by Tom Dando
It’s hard to steer clear of coronavirus and the bombardment of news, information and sobering statistics at home and abroad. However, more and more throughout this time, I’ve found myself tuning into the sounds and sights of the urban nature that lives around me, in a way that I can’t remember doing before.
Nature is something I’ve always made a point to go out and look for, this species or that habitat, a place to go and immerse myself. In these lockdown times, I’ve found myself grounded to my garden and (very luckily) my allotment. I’m lucky to be able to work on my PhD at home, and while it’s had some impacts on the timings of fieldwork I had planned for the summer and autumn, I’m thankfully at the stage where I can adapt and shift things around. My usual desk is a windowless and pretty soulless space in a building full of PhD students and postdocs, at home, however, while there are added distractions, my desk is my dining table that looks out over my little walled garden, and over the past months, I’ve watched as spring took a hold of it and life bloomed. I’ve watched the onset of summer turn it into an overgrown paradise, and now the autumnal colours have swept through. Throughout this time it took on a role of more than a garden but as my own and only patch of wild.
Despite often spending prolonged periods in the garden, only now have I realised just how much I take the enchanting species within it and the occasional visitors for granted. At the bottom of the garden is a large fuchsia which I pruned back just before all this began, it’s now a sea of green once more, with its delicate pink flowers hanging lazily. As well as its visual attraction and constant buzz from the bees, I’ve realised it’s also an essential stop-off point for my garden birdlife, sometimes to rest, sometimes to hide, sometimes to play, sometimes to feed, and often as a watchpoint, before approaching the bird feeders that sit in the middle of my little patch. Every day the resident pair of blackbirds go about their business, feeding and nest building, oblivious to my presence and tame, they jump under the table up to back door and between my legs and leave their chicks in the safety of our overgrown borders. Blue tits and great tits fly in with the exuberance and bounce of children at play, hopping around the walls, climbing the now enlivened clematis, perching on the thorned branch of the roses, over the arbour, onto the fence and back to the feeders again.
A pair of blackcaps were new residents this year, from February until April they appeared every day. Then there is the local pair of robins, the picture of a quaint English garden, ferocious at chasing away those they don’t consider welcome, but also a gardeners delight, hopping behind as new beds get dug and the soil turned over, the stalker of the wild boar, now turns to the gardener for an easy supply of worms and other fossorial insects. I am distracted and enchanted by a wren making a nest in the ivy-covered wall by my window, his vociferous call belies a bird of its size. Then there is the ground-dwelling dunnock, who despite his less flamboyant plumage, is nonetheless a favourite visitor of mine. Finally, the jackdaws and pigeons, before lockdown began I was less sure of how welcome these visitors were, but they’ve become part of my extended garden family. The jackdaws comically try and get at the seeds and fat balls in the feeder despite clearly being far too large, the mess they create has led to the unlikely bond between them and the pigeons, who are never far behind mopping up the debris as it falls to the garden floor. The sounds of all these birds along with the occasional song thrush, passing buzzard, the gulls and now the haunting autumnal call of a nearby tawny owl, have been the sound of my lockdown. Never have I been so Intune with their calls, never so aware of their presence and never so grateful to have these wild treasures to brighten up these dark days.
The other place I have turned to for inspiration and calm is my allotment, I am incredibly lucky to have an allotment to tend to, there are few things as cathartic and grounding as planting and tending to plants, the first potatoes of the year, the first flowers on the broad beans and the first of the newly sown wildflowers raising their heads to the sun. Followed later by a glut of courgettes, garlic, onions, and runner beans. There is something about digging beds and getting your fingers in the soil, encountering the magnificent network of roots, an ecosystem teeming with worms, centipedes, ants and a menagerie of life that binds you to that world. I find it mentally healing, something we have all needed in 2020
As well as growing the veg on and looking after it, the allotment has been where I have encountered my butterflies and bees. Early in lockdown, I finished reading Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, and purely by chance, I read it just as the sun and with it butterflies started emerging from their winter slumber. My joy at the first orange-tip, brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell, small white, holly blue and commas of the year, exacerbated as I read about them every night. Their reassuring presence at the allotment is a sign in these crazy times of some normality, better than that, beauty. The start of spring and the change into summer, the growing leaves, budding trees, the butterflies and the bees, in all of this madness, I feel like I’ve been part of the seasons, in full awareness of every beat the changing seasons bring. The emergence of buff and white-tailed bumblebees closely followed by carder bees, red-tailed bumblebees and nesting leaf-cutter bees at home and the allotment, provide a background buzz of comfort. The emergence of autumnal mushrooms and falling leaves. In these weird times, I’ve found my sense of belonging in nature once more.
On a walk through the woods during my daily exercise, I’ve come across roe deer and muntjac deer, unfazed by me and relishing the absence of us. By being forced to sit and stay at home I’ve been able to notice the little things and when I do get to venture out, it feels like a privilege not to be wasted. As I sit here at my table, watching pipistrelles meandering around the buildings and trees, I can’t help but wish that once this is all over, we can carry a small part of this world along with us, giving nature space to thrive and doing little more than paying attention
A footnote to this is that I keep thinking of accessibility to nature. I am blessed to have two parks a stone’s throw away, a wood a couple of minutes further, my garden and my allotment, these place I can withdraw and lose myself, reset. But for many there is little choice, a lack of even a small outside space at home and as a result of poor urban planning, very little to space to experience a life filled green space. Naturally, this is usually skewed towards those who have less access to other things, the poorer members of society, those from urban minority areas. I’ll leave sorting out coronavirus to the medical experts, but in my field, this has only highlighted the obvious disparity between the haves and have nots when it comes to access and connection to nature, at this time when it is most needed, too many have had far too little.