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If there was one mitigating circumstance about the coronavirus pandemic that first hit Britain in January 2020 it was that the virus struck in the early part of the year, when the northern hemisphere was entering into springtime. The coronavirus spring that followed turned out, in fact, to be a remarkable event, not only because it unfolded against the background of the calamitous disease, but also because it was in Britain the loveliest spring in living memory. It had more hours of sunshine, by a very substantial margin, than any previous recorded spring; indeed, it was sunnier than any previously recorded British summer, except for three. It meant that life in the natural world flourished as never before, just as life in the human world was hitting the buffers.
Now, as we head into the pandemic’s autumn, and with it a second wave of infection and fresh curbs on our lives, there are lessons to be learned from looking back at our initial confinement in March, April and May, and in particular, at the springtime in which it occurred.
Autumn nature to look out for in Britain
Autumn wildlife in Britain can be a fascinating spectacle. Big flocks of pink-footed geese are arriving from Iceland; they will be followed by other wild geese – greylags, white-fronts, barnacles and brents, and our two species of wild swans, whooper swans from Iceland, then Bewick’s swans from Russia.
On a smaller scale, the two Scandinavian thrush species, redwings and fieldfares, are starting to arrive, and they will be joined by other charming northern songbirds, such as bramblings and snow buntings.
Although most flowers have disappeared, ivy is in splendid bloom from now until November and will attract many of the remaining insects, including the ivy bee, a recent arrival to the UK.
Ripening hedge fruits include sloes, hips and haws; it has been a splendid year for acorns, and among the myriad autumn fungi, look out for ceps, or penny-buns as they are sometimes known.
Even mammals provide a spectacle now: red deer stags are just beginning their autumn rut (the competition for females), roaring and clashing antlers. You don’t have to go to the Scottish Highlands to witness it: you can see it in Richmond Park in London.
I have loved wildlife and the natural world since I was a small boy, but I had never recorded a spring before. Yet this Covid spring was different. It seemed unlike all others, not least because it was proving exceptionally beautiful, yet by unfolding in parallel with the disease it was producing a sort of bizarre and tragic incongruity. Our beloved summer migrant birds – the swallows and cuckoos, the swifts and the willow warbler – were returning from their winter in Africa; the spring butterflies – the brimstones, the orange-tips and the holly blues – were emerging with their flashes of brilliance; and the spring flowers were each day adding new colour to the landscape, which was only intensified by the sunshine that seemed to pour down uninterrupted from morning till evening. Yet even as all this was happening, people were dying every day in their hundreds, often away from their loved ones, alone and in distress, and the health workers and care workers who were trying to save them were also dying, while millions of others were struggling to cope with the loss of jobs and the stress of being confined to their homes. You almost felt that nature should have switched off, out of sympathy. Yet it went blithely forward, as nature has always done.
This paradox was what made this springtime unique, and made me feel as though it required memorialising. When I found that my naturalist friends, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, were writing it down as well, from their own homes in Suffolk and Wiltshire respectively, I asked if they would like to join me and compare our findings. As the spring evolved, so did the pandemic. Yet there was something more: spring in the time of the coronavirus felt not just unusual, not just paradoxical and incongruous in its character, but important somehow.
What we could all see, initially, was solace: it was clear that nature at its loveliest and most inspiring, in springtime’s wondrous transformations, could offer people comfort at a moment of tragedy and great stress. “There is no salve quite like nature for an anxious mind,” wrote Richard Deverell, the director of Kew, as he reluctantly closed the botanical garden as the pandemic took hold. A large number of others who had ready access to the natural world agreed with him, and wished to share their experiences of the countryside on their doorsteps, often using social media. Prominent among them were nature writers, in that rich modern tradition that has sprung up in Britain in the last 20 years or so. Mark Cocker tweeted on 18 April: “I’m posting an uplifting image each day till this thing is done. No coronas, no Covids, but possibly corvids” (the last word a reference to one of his best-known books, Crow Country). Mark Avery, perhaps Britain’s most influential wildlife blogger, organised a nature writing competition through his website. Melissa Harrison, who writes moving novels about the natural world, created a series of podcasts about nature around her Suffolk village. Some of our most brilliant wildlife photographers, such as Bob Gibbons and Richard Steel, began sending out inspiring daily images, and many others undertook similar enterprises.
The idea of the consoling power of nature goes back many centuries, but it is strange how recently the beneficial effects of the natural world on our physical and mental health were proved to be real. They had long been supposed, in a sort of obvious, generalised way, but it was not really until 1982 that we began to open our eyes to the true dynamic character of the link between nature and our psyches, with the publication of Roger Ulrich’s celebrated paper in the journal Science, with its title of staggering banality and revolutionary implications: “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery”.
Ulrich was an American architect who specialised in hospital design, and in a hospital in Pennsylvania he discovered something uncanny: over a period of nine years, patients who underwent gall bladder surgery made substantially quicker and better recoveries if they had a natural view from their beds. Some of the windows of the hospital wing looked out on to a group of trees and some on to a brick wall, and those lucky enough to have the tree view, Ulrich found, recovered faster, spent less time in hospital, required fewer painkillers, had better evaluations from nurses and experienced fewer post-operative complications than those who only had the wall to look at. Contact with nature, even if only visual, clearly had a measurable effect on people’s wellbeing.
Ulrich’s paper is still not widely known by the public, but in highlighting the reality of our organic bond with nature, it seems more seminal with every year that passes. Research has mushroomed into the effects of exposure to the natural world on our physical and especially our mental health, and there is now a vast amount of literature. Such exposure is increasingly part of clinical practice, and a stream of books have borne witness to its effects, including Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness, The Natural Health Service by Isabel Hardman and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones.
What all these accounts have in common is the conviction that contact with the natural world reduces stress; and with the whole population confined to home, stress was one of the pandemic’s principal consequences. The level of stress depended on your circumstances: it was substantially harder to self-isolate in a small high-rise flat than in a mansion, for example, or to self-isolate with demanding children or abusive partners, or if you were on your own, without support networks. But for most people, there was some level of strain and anxiety brought about by the abrupt ending of normal social intercourse, and the very real fear of infection.
In these circumstances, people sought diversion in all sorts of ways, but many turned to nature. It is clear their numbers were substantial. Let us take just one, astonishing figure: the increase in page views for the webcams run by the 47 wildlife trusts across Britain. Many people enjoy watching wildlife via webcams, which often show surprising and intimate moments at the nest or in the burrow. In the period 23 March to 31 May 2019, there were 20,407 page views of the trusts’ webcams combined; but in the period from 23 March to 31 May 2020 there were 433,632 views, an increase of 2,024%. And it was in contemplating numbers such as these that it became clear what was important about the coronavirus spring – the fact that it was there. The natural world was available to us, even at such a traumatic time. It had not been thrown off course, it had not been knocked out by the pandemic, by this great world-historical event that was making 2020 a lost year in human affairs. At this time of chaos in the world of people, nature was a constant. The Covid-19 virus had wrecked, if only temporarily, so many human artefacts; it had stopped business, trade, travel, sport, education, entertainment and social gatherings of all kinds – but it hadn’t stopped the spring. In nature, 2020 was not a lost year. Just the opposite.
If you saw it like this, you suddenly saw once again the unique worth of the natural world, which produced us and shaped us, which holds our origins and which remains the true home of our psyches – as Ulrich began to discover – and which even today, when so many have turned their backs on it, gives us everything, from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat. You saw anew its fantastic power and resilience. You saw its infinite value. You saw the wonder of it. But you also saw its vulnerability, because the coronavirus spring produced vivid instances of battered parts of the natural world prospering once more, of natural processes resuming when pressure from the mammoth human enterprise was temporarily lessened across the globe. Fish returned to the canals of Venice, no longer churned up by tourist boats. In parts of northern India, the Himalayas became visible for the first time in 30 years as air pollution fell. Baby turtles made it safely to the water on Brazilian beaches empty of sunbathers, joggers and dogs. Wild boar and deer came back into car-free European cities; in Llandudno in north Wales, wild goats roamed the streets. Most notable of all, the world experienced a colossal (though strictly temporary) fall in the carbon dioxide emissions that are causing the most menacing of all our environmental problems, climate change.
So you can see the coronavirus spring, with its spectacular pause in human activity and its simultaneous flourishing of nature, as a great global reminder that we have nearly reached the point of no return in our destruction of the natural world. It is a historic moment. We are at a parting of the ways: one way, to continue as before; the other, to rebuild economies shattered by the pandemic differently, in a green way.
There are also lessons from the coronavirus spring closer to home. For in dealing with the consolation of nature, it is only right that we should ask: for whom was it available in Britain in 2020? For nearly everyone on social media, but for fewer of us in real life. Official figures state that only 17% of us live in the countyside and have access to nature, but this underestimates the importance of gardens, for example. According to a 2016 report on gardens and health from the King’s Fund, 87% of UK households have access to a garden, and a lot of nature can be observed there. However, that still leaves 13% of UK households garden-free. How many people in these households had access to green space?
We can make some rough guesses. The Ordnance Survey produces a Green Spaces Index, which suggests that there are 2.6 million people in the UK who do not live within a 10-minute walk of a green space or park, 10,579 of them in London (though some of these people will probably have access to gardens). Britain at present has no official policy on how much green space should be available for its citizens. So perhaps one of the first Covid-19 lessons to be learned by the government – indeed, by all governments – might be to adopt the idea put forward by the Green party’s Caroline Lucas, who suggested in her 2019 general election manifesto that no new housing development should be sanctioned more than one kilometre from a public park.
What other lessons can we learn, as we head into another season, with much of the country already in lockdown? Spring may be the most hopeful time of year, but it would be wrong to think that we cannot still be inspired by nature as we move into autumn and towards winter. Autumn has its arrivals here of lovely migrant birds such as the “winter thrushes”, the redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia, as well as spectacular, less common visitors such as waxwings and great grey shrikes; the great pageant of autumn fungi is just beginning on woodlands floors; and in the very depths of winter, at the turn of the year, the snowdrops will start to show. The natural world is there for us, even in pandemics, even in lockdowns; it is there to console and repair and recharge us, often unrecognised and unacknowledged, but still giving life to every one of us, regardless.
• The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren is published on 15 October by Hodder Studio.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Nature got us through lockdown. Here’s how it can get us through the next one