Sometimes it’s easy to become blind to what’s right there in front of you. But even limited natural environments close to home are overflowing with wonder. We asked two nature advocates, from two different parts of the world - Sweden and the USA - what makes their enthusiasm for nearby nature tick.
Marcus Eldh grew up in a suburb of Västerås, about an hour northwest of Stockholm, with forested areas just around the corner. This was where he played. Where he picked berries and mushrooms with his family, and where he walked or skied to get to school. Maybe the fact that he spent so much time there is the reason that he didn’t see it as anything particularly exotic. “I thought that Sweden was the most boring place in the whole world. We didn’t have jungles or tropical beaches – there were no elephants or giraffes.” And the TV programmes showing him how cool Swedish beavers are were few and far between. “Much more exciting with a platypus from Australia,” says Marcus.
As soon as he had finished his degree at university he went to Southeast Asia and eventually arrived on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. He went on a guided hike in the jungles surrounding Bukit Lawang to see the orangutans. And it was here that an idea occurred to him. Could he make a living by guiding others on wilderness experiences? Would he be able to do that? What a shame he lived in Sweden. Because there is nothing exciting there. Right? Once he was back home he visited the tourist information centre in Västerås to ask them if there was anyone offering guided trips that focused on nature and wild animals. They told him that two Austrian tourists had been in asking if they could go somewhere to see moose. The advice they had given them was to go to Stockholm and see them at the outdoor zoo Skansen. “Imagine if they had said that to me in Sumatra? That I should go to a zoo to see the orangatans! That would have been so disappointing,” says Marcus.
Curiosity is the driving force
That visit to the tourist information centre was the start of his business, which eventually grew to the point that he could make a living from it, and his vision, mission and lifestyle. Since 2003, Marcus has run his company Wild Sweden that takes visitors out in the Swedish wilderness to see moose, beavers and bears, and to hear the howls of wolves. It has become his job to open others’ eyes to animal and plant life in the wilderness that can only be glimpsed from the motorway, running tracks and ski slopes. But primarily, it has been his eyes that have opened. His outlook has changed. He has another way of looking at the signs he sees in nature. He discovers animal tracks and analyses their movement patterns, the size of their paws and hooves, the length of their stride. “But I think it is just as interesting to stare at a tree and see what it really looks like. To try to work out how it has grown. It might have been broken or had to grow around another tree. You can see how it has battled its way up, how its roots have gravitated towards a stream, how it has the intelligence needed to survive.” With this approach, he has often both asked the question – and found the answer. Why has moss been ripped up here? Who has been gnawing on that pinecone? What are those droppings? Why is there no bark on one side of the tree? Is it a roedeer or moose that has polished their antlers here?
I think it is just as interesting to stare at a tree and see what it really looks like. To try to work out how it has grown.
“Once I saw a spruce tree with no low branches. So I took a closer look and found bear fur in the sap. A bear had been using it as a scratching post. And I thought – yes, that’s so cool! I had seen that there was something odd about that tree, and then I had worked out what had caused it. I have learnt a lot about nature just by being curious,” says Marcus.
With nature as your living room
“Listening to the wolves howling at dusk is an experience I will never tire of, and seeing guests experiencing the same thing is something extra special. And the impression they take home with them is so much more. It is so easy to become blind to your surroundings. A Swede could stand by a tarn in a forest and say – there is nothing to see here,” says Marcus, and says that he was like this once upon a time. “But a Dutchman would stand by the same tarn and be totally fascinated. He would see the Arctic loon and the lily pads and the mist. And he would see everything as something beautiful.” Marcus hopes that nature will benefit from more people discovering it. If you have a personal relationship to the wilderness, you are more likely to want to protect it. He spends a lot of time outdoors, even in his free time. But he thinks it helps to have a goal with his outings. “If you are going to hike along a trail from A to B, you have a goal. But if you just want to get out into nature, you need a goal so that you actually get out there. So sometimes I make something up. I never ask my kids if they want to go to the forest. I ask – shall we fry some pancakes?
So we go to the forest, with a frypan, some pancake batter, some fairy lights, a knife, blankets and sometimes even pillows. And we create a little living room in the forest right outside our door. Sometimes we make a flying fox for their soft toys between the trees with a little basket, a rope and a pulley. So the kids are busy giving their toys rides on the flying fox, while I fry some pancakes or read a book,” says Marcus and continues: “It would be strange if I felt that nature is a dangerous thing. I feel like it is my real home. Nature is the only thing that is real, and I like being reminded that you can’t just think of yourself. When I’m in the forest I’m reminded that death is a natural part of everything and new life springs from death. This helps me enjoy everyday life more and live life to the full,” says Marcus.
Connecting with the wild
Chris Morgan is an ecologist who has been working with conservation for 30 years. He has made documentary films and TV programmes and given lectures – currently he is working on his podcast The Wild. He also wants to see more people reconnecting with nature, and more people wanting to take care of everything we have surrounding us. “Interest leads to fascination, which leads to wonder, which leads to love. And we want to protect what we love. So if I can rouse interest in nature, it is a good step on the way.” In normal times, he would spend part of the year on expeditions to visit, for example, the brown bears in Alaska and the polar bears in Svalbard. But the pandemic has put a stop to that this year. Instead, Chris Morgan has been spending a lot of time in his own back yard, an hour north of Seattle on the west coast of the United States, close to the Canadian border. Mountain lions, black bears and wolves live here. But for Chris it isn’t necessarily the large animals that interest him the most.
You start to see the small details. Whether you give it five minutes or five days, there is always a moment you can spend just observing.
“I often focus on studying the large animals that are hard to catch sight of, like grizzly bears and wolves. But there is so much more to see. I love the small details in nature, and you can find them everywhere,” he says and goes on to describe how he saw a squirrel sleeping on a branch outside his window when he drew the curtains a few days before. Experiences like this can make him feel like a kid again. Or maybe he simply never lost that fascination in nature’s wonders that children often have. “I have managed to maintain that interest, it is part of who I am. But I have understood that it isn’t something for everyone,” says Chris Morgan. When he takes people out, however, he often sees them change. From stressed and busy with work, to suddenly letting it all go and just being in the moment. He remembers a trip to Alaska with a group of incredibly distracted and stressed out Hollywood bigwigs and how they suddenly let it all go and were just living in the moment, right in front of a grizzly bear who was fishing in a river. “It was a really intense and mindful moment. And these are the moments that people remember. I think that these kinds of experiences can change people. They trigger our forgotten connections we have with the wild, and people want more of it. It really is the best medicine.”
Thinking like a child
Naturally even Chris gets stressed out sometimes, but as soon as he laces up his hiking boots and hits the trail, something starts to happen. His head clears, his surroundings take centre stage. To be able to see all the small details, you have to take your time. It is an ability that you can’t train up. “I prefer to be alone when I am out in nature and need to wind down. I try to walk slowly, and after I have walked a bit I sit down and just breathe. People must think I look crazy just sitting out there,” he says with a laugh. “But when you sit for a while, things start to happen. Birds who were startled when you arrived start to come back. Insects whirr about. You start to see the small details. Whether you give it five minutes or five days, there is always a moment you can spend just observing,” says Chris. And maybe your inner-five-year-old might make an entrance again. The child who wonders at everything he sees. Chris tells us how once he was out walking in the autumn when he stopped short. In front of him were ants walking along a twig just above the ground. Then he saw that they were crawling over a small colony of aphids. He looked at them with growing interest, remembered something he had read, and went and did some research. “So apparently ants hold aphids captive and milk them for honeydew by stroking them with their antennae. I refer to them as the world’s smallest farmers in my podcast,” says Chris with a laugh. It’s these kinds of details that continue to fascinate him. And these details are all around us, every day. We don’t need to go far out into the wilderness to see it, if you keep your eyes open you will discover these things everywhere. “We have so much to learn from nature, and spending time in nature does us good in so many ways,” says Chris. “At the same time, I think we all need to remember that nature has its own worth. We are nothing without nature, and we share this planet with so many other species that have the same right to be here as us. We are the newcomers.”