The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
In the early days of Spring 2020 – I had a late-night phone call from my friend Michael McCarthy, the former Environment Editor for the Independent. ‘D’you know’, he said, his professional nose twitching, ‘something’s happening here of world-historical importance. What’s going to be the effect on nature? Shouldn’t we be keeping a diary of this spring?’
In fact, I was already keeping my usual local nature diary, as was another friend, the naturalist and writer Peter Marren, who was rapidly brought into the conversation. We agreed there and then each to keep detailed notes from our three different locations – respectively in London (Mike), Suffolk (Jeremy) and Wiltshire (Peter) – and braid those into a contrasting but connected narrative. But as Mike insisted from the start, and explains in his Introduction to the book that evolved, ‘the ultimate aim would be more than documentary; in illustrating the worth of nature at a particular, crucial moment, the moment of the Covid-19 pandemic, we would seek to highlight its worth as a whole’.
Fig. 1 Jeremy’s patch
The book’s title was decided later, when we realised more fully our own reactions to this extraordinary period, and our wish to share them with others. And if our title gave a nod to Boethius, the subtitle drew its resonance from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. For it was the coincidence of the loveliest spring in British history with the spectre of the pandemic stalking the land that gave our perceptions a heightened awareness. The primary narrative of the spring, unfolding in all its inspiring beauty, has as its background a drumbeat of the mounting statistics of death and disease.
This paradox frames my very first entry (21 March):
Spring equinox, the moment in the year when ‘night equals day’ and the forces of darkness and light are in equilibrium. A perfect metaphor for the conjunction of this wonderful spring and the deadly virus invading our lives. I head off in bright sun down ‘The Drift’, the lane opposite my house leading down to the river. A regular daily walk along familiar paths, thrilling to the sights and sounds of another spring. Everything is the same, but nothing is the same. The natural world is flourishing, as ever at this time of rebirth and re-growth; the human world oppressed and imperiled. Delight morphing into horror and back again, like one of those visual illusions you can view one of two ways but never both together.
There was another, self-imposed intensity to the writing, since we agreed with a publisher at the outset that we would deliver a complete typescript in June if they would publish in October, a demanding schedule that had us every day walking out from our front doors to see what we encountered, notebooks in hand, writing up our discoveries later, and then sharing our copy every evening for some rapid and ruthless joint editing. In the event, working so fast was surprisingly liberating – our experiences not so much ‘recollected in tranquillity’ but penned with an al fresco spontaneity.
There was a felt intensity, too, in our perceptions of this bright new world, temporarily purified by the absence of mechanical noise and air pollution. Like everyone else we revelled in the arresting silences, Michael perhaps most of all, since he lives under the main Heathrow flight-paths but was now, for example, seeing and hearing buzzards overhead for the first time (24 March). For me, when I heard my first blackcap of the year, ‘the silence has the force of a new and positive presence, a medium in which the natural world can more fully express itself’ (21 March). And Peter summed this experience up in his final note of 31 May:
Our world has grown too loud. Others have remarked on the silence that suddenly entered our lives after flights were cancelled and the usual road traffic diminished nearly to a halt. Instead we heard the birdsong, the wind in the branches, the buzzing of bees. When will we hear it again, unsullied by noise? Will that be the abiding memory of this Covid spring – the quiet? The simple silence of a locked-down existence was for some of us a rediscovery of the other world lying beyond our daily preoccupations and our bustling lives.
Our other senses were also flaring. I found new pleasure in touching leaves this year, ‘comparing the rough felting of the wayfaring tree’s leaves with the softness of the emerging horse chestnut ones, like floppy little lamb’s ears’, and I planned a blind test to identify different leaves through feeling their textures, shapes and sizes (8 April); Peter went one better and started tasting them, ‘Glancing behind me to make sure no one is looking, I nibble a few leaves straight off the twig, like a browsing deer’ (26 March). I also thrilled to ‘the smells released by plants and the earth when rain falls after a long dry spell – the petrichor, they call it, that’s ichor as in the juice of the gods’ (28 April); while Peter gave us a brisk master-class in distinguishing umbellifers by smell (10 May); and Mike fantasised about the violet haze and heady scents of bluebells in Kew , barred to him under lockdown (21 March, 22 April), but found some culinary compensations in the ‘subtle fragrance’ of elderflower leaves in refreshing summer drinks and their lingering taste in his elderflower fritters (21 May).
There was another paradox in the liberation of confinement:
I’ve gladly embraced the discipline of travelling only as far as I can walk and found great freedom in exploring just one familiar area. At least, I thought it was familiar until I really looked. Our patron saint Gilbert White again: ‘Men that only undertake one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with’. We have only been advancing our own knowledge not the world’s, of course, but the point still applies. And the knowledge has been one of better acquaintance as well as factual acquisition, connaître as well as savoir; an intimacy based on a more sympathetic understanding of something that was already there all around us, and on a closer connection with it.’ (Jeremy, 24 May)
Gilbert White’s enduring genius was to conjure the universal from the closely observed particular. In the same spirit, his American counterpart, Henry David Thoreau, remarked of his own home patch, ‘I have travelled much in Concord’, adding in his journal, ‘Here I have been these forty years, learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself’.
Much of the pleasure for nature diarists comes from revisiting the familiar and noticing the small, subtle differences from one day to the next and between recent years. I know just where and when the first aconites will show in my village each year, gleaming like old gold on an ancient bank, and I know the day and place I can expect to see the first returning swallows. But are these dates changing with global warming, so affecting their local distribution and abundance? Scientists call this ‘phenology’ when they do it, but ordinary people have been noting these things for centuries. People still stop me in the village street mid-April each year and ask, ‘Have you heard the cuckoo yet, Jeremy?’. Sadly, the answer was ‘no’ this year, since they have been in sharp decline here (no hairy caterpillars, 1 April), but Peter celebrated his first one on 14 April. And we all eagerly marked the arrival of the other iconic spring birds, like swallows (15 April) and swifts (7 May). We also tracked the emergence of butterflies, beginning with the over-winterers like brimstone and peacock (23 March), then the fresh beauty of the first orange-tip, ‘the butterfly with the rising sun in its wings’ (Peter, 2 April), through to the speckled wood (aka the ‘dappled shade’, Mike, 3 May). And we detailed the long succession of spring flowers, including our often unnoticed (and sometimes ‘escaped’) street flowers (Mike, 29 April; Peter, 25 May).
Fig. 2 Peter’s patch
There were local surprises, too. Mike watched a brimstone laying eggs on the alder buckthorn he had carefully planted the year before (18 April), he discovered a local colony of house sparrows, a rarity in London now (8 April), and he had a migrating wheatear actually flycatching on his roof (23 April). I was privileged a singing willow warbler in my garden (11 April, in a willow tree!) and garden warbler (not in my garden, but the first to breed in the village for years, 11 May), while a new colony of bee-orchids suddenly shot up in the middle of a path (24 May). And Peter continued to amaze us by what he found: sniffing a great scented liverwort (the smell was of ‘stale urine’, 8 April); finding a flatworm next door so rare that it doesn’t even have a common name (5 May); and spotting a host of tiny marsh marigold moths munching away in the flower of a buttercup (12 May).
Inevitably, there were causes for sadness and alarm, as well as delight. Peter grieved the loss of elms with their ‘umbrageous shade’ (8 May). I worried about the disappearance of once common farmland birds, though the yellowhammer came through in the end (3 April); I feared the loss of our last spotted flycatcher in the village, the genius loci of the local churchyard (6 May), but there was a reprieve – such a wonderful if unobtrusive bird, ‘a triumph of character over charisma’ (24 May); and I mourned the absence, surely now the permanent absence, of that soothing ‘sound-track of summer’, the turtle dove (25 May).
Fig. 3 Michael’s patch
Mike was meanwhile experiencing changes on a landscape-scale in Richmond Park:
Everywhere I looked I could see uninterrupted, sweeping vistas across grassland to woodland, some stretching away for a mile or more. Before the lockdown, every one of these panoramas would have been bisected by a line of traffic, but without motor vehicles, the whole historic landscape felt reunited, knitted back together as an organic whole the way it originally was, and I realised what the corona virus lockdown had done: even if only temporarily Richmond Park had been rewilded (15 May).
There is more history in the book, much poetry (Mike passim, all of it in his head and instantly available), some etymology (Jeremy on moth names, 19 April; Peter on mayflies, 23 April), plenty of topology, and other cultural excursions into music (Vautor, Delius, Britten), meteorology (rainbows, 12 April), ballet (yellow wagtails, 25 April) and mythology (dryads various, 6 May).
Nor were the larger politics of the situation ever far from our minds, even as we focussed down on the buzzing and booming life all around us. We duly recorded the headline statistics of infection and death and the government rhetoric about them – Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Matthew Hancock and Donald Trump all make their appearances in the narrative. But we also tried to look beyond to what might, or could, or should happen, when this pestilence has finally passed, if we really do ‘follow the science’.
We were struck above all by the extreme contrasts in this extraordinary spring:
…between the record-breaking sunny weather and the looming climate crisis; between our innocent and inspiring experiences of nature and the tragedies in human lives wrought by the pandemic; between the many individual acts of solidarity and kindness and the calculations of political discourse. We seem to have learned so much and so little …
Though there might be lessons in nature’s longer time-scales:
… The seasonal cycle we have been charting is just that, a cycle, in which the end of one season is the start of another, which in turn brings us back to the beginning, but not quite the same as we were before. Hopefully knowing more, caring more, and more deeply grounded in the only world we have (Jeremy, 30 May).
Mike summed it all up for us in a moving coda to the book:
To go out each day observing has come to seem like a solemn act. In the end, it was almost like an act of faith – faith in the natural world, in its ability to console us, to repair us and to recharge us; most of all, its ability simply to be there, often unrecognised and unacknowledged, but giving life to everyone of us, even as human artefacts are crumbling all around.
15 December 2020