Category Archives: nature

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

 

Growing Up in Athens

In my very first memory, I am sitting in a child seat on the back of one of my parents’ bicycles, reaching out my hand to feel the warm wind pushing between my starfished fingers. It is spring or summer, and the sun is high and golden in the clear blue sky above. The location is Connett Road, the site of my parents’ first home and later the place where I would complete my last two years of enrollment at The Plains Elementary School.

I did not know it then as a toddler, but Connett Road would later come to have a greater significance in my life. After my parents relocated to the southern edge of town, they made that thoroughfare the boundary of the part of town I was allowed to traverse unattended; I could walk or ride my bike to the end of any of the side streets that provided access to Connett, but I was not allowed to cross that larger, more heavily trafficked road myself—not until I was older, anyway, and commuted to and from school each day. I still remember how my hands were difficult to uncurl from their handlebar-gripping position after cold-morning bike rides. I can also vividly recall the rainy days when I would make myself as small as possible under my umbrella, shrinking my world down to the round patch of dryness under its canopy. The inclement weather didn’t bother me, though; I always liked the fresh air and the freedom of moving from place to place under my own power.

Railroad crossing at Eclipse Company Town

It’s probably not surprising, then, that in high school I routinely found myself back on Connett Road—but on foot this time, training for cross country and track races. A visit to Connett usually meant a longer run; on rare occasions we might head up the torturously windy Lemaster hill, or do repeats on the seemingly endless driveway where Lemaster and Connett met. It was more common for us to take a right and head towards Poston Road; in my final years at Athens High, our destination was the then-new Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which finally offered us a scenic and car-free place to stretch our legs.

By the time I moved away from Athens at the age of 18, I knew every inch of that trail between Athens and Nelsonville; I had covered it not only on foot but also on my beautiful green Giant Iguana bike, built from scratch for me by friends at Cycle Path, and purchased with money saved up from, among other jobs, cleaning dorm rooms at Ohio University. It was worth the effort, though, because I was able to explore both The Plains and Athens like never before. Somewhere near Mile 14 is where I encountered my very first indigo bunting; I immediately turned around and rushed home to consult guidebooks on the identity of this impossibly blue bird.

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Wildlife was, perhaps inevitably, an integral part of my outdoor experience in Athens: The Appalachian foothills are teeming with beautiful and fascinating species, though, ironically, I did not fully appreciate this until I left the area and learned more about its biodiversity during university classes and summer jobs in neighboring Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. Even before that education, though, I knew enough to expect belted kingfishers near the Richland Avenue bridge, great blue herons in the reeds along the Hocking, and American kestrels hunting the fields along Route 50. I knew that box turtles hid in the damp, shady areas of our yard, and that the best place to find garter snakes was out behind my mother’s herb garden. I also learned early that it was a bad idea to walk barefoot underneath the sweet gum and chestnut trees.

There were other unpleasant encounters to be had farther from home, out at Dow Lake. Although I loved visiting Strouds Run on a hot day in order to have a picnic and a refreshing swim, I was very uneasy about water that wasn’t entirely transparent; I have never liked the feeling of unseen fish bumping into my thighs, or slimy aquatic weeds wrapping themselves around my ankles. My best friend and I once dared each other to swim out to the buoys, but turned back in a panic when we reached the thick algal growth floating a few feet from our destination. I was much happier renting a canoe or a kayak and staying well away from the greenery in the water.

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Even better was visiting the lake at night (not technically permissible, by the way), lying on the shore and looking up at the mind-boggling multitude of stars over my head. While watching for meteors one night, a friend and I were awed by the sight of an owl gliding silently overhead, its black silhouette just a shade or two darker than the sky above. If I concentrate very hard, I can vaguely remember when my parents took me to a hill overlooking the shores of the Hocking River in 1986 so that I could look through a chunky portable telescope and catch sight of Halley’s Comet—an astronomical phenomenon that I will be able to see again in 2061, if I am lucky. Years later, with classmates from an Ohio University astronomy class, I drove out to the ridges west of town and was gobsmacked by my first glimpse of Saturn and its rings.

For me, however, the best ridges were The Ridges, which I first visited sometime in the mid-1980’s, when my father drove me over one day after school for a surprise outing. At the time, I had no sense of where or what the ridges were; although I had spent plenty of time at the Dairy Barn and had always been aware of the imposing Athens Lunatic Asylum up on the hill, I was too young to fully realize that the hills we were walking connected these two points. My dad and I hiked all the way to the top of Radar Hill, which, at that time, still featured structures indicating the origins of its name. I know now that our trek wasn’t that long, but it seemed like an epic journey at the time, and quite an adventure—a previously unknown wilderness bathed in warm autumn light, with no other people in sight.

CRK on Radar Hill

I didn’t visit The Ridges again for about 5 years, when it was the destination of one of the first training runs I participated in after joining the Athens Middle School cross country team. When I first began running, I couldn’t even make it from Peden Stadium to the old asylum without stopping for a breather; soon I was able to get to the trailhead, then to the first old water tank, then the second, and finally the top of the hill. I was so proud of that achievement, and it made the view all the more beautiful.

Although my teammates weren’t overly fond of the inclines and rough footing up at The Ridges, I went back often. It was a good place to see red-tailed hawks, vultures, and eastern bluebirds—the last of which being species that I would end up studying as a graduate student. On the final run that I did in Athens before heading off to college, I found my way to the top of Radar Hill at dusk and stood looking out at the rows of hills stretching off into the distance. The nearest were dark, almost black; the others were increasingly paler shades of blue, with the furthest and lightest buried in a layer of summer haze. I suspected it was a sight I would not easily forget, and to this day I can conjure memories of it as though I had only just visited the previous evening.

The Ridges from Radar Hill

Blue, however, is not the color I most associate with Athens. Despite all the copper autumns and white winters I weathered during my time there, it’s the verdant springs and summers that stand out strongest in my mind: the soft grass on the amphitheater outside Scripps Hall; the inviting shade of the College Green on a sweltering summer’s day; the banks of the Hocking River and the heads of the male mallards swimming in the river itself; the trees arching over the bikeway to form a tunnel between the access points at Currier Street in Athens and the Eclipse Company Town in The Plains. When these visions spring to mind, I can almost smell the intoxicating scent of honeysuckle and hear the rhythmic buzz of cicadas.

Hocking River from bike path

I now find myself living not only in a different country, but also on a different continent; a trip home requires a 5-hour train ride, 10 hours of airplane time, and another hour or so of driving. It’s a long way. I live in an undeniably beautiful place, but the aesthetics are very different. This is a seaside town filled with granite houses whose moss- and lichen-covered roofs provide perches for endlessly braying gulls; twice a day the sulfurous smell of coastal mud permeates the air as the tides recede, and the maritime winds set ships’ rigging clanging before seeking out the cracks around our doors and windows. There are no cheerful red Athens bricks underfoot, no Carolina wrens nesting in the flowerpot by the door, or jewel-tone hummingbirds buzzing in to sip sugar-water from the feeder in the window, or wild green woodlands beckoning for exploration. I’ve been here long enough that it has begun to feel like home—yet, at the same time, spending 17 years away from Athens hasn’t removed the feeling that that little part of Ohio is also home. Maybe it always will be, no matter where I actually reside.

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Sometimes I stand on the shore of Cornwall with my feet in the sand and I face westward, my mind traveling down through my legs, under the waves of the ocean, up over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back down again, to the northeastern shores of North America where my ancestors caught their first sight of the continent, and finally on into the Appalachians. It’s comforting to know that there is an unbroken connection between here and there, no matter the distance or the terrain that must be traversed. Inside me, wherever I go, I carry all the sights and sounds of smells of Athens: the chickadees eating the suet my parents set out, the daffodils growing beside the old farmhouse where I grew up, the grove of evergreens at the base of Radar Hill, the cry of a pileated woodpecker on the shore of Dow Lake. There is no better proof that you can take the girl out of Appalachia, but you can never take Appalachia out of the girl—something for which I will be eternally grateful.

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This essay was submitted to Growing Up In Athens, a project aiming to compile stories from multiple generations of native Athenians.

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

starting point
The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
road ahead
Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

beneath the oak
This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

beeches
If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

cloudy sky
One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

ARW
He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

bridleway
We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
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Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
AT_sitting
After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
CK Ancestor's Trail
I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

the band
We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

burrs
A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

mailbox 2

mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

cait food
My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

dessert
Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.