her shudder, and she hastened back to the cabin before her empathy for the snake became too much to bear.

It was only when viewing the cabin with fresh eyes that she realised how disheveled it had become, and how much maintenance would be needed to ensure that it remained habitable. The once vibrant russet paint had become faded and patchy, and the shallow felted roof was ragged and no longer kept all of the rainwater out. She had resolved to make repairs to the cabin herself, but this afternoon’s task was somewhat less challenging. The windows were thick with dust and grime, and she set about filling a metal bucket with soap and water. After an hour’s toil she stood back to admire her work, smiling contentedly at the obvious improvement. Her grandmother’s homemade Marimekko curtains were clearly visible through the revitalised glass, cheerful red and yellow flowers vivid against a bright white backdrop. That was more than enough hard work for one day.

Afternoon became evening, and the girl washed the plates of her evening meal in a small stream that trickled into the lake just south of the cabin. The sun sat low in the western sky, reflecting off the lake surface as she prepared for a brief evening swim. Many Finns would end the day with a spell in the sauna followed by a short dip in the lake, but her cabin had no sauna so the lake would have to suffice. She hadn’t seen anyone else all day, and she felt no sense of shyness and she left her clothes in a pile at the shore and slowly waded into the cool water. Ducking her head below the surface with a gasp, she briefly allowed the water to claim her before breaking the surface and swimming thirty yards out into open blue. She felt free as she swam confidently, enjoying the sensation of movement against her bare skin. After ten invigorating minutes she emerged and wrapped herself in a rough towel, drying her alabaster skin next to the dying embers of her cookfire.

As the day drew to a close the girl sat outside the cabin, watching the sky slowly change colour over the water. She wasn’t quite far enough north to experience true midnight sun, but night was still mercilessly brief in these parts. She sipped from a ‘borrowed’ bottle of Koskenkorva vodka as the horizon cycled through hues of tangerine and magenta, and reflected on a day well spent. She would ride the Tunturi slowly home in the morning, but today had been the respite she needed. She felt energised and able to withstand the hardships of family life once more, and she knew that she could stand whatever challenges lay ahead as long as she kept reconnecting with the nature that she loved. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she drifted off to sleep filled with thoughts of Sampo, the magical artefact from the tales of Kalevala that bought untold good fortune. The lake was her Sampo, her well of succour and solace. An owl called from the forest as she slept peacefully beneath the stars.

Suburban Sightings

I bought my house just over three years ago. At first glance it’s nothing special, a standard 1980s semi in the suburbs of south Birmingham, but the bricks and mortar aren’t the reason I live here. Not even close. I knew from the first time I viewed the house that it oozed potential, although unlike many prospective buyers I wasn’t thinking about the opportunity for renovation and profit. I was excited by the potential for wildlife encounters, and the reality has surpassed even my most optimistic expectations.

There is a theory about the existence of life on earth that describes the ‘Goldilocks zone’. This theory posits that the conditions that allow complex life to exist are due to the earth being far enough from the sun that it is not prohibitively hot (hello Mercury!), and yet not so distant from the sun that water and other key elements can only exist as ice (hi Uranus!). On a much smaller scale, I think my house exists in a Goldilocks zone of its own. It’s the perfect distance between the concrete jungle of the city to the north and the open countryside to the south, and is located at the confluence of a number of really interesting habitats. These include an extensive allotment site abutting the back garden, a large nature reserve of woodland, grassland and open water within a hundred metres, and wooded canal and river corridors within easy walking distance. It sounds obvious, but the opportunity for adventure increases exponentially when the right conditions are present.

To borrow an iconic piece of dialogue from an iconic film, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”. I’m not referring to attack ships off the shoulder of Orion though. I’m talking about something much more exciting that that. Allow me to describe a few observations made from within the confines of my house and garden, you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s start with the most exciting encounter of all. After about six months of living here it became very obvious that we had a regular guest that delighted in digging a series of small holes in the lawn. Our first suspicion was one of the numerous grey squirrels that loiter within a large mature oak tree just beyond the hawthorn hedgerow that marks the edge of our back garden. These plump beasts certainly spent a lot of time in the back garden teasing various members of the local cat population, and they’re famed for their tendency to bury nuts and acorns. The squirrels were prime suspects until a particularly extreme instance of lawn remodelling that was clearly beyond the abilities of our grey friends from across the Atlantic. Either we had a mutant squirrel the size of a Labrador, or the culprit was someone else entirely. I decided to solve the mystery once and for all by installing a trail camera on the patio to capture the vandal in the act. Imagine my surprise and delight when our nocturnal gardener was revealed to be a large, hungry badger. Much to the chagrin of my partner I actively encouraged the badger to return, enticing it into the garden with a feast of peanuts and new potatoes. This had two main outcomes. Firstly, I was able to capture some remarkable footage of the badger (imaginatively nicknamed Badgie) feeding and running amok in the shrub beds. Secondly, I managed to whip the badger into a peanut-fuelled frenzy that resulted in most of the flowers in the garden being uprooted and ‘rearranged’. Needless to say this wasn’t well received, and I was advised to stop encouraging the badger with immediate effect. I haven’t seen any evidence of the badger for a few months now, but I’d like to think it’s still out their somewhere embarking on a spree of garden-based terror.

The badger certainly isn’t the only mammal that shares our little postage stamp of suburban space. Foxes are regular visitors to the garden and have created a number of access points from the allotments to the north. So far all of my encounters have been with adults, but I always keep my eyes open for cubs. Despite their undeserved reputation as vermin, a fox cub is one of the most sublime and beautiful things you could ever hope to see. I’ll find one soon. Aside from the foxes and squirrels a host of small mammals call the garden home. We were briefly joined by a brown rat that lived beneath the shed and foraged vegetable scraps from the compost, however this particular guest soon relocated when security around the compost heap was increased to Fort Knox proportions. House mice and field voles have also been seen sporadically, as have small numbers of bats that regularly forage back and forth along the back gardens of my house and the neighbouring dwellings. I’ve only ever recorded two bat species in the garden, common and soprano pipistrelle, however there are a few other species that could feasibly occur. The bats have recently taken to depositing droppings on my car, which I believe they’re doing on purpose. No hedgehogs yet, but I live in hope.

Mammals are just one facet of the broad array of life that I share my home with. Birds are one of the most visible and enjoyable species groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some very interesting species within and above the garden. Perhaps the most impressive bird sighting occurred last summer when I observed a peregrine falcon circling lazily above the house, easily avoiding the unwanted attention of two rather irritated black-headed gulls. The peregrine, the fastest animal in the world no less, remained overhead for five minutes or so before flying purposefully away to the south, most likely in search of a meal. This iconic species has been one of the real nature conservation success stories of the past few years, and birds are now found breeding in almost all towns and cities in the UK. Birmingham and its surrounds are blessed with several pairs, and long may their success continue. Other birds of prey recorded from the garden include the buzzard, kestrel and my favourite of all, the sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are impressive and fascinating, and are extraordinarily efficient hunters of small songbirds. Nothing moves quite like a sparrowhawk, which is why they are most often witnessed in the garden as a brief flash of brown as they appear from behind a garden fence and plunge into the crowds of small passerines within our short section of hedge. They do everything with panache and at great speed, which is probably what makes them so exciting. A further species that I’m exceptionally lucky to share space with is the tawny owl that breeds annually within the nature reserve area to the south. During the summer months, when laying in bed with the windows open to escape the stifling heat, we are often rewarded with the distinctive calls of female and juvenile owls, which seem to move from tree to tree to the rear of the house. Male owls are heard less frequently, however this week I had a stunning encounter whilst leaving for work at around 3am. A male owl was sat on the tv aerial of an adjacent house, calling loudly and not fearing my presence at all. We were equals, equally fascinated by one another. These are the experiences I live for.

Aside from the raptors the garden has rewarded me with sightings of herons and egrets, ravens and cormorants. Within the garden itself the hedgerow is well used by house sparrows and blue tits, with the latter species having bred within a nestbox fixed to the shed for the past two years. Sights of starlings, thrushes and corvids are commonplace, and this year a pair of magpies successfully bred in the big oak. Interestingly I’ve never seen many finches in the garden at all, indicating that the assemblage of untidy shrubs offers little appeal to this family of seed eaters.

Reptiles and amphibians are often overlooked when considering garden species, but I’ve been lucky enough to find both. I must admit to cheating slightly by claiming reptiles as a garden species, however I have seen slow-worms on the unmanaged front lawn of a house about 50 metres away, and I’m certain that they occur in the adjacent allotment site. Reptiles are generally quite sparse in the Birmingham area, so I was delighted to find them. I’m determined to lure them into the garden at some point! Common frogs and common toads occasionally turn up in the shrub beds despite the absence of any ponds within 100 metres or more. They often seem to want to head toward the road, and I’m regularly picking them up, turning them around and popping them through the hedge into the allotments, but they probably just turn back and begin their quest anew, driven by the instinct to return to a pond long since destroyed by the house builders. Every year I promise to dig a small pond in the back garden, and so far it hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps this year is the year.

I’m not much of a gardener, which is useful because untidy gardens are often the most interesting ones. I have, however, planted a few shrubs and sown some wildflower seed in a bid to lure pollinating insects to the garden. After a slow start last year it’s starting to show some promise, and I’ve already been rewarded with a good selection of butterflies, day-flying moths and bees. The secret is to try to plant things that flower at different times, so that the insects have something to feed on from spring through to autumn. I’ve also installed a small ‘bug hotel’ that is attached to the side of the shed and provides refuge for solitary bees and wasps. A lot of people either ignore or actively dislike invertebrates, however I think they are endlessly diverse and intriguing. They’re also incredibly important, playing a vital role in our ecosystem by pollinating plants, decomposing organic material and oxygenating the soil. I’m no expert, and I’ve resolved to learn more about this collective of weird and wonderful species, but they certainly deserve our respect.

Overall I feel very fortunate to share such a tiny space with so much diverse and brilliant life. It’s sometimes easy to forget that humankind is just another species, albeit an astoundingly influential one that has shaped the earth according to its needs. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Next time you’re in the garden, look around you. You might just find something exciting. You might even meet Badgie.