This Walden spring

Europeans have been lucky that the lockdown happened in their Spring. Three months ago, it would have been unrelieved darkness, cold, and frightening energy bills; three month later, we might have been baking in stifling rooms, desperate for fresh air (the 2003 heatwave caused 15,000 deaths in France alone, mostly among the elderly.) But it’s not just temperature, it’s the hope of new life – the spring flowers, the buds and then the leaves, the bees and the birds, and everywhere the green that has been the symbol of regeneration since human beings understood their absolute dependence on nature. As each day brings its parcel of grim news, the long history of nature has been, for many, a source of quiet hope. A friend in Paris, confined in a small flat, sends me photos from her walks through the lovely, empty city. Among them, it’s nature that catches her eye: hardy little flowers, new leaves, a solitary swan on the Seine. A few days ago it was yellow wagtail elegantly waiting on a railing.

Millions of similar images have been shared between friends and online – ducks waddling along pavements, wild boar in the streets of an Italian town, a kangaroo bouncing past closed shops in Melbourne. Some people have taken to chalking the names of plants on the street in what seems an act of recognition as much as education. My posts here have often been brightened by the spring flowers that I’ve watched blossom and fade, while birds, lizards, butterflies and squirrels have been the delightful, if unconscious companions of my solitude. Slowed almost to standstill, I’m paying attention to things I’ve taken for granted and it’s changing how I see. I’m well aware that my experience of the lockdown has been much easier than many people’s. Some of us have had time to think, while others have wanted only to catch their breath. Time has been both stretched and compressed, contributing to people’s hugely different experiences of these weeks.

I have lived here, home and away, my whole life. Insofar as I feel a sense of belonging, it’s in this left-behind part of rural France. I’ve watched the trees around the house grow from saplings into stately beings, and they have seen me grow from childhood, into manhood, into approaching old-age. I like knowing that they’ll be here after me, shading other children for decades, and that their timber will eventually warm still others in the distant winters. I love the natural world around me but lack the knowledge of farmers, foresters, naturalists and scientists. I look up the names of plants and birds, and then forget them. Largely immune to the florescence of literary nature writing of recent years, I felt that to be a flaw in my sensibility. I’ve taken nature for granted, until this year, until this Walden spring in which I’ve had to be still and pay attention to what’s around me. 

But we find what we look for. Where Henry Thoreau made his year in the woods a lesson in self-sufficiency, these weeks have strengthened my belief in the interdependence of all things. I’ve been safe here only because others have done harder and more dangerous things elsewhere, and humanity itself has survived only because of the natural world on which it depends and from which it cannot be separated. When we treat nature with poor knowledge and respect, we make ourselves vulnerable to new diseases, we destabilise the delicate environmental balance that has made humans the most successful – but not yet very long-lived – species the earth has yet produced. Sharing this place not with people but with animals and plants I begin to know the climate and environmental emergency differently. Something abstract and intellectual has become felt, understood in another way. As Bruno Latour says, we can learn, we can act differently.

A few days ago, I took my early walk in the birdsong and the rain. A bat followed part of the way, doubling back on itself to catch some last insects, before retiring for the day. The forest, so quiet at midday was a choir of birds, whose calls I can’t identify. Whatever comes next, I will try to remember their presence, even when I can’t hear them above the quad bikes and chainsaws. And not just remember, but act to protect them too.