We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe, countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?
Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.
Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.
During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?
The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question. Yes, there is still magic to be found on the Camino and yes, it’s available for all of us.
“Nowhere to go and two weeks to get there.” Meditation teacher Denis Robberechts smiles as he addresses a group of a hundred or so people, remembering the slogan on the side of the vans they used for transporting equipment for one of the first Dharma Yatras. This pilgrimage through French countryside is in its eighteenth year and the duration now 10 days, but the idea is the same. To walk with intention, but without destination.
On the penultimate day of the 2018 Dharma Yatra, I take time to talk to a few of the people I’ve met, asking them to tell me something of their experience. Around the kitchen table, a wooden bench structure under a large tarp walled by neatly labelled plastic containers, I meet up with Marÿke Hovenier, Anke Birkner and Trina Dillon. After a moment’s reluctance, they can’t really contain their enthusiasm for the yatra.
Nature and Silence
“I’ve been 5 times now.” says Marÿke. “I like to dive into nature and it gives me some entrance to meditation. For me it’s easy when I’m in nature like this to open up and to see some other things. In normal life, it’s difficult to really make that mix. It reminds me that nature really is that important for me, so it would be good for me to go in nature more…in my head I know, but I tend to forget. And it’s lovely to spend time in silence with other people. You can be on your own in silence but that’s a whole different thing.”
The Dharma Yatra fills up soon after bookings open each April and is popular with people of all ages. The youngest is a toddler of less than a year and amongst the eldest is one of the teachers, who is over seventy. What is its appeal?
Community and Simplicity
Trina is part of the kitchen crew and as a British person amongst many particpiants from France, Germany and elsewhere, she’s been my go-to contact for the cups of hot tea we British seem to need more than most. She agrees about the nature and silence and adds that the simplicity of life on the yatra is a big aspect for her. “You have less need for things, because you’re more nourished inside by nature, by the teachings, by the community.”
Anke is one of the teaching team. She is nodding energetically “I agree! I also crave less things. At home I’m much more like “Oh I should buy some chocolate now, but here, it’s not available and I actually don’t think about it. Because I know ok, now this is the time to eat, this is the time to do this and the rest covers my other needs.” Trina adds “I think that helps with going inside as well, because you have less distractions and less things to think about practcally. So then you can just dive inwards, with more ease.”
If you’re used to traditional silent retreats, you may be surprised by the amount of conversation that happens on this retreat. It’s partly this way becuause there are many families – there are twenty-two children amongst the participants – but also because discussion and depth of inquiry is a key part of the Insight tradition of meditation of which the teachers are a part. Though there are group meditation sessions, walking is the main practice and takes place in silence. We walk in a long snaking line, slowest at the front to set the pace. “I just feel much more with myself.” says Anke. “And I see much more, absorbing what’s around and not so distracted. My presence increases because everbody else is really attentively present. There’s more energy in it. In the outside world, people go walking together but talking. It’s different. You don’t get to see anything. You are not really there. You spend hours in the dunes and then, “ah yeah. Actually where am I?”
Nature as teacher
Some discussion about “the outside world” takes place and it’s true that over these 10 days, it has felt as though we are in our own little bubble. Meals are prepared and served on site and all infrastucture such as toilets and showers are organised by the on site crew. The group walks up to 8 hours every day, but engages little with people outside of the group beyond a passing “bonjour”. The look on some of the faces of local residents and farmers as 100 or more people file past their property is precious! I wonder aloud how some of this, of all the things we’ve been talking about could be brought a little more into the outside world.
“When we went for the sunrise walk this morning,”” says Trina, I was thinking that you don’t need to do anything because nature is the teacher. All you have to do is bring people to that place. It’s such a simple thing, even just to take people out for a day or a few hours, and it’s so powerful. You feel like you are bigger than your small self. You are part of something bigger.”
Photoset from the walk available below. Participants please feel free to download.
For commercial use, please contact me regarding permissions. Thanks!
“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.
The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.
As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.
Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.
“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.
In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.
Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?
“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”
Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.
Circling in…re-tuning and re-attuning…this is a key foundation for sustainable living.
To keep growing and learning, we all need to find our edge…
Back in 2008, Living in the Future began as a project documenting ecovillages and low impact communities in the UK and beyond. It was hard not to be concerned about the way things were going but as well as saying ‘no’, I wanted something to which I could say ‘yes’! Our team set about recording positive alternatives to mainstream lifestyles and twelve years on, Living in the Future engages in all aspects of this question, from natural building and offgrid living to food, health and nature connection. As well as the physical impact of this way of living, the human context is becoming increasingly evident. Society is facing a collapse in emotional and mental well-being and we find ourselves embracing an eco-spiritual edge. In permaculture, the edge effect describes how there is a greater diversity of life in the region where two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland.
Where is the fertile ground between ecology and spirituality?
Sustainable Living is more than an eco-house, more then a veggie garden, more than planning laws and turf roofs, though all of this is relevant and necessary. Sustainable living has to encompass the whole of it. The soul of it. The way we live includes our humanity, our community and our relationships – with ourselves, with the land and with each other. Filmmaker, writer, environmentalist and human rights advocate, I am also a yoga teacher and a meditation guide and my lifestyle encompasses all of these aspects. Many years ago, I made a commitment to earning my living through Right Livelihood and with your support, the Living in the Future project has helped me do that. Part art, part activism, we endeavour to bring fresh conversations, fresh inspirations and a fresh perspective.
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Since Christmas, I’ve been undergoing a small experiment. It started with an inspiration from author and shaman Caitlin Matthews and resulted in twelve days of reflections, which can be taken as oracles for the year ahead. Seeking a simple way to publish, I chose Instagram and each day added a photograph which I felt added to the experience. After the experiment, I have continued to post the odd reflection, basing them on daily events, inspiration from others, meditations and time in nature. Here’s my ‘forecast’ for March 2018, in case you’d like to come along for the journey!
By the way, for those of you asking about Simon and Jasmine Dale, who lost their amazing eco-home on New Year’s day to fire, over 1100 people have donated to their crowdfund, raising £35,000 so far. The family have expressed their thanks and gratitude for all the support and are taking some time out to dream up the next stage of their lives.
I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn
At what cost? At what cost does a woman pursue “the path less travelled” and focus on her inner life? Although the subject of women’s spiritual journeys has been habitually scrubbed from history, can it be true that lately, we are witnessing an unearthing of the divine feminine?
In these times of great challenge for our world, there is a need to balance the strong, extrovert, “doing” masculine energy which dominates the western culture with something that is more gentle, more yielding, more “being”. This is just the re-balancing that Claire Dunn is undertaking in her book “My Year Without Matches”.
Australia, surely, is a land made for men. Tough and unforgiving, the landscape reveals how humans are vulnerable to nature. Lethal snakes, poisonous spiders, a harsh and deadly sun. This is the landscape that Claire is encountering. She intuits a need to connect with the land. A need to learn nature’s ways and fall into step with Her rhythm. With the rhythm of herself. And in the process, she awakens to the feminine within.
As I turn the pages, Claire Dunn’s voice changes from young, scared girl to mature, wise woman. Leaving the comfort of suburban society, she enrols in a bush programme and takes to the wild for a year. Schooled in the basic skills of shelter-building, fire-starting, tracking and trapping, she makes a place for herself in the landscape. She sets strong boundaries, sometimes too strong, and learns what it is to both stick to her principles and to go with the flow.
Although firmly set in the outer world of survival, the strength of the story, for me, is in the depiction of Claire’s inner world. We watch as she revisits her relationship with her parents, enlisting their help but noticing her reluctance to gracefully receive it. The surly teenager grows up. We see her wrestle with the need for, and rejection of companionship. Walking the line between loneliness and solitude, she discovers the push and pull of neediness and interdependence.
Claire’s self-imposed celibacy and fasting resonates strongly with a path of renunciation, which has come to mean self-denial but more traditionally, was a way to find your edges. Spiritual traditions have a way of testing you, so that you come to know yourself fully. So that your actions, where once they were mechanical or driven by habit, become full of purpose and intent. And this is Claire’s striving. To find meaning in her life. To be able to walk a road which makes sense to her, to her fellows and to the earth herself.
The courage with which she undertakes this task inspires awe. Awesome is a word somewhat overused in Australia, but Claire’s journey, and the book which emerges from it, deserve the phrase. Awesome.
After reading “My Year Without Matches”, I’m raving to my husband about it and he picks up the book. “She lives in Newcastle”, he says. ”So you won’t be able to add her to your signed book collection.”
“Mmm”, I respond. “You never know.”
The book is still sitting on the coffee table when I am invited to attend a gathering at the Urban Temple – a small shared-house community in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s trendy inner North. I’m circling the laden pot-luck table when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a woman chatting. I wonder, thinking that I recognise her. The man speaking with her mentions “Newcastle” and I know that it is her. “Are you Claire?” I ask, shyly.
We chat over dinner and I ask if I may interview her. She agrees good naturedly. When I get home, I thrust the book into my husband’s hands, pointing to the image of Claire on the back cover. “Guess who I met this evening!”
A couple of weeks later, Claire and I are sitting in my apartment in Fitzroy, drinking tea. She has only recently moved to Melbourne. After finishing her book a year ago, she has been engaged in the world of promotion.
“I’m still enjoying this part of the process”, she says. “It’s kind of ‘out from under a rock’. It’s why I’ve come to Melbourne. It feels like there’s a community down here that’s very interested in this work. Earth-connectedness and personal transformation through that doorway. It feels much stronger down here than anywhere else I’ve been. I always thought it was an urban myth that Sydney and Melbourne were so different, but they feel like very different beasts. Very different jungles.”
I can only agree. Not having lived in Sydney, I don’t know what that’s like, but the Melbourne community – especially the inner North, has responded very well to my own work on conscious communities. I ask her if she is making any money from the book, given that it has just gone into its second edition.
“I’ve just been given my first royalty cheque after my advance. So it was the first money I’ve been given since 18 months ago for my book. I’m making my living doing freelance journalism for Fairfax – Sydney Morning Herald and the Newcastle Herald. I think there’s only a handful of writers in Australia – novelists or non-fiction – who make a living from their writing – writing books, anyway.”
If it’s not the money keeping her going, why does she do it? I ask.
It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” says Claire. “When I finished writing that book I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m writing another book’. I can see how easily you could get caught up in ‘well I’ve written a book, everyone’s expecting the next one, ok, I’ll just do something’. But I can really see how it could become a case of not really embodying what I’m passionate about because I’m too busy talking about it or writing about it.”
And embodying it – walking her talk – is important to Claire. She’s started running “Earth Wisdom” courses and gets invitations to collaborate with other people doing the same kind of work. It was a determination she arrived at in the final pages of “My Year Without Matches”. That she wanted to work as a “bridge builder” between mainstream society and the natural world.
“I’m feeling the call back to the earth.” she says. “Back to the land. Back to what inspired me on this journey in the first place. It’s like a spiralling back.”
It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write the review that I fully realised what a spiritual book “My Year Without Matches” is. I ask Claire how that spiritual journey is unfolding, now that she has left the forest.
““Well, it feels like all the stuff I wrote about in the book I’m absolutely needing to embody and trust in a new way. It’s almost like that year in the bush gave me that first insight, and those first new, very powerful experiences of this new way of being, which at the time I referred to as the feminine way. I was discovering this much more feminine way of showing up in the world, which was much more motivated and moved by desire, impulse, intuition and feeling, than by thought, and rationality and logic. And so the last few years I’ve been given the opportunity to practice that, both with the uncertainty of choosing to write a book with no publisher confirmed, and also the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, which is moving around a lot, and not having a stable job as such, and feeling the fear in that, but also the deeper desire to walk the talk, to really live from that place. My old identity fell away. All the certainties and the youthful idealism or ‘this is the way life will unfold’ – that’s all dissolved. It’s much more about inhabiting that fluid space of ‘where am i drawn, where do I feel that I want to contribute. what wants to come through me? What stories, what gifts to I have to bring right now? Is it a learning time or a teaching time? Is it a giving time or a receiving time?’ Knowing that life is seasonal and cyclical and and flowing with that. So it feels to me that living from that place, embodying that feminine pattern of energy which is all about receptivity, intuition, really puts into practice all the concepts that i’ve learnt about a spiritual life. It’s easy to just agree with them when you hear about them – uncertainty, unknowing, emptiness, fullness, but living from this place is putting it into practice for me.”
I can only agree.
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.
This afternoon I had a filming appointment at a food forest garden nearby. To get there would take a half hour walk or ten minute cycle. It was raining. Hard. I was a bit worried about slipping off my bike and smashing my camera, but by the time I’d finished faffing – looking up directions; making a note of the organiser’s number – it was a bit late to walk.
I rode slowly and carefully, avoiding puddles and tram lines. I got there in plenty of time and as I arrived, I realised I was smiling. My inner mantra had changed from “Oh, it’s raining again” to “I’m so happy” and it only took a moment to work out why. I loved being in the rain.
The food garden was lush and fruitful, with lovingly tended plots abundant with beans, herbs and salads. Since moving to the city, I’ve become a big fan of urban agriculture and I heard that Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, was recently advocating turning Melbourne’s parks into food gardens. That would be great! Yarra Council is really forward thinking in that respect and has appointed an urban agriculture officer. He’s been responsible for putting planter boxes all around the neighbourhood so that we see herbs and veggies growing on many street corners. Today, the garden shone and twinkled with raindrops. You could almost hear the plants inhaling the fresh moist air.
Only this morning, I was thinking how Nature was enjoyable in any weather. Sunshine is great, obviously, but the beach in winter is wild and when the waves crash the shore, some primal energy is released not only in them, but in me. City life is short on primal energy and I often find myself flatlining in a dullness of being. When you’re used to being stirred by Nature, a caffe latte in a funky cafe and an illicit freewheel through the park at night can only take you so far. Mostly, I find it’s not far enough.
When I got back from my bicycle shower, I went out again. Just for fun. I don’t own an umbrella and I left my hat at home. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, the wind in my hair. I bounced up the street, focused only on the feel of Nature washing me down. My stupid grin could have been mistaken for love, or madness. I just felt so relieved to have found a way to be in Nature, even here, in the depths of the city. Melbourne is known for its “four seasons in a day” but usually, it’s a bit of a pain. Early in our stay here, a friend showed me the contents of her oversized handbag. She routinely carried both leggings and an umbrella, however the day began. “It can change at any time!” she warned.
I wandered up to the post office to send a leisurely letter, strolling lightly as people hurried by, heads down against the weather. I smiled and smiled to myself.
On the way back, I looked up to see a line of pigeons perched on a telegraph wire. They were mostly hunched, like the pedestrians. Heads tucked into their necks, feathers ruffled and damp. The wire hung over the middle of the street. Could they not have chosen a more sheltered spot to huddle? Thirty-one, I counted. Why that wire? And why was there only one single pigeon on the wire next door?
I spent a contented time, in the rain, watching the pigeons and realised that in one lucky afternoon, I had discovered that the city weather could allow me to immerse in Nature and city animals were also wildlife worth watching.