Searching for green spaces

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #212

Lately I’ve found myself on Google maps, zooming in and out, looking for green spaces that are new-to-me. After a year of walks in most of the larger parks in Amsterdam, I’m trying to find new routes and the other day I found a strip of green that I had somehow overlooked until now, only a short 10mn bike ride away from where I live.

So today, after being woken bright and early by Villanelle (my cat who likes to give unsolicited wake-up massages that may or may not include acupuncture with her claws), I decided to head there to enjoy the morning light. I served her breakfast, had a quick bowl of muesli myself and was out the door.

This green space is a strip of park nestled between roads and canals in Buitenveldert which connects the Amsterdamse Bos with Amstelpark. When I arrived around 8.30 it was quiet with birds singing their hearts out, later the traffic picked up and I could hear the cars a bit more. Still it was very beautiful in the warm sunlight, with spring bursting on all the branches with light pink pompoms and petals falling like snow.

There are grassy spaces under big trees, and large bushes with wood-chip paths in the undergrowth. In certain parts it is more like a tended garden with a multitude of different varieties growing within the confines of large squares with mossy brick borders. I particularly like that it is not perfectly maintained, meaning all sorts of plants and weeds are growing together, creating a rich ecosystem for bumble-bees, ladybirds, beetles and all sorts of other pollinators. It’s a nice addition to my regular walks around the city and I look forward to watching the plans evolve over the seasons.

A day in the Utrechtse Heuvelrug

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #211

I’ve been craving nature for the past weeks, probably because the weather is starting to warm up and my body is protesting against the sedentary lifestyle of working from home. I’m taking walks every day, alternating between the different parks in Amsterdam, but sometimes making the same routes day in and day out feels like a deja-vu.

So I decided to block my day off on Monday to go for a solo-adventure. I left just after rush hour to avoid crowded trains, arrived in the village of Rhenen and headed off under the perfect blue sky.

Within a few minutes I reached a river. It looked exactly like the one where my sister and I had bathed our feet on a very hot day last summer in Cologne, before being soaked by a huge rainstorm. It turned out that I was standing in front of the Dutch part of the Rhine, so the resemblance made sense. This time I didn’t dip my feet in because I was eager to continue;-)

I passed by the church of Saint Cunera, who I discovered was the patron saint of sore throats. (Good to know there is a specific saint one can turn to for these mundane health issues!)

As soon as I set off, I was brought back to the daily feeling I had when walking on the Camino. The excitement of starting the day with no idea what I would discover, as well as the rush of joy every time I saw an arrow indicating I was on the right track. Like a treasure hunt that goes on all day.

I had brought a tasty lunch, nuts and plenty of fruit with me, and in Rhenen I found a bakery which, next to the pastries with bright orange icing (ready for Kingsday), also had large selection of delicious looking cakes which were the perfect complement to my picnic.

In the national park, many trees were barely starting to bud, as it’s been rather cold for the season. Nevertheless the bright green shoots and fresh leaves were beautiful under the sun. I was accompanied by bird song and here and there a whiff of pine needles. Bright yellow butterflies fluttered along the path, as though they wanted to show me the way. There were not many other people which was a wonderful respite from the city.

All day I wound through the woods, up and down small hills caused by a glacier from the ice age moving the sand around it on its slow progression, along birch forests and open sandy spaces where heather grows… My feet were grateful to cover a long distance and my heart was singing from being surrounded by quiet nature.

*****

For the detailed route from Rhenen to Veenendaal-West: NS wandeling Elstenberg

Plenty of colours

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #210

Last weekend I took a little walk near Amsterdam Zuid station. Despite the biting cold and a short rain-shower here and there, the plants seemed keen on showing off their fresh beauty as I made my way around. It was so bountiful, with dashes of unexpected colour calling out for my attention every few steps.

A tiny magnolia tree in front of a brick wall (the shape of its unopened flowers reminiscent of the claws that my cat Villanelle is so determined to sink into my flesh when she sits on my lap to cuddle.)

The rugged green petals of an intriguing tulip, ready to unfurl.

The pink exterior of a bud just about to reveal its fresh green leaves.

A flush orange bush with tiny popcorn puff flowers.

The deep shiny green of these leaves wrapped so beautifully around each other.

Cold fingers, warm feet

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #207

Lately I am trying to walk at least ten thousands steps a day in an effort to move just a bit more. Even when the weather is grey and cold, I lace up my boots, pull on several jumpers, wrap myself in my warm scarf and beanie and head out, motivating myself to wander a bit further than I may otherwise.

Today when I reached the forest I left the paved road and focused on just one task, trying not to slip on the muddy path. It was the perfect way to connect with each step and be in the moment. On a drier part of the path, I spotted a multitude of yellow catkins, flashes of colour in the bare undergrowth. They swayed lightly in the chilly wind, my fingers getting more and more frozen as I did my best to look for a pleasing composition.

On the way back, I was captivated by how the light shone through this mushroom, playing with the intriguing shapes. I experimented for a while, trying to capture those translucent effects despite the luminosity. By the time I got home, even if my fingers ached with cold in my gloves, my feet were warm and I felt energised.

Purple

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #207

On the last day of 2020, I took a long solo walk in the Amsterdamse Bos. It was a calm sunny morning and I wanted to be outside and feel the cold air on my cheeks as I reflected about the crazy year that was coming to an end. The path I chose to walk down was a bit muddy at the start which I guess discouraged other walkers and so I was alone nearly the whole time, accompanied just by birds singing and fluttering from branch to branch. As I strolled along slowly, it turned out to be a treasure trove of gorgeous winter details. I especially fell in love with this beautiful purple colour – also to be found on the photo on my last post. I will never tire of the unexpected colourful details to be found in the forest and the joy of observing nature as it moves through the seasons.

A taste of that holiday feeling

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #206

Lately I’ve been trying to see things in grey scales – and no, I’m not referring to 50 shades of Grey;-), I mean less thinking in black and white or in extremes. For example, I’ve been craving a far-away holiday to ‘get away from it all’, but obviously that is not really ideal right now. Instead of thinking, ‘Argh, I can’t go on holiday’ and closing off that thought, frustrated, I tried to see if I could find an in-between way. I reflected on what it is about that holiday feeling that helps me feel so good, to see if there was any other way to tap into that without travelling anywhere.

I came to the conclusion that it was not so much about where I went, but that it was more of a mindset. When I’m travelling I tend to be disconnected from the internet and screens, more in the moment and attuned to everything new and exciting around me and to spend time outdoors without rushing, being productive or feeling like I should be tackling things from my to-do list. So a couple of weeks ago I planned an Artist Date that I hoped would give me that feeling, time scheduled just for myself to do whatever I want with no plans.

I slept in and upon waking made sure to stay offline and leave my phone in the other room. I made myself crêpes for breakfast, sprinkling them with sugar and lemon juice like when I was a kid, and ate them while looking out over the gardens and watching the birds.

Then, belly full, I went for a long walk in the sun along the Oeverlanden, close to where I live. Just as I would have done if I was on holidays, I switched off and refused to entertain any thoughts about laundry that needed doing or applications that needed sending. I slowed down and fully enjoyed traipsing along, listening to the sound of the water lapping at the bank, exchanging a few words with a fisherman who had just caught a gigantic carp, and generally let my thoughts wander to the rhythm of my feet.

When I arrived home, pink-cheeked from the ice-cold wind and ravenous, I dug up a home-made curry from the depth of my freezer, all I had to do was heat it up and I could tuck in, practically like going to a restaurant. Then I flopped onto the sofa to read cosily under a blanket for a while. By the time I reconnected with the world later that day, I felt fresh, recharged and rested. Turns out it was as easy as that.

Over a thousand trees planted

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #205

One morning last week, I was disturbed by the sound of a chainsaw coming from one of the gardens that my balcony overlooks. I went to check what was going on and to my horror, found that a tall conifer was being sawn into pieces. The combination of the sound of the chainsaw as well as the thud of branches and logs crashing to the ground below made me very anxious and sad. In about 20 minutes it was over. Silence returned and all that remained of the tree was some scattered sawdust.

But this is not a sad tale about neighbours preferring a little more sunlight over a living tree. Coincidentally a few days later, I went to help at my local CSA where over the course of two days volunteers would help plant over 1000 trees that will grow into a thick hedge around the crops to protect them from the wind. It felt like a chance to set things right.

It’s impressive what a small group of people can achieve with team work, motivation and the right guidance. It was a cold Sunday morning, barely a few degrees above zero, but I had piled on lots of warm layers and working with our spade warmed us up immediately. We made precise trenches, digging out the compact clay. Then placed the trees twenty centimetres apart. We broke the clay soil into smaller chunks and after mixing it with rich compost distributed it around the roots. Finally we watered the trees and added a layer of mulch (steaming autumn leaves salvaged from a nearby golf-course) around their base.

There was a wonderful atmosphere, chatting about all sorts of things as we worked, and the sun even came out over the beds at the end of the afternoon. The trees may look a little underwhelming right now, but I am really grateful to have participated and cannot wait to see how the trees wake up in spring, growing together to protect the crops and create more bio-diversity.

We rounded the day off with some delicious glühwein whilst warming our cold fingers by the fire. Cycling on the way home, I was rewarded with a beautiful moody sky over the water.

*****

Planting trees is a very effective way to combat climate change and it’s easy to contribute even if you don’t have a garden. Search for initiatives in your area to participate in person or donate to. If you are in Amsterdam, for example you can consider supporting this local food forest which is crowdfunding at the moment. Another easy thing to do is using Ecosia as your default search engine, so each time you satisfy your curiosity you’ll also contribute to planting trees. Feel free to add other initiatives you know of in the comments too!

Happily mixing soil and compost (photo taken by Lisa who works at the CSA)

Autumn details

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #202

My daily walks have been keeping me sane and connected to the season as it evolves. I’m grateful for all the details that catch my senses as I am strolling along.

Tiny drops of dew shining on hairy seeds.

The smell of wet autumn leaves decomposing at the feet of the trees and sensing the layers of humus that came before them as the soles of my shoes sink into the ground.

Orange seeds bursting forth from bright pink flowers.

The distinct sound of a woodpecker jabbing away at a tree and the flash of its red feathers as it flies to its next pecking spot.

Mushroom clans where it seems like the elders are looking out for the playful young ones.

That sound when you kick through a thick pile of dry autumn leaves and the joy of their multitude as they float upwards and land again, each one slightly different shape and colour than the next.

Natuurpark Vrije Geer

Thanks to the beautiful autumn we’ve been having, I’ve had the chance to go walking in lots of different parts of Amsterdam lately. I vary my destination based on which friend I am meeting up with, how long I have until the next predicted rain shower or if I am in another neighbourhood for some errand, and I usually try to loop through a park if possible.

The other day I needed to pick up second hand gum-boots that I’d found via Marktplaats in Sloten, an area of Amsterdam where I rarely go. While planning my route on Google maps I spotted a small green area and decided to take a look on my way back.

At first I thought I couldn’t enter the park and that it was just a green wetland for birds as there were many coots and geese pecking around in the grass undisturbed. But I cycled around the perimeter until I found an entrance and a plaque with the name Natuurpark Vrije Geer.

The sky was grey as I walked along the path. The park had recently undergone maintenance as lots of reeds and grasses had been cut around the remaining shrubs and trees. It was quiet, with birds flitting here are there among the willows, tall reeds, ferns and autumn colours…

I also came across trees laden with funny fruit that look like a small brown apple with tentacles. Some light googling later on led me to the Dutch name mispel (or medlar in English) which is a plant that has been cultivated since the Roman times and carries fruit into the winter. Apparently you eat the medlar when it is overripe and has become sweet like apple sauce. I’m curious to try it!

*****

Back home I read up about the history of the park. I found out that in the 90s the city of Amsterdam was rapidly transforming meadows and nature in the area into constructible zones and also threatened to run the tram line through this space. There were protests against this, which led to a local referendum in which over 200 000 people voted. Luckily 90% voted against housing construction and that’s how the park is a thriving ecosystem to this day. I found it interesting to read that the municipality was surprised that so many people showed up to vote for keeping a piece of land barely anyone was aware of before. To me this is an important reminder of how vital it is to involve citizens in decisions that impact their environment.

Click the links for more info about the referendum for Natuurpark Vrije Geer and the fauna and flora it harbours (in Dutch).

Observing mushrooms in the Veluwe

JOYFUL GRATITUDE #198

In the past few years, I’ve been travelling regularly to the area of the Veluwe, in the east of the Netherlands, for the pleasure of easily accessing nature to take long walks in the forest and heaths. This week I’m grateful I got to spend three fun days with a friend there in a cosy wooden cottage.

Our preparations revolved mainly around what delicious food we wanted to bring, as well as which notebooks and art supplies to tuck into our backpacks. We had a great time and though there were regular down-pours, we managed to take some long walks in the forest and collect pocketfuls of chestnuts. In the evenings, we relaxed on the sofa and chatted by the wood-stove, to the sound of the rain landing heavy on the roof.

Even in the Veluwe, it’s not always easy to get far from the road and the sound of cars, but armed with some tasty snacks from the bakery, we walked deep into the woods. With no real direction, we simply followed the intriguing shapes we saw in the undergrowth like a scavenger hunt. My hiking boots sank into the soft soil, made from layers upon layers of fallen leaves and mosses as I breathed in the rich smell of the forest.

The main highlight were the mushrooms. I was struck by their diversity, multitudes clustered by the dozen in tight bunches on decaying tree stumps, minuscule funghi on dead branches to large chunky brown ones, white ones that looked like lace, colours ranging from pink to metallic grey and even bright yellow ones that seemed to belong on a corral reef…

*****

As beautiful as it was to observe this abundance of species, I can’t help but mourn the fact that 85% of the biodiversity in the Netherlands has been lost, and we are not on track to meet the targets set up to stop this decline with the pressure of intensive farming and climate change. I can only dream of what this forest looked like twenty or a hundred years ago, and it’s vital that we safeguard what remains to make sure that in a not-too-far-away future the only trace that is left of these mushrooms is not just a few old photographs.