He stood in cold sunlight beside the bus shelter, dressed in a dark overcoat and matching suit, a leather briefcase hanging from one hand. Unlike the rest of us, the man had his back to the road, his eyes fastened on three trees just the other side of the black iron railings that mark the southern edge of London’s Kensington Gardens. Occasionally he’d swivel his head from them just long enough to sift through the arriving double-deckers, returning his attention to whatever he’d discovered in the trees as soon as he was sure that none of the buses were his.
I suspected it was a tawny owl that he’d found, though I couldn’t see it myself. The bird was the reason I’d walked the few blocks north from the Natural History Museum some years ago in the first place, as a pair of these spectacular owls regularly nests in Hyde Park and puts in roosting appearances around the gardens in the off-season. I thought I’d pass a spare hour in search of that fierce emblem of the wild amidst the scattered London planes, common limes, English oaks and sweet chestnuts, but having found no trace of its feathered presence by the end of my allotted time, I left the park and gardens to catch a bus to a meeting.
While waiting, I tried replicating the man’s angle of vision, tilting my head at the same pitch as his. Still I couldn’t discern the shape of an owl in the leafless March trees. I then began a more systematic inspection, tracing each branch outwards from the trunk to its tip like a gangplank I was slowly walking to its end. But again, there was nothing. Just as I was about to concede defeat my bus pulled in. Reluctantly I boarded, accepting, as we so often need to do in our fleeting engagements with wild creatures, that some things remain mysteries to the end. I swiftly climbed the steps to the upper deck and took a last look at the trinity of trees before we pulled away from the kerb, only to see from that entirely new perspective the white belly-gleam of a tiny treecreeper spiralling upwards around one of the trunks, its delicate needle of a curved beak easing insects from their winter cells. The cryptic and bark-like mottling of the treecreeper makes it one of Europe’s most exquisite though easily missed birds. So tiny, and yet so wondrously enlarging. For as long as I could keep him in sight, the man never relinquished his connection to that small, ascending force.
In recent years, I devoted much of my time to writing a book about wild places. More specifically, a book about threatened wild places, those areas of enormous natural significance and indelible human attachment that we’re increasingly losing from both the surface of the Earth and the enriching realm of our experience. Many of my journeys took me to large and culturally recognised sites, such as the resplendent and supposedly protected Gwent Levels in south-east Wales (threatened by 14 miles of six-lane motorway), the ancient woodland of Smithy Wood north of Sheffield that’s believed to have been in existence for 850 years (threatened by a new motorway services off the M1), and the Indonesian island of Bangka and the astonishing chromatic vista of its encircling coral reef (threatened by illegal iron ore mining and the consequent killing of its coral through sedimentation). But my travels necessarily telescoped in on the relatively small, local and urban too, because despite our cultural tendency to think of the wild as existing out there, somewhere beyond the perimeter of cities and the intense influence we humans impart on the landscapes we’ve built, the wild is always in our midst, something that many of us are increasingly recognising during a pandemic that is keeping us much closer to home. It could be that delicate treecreeper in Kensington Gardens, or a sunburst of lesser celandine in a spring park; it might be the autumn flash of a red admiral feeding on windfall garden apples, or a murmuration of starlings against the backdrop of tower blocks. For the wild, in so many of its complex and compelling forms, expressions and variations, wills its way into the most developed and unexpected of places.
Berlin has become a hotspot for nightingales, their astonishing songs pulsing through the dark hours of that dynamic nocturnal city. Chicago has its wandering coyotes and Singapore its urban otters. And in spring and autumn, millions of migrating birds sweep across and through New York City, keeping true to the flyway encoded in a genetic history laid down long before the city was raised. In recent decades, some urban areas have even come to shelter particular species more than the rural lands in which they would once have thrived. And I’m not talking solely about the urban fox or the spectacular city peregrine, but something as small as a bee. In 2014, the first Great British Bee Count revealed, to enormous surprise, that these beautiful and essential pollinating insects were more common on allotments, that quintessential feature of urban and suburban landscapes in Britain, than in the countryside. And for a remarkable creature like the stag beetle – the male’s enormous, antler-like mandibles making it a dramatic and riveting beast wherever it is found – a city is now its heartland. As the stag beetle’s British distribution and population size has steadily contracted in response to the overzealous tidying of the countryside and the largely unnecessary removal of dead wood and tree stumps, London (and in particular West and South London) now acts as a vital refuge for this distinguished being. Critically reliant on dead and decaying wood as its food source for the several years that it remains underground in its larval stage, the stag beetle has been aided in London by the sympathetic decisions of local councils and homeowners to leave some rotting branches and logs where they naturally fall in order to nourish a greater ecosystem of invertebrate citizens.
Such deliberate actions deserve commendation, but for wildlife to truly flourish in urban landscapes a variety of habitats and green spaces needs to be preserved for the good of all, particularly when greenery is increasingly seen as expendable in many of our towns and cities. Veteran trees, deeply loved by local communities and embedded with considerable historic, cultural and ecological meaning, have infamously been levelled and turned to sawdust in Sheffield. Community parks and gardens are being paved over in cities throughout the world for luxury apartments, condominiums, retail developments, car parks and stadiums. And those allotments – once a common vernacular aspect of urban landscapes, where the countryside and the city are stirred together on sites of edible creativity – are being erased across Britain. Between 2007 and 2014, only four of 198 applications to close allotment sites were rejected by the Secretary of State. The destruction of all the others was allowed, and with their loss, as with any loss of green space in a city, however large or small it might be, nature suffers a further shrinkage of real estate in which to dwell alongside us, further depleting an already winnowed world.
But it isn’t only nature that loses out when green spaces are levelled and lost, for such removals irrevocably reduce the number of opportunities for humans to be in contact with the more-than-human world in urban settings. In a blog post about walking the course of London’s Wandle River, Matt Gilbert wrote that he’d “always found something deeply satisfying about escaping a city from within.” It’s a notion that resonates richly with me. In the mid-1990s I spent several years living in the capital, where I worked long days in the painting and decorating trade. I can still vividly recall the crushing, late afternoon commute on the Underground, physically drained and spattered with dust, plaster and paint. I’d arrive back at my rented room in North London with little hunger for anything but the pub. As I neither drove nor had enough money to easily explore the countryside, two things helped ease the weariness of work come the weekend. I would call them openings – the kind of clearings that exist not only in the built environment but, through contact with green places, can be created internally, too. The first of them was Camley Street Nature Reserve, a small oasis of amber ponds and trees set in the then seedy surrounds of King’s Cross railway station, where dragonflies glittered in sunlight beneath an awning of luminous leaves. The second was a long ribbon of greenery that had burgeoned to either side of a disused rail line near Finsbury Park, where wildflowers, birds and people converged in secluded profusion. I don’t recall ever seeing anything unusual or rare in either of those places; what made them important to me was the sense that they could heal over you, like sap hardening across the wound in a tree. Both were refuges in which I could let the working week fall away, but, more crucially, find some essential space and the kind of compressed animate quiet that is common to the natural world but far less so to predominantly human landscapes, an auditory phenomenon that was commented on repeatedly in the early months of the pandemic as the clamour of aircraft, cars, trucks and machinery was, to a significant degree, silenced in so many of the world’s cities, enabling another soundscape to rise to the surface of our sensory world. These green clearings in the urban fabric were where I came to ease my tiredness and anxiety, and to try to work through the depression that I lived with for a period at the time. While the wild wasn’t enough on its own to finally reach a settled equilibrium, it made it possible for me to see beyond it; to lean into a world where other forms of life – ancient, resilient and irreplaceable – made me acutely aware of something other than myself. And if either of those places had been destroyed, I would have felt the kind of loss that comes closest in our experience to grief.
It’s no surprise that numerous studies have confirmed the anecdotal experiences of many who feel a greater sense of well-being and improved mental, physical and emotional health after engaging with nature in some way. For children, in particular, this connection with wildlife and the natural world has been proven to increase memory and focus, to reduce stress levels and nervousness, and to benefit mental development at a critical stage in their lives. It can furnish the realm of their imaginations with vibratory details and compound interactions that dovetail with a child’s native curiosity, enlarging upon their already active engagement with the world around them and making them more self-confident, creative and grounded. And such contact can seed a long-term care for the wild, helping re-imagine relationships with nature in ways essential if we’re to flourish into the future.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus an issue less commonly discussed – though it’s been with us all along – and that’s accessibility. More than half of 2,000 people surveyed by the Campaign to Preserve Rural England (CPRE) during the UK’s first lockdown in the spring of 2020 said that the crisis had made them more aware of how important local green spaces are for a community’s mental health and wellbeing. As Lynne Stubbings, chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, an organisation also involved in the survey, put it: “So many of us have discovered pockets of green right on our doorsteps.”
For a considerable number of citizens, such pockets of green on their doorsteps are all they’ve ever had. A study in 2019, also conducted by CPRE, revealed that nearly half of the country’s poorest constituencies were located more than fifteen miles by road from a national park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Taken together with savage cuts to rural bus services and the spiralling expense of many train journeys, this distance puts the celebrated countryside out of reach to many, nullifying the consequent benefits of contact with nature for less advantaged communities unless green spaces are found nearby. In the words of a silver-haired pensioner I met while writing Irreplaceable, who had just experienced her first ever orchid outside of a florist’s in a Glasgow meadow under threat of being destroyed for the construction of luxury apartments, “It’s such a shame there are so few of these secret little places left.”
We often say that people are divorced from nature, but in doing so we drop the active agency of the sentence. We should really be saying that people are being divorced from nature, as one of the many and complex reasons for this disconnection is that the natural world is increasingly squeezed from the places where we live. And with its thinning, we diminish our dreams. When I think back to the glow of excitement I once saw on a child’s face in west London when his grandfather asked him if he’d like to check on the slow worms living in the compost bin on their allotment plot, I remember just how much joy – and sometimes solace – can come from such small connections with the natural world. We owe it to both ourselves and the wild to find ways of accommodation. With over half of the planet’s human population now living in urban areas, and that number continuing to rise, it is imperative that we’re proactive in protecting and expanding urban green space while simultaneously finding creative solutions to critical issues of quality housing and the provision of public services. We need to see wild greenery on the other side of this pandemic not as luxury or amenity – a desirable but ultimately disposable feature of urban living – but as fundamental to our wider well-being. And to do this, to make the built environment conducive to the kind of wonder, engagement and relationship that the man watching the treecreeper must have experienced while waiting for a bus in one of the busiest capitals on the planet, we’ll need to enlarge our idea of a city so that it is home to the more-than-human, too.
With thanks to Little Toller for first publishing this essay in their online journal The Clearing. All photographs taken of threatened urban green spaces in Glasgow, Watford and London during the writing of Irreplaceable.