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Coronavirus: How nature could help us spring back from it all

Embracing views like this one will help us power through coronavirus at a time when everything else is forbidden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

The coincidence of the coronavirus arriving at the changing of the seasons seems like a cruel twist. In fact, says SIMON BARNES, it could help us all spring back from this.

A bright day with dark thoughts. The buds had burst on the big ash tree, chiffchaffs, the first migrant birds to arrive in this country, were singing out as if everything was normal for mid-March, and on the wet grass a single drop of dew was shining, by some complex freak of refraction, a hundred times more brightly than any other.

And I was debating. That damn virus, of course. Is it important that I go to London to visit my father, who’s in his 90s? Or is it important that I don’t? There didn’t seem to an easy answer. On this patch of marsh near my house in Norfolk, nature was in a terrifically good mood. I could almost convince myself that it was mocking my concerns.

A fat bumblebee queen was bumbling about in her fur-coat, abandoning her winter slumbers to prospect for a nest site for the first generation of spring. The idea that she hadn’t a care in the world was tempting, but of course, she was involved in matters of life and death, just like the rest of us.

If the weather turns and a hard frost takes a grip, she will die and her life will have been in vain, her attempt to become an ancestor foiled.

It seems odd that the coronavirus outbreak has happened in spring, the season of hope. Winter is the traditional time of death, the time when the vulnerable succumb. In the darkest days of the year, we understand the connection between light and life and long for the times when there is more of both.

But now we are almost through to the equinox: the pivotal moment when day and night are of equal length all over the world. After that, for us in the north, they days will stretch out until night is a brief flicker of darkness: in the north of Scotland with the Summer Dim, there are midsummer days when it doesn’t get dark at all in any exacting sense of the term.

Spring should be a time of relief at the end of the darkness of winter, days newly filled with hope for better times. But it seems that the hope, or at least some of it, has been capriciously whisked away by the virus: and that seems horribly unfair.

The same sort of thing happened on a much bigger scale in 1918, when the end of the First World War – ‘après la guerre, there’ll be a good time everywhere’ – coincided with another pandemic. ‘I opened the window and influenza’, ran a black joke of the time; 50 million people died worldwide, a quarter of a million in Britain.

What we have now is pretty terrible, but just how terrible it is on the scale of terrible things that have happened to humanity, it is hard to assess right now.

News media are not in the business of minimising disaster, and responsible health organisation daren’t be seen to be taking things too lightly. So far, I think we can say that it’s tough, but not as bad as the First World War, nor the pandemic that followed it. And not as bad as, say, the Black Death, the plague in the 14th century that killed – estimates vary wildly – perhaps 200 million people.

The seriousness of the current situation was made clear when they cancelled sport. For those of us with a taste for the stuff, sport is a routine treat that lets us off the normal cares of life for a while. In sport’s glorious trivialities we can briefly set aside the pain and frustration that trouble every human being that ever lived.

But now we can’t. We can’t forget depressing news by watching Manchester City’s brittle brilliance; we’ll have to wait a while before they try to finish off Real Madrid. We must cope without reaching for the remote control to see if Liverpool will get over their sudden stutter.

I was hoping to see if the England rugby team might acquire that elusive thing called consistency; I wanted to see how the England Test cricketers would manage against spin in Sri Lanka. But it’s no good: sport has gone dark.

No doubt that’s a good thing in the attempt to halt the spread of the damn virus; and certainly nothing has given us so strong a message about taking it all with proper seriousness.

So now, basically, we can’t go out, we can’t stay in and watch sport, and the more we stay in the more likely we are to go nuts. It’s not just physical health that suffers in these times of crisis. We need to wash our hands a lot; we also take precautions to keep our minds fresh and healthy.

Just about the only thing that we have not been advised against is going out for a nice walk and sitting down for a few moments in a nice place. So perhaps we should all take advantage of this. The concert’s off, the big match is off, the pub is off – but outdoors, nature is keeping calm and carrying on.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. The last thing nature is doing is keeping calm, for this is the maddest time of the year. Human lives may be circumscribed right now, but out in the wild places everything is happening without constraint. The race to become an ancestor is currently revving up to its peak.

We are losing nature, and we are doing so in two ways. First, we are destroying it. But second, we are forgetting about it. We are losing the part of ourselves that responds to nature: too busy, too many screens to look at, too many other things to distract.

But we can take advantage of the current crisis by making a conscious effort to bring nature back into our lives: by going out to our parks, commons, gardens and city wildlife reserves – and beyond the city where there’s a great deal more. It’s there waiting: and the action is hotting up.

So here’s a suggestion: try something that in normal times you would never get round to. It’s something that I have called the Bottomless Sit. Useful tip: always carry a supermarket plastic bag in a pocket or bag: now you can sit dry-bummed anywhere you choose.

So sit. Sit for just a few minutes in a nice place and you will have your reward. No, don’t check your phone. Look at the new leaves. Feel the breeze. Listen. You might hear a bird that sings a phrase, repeats it two or three times, and then turns to another phrase: that’s a song thrush. You might hear a bird that whistles like a man with his hands in his pockets: that’s a blackbird.

You can feel the heat of the sun on the good days; you can feel the equally life-giving wetness of the rain on others, when your bottomless sit might be a little shorter. But you will feel the spring: you will be a part of the urgency of the life-making all around.

A sit like this is not the end to all evil, but contact with the wild world makes our human concerns that bit easier to deal with. It’s not about philosophy: it’s about the mysterious sense of good cheer that comes from association with nature.

Last weekend I was speaking at a meeting; the good people there were objecting to a deranged project to build an enormous nuclear power station right next-door to the most important nature reserve in Britain. I tried to get out of it, but an old friend put me in armlock.

So there we all were, a small gathering, trying to greet fulsomely but without physical contact and of course, discussing the current crisis. Then it was time to do my stuff: I began by pointing out that there are 40 million fewer birds in the UK than there were in 1970. Biodiversity is what gives life on earth is resilience: we are in the midst of a crisis of extinction brought about by the actions of humans. And then climate: Sir David Attenborough said that climate change is the biggest crisis that humanity has ever faced: yes, bigger than the First World War, bigger than the Black Death.

And yet our response has been to set targets and fail to meet them, or in some cases to ignore them altogether. This is a vast global crisis that has been building up over the course of the last century and it’s entering the acute stage. I am not minimising the problem of coronavirus, but it is on a different scale to environmental holocaust.

All the same, the virus business shows us that when it comes to a crisis we can change the way we live and the way we think, and do so at short notice. If we could bring the same level of concern and action to the much greater crisis that threatens all life on earth, then we would be doing the right thing.

In the meantime, as we cope with the real and immediate problems of the virus, we must seek balance. We can put the current problem in the context of much greater problems, and then we can turn to nature to ease our minds.

We can’t kiss each other or hug or shake hands, we can’t watch football – but we can still listen to the birds. As I sat on the marsh I heard a buzzard yowl overhead, and a sharp call from a great spotted woodpecker. I saw a hare move away unhurriedly in the classic hare’s lollop. One day this week I’ll get up at dawn and go to the place by the big oak where I can watch the March hares. In their madness lies the sanity we all need.

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