It’s likely that we will all be spending time in our local areas for the foreseeable future and taking our holidays in our home countries rather than abroad. Could we bring to these experiences the same kind of curiosity we might feel when visiting a different city or landscape? Is it possible to find dynamism and novelty in our parks, streets and woodlands?
During lockdown, I’ve come to know my nearest green spaces – my favourite a wild but urban cemetery – more deeply and gratefully. Instead of becoming bored, as I imagined I might, I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.
Our lives are made from the things we pay attention to. Slowing down and observing – these are radical things to do in our accelerated age. It is only by being in lockdown that I have seen new treasures that I’d previously have overlooked: the bright pink cones of the larch tree, blankets of blue speedwell, neon red velvet mites. The more we pay attention, the more we see.
The senses can help us notice more. I have heard a cuckoo twice this last week for the first time since childhood, in two different spots. It must be a combination of fewer aircraft and cars, and a craving and alertness for as much life as possible during that precious time outside.
A rainy day will put a lot of people off a walk – though it often looks worse from the inside and woods look more beautiful when wet – but the smell of petrichor, the scent of the earth after it has rained, is worth seeking. It has been found to activate brain waves associated with calmness and relaxation.
Sometimes I choose one element to focus on. It might be different shades of green, leaf shapes, the colours of stalks, lichen, tiny things, an abundance of things, things becoming other things. Every day there is a new “fellow” to look for, as my three-year-old puts it. In Hampshire, where I am, it might be swifts, mayflies, damselflies, speckled wood butterflies, slow worms, beetles, caterpillars. People are heterogeneous. You might love fungi; I might love spiders. Find what you like.
If you’re sheltering inside, houseplants, bird feeders outside a window, or a view of sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree (the Japanese word for this is komorebi) can be therapeutic – and suggests that in resilient and fair societies everyone should be able to see nature from their windows, especially those without gardens.
We have lost our connection with the rest of the living world that we are part of. The vast majority of us can’t recognise the leaves of an oak tree.(I’ve been finding the plant identification app Picture This very useful in learning the names of plants and trees during lockdown). Around 80% of adults never, or infrequently, smell wild flowers. More than 60% don’t listen to birdsong (the statistics are higher for children). But now, many of us are spending more time in the natural world than ever before, and our environments may be as new and undiscovered as a holiday destination on the other side of the world.
Over the last number of years I’ve spent writing Losing Eden, a book about nature and mental health, I’ve seen how crucial a connection with the living world is for our minds – and, on the flipside, that building eco-alienated human habitats and societies, where people have little access to nature, is unfair and a public health disaster. In recent years, psychologists are revealing the importance of noticing “nearby nature” and connecting with the living world for our wellbeing rather than simply spending time outdoors. Noticing nature is linked to pro-environmental behaviour. If we feel a kinship, we are more likely to seek a reciprocal relationship with other beings.
The evidence that contact with nature – even a view out of a window – can enhance healing continues to grow. Nature might even be a balm for those dealing with loss and loneliness. At an ecotherapy group I attended while researching my book, a man shared how methodically noticing the plants on a daily walk helped him grieve. Many of us are frightened, bored, or missing loved ones, and watching spring unfurl can be a healthy kind of escapism. When the news feels overwhelming, the rhythms and patterns outside can be a steadying arm: the swifts returning, the tightly orchestrated symphony of wildflowers, the trees filling out.
I’ve been noticing nature for a while, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Each season I’m surprised by new sights, which become familiar moments the following year, joined by other new happenings, layering upon each other. I think moving into a new kind of consciousness – a “plant consciousness”, as Richard Powers puts it – could be a lifelong journey, and a good one.
You can find the wild near your home. You can find your place in the family of things, to use the poet Mary Oliver’s phrase. There is magic in the seemingly mundane. If you want more, you can find more. And it’s free.
o Lucy Jones is a journalist and the author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild