Back in the days when we all still hurried oblivious through crowded city streets, the names chalked on the pavement must have been easily missed. But now a long-running campaign by rebel botanists across Europe to highlight overlooked nature in the city, scribbling names and plant details alongside a pretty weed growing through a wall or a tree spreading overhead, has unexpectedly found its niche.
Going for a walk is the only real freedom many have had for weeks, and with no particular place to go but out, there is finally time to notice nature creeping through the cracks: the birdsong no longer drowned out by traffic; the daffodils in front gardens giving way to frothy peonies; a fat supermoon hanging heavy on the night horizon.
Our relationship with the natural world is changing as this crisis strips away the layers between humans and the surroundings we used to be too busy to take in. The outdoors, once something glimpsed from a train window, has become somewhere to relieve the anxiety and sometimes let out the grief.
Out here in the countryside, lockdown has been perhaps a gentler experience than in the cities. But still the tangible signs of spring unfurling into lush, green summer have been one of the few things giving shape to these nebulous, anxious weeks. When everything else feels jangling and wrong, the sight of meadows turning yellow with buttercups, or the sweet-sour tang of elderflowers blooming in the hedgerows, confirms that at least something is unfolding roughly as it should.
I have stopped measuring time by useless empty calendars and started measuring it in the garden, where life goes on even when human clocks have stopped. The seeds planted in a fit of jittery displacement activity when lockdown started were green shoots by the time it was renewed, and are tall enough to go out in the vegetable patch now that the rules are on the verge of being renewed again. I suspect we’ll have eaten the tomatoes and courgettes long before it ends. Growing things makes me wonder who will bring a gardener’s mentality to this crisis, planting the seeds of ideas that will bear fruit in years to come.
One of the few things to emerge with any clarity from muddled government messages about the next phase is that the outdoors will become much more important to us, because that’s where the first signs of normal life will return. Talk of being allowed to sunbathe in parks, have picnics or go rambling may sound Enid Blyton-esque but outside may be the best place for the anxious to be, and not just in a pandemic. Research repeatedly shows that being close to the wild makes people feel healthier and happier.
It’s still not clear exactly how walking through woods or swimming in a river works, but, whatever the biological mechanism, millions swear by the soothing properties of being immersed in the natural world. And that which soothes or shields us is ultimately that which we want to protect.
This pandemic must surely lead to far greater scrutiny of the relationship between human health and the natural world, with scientists warning that deforestation and habitat destruction have driven wild animals into closer proximity with humans and helped novel viruses leap the species barrier. Such cavalier, short-sighted exploitation of our environment cannot carry on.
But closer to home, it should also stop us taking small British family farmers for granted, or imposing brutal forms of Brexit that leave nothing but the most industrialised agribusinesses standing. Farmers and food producers aren’t classed as key workers for nothing; when the supermarkets ran out of delivery slots for vulnerable people, in rural communities it was farm shops and vegetable-box schemes, flour mills and backyard chicken keepers who filled the gap.
Developers eyeing up once unloved parks and urban green spaces, meanwhile, can forget it. When this is over people will want more, not less, of the lungs that help cities breathe: more tree planting in urban streets and more room for allotments. City living isn’t dead – no matter how many Londoners have wistfully Googled “moving to the country” over the last few weeks – but must make room for people to live a little closer to nature than they currently do.
Right across the country, we should insist that new housebuilding schemes leave room for families to have proper gardens and grow food communally; schools, too, need wild places for children to play, not just asphalt and sports fields. It’s not about preparing for another pandemic so much as learning the lessons this one is teaching us about emotionally resilient lives. Research published this week by the University of Exeter, showing people who can get into a garden are healthier and happier than those who can’t, was conducted before anyone had heard of Covid-19 but it makes even more sense now.
Greens must still tread sensitively in response to this changing mood. Many people clearly take comfort from the idea that, with planes grounded and cars gathering dust, at least the planet can get a break from us. But if climate change campaigners are seen to be rejoicing too much in the accidental outcomes of a sad and terrifying time, they’ll lose sympathy. With thousands of airline workers losing their jobs, it will be a while before most people feel comfortable celebrating the decline of polluting industries.
What environmentalists can do, even at the peak of a crisis forcing us all to live our lives in miniature, however, is to think local. Willingness to see the global picture often begins in individual backyards. Campaigns to clear the oceans of plastic start with picking up rubbish on the beach. Encouraging wildflowers to grow on verges, as Rotherham council has been doing along an eight-mile stretch of road for years now, gets people thinking not only about the overuse of pesticides but about how to live with nature instead of constantly trying to overcome it.
And taking up gardening can bring some comfort in times of loss, helping us to accept the passage of time and begin to come to terms with the cycle of life, death and hope.
A garden is a reminder that there will always be a next summer, and hopefully a better one than this; but it’s also a way of leaving something behind, for those who may not have another summer in them. When the journalist Deborah Orr was dying she ordered hundreds of tulip bulbs, tweeting that she would have made a piece of spring even if she wasn’t around to see it. Life as we used to know it will not return for everyone. But we have time to plant something green and new in its place.
o Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist