Both Sides of the Track

Lockdown is bringing people closer to nature.

I hear it a lot. Is it true? People are physically outside far more than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re developing empathy with our wild neighbours. What do people expect nature to be, anyway? After all, it’s not a themepark. It’s not a game, and animals and plants aren’t toys. Nature is exciting, fun, inspiring, unnerving and raw – written by rules much older than us.

Due to my village’s location in the Surrey Hills, I’ve had a front row seat as lockdown has propelled unprecedented crowds into the countryside. Many have been respectful of wild things; some most definitely have not. Visitors who ride bikes in ancient woodlands, gallop horses across wildflower meadows, pick rare flowers, drop litter, fly drones and light BBQs hurt the land, and cause real distress to local people who care for it.

So, I left the house very, very early yesterday, looking for nature as it’s meant to be.

Hillside path 19 May 20

What I found was this: wild strawberry, the sweetest, tiniest little thing.

Wild strawberry 19 May 20

Isn’t that one of the popular messages about nature – that it is good for us? We value it for clean air, working rivers, the ‘green gym’ and its health benefits. That defines ‘good’ as something with a physical or emotional impact. It goes without saying that these are of priceless importance. But there is more, I think.

A little further up the path, there was an altogether different fruiting bush.

Nightshade2 19 May 20

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Devil’s berries, they call its fruit – bright black buttons of death. In Britain, it likes chalky hills like mine, and clings to almost sheer hillsides, beautiful, garish and feared.

Nightshade3 19 May 20

It teaches us something that no strawberry can, lessons that might not be popular in this day and age: that reckless bravado has consequences, that education is better than guessing, that small choices – as small as swallowing a berry – can have major outcomes that are not always possible to put right.

Like volcanoes, like grizzlies, deadly nightshade reminds humanity that we have limits, and should handle life with a certain respect and care.

That is not a bad thing. It is the health in the poison.

20 thoughts on “Both Sides of the Track

  1. A beautifully written piece. Visitors to nature, some are just not used to it, they do not know how to react with nature or treat it well. Education can only be the key. Just lucky you, capturing those special nature moments in the Surrey hills. The wild strawberry, is n’t this a little early

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    1. Education is important and that’s something I put a lot of effort into. Many people have never had the chance to learn. Sadly, I also know from working with this issue in Canada that a fair proportion of offenders are fully aware of the rules, and have simply decided to ignore them. Some people throw their both moral compass and their common sense out the window when they go into non-urban places. Kind of a holiday syndrome. But treating nature recklessly can be fatal, whether that’s lakes in Surrey or glaciers in the Alps.

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      1. “…a fair proportion of offenders are fully aware of the rules, and have simply decided to ignore them.”

        Unfortunately, San and I are witnesses of that almost every day… I wrote an e-mail to Seymour Conservation Area three weeks ago about people deliberately walking dogs in No Dogs Area of Rice Lake trail and Fisherman’s trail, without leash and urging them to swim in lake. No answer. I don’t know what is worse, offenders who doesn’t care for breaking rules or officials who are supposed to enforce the rules but decide to do nothing at all.

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      2. I’ve been there with that too. I had all kinds of incidents in Nootka Sound where I urgently needed help and none was coming. As for the culprits themselves, yes, offering people education and appealing to their better nature can only go so far. Sometimes it seems modern culture wants to pretend that all people, deep down, are actually nice, misunderstood and caring. That is just not true.

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  2. I know exactly what you are talking about, Adele. We are the victims of these hordes in our neck of the woods. I’ve never seen so many rude, destructive, self-centered, non-caring, and ignorant people as the ones that are suddenly coming out in droves for their “health” walks.

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  3. I agree, Adele. It hurts me to see folks abuse nature, mostly from ignorance. That’s why I love nature programs for kids that foster love, understanding and conservation of this precious resource.
    I’ve never seen belladonna – a lovely flower – but pretty toxic!

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    1. Yes, and there’s also some really good education activities going on at nature reserves and some of the better schools. What worries me is an attitude in London (not all Londoners, but a certain proportion) that the countryside is a bit beneath them and wildlife is a worthless, scary inconvenience. Cool things are urban, artificial and subversive. Kids who grow up in that atmosphere are not going to turn into adults who treat the wild with kindness and respect.

      We’ve got an amazing variety of deadly flowers in the UK. We may not have cave lions on the prowl these days, but plants do their best to make up for that!

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  4. Adele, we also have been inundated with people who aren’t usually here! Good for them, but manners are important. Some that I see should be encouraged to make a pie from the Belladonna berries! Share it with their other irrisponsable friends!

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  5. So many people seem to regard “nature” as their playground and approach it with an air of entitlement. Sadly, the quote “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history” can perhaps be rephrased: “we learn from nature that we learn nothing from nature”. But it is interesting to think that those of us who cherry pick from nature only what we want might inadvertently pick the wrong berry …

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    1. I agree – the “I’ll do what I enjoy and that’s the end of it” attitude is the core of all this. Wilful uncaring is very hard to tackle by education. But nature can indeed be a harsh judge.

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    1. Thank you Belinda. Even in pre-covid days, this issue was on my mind as I visited busy wilderness areas like Banff and Yellowstone. I’ve seen a lot of people being highly responsible, but the percentage that aren’t – well yes, it’s a serious problem.

      Since I wrote this post, illegal BBQ parties have caused multiple wildfires in key wildlife habitat across the UK, killing some of our rarest species. I hope the culprits are caught and dealt with.

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