FOREST FEELINGS

FOREST FEELINGS
[AUGUST 2020]

My dear friend

How are you? I hope you are keeping well.

Recently my family and I visited some nearby forests, an outing that caused my spirit to soar so greatly, that it would be amiss of me not to recount the experience.
Upon arriving at the woodland I was met with a sense of freedom not present within concrete walls. Outside, the unpleasant noises and smells of humankind could disperse.
The scent of pine trees filled the thick, warm air while fallen needles adorned the forest floor, creating a soft carpet upon which to tread.

Strolling through the natural world afforded me a liberating sense of acceptance. The trees showed no interest in the state of my garments and the flowers, if they did judge me, did so silently. Surrounded by botanical giants, who were there before my time and would probably be so after it, the troubles of the world seemed less terrifying. Walking in the woods permitted me perspective, if not deliverance, from the raging storms.

After walking for no little time, we sat down upon some giant wooden toadstools, that seemed to have been arranged to function as picnic benches.
Opening a plastic box revealed some soft, chocolate-stuffed cookies, freshly baked that morning. Looking around, one could easily imagine fairies frolicking through the forest, stopping to refresh themselves much as we were doing.
As we were resting, one of our dogs became fascinated by a large tree root jutting out from the soil. For reasons known only to her, the French Bulldog proceeded to dig at the root with admirable vigour and energy, pawing furiously at the dusty earth, though her efforts were ultimately – and thankfully – in vain.

I therefore urge you, my dear friend, to lay upon the woodlands your love and respect. Care for the countryside and teach your children to do likewise, for this is their inheritance. Away from ever-glitching technology and the overly informative Internet, we may experience peace and clarity.
It can take effort to experience the great outdoors responsibly, but believe me, it’s worth it.

MAGICAL MEMORIES

MAGICAL MEMORIES
[MAY 2020]

Boom! What was that? I finish browsing the Pirate-themed shop and emerge into the night. Boom! Looking up, I see the sky dancing with light. Fireworks. They look so pretty… oh no… that means I’m late! I rush through Adventureland towards Liberty Square, where my family and I have arranged to watch the display together. We are at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, the last stop on our month-long road trip down the East Coast of America, and possibly the most magical place I have ever visited.
Entering Disney World is like going to the theatre – I know I am in a fantasy, a larger-than-life fairy tale, yet I am powerless to resist and readily embrace this divergence from reality. Especially since I have been given a free Minnie-shaped sugar cookie. It is deliciously sweet.
Earlier this evening, the iconic Cinderella Castle had sparkled with red, green and white illuminations, looking like a huge pile of Christmas crackers to be pulled, before morphing majestically into a deep, sapphire blue ice palace, trimmed in frosty white lights. Now, the castle seems to glow mysterious shades of mauve and fuchsia, as though it were a magician’s haunt.
Eventually, I locate my family and we watch the last of the fireworks; awesome, golden explosions followed by fountains of pure, liquid light.
We meander back through Main Street, past a welcoming café towards the largest Christmas tree I have ever seen (along with an equally impressive pile of presents). Everywhere I look there are shops selling sweet snacks and pin badges; the stores glow soft pink and neon green with verdant reefs hanging overhead. From the sky, something white and fluffy falls, giving the impression of snow.
In Disney World, everything seems more magical.

Ah, coffee! A new day dawns, the weather is wonderful and – importantly – I have coffee.
Stretching to the azure-blue sky is an enormous pyramid that brings to mind the kind of Aztec structures a treasure hunter would love to raid – I mean – explore. Nestled beside a waterfall is a Nordic-style shop where a rather large, marginally terrifying troll relaxes amongst Norwegian gifts and viking helmets. It’s hard to believe that we are still in Disney World, but then that is the magic of Epcot; it takes us around the globe without ever demanding our passports!
With the sun beating down we purchase some oriental snacks and enter China’s Temple of Heaven, grateful for some shade and seating. Looking up, I marvel at the gorgeously detailed ceiling; rectangles of blue and gold arranged in ever-decreasing circles around a golden centre, decorated with the designs of a dragon and a phoenix. The attraction is a replica of the 15th century building in Beijing, where emperors would pray for bountiful harvests. I take a bite of our recently acquired mochi. Yum! It’s like eating a tangy, lemon-flavoured squishy.

Upon entering the Japan Pavilion, I am suddenly plunged into a world of kawaii (the Japanese word for “cute”). Hello Kitty dolls dressed elegantly in pastel kimonos sit quietly on a shelf, an enormous Pikachu poses on a pile of plushies and a parliament of brightly coloured lucky owls (pronounced “foo-KOO-roh”) perches wisely on display.
In the 1970s, kawaii culture became a way for the youth of Japan to rebel against the strict social norms of society, with cute handwriting and clothes providing a means of self-expression. Even today, such cuteness provides a pleasant distraction from the pressures of everyday life and can evoke a much-needed smile. After snapping a selfie with a candy-coloured anime girl statue we move on to the Morocco Pavilion, where my ever-resourceful mother produces some flavoursome pepperoni pizza.
In Disney World, everything seems more magical.

Now I’m back at home, staring out my window at grey skies weeping with rain, my soul yearning with an unbearable ache for those magical moments that seem so far away. Yet, maybe we need not be saddened by stormy skies. Maybe, if we smile a little more, forgive a little more easily and season our words with a little kindness, we can bring some magic into our own homes.
Maybe, just maybe, we can make the world more magical.

FLORIDA FRAGILITY

FLORIDA FRAGILITY
[APRIL 2020]

Life is fleeting. I suppose this has always been the case, but here in Florida, with reports of hurricanes blaring on TV screens, the prospect feels more real. Climbing into our giant, white Ford, we forge ahead through the pelting rain, visibility reaching a new low. We have been driving down the East Coast for a few weeks now and this is the closest I have ever felt to death. It’s hard to believe we are in the “Sunshine State”. Thankfully, like all storms before it, and I hope, all to come, this torrential downpour passes.

On a warm, November afternoon we head out to the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the biggest mangrove forest in North America. Here, we are greeted by a large, green alligator statue in a cowboy hat. Personally, I think this is as close to a real alligator as we need to get, but everyone else seems eager to see these cold-blooded machines in the flesh.
We climb into our airboat, which is propelled by an enormous fan, rather than a motor, grip the handrail tightly and WHOOSH! We’re off! Words can barely describe the sense of excitement I feel as we speed away. Hurtling through the brackish water, mud tinging the air with its scent, we slip and slide like a snake through the tall grasses. It’s like flying, but better. According to our guide, the mangrove trees that grow here block strong winds, reducing the destructive power of hurricanes. No wonder this bizarre yet beautiful flora is protected by law. When the airboat slows down, I am able to take in the jungle-like environment. With long, arching, red-stained roots emerging from the murky waters, mangroves look like something out of a fantasy novel. Floating on the rippled surface of the slow-moving river, an alligator lounges peacefully. Here in Florida is the only place on earth where crocodiles and alligators coexist. To be honest, I am glad to have seen these living fossils up close, but I’m not sure I need to repeat the experience!

We trundle along, speeding up when we reach an open expanse of water. Adrenaline courses through my veins as we shoot like a star over the waves. I grin. Life, while it may be fleeting, is also thrilling.

CREATION’S CHORUS

CREATION’S CHORUS
[APRIL 2020]

There are three enchantments of Easter, four that bring me joy: the roadside trees dressed in bridal blossoms, the sight of flowers swaying gently to spring’s symphony, the oh-so-sweet taste of giant, chocolate Easter eggs, and the rugged, wooden cross, once a sign of death, now a symbol of everlasting life.

Tweet tweet! Birds chipper and chirp from an unseen podium while flora dance to nature’s melody. High in the cloud-dusted sky, herring gulls – the classic seaside scavengers – swoop and soar like monochrome origami. Bright, golden sunlight pours down, lavishing light and warmth on all creation. In the branches of a gnarled tree, some blue tits flit to-and-fro, twittering as they work.
At long last, Easter is here and with it comes the beauty of life beginning anew.

A few centimetres above the soil, a profusion of lesser celandine mooch about, their petals as yellow as egg yolk, shimmering like mini botanical sunshines. English poet William Wordsworth liked this flower so much that he claimed it as his own in the poem “To the Small Celandine”. Personally, I adore bluebells, whose deep, vibrant hues adorn British woodlands during April and May. Similar in form but utterly distinct in scent is the three-cornered leek, a plant with white, bell-shaped flowers and a strong, onion-esque smell.
Here in the natural world, one can forget about the troubles that terrorise our modern existence, the deadly diseases we feel so vulnerable to and the economic anguish that engulfs entire nations. Here, nature gently reminds us, life overcomes.

Beneath the radiance of a springtime sky, we scour the garden for brightly coloured eggs, rummaging through bushes, brushing up against stinging nettles and relishing the sweet, chocolatey reward of victory at the end.

As the cool of the evening ushers in, my dad calls our attention to what looks like a tiny, poisonous snake. Standing around, we watch in awe as its small, brown body wriggles and slithers around before it disappears into the undergrowth. Later, I learn this was actually a slow worm, a harmless, legless lizard. When in danger, they can apparently detach themselves completely from their tail in order to escape predators. Even on this small scale, life overcomes.

Death may mock our mortality, yet its sting need not be permanent. The hope of a new existence beyond this material realm spurs us on, enabling us to play our part with passion and perseverance until the concert closes.
Life, even now, overcomes.

MARWELL MEMORIES

MARWELL MEMORIES
[JANUARY 2020]

Whoosh! The wind howls ominously outside our room at Marwell Hotel. My sister and I exchange uneasy glances. We are spending the night at the safari-inspired Hampshire hotel and, weather permitting, are hoping to visit the nearby zoo tomorrow. Built in 1989, the hotel has a cosy yet adventurous feel, with bizarre markings etched round the wooden edge of our mirror and statues like those on Easter Island hiding under a palm tree. Relaxing on large, comfortable beds in the African-esque room, we settle down to sleep while the storm outside rages.

Thankfully, the foul weather passes and we awaken the next morning to bright sunshine.
After a hearty breakfast in the warm, rustic Dining Room, we brave the long, arduous, thirty-second journey to the zoo. It being a rather cold, wintry day, the park is almost deserted. We wander over to the penguins, where the smell of fish hangs in the air and these adorable, monochrome birds perch on the rocks, relaxed in the pale sunlight. We stroll along, clutching hot drinks in a rather feeble attempt to battle the bitter air. Despite the chill, a few brave families are also here, along with a large group of rather audible school children.
Entering the newly built Tropical House, we are greeted with the sight of a two-toed sloth hanging from a branch. We stand and watch, the gentle music of splashing water and birds tweeting playing in the background. Minutes drift by in the humid environment. As sweet as sloths are, I will admit they are not the most entertaining of animals.
Yellow mongoose, on the other hand, are hilarious. They scurry, scamper and sprint across their sandy enclosure, sometimes stopping to stare out at us. They even have what appears to be a heat lamp in their enclosure, with a soft, scarlet glow.
Behind Marwell Hall is another member of the mongoose family, the market-comparing meerkat. Several of these endearing animals are busy foraging for food, grunting and squeaking as they work. Chirp chirp! Another member of the group arrives to investigate the progress, only to be told in no uncertain terms his presence is not required. Chirp chirp!
A large poster informs us of Marwell’s recent conservation efforts; apparently the Arabian oryx became extinct in the wild during the seventies, with only captive animals remaining. These animals were successfully bred in zoos, and, from 1980 onwards, groups of oryx were released back into the wild. Today, over a thousand of these sandy-coloured beasts roam the wild, with most in protected areas. This is not the only success story – closer to home, Marwell has been breeding and releasing one of the U.K.’s rarest reptiles, the sand lizard (which had been disappearing due to habitat loss) for twenty-five years. It’s nice to think the growing sum of money I have spent on coffee is being put to good use.

As the day draws to a close, we make our way home, tired but content.
A zoo is a wonderful place to be, whatever the weather.

MELLOW MANATEES

MELLOW MANATEES
[NOVEMBER 2019]

Manatee! Outside, I spot the cute figure of this magnificent marine mammal, gracefully poised with a letterbox between its flippers. Sadly, it’s just a statue. My family and I have been driving down the East Coast of America for almost a month now and have seen some amazing animals – alligators, lizards, the adorable Northern Cardinal, but so far, I have yet to see any manatees. Well, except for the very tip of nose poking out above the water in the Everglades. And now the statue.
However, that is about to change. We have just arrived at Fun 2 Dive Manatee Tours, located in Florida’s coastal city of Crystal River, the only place in the United States where humans can legally swim with manatees. I cannot wait to meet one of these “sea cows”, as they are sometimes called, up close in their natural habitat.

We wander into a tasteful, nautical-themed gift shop, where our guide is introduced. After signing in, we watch a short video teaching us how to best respect the manatees and the world around them. Essentially, it comes down to “passive observation”, that is, watching respectfully from a distance. If a manatee chooses to glide over and spend time with us, that’s fine, but everything is done on their terms. The video also includes what I would have considered fairly basic instructions – don’t ride the manatees, don’t separate a mother and calf, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t stomp on the manatees… Did we really need that spelled out?!

With instructions out of the way, I squeeze into my black and pink wetsuit, excitement building as we drive to the river. After meeting our captain, we climb aboard a small, white boat. The engine starts and we trundle along, watching the cobalt blue waters, where temperatures remain approximately 22°C all year round. It’s this relative warmth that attracts the manatees, who can’t survive in colder waters. We pass a sign reading “Idle Speed” and the boat slows down, so that its speed is as low as possible without the captain losing control.

Eventually we stop, put on our snorkels, which smell strongly of an alcoholic cleaning fluid, and slide into the river. Ah! The water seeps into my wetsuit and suddenly 22°C doesn’t seem so balmy! I paddle along, breathless, keeping my legs still, as instructed, lest I accidentally strike a manatee. Grasses floating on the surface cling to my face, obstructing my view. Then, we see him. An enormous, elephant-esque creature hoovering grasses off the river floor. A manatee. I float, trying to keep a respectful distance. Our guide leads us confidently towards the gentle herbivore and I follow, slightly intimidated by its massive bulk. The size of an average adult animal is around 10ft, almost twice as long as me!
Then we encounter a breath-taking sight; a mother and calf. They swim together slowly, calmly, seemingly completely at ease with us nearby. I am in awe. As I swim along, mouthfuls of river water somehow sneak into my snorkel. Its taste is hardly pleasant, but I don’t mind.
Our guide motions for us to swim alongside one of these gentle giants and takes some photos on a tiny, waterproof camera. The manatees chomp away at the aquatic vegetation, their flexible lips presumably getting a good workout. Most of their time is apparently spent travelling, resting and eating. Sounds like a good example to follow.

After a while I begin to feel the cold and, along with my family, climb back into the boat. Shivering, with fingers tingling, I peel off my wetsuit and wrap myself in a fluffy blue towel. As we sail back, I ponder the role of man and animals on this ever-changing world. Endowed with gifts of reason and consciousness, we have been tasked with the awesome privilege of caring for this planet. I am not sure how best to do this, but experiencing life alongside wildlife and supporting its conservation seem like good places to start.

HONKY TONK HEAVEN

HONKY TONK HEAVEN
[NOVEMBER 2019]

“Honky tonk”. According to the infallible internet, it is “a rowdy bar that plays country music”. Indeed, this certainly seems to describe well the various venues that line Lower Broadway. Music blares loudly out of the eateries while denim jackets and cowboy boots dominate the busy pavements. We are in Nashville, home to United Record Pressing, America’s largest vinyl record pressing operation, apparently able to produce over sixty thousand of the disks in a single day. Opened in 1949, they have pressed vinyl records for Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Beyoncé, to name just a few.

We enter a Hard Rock Cafe and relax on comfortable red seats. Scattered across brick walls are glass displays containing musical memorabilia; records, guitars adorned with signatures, sparkly outfits worn by legendary artists and even a set of cowboy boots. My favourite such commemorative item is the famous “Bat Out of Hell” album, featuring a motorcyclist attempting to ram a giant bat. Sounds like a completely sensible thing to do.
A friendly server brings us salads of such divine intensity they are nearly impossible to describe; the chicken is tender and flavoursome, the croutons sufficiently crunchy and the garnish exquisite. On stage, a musician dressed in Western attire strums his guitar, singing country melodies of love, dreams and heartbreak. The rhythm seems to resonate with my very being, demanding some kind of bodily response. I tap my toes and am relieved to see other people also responding to the beat; some are holding hands, some are filming the show on their phones and others are actually dancing. Eventually I stop paying attention to the lyrics and just let the waves of music wash over me.

Emerging into the crisp autumnal air, we wander through the now neon lit streets. Tour buses drive by and the whole place feels like a kind of country-themed Disney land, worlds away from reality. I suppose, in a way, it is. This is the head-bobbing, toe-tapping Honky Tonk Highway.

MIDWINTER MELODY

MIDWINTER MELODY
[JANUARY 2020]

There is a time for wrapping up warm.
A time for braving the frigid, refreshing air as it surges through the lungs.
A time for donning longline puffer jackets and beholding the pale, washed out sky whilst birds chatter cheerfully from an unseen perch.
There is a time for wrapping up warm, and that time is winter.

There is a time for black and white photos.
A time for admiring the gnarled bark of a riverside tree.
A time for studying the ripples that sail across monochrome waters whilst a nearby fountain splashes.
There is a time for black and white photos, and that time is winter.

There is a time for festive treats.
A time for sipping warm spiced ginger cappuccinos and sugary mint mochas.
A time for savouring crumbly, tangy mince pies stuffed with raisins and partially exploded from the microwave.
There is a time for festive treats, and that time is winter.

There is a time for celebrations.
A time for sampling squishy, chocolate mochi as Chinese dragons dance to the beat of a new year.
A time for angelic choirs in heaven and on radio to welcome God’s gift of love into our lives.
There is a time for celebrations, and that time is winter.

NEW YORK NIGHTS

NEW YORK NIGHTS
[NOVEMBER 2019]

New York. Often described as “the city that never sleeps”, this metropolis of over two million inhabitants is truly a sight to behold in the late autumn evening. Trees line the roadside with leaves as crimson as the rush hour traffic, yellow taxis swarm about like bees and indistinct Jamaican music plays gently from our car radio. New York’s magnificent skyline stands silhouetted against an explosive orange sunset while brightly coloured billboards advertise everything from films, to holidays, to health insurance. I feel almost overwhelmed by this multicoloured medley.

After a much-needed sleep, my family and I embark on a shopping spree, marvelling at the size of the shops and the price tags, when I suddenly spot Nintendo New York, a large video game store. Upon entering, I am immediately surrounded by adorable merchandise of every conceivable colour. Cuteness! Cuteness, cuteness, everywhere! I bound through the shop as upbeat battle tunes lift my mood, snapping photos of various video game icons and generally behaving like an overexcited child. After a while I decide to buy a soft pink plushie, a purchase that thrills me so much I proceed to inform my family of it throughout the day. They respond with appropriate appreciation.

Moving on to Times Square is a large shop featuring BT21 merchandise. BT21 is a brand created by LINE FRIENDS and South Korean boy band BTS. Launched in 2017, it consists of various cute characters that invariably draw a smile. Wandering through the aisle of toys, clothes and luggage tags, I clasp my hands together in excitement, a reaction that seems to delight the store attendant. A short while and many dollars later, we are on the move again.

Upon entering Central Park, we are greeted by the sight and smell of horses, each draped in vibrant finery. After a short haggle over the price, we mount a crimson carriage and began our tour of this spacious haven. With around twenty-eight miles of pedestrian paths, it was apparently designed so that the city’s populous could pursue various outdoor activities, including boating, croquet, sketching and the study of botany. As the carriage rolls along, I catch the smell of something sweet in the fierce November gale. Candy floss, perhaps? The clip-clop of our horse’s hooves provides a pleasant soundtrack. Along the road, trees are clothed in a palette of conservative colours – burgundy, brown and scarlet, while the streaming sun causes the park to radiate with autumnal brilliance. As we make our way back to our accommodation, we stop by Battery Park. From there, we can just about make out the Statue of Liberty etched in shadow against the evening sun. A gift from France in 1886, the statue’s inner steel framework was designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, who would later contribute to the design of France’s iconic Eiffel Tower. The statue was a joint project between France and the United States, intended to represent the friendship between the two nations, who were presumably bonding over a shared distaste of the British.

Later that night, I sink gratefully into a soft, welcoming bed, exhausted but enthralled. New York might not need its sleep, but I certainly do!

FRIGID FALLS

FRIGID FALLS
[NOVEMBER 2019]

Boom! The roar of Niagara Falls is like an eternal clap of thunder. The mist and spray dampen my face, one of the few parts of my body not wrapped up in layers of clothing. Beyond the wild, white water, stand trees dressed in autumnal splendour, while down below a rainbow stretches out over the shimmering waters, seeming to end at our feet. My family and I are spending a few days in Buffalo, which, according to prominent American architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is one of the best designed cities in the world. Not that we are here to explore the city, but instead to witness one of nature’s greatest wonders. Here, only a stone’s throw away from Canada, reside the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Canadian Falls. Collectively called Niagara Falls from the Indian word “Onguiaahra” meaning “the strait”, these majestic cascades of water pound ceaselessly, having only frozen over completely once, on 29th March 1848.

My sister and I pose for photos in the bright November light, sipping hot beverages and admiring the awe-inspiring American Falls. A black squirrel approaches and I am instantly entranced by its fluffiness; these adorable creatures are actually the same species as the grey squirrel, but with a genetic mutation that causes their fur to be darker in colour. My mother reminds me that the dark ball of fluff could easily bite and I back away, grateful for the common sense.

After enduring the unforgiving cold for what feels like a substantial amount of time, someone suggests we go to lunch and we enter a nearby restaurant. Revelling in the warmth, I sit down gratefully and proceed to devour a huge, crunchy, taste-bud igniting salad, topped with cheese and gifted with croutons. After that, we share a hot fudge brownie sundae, just to balance out the calories. Browsing through the restaurant’s gift shop, I encourage my mother to purchase unnecessary but stylish fashion apparel, including a t-shirt that will definitely not be worn in this wintry weather.

There might not be gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is family and their lustre never fades.