The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus. Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott, and Peter Marren. 2020. London, United Kingdom: Hodder Studio.
“Everything is the same, but nothing is the same.” (p. 16)
When it became apparent by early March of 2020 that the coronavirus pandemic was going to change everything, how did it affect your birding? That sounds like a ridiculous question, and it should. How could you possibly think about chasing birds when businesses were closing down, when going to a grocery store became an expedition that needed advanced planning, and the economy was heading to the Antipodes? Suddenly the schools closed, and the kids were at home, and you had to learn how to Zoom, a word you had never heard used that way until the pandemic. Quickly, the hospitalizations and death tolls began to rise alarmingly, and the refrigerator trucks filled with bodies were on the national news. Hospitals were overloaded with patients needing extreme care, and there were not enough respirators. Doctors and nurses were overtaxed and understaffed. The dying were unable to be comforted by loved ones and passed on horribly alone. It was obvious that this was no typical flu. It was starting to feel like a medieval European plague. All our lives were thrown into a strange reality where social distancing and wearing masks became a way of hopefully staying alive. We washed our hands like germophobes, which is what we all became. Our national government sent out confusing messages telling us everything would be back to normal by Easter. But disease experts were telling us maybe by the end of summer, if we all did the right things, then maybe we could start to return to normal. When wearing a mask became a political issue, a palpable feeling of dread became the norm. Here in Massachusetts, we were supposed to minimize our time outside of our homes.
How did birders react to these restrictions? Apparently, nothing stops us from chasing birds. Speaking for myself, I ended up craving some time outside just to escape the claustrophobic shelter that my home had become. I also needed to escape the endless alarming news reports. I longed for the comfort of nature. It was less about birds and more about keeping my sanity. I laid down some rules to minimize the impact of being outside. I would stay within the county, making it less probable I would bump into anybody. I would avoid any place that had people, even if it was only a single person. This means that my wife Sheila and I stuck to remote dirt roads in wooded areas. I would not chase birds, because any rarity meant there would be a crowd. People, non-birders who also needed to just get out, began to flock to parks and other green spaces. This meant that some popular birding areas became crowded and therefore off-limits to me. All the time I kept a low profile. I have to admit I felt guilty enjoying spring migration while many others were suffering. But I did consider it a personal health issue.
Apparently many other birders were doing the same, as bird reports were listed on all the usual websites as if nothing unusual was going on. Many birders were still ticking rarities, hopefully socially distancing and wearing masks. Sheila and I, like so many others, began to feel cut off from the birding community at large, as we were cut off from our children and grandchildren. As the pandemic spread, spring migration unfolded like any normal year. “The Covid-19 virus had wrecked, if only temporarily, so many human artifacts; it had stopped business, trade, travel, sport, education, entertainment and social gatherings of all kinds—but it hadn’t stopped the spring.” (p. 9)
The Consolation of Nature perfectly captures this cognitive dissonance of deeply enjoying spring while the rest of humanity floundered. Three of Britain’s top natural historians decided to keep a journal of that unique Covid spring. Michael McCarthy is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. Jeremy Mynott is a well-known historian who has written books like Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience (2009 Princeton University Press). Peter Marren is the author of over 20 books on natural history, the countryside, the military, and entomological history. These three authors of The Consolation of Nature recognized the uniqueness of this Covid spring and decided to keep a running journal of what it was like to enjoy spring while Britain wrestled with how to deal with the deadly pandemic.
If there was one mitigating circumstance about the coronavirus pandemic that hit Britain and most of the world in 2020, killing thousands of people, imprisoning millions more in their own homes and devastating national economies, it was that the virus struck in the early part of the year. It hit when the world, at least in the northern hemisphere, was entering springtime. (p. 1)
And it wasn’t just any spring either: “It was in Britain, the loveliest spring in living memory.” (p. 1) This point is mentioned by all the authors. The weather that spring was near perfect. “You almost felt that nature should have switched off out of sympathy. Yet nature went blithely forward, as nature has always done.” (p. 4)
The Covid restrictions placed on the British people were stricter than here in the States. That spring, people were allowed one walk a day outside their homes for exercise purposes. There was no birding by car; you had to hoof it. That meant that each author was left exploring their “home patch.”
This tradition of exploring the small green spaces within walking distance of your home has a long tradition in Britain. Legendary natural historian Gilbert White explored his home patch for years and carefully noted the changing of the plants and birds with the seasons. He wrote the classic The Natural History of Selbourne in 1789. Published originally by his brother Benjamin, it has been in print since then. The concept of “your home patch” is still important in British birding culture. Even today, there is an occasional column in British Birds titled “My Patch” in which different authors detail the birds found in their nearby locations. Jeremy Mynott quotes “our patron saint” Gilbert White: “Men that only undertake one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with.” (p. 192) Local patches can lead to interesting discoveries.
Michael McCarthy lives in London, and his home patch was to include the wonderful Kew Botanic Gardens. But soon the Gardens were closed as part of the tightening British Covid restrictions, and therefore ended his access to this choice spot. McCarthy was left exploring smaller urban green patches and even discovered a small woods hitherto unknown to him.
Jeremy Mynott’s patch was in West Sussex between the villages of Little Thurlow and Great Thurlow. Here there is a small river and a number of footpaths.
Peter Marren’s home patch was in the Wiltshire village of Ramsbury and included a valley of the River Kennet and the North Wessex Downs.
As they ventured out, the personal value of their daily walks soon became obvious. Michael McCarthy writes: “What we all three could see, initially, was solace: it was clear that nature at its loveliest and most inspiring, in springtime’s wondrous transformations, could offer people comfort at a moment of tragedy and great stress.” (p. 5)
The other aspect of experiencing nature in the time of Covid was that, for the first time in their memory, it was atypically quiet. The constant human made din had been turned way down. As Peter Marren described it:
The strangeness of the situation takes a while to sink in. It has never been this quiet, not even at night. The background noises—the distant rumble of the motorway, the aircraft in the sky, the more proximate sounds of traffic—are gone, and I can hear a wren singing in the churchyard, the hum of mining bees on the verge, blackbirds quarreling from behind a wall. … The sound of England before the internal combustion engine. (p. 28)
The realities of the pandemic are never far from the authors’ minds. Their daily entries wax rhapsodic over some new bird, bloom, or butterfly, only to then describe the latest scary Covid news. Michael McCarthy notes on March 12: “The Covid-19 virus is now spreading rapidly in the UK, with confirmed cases standing today at 5,018 and, even worse, deaths up by 56 to 233. In Italy, 793 people died today—terrible—and in Spain, 324. I’m keeping a tally.” (p. 13)
The effect on the reader is to experience the emotional whiplash of that unique spring. As Jeremy Mynott describes it: “Delight morphing into horror and back again, like one of those visual illusions you can view two ways but never both together.” (p. 16) In one entry, Peter Marren grimly notes: “Brits dying at the rate of 500 per day. That’s what is so frightening. Covid will find you out. If there’s a chink in your armour, it will find a way in. It will know what to do.” (p. 59) That entry captures the fear we were all experiencing that spring, the nagging feeling “it” could be coming for us any day. Yet in the very next paragraph, Marren excitedly declares: “I spot my first orange-tip!” (p. 59)
The day to day petty inconveniences of living during a lockdown are not lost on the authors. Peter Marren described a routine all of us are now familiar with:
The shop has also run out of loo rolls and soap. You wonder: can one catch it from newsprint, from unwrapped bread? You return thinking, don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face. And then rush upstairs to wash your hands while singing “Happy Birthday” twice (the recommended time indicator for the washing). (p. 28)
They each await their first cuckoo, swallow, Chiffchaff, as well as the emergence of the typical early spring butterflies and the blooms of flowers and trees. Michael McCarthy recorded on April 9, Maundy Thursday:
A day of almost dreamlike loveliness on the borders of Richmond and Kew: soft warm air and blue skies, and the quiet streets filled with blossom: the choisya, the wisteria and the ceanothus are out now, decorating the front gardens alongside the later cherries, the ones with the big fat pendulous pink and white blooms. In Ennerdale Road, the green of new leaves, especially the horse chestnuts, is so iridescent and lustrous that they seem almost blossoms themselves. And meanwhile, 881 more people have died in hospital, I imagine most of them in great distress away from their loved ones. What a conjunction.” (p. 79)
While Peter Marren writes: “To stand among the cuckoo flowers and hear the eponymous bird calling feels like an immersion in springtime.” (p. 129)
The almost absolute absence of people in cars and planes encouraged some species of wildlife to appear in places where they have been absent for decades. Jeremy Mynott asks: “Is this the lockdown dividend for nature? Red kites back in London, like the wild goats that have appeared in the streets of Llandundo, and the fish which have returned to canals of Venice now that the cruise liners have gone?” (p. 49) Some of these reports may be apocryphal, but there is little doubt that the natural world responded to our absence.
Some of their discoveries seem more modest but are no less important. On April 8, Michael McCarthy writes: “Because of the quiet of the lockdown, I have discovered a local colony of house sparrow here in the streets of Richmond, and I am elated.” (p. 74) House Sparrows may not seem like something to get excited about on this side of the Atlantic, but they have been rapidly declining in the urban areas of Britain. Why they are declining is not certain. Quite a number of formerly common bird species in Britain are now in decline, something Jeremy Mynott describes in detail:
Birds like the turtle dove, cuckoo, tree sparrow and corn bunting, all once part of my landscape here but now gone, are also unique carriers of meanings: through their associations with seasons, places and times; through their interactions with other species; through their voices and behavior; and so through their roles in our own lives. Each one we lose drains the landscape of some part of its significance. We turn out to be the only species with the power to make a dead planet or to create meanings in a live one. (p. 198)
Part of the reason for these species’ decline has to do with changes in farming practices, especially the taking down of the important hedgerow habitat that ran between fields. Dramatic changes in habitat are key to understanding the decline in certain species. Humans worship change, while wildlife like stability. Peter Marren: “Most wildlife, on the other hand, prefers things to stay as they are. That is one reason why progress and conservation are in permanent collision, and always will be.” (p. 105-6)
The tragic way that the Covid-19 patients die, denied the comfort of the touch of family, friends, and even the medical staff, affects the writers in the way they are now experiencing spring. Jeremy Mynott:
It’s a reminder of how important our sense of touch is in navigating the world and sensing it, a crucial faculty turned against us as a weapon in these extraordinary circumstances. Ironically, I’ve been finding a new pleasure in touching leaves this year, comparing the rough felting of the wayfaring tree’s leaves, for example, with the softness of the emerging horse chestnut ones, just like floppy little lamb’s ears. (p. 77)
At least one of the writers notes hopefully a change in the way that every day people are appreciating nature during the Covid spring. Jeremy Mynott:
Here in rural Suffolk, people are quite quickly changing the habits of a lifetime, however. I wasn’t the only one enjoying the butterflies in this sunny spot today. Parents and children were pointing them out to each other, while maneuvering to maintain a careful distance as they passed me, with many an apologetic smile and friendly word. The need for social distancing seems at this stage to be bringing communities together rather than dividing them, and encouraging, amongst other things, a shared interest in nature. (p. 27)
All too quickly, spring begins the transition into summer. Peter Marren on May 4:
As deaths pile up, this locked down spring rolls remorselessly on. When spring began this year the landscape of the valley was still wintry and wet. But after five weeks of near-continuous sunshine, the spring is now fast advancing into summer. It has happened so fast. (p. 145)
As the spring ends and hopes begin to rise that the pandemic will end soon, these writers speculate on what we have learned. It is sobering that the natural world rebounded rapidly once humans were taken out of the picture. The natural world in The Consolation of Nature is almost celebrating that humans are restricted in what they can do and where they can go. This was sobering to witness. Jeremy Mynott wishes that those that fortunate to have survived will now look differently at the green spaces that gave them so much comfort in such dark times. “Hopefully knowing more, caring more, and more deeply grounded and connected with the only world we have.” (p. 205)
Michael McCarthy doesn’t just want a rapid “return to normal,” to the way things were before the pandemic, but a rebuilding of something deeper and more aware of our natural environment: “Can we put things back together in a manner that will ease the terrible pressures on the natural world, from climate change to wildlife destruction? Will we realize we are not the masters of nature that we think we are?” (p. 213)
The Consolation of Nature is an example of British natural history writing at its finest. Like Gilbert White’s book, it deserves to become a classic. The pages are filled with the joy of observing the first appearances of spring. The authors often digress into some tidbit of local lore or story about what they witness. Jeremy Mynott is privileged to get an all too quick glimpse of a weasel. This leads him to describe the derivation of the nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel.” It is because of this enthusiasm that, despite its grim backdrop, this book is always entertaining. You will feel the joy of being outdoors in every page. And perhaps because the authors are British, there are numerous literature references and excerpts of poetry. There is a depth of familiarity with the birds, butterflies, insects, flowers, and trees that is expressed so effortlessly in these pages that the reader is transported to those sunny days of April when the first cuckoo arrives. Still, despite all the wonderful sightings and visual beauty captured in the writing, it will hopefully be a time that will not be repeated anytime soon. Michael McCarthy:
In the end, it was almost like an act of faith—faith in the natural world, in its ability to console us, to repair us and to recharge us; most of all, its ability simply to be there, often unrecognized and unacknowledged, but giving life to every one of us, even as human artefacts are crumbling all around. (p. 214)
To hear Jeremy Mynott talk about this book, here is the link to my interview with him on WICN:
Listen to a podcast by Mark Lynch with this author: