Alys Fowler writes beautifully in this memoir as she embarks on a series of microadventures in an inflatable pack-raft around the Birmingham canal network, unknowingly unraveling her very existence with every paddle.
What I appreciated most about this book is that Fowler’s adventures were something she fit in and around her current life. She grasped every opportunity she could to get out, going that little bit further, maximising public transport and her folding bike to conquer new routes and experience new moments of peace and awakening. It fit the flow of her life, despite her attempts to paddle as far as she could away from it.
People taking on ambitious, but achievable mini adventures gives me more inspiration to take on my own challenge than the incessant presence on social media of people undertaking amazingly huge and grand feats, such as running across a country barefoot, climbing three mountains in 24 hours, or battling across the Arctic unaided with only a single husky. Then there are those that decide to live their dream and just give up their job to travel the world in a campervan… These things are so far out of reach for me that I feel demotivated, flat and despondent, rather than emboldened and roused to follow suit. I love Fowler because she found a hobby, a unique experience, a release close to home, that she could embark on whenever a spare bit of time allowed, either alone or taking friends along for the ride.
As the book progresses and you begin to see the fractures develop in Fowler’s mental health and the world she knows and has built for herself. Her brittleness is kept together by the phenomenal power of nature. Her journey through the canal network connects her not only to the historic pastimes they once served, but also the strange creatures and plants and exist in often harsh and unforgiving environments.
The nature she finds isn’t typically ‘beautiful’, but the hardiest and most resilient, hidden in plain sight from the everyday passerby – this is the ‘hidden nature’ that the book is aptly titled after. Her great knowledge of ecology and botany is shared in the book with gentle ease that slips over you with awe and enlightenment. The slow pace of the canals and the secret wildlife that cling there seems like a fantasy world, where you are able to step into and out of like platform 9 3/4 to the Hogwarts Express.
Many times Fowler questions herself and who she is, who she is becoming, how she can move forward, or should she step back. Regardless of her coming out as gay or not, I think that we can all resonate with this in some way or another. In this day and age our identities are constantly being challenged. Nature for me, just as it does for Fowler, brings relief to the noises playing over and over in your head. Nature helps to bring clarity, reform, peace. We all need a few minutes of nature in our daily lives to help ground us, give us space to breathe and recoup. Some time spent looking up in the canopy as you walk along a tree-lined road to the office may be all you need to ease the mind for just a few moments, lifting you up for the rest of the day.
If you are looking for a book that brings fresh perspective, a raw honesty that is both moving and emotional, and that connects you with the roots of our very existence – alongside nature – then I recommend you pick up this book and give it a try. It isn’t a big book, nor is it dense or difficult to read. Fowlers words will flow over you with ease as you build a new connection with the nature you didn’t realise you were missing.