The crowd-sourced nature diary and the Covid-19 spring

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As we announced in our last blog post, March 20th saw the launch of the second crowd-sourced spring nature diary, led this year by the National Trust. It also saw the country beginning to feel the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which were continuing to unfold through the week in which diary was open for entries and resulted in increased social distancing measures. Today marks the publication of the 2020 Spring Nature Diary e-book, which you can access here.

Guyana-based journalist Carinya Sharples approached the Land Lines team for some comments on the spring diary. Carinya is researching an article for the online journal Mongabay about connecting with nature during self-isolation as a way of benefiting mental health. Here is the full text of her interview with Pippa Marland.

The beautiful images were all taken by photographer Samuel Payne, shot using an Olympus OM-2, with a 50mm f1.8 Zuiko lens, on Rollei Retro 80S 35mm film and self-developed.

How many entries did you get for the Nature Diary? Was this amount expected?

For the spring diary, members of the public were invited to submit up to 150 words of poetry or prose about what spring means to them, and were also given the opportunity to upload their own photo or illustration to accompany their writing. This year we had a total of 180 entries, down from 420 entries last year (the first year of the event). In these extraordinary circumstances – the fact that the Spring Equinox fell in the midst of a global pandemic – we were pleased with the number of entries. It was more difficult to promote the diary this year because a lot of the media outlets who gave us coverage last year were understandably wholly pre-occupied with COVID-19, and there was also increasing uncertainty during the period the diary was open for entries about how much people could or should be encouraged to go out and access nature. The National Trust – the main promoter of the diary this year – had to begin closing its properties and parks to the public even as the diary was in progress. We kept the submission platform open for a week to allow people time to contribute while having to navigate the chaos of the situation. Even in that short time span, the situation was changing radically, day on day, and social distancing instructions from the government became increasingly urgent.

Did many people refer to Covid-19 or self-isolation in their submissions? What kind of themes came up? 

The diary was launched on the 20th March, just as we were beginning to understand the implications of the pandemic. As I’ve already mentioned, during the time the diary was open to entries, the crisis worsened significantly, and cumulatively more and more of the entries referred to the virus. Many of the entries spoke of a world beset by anxiety, and they contrasted these uncertain times with the cyclical certainties of spring, and the way it reminds us, as Greta Hughson writes, “that life goes on, the seasons turn, and this too shall pass”. Michelle Chapman tells us that the greening earth “serves as a reminder […] that nature is stronger than we are”, while Raoul Guise feels that the cries of curlews and lapwings are “necessary symbols of hope as we enter spring 2020 at a very bleak time”. In the face of these difficulties, nature, with its seasonal returns and its apparent resilience, comforts and soothes us, and many of the entries refer to nature as a blessing, as a way of escaping from or coping with anxiety. As Victoria Brown assures us, “there is always hope, new life and a world waiting for you for when you leave the confines of your home”. Notable in all of the entries is a sense of deeply ingrained love for nature and its flora and fauna. There are numerous mentions of birdsong and blossom; butterflies and flowers (both wild and cultivated); gardens, parks and allotments; frogs, toads and snakes; and bees, many, many bees.

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Some of the entries allude to the effects of the virus tangentially, rather than mentioning it by name, and gesture towards a widespread sense of dislocation and unease. School teacher Lesley Totten writes, as she packs up her classroom and prepares for home schooling her own children, “Spring Equinox 2020. Not how I imagined it would be”; Paul Knights, walking in Yorkshire, evokes the changed working lives of many people who are no longer caught up in the daily rush hour: “My son spots the only evening commuters on the move, high above us: a last flock of jackdaws, heading to join the rest of their roost-fellows a mile up the valley in the beeches of Common Bank Wood”. Sally R in Bristol notices the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on the radio; and recognising its intensified emotional relevance, she goes on “Apparently radio stations all around Europe are playing it at the same time”.

More explicit references to COVID-19 often involved the condition of self-isolating, social distancing, having difficulty buying staple items of groceries, or being in lockdown. An anonymous contributor describes talking to neighbours over the fence: “everything seemed the same but so much has changed. They couldn’t find food in the shops”. For many there’s a sense of personal loss in their inability to engage physically with the world of spring: “This is the first year that spring has been in another place, far beyond my reach”, writes Bridget Blankley. Some entries are confessional, taking the opportunity to share their author’s anxiety: “Hard day dealing with the unexpected and its consequences. Feel awful: either I’m coming down with it or I’m just coming to the end of a week that feels like it has lasted for several years”, writes an anonymous contributor in Bristol, voicing a sentiment I think we can probably all relate to. At the same time there are small mercies: as the same writer adds, “So good to feel the fresh cool air on my face and to be out on a spring evening”. There’s even a kind of joy to be found in the idea that the wild creatures are not constricted in the same way as people at this moment: Nina Perry in London is pleased that a little bird, “a coal tit, I think […] doesn’t need to keep to the confined boundaries of spatial distance that I am observing”.

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Other entries really engaged head on with the crisis: from a poem by Sam Lou Talbot, the phrase “COVID-19 head of dread and soft PVC” is uncomfortably striking, while Susanna Curtin, perhaps remembering Rachel Carson’s brilliant and tragically prescient Silent Spring, as she walks “silently alone over the hills to the next village”, sees how “the bright expanding light throws a blanket of spring promise over the strange eeriness of a Covid 19 Spring”.

People also wrote of loneliness and being parted from family and friends: “Glorious spring but I’m missing my friends” confesses Elspeth Mackenzie, and Nicholas Jones mourns the fact that “It’s Spring, but as in Winter, we are separated from others”. But the natural world also offers some relief from that sense of isolation. In a lovely poem, Linda Harmes writes,

Lonely faces
staring from the balcony,
Pink, sweet blossom
holding out a welcoming hand
Come, join the Springtime.

Even though Josie Rylands can’t leave her house she talks of how much it means to sense the spring beyond her balcony: “Like my friends and family on a video call, I can’t touch it right now, but seeing and hearing it means so much”.

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There are also cautious references to the small blessings of our newly slowed-down pace of life. In London, for example, Sara Osman enjoys “Time to look – clear blue sky, trees in bud, cherry blossom, spring flowers”. There are also hints of a broader optimism – that in the midst of this terrible crisis there are the seeds of a recalibrated attitude to nature, the idea that the unprecedented situation has shown us how we might act as a species, as a global community, in recognition of our integral relationship with the non-human world. Sue Harrison ponders whether “we could perhaps learn to step back from our modern ways and whether we might once again strive to live more harmoniously with our natural resources”, and Jenna Plewes talks of an upwelling of love and community spirit in the face of our involvement with the earth: “Love will be our bedrock / We are separate, but we all stand / on the same patient, greening earth”. Chris Howard recognises that in the midst of such human suffering, the outlook is not so gloomy for nature: “there was finally a break in the weather, and a front that had oppressed it for too long”.

Finally, and gloriously, there are the entries from children, who are perhaps best placed to enjoy this spring. Edith, aged 9, sums it up brilliantly,

Grass grows longer, longer, longer. Plants grow bigger, bigger, bigger. Buds grow faster, faster, faster […]

Birds come out more
Bugs come out more
Animals come out more
spring is nature
nature is spring.

Not that it’s without its anxious moments. As Caspar, aged 7, adds

My Daddy put up bird boxes and bird food, and I hope birds stay in them. But there’s a sparrow hawk and I love sparrows. It’s cool but I’m worried it will scare off the little birds. 

We saw a frog in our garden next to the bush in a flower pot. It was green with black on the sides. Edith wanted to pick it up but was a bit scared and the frog hopped off into our neighbour’s garden.

How did you feel reading the submissions relating to Covid-19 and the current restrictions? Did any stand out in particular?

As I read the COVID-19-related submissions, I began to realise that what was emerging was an important document of what nature means to people, especially at a time when things are so frightening and our ordinary routines are so destabilised. I also realised that our relationship with nature is not simply a form of escapism – it’s also a means of fathoming out meaning, of coming to some kind of intellectual and emotional understanding of what is happening. I think there’s an underlying recognition in some of the diary entries that viruses are nature too, and that we can’t completely separate out what’s happening now from the elements of the natural world we love. I feel that there’s some deeper kind of negotiation going on in people’s minds, crystallised by this COVID-19 spring.

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This is one of my favourite entries to the diary, though I appreciated all of them:

By an author who wishes to remain anonymous,

From (Three Poems)

Virus

24th March 2020
All the world is reciting a prayer
this morning.
In my garden
the slender pear tree
puts on
her bridesmaid dress,
the magnolia raises her arms
fluttering white petaled gloves.
I hear the thrum of a mower
in the distance
reminding me
that life goes on.

Do you think nature writing is particularly important in the current times? Why? 

The Spring diary highlighted how important a relationship with nature is in these times, and I think also shows how the kind of attentiveness to the non-human world that nature writing demands can in itself be comforting, meditative, and a way of anchoring oneself in the midst of uncertainty and fear. I think it was important and helpful for the spring diary participants to express themselves in this way and to share their thoughts with others. Nature writing more broadly, and even at its most autobiographical and solipsistic, establishes a series of communities – of people who love nature, of people who want to try to express their relationship with nature, even of people who want to understand what it means to be human, and figure out how we should aim to tread upon the earth.

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What happens to the entries now, I understand you’ll be releasing an e-book? When is that due to take place?

The e-book has been released today: https://springnaturediary.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Writes-of-Spring-2020.pdf

The nature writer Natasha Carthew has also written a marvelous essay weaving the strands of the entries together. It’s called ‘Hope’s Heart Beats’ and it is available in full on the National Trust website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/hopes-heart-beats

Do you know of any other projects in the UK or internationally that are using nature writing to support people during the coronavirus crisis? Perhaps through writing competitions, making existing nature writing more available, holding online writing workshops etc.

I think there is a whole host projects like this taking place online. I know of several well-established nature writers who are offering mentoring support for writers who are just starting out; Robert Macfarlane has been leading a Twitter reading group and their chosen text is Nan Shepherd’s wonderful paean to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. There’s a nature writing competition for young writers: https://www.365dayswild.com/could-you-be-the-next-top-nature-writer/. There seems to be an explosion of public professions of love for the natural world and people finding comfort in nature and nature writing, which is reflected in burgeoning online communities. A quick search of the hashtag #naturewriting on Twitter reveals numerous tweets which feature nature writing or recommend nature books to read while self-isolating, and I’ve seen things like a ‘best butterfly picture’ competition, and a hashtag #NaturalHealthService for tweets about the benefits of nature for mental and physical wellbeing. At Land Lines, we’re hosting an online Nightjar Night in June to celebrate that little-seen but once heard, never forgotten nocturnal, migratory bird.

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Can you briefly explain what the Land Lines project is?

‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing’ is a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Initially oriented towards writing a history of nature writing in the UK, it is now in the midst of two follow-on projects, also funded by AHRC, which look to increase public engagement with nature and nature writing. We are teaming up with partners like Natural England, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Wild Ennerdale, and the Castle Howard Estate to put on participatory public-facing events involving nature writing and creative art. We’re keen to engage with themes like increasing biodiversity on farm land, and bringing to light the lives of creatures (including threatened species) who are often invisible to us, either because they are migratory or nocturnal.

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