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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

From The Inside Out

I have lived in Cusco for almost five years and run a family nature club, Club NaturaNiños, since early 2012. We set off into the countryside most Saturday mornings and regularly go camping further afield. Yet, till a couple of days ago, I had not taken the trouble to identify a single bird species and was only able to name two or three tree species. I have always tended to love nature as a whole, all its elements taken together, without fully appreciating how each piece fits into the puzzle.

But recently I read John-Lewis Stempel’s Meadowland: the private life of an English field and it kindled in me a longing to truly experience and learn to know the nature around me, in any place where I happen to live, not simply to see it on a superficial level. I realise that this intimacy can only come from years of close observation in all weathers, at all times of the day, throughout the year, and from a willingness to wholly open one’s mind and senses, to be in nature without distractions. I suspect this takes practice, dedication and discipline, at least initially, before it becomes a habit. So my kids and I have started a nature journal, to document the animal and plant life around the city of Cusco where we live, and to follow changes through the seasons.

Nature Journal

Our first journal entry is dated 1 August 2015. On that day, we set off for a longish walk and didn’t get further than 30m from our house. Within minutes we had recorded a yellow-flowering ‘weed’, a hairy caterpillar, a pitch black spider with striking red markings, three species of beetle, and a large cricket. We couldn’t identify any of them with certainty though my kids suspect the spider may be a Black Widow. Our photos are all backed up with field notes – time, weather, location, descriptions and measurements. We found we could use the magnifying glass to harmlessly pin down active insects for photography. Apart from the camera, journal, and magnifying glass, our equipment includes a pair of binoculars, measuring tape, small knife, cellotape, a torch for peering into dark holes, and a pencil in a leather case that can be hung around the neck. All this is stored in a specially designated ‘nature’ bag. We quickly established individual roles: my son is Chief Investigator, my daughter Chief Handler, and I became Chief Recorder.

Two days after our pioneering excursion, we set off again, this time discovering no fewer than nine species of grasses in the field opposite our house. It gave me great pleasure to know this, to realise that 99.9% of people walking past that plot of dirt and scruffy vegetation had no idea it sheltered almost a dozen varieties of grass, and that a few days earlier I had been one of those people. All it had taken to alter this was an hour of enthusiasm and interest.

Yesterday, for our weekly nature club outing, we added a guide to the most important trees and shrubs of the Sacred Valley to our equipment. At our destination, my daughter and I identified 6 species of trees, all ones we’d seen innumerable times before, without really seeing them, except for the non-native eucalyptus. Now I know that the bark of the Capuli tree (Prunus serotina) has distinctive cinnamon-coloured markings, like hyphens , that it fruits from January to March, and that its elongated leaves have a serrated edge. More thrilling still, we identified our first bird, a siskin (Hooded or Olivaceous? – to be determined).

We tape leaf, seed and flower samples into the journal and when we get home we make sure our notes are complete. We also download and sort the photos into folders labelled with the date. It occurred to me to post images of two flowering plants on Facebook in the hope that someone will be able to help us identify them. Failing this, we will invent our own names for some species so that we can continue to chronicle their life histories.

There’s no denying all this takes time and effort, and I have little doubt there will be future journaling lulls, but, to quote Lewis-Stempel, experiencing “the natural word from the inside out, not from the outside in” looks set to become a long-term and fulfilling family activity.

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