Hard times for us all. So many pressing concerns. Not least of these, for many of us, is the way in which our access to the natural world has suddenly become so constricted. Absence, it is said, makes the heart grow fonder. How true this seems now, regarding not just family and friends, but also all our cousins – however distant – in Earth’s great tree of life.
How constricted depends on our circumstances, of course. Some of you live close enough to St Nicks to visit it regularly still. At this time of year there is so much to see and hear: woodland birds coming into full voice, blackthorn blossom at its best, and – as one sharp-eyed Wildwatch volunteer spotted last week – signs that an otter continues to pass through.
Those of us who can’t make it to St Nicks for the time being can at least read the blogs about the wildlife to be seen here during spring, all written by volunteers and staff over the last few years. We can imagine the unmistakeable song of chiffchaffs, usually the first of Britain’s summer migrants to appear, the harsh rattle of magpies, or the blue flash of a kingfisher shooting over one of the becks. Likewise, we can picture in our minds the golden flowers of coltsfoot and lesser celandine, or the more delicate charm of cowslips. Bumblebees buzz and butterflies flutter above these flowers – almost every sunny day will see new species emerging from hibernation, such as brimstones and orange tips.
I miss all this; but I’m fortunate that, at the time of writing, I can take a daily walk around my “local patch”, Acomb Wood, and observe comparable biodiversity. Never before have I enjoyed this place so much, or taken so many photos of its wildlife.
Others of you, I’m sure, will be taking similar pleasure from your own encounters with nature close to your homes. York is blessed with an abundance of varied green spaces. And even in the city centre there are plenty of little plants to see, thriving in pavement cracks and on old walls (no lack of these in Old York).
For many others of you, I realize, your garden is the only green space available right now. But, given a helping hand, some of the birds common at St Nicks can turn up at the bird feeder of even the smallest backyard: blue and great tits, robins, blackbirds, goldfinches, and more. Doing a bit of wildlife-friendly gardening can work wonders, whether it’s creating a miniature version of St Nicks’ wildflower meadow, digging a pond, or making a bug hotel. Familiar insects such as ladybirds and dragonflies will benefit, as will less familiar ones like hoverflies and shieldbugs. A pile of rotting wood or a compost heap can support such underappreciated, but fascinating, beasties as woodlice, centipedes and springtails. Even just not mowing the lawn so often can produce results, as a video just created for the “Discover Nature” Ecotherapy group at St Nicks shows.
Some people – like me – live in flats. Not all can get outside every day as I can – for the time being, anyway. Even if lockdown restrictions become more severe, there are various nature-related pet projects to keep myself busy with indoors. My kitchen windowsill has been repurposed as a plant nursery: I’m propagating some wild clematis from seed that I gathered down south. (By the way, the spider plant is an offspring of the one in the St Nicks lobby). Meanwhile, in my living room/artist’s studio/research lab, I’ve been having a go at creatively identifying the dead poplar leaves that I’d picked up in Acomb Wood.
I can hear a starling pipe away outside as I write – a heartening music, if always somehow a comical one. Across the way a birch tree slowly unfurls its leaves. And in coming weeks I’ve got house martins and swifts to look forward to: still in Africa now, it won’t be long before these will be ripping through the air above my home. Such little things can console, or at least distract.
And then there’s the internet, naturally. Not to mention books, and art, and music as ways of keeping in touch with the living world around us. The “natural resources” available to us here are immense – and are both sustaining and sustainable. Whether we wish to improve our wildlife ID-skills, find material to home-school the kids with, or just want to relax in an imagined nature – there’s so much to enjoy, if only virtually.
David Attenborough puts things nicely, in the (necessarily online) current edition of Big Issue: “In times of crisis, the natural world is a source of both joy and solace. The natural world produces the comfort that can come from nothing else. And we are part of the natural world. If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.”
Yes indeed, Sir David. In varying ways, present circumstances are isolating, estranging us all from nature – even more so than usual. After the pandemic, when things get better for us humans, let’s try to make them better for all the other creatures we share our planet with. We need one another.
written by Sean Garvey, Acomb, 31 March 2020
All photos were taken by the author, except for the shieldbug collage taken by Cliff at St Nicks. Amongst many other amazing things he does, Sean regularly volunteers with St Nicks Wildwatch and has a Twitter page that is well worth following for great nature pictures and nature-inspired poems.