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.

Light and Dark

Ray of hope

The world is changing. Flowers are opening and birds are singing.

But no, the world is changing. Daily. The relative normality of my last post feels far away. I am certain that no one wants to hear more about coronavirus but I do have a thought and a challenge – then back to wildlife, I promise.

The thought: viruses spread fast, but information and disinformation have never spread faster. Science travels cautiously, but for certain sure, it tells us that this virus is not a laboratory product. Coronaviruses are typically hosted by bats, and SARS showed that they can jump into people via trade in wildlife; palm civets in that case, but there is some evidence that the critically endangered Malayan pangolin was the unwilling bridge for Covid-19. Or maybe it was turtles.

Truth matters. Whatever the origin of this particular virus – from the wildlife trade or not – there can be no more tolerance for criminals exploiting wildlife, anywhere in the world, for whatever motive. As this Chinese conservation group explains, ‘traditional medicine’ sometimes isn’t even traditional, not that market demand for pangolin scales and tiger bones is the only problem; the UK recently convicted an individual who illegally smuggled eels worth £53 million, and incredulously he didn’t even get a jail sentence.

Enough is enough. If novel diseases and a global extinction crisis aren’t sufficient for the entire planet to take wildlife trafficking seriously, perhaps we should at least remember the hundreds of brave rangers who have been murdered by the poachers who supply these criminal syndicates.

Let’s keep an eye on the science and keep informed.

The challenge: last week I was travelling in northern England, as I often do, or did before non-essential travel was stopped, when I woke up one morning to a window overlooking the Royal Border Bridge. It is hard enough to believe that the Victorians built this giddying viaduct with the technology available in the 1840s. But we have forgotten, perhaps, that the workers’ thoughts must have sometimes drifted to the global cholera pandemic then raging, not to mention smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. Some may even have known that southern Europe had recently experienced several waves of plague.

IMG_1077

I’m not, of course, suggesting that we fight coronavirus with viaducts. For almost all of us, the heroic thing in this war is staying home, as I now am like millions of others. But I do like the idea that a pandemic cannot stop us doing amazing things.

This is the only version of 2020 that we’re getting, so let’s make the most of it even while we stay in our houses. Read books, write books, play music, learn a language, study history, look out the window and watch some birds. Learn the stars, listen to foxes and owls, watch butterflies visit a flower-filled windowbox. Find creative ways to protect and help the most vulnerable. Build links and friendships. Remember to pray and breathe.

The world is still there. Let’s use this time to learn how to appreciate it – and each other – more wisely.

And keep faith that the light will be given back to us.

Luna 29 Feb 20