Women’s Nature Writing in Lockdown

In March 2020, lockdown forced many of us to make drastic changes to our daily routines and spend more time at home. This shift in lifestyle created space for connections with nature that are often difficult to find in the busy nine-to-five schedule that dominates our modern lives. As boundaries between work and home life broke down, many women responded with writing that reflected this new—or rediscovered— awareness of the natural world. The press was quick to report on the phenomenon. Natasha Hinde commented in the Huffington Post (March, 2020) that the first signs of Spring had a powerful resonance for people learning to cope with an unprecedented global event:

Everywhere we turn, nature is thriving. It’s a powerful reminder that while we’re at a standstill, the earth still turns. The show must go on.

As we spend more time indoors, many of us are finding a newfound – or somewhat revived – appreciation for the natural world. The blossoms that weren’t there this time last week, the sprouts of green where branches were once bare. Bees, butterflies and birds out of hiding, continuing as normal.

This feeling was common to many women whose lives were suddenly impacted by the government’s covid restrictions. Beccy Speight, RSPB Chief Executive, noted that ‘being able to watch wildlife has offered many of us not just a welcome distraction, but genuine happiness in rediscovering our innate connection with nature’. Certainly, the warm public reaction to the RSPB’s Breakfast Birdwatch; hosted on social media during lockdown, showed the keen interest in birdlife that had been brought about due to the pandemic. Twitter user Jane Lewis listed the birds she saw in the early weeks of lockdown: ‘Goldfinches, chaffinches, blue and long tailed tits, blackbirds, starlings, robin and wood pigeon – regular breakfasters – just have more time to enjoy them!’.

The Land Lines research project helped to capture some of the increased awareness and interaction with nature in lockdown by organising the Spring Nature Diary project to document the early days of the new season. The Landlines Research project has been examining British nature writing from the Romantic period to the present day. The 150-word entries to the Spring Nature Diary were captured in partnership with the National Trust. The entries saw amateur authors writing in to share their admiration of the first signs of Spring seen in gardens, along footpaths, and in public parks. Some entries described the activities of busy birdlife in the nesting season; whilst others focused on feelings of relief and hope after a difficult and challenging winter.

Examples include Kerry Shepard’s observation that ‘new shoots in the garden, buried deep in the soil months ago, spark new life and hope’. Margaret Anderson poignantly commented how an ‘incredible surge of hope and happiness wells up into my heart which almost hurts. Spring is full of promise’. Sarah Hawkins shared the emotions that can be stirred by watching an everyday bird like a Robin: ‘I hushed my breath and willed it to stay,/ Just going about as it may./ For I felt it comforting to share,/ To coexist together there’. Comfort and reassurance also characterise Victoria Brown’s contribution to the project: ‘there is always hope, new life and a world waiting for you for when you leave the confines of your home’. Josephine Corcoran wrote simply ‘Spring arrives like an exhaled breath’.

Pipa Marland from the Landlines Research project reflected on the submissions: ‘The entries show that our collective 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 understanding of the current crisis and of what it means to live as part of nature.’ These 150-word pieces have been curated and published by the Landlines Research Project in a new e-book available to download as a PDF.

The National Trust and the Landlines Research project also asked the public to send in their contributions for a crowdsourced poem by nature writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett to celebrate the first weekend of Spring. Burnett worked with 400 reflections, thoughts, and observations and weaved them into a new poem entitled ‘Spring, An Inventory’. As the title suggests, the work presents a sort of poetic list of the varied public responses to the changing season – but also finds commonality in the human reaction to nature in a time of crisis:

An extract from Spring, An Inventory by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

Fifty-four hopes in the hardwood held,

slow, the hour brightens

through damp roots and fused shoots the pressure wells,

fifty-one blossoms on the cherry swell,

tiny beech leaves ripen.

Fifty-four hopes in the hardwood held

slow, the hour brightens.

Forty-four trees in the waking woods,

forty-one spilling gardens.

Five cherry trees where the blackbirds stood,

thirty-five joys through their gleaming broods,

thirty-eight buds nectar-guarding

in forty-four trees in the waking woods,

in forty-one spilling gardens.

‘Spring, An Inventory’ contrasts with daily news of increasing death rates and hospital admissions and provides a sense of collective hope for its readers. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett commented: ‘It was a privilege to share in so many people’s experience of spring in this way. I chose the form of an inventory for the poem as a way of mapping common themes across submissions and presenting a more hopeful tally of numbers than we have been used to seeing in the past year – in fact, the word hope itself recurred fifty-four times.’

Other nature poetry from early in lockdown tackled the difficulty of living through uncertain times head-on. Newspapers reported on the effects of ‘Doomscrolling’ loosely defined as ‘obsessively consuming depressing pandemic news’. Blogger and Well-Being Coordinator for Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Claire Thompson collected a number of responses from women citing the importance of nature in maintaining normalcy in unprecedented times:

“When I think how crazy the world is right now, how my life is full of uncertainties so I just don’t know what to do. What is there to do? I go into nature and sit and it is strong, it is doing its thing so beautifully, I can just be here and watch the certainty of nature and be “allowed” to rest in its strength and reassurance with no expectations, no “list of things to do”, I can just “be”.” Tina, UK.

“I particularly enjoy the morning hours walking in nature as the light is very beautiful and there are no people around. I have been watching buds developing and noticing all shades of green whilst listening to the birds and the rustling noise of my labrador puppy. I love the spring any year, but this year, seeing its development and positivity really keeps me going.” Monika, UK.

“While resting (in the dunes) I had both hands on the earth beside me and for quite a long moment felt as if I stretched out over the dune and on and on without an end.  As if my hands were rooting into the soil and becoming part of the landscape. Even now as I write it brings me to tears, it was so emotional but happy, peaceful and huge.” Clare, UK.

These comments capture a common theme in the nature writing that developed out of the pandemic – a feeling of reassurance, calm, and escape from the difficulties of the present. The natural world gives us a chance, however fleeting, to look away from the ‘list of things to do’ and just ‘be’.  

Emma Gibb’s poem ‘I watch the stars instead’ reflects back on the emotional difficulties of consuming media during the pandemic and finds relief in natural imagery:

I can’t read the news.

It weighs down my heart

As Fear and Dread creep in,

Casting shadows.

I can’t watch the news.

I watch the sunrise and the waves instead.

I watch the flames of a campfire at sunset,

the colours once the sun has fled.

We watched the stars last night on a whim.

We lay in sleeping bags in the garden

And gazed at inky skies,

And where there had been worry

I felt wonder seeping in.

I can’t listen to the news.

I listen to the sea instead.

The river song, the whispers of the leaves.

And in the dappled woodland

The light floods back in.

I get my daily briefing from the trees:

Which way the wind is blowing,

The discussion of the birds,

The reassurance of the breeze.

I can’t watch the news.

I watch the sea and stars and trees instead.

In Gibb’s poem, ‘worry’ is replaced by ‘wonder’ at ‘inky ‘skies’ and the colour of a dying campfire. The ‘daily briefing’ emanates from the trees rather than the news headlines, where leaves are ruffled by the ‘reassurance of the breeze’. The poem captures the feeling of stability offered by the natural world in the face of the disorientation of lockdown.

As well as benefiting humans, an appreciation of nature may also be good news for wildlife: the RSPB’s research shows that ‘people with a greater connection to nature are more likely to behave positively towards the environment, wildlife and habitats’ which is critical for future of nature conservation. It is fascinating to look back on the nature writing that flourished as the country adapted to lockdown. This blog offers only a tiny snapshot of some of the incredible writing that was published during this time. As restrictions are eased, and a return to the workplace has become a necessity for so many people it is important to reflect back upon the solace that nature provided for people during the first months of lockdown. As Natasha Hinde observed at the time: ‘Nature is helping us cope during lockdown, instilling a sense of calm. But will people remember how much it gave to us, once this is all over?’

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