Celebrated nature writer and Guardian columnist Patrick Barkham pays tribute to one of the bright spots of life in lockdown: the spirit of the natural world, and the opportunity to forge newly intimate relationships with other species in our neighbourhood.
Waxing lyrical about the nature in our neighbourhood may seem insensitive when people are grieving, depressed or jobless as the coronavirus crisis drags on. But our newly awakened awareness of a local blackbird’s melody, or the slow unfurling of a newly-minted beech leaf, or the rapid springing up of jack-by-the-hedge, is a genuine bright spot during tough times.
Actually, it’s more than that. We’ve been living in a drastically transformed world in recent weeks. And we’ve been shown how we could live rather differently in the future, if we choose.
The spirit of the natural world has been playing a sly joke on us by delivering the sunniest April for nearly a century when we are locked down. Here’s what you’ve been missing, she whispers; here’s what you could have.
The veil has been lifted. We can see the consequences of our own hyper-mobility. Adults’ freedom to drive everywhere has annexed most public space – public highways – for noisy, dirty vehicles. When the air is shorn of traffic noise, how much more bounteous is the birdsong? How much more livable is our local world? Streets are no longer deadly but places of play for local fauna – deer, hedgehogs, children.
When the air is shorn of traffic noise, how much more bounteous is the birdsong?
Lockdown has freed us from other people’s constant movement. We are also liberated from our own perpetual motion. Would my children and I have found four blackbird’s nests had we not been isolating at home? Would we have chanced upon a wood mouse sleeping in our blue tit nestbox? Would I have seen the peregrine dart through the hedge after ambushing a fledgeling? Would my family have enjoyed so many orange tip and peacock butterflies constantly searching for mates along the hedgerow?
We’ve been given the opportunity to forge newly intimate relationships with other species in our neighbourhood. We don’t need fancy gardens. We don’t need to know much about our new neighbours – we can download identification apps and teach ourselves, or post our photos on social media and ask for help. Or just enjoy their company. We have been given time and space to take notice.
Spending time locally, we get to know our patch in new detail – taking new paths, getting on nodding terms with once overlooked street trees – even if we are juggling home-jobs and home-school. Five minutes in a green space, with birdsong cranked up to eleven, is either exhilarating or a source of solace or both.
We’ve been given the opportunity to forge newly intimate relationships with other species in our neighbourhood
The space bit is more contentious. It has been shown that poorer communities and ethnic minorities have less access to green space during this crisis. Parks are more likely to be locked in deprived areas; their wild or derelict corners are likely to be less safe, or more polluted.
Enjoying high-quality green space should be a modern-day human right for all, especially for flat-dwelling urbanites. When the crisis eases, and we consider how best to remake society, why not create a new generation of urban parks for everyone’s good health?
Green space is not luxury. As we see more clearly than ever now, wildish spaces are a free public good, rich in other species, our newly-treasured neighbours, who await our acquaintance and bring us joy.
Patrick Barkham is an award-winning author and the Guardian’s Natural History Writer. His books include The Butterfly Isles, Coastlines, Badgerlands and Islander. He lives in Norfolk with his family. His new book, Wild Child – Coming Home to Nature, is published by Granta and available for online order from many independent bookshops, particularly The Book Hive or Jarrold. Twitter @patrick_barkham
Photo credit Marcus Garrett. (Pic shows Patrick and his children; clockwise from top Ted, Esme, and Milly.)
This article was commissioned as part of City of Literature 2020 – a series of conversations, reflections and connections across one week in May. Presented by the National Centre for Writing and Norfolk & Norwich Festival.