Relearning a lost language

IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?

It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.

And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.

We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.

Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.

For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).

We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.

It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:

I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.

Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor the scent of the earth after it has rained to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.

But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.

Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?

Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.

During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.

And the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.

When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.

Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.

Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.

But of course there’s no shortage of expertise to be found on the internet, from Butterfly Conservation or Woodland Trust to the British Beekeepers Association or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?

You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature. 

Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.

But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.

That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.

For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones was published in February 2020.

Listen to the buzz on the street

EARLIER than last year, the laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

LABURNUM

The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine, eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

With World Bee Day looming on May 20, those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

GOLDEN RAIN: The Laburnum Tree by artist Tim Baynes

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

Even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tends to haunt you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This post was updated from a blog entry originally posted in May 2019.