All posts by specialagentCK

Finland 2018 (Part 1a): Jyvaskyla

By complete accident, 2018 has turned out to be the year of travel, featuring everything from short weekend getaways to the countryside for the purposes of hearing nightjars vocalizing on the heath to much longer jaunts halfway around the world for work. One of the few trips I’d actually been aware of and planning for fairly well in advance was a visit to Finland with some friends, one of whom took the lead in planning the entire affair; I just said ‘yes, that sounds great!’ to all of her suggestions and then handed over money whenever she asked. A few months after that trip was first conceived, I was offered an opportunity to contribute to a symposium at a conference that also happened to be in Finland—as it turns out, in pretty much the same portion of the country. So it happened that, having never been to Finland in my life (and having previously been to Scandinavia only once), I found myself visiting twice in one year, going to the Lakeland area both times. I’m not usually so disorganized, but this is the kind of unexpected thing that happens when you are working too hard to pay attention to details.

That said, it’s not exactly like this was a regrettable mistake. Finland is awfully pretty, and mid-June is a fantastic time to visit. My final destination was Jyvaskyla, which I reached by train. I rode a local train to Tikkurila, about 15 minutes from the airport, and disembarked there to wait for the inter-city train. I wasn’t properly in the countryside yet, but already the air was clear and fresh and wholesome. Although the sun was shining brightly, the air was that comfortable sort of magical moderate temperature where you could wear anything from a sleeveless shirt to a hoodie and be comfortable.

Lake Jyvasjarvi, Finland

Although the ride to Jyvaskyla was fairly lengthy, it was very pleasant—not just because the seats were comfortable (wide, with head rests that didn’t bend my neck and with footrests to help my knees!), but because the landscape outside the window was so picturesque. There was something sort of familiar about it, which I at first attributed to the fact that I’ve read books and seen movies set in Scandinavia. But then I realized: It looks exactlylike the parts of Minnesota that I have visited. The evergreens—many (all?) of which I know are plantations rather than original natural forest—are stately; the lakes (which increased in number the further north we travelled) are an eerie black that contrasts beautifully with the surrounding vegetation; the homes, built in the traditional style, are welcoming; and the endless lupines are enchanting. The scenery was gorgeous…

…and then the train pulled in to Jyvaskyla. I’m not saying that Jyvaskyla is the leastattractive place I’ve ever been, but I amsaying that it isn’t the most attractive, and it certainly didn’t live up to the precedent set by the countryside we passed on the way to the city. It has an attractive square with an old church/town hall in the middle and some grounds where people can (and did) lounge in the sun, and there are some residential neighbourhoods with more of those beautiful, inviting Finnish-style homes in a rainbow of cheerful colours. There is a fantastic ‘activity trail’ (this is actually what it’s called—reflecting the fact that people don’t just bike and run but also do more unconventional activities like cross-country rollerblading) that runs all around Lake Jyvasjarvi. There are also some great cultural facilities, such as the events venue where my conference was held, the University of Jyvaskyla, and a selection of museums (more on which later). But so many of these were built in an extremely modern, functional style. Although Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1918, Jyvaskyla, at least, still very much has the look and feel of mid-century Soviet territory.

Lots of this sort of angular, modern-looking thing in Jyvaskyla. I disliked most of it but obviously this one amused me because it looked like a Star Trek comms badge.

My hotel was right in the middle of this sea of concrete blocks, which was a bummer in terms of aesthetics but quite handy in terms of access to the train station (5 minutes away) and the conference venue (an additional 5 minutes beyond the station). I was also right around the corner from a great grocery store, which was convenient given that I had deliberately selected accommodation with a ‘kitchenette’. I put that word in quotation marks because it was described as a kitchenette—which, in my mind, involves a particular bare-minimum set of appliances and resources—but consisted merely of a kettle, a microwave, and an empty and never-quite-cold minibar fridge.

It is worth describing my hotel in a little more detail, because it was weird in other ways. It had no reception desk, no check-in or -out, and no keys. On the day of my arrival in Jyvaskyla, I was emailed a door code that enabled me to pass through four portals: a barred gate giving access to the front door, the front door itself, a door to my floor, and the door to my room. The hotel was easy to spot from the sidewalk because it was labelled quite clearly, but then the main door was hidden away around to the side in a gated parking lot. There was nothing wrong with it and I never had any trouble with anyone, but it all somehow felt a bit seedy. My room had two single beds, both of which were permanently attached to the floor, positioned side-by-side under a wall-mounted reading light at just the right height to prevent you from sitting up comfortably in bed. There was also a dining table at which there were two chairs and two single-sized futons folded up into seats; none of these was very comfortable to sit on for very long. Oddly, the room also featured an unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) large television, and there was a hairdryer that I could plug into an outlet in the bathroom, so it wasn’t a totally ascetic existence—though I also wouldn’t describe it as comfortable.

In case you are wondering how I dealt with the matter of sustenance, I will tell you now that my solutions were inspired. Taking a cue from the other former rulers of Finland, Sweden, I bought supplies for smorgasbords: some of the seemingly infinite types of wholesome cracker (sturdy enough to build with, I think); some soft cheese; cucumbers; tomatoes; and shredded cabbage salad. To construct and contain these, I also purchased a set of transportable cutlery from a camping store, and a collapsible bowl. A matching collapsible cup gave me something out of which to drink my raspberry-flavoured sparkling water (purchased by accident because I had no idea what the label said but could tell the water contained bubbles, which is what I was after), and I already had a travel mug out of which to drink tea and some cup-of-soup mixes. The bowl could be reused for yogurt and granola at breakfast, which I also supplemented with a steady supply of fresh fruit. I even splurged and bought a pack of reusable plastic containers so I could take my lunch to go and whip up a batch of trail mix. The best part? All that culinary equipment—plus a scrub-brush I’d bought to help me do dishes in my bathroom sink—returned home to the UK with me. Best souvenirs ever, am I right?

Smorgasbord dining. Don’t be jealous of my mad food prep skills.

You maybe are thinking that, brilliant as this solution was, it sounds like something you’d do as a PhD student rather than a full-time employee. To that I would say: yes, probably, but I really hate eating out over and over because I have a very sensitive stomach and inevitably I wind up feeling unwell when I have to cede control of my diet to strangers. Also, Scandinavia is not cheap. Finland was not as bad as I expected, actually, but I spent more than I would have liked just on a few basic ingredients, so I can’t imagine how much it would have cost to have purchased a full meal multiple times a day for the entire duration of my stay. At this point, I probably could go without eating smorgasbords for the rest of 2018, but actually it was quite pleasant while I was doing it.

It was a bummer that my hotel wasn’t a bit more lavish (or, really, even fractionally lavish at all), because I ended up spending a fair amount of time there. To someone without a vehicle providing access into the surrounding countryside, there is a limited amount of entertainment to be found within Jyvaskyla itself – and I did partake of these things, which I will describe in more detail later. Those didn’t take that much time, though, plus I was on deadline to write a magazine article. I needed to read quite a bit of research before actually composing the piece, and I had always intended to use a portion of my Finland getaway to accomplish this. I had imagined that it would happen under slightly more comfortable conditions, but, having recently weathered such a hectic, non-stop period at work, it felt incredibly decadent and indulgent to be able to just sit, and read, and think, and create. As with the food I was eating, simple and uncomplicated did not mean unappealing.

Uncomplicated, but very appealing

So what did I do when I ventured out of my little dorm-style room?

The ECCB conference. This is why I went to Finland to begin with, and obviously it would have been remiss of me to skip my own talk. I was one of eight people in a symposium dedicated to thinking about how science communication (‘scicomm’) can achieve conservation goals by helping people connect with nature. I had the dubious honour of being the first speaker, but I think I did a decent job setting the tone. The room was packed, which was gratifying even though I suspect the audience was perhaps more interested in some of the more globally recognizable contributors. I haven’t spoken at this sort of conference for a few years and had therefore never observed the new live-tweet culture from the lectern; it was so strange to see a dozen people lift up their phones and take a photo every time I changed slides—but it was also encouraging, since I could see that people were engaged and interested. I did some live-tweeting of my own during my fellow presenters’ talks, partly to help draw attention to the event, partly to pass on useful tidbits to some of the scicomm-lovers who follow me online, and partly to create a record of advice that I could later consult myself.

Selfie taken in the symposium room in between speakers

I also attended a keynote lecture by the poet-scientist Madhur Anand, who read some of her poems, talked about the process of writing them and blending science with verse, and, in turn, verse with conservation action, more generally, and then answered questions from the audience. Although I am neither shy nor lacking in confidence, I hate asking questions in a conference setting (I did not have a good experience my first time around, and I think it has haunted me ever since). However, I did pluck up my courage to ask Madhur the following: I’ve read a lot about how there has been an increase in the popularity of poetry, and yet when I chat with friends and colleagues, I get the sense that I’m in a minority as a regular reader of verse. How does this compare with the sense you have of your audience / potential audience, and what does that make you think about using poetry as a means of scicomm intended to influence public opinions about nature and science? She confirmed my impression that, while poetry may be increasingly popular, it’s not really at Stephen King levels of sales—though there are some extremely popular ‘Insta poets’ (e.g., Rupi Kaur) who are changing this. She also pointed out that quality may outweigh quantity when it comes to the scicomm value of poetry; where it has been incorporated into projects, it has been very impactful because of how strongly it affects people’s emotions and opinions. It was a thoughtful and interesting answer towards the end of a thoughtful and interesting talk, and I look forward to reading her book A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes.

Thinking about how poetry can help us understand complicated concepts in surprisingly accessible ways

Lake Jyvasjarvi. I had originally planned to hike all the way around the lake using the activity trail, but I ended up doing the western loop twice rather than the whole thing once. The section that I selected seemed to run through more wooded areas, which was nice not just for the sake of aesthetics, but also for shade and protection from the sun; I had forgotten to pack sun cream (this is not a supply that seems essential for a trip to northern Europe) and was acutely aware of how close and intense the sun felt even on cooler days. Starting at an access point near the conference centre, I a) walked west along the northern edge of the lake, b) headed down to the University of Jyvaskyla campus where there is a suspension bridge that allows you to cross to the other side and head through the trees for a while, before c) coming back to another bridge that you can either head under for some additional walking (to do the full loop around the lake) or cross over to return to where you started. I could never really lose myself in nature because the city is still very much right therealong the entire pathway, but it was still very calming to be by the water, and there was some good wildlife viewing to be had: I saw fieldfares and redwings in their summer habitat, a mama great-horned grebe with a chick on her back, a lady mallard leading her ducklings to water, a common toad (the first toad I’ve seen in the wild in years), and more chaffinches than I have ever seen in my life. It was great to be able to strike out from my hotel room and have such a spacious and pleasant walking path so close by. All cities should have something similar.

Lupines along the path

The Craft Museum of Finland. There is, as I said, only a limited number of options for organized outings in Jyvaskyla, so it’s not entirely surprising that the Finnish Craft Museum makes all the ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Jyvaskyla’ lists. However, it genuinely is a top-ten destination, and is one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever visited. It has three main types of exhibit:

  1. Static displays providing information on a range of different crafting genres that are and have been important within Finland (e.g., spinning, weaving, knitting).
  2. Static displays on traditional Finnish dress (which may seem unrelated except when you consider the fact that a) both the costumes and the materials used to make them have been, and to some extent still are, constructed by hand, and b) the entire idea of a national costume, and what different types of national costumes arose in different areas and in different eras, is itself a bespoke creation.
  3. Rotating displays showcasing…whatever is deemed interesting and relevant. During my visit, there was a collection of ‘outsider art’ from contemporary crafters who are not really part of any formal artistic or crafting movement or community—in other words, people whose work is often called ‘folk art’ rather than ‘real’ art, even though many (including me) would argue this is an arbitrary and condescending distinction.

The Museum isn’t very large, physically, and yet, thanks to a clever use of space, it manages to fit in quite a bit; it kept me entertained for several hours because I felt compelled to read every last plaque and interact with every last hands-on display. One thing I particularly liked was how there were drawers of ‘extras’ underneath many displays, such that if you were intrigued by a particular exhibit, you could see additional examples or find out more about techniques / context by sliding open the drawers to view the supplementary information. There was also a craft room where you could go in and experiment with different activities and techniques—including fairly advanced things like soldering and whittling.

A selection of Finnish national costumes
A felted crafter and the source of her wool

Not to be materialistic, but the Craft Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of unique handmade items; it also leads next door to a larger associated independent shop that has an even wider range of artisan items ranging from food and luxury toiletries to ceramics, hand-printed tea towels, and upscale clothing. I wanted somany things, both for myself and to take home as gifts, but I had almost no spare space in my luggage (especially once you factored in the dishware I had purchased and would need to transport home)—plus the prices were exorbitant. I love to support artists and I understand why they charge what they do, but it’s costly enough in my own currency; trying to afford it despite unfavourable exchange rates in a very expensive country was just more than I could manage. Maybe I can save up for a splurge during my next trip to Finland.

The Alvar Aalto Museum. In my wildest dreams, I would never have expected to enjoy a museum devoted to architecture and design. I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum not because I had ever heard of Aalto (I hadn’t, though he is internationally renowned) or because I had a particular interest in his work, but because the museum was so close and got exceptionally high reviews online. Entry was only €6 so I figured I had nothing to lose. Another way to look at it is that I also had an opportunity to gain quite a lot, which I did—in particular, knowledge of and respect for Alvar Aalto and his impressive work. I had such a great time that I got home and composed a lengthy Twitter thread just to share my excitement. I have reproduced it here for those who didn’t catch it the first time around (i.e., pretty much everyone):

 

As I was wandering through the museum (which is also incredibly well designed, as you might expect given the focus of the venue), I had a flashback to 6thgrade when my wonderful art teacher (shoutout to Mr Stobart!) introduced us to the basics of drafting and set us loose on designing blueprints of our dream homes. I can still picture the project I produced for class; I also remember enjoying the activity so much that I kept designing house after house for months afterwards. Obviously, given that I went on to be a scientist rather than an architect or engineer, I eventually grew out of my design phase, but the appreciation for clever and attractively shaped buildings has remained. It was fun to take a few hours to reacquaint myself with my interest in this topic.

I encountered quite a bit of unusual and intriguing street art in Jyvaskyla

The one obvious thing I didn’t do in Jyvaskyla was properly visit the university campus and explore the facilities there—including the natural history museum. However, given what I do for a living, I figured I have had more than enough experience with university campuses; plus, I was already planning to visit an even larger museum in Helsinki at the end of the trip, so ultimately I couldn’t feel too guilty about leaving this one destination off my itinerary.

Thus, despite the amount of time I’d spent holed up in my hotel room doing nerd work, I felt pretty satisfied with my stay in Jyvaskyla. I had gone for quality over quantity in terms of activities, which allowed me to experience those fewer things at a less exhausting pace, and therefore in a deeper, more memorable way. This is often something we either don’t do when traveling, or don’t have the luxury of doing, and it was a good reminder to myself that I am not just permitted to take it easy, but will, in fact, probably benefit from doing so.

Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out whether I internalized this lesson sufficiently to put it into action when I relocated to Helsinki for the final two days of my trip…

Brisbane 2018, or Being Educated During a Trip About Education

Although I have attended conferences and spent a day out of the office here and there for a workshop, I’ve not really ever taken a proper business trip–which, for the sake of convenience, I will define here as a trip during which you attend one or more meetings for the purposes of exchanging information or collaborating on a project. Those were certainly the main goals of my recent trip to Brisbane, where I visited the University of Queensland in the interests of working with colleagues associated with the QUEX joint PhD programme recently initiated by UQ and the University of Exeter.

I needed to take the trip within a particular timeframe and so I ended up traveling at a very busy time of year for me; I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation for our annual Education Conference, attending external conferences, tutoring for our Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Programme, and teaching both academics and PhD students. On top of this, I had a variety of distinct goals for my Queensland trip that required me to meet with a large number of people from a range of directorates—and coordinating my itinerary was a bit laborious because I had to wait at least half a day, thanks to the time delay, to get a response to any email. Because of all this, I had basically no time to investigate options for sightseeing and general exploration of Australian culture, and I departed for Brisbane in a fog of exhaustion and mild confusion. Frankly, I was just relieved I had the presence of mind to remember to pack my passport and enough pairs of underwear.

Brisbane from the UQ campus
Brisbane from the UQ campus
Brisbane skyline at night
Brisbane at night, as seen from Mount Coot-tha

Luckily, I was accompanied on the trip by a colleague who had prioritized her time a bit more wisely. Following some advice from Australian contacts at UQ, she had found a day-long ecotourism trip to the nearby North Stradbroke Island and had kindly invited me to tag along when she visited shortly after our arrival (we got in at 5:30pm on a Friday and had the weekend to acclimate and explore before reporting to work). We had both dreaded the 7am pick-up time, knowing that our circadian rhythms would be a mess after the 24-hour-trip, but, frankly, when your system is that confused, all hours feel equally painful for a few days, so it doesn’t really make any difference.

North Stradbroke Island, or ‘Straddie’, as it’s affectionately called, is found in the Moreton Bay about 20 miles away from Brisbane. A huge portion (I forget the exact amount, but I think at least  half) of the island is off-limits because it’s controlled by sand mining companies—though the land leases are shortly drawing to a close, and for the first time in decades the area will be made accessible, and turned back over, to the rightful inhabitants of the land: the Quandamooka people, who refer to the island as Minjerribah.

From the mainland, you reach Straddie via a 20-minute ferry ride, during which you can see a number of little mangrove stands and some avian wildlife. The ferry drops you off in Dunwich, which is a pretty unassuming little town. In fact, much of North Stradbroke Island is unassuming. There are only about 2,000 residents who, though they live in the popular Gold Coast region, do not have flashy homes or live stereotypically ‘coastal elite’ lifestyles. Like residents of the UK’s Isles of Scilly, they just happen to live on an island that also just happens to be phenomenally beautiful and a pleasant place to visit.

North Stradbroke Island coastline
North Stradbroke Island coastline

In fact, much of the northern coastline looks very similar to the beaches of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which made me chuckle when I realized that I had taken two long plane rides to be in a position to take in basically the same view that is only a couple of hours from my house. As in the UK’s southwest, there are the main areas where tourists tend to aggregate (where the accommodation is a little more flashy), and then there are the quieter, calmer hidden gems where the locals tend to go. We got to see both of these. We started by driving around Dunwich and seeing the cemetery where the first white colonisers had been buried after surviving a dreadful, fiery, disease-ridden journey from Europe only to succumb to different diseases in Australia. This is where we caught sight of our first koala, which was slumbering obliviously in the branches of a eucalyptus tree as we cooed and snapped photographs of its furry bum.

Koala bum
I swear there is a koala in this shot

We then headed out to Brown Lake, which is, indeed, brown – a hue caused by tannins that leach out from the fallen leaves of the tea trees that surround the water. Tea tree oil can be found in a variety of expensive spa products, but visitors to Brown Lake can take advantage of this luxury ingredient for free. During our stop at the lake, our tour guide brewed us up some traditional billy tea and gave us a mid-morning snack of freshly baked bread topped with jam. This is a good time to mention that our guide was an excellent and attentive host—especially on the culinary front—but perhaps not as knowledgeable about wildlife as one might like on an eco-tour. I had been quite excited about the prospect of learning some new Australian birds, but when I observed him mis-identify both a white-bellied sea-eagle and an osprey in quick succession, I lost my faith. This was only slightly less disconcerting than the bigoted views he shared with us over lunch. Ah, well, at least he was a good driver and grilled up some excellent sausages.

We also had an opportunity to visit the coastal portions of Straddie, where we failed to spot any dolphins or whales (whale migration didn’t start until a few weeks after our visit, but we were hoping for stragglers); however, we could, at least, bask in the sun and dig our toes into the sand. As you might expect, I also managed to find some birds to watch, and we located a much more visible koala who was sleeping just as soundly as the first but in a more photogenic position. We then completed our circuit around the northern tip of the island and returned to Dunwich just in time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Our driver dropped us off at our hotel around 4pm, which sounds pretty early but by which point the sun was already well on its way to setting; although we were visiting during British summer, it was Australian winter, and the days were surprisingly short. The impending dark and our lingering exhaustion compelled us to call it a day. Even though we hadn’t really travelled too far or spent all that much time out of our hotel, the Straddie excursion was a perfect fit for our schedules and energy levels.

Koala in tree
An indisputable koala

Then followed a week of meetings, more meetings, and even more meetings on top of that. Honestly, I have never fit so many meetings into such a short amount of time, nor had to switch gears so often in between meetings; I had originally tried to arrange my schedule thematically, but because people had limited availability I ultimately gave up on this and just fit folks in wherever I could. It was intense, especially since I wasn’t sleeping at normal times and kept feeling alert / sleepy according to the British clock rather than the Australian one. On the bright side, the discussions were all informative and interesting and actually rather energizing. Further, my commute to and from campus, and from one office to another on the campus, gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sights and make general observations about Brisbane.

One of the things that impressed me most about the city was how very eco-aware it is. There are lots of ‘green’ buildings, including business facilities, community and cultural areas, and houses; several had living roofs or facades. There are also many public transport options, including my preferred way of traveling to and from the campus each day: the CityCat, which delivers you to a ferry station at the edge of UQ’s St Lucia Campus, right at the base of their green-commute-only (e.g., buses, bikes, pedestrians but no cars) bridge across the river. There are also lots of commuter paths, plazas and parks, outdoor art installations, and decorative plantings; it’s a nice place to be outdoors and to move around in – though perhaps my feelings on that might have been slightly different if I’d visited in the middle of the Australian summer, when Brisbane is twice as hot and significantly more humid. The weather during our stay was pretty similar to standard British summer weather: cooler in the morning and evenings but quite comfortable (no jacket needed) during the middle of the day. I found it really pleasant, but our hosts kept remarking how ‘cold’ it was, and whereas I was wearing sandals and sleeveless dresses, the Australians were wearing boots, cardigans, scarves, and other obviously autumnal / wintry fashion. On more than one occasion, I even saw people wearing wool coats, knitted caps, and gloves. To be fair, these latter items were generally only deployed by international residents who, I’m guessing, hailed from warmer climates.

Artwork in the botanical garden
One of many sculptures to be found dotted around Brisbane

On the topic of internationals, another nice thing about Brisbane was how diverse it was. Much of the diversity was associated with the university and other educational organisations, but I also saw quite a lot of variety associated with people who were clearly more mature and permanent. I was particularly impressed with how Aboriginal culture was acknowledged and incorporated into daily activities; for example, one event I attended at UQ started off with a traditional invocation that recognized that the land on which the activity was taking place was originally stewarded by Aboriginal tribes, and thanked them for sharing the space and providing an opportunity to come together. I realize that this sort of recognition is just about the least you could do after colonizing someone else’s country, suppressing their culture, and generally treating them like dirt, yet it was done in a respectful and genuine manner, and is far more than you ever encounter in the US, which has a very similar history with natives. It felt like a meaningful and admirable practice and I wish people in my homeland would be willing to face their country’s history with similar honesty and openness.

In addition to contemplating such issues of social justice, I was, of course, keeping my eye out for birds. The St Lucia campus has lakes, woodlands, decorative plantings, and lawns, which, cumulatively, provide lots of space for a wide variety of bird species. Particularly common were brush-turkeys, Australian white ibises, noisy miners, rainbow lorikeets, and moorhens. Wherever you were, you would inevitably see (turkeys, ibises, moorhens) or hear (miners, lorikeets) one of these species. Noisy miners are pretty chatty throughout the day (as you might expect given their names), but the lorikeets were especially loud in the evening when they settled into trees to roost; when I left campus around 5pm each day, I encountered huge flocks of them calling back and forth as they descended into the canopies of the eucalyptus trees. During the CityCat journey each morning, I would watch welcome swallows swoop low over the water, and one day I even caught sight of a tiny blue kingfisher zipping from one patch of reeds to another; on the way back, I would watch the massive fruit bats streaming out across the city after emerging from wherever they’d hidden themselves away during the lighter hours.

Purple swamphen
This purple swamp hen really wanted me to share my lunch

Despite all these lovely and interesting brushes with nature, I did find it difficult to be cooped up in the city for so long; I am just not a city person, and although I can enjoy a picnic in a corner park or the multicoloured glow of a suspension bridge lit up at night, I am always aware that these things are found within a broader context of concrete and skyscrapers. By the end of the first week, I was feeling hemmed in as well as mentally and physical exhausted, so I was pleased to have an opportunity to rent a car and escape into the countryside for a different type of sightseeing.

Fortunately, all of my contacts at the University of Queensland were extremely helpful in suggesting potential tourist destinations. Unfortunately, they provided so many options that I had trouble prioritizing. My main goal was getting closer to nature, but that could take many forms: a scenic drive, a nice hike, birdwatching, visiting an animal sanctuary, going to the beach. I didn’t want to spend too much time commuting, and I wanted at least some of the excursion to be secluded—I had had more than enough social interactions for the week and needed some solitude.

One suggestion that I heard multiple times was that I should go somewhere where I could hold a koala. Lots of places near Brisbane offer opportunities for interacting not only with koalas but also kangaroos and other wildlife – most of which had been rescued from the wild after having been injured or otherwise endangered, or had been bred in captivity from animals that fall into the first category. I have had serious reservations about zoos for many years, because once you know a certain amount about animal behaviour and animal husbandry, it’s painfully, heartbreakingly obvious when captive animals are unhappy. However, I had heard glowing things about several different facilities near Brisbane, so I decided to ignore my reservations and give one a try. Because of its convenient location near other sites of interest, as well as its international reputation and iconic status, I opted to visit Australia Zoo, the facility founded by Steve Irwin, a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter, and still operated by his family.

Me at the entrance
Kitschy selfie at the entrance of the Australia Zoo
Warning sign
Actual sign at the Australia Zoo

The zoo had been described to me as a place that housed wildlife without imprisoning it, providing big open enclosures rather than cages. I was, therefore, envisioning something like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or The Wilds. Sadly, though, it was a pretty typical zoo. Some of the enclosures were surprisingly small, and the animals inside looked bored and listless; some were displaying the monotypic behaviours indicative of insufficient activity and stimulation. Several sections of the zoo are outfitted with hidden speakers that broadcast animal noises and cringeworthy zoology-themed children’s songs (yes, really; it’s like being in a children’s TV show); the noise was obnoxiously loud and often was in close proximity to the animals’ cages, which can’t have been good for the stress levels of the inmates. The kangaroo-petting/feeding area wasn’t too bad; it was spacious and the very tame animals obviously didn’t mind interacting with people—though I wondered how staff ensured that the roos weren’t being overfed by all the visitors using food as a bribe to ensure petting and selfie opps.

Emerging from the kangaroo area, though, I stumbled upon the koala petting zone and it just made my heart sink. A little stepladder had been placed under one of several intensively-trimmed eucalyptus trees into which sleeping koalas had been placed; visitors could climb the steps, give the animals a pat or two, then make way for the next person to do the same, over and over. Those poor animals just wanted to sleep but instead they had to endure endless rump-fondling from humans. I certainly wouldn’t want to experience that, and so I wouldn’t want to inflict it on any other organism, either. The best moments at the zoo involved wild birds that I was watching in the foliage in and around the enclosures; seeing free-roaming animals behaving in natural ways was much more interesting and cheerful. Finally, it occurred to me that I could do that in a much more enjoyable way elsewhere, and so I left.

Kangaroo petting
I cannot lie: kangaroos are so, so soft and I was delighted to pet one

My next stop was Maleny, located in the Hinterlands just north of the Glass House Mountains. Maleny had been recommended because of a food shop there that sells what seemingly everyone agrees is the finest ice cream in Queensland. I wanted to visit the Glass House Mountains area, and I love ice cream, so Maleny seemed like a logical destination. The town isn’t very large, but it is full of pleasant shops and eateries that line a bustling main street; it reminded me of my hometown. Unfortunately, I got there a bit late in the day, so many of the stores were beginning to close (surprisingly early for a Saturday, I thought); I had to get my ice cream to go and I ate it while walking along a nature trail on the edge of town. I am pleased to report that the ice cream was, indeed, very nice, though neither it nor the walk was enough to lift my spirits after the zoo and what felt like a bit of a wasted day.

Artwork
‘Thought’, by Vivienne Bennett (2015) — one of several pieces of art along the walking path in Maleny

The weather hadn’t been great, with intermittent sprinkles all afternoon, and as clouds continued to gather as the evening approached, the gloom of dusk fell surprisingly quickly. I had lost my opportunity to take a hike in the mountains, but I thought perhaps all was not entirely lost; on my way home I would be passing several overlooks, so I decided to stop at one of them and try to see the sunset (or whatever passes for a sunset on an overcast evening). Other than the ice cream, this was probably my greatest success of the day. There was next to nobody else at the overlook, which was calm and quiet, smelled of the fresh, clean scent of eucalyptus, and provided stunning views of the picturesque landscape. I wished I had spent my entire day somewhere like that, but I was glad to have even just a few minutes of that environment to close out the day.

Glass House Mountains
This photo doesn’t really do justice to the view, but I love the tiny moon hanging over the mountains

Having learned the hard way that what I really needed was pure, unadulterated nature, I decided to spend Sunday hiking. My Lonely Planet guide recommended D’Aguilar National Park, which was about an hour outside the city. The forecast was not superb, but I hoped that by the time I arrived at my destination, some of the clouds might have dissipated. Unfortunately, this did not happen. In fact, what had merely been sprinkles had turned into full-fledged rain. Because rain hadn’t been predicted during my trip, I hadn’t packed any waterproofs, so my only options were to get wet or to give up. I think you can guess which of these I stubbornly chose.

As I squelched my way through the trees, I heard and saw birds. I breathed in the heady green aroma of nature. I saw some beautiful flora. I was drenched, but I could feel my batteries recharging. Then the rain stopped, and the sun began to emerge. Things were looking up. I heard my phone ping, an email alert sound, and I ignored it, because who wants to look at email in the middle of a hike? However, it did remind me that I hadn’t let anyone know where I was, which everyone (especially a lady) should do on an outing like mine, so I went to use the check-in function on Facebook. As I did, I saw the alert for the email that had just arrived. It had an intriguing subject line; at first I ignored the message but then, following my instincts and with a feeling that somehow managed to be a mixture of curiosity, alarm, suspicion, and resignation, I opened it.

Me
Damp, bedraggled, disappointed

As crummy a place as the internet can sometimes be, it is not without its benefits. I am forever telling people that it can be a very good thing to be prominent enough online that people can easily find you, and I proved that point beautifully on 27thMay. A tremendously kind soul in Maleny—an employee at the David Linton gallery—had come into possession of my wallet, which I had left behind in a public toilet during my visit there the day before, and had tracked me down online in order to alert me. The exact chain of events, just to emphasize how remarkable this all was, began the previous evening, when a fellow tourist used the toilet just after I did and found the wallet where I had hung it on the hook on the back of the door; she tried to turn it in to the police, but the police station was closed because Maleny is a small town and it was a Saturday evening, so why would it be open?; having recently shopped in the gallery, which was one of the few establishments still open in town, the tourist went back and asked for advice about what she should do; the shopkeepers said they would either find me or turn the wallet over to the police on Monday morning; they then proceeded to track me down online, using the name they found on my driver’s license and university ID card, and even going so far as to call the University of Exeter to see if they could provide contact details. Nobody touched my credit cards or a single penny of my cash, and they helped me reunite with my wallet in under 24 hours. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket right now, but all is not completely  lost.

This is the very positive thought I tried to keep in my head as I had to cut my hike short just as it was becoming pleasant, and then drive out of my way to a place I’d already been that didn’t involve seclusion and a calm communion with nature. Obviously, I had no choice but to console myself with another serving of Queensland’s best ice cream, and then buy myself several books at the wonderful used book store around the corner—all of which I was able to do once my wallet was back in my possession. Then, feeling absolutely determined to do some birdwatching in a pastoral environment, I pulled up Google Maps to search for somewhere, anywhere, near Maleny that would allow me to go for a bit of a stroll before the ridiculously early sunset. I discovered a lake, Lake Baroon, just outside town, and decided to give it a try. At this point, what did I have to lose?

Lake Baroon
*sigh of happiness*
A message from the forest
A message from the forest

Amazingly, given how arbitrary my choice had been, Lake Baroon was perfect. There was almost nobody there, which was great but also bizarre, because it was such a gorgeous, relaxing, wonderful place. The clouds were finally dissipating as I arrived, and the golden late afternoon sun was shining through the damp foliage and creating perfect rainbows in the sky above. The birds were finally able to leave their roosts and go searching for food, so the woodland was vibrant with their calls and songs and flitting movements. It was a wonderland of peaceful greenery and delightful wildlife, accompanied again by the pervasive and endlessly enjoyable smell of eucalyptus. I wanted to build a cabin on the shore and stay there forever.

Alas, I could not, and so I dragged myself away after the sunset, and made the return trip to Brisbane. Baroon was the last out-of-town place I could visit, since I had only rented the car for the weekend. I dropped it off first thing the following morning and then headed off on foot to explore parts of Brisbane I hadn’t encountered in my daily to and fro thus far. I swung through the City Botanic Gardens and saw the historical buildings nearby; I peeked at the Cathedral of St Stephen; I headed over the bridge to the South Bank in order to see the parklands and the artificial beach; I wandered along the Pillars Street Art Gallery. My favourite find was the Nepal Peace Pagoda, which is surrounded by a small bamboo garden and is, indeed, very peaceful – especially early in the day when few other people are out and about. I watched a father and daughter do tai chi in the shade of the pagoda while two white ibises sat and preened on a nearby bench; it was like a scene out of a movie.

Nepal Peace Pagoda
Nepal Peace Pagoda from the bamboo garden side
Entryway to the Peace Pagoda
I want a house just like this

The nearby Queensland Museum caught my eye because it was hosting an Egyptian mummy exhibit—which seemed a slightly off-topic thing to visit while on a trip to Australia, but was up my alley nonetheless. It was an impressive display incorporating cutting-edge scanning imagery displayed side-by-side with mummies and artefacts. Since I was already in the museum, I figured I should also have a look at the other exhibits, so I also wandered through rows of stuffed specimens and dinosaur bones.

Selfie at the museum
Do you ever feel like someone is watching you?

Tucked away beside these was a small but powerful collection of pieces by young Aboriginal artists. I had searched for museums and galleries devoted to Aboriginal culture and work but had come up empty-handed—something that both disappointed and surprised me (though, given how Aborigines have been, and continue to be, treated in Australia, I suppose this is not entirely unexpected). The display at the Queensland Museum focused on the central theme of ‘decolonization’—in particular, providing a sort of freedom for Aboriginal artefacts at the museum by interacting with them through art. Interestingly, it didn’t seem that the museum actually gave the artefacts back, which shows that the curators’ beneficence and self-awareness only go so far; still, I suppose this exhibit was a good first step towards having a dialogue that might lead to concrete actions. It was fascinating to see, hear, and read the pieces, which were so thoughtful, introspective, and impactful that you’d never think they were produced by artists so young. It was also heartbreaking to understand how upsetting it is for Aboriginals to have their cultural artefacts—including tools, accessories, paintings, and portraits—held by the museum. Because of the way Aborigines understand time and, for lack of a better word, the soul, the museum’s continued possession and control of these pieces is akin to holding an actual person prisoner and is, therefore, extremely emotional for the clans from which those pieces were taken. The purpose of the art in the exhibit was not only to express and explain this, but also to reclaim the captive artefacts from afar by incorporating them into the new artwork. Of all the things I encountered and learned while in Australia, this was by far the most moving and memorable.

Aboriginal artwork at UQ
No photos were allowed in the Queensland Museum exhibit, so here’s a photo of a lovely Aboriginal piece on display at UQ

I finished exploring the museum around mid-afternoon and was tempted to get a bit more sightseeing under my belt, but…I was tired. It had been a long day after a somewhat frustrating and disappointing weekend after an intense week after a ridiculously long journey after an exhausting couple of months at work. I love to explore and be active and live life to the fullest, but sometimes you just need to rest. At those times, you have to recognize your limits and just give yourself permission to relax. I am really bad at this, but even I could tell I’d hit a wall and just needed to stop.

So I did. I went back to my hotel and went for a dip in the pool that was very pretty but also very cold (because it was, after all, winter), and I just took it easy for the last day and a half of my trip. I felt a little guilty because Australia is so far away and I don’t know when or if I’ll have a chance to go back; there were museums and gardens and neighbourhoods and restaurants that I’m sure I would have enjoyed and where I’m sure I would have been able to increase and refine my understanding of Australian culture, but…I was done. And that’s okay. I went to Brisbane to learn about doctoral supervision and education innovation, which I did, but on top of this I also began to appreciate the true value of self-care. I learned that sometimes you can get too much of even the best things, and so, sometimes, less is more. I will try to remember this important lesson and apply it to future trips.

I will also remember to check I haven’t left my wallet behind in a public restroom.

Nature: good for the soul

Even though I moved to Exeter two years ago now, I’m still asked, ‘How do you like Exeter?’ and ‘Don’t you miss Cornwall?’ I think because the latter is such an iconic British holiday destination, people assume that it must be wonderful to live there, and that I must have been crazy to leave. It’s true that Cornwall is ruggedly stunning, and that during my time there I frequently thought, ‘I am so lucky to live in a place like this.’ Unsurprisingly, such sentiments were particularly common when I was walking along the duchy’s (that’s right–it’s not a county!) dramatic coastline.

The Cornish coastline at Tintagel
The coastline at Tintagel — where I first fell in love with Cornwall

Cornwall has always reminded me of West Virginia–my father’s home state and one that I have spent a lot of time visiting, working in, and travelling through. Yes, it’s land-locked, but its slogan ‘Wild, Wonderful West Virginia’ deliberately emphasises and tries to capitalise on the same sort of dramatic landscape that makes Cornwall both appealing and endearing…to visit. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it comes with an edgy undertone. It can be harsh, unforgiving, and supremely inconvenient. If different destinations were like the different stages of a facial, West Virginia and Cornwall would be the invigorating but slightly abrasive scrub phase.

The nourishing moisturising phase–the one that leaves you feeling replenished and pampered–is Devon, which, to continue drawing parallels to the motherland, I think of as Britain’s Ohio. The thing I love about Devon is the trees. Yes, Cornwall has trees, but it isn’t easy to find woodlands and forests –big, unbroken patches of arboreal majesty reaching into vales and hollows, creating little sheltered nooks where there is a noticeable hush that falls as you enter into the shadow of the canopy.

A stand of trees seen from across a green meadow
I took this photo while standing under trees, looking out at more trees. Heaven.

There are so many patches of woodland here in Devon, and such variety of sizes, shapes, ages, and species of tree represented; I also can’t help but notice that the majority of those trees aren’t gnarled and bowed over sideways from the constant whoosh of wind blowing in off the sea. There’s something gentler and warmer (literally, as well as figuratively) about Devon, and it is very soothing. I love Cornwall, and I enjoy visiting there, but Devon does feel more like home–not just my home, where I currently live, but the Ohio home where I grew up and still visit. It is the type of outdoors that I crave more than any other.

My Exeter house may be located in a pretty run-of-the-mill suburb, but that suburb backs onto a woodland that, in turn, backs on to countryside, and I cannot overstate just how relaxing it is to look out and see green every day, and to hear very little besides birdsong. I struggled to find a decent place to rent when I first explored moving to Exeter, and the viewing for my current place was the last one I’d set up. I was feeling pretty despondent about my lack of options when I arrived and saw the scenery. I knew immediately that this was not just the place I wanted, but also the place I needed; required the proximity to the pastoral.

Pink clematis in the garden
I even have my own garden! With plants and birds!

At the time I moved to Exeter, I was dealing with a number of challenges in my life: divorce, cancer, a soul-destroying job. I’m a pretty pragmatic and robust person, but everyone’s fortitude has limits. I was craving the comfort of the countryside–not just to visit for a long weekend or even a two-week holiday, but to have as a consistent presence in my daily life. I could feel an impatient tug, a certain constriction in the vicinity of my heart, pulling me towards greenery. This was assuaged at first by moving in to my new home, spending time in my garden, strolling along the stream at the boundary of my neighbourhood, and visiting the local nature reserve, but I’d become so hollowed out that I could only be filled by exposure to more proper countryside.

That is how I came to discover the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty (AONB); I asked Google to tell me where I could go hiking, and Google delivered. The Blackdown AONB website has a handy selection of PDFs guiding you along circular walks of various length through different types of habitat. I downloaded them all and set out to explore my new territory–and I was not disappointed.

A dignified oak tree stands on a hill
One of the many dignified trees I’ve seen while walking in Blackdown Hills

My reaction to Blackdown is a difficult one to describe because it stems from such a complex tangle of emotions, experiences, and beliefs. The outdoors has always been a profound component of, influence on, and inspiration in my life, and being able to visit the very type of outdoors that I’d been longing for, after having been away from it for too long, was almost a relief; I felt like I’d been holding my breath, and was finally able to release it and draw in fresh air (an especially appropriate analogy since I was also, in fact, literally getting fresh air).

A brief tangent may help explain this sentiment. For almost as long as I can remember, when I feel particularly sad or stressed or generally unhappy, I have felt overwhelmed by the desire to go outside and lie in a ditch. I know how that sounds, but I don’t mean it in a depressing sort of way. If you think of how someone’s arms curl around you when they give you a comforting hug, you can, perhaps, see how lying in a depression in the earth might feel like receiving an embrace from the outdoors. I wish I were an artist so that I could properly translate this mental image I have of a benevolent, flower-covered Gaia-like entity cradling me in the palm of her hand.

Plant-covered earth sculpture shaped like a head rising out of the ground
Flower-covered magical earth creatures: they do exist

This is, of course, a metaphor, but it helps convey the sense of restoration I get from heading outside during life’s rougher moments. I haven’t ever actually laid down in a ditch—they’re generally pretty wet and filled with things I don’t want to touch—but I have, nevertheless, sought consolation and revitalization from the pastoral, and often this has actually included some tactile experience such as stretching out in the grass, running my fingers across leaves or flowers, or, I’ll admit it, even hugging a tree. Of course, touch isn’t the only sense that helps create a firm link to nature—I am particularly affected by the smells of damp earth and growing greenery, and of course the sound of birdsong—but it helps complete and confirm the connection; it helps reassure me that I am home.

As an ecologist, I am well aware that nature is neither benevolent nor a single unified entity, so I realize the potential hazards of oversimplifying and anthropomorphising. However, given that my particular specialism is human-nature interactions, I’m also familiar with the ever-growing body of evidence that spending time in nature is, to put it colloquially, good for the soul. I’m glad that there are sturdy scientific data verifying the psychological benefits of being in nature (and I’ve written about quite a few of these studies on my blog Anthrophysis), but these external sources say nothing that my own heart and mind hadn’t already told me: Being outside is therapeutic.

A statue of Buddha sits on a stone garden wall
One of the Buddha statues in the monastery garden

Interestingly, my very first walk in Blackdown took me through the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, which inspired some reflection on the relative benefits of different types of calming, meditative activities. I have meditated for years–I am particularly fond of active, or dynamic meditation, which dovetails very nicely with the types of rhythmic, repetitive exercise I tend to favour–and, more recently, have taken up both yoga and tai chi. I find all of them extremely pleasant and highly beneficial; when I am feeling low or listless or lacking in energy, they all restore a feeling of groundedness and focus. That said, nothing gives me a boost like spending time in nature.

I have most recently felt the positive effects of the outdoors during the last couple weekends, when I visited the Quantock Hills AONB and Killerton. I’d been feeling claustrophobic after being shut up during so much of this long winter, along with feeling physically unwell from migraines, and stressed from juggling an intense workload at the office. I’ve whisked myself off for hiking, birdwatching, plant identification, and general basking in the fresh air, and what a difference it has made. I feel calmer, happier, clearer, stronger. Better.

Sheep in a pasture in the Quantock Hills
Nothing is more restful than sheep, otherwise we wouldn’t count them while lying in bed at night. Right?

I know that we are all different, and that what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else: Not everyone loves marching up slopes and slogging across muddy fields; not everyone appreciates locations so remote you can’t even get a mobile signal (yes, these places still exist!); not everyone would prefer Devon to Cornwall (or the South West to the South East, and so on). But the evidence shows that nature is good for humans, period, so it’s probably worth it for each person to figure out what their favourite version of nature is. A city park, such as Hyde or Regent’s? More cultivated gardens like Kew or even the Tuileries? A sun-drenched beach or a snow-covered mountainside in a distant country? The rolling hills of Blackdown or the Quantocks? Whatever it is, embrace it. It may not literally embrace you back (I really do know that my Gaia imagery was just an analogy, I promise!), but your health and wellbeing will undoubtedly still benefit, leaving you feeling as though you’ve just received a comforting hug from an old friend.

And what better time of year to reacquaint yourself with nature? Leaves are returning to trees, flowers are emerging, migratory birds are returning. Earth Day is right around the corner and, here in Devon, we’re about to celebrate Naturally Healthy Month. Whether you’re a seasoned nature-lover reaffirming your appreciation of the outdoors or someone who would normally prefer to spend down time in front of the PS4 (no judgment here–I love it, too!), spring is the perfect season to dust off the cobwebs and head out for some fresh air. Your mind and body will both thank you for it.

New leaves bud from a tree branch