I’m a city girl through and through. I was born and raised in Greater London and spent most of my free time hanging out with friends in my local town; going to the cinema and stuffing our faces at Pizza Hut were the usual weekend activities. Rarely did I venture out into the countryside, namely because I didn’t have any family or friends in other parts of the UK and because of my family’s financial circumstances, we never really went on holidays or staycations outside of London. In my town, walks consisted of going past high-rise buildings and maybe seeing an occasional park which was pretty unappealing to spend time in. As I grew older, the need for nature was still pretty non-existent in my life. With the hustle and bustle of city life, I felt too attached to the tube and trainlines to want to venture out beyond my urban bubble. In fact, I only saw a cattle grid in the flesh when I was 19, on a history trip with my undergrad pals in Oxfordshire – ridiculous, I know! Especially after developing hay fever a few years ago, I preferred staying inside and watching a film to being in the outdoors! Then lockdown hit, and well, my relationship with nature took a dramatic turn…
The first lockdown in the UK completely knocked me for six. All of a sudden I was forced to slow down and the freedoms that myself and others took for granted were swiftly taken away from all of us: in-person social activities, studying in cafes, and trying out new restaurants with family, to name a few. The common sounds of drivers beeping their horns and people talking in crowded streets had all disappeared. With many work calls and classes, as well as the countless Zoom pub quizzes and catch-ups, I found myself attached to the screen all day every day, and soon enough it became unbearable and draining. I found myself taking a step back and reevaluating what was important in my life. With so much uncertainty and the many worries about the pandemic building up in my mind, I resorted to the small joys that would allow me to be more present and take each day as it came. One of these delights was nature itself. Away from our computer screens and work from home set-ups, our one piece of freedom was the one hour of exercise that we were allotted every day and I was determined to make use of it.
Then lockdown hit, and well, my relationship with nature took a dramatic turn…
As a way to keep myself afloat, I made a conscious decision to get myself out of the house. At the time, I was living with my boyfriend and his family in Jersey and was spoilt for choice with all of the local fields, forests, and beaches that gave me more of an incentive to get out in the fresh air. Every day, my boyfriend and I would go on a stroll, and on the weekends, we would go on much longer walks on some of the local beaches. I loved the feeling of having the sand between my toes- for a Londoner, this was and is a luxury! At lunchtime and sometimes in the evening, when the weather was nice, we’d all sit in the garden and take in the sun, enjoying the sweet fruits from the family’s garden patch. I also tried my hand at the ‘Couch to 5k’ challenge and when running in the open road in the heat, I instantly felt calmer and my mind felt decluttered. Each run was a very sensory experience; I could smell the freshly cut grass in the field (and manure… there were lots of Jersey cows by the family home!), I could feel the sun tickling my nose and saw open fields with trees, colourful flowers and cows, chickens and horses. It was completely different to what I had known growing up, and it was absolutely wonderful. I knew that I was really fortunate to be in this space, and so I wanted to make the most of all of this while I was there.
I’m not the only one who has begun to value nature as one of our most prized possessions in the pandemic. Together with the trend of buying more house plants and starting little garden projects, many have enjoyed being out in green spaces, going on walks and exercising in parks and fields, as well as enjoying time in their private gardens and allotments. Research by Natural England and Greenspace Scotland have shown that there have been changes in the ways that people have interacted with the outdoors, whether that has been going on walks or visiting green spaces, or participating in gardening and wildlife-watching. Moreover, studies have shown the positive effects of nature on our mental health. Charities like Mind have encouraged people to connect with nature as a way of improving their wellbeing, suggesting from their research that it can boost confidence and self-esteem while reducing anger and stress levels. In my personal experience, exploring nature gave me a sense of calm and peace that I was lacking in the midst of work and deadlines.
I knew that I was really fortunate to be in this space, and so I wanted to make the most of all of this while I was there.
Now that I’m back in Oxford, nature is still one of the joys that I still cling to. Productivity has its ebbs and flows, but the one thing that is constant in my life is my desire to get some fresh air. In the late summer, I made more of an effort to explore the local parks and green spaces around me (according to the government’s guidelines, of course!) and enjoyed watching the leaves fall and change colour in autumn. I found myself ditching my headphones more often and paying more attention to sounds on my walk. I guess a lot of it comes from my housemate who is an avid bird watcher. Even now, when we housemates are on a walk together, she describes the birds flying by and their distinctive calls; we all listen out for them. It’s a nice activity to appreciate in each other’s company; it has established a sense of ‘normalcy’ for us in such chaotic times.
Fast forward to January 2021, I’m by no means professing to be the ultimate nature expert. I don’t think any of us need to be in order to enjoy nature and the wonders it can offer us in such uncertain times. Things have gotten trickier with colder weather, and there’s perhaps less of an incentive to get outdoors, but even then the beauties of nature can still be found. I’m really glad that I’ve made a stronger connection with nature and I hope that beyond the difficult times that we’re living in, myself and others will continue to appreciate it, and do more to protect it, for many years to come.
Artist Credit: Tian Chen
Photo Credit: Nupur Patel