THE M-WORD

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The British duo of Flanders and Swann are remembered for their comedic songs such as “The Gnu”, “The Sloth”, and, one of my personal favourites, “The Armadillo”.  Yes, they had a thing for songs about animals, and the best known is probably “The Hippopotamus”, in which the title character sings a chorus of “Mud, mud, glorious mud!”  From my recent experience in the town of Malmesbury, I was left with a very different impression of the sticky substance.

It was, I admit, entirely my fault. After several weeks kept more or less indoors by cold, grey weather, I was completely beguiled by the blue sky, dazzled by the sun, and didn’t even think to throw on a pair of wellies when we decided to investigate a new walk. After all, how bad could a two-mile circuit of the town be on such a gorgeous day? It wasn’t like we were in the middle of the countryside.

It certainly started well enough. A pair of juvenile swans had staked out their territory along the river, and we spent some time watching them before heading off on a (mud-free) path through the Conigre Mead Nature Reserve. This provided some lovely views of the back of the Abbey House and a peaceful walk until we crossed a road and climbed over a stile.

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From there it was into a field pockmarked with the footprints of previous walkers who I imagine were shod better than we were. At this point the mud was still semi-frozen, more slushy soil than anything found along the banks of the Shalimar. We navigated it to the best of our ability, coming out on a quiet side street with 18th and 19th century houses. Once back on solid land we performed the dance of the ill-prepared, scraping our shoes against the pavement and clean grass before continuing on our way.

We enjoyed taking in the sights that we never had the chance to appreciate when driving through the town, like a 17th century engraving and an old mill building perched in the perfect location over the river. However, our guidebook soon led us to more fields, where the ice had melted and we were left to carefully pick our way through ankle deep mud. It could not in any way, shape, or form be considered glorious.

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However, upon emerging from the fields we were rewarded with a different perspective over Malmesbury, a view we had all to ourselves before pressing on back to civilization and paved roads. We finished off the trip by popping into the Norman abbey, which was a first for us despite a number of visits to the town centre. Although it is now partially in ruins, this 12th century building still dominates the middle of town and is well worth a visit.

One of the great things about a walk like this is that it changes with every season, from the stark landscape of winter, the blooming of spring flowers, the many shades of green in summer, and autumn’s fiery colours. I am looking forward to doing it at different times of the year, and with different footwear.

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REDUCE YOUR WASTELINE

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I think everyone is familiar with the Sorcerer’sApprentice, if not from the original Goethe poem then the one with Mickey Mouse and the dancing brooms in Fantasia. The story is simple: an inexperienced magician tries to take a shortcut that will allow him to finish his work without lifting a finger, only to  discover that starting is one thing— you also have to know how to stop what you set in motion.

As I’ve been looking around my house trying to figure out where I can cut back on packaging and reduce plastic waste products, it’s this story that keeps popping into my mind. Practically everything I touch is plastic, from the containers that hold my food in the kitchen, to my body lotions and potions in the bathroom. Like the apprentice and his enchanted broom, plastic products have multiplied over the last half century without any forethought given to what happens next.

At one level it makes complete sense. The plastic of today is cheap to produce and is an ideal material for storing items: lightweight and virtually indestructible, it means that you can carry home a week’s shopping with ease and not worry about breaking it if you trip. But those qualities also make it incredibly dangerous to the environment: wrappers and bottles littered on land easily end up in water courses, eventually make their way to the ocean. That superpower of being indestructible turns out to be environmental kryptonite: plastic just doesn’t go away.

Which is one of the many reasons why it’s so great to see more and more people starting to make the switch to environmentally-friendly products. The recent backlash against plastic pollution has been in the headlines all year, and there has been a push to capitalise on this momentum with a “Plastic Freebruary” next month. I was already planning to take part in the established Plastic Free July, and have started to use up products in plastic containers and research potential substitutions to be ready to go when 1st July rolls around. I’ll be featuring some of these changes over the next several months, but if you’re interested in taking your own steps towards reducing your wasteline now, consider checking out the Treading My Own Path blog. Lindsay’s ethos of “do what you can” and practical suggestions are well worth reading.

In the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it’s not until the sorcerer himself shows up that the trouble caused by the apprentice is put to right. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to step in. If we want a cleaner environment to enjoy ourselves, and to hand down to the next generation, then it’s up to us to do the heavy lifting now.

[This is a cross over with my Off the Ground blog; consider following the page for more environmental tips.]

RIGHT ON TRACK (PART 2)

If you start small, there's only one direction to go: UP.

Last week I wrote about the power of charting your progress, which is the perfect segue into the second part of my thoughts about the Fitbit (the first part can be found here).

First of all, although it seems silly to state the obvious, I think it often gets lost in reviews: fitness trackers are not a silver bullet to getting in shape or losing weight. They do not make you fit. If you find it difficult to get up at the crack of dawn and go for a run, it is like that the fitness tracker on your wrist will not be enough to propel you out of bed. It still comes down to you: your discipline, your willpower, and your desire to make a change. But if you are interested in increasing your activity level, this is perhaps the best reason to get one of these trackers, regardless of brand: they allow you to easily measure what you’re doing and to make adjustments to your behaviour accordingly.

However, knowing what works best for you is the key to getting the most out of the device. My past life as a researcher has shown the importance of being self-aware when it comes to knowing what motivates you. For some, it’s competition with other people that gets the blood pumping. For others, however, it may be about competing with yourself and improving on a day-by-day basis. I fall into the latter camp, and by making tweaks to how I use the Fitbit, I have been able to better incorporate it into my fitness plans.

In part this stems from one of the books I read last year, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. While I can’t say that it has changed my life, it has certainly helped me change how I think about things, especially reaching goals. Typically I try to go from 0 to 60 with very little in between, a mindset of “I must achieve this NOW”. The problem with this? It can be disheartening when little progress is made.  But if you start small, there’s only one direction to go: up.

Which brings me to another book, one that has been on my must-read list for years and which I finally got around to reading: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. One of the first chapters deals with the power of defaults: most people don’t change a default selection, whether it’s picking a retirement plan or choosing privacy settings. The point the authors make is that “choice architects”—those designing the sign-up forms—must be very careful with the default selection as it is going to be option selected most frequently.

The default choice for most fitness trackers is 10,000 steps. The research behind this number does not stem from any agreed-upon science, but from a Japanese study done in the 1960s.* One of the problems with this is that if you are starting from the position of being sedentary or only doing light activity, you might only hit 3000-5000 steps in a day—or less. Aiming for that 5-figure step count from the start can be discouraging. After all, if you’ve been at work all day and just want to go home and enjoy dinner and time with your family, fitting in another several thousand steps just isn’t in the cards. But setting small goals can help you eventually get there. For example, if you find that you walk an average of 4000 steps a day without really trying, then the first goal distance can be set to 4500. This can gradually be increased, allowing positive momentum and the sense of achievement to yield more progress.

On top of all this, the Fitbit also offers a layer of gamification along with its tracking abilities. This includes badges to be earned for achieving certain milestones, and you are literally given stars when you’ve met your target for the day. My prior research has shown that this can be effective; at the very least, it makes it easy to see if you’re hitting your goals. If health and fitness is one of your New Year’s resolutions this year, then a fitness tracker can be a great ally. Just don’t forget those gold stars and to take it one step at a time.

* A new study of Scottish postal workers indicate that 15,000 steps a day may be a better target. Regardless of total step count, getting out and about can help your physical and mental well-being.

GOLD STARS

Text quoted from the blog post about the power of charting your accomplishments

I’ve found myself thinking of gold stars lately. This is partly due to a dear friend and co-worker going on to a better place: she’ll be moving to the seaside. While I am incredibly happy for her, she’ll be greatly missed around the office. She was known to give out gold stars to colleagues for a job well done, and it was amazing to see how people worked for this recognition.

The other reason? I now find myself surrounded by bits of paper that, at first glance, look like a child’s chore chart. Tasks are laid out week by week in a grid, just waiting for me to add the check mark that signifies that I’ve completed it. Each paper ties into a goal I’d like to accomplish as part of my first 12 Week Year.

This productivity system developed by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington harnesses the power of year-end deadlines to help people accomplish more by making each day count. The limited time helps you prioritise what really needs to be done to help you reach those goals, and gently weans you away from the busy work that often fills up a to-do list. A key part of the system is the weekly execution score, where you actually measure the
progress you’ve made. But to measure that progress, the activities you carry out need to be measurable themselves. Enter the chart.

For example, one of my goals is to use moisturiser twice a day. I tend to have dry skin with a touch of eczema that flairs up when stressed or during dry winter weather. I know what I need to do to mitigate the problem—keep my skin hydrated—but without a habit in place, I found it just didn’t get done. What was required was consciously building it into my daily routine, so I now have a chart where I can check off that I have moisturised in the morning and evening. It seems so basic, but being able to see exactly what has been done makes a big difference. Each of my five 12 Week goals has a similar system that I am using to keep myself on track, but I’ve found it has had a secondary purpose: reminding me that I am actually moving forward.

Which brings me back to my friend’s gold stars. How often do we give ourselves recognition for what we’ve achieved? Or even remember the things we’ve done? It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives that we forget to take stock of our accomplishments. Keeping a chart and seeing what you’ve done, and where you can improve, is a fantastically simple way to record your progress towards a goal, no matter how mundane it may seem.

OF LONGLEAT, LONDON, AND LIGHT

Quote from blog post a doubtful Christmas display

If Christmas did not exist, I think modern Britons would have invented their own winter holiday. After all, the ancients had their own festivals to ensure the rebirth of the sun, and as the weather turns colder and days shorter, there needs to be something to look forward to and add a splash of
warmth into the very heart of the dark winter months. Gifts and silly jumpers would be optional, but bright lights and colours mandatory.

One of the best places to get an idea of how this winter celebration would be run is at Longleat Safari Park. Throughout much of the year, Longleat is open to those who want a walk—or rather ride—on the wild side: lions and tigers and wolves—as well as elephants, giraffes, and a whole host of other animals—can be viewed on a drive-through safari that is situated on the grounds of an Elizabethan manor house.

But come November and the early setting of the sun, new creatures come out to play at Longleat’s Festival of Light. Although it only started in 2014, it is easy to see how it has developed into an annual tradition (at least in my household!). Chinese lanterns themselves have a much longer history: dating back over 2000 years, lanterns made of silk and bamboo have evolved into the incredibly creative shapes that can be seen today, and which are still made by skilled craftspeople in China.

Tree branches silhouetted against a sky at sunset and sun reflecting off the clouds

Last year Longleat went all out, celebrating the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the safari park with truly stunning displays of glow-in-the-dark wildlife and favourite childhood characters. This year was slightly more subdued, but the theme—The Magic of Storytelling—lent itself to an incredible array of classic fairy tales. Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hansel and Gretel, the Frog Prince, the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Thumbelina, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and the Snow Queen were all present and accounted for. From further afield, Ivan and the Firebird lit up the night with a distinctive Russian skyline, and closer to home, there was the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood. Although not a local legend I was familiar with, this dragon came complete with sounds effects and breathed steam!

Chinese lanterns in the shape of the Three Bears with Longleat house in the background
Longleat prepares for Christmas with Chinese lanterns showing the Little Mermaid at the Festival of Light.
Chinese lanterns at Longleat's Festival of Light in the shape of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
Longleat's Festival of Light celebrating fairy tales with Chinese lanterns in the shape of the Frog Prince.
Longleat's Festival of Light celebrating fairy tales with Chinese lanterns in the shape of Cinderella's carriage.
Longleat's Festival of Light celebrating fairy tales from around the world with Chinese lanterns in the shape of a Russian palace and dragon.

The following week we were off to London to visit with friends and take in the festivities of Christmas at Kew. The first part went without a hitch, and we even got to enjoy the lights and decorations along Oxford Street (the crowds of people along Oxford Street were slightly less enjoyable). However, we hit a slight snag regarding Kew: my husband hadn’t booked the event in advance and tickets were sold out. But we headed out to our B&B anyway to see if anything could be done.

The gardens of Kew have a long history: they began to take shape in the 18th century and became the national botanical garden in 1840, just in time for the Victorian mania for plant collecting. As explorers scouted the globe and established colonies, they also send back samples of the local flora, much of which ended up at Kew (the fauna would eventually find a home in the Natural History Museum).

Despite being a fan of both gardens and historic things, I had never been to Kew previously. Nor was it the most auspicious of introductions when we walked up at midday. The weather was grey and drizzly, and the nice lady at the desk said that the Temperate House—the largest surviving Victorian greenhouse and a symbol of Kew—was closed for renovations. She also didn’t know if it would be possible to get tickets for the Christmas event: we would have to show up at 4:00pm and take our chances.

So we plunged into Kew for a few hours, not sure what we would come across … and within a few minutes I was smitten. The wide open spaces, the greenhouses, the lakes: it was all a perfect antidote for holiday stress. And being a weekday on a grey, drizzly afternoon meant that we had the place practically to ourselves.

The Hive at Kew Gardens

We started out at the Hive; this is a work of modern art based on the activity of bees at one of Kew’s bee hives. Although they were a bit sluggish on the day we were there (and who could blame them in mid-December?) it’s an amazing structure and one I hope to visit again when the weather is a bit better and the bees are properly buzzing.

Then it was off to the lovely and well-heated Winter Garden. Filled with ferns, orchids, cacti, and other plants from warmer climes, things began to look more and more familiar the longer we spent there. By the time we left, I was convinced that many of the plants could be found in my parents’ garden in Florida.

Centre of a green succulent at Kew Gardens
Centre of a green plant at Kew Gardens

As we walked to our next destination, I heard a familiar noise, one that woke me up on weekends in high school and which still hear in the background when I talk to my parents: a high-pitch screeching perfectly designed to travel through leafy jungle canopies. I stopped walking. “Do they have parrots?”

Sure enough, bright green ring-necked parakeets were perched on a nest hole. As we climbed the Treetop Walkway, which takes visitors 18 meters (60 feet) into the trees, we had even better views of these beautiful but invasive birds. Colonies of these small parrots began to form in the 1970s when pets were released or escaped, and there are now well-established flocks throughout the London area. At the moment there is a wait-and-see approach to monitor how they impact native species. I have mixed feelings; while I recognise the dangers that non-native wildlife can cause (just Google “Burmese pythons in Florida” or “lion fish invasion” for more information), their acrobatic antics and bright colours add a fun, exotic flavour to birdwatching.

Ring-necked parakeet at Kew Gardens.
Egyptian Goose at Kew Gardens.
Almost a Christmas card: woodpigeon in berries.

Before we knew it, it was closing time. To atone for his lack of booking, my husband braved the queue to see if we could get tickets for the evening’s festivities … and got them. Once it was full dark, we were off into Christmas at Kew.

It was very different from Longleat, with a set path to follow through a section of the gardens and no overarching theme. Instead each display seemed to be created by different groups of artists and were more on the abstract side. There were singing trees, whose lights changed along with the harmonies. A multi-coloured bridge had lights that shimmered like the borealis. One area had bubble machines filling the air with thousands of bubbles that sparkled in the glow of a nearby tunnel of lights, which, once inside, looked like you were making the jump to hyperspace. The one display I was less certain about involved rotating Christmas trees surrounded by dozens upon dozens of flaming sticks. I think the designers were going for the warmth of Christmas but it came across more as “forest on fire”.

Lights in shades of blue at Christmas at Kew.
A tree made out of sledges at Christmas at Kew
Coloured lights at Christmas at Kew
Tunnel of light at Christmas at Kew.
Flaming trees at Christmas at Kew

I thought Longleat had an edge over Kew’s Christmas displays, but it soon became obvious they had saved the best for last. Using the Palm House and water vapour from the lake as a canvas, they put on a stunning and hypnotic light show set to music. I could have watched it all night.

I think everyone has their own definition of Christmas magic, whether it’s a child’s first visit to Santa Claus, a blanket of snow turning the world into a winter wonderland, or sipping a hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. For me, it’s about planting the seed of spring by illuminating the darkness with colour and light.

Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew
Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew
Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew
Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew
Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew
Light show over the lake and greenhouse as part of Christmas at Kew