Finding inspiration in cultural diversity


  Finding inspiration in cultural diversity

It is often said that we are all made of stars, matter from the old gods. Our bodies amalgamate light-years of cosmic dust which was first formed in the fires of some great supernova. The only thing we know with any certainty is that we have been flung - through aeons and across cosmic distances - into this improbable existence.

Last month, when I was walking to work in the early morning fog, I saw a crow pick up a cigarette butt and carry it away to somewhere safe. This bird has been caged on our planet for five pounds for years but he still understands more about life than most of us will ever comprehend.

He is an example of a deeper truth: that we are all made of stars.

The crow held the cigarette butt in its beak as it flew across the city. I wondered where the bird went on his journey; whether he had found shelter under a tree, or was swooping down for a quick meal of roadkill. After all, there are ravens who eat everything from leather jackets to food packaging, rats and mice to primates and even insects. The corvid family - including magpies and rooks and jays - live in almost every environment imaginable. They scavenge for food, catch it with their strong beaks, find their homes among trees, fly into humans' houses looking for food scraps.

This one crow will never experience the urban environment like most of us. When he's hungry he will fly off to some quiet spot and eat a sandwich left out for the seagulls. He understands the difference between rubbish and food, how to keep one step ahead of potential predators, how to find a mate, and how to protect his territory from younger birds attempting to steal his nest. In other words, this crow knows - as we all should - that there is always more than one way of seeing things; that there are many different points of view and many ways for living in this world.

That is what the crow teaches me about life: that it is full of endless possibilities; that there are innumerable ways of being in this world; and that we are rich beyond imagining, as humans.

I am a writer with a background in ecology, who was taught to see the world in terms of our planet's biodiversity - our 'wild existence'. I come from a culture not too dissimilar from the crow's. Some of my earliest memories are of walking with my parents along South Stour beach, where we could hear the cries of otters hunting for food. We have always lived in a small house on the edge of a wood, in a place where there is an abundance of wildlife. As I grew up I was taught to regard all living creatures as equals: from the smallest mammal or bird to the largest tree - that they were all part of myself and I was part of them. My parents taught me that when you die, you go back into the earth where you came from - that we are all made of stars and are destined to turn back into stars. That life is about endless cycles; about taking what we have learned and turning it into something new.

Nowadays, people on our planet are more isolated than they could ever have imagined. And yet, in my experience, it's those who engage with the wider world - whether through travel, reading or mindful observation - who are happiest. So I don't believe that we are isolated; but rather that we have fallen into a kind of sleepwalking state. We wake up each day to the same schedule and environment as yesterday. And instead of getting out there and finding our own way, we allow ourselves to be washed along by routines and bureaucracies.

We are losing touch with our wild existence as surely as if we were on a desert island where internet access is non-existent.

I was in my mid-twenties, working as a writer and living in the city, when I began to think about how we could reconnect with this wild existence. Given that the urban environment has engulfed us so completely - and is, surely, here to stay - then I wanted to find a way of bridging this great division between our wild self and our urban self. I began to wonder what it would be like for someone who was locked up all day at work to spend their evenings out on the streets looking for wildlife.

So I built a small wooden cage. I bought a squirrel and bird and started to spend more time out in the woods, waiting for wildlife to appear. I taught myself the techniques of 'free range' - meaning to take my time and observe; the importance of not disturbing them or moving them from where they were.

I was also guided by a sense that we are all made of stars. I began to think about how people would react if they knew that we were made from the same materials as squirrels, birds or other animals around us – just as stars are made from the same materials as human beings; just as trees are made from the same materials as animals and plants.

After a year, I had begun to build a community of people who are interested in seeing and experiencing the world as it really is. It has been an extraordinary journey. Now, after four years of recording wildlife around the city, I've still never seen everything we have to offer: Britain is one of the richest countries in the world for birds, mammals and reptiles. And you can find all these things living on our own streets - sometimes just by opening your eyes and taking note of all that goes on around us - wildlife that is unique to urban environments.

I think anyone can do this. The important thing is to not rush it. I've been learning how to give people permission to live in the wild; how to help them realise that they have always been there, and that there is space for them in everyone's life.

We all have a story. It's about what we have taken on board from others about what life is and what it's for - whether we're aware of this or not. What most of us have taken away from the world until now is solemn. I've spent my life being told that we are born, we grow up, we die - and that's it. But now I know better. For me, this has been a process of finding out just how much wildlife there is in our cities - and how much of it hasn't even been recorded or written about yet.

The crow's story shows me that life is infinite and all-pervasive; that it comes from everywhere at all times; that there is no beginning or end but only cycles like the seasons. And that even the most common of animals can teach us something profound about what it means to be alive on this planet.


If we are to live more truly in our bodies, we need to listen again to the deeper voices around us. We need to drop into silence and relax ourselves out of the mind's chatter. The mind is a great tool for making sense of the world - but it must never be allowed to dominate us. Our inner voice is more precious than any external thought or abstraction. This doesn't mean that we should forget about things like the economy or education; it means that we shouldn't allow them to become ideals governing our lives.

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