‘We can’t go there. It’s full of drug dealers.’ Thus laboured my beloved’s worn refrain whenever I suggested we explore the mysterious woodland at the top of our road. It took a pandemic, and the dawning realisation that we had exhausted all other fruitful walks within a one-hour radius during the first lockdown, for the aforementioned beloved to admit that he had last entered ‘the druggy forest’ over twenty years ago, and that perhaps we should brave it, lest we go insane and turn to narcotics ourselves.
Nine months on, I am yet to encounter these infamous drug dealers – I’m not sure two college students smoking pot really counts, and they certainly didn’t offer this old bird anything mood-altering other than a regretful reminiscence of my own very drug-free youth. But – cliche alert! – nature provided an alternative high during those difficult locked-down months. Our ‘bravery’ was rewarded by the discovery of a deeply atmospheric woodland where newly-planted trees mixed happily with their burrowed-out old ancestors betwixt tributaries of the ancient Ravensbourne river, before giving way to tranquil fishing lakes and horse-filled fields topped with uncrowded skies: a Constable rural idyll, even when I had my glasses on and hadn’t abused the hip flask. We could even finish our walk with a Covid-safe pub visit at the other end, where a goth bartender relished telling us: ‘I love the Covid rules. Now we get to tell YOU what to do.’ To me, amidst the increasing drama of Covid-19, it was a purely joyous discovery of a sylvan paradise, bringing plenty of natural light to an otherwise dark time.
I tried to pinpoint how this new local ramble had nourished me in such a way, and reading Gary Ferguson’s excellent Eight Master Lessons of Nature established the science behind that warm feeling I got as we delved into this unexplored terrain. Ferguson unfolds eight ways in which nature shows us how to live better in a world that was unbalanced even pre-pandemic.
Some of these lessons should be no-brainers: how diversity strengthens nature against failure, how much we could learn from nature’s embrace of female leadership and respect for what elders can teach in both practical and emotional terms, how our readiness to dismiss our animal cousins as insentient creatures licenses the powers-that-be to dismiss anyone below old Etonian/millionaire status as non-consequential, and how dangerous it is for humans to forget their intricate connection to nature when the oft-misquoted principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ actually refers to how well each part of nature co-exists within a balanced use of Earth’s resources, rather than justifying human environmental butchery.
The evidence behind the reassurance we experience when reconnecting with nature, however, was a revelation. By embracing the mystery of the natural world – becoming comfortable with all that we cannot know, and resisting the urge to categorise away all that we see – we retain the magical sense of wonder that makes childhood so delightful. We can emulate nature’s extreme efficiency by rebooting ourselves through nature’s daily reminder of what really counts, and so ditching our energy-sapping habit of overthinking the small stuff. Perhaps most poignantly at this most worrying of times, it is reassuring to know that we are part of a resilient structure that repeatedly rises again.
The science is clear: the less green we have in our lives (not what those students were smoking, although I imagine it takes the edge off), the higher the likelihood of disease and death. Recognising how much Mother Nature freely gives us presents its own issues – namely the guilt we feel about how we treat her, and how we ethically maintain our part of her wider Queendom when Turner can’t give up her steak and chips and two-hour hot baths (never attempted at the same time…regrettably) – but Ferguson’s is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a long time, at a time when I needed it most.
John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is essentially Ferguson’s book brought to life via the example of the solace nature provided to soldiers enduring the First World War: in emotional terms through observation of the birds and flowers surrounding the trenches and the keeping of pets within, and in practical terms through the significant (and surprising) contribution of animals to the war effort. Lewis-Stempel provides some balance to Ferguson’s portrayal of a largely benign, ever-invincible nature: a rather traumatic chapter on ‘rats, mice and lice’ left me itching all over, and the contrast between the resurgence of the lush Somme landscape post-war with the terminable destruction, through the exploitation of land for timber and food, of the very British countryside that had been sufficiently venerated to drive soldiers to the trenches to protect it in the first place, was a reminder of how much can be lost when man fails to live in harmony with nature, and certainly provided some perspective when I was fretting about when the pubs might reopen.
Lasty, The Invention of Clouds, Richard Hamblyn’s account of amateur scientist Luke Howard’s revolutionary 1802 categorisation of the clouds, demonstrates the lengths humans will go to explain nature’s marvel, and how the best explanations retain a little of the mystery with which Ferguson is so enamoured. The magic of Howard’s definitions, which subsequently morphed but nevertheless remain the bedrock of the definitions we use today, rested on their capture of broad cloud forms rather than intricately-defined cloud shapes. The artistic world lauded Howard for thus diverging from the Enlightenment-favoured, restrictively-detailed definitions that left little room for the poetry of the skies. Goethe wrote poems about clouds in Howard’s honour. Constable painted clouds as means of scientific exploration. Shelley was a big fan. I enjoyed reading how our ancestors pre-Howard had sought to understand weather’s ways, and some intriguing revelations about the reality of the scientific lectures and societies that spread new ideas like wildfire in Howard’s time (clue: today’s teenagers are not the first to experiment with laughing gas). I thought of Howard as I looked up at those open skies full of ever-changing clouds and couldn’t blame him for his obsession, and his aversion to fame when it got in the way of cloud-dreaming.
Of all the lessons this strange year has taught me, I hope most to remember this one: that nature will always be there with open arms when I need her, like the best friend you neglect to regularly call but who offers the best advice when you finally do. We are in for more tough months ahead, so I hope I can gently persuade you to get reacquainted with her magic too. But come and join me and the college boys in our druggy forest if you still need to take the edge off – we ain’t gonna judge. Just don’t go broadcasting it though: Jake’s mum thinks he’s gone Co-op, and Joe’s mum is gonna sell his PS5 if she catches him again. Pandemic’s getting to everyone-yuno.