Category Archives: outings

Finland 2018 (part 1b): Helsinki

The charisma that I found lacking in Jyvaskyla was on offer in abundance in Helsinki. Sadly, I only had about 24 hours to take in the sights; I arrived at 2:30pm on Saturday and needed to head to the airport at 2:30pm on Sunday, so I wasted no time in depositing my bags in the hotel room and heading out to acquaint myself with the city.

Although I generally dislike doing things that seem overtly, cheesily touristy, I find that bus tours can be quite helpful for providing a comprehensive overview of a new place while helping you get your bearings. They are especially handy for when you’d like to see a variety of places but don’t have time to squeeze them all into your schedule. Given that I only had a few hours before closing time, a bus tour seemed like a good way to do some scouting in advance of my longer free period on Sunday.

Senate Square, Helsinki
The Helsinki Cathedral in Senate Square, as seen from the top of the tour bus

There are a few tour bus options in Helsinki, all of which use red buses. I have taken a number of City Sightseeing tours elsewhere and I thought that was the company I was booking with when I bought my ticket. However, in reality, I was getting a ticket from Red Buses, which visits all the same places using pretty much exactly the same route. The audio recording, though, wasn’t up to the same standard I have had on previous trips elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a Helsinki thing, and the same is true for the City Sightseeing audio tour, but I have my doubts. There were big gaps between anecdotes, and during the quiet periods we kept passing by interesting things that I would have liked to have learned more about; further, there was silence during those gaps (on previous tours there has been locally relevant music used as a spacer), so I kept wondering whether there was a problem with my audio port. Most crucially, the narrator mispronounced and misused words to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to discern meaning. I can see why the tour company would record someone with a Finnish accent–it somehow makes the experience a little more authentic–but I don’t understand why they didn’t do a better job with quality control for the messaging. Still, there were some interesting anecdotes mixed in with the confusing stuff, and the WTF moments added a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to the experience.

After disembarking, I headed off to visit some of the sights that we’d driven past during the tour–starting with the Helsinki Cathedral, which was right in front of me. It’s an elegant building with a prominent position (both in Senate Square specifically and in the city more generally). It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who had been brought to Helsinki shortly after Finland was annexed by Russia, and tasked with creating a proper capital city (which was, by the way, substantially smaller then, with a population of only approximately 4,000 people). Engel dedicated over two decades of his life to perfecting the cathedral, which wasn’t consecrated until 1852, twelve years after his death. On the outside, it may look very similar to other religious buildings such as the Sacre Coeur, but the Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran house of worship and is therefore incredibly austere inside. It isn’t plain, exactly, but there are few decorations and ornaments, and those that have been included involve no frippery. It is amazing how this alters the thoughts and feelings you experience while you are inside the building.

Altar at the Helsinki Cathedral
Look at all the unadorned walls here, and the completely blank dome. You would never mistake this for a Catholic building.

Just a couple blocks away is the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox facility that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly visit because preparations were underway for a Saturday evening mass. I was able to briefly poke my head in the doorway and catch a glimpse of some of its many icons. Although the building is stylistically quite distinct from the Helsinki Cathedral, it was built during approximately the same period and was consecrated not long after its Lutheran neighbour, in 1868. The red brick, darker interior, gilt decor, and large collection of religious artwork give it an incredibly different atmosphere. As I was leaving, I encountered an orthodox woman who had come for the service. Although I have incredibly conflicted feelings about ‘modest dress’, I did think she looked very romantically beautiful in her lace veil and shawl; because I never see such things in my daily life, I sometimes forget that people still wear these traditional forms of clothes, so it was like encountering someone who had stepped out of the pages of a history book.

I had a bit of a wander through the harbour area, where the large weekend market was just packing up for the day. The fresh fruits looked particularly appealing, not only to me but also to the many gulls waiting around to catch things that fell off stands or to nab food right off tables if the vendors let down their guard for just a moment. I also took in the Esplanade, a long, thin park where people come to relax and picnic in the sun. It is situated near a range of shops, theatres, and restaurants, so it’s the perfect place to stop off for a mini-break in the middle of a busy day out.

Fact and Fable statue
‘Fact and Fable’, by Gunnar Finne, unveiled in 1932. The statue is accompanied by a plaque with QR codes and a URL for more info (http://vihreatsylit.fi/en/esplanadinpuisto/).

With that brief introduction to the city under my belt, I headed back to the hotel to have dinner. This hotel, incidentally, was quite a step up from the one in Jyvaskyla. It had its own cobbled courtyard and counted among its decorations a centuries-old tapestry. Sadly–tragically, even–the flamingo frescos featured so prominently on the hotel’s website were not in evidence anywhere I looked. I had so been anticipating a selfie with the pink bird art and was disappointed that this was not possible. What I got instead was front row tickets to a small urban common gull breeding colony, from which emanated an endless amount of territorial shrieking  ALL. NIGHT. LONG.

Night sky in Helsinki
Long past my bedtime, the sun is still up. This is 11:30pm in Finland in mid-June.

Though this inevitably left me feeling somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning, I was still eager to get out and explore more of the city. I had two destinations in mind: the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, and the National Museum of Helsinki. You might think that I was going to the former in order to see fine art, but, no, I was only there to snap a photo of its main entrance:

Main entrance to the HAM
Helsinki Art Museum entrance under the watchful eye of an enormous gull head

I’d seen the HAM the previous day during the bus tour, which mentioned the museum but said nothing about the bizarre avian decoration outside its entrance; likewise, online research yielded no explanation and no photos featuring the, um, art. I can only assume this is a temporary installation, for which I am sure the residents of the apartments across the street are extremely grateful. If you are thinking that this building looks like an unusual place for an art museum even before you factor in the gull, you may be interested to know that this facility is called the Tennispalatsi and was originally constructed in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics (which were supposed to have been held in Tokyo but were relocated to Finland); it housed four tennis courts that were never used for their intended function because the Olympics were cancelled once WWII began. However, the building did finally contribute to the Olympics in 1952, when it hosted the basketball preliminaries.

After the photo shoot, I headed over to my second and final museum of the day. The National Museum is housed in a striking building designed in the ‘national romantic’ style–one inspired by the castles and churches of medieval Finland. It houses an extensive collection of items dating from prehistory to the modern era; there was even a temporary Barbie exhibit on display when I visited, though I didn’t have time to wander through. You start by heading downstairs to learn about Finland’s earliest human residents and then climb upwards to work your way through successive periods of history.

The museum is not only full of interesting things, but also laid out extremely well. For example, though there aren’t that many prehistoric artefacts to put on display, the exhibition is rounded out with drawings, videos, and infographics that provide additional information to help you contextualise what you are seeing; these are arranged so as to reinforce certain messages and concepts and help audiences really understand and remember the topics addressed through the collections.

National Museum living stones

(This–which is a video in which the sound is crucial–is one of the weirdest but also most wonderful things I’ve ever encountered in a museum. Without any preamble or captioning, it accompanied a display about petroglyphs. The text associated with the reproduction rock art stated that often the artists painted their images on rocks that had human features. That was the only context provided. There were four of these.)

As in Norse mythology, the idea of a tree of life can also be found in ancient Finnish beliefs. Here, the layout of the room helps the visitor get a sense of how a three-part tree structure (roots, trunk, canopy) might symbolise distinct parts of the universe.

I knew next to nothing about Finland before visiting, and though I am sure my current levels of historical and cultural understanding are well beneath those even of a young Finnish child, I do at least feel that I learned a substantial amount from touring the museum, and that what I picked up was the sort of crucial knowledge you would want to impart to a visitor so the they have a framework for understanding the country and its people. I got the sense that the museum was providing me with a lens through which everything I encountered in Finland was clearer and more logical.

Further, I found I was genuinely interested in everything I was learning. This is something I notice wherever I travel: No matter how little you knew about a place and its people beforehand, and no matter how unlikely those seem directly related to your own history or current life, it is almost inevitable that you will find something that connects with you personally, or that you have encountered in some fashion before, even without realising it. No matter where in the world they live, people are people, and we all share things in common.

Offering stone
Case in point: offering stone. People around the world are drawn to stones that are deemed holy because they are unusual in some way. This stone features lots of impressions where offerings–milk, food, flowers, etc.–were once left. I saw very similar things last year in Ireland.

One of the most impressive techniques utilised by the National Museum was that of housing entire structures within its gallery space. For example, there was a boxcar that you walked through as part of an exhibition on schoolchildren that had been sent to safety in Sweden during WWII; in a series of rooms showing artefacts from the 18th century, several were devoted to reconstructing an 18th-century house featuring domestic artefacts in situ; and my favourite: there was an entire traditional Finnish log cabin. This last example could be smelled before it was seen because it was the genuine article and, since cabins were originally made without any chimneys, it gave off a very strong campfire-like eau de smoke.

Log cabin
It was interesting to look inside the cabin, but it was even better to smell it.

The National Museum also dealt with politics fairly directly, acknowledging Finland’s difficulties with successive external rulers (first the Swedes, then the Russians), then its internal struggles as it sought an identity as an independent nation, and finally more modern challenges associated with the economic crisis and immigration. It was a thoughtful but practical approach that showed pride in national accomplishments without minimising less savoury moments in history or straying into the realm of propaganda. I appreciated the blunt, self-aware approach, which allowed you to interpret the information in whatever way you felt was appropriate and draw your own conclusions accordingly.

Saved art
Pieces scavenged and saved by Sakari Palsi, Olavi Paavolainen, and Yrjo Jylha during the Continuation War. This trio wandered through abandoned villages to preserve precious cultural artefacts that had been left behind when homes were abandoned or were at risk of being destroyed in the fighting.
Finnish presidents
Finland became an independent country in 1918 and is celebrating its centenary all this year. These photos are straight out of Harry Potter: The subjects, Finland’s presidents over the years, all move very subtly every few seconds. It is extremely unnerving when you are not expecting it.

I do not know many Finns personally, though I know enough people who do that I have heard all the classic stereotypes: The Finnish have intensely deadpan humour; they love vodka; their culture revolves around the sauna; they are very direct; they are quite individualistic; they’re all a little crazy (which is always linked to the long days in summer and long nights in winter). I have to say that I saw either elements of, or the roots of, most of these things, both while out and about in Finland in general and while wandering through the National Museum.

A display of sauna ladles
This is only a portion of the entire sauna ladle display. People go to the sauna not just with friends and family, but also with colleagues. Important business and political deals are completed at the sauna. And all of this is supposed to take place without clothing.

I mean that in an appreciative, kind-hearted way rather than a judgmental one. These are a people who live in an incredibly extreme environment, and although there is a decently sized immigrant population, many Finns descended from ancestors who lived in that harsh wilderness for generations upon generations and somehow managed to survive and thrive. You can’t achieve that feat without being at least a little intense, yourself. It is no surprise that the Finns are direct and no-nonsense, or that their culture contains extremes of both colour (I am picturing some of the more outlandish clothing styles I encountered on the street and also remembering this crazy article I saw a few years ago) and darkness (I’m pretty sure even lullabies are heavy metal). The people are shaped by their surroundings.

Museum display of heavy metal music
This great interactive display allowed you to sample from the wide range of heavy metal music produced by Finnish artists.

I know that statement is slightly oversimplified, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. And, while the Finnish climate–not to mention those crazy-long winter ‘nights’–is perhaps a little extreme even for me, I did feel an affinity for the country and its people. I never felt self-conscious in the way that I have in some of the other places I’ve visited, and my interactions left me with the sense of a kindred spirit. I have absolutely no idea what anybody was saying, though, so for all I know I was being made fun of the entire time I was there, and just couldn’t tell because nobody ever laughs.

In any case, the National Museum was an extremely educational and enjoyable experience and was a great way to finish up the trip (pun intended!). If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in Helsinki, I can’t think of a better way to get a good introduction and overview to Finnish culture in general. However, I would recommend trying to linger in the city a bit longer than I did so that you can explore some of the many other museums and cultural sites on offer. I’m sad I wasn’t able to squeeze them in during this visit, but I’m hoping to return some day.

In fact, though it won’t give me an opportunity to see more of Helsinki, I do have another trip to Finland coming up at the end of August. This time, I will be heading out into the wilds. Will the change in scenery alter my appreciation of the country and its people? Will spending time in the Finnish forest make me more laconic? Will I develop a love of saunas and swimming in very cold water? Stay tuned to find out…

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