:: Article

Rediscovering the outdoors

By Lamorna Ash.

Patrick Barkham, Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature (Granta, 2020)

A group of teenagers from an inner-city school are heading home from a trip to the seaside. As the coach pulls away, there comes a yell from the back. The sound is so urgent it causes the driver to break suddenly. When the teacher runs down the aisle, they find the kid not doubled up in pain but pointing in horror beyond the window at the wide stretch of beach revealed by the low tide. ‘Where’s it gone?’ they cry out. ‘The sea’s gone!’

This is not new. You hear versions of the same story throughout the education sector. A teenager hears the alien sound of birdsong and assumes it’s a ringtone. A child brought up to idolise sleek Apple products is unable to recognise an actual apple tree until its fruit drops onto their head.

In the nature writer Patrick Barkham’s latest book, Wild Child, there are plenty of equivalent examples. While visiting a permaculture garden in Athens, he hears a child asking their teacher, ‘Who hung the lemons on the tree?’ I often question the value of such anecdotes when told in isolation. How many older generations have made it their prerogative to berate the youth of the day for their failure to interact with nature as they themselves see fit? But Barkham starts by promising he doesn’t want to ‘harangue or blame people’. Rather than harking back to a rose-tinted past where children roamed free, what he offers in this gentle, hopeful book are ways in which we might instil in the child of today an appreciation for nature—even in the most urbanised communities where ‘childhood terrain is annexed’ to the home, as he terms it.

Barkham’s protagonists are his small children, twins Milly and Esme, and their younger brother, Ted. Since her first, hesitant steps, Esme has been a force of a child. She eats mud, seeks out frogs and snakes to manhandle, conducts burials for the creatures she finds dead in her garden and learns the name and guise of every butterfly and bird by heart. ‘She perceives the natural world around her so quickly that fleeting events for us,’ Barkham writes, ‘appear as if in slow motion for her.’ Guided by his daughter’s impulse to commune with every aspect of the world beyond the walls of her home, Barkham takes Esme and her siblings to nearby Norwich Castle Museum so as to view the taxidermied herons and the preserved nests of commons and terns in a diorama of the Norfolk coast. ‘Critics of the old-fashioned facsimiles of animals say collections are a group of objects, not a community of subjects,’ he notes. In each of his five books, this has been Barkham’s mission: to transform from object into subject those things which we imagine to be unknowable, whether through spending a summer seeking out every species of butterfly, as in his first book, Butterfly Isles, or following the life and history of the badger in Badgerlands.

The chapters of Wild Child similarly act as a community of subjects. There is one devoted to caterpillars, another to collecting conkers and foraging for mushrooms, a third to the two ponds Barkham digs in the garden of their Norfolk home. Interspersed between these thematic sections are four chapters divided into the four seasons during which Barkham volunteered at the outdoor nursery his children attend. Barkham describes his proposal for the book modestly, ‘some small, true tales from their childhood and mine.’ The word ‘small’ is significant here. Wild Child is turned towards small things: namely, the many children he encounters over the course of his volunteering and their relationships with nature. When he finds several photographs taken by his son, the images startle him; he is unaccustomed to viewing the world from a child’s height, from where grownups tower over everything like ‘distant Olympians.’ In Wild Child, it is as if Barkham has taken up this viewpoint, regarding the natural world from a crouched position that allows him to approach his subjects with a rare level of intimacy and attention. While children’s books so often choose the natural world for their backdrop, in nature writing, children are largely absent. It is Barkham’s re-focusing of the genre to include the perspective of young people that makes his writing so convincing.

Volunteering at Dandelion outdoor nursery, Barkham discovers an approach to education as far removed from the soft-carpets and no-sharp-edges pre-schools of Britain as there could be. Come rain or shine, the children’s play, learning and meals are conducted at their outdoor site. In Dandelion there are no branded toys. Barkham imagines the various tools and loose parts that are left out for the children to play with as ‘profoundly open’ due to their ability to be turned into anything. In contrast, purpose-built toys as ‘closed’, their range of uses limited. This binary becomes a valuable tool with which more generally to compare the roles of the outdoor and indoor in a child’s life—schools and the home are ‘closed’ places, their parameters set, the outside ‘open’ and unbounded territory without fixed signifiers.

Dandelion nursery was established in reaction to a belief that the British education system was failing its young people. In 2020 UNICEF placed the United Kingdom last in its ranking of children’s wellbeing across twenty-one countries. One in eight people under the age of nineteen in England has a mental health disorder. Though there exists a constellation of reasons for this downward curve in children’s quality of life, Barkham alights on technology and the over-scheduling of academic and structured activity as two conditions in particular that have altered the landscape of childhood in recent years. It is these that Dandelion and its ilk are attempting to combat with their emphasis on free play away from the strictures of the classroom. And indeed, Barkham refers us to multiple studies documenting improvements in academic attainment when some of the curriculum is conducted outside.

Barkham takes a phenomenological approach to his research; he does not observe the children, but unselfconsciously enters in to their imaginative play, hiding from unknown villains in their forts and allowing himself to be piled on when he unwittingly becomes the villain. He pays great attention to the language with which the children make sense of the natural world around them, marvelling when a severely autistic child who struggles to play with the other children declares that leaves under a microscope look like blood vessels or when a young boy tells him that a twig he found on the floor will become a ‘memory stick’ to ‘remember the baby who died in mummy’s tummy.’

More so than in his previous books, there is a childlike quality to Barkham’s style here, as if his prolonged encounters with those under the age of ten have inflected his own writing. Fifty Brent geese pass through the empty sky, forming a ‘child’s wobbly V’, a caterpillar leaves its chrysalises like ‘a tall person clambering out of a sports car’, the rare death’s head hawkmoth eggs that he buys online for Esme on a whim turn into fat fluorescent yellow caterpillars recorded as having ‘charisma’, their behaviour ‘unperturbed and autocratic, as if they know their star quality.’ The metaphors at play are humorous, often absurdist; nature neither aggrandised nor placed on a pedestal.

Access to nature, Barkham stresses, must not be an ‘indulgence for the privileged’. And yet it so often is. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief many of the inequalities operating in the UK. One of the most striking of these is the way green space is apportioned. A Guardian data report in London found gardens made up a third of all land in the wealthiest areas and just a fifth in the poorest. There are private gardens all over the country that may be enjoyed only by those wealthy enough to possess a key. Meanwhile, some families living in small apartments have no outside space at all. Near the end of the book, Barkham recounts a day he spent with an initiative working to redress this imbalance—Forest School, founded in 1993, where students are given the opportunity to take their learning into the countryside for one day each week. Barkham listens as a spirited group of ten-year-old, ‘English as a second language’ students from central Nottingham explain that out here it seems to matter less that they have not yet mastered English, that the sounds of insects remind them of their former homes, that they feel free again. Many of these children’s families, the Forest School practitioners inform Barkham, do not own cars and will struggle to visit wild places like this once the programme is over. But it is better to ‘know there’s a bit missing,’ they say, hoping that the forest will hold on in the children’s imaginations as a place of freedom they might one day return to.

Now is a good time to probe Britain’s education system. For the first time since their inception, this summer SATs, GCSE and A-Level examinations are cancelled. Barkham considers the immense pressures such rigorous testing exert on young people—the way eleven-year-olds must work through break-time if their grades are not good enough, how their lives are mapped out by their results from the age of seven. There is hope that the abrupt break to the examination schedule this year might prompt a radical re-evaluation of such a system’s benefits.

Barkham does not suggest it is easy going against the grain, nor does he pretend he has entirely extricated his children from the modern world and its inherent problems—like all young people, his children spend hours preoccupied with technologies. But in this excellent book, told with passion and humility, he provides an opening through which wildness might be reintroduced into children’s lives, reminding us that there may be a ‘bit missing’, but that does not mean it cannot be found.

Lamorna Ash is a freelance writer and senior education worker at the charity IntoUniversity. Her first book, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish fishing town was published by Bloomsbury in April 2020. She lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 18th, 2020.