A month ago, as lockdown began, I cast my mind forward to the wildlife we would see in Norfolk in June, certain that, in spite of human turmoil and tragedy, flowers would appear in our meadows, dragonfly nymphs would crawl up rush-stems to emerge, and birds would raise their chicks in our hedges and woods. The month which has passed since I wrote those still unpublished words has been a strange one.
Living in the navel of a network of riverside paths, old railways and lost country lanes, I have spent as much time as permitted wandering and — it is no exaggeration to say — taking refuge in nature. Each returning bird of spring has brought a smile to my lips; each new song in the hawthorn tangles of my patch has stopped me in my tracks. Willow warbler, whitethroat, sedge warbler, lesser whitethroat, reed warbler: I’ve welcomed them all home to Norfolk to breed.
I’ve smiled too as holly blues have blown like confetti across my garden, as orange-tips have dipped to nectar by my door, as I saw my first large red damselfly of 2020, hunkering by the path. These wild things have been the rope which has guided my path through the dark night of COVID-19, through this time of worry over frail relatives, and of gloom as sad statistics mounted. Through all this nature has been my balm.
I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. WhatsApp messages have raced between my local friends with each new bird we’ve seen: common terns in the valley, common sandpipers, tufted ducks and swifts. Twitter alike has been busy with photos, drawings, paintings and words, capturing the wild world around us. For many, identifying species is unimportant, taxonomy irrelevant, but the consolation such people have taken from nature’s embrace has been just as great. I’ve seen countless families come to walk and play on the common in front of my house or along the river behind. I’ve stopped to speak (from the opposite side of the lane) to neighbours, dog-walkers, runners, all of them turning to nature from the sorrow and privation of lockdown.
There is no surprise in this. We, like the green shieldbug, the water vole and the lesser whitethroat, are nature’s children. The genes from which our bones and muscles are 3D printed are the same genes which programme every other living thing on earth. The same water, whose passage from the roots of oaks to the highest leaves in the canopy holds these beloved trees upright, fills our cells and tissues too. And the senses and minds with which we interpret the world, which even as I write are turned to developing a vaccine against this worldwide scourge, come from millions of years of honing by the inexorable forces of evolution.
Humans, it is well established, function best in contact with nature. We’re happiest with the green-blue cloak of woods and water about us. We’re healthiest too. Sadly, though, nature does not function best in the presence of humans. For centuries — but especially since the Industrial Revolution — we have waged war on nature. Worldwide we have destroyed unimaginable areas of virgin habitat. We have plundered the seas and filled them with our refuse. We have turned farms into chemical wastelands, their soils eroded. We have burned fossil fuels to the point at which our very climate is collapsing.
A paradox, isn’t it? We abuse nature, take from her, poison her. But, when stricken and fearful, we turn to her for solace. Dare I hope that this seismic slip in humanity’s history will make us recast our relationship with nature? Honouring all that nature has meant to us through these long weeks of anxiety, will we step up to protect her? Or will we quickly forget the things we can do to make a difference?
Will we stand by our nature conservation organisations too? Through all these weeks they have managed nature reserves across the county, the country, the world, all the while protecting their staff and knowing, like many charities, that their income is and will be reduced. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust we have continued to protect some sixty reserves, both for the precious habitats and species which they hold, and to ensure they are there for everyone once this strange time has passed. It surely will. And when it does, there will be avocets at Cley, stone curlews at Weeting, swallowtails at Ranworth, and purple emperors at Foxley. And as before, as for almost 100 years, we will be honoured and happy to share them with you.
Header image by Nick Acheson
Nick Acheson is NWT's Wildlife Ambassador