I love winter walks through the woods; they never fail to lift my spirits.
Research shows ‘forest bathing’ – immersing ourselves in nature, being among trees and taking time to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of woodland – benefits our physical and mental health; lowering our blood pressure, boosting our immune system and helping us to hit our reset buttons to relax and de-stress. And, honestly, who couldn’t be doing with a bit of de-stressing at this hectic, festive time of year?
This morning I’ve left the chaos of Christmas preparations behind me and I’m wandering through Burnhouse Brae Wood on the outskirts of Galston.
There has been a heavy frost overnight. Ice crystals glitter on the decaying leaves scattered across the woodland floor. Trees tower over me; their twisted bare limbs frosted, and ice droplets shimmer like diamonds on frozen twigs. I inhale, savouring crisp pure air, then exhale; my warm breath floating before me like fine wisps of ectoplasm. Brrr. Thank goodness ‘forest bathing’ doesn’t involve water and a swimsuit. I’m well wrapped up – fleece-lined jacket, thick socks, woolly bunnet decorated with cute sheep and obligatory fluffy pom pom.
Underfoot the steep, dirt path is slippy – just as well I have my hiking pole to help keep me on my feet. To my right, a near vertiginous wooded banking drops to the Burn Anne (pronounced locally as Burnawn.) Thanks to the cold snap, its water level appears to be low, ice has formed along the shallow edges, and the burn, famous in times gone by for the colourful agate stones found there, wends its sluggish way through the narrow gully.
There is, I’ve been told, a badger’s sett excavated nearby on the slope. Naturally, badgers being nocturnal animals means there is zero chance of me spotting one during the day, but knowing how extensive their underground network of tunnels and chambers can be, I wonder, as I trudge past, if a little family of badgers is snuggled up snoozing beneath my feet, waiting for dusk and playtime.
My gloved hand fumbles in my pocket for the bag of wild bird food which from late autumn until early spring I’m in the habit of taking with me on my walks. Like a Hansel-less Gretel, I leave a trail of seeds in my wake; black sunflower hearts, maize and crushed peanuts placed in small piles on trees stumps and fence posts, to treat the great tits, chaffinches, blue tits and, most probably, the ‘cannae-see-a-nut-go-by-them’ grey squirrels. During winter months, small birds need to consume around a third of their body weight daily to maintain their energy levels and store up their fat supplies to keep them warm through perishing cold and wet nights. It’s good to give them a helping hand.
On my regular walking route along the River Irvine, I swear the birds recognise me as their ‘dinner lady.’ Chirping madly to attract my attention, they swoop in from all directions, sometimes virtually skimming the top of my head, then zip from branch to branch, following me to an old wooden post where they know I will leave a handful of seeds.
However, the Burnhouse Brae birds are not so well acquainted with me and they keep a low profile, preferring to wait until I’m almost out of sight before flying in to peck at a free brunch.
I shake some seeds onto a stump then walk away. A determined tap-tap-tapping sound stops me in my tracks; a nuthatch at work, perhaps, hammering a nut (maybe one of mine?) into a crevice in the bark of a tree? Or maybe a greater spotted woodpecker? Standing quietly, eyes scanning the trees, my ears try to pinpoint the location of the noise. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to use my camera, snatch a great photo… but the tapping ceases. I shuffle impatient feet; it’s too nippy to stay still for long. Just as I decide to give up the wait, I glimpse movement halfway up a tree – a small treecreeper, his mottled brown feathers helping him blend in against the bark, is living up to his name and creeping around the trunk, looking to hunt out insects with his needle-like curved beak. He is not the one responsible for the earlier tapping noise. Treecreepers are quiet birds who, thanks to their natural camouflage, can be difficult to spot, but listening hard, I become aware of his shrill tsee tsee call – a high-pitched sound not audible to everyone, so don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard one.
Loud barks startle me – I whip round and a big dog is standing stock-still in defensive mode some yards away on the path, glaring at me. His owner catches up with him.
“Sorry,” she says, grabbing his collar and putting him on the lead. “But he doesn’t like your hat.”
“Really?” I’m astonished. Not least because the woman herself is wearing a woolly bunnet not dissimilar to mine, except hers is Barbie pink with a glint of sparkly thread and mine is bland beige with sheep. Mmmm… maybe it’s the sheep to blame? Or perhaps he doesn’t like neutral shades?
“Yes, sorry. I’m certain your hat has upset him.”
So, I yank off my offending headwear, and shove it in my camera bag, and to be fair, the dog’s barking subsides, although he still eyes me with caution and grunts disapproval as he and his owner skirt around me and head off along the track. As they disappear from sight, peace and tranquillity returns to the woods.
Further down the path, it occurs to me I’ve hardly taken any photos today. Not like me, but I’ve been too preoccupied with soaking up the atmosphere and dishing out seeds and nuts. Plus, apart from the treecreeper, I’ve hardly had a keek at any wildlife.
Right on cue, a robin lands on a frosty branch just a couple of feet in front of me and as good as begs me to take his photograph. A tiny droplet of moisture quivers on the end of his beak as he puffs out his redbreast and strikes several poses; a coy glance, head back and a cheeky whistle, a thoughtful gaze into the distance. I snap off a dozen shots, all good enough to adorn Christmas cards.
Slipping through the gate onto the road which leads to Cessnock Castle, I leave Burnhouse Brae Wood behind. ‘Forest bathing’ has lifted my spirits and warmed my heart. However, the temperature has not risen – I’m feeling very cold and I’ve still a couple of miles to walk home.
Time to stick my hat back on, heat up my head and lugs. But I better leave my camera bag open, just in case I meet another grumpy pup with strong views on fashion and a visceral dislike of my headgear.