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.

Planting hope for the future

IT WAS disappearing birdsong which was to change the life of Chilterns artist Sue Graham and her family.

Many of her paintings are inspired by the local landscape and a series of her oil paintings which she started more than 10 years ago reflected her love of the dawn chorus.

But the painter could hardly have foreseen quite how that project would ultimately lead her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.

LOCAL LANDSCAPES: Sue in her home studio in Buckinghamshire

“When I started doing the Dawn Chorus paintings around 2008, there was a piercing resonance to the sounds I heard in my garden at four in the morning,” Sue recalls. “But even in the short time we have lived here there are fewer birds singing. That’s happening all over the place.”

What was obvious to Sue in her garden at Prestwood near Great Missenden was soon hitting the national headlines.

A survey in 2013 showed that in some cases the decline was dramatic and worrying. The sounds of the cuckoo, nightingale and turtle dove are enshrined in British folklore, yet populations of both summer migrants and many resident species have dropped in recent years.

CAUGHT ON CANVAS: Sue Graham’s painting And Birds Were Singing, To Calm Us Down

The scale of the problem had soon become apparent after the family moved back from America in 2002. “We always enjoyed the outdoors, but if you go out walking there’s always something missing,” she says. “None of the ground-nesting birds are there any more.”

The missing songbirds featured in a vivid series of paintings, but aside from inspiring her art, environmental worries were beginning to play a bigger part in the lives of the artist and her research scientist husband Gabriel Waksman – a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology whose work had taken them to New York and Missouri.

FEATHERED FRIENDS: Sue’s painting Dawn Chorus

By 2016, with the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it seemed as if things were coming to a head.

Husband Gabriel was only too well aware that in almost 30 years as an academic and scientist, he had clocked up thousands of air miles travelling to international conferences, seminars and lectures at foreign institutions.

Many scientists and academics are increasingly worried about the environmental cost of such international travel – but Gabriel wanted to do something practical about it.

If travelling to conferences must remain part of a scientist’s life, what might be the best way to offset the carbon that will inevitably be released? The answer, it seemed to him, was to find a way that scientists, academics and others worried about the environment could offset their carbon emissions by planting trees in groves.

FRESH GROWTH: planting trees can help offset carbon emissions

In 2016, he teamed up with a couple of friends and the charity All Things Small and Green was born.

Writing in Nature magazine in February 2020, he explained: “Governmental action will be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, but individual responsibility has a major part to play.”

His charity allows air travellers to calculate their carbon emissions and work out how many native trees they need to plant to offset those, using a simple formula. The trees can then be planted in groves set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands.

With more than 40 planting sites, the charity has overseen the planting of almost two million trees, growing thousands in its tree nursery and creating acres of new forest.

“I was especially drawn to native tree planting,” says Gabriel. “Carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I liked the idea of coupling carbon fixing with reconnecting to a wonder of nature such as a native woodland.”

CALL OF THE WILD: Gabriel officially launched his tree planting charity in 2019

Companies and universities can ask for groves to be set up for them – and he has also been in touch with partners in Spain and France to explore ways of allowing localised groves to be planted in other European locations.

The latest project is a grove which will allow French scientists, academics, and researchers to offset their carbon emissions by planting native trees closer to home.

“It is important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we work with are native,” he explains. “Native afforestation and reforestation increase biodiversity and restore degraded ecosystems. By contrast, monoculture conifer plantations — wrongly favoured by some governments — destroy biodiversity and damage natural ecosystems.”

The tree planting mission didn’t stop with the charity though. Sue found herself equally inspired by the need to do something more for the planet – particularly as the mother to two sons in their 20s.

“It was time to think about the legacy of what we leave and the only thing that would make us feel slightly better about putting two extra people on the planet,” she says.

The outcome was their dramatic decision to purchase a croft on the remote Scottish island of Gigha, with the aim of launching their own family rewilding project.

The 13-acre croft was once home to an old oat mill, although that is not habitable at the moment.

REWILDING PROJECT: the croft on Gigha

With their two sons working in Scotland, it might not have seemed so crazy to look at buying land in the area – but by any standards the croft is remote, Sue admits, although the location is picturesque too, looking out of the nearby island of Jura.

The island – with a population of under 200 – lies west of Glasgow off the coast of the Kintyre peninsula, accessed by ferry from Tayinloan, a small village about midway between Tarbert and Campbeltown.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the view towards Jura

“You think, ‘How much time have I got left?’ and of course it was always a project we should have started 20 years ago,” Sue admits.

But that didn’t stop them going ahead with the plan – and in November 2019 the first phase of their mission involved planting some 1300 trees on a three-acre site on the island.

“Planting trees is the best thing we can do for the future,” Sue insists.  “I know it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon capture, but I needed to sleep better at night.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: the first wave of planting

It’s an enthusiasm her husband shares – although the project is separate from his charity activities: “Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy,” he says.

“This is also one of the most selfless activities I have taken part in. A native woodland takes decades to come to maturity, so the results of my tree planting will hopefully be enjoyed by people much younger than me.”

The tiny saplings were selected with the help of the Woodland Trust to ensure they were best suited to the island’s soil and climate – a mixture of hazel, willow, birch, alder, oak and rowan.

LONELY LOCATION: the Gigha shoreline

“It gives us the opportunity in a very beautiful location to do something for the planet that we need to do for our psychological well-being,” says Sue, a self-taught artist with a degree in modern languages from Oxford University who loves walking, gardening, wildlife and cooking, as well as painting.

“I can barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting. I have had various other ‘real’ jobs but somehow my heart was never in them,” she says. “Somebody once asked me to reflect on why it is that I paint: the question has sat with me for years but I think the answer is this: to communicate feelings and ideas and to be accepted for who I am.”

Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks which have forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year while she undergoes cancer treatment.

HIGH HOPES: Sue in her Buckinghamshire garden

But she remains unfailingly optimistic and determined about the island project and the prospects for their thousands of saplings, planted with such enthusiasm by the five-strong family team with two staff members and volunteers from the Woodland Trust.

With fertile soil and good climate – and friends on the islands keeping an eye on things – there’s every reason to hope the project will boost local biodiversity over the next couple of years.

Says Sue: “I was more afraid of looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking that we couldn’t do it.”

It’s also a welcome escape from health concerns and the challenges posed by chemotherapy.

“It’s going to be really interesting – and it’s nice to be able to think about something positive and lovely,” she says.

For more information about the charity, see All Things Small And Green, which has links to their Instagram and Facebook pages.

Dame Judi’s love affair with trees

VETERAN actress Judi Dench is full of surprises.

Last Christmas, one of the more unexpected revelations about the woman who played MI6 chief M in seven James Bond films spread over 20 years was the discovery of her lifelong love affair with trees, chronicled in a special BBC documentary screened shortly after her 83rd birthday.

JUDI DENCH

If you missed the programme’s original screening, there’s another chance this year to catch up with her one-hour tribute to all things aboreal, in the shape of Atlantic Productions’ documentary, Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees.

Much of the filming takes place in her own “backyard” in Surrey, but then this is no ordinary garden, but a six-acre memorial forest dedicated to loved ones in her life who have died.

“I started planting trees here with my actor husband Michael Williams,” she explains. “Every time a relative or friend died, we would plant a tree.”

In other words, this is quite an emotional journey. As Fiona Sturges summed up in her Guardian review in 2017: “Judi looks at trees in the same way that other people look at vintage sports cars or newborn babies: benevolent, indulgent, endlessly astonished.”

But for nature lovers this is a marriage made in heaven, with one of our most beloved national treasures expounding on a subject which has her wide-eyed in admiration.

Shakespeare (another of her great loves) features prominently as we stroll with Dame Judi through the beautiful woodland which surrounds her home and where she has planted trees to commemorate family members and actor friends who have passed away.

We uncover a civil war-era cannon ball found wedged into a 1,500-year-old yew tree, learn how beech trees use tannin to deter roe deer and find out how trees can even summon ladybirds to fight off invading aphids.

It’s an engaging journey and a delight to spend a little time “backstage” with a living legend, picking up a host of intriguing titbits about the secret life of trees along the way.