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Five months ago, at the end of April, I wrote here about my reactions to the early stages of Covid and lockdown. From where we are now, that time seems almost like an age of innocence. The weather was perfect, the countryside silent, the atmosphere dreamlike. And yet … there was something profoundly strange and unsettling in that glimpse of paradise.
Now summer has gone. The geese are back. The bracken is on the turn, and the first frost whitened the lawn a couple of days ago. The turn of the seasons seems to me one of the very few certainties we can cling to as we face the current concatenation of crises: disease, authoritarianism and environmental catastrophe.
There is solace in nature, and medicine for body and soul. Even when the planet itself is under threat we can still find reassurance in its rhythms, comfort in its beauty. A week walking in the Highlands, last week, was a timely reminder of how vital that connection is to our wellbeing. We need ask nothing of nature. It simply gives—so long as we allow it to, so long as we open ourselves to it.
But if we distance ourselves from it—and more than half of all humanity now lives in cities; or worse still, disrespect it—and we know that the destruction of the natural world encourages the spread of just such diseases as Covid-19; if we do these things, we not only deny a deep and ancient human need, a source of spiritual wellbeing, but also endanger in a very real way the health of our species, and thereby perhaps also enable the moral vacuum in which fascism and other forms of authoritarianism can flourish.
It is harder to fight these things when one is suffering from their effects. And yet, paradoxically, we can feel connections even more strongly at times of peril. Take the hedgehog and brown hare, the nightingale and turtle dove. These are familiar enough names to most people, perhaps even from the stories or songs of childhood. Yet they may soon be gone. They are among the many creatures on the list of currently endangered species native to the British Isles.
26 Wild, a recent project by the writers’ collective, 26, in collaboration with The Wildlife Trusts, features short poems about 52 of these endangered species, plus four from further afield. In all, 56 writers were randomly paired with a species and each invited to write 100 words about their given animal, bird, insect, fish or reptile.
The resulting poems and short background essays, along with accompanying photographs, are a cri de coeur, a beautiful and moving reminder of the part these creatures play in maintaining the fragile balance of our natural ecosystem, and of how impoverished we would be by their losses. As a metaphor for the peril we ourselves face, little could be more powerful.
Connection with the natural world was also a feature of last night’s The Stories We Tell check-in. We began running these regular, free, one-hour online get-togethers earlier in the summer, as a way for people to stay connected during lockdown. Now we run them every alternate Wednesday. Anyone is welcome to join us for an hour of reflection and sharing of experiences (see below).
Among the stories we heard last night was one of a small choir coming together to sing, socially distanced, on a beach, in joyful release following weeks of lockdown and online rehearsal. And one of a moment in a garden, when the uncharacteristic impulse to lie down on the ground led to a transcendent encounter with a silent, empty, perfectly blue sky.
When I listen to the stories of other people’s experiences, however small and seemingly insignificant, I have found time and again that if they are shared honestly and thoughtfully, I receive a certain energy, a warming of the heart and lifting of the spirit. This is the gift of human connection, and I believe it is given not only to the listener but also to the teller by the fact of being witnessed or properly heard.
These are things to hang onto in these uncertain days. Find hope and joy and inner connection in the natural world. Then tell people about it. Share your story with others. It may not change things, but it will help you find the strength to withstand them.
If you would like to come along to one of our free, fortnightly The Stories We Tell check-ins, email us here.