open country

After zipping up tiny jackets and getting the wee ones in pairs and in a line and with a box of tiny shovels and forks we walked out of the nursery. Holding hands and shuffling feet we stopped not far from the nursery’s little garden area.

Did the children think that we would find anything in the hard ground that makes up the playground? Ben was looking for ladybirds, but would we find these here? I knelt down as the children crowded round to see if there was life in this man-made environment.

The first thing we found at the corner of one building where soil had settled between the wall and the paving stone was a small clump of grass. A line of earth was crammed between the tarmac and some kerbing, here wee hands and wee garden tools scraped at the hard packed soil.

The chatter built, children started to stand up, excitement grew. One group found a millipede (picture, top of page) curled up in the dark moist space. Another has unearthed a tiny ant. The soil provides an microscopic world with its own food chain.

Even when the leaves have fallen to the ground the decaying plant matter provides a meal as do the fruit bodies of fungi and their many filaments. The herbivores are predated by the carnivores and microscopic parasites and bacteria join the winter repast.

Blue tits and chaffinches looked down on us as we walked through the school garden. I pulled loose mortar out of an old stone wall where I found a small colony of slaters. Even before we went through the field gate into the paddock the nursery teacher had spotted a blackbird shuffling in a pile of dry leaves, shaking them over its head to uncover the soft soil beneath – “looking for worms,” an excited small voice announced.

I placed the class in a neat line, in front of some compost heaps, so that they themselves could dig for worms. Within a short time they had conquered these earth mounds with the strongest characters standing on the highest parts – survival of the fittest above and below the soil.

The fallen trunk of a tree had little holes over the remaining bark where borers had created homes in the wood for their larvae to thrive. Where the bark had fallen off, we could see and feel the gallery tunnels that they had left.

All this life in a short walk from a bustling settlement – we need all the creatures, even the ones we cannot see. They create the soil and pollinate the flowers, they create the environment for our crops to grow and the meat for our over-filled plates.

There is a band of people who offer various forms of informal education to any willing audiences. Most people who choose the outdoor environment as their vocation, whether to conserve, teach or study, do not do it for material riches but for the rewards it brings in terms of a better quality of life.

Some who conform to the extreme side of green issues will, I see, have email addresses like greenmanlove – just one of the educational delights on offer in this year’s Outdoor Diary. Plant, Spirit, Medicine is a day’s study based on Goethe’s observations.

There are activities to suit all ages and abilities from short health walks to all-day hill walks. You can join in on craft days and even learn a bit of bushcraft. You can learn about the birds or build a scarecrow to shoo unwanted groups away.

All the favourites for the family are there like pond-dipping and den-building. Hidden among the woodlands, valleys and hills are the hideaways of the past – our built heritage, some of it only a footprint on a windswept moor. There is a plethora of activities relating to history and archaeology. If you do not fancy any of the above you can get on your bike or your horse – the choice is yours.

For more information, see the link at the bottom of this column, Or pick up a leaflet from a library, visitor information or ranger centre, or leaflet racks throughout Edinburgh, Lothians and the Borders.