Birth of An Urban Nature Enthusiast

Pardon the rather overwrought title, but it’s true; an elementary school “Nature Collection” assignment changed my life.

It was also, at the age of 7, my first bitter taste of academic failure.

On the face of it, it was a rather fun assignment — go out into nature and make a collection of pods, seed and leaves from a variety of trees.

leaf-collection-white

The one tiny problem was the complete lack of such trees anywhere near where I lived.

Most of my fellow pupils at Saint Andrew’s school, located in the middle of an English industrial city (Newcastle upon Tyne), probably shared my problem. Some of them may have lived within reach of Exhibition Park or the Town Moor, but I lived down on the Quayside. We had the Tyne river, docks, ancient buildings — but no sycamores, oaks or hazel trees for miles.

The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family's flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo.

The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family’s flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo. I was much more acquainted with the exact girder pattern of the Tyne Bridge just above my bedroom window than I was with the mysteries of trees.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I loved growing up down there. In spite of the complete lack of any family-oriented facilities (including trees), it was a truly epic place for childhood adventure.

High Level Bridge

The High Level Bridge viewed from a part of the old walls where we liked to play. There are a few small trees growing there now, but it was mostly just weeds back in the 50’s and 60’s.

There were a handful of kids in the neighbourhood — my little brother and I, the two sons of the pub owner, and the two daughters of another bank caretaker.

We were “free range” and felt we owned the city.

The ancient city walls were our forts and houses, and many games were staged in the abandoned graveyard of All Saints Church.

All Saint's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

All Saints Church had no congregation so it was left to turn into an overgrown adventure playground. Because the church itself was a protected historic building it was never demolished.

It didn’t occur to me for a moment that we were nature-deprived. There were, after all, plentiful weeds on the old World War II bomb-sites with which to create spectacular bouquets.

One of my favourite childhood bouquet ingredients. It’s called fireweed here in Canada, but in the UK it has the more poetic name “Rosebay WIllowherb.”

But the dreaded Nature Collection project was real eye opener. I’d never actually seen the sycamore trees it spoke of, with their clever little helicopter seedpods. I certainly had idea where to go and collect samples. My mum, who didn’t drive and had my little brother to look after, couldn’t really help, other that getting some books out of the library for me.

In the end I just handed in some pictures of the items we were supposed to collect. It felt like a massive failure.

sycamore seed pods

Looking back, I feel some lingering annoyance that we were set an assignment so bound fail. It was a classic curriculum vs real life mismatch.

On the other hand, it was a great gift. I feel as if I’ve been diligently working on that darn assignment ever since.

When I moved to other, greener parts of the world, I pressed all kinds of leaves and flowers in books. Sometimes I composed pictures of with the dried results and sent them to my mum back in Newcastle. I recently came across a few ancient specimens in my massive copy of Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest.

Pressed flowers

I still feel a thrill, fifty plus years later, every time I come across any new or particularly beautiful little specimen of leaf, seed, fungus, nest or moss.

Or crow, come to that. We only saw pigeons and gulls down on the Quayside.

Vera the crow

I’m always especially thrilled to see the ways in which nature and the city intersect

I love to see a weed forcing it’s way through asphalt, or human rubbish selected by birds to furnish their nests.

Bushtit nest

I found this fallen and abandoned bushtit nest and “collected” it earlier this year.

Bushtit nest

Detail of the bushtit nest. Construction materials include moss, spider webs (for strength and stretch), leaves, grass and fragments of man-made fibres.

This crow’s nest I found on the ground recently is a great town bird/country bird collaboration – an ingenious mix of twigs, moss, twine, packing fluff and zap straps.

Crow's Nest

Crow's nest detail

So, every piece of moss or rust, every bird I see; every lovely fallen leaf that catches my eye; it’s all being mentally added to the ongoing “Nature Collection” project.

leaf-collection-2

www.junehunter.com

On another small note, greeting cards, ornaments and my City Crow calendar are now available on my web site.calendar-cover-sq

Winter Birds of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Ornaments by June Hunter

City Crow Christmas cards by June Hunter

Winter Birds of the Pacific Northwest Greeting Cards by June Hunter

 

 

Autumn Crow Walk

If you’ve been wondering where Eric the crow is these days, read on.

After a rather long day in the studio I was faced with the choice of a “feet up with tea” break, or a short walk. Luckily the sunshine outside persuaded me to go for the latter.

I do love autumn. The special light, the sharpness in the air, the colours. All were on offer for my half hour walk.

Maple leaves in bright sun and shadow

Maple leaves in bright sun and shadow

I set out in the direction of Notre Dame School at the end of our street and to my delight, as soon as I reached the corner, there was my old buddy, Eric.

Eric in his new schoolyard territory

Eric in his new schoolyard territory

He used to be in my garden all the time last winter, but he moved his family over to the school, with it’s stand of tall Lombardy poplars, for the nesting season.

Lombardy poplars at Kaslo and Parker

Lombardy poplars at Kaslo and Parker

Since then, my garden has been “claimed” by Vera and Hank who tried and failed to raise a family in the big tree just across the alley. They vanished some time over the summer to be replaced by George and his family, which includes an ailing baby crow. Recently there’s been a bit of a territorial conflict with George defending “his” space from other crows — which may include Eric. It’s hard to tell who’s who when they’re swirling about in the air. Much as I’d love to have Eric back in the garden, I pretty much have to leave it to the crows to sort out their own pecking order.

However,  I do try to visit the school corner once a week or so to check in and see if Eric is still there and looking well. And, I am happy to report, he is.

Eric, looking good!

Eric, looking good!

After a short chat with Eric (crazy crow lady alert!) and the donation of a couple of peanuts I found in the seams of my pocket, I walked south a bit and then west along Charles Street.

As you may know, I have a bit of a hydrangea obsession — particularly at this time of year when they are a bit faded, but displaying gorgeous moody and subtle shades.

Yet another version of hydrangea's autumn colour palette.

Yet another version of hydrangea’s autumn colour palette.

The long view down Charles Street, with the sun behind the maple and dogwood trees created an explosion of autumn colour.

Maple leaves with pedestrian in early evening light.

Maple leaves with pedestrian in early evening light.

A bonanza of fallen berries on Penticton Street. When we had two Labs we had to avoid this street in fall, because they’d just stop to feast. With disastrous results later … Those berries always remind me of Molly and Taz.

A bounty of fallen berries

A bounty of fallen berries

Post-swim Taz and Molly. Miss those dogs!

Post-swim Taz and Molly. Miss those dogs!

Gold and Scarlet - berries waiting to fall.

Gold and Scarlet

Finally, it was time to head home. At the corner of Parker and Slocan, I was greeted by  George. I knew it was him at once because of (a) the meaningful look and (b) the sick baby crow he was with.

Look, it's George. I knew it was him by the way he recognized me and by the presence of the sick baby crow nearby.

Hi George!

George was surprised to see me out of my usual garden setting, but immediately recognized me.

George was surprised to see me out of my usual garden setting, but immediately recognized me.

George's magnificent armour plated feet reflected on a shiny fence.

George’s magnificent armour plated feet reflected on a shiny fence.

George followed me the block home. We walked (well, he flew) down the alley.

Now that the leaves are mostly fallen, you can see the nest where Hank and Vera tried their hand/claws at raising a family in the spring. Hopefully they’ll succeed next year after this spring’s practice run.

Now the leaves are falling, I can see the nest where Hank and Vera tried their hand/claws at parenting this spring.

Back at the garden, George settles himself on the studio roof, waiting for a few peanuts.

Home Sweet Home!

Home Sweet Home!

I only had half an hour “off”, but I felt as if I’d been on a proper little mini-vacation!

You can see portraits of Eric and George and the other local crow characters on my web site in the Crow Portrait series. The current gallery is about to be retired (on Oct 31) and replaced with a new series.

My City Crow calendar features all pictures of Eric and his family, taken in 2014 and 2015.

Happy autumn. Remember to get out and take a walk. You never know what (or who) you might see.

logo with crow