The freedom to take an hour’s walk or bike ride each day has been one of the unexpected pleasures of the Covid shutdown. April was scarily dry, with day after day of blue skies. Blackthorn bloomed in the hedges, and the nettles, docks and rye grass began to cover up the winter’s accumulation of plastic and cans. The occasional cowslip and jack-by-the-hedge appeared, just holding their own. Repeating the same routes, you get to remember where these flowers are and look out for them, like neighbours suddenly become friends.
The most remarkable thing about cycling under Covid has been the emptiness of the roads. This has been a silent spring, although not at Rachel Carson foresaw it. The silencing this spring has been of human engines. The roads lack their usual freight of hustling SUVs, the thrusting executive saloons, zippy commuter bubbles and trucks. There have been a few delivery vans, hunting for addresses like queen wasps checking out the roof tiles for a place to nest. But the exurbia of the Cambridge countryside, the outer commuter land, has been silenced. Cars lie parked up in front of new refurbished and extended houses, suddenly redundant. Rat runs have turned into country lanes, and those vehicles that pass announce their coming, pass and fade away, leaving silence behind them.
The Covid countryside is spookily empty, like a film set for an episode of Poirot, or Lark Rise to Candleford. To travel in it is to feel the experience of previous generations, before the roads became a Scalextric track for commuters, before the roads were metalled, before the internal combustion engine drove out the horse, before even the routes between villages were turnpiked. Roads lead past the site of a Roman villa, past Saxon villages, medieval churches galore, inter-war bungalows and postwar council houses. In every village there is a war memorial. The contemporary world momentarily silenced, a bike ride traces a landscape of former neighbours, ancestors and ghosts.
And, joyously, that landscape is not silent. Blackbirds and robins fill the air with song, woodpigeons, jackdaws and rooks shout heartily about their affairs. On one back road, there is a particular telephone wire where a yellowhammer sometimes sings, and over several woods a buzzard has been circling and calling. Stop by a flowering blackthorn or, now, hawthorn (the appropriately named May tree), and the air is filled with the buzzing of bees and hover flies, a deep hum that speaks of Summer’s own engine spinning up.
This year, spring has moved ahead, but it is as if the human world is paused. It is disconcerting to walk along a road and hear bird song; to stand on a junction at commuter time and see not a trail of cars rushing homeward nose to tail, but the road empty in both directions; to smell not exhaust fumes but hawthorn blossom; to hear not the grind of car tyres but a robin’s song. Overhead, no planes fly. The other evening, watching a skylark sawing away a hundred feet above a wheat field, I was slightly shocked to see a movement behind it – an airliner 30,000 feet higher, heading northwest, presumably on the great circle route to America.
Not only is the countryside quieter, it is also cleaner. With the lack of vehicles comes a new clarity to the air and ground. No particulates, no NOx, no sulphur, no ozone in the air. No microplastics ground from tyres, no hydrocarbons or heavy metals in road runoff. Do this for long enough, and maybe the nitrate pollution that has become such a pervasive homogenizer of lowland floras in the UK would fade away.
Lockdown offers a window into an ecological past, a vision of a possible ecological future. As Chris Sandbrook pointed out when he read a draft of this blog, lockdown’s fortuitous timing, on the cusp of a warm spring, offers the chance to appreciate the year’s ecological unfolding, at a time when it is a delight to be outside. Nature provides a solace for our suddenly grounded and enclosed lives.
This closeness to nature, and our new appreciation of each other, might lead us to imagine a different future, one where we live more frugally, we care for each other, we appreciate the support of previously unsung heroes of ventilator machine, dustbin and delivery package. We might imagine a world not built around the motorcar, where the skies are not crowded with airplanes, where nature can be found and appreciated outside our front doors, in gardens, parks and roadsides.
This is not the world we came from scant six weeks ago. It is also not the one being demanded as pressure grows to ease lockdown. The dominant concern of governments and businesses is to restore the economy, to bring the old world back. And so, while commentators like George Monbiot have urged the government to use the economic shock of covid to rebuild a different economy – a greener economy – this is not what is in prospect. Back at the start of March, the boss of Ryanair condemned ‘irrational panic measures’ in response to Covid. At the star of April, Easyjet received a £600m loan from the government and the Bank of England to tide over losses from grounding its fleet. In the middle of April, the BBC reported that US airlines would receive a £20 billion rescue package.
As the government considers lifting lockdown, there seems little chance that the economic machine might be restarted in a mellower and less destructive gear. Nature has, briefly, thrived this spring. Restoration of the status quo will end the ephemeral rapprochement with nature, and leave only its echo behind.
The real and horribly familiar silent spring is still the default model. Agricultural sprayers are still at work. Even now, the fields of wheat and rape are largely stripped of unprofitable life. The great ecological silencing goes on, and the industrial vice around nature still tightens. Alternative visions are likely to prove mere mirages, swept away when this season of lockdown is done and the toiling machinery of our lives clanks back into action.
And yet the questions are persistent. The world we know may be one where ecosystems are routinely squeezed and run down, but can the world not be made to work a little differently? Perhaps we have become less ‘socially distanced’ from nature as we have watched this spring unfold? If so, maybe we will remember this closeness in the months and years to come, and – each of us, as we can – seek out new ways to live. Covid has scrambled all our systems of provisioning, employment, socialisation and health. We have had to live differently, and relate to people differently. Can we keep the best of that and weave it into the recovery to come?
Meanwhile, the day is again blue, woodpigeons are making scuffling love on the roof and the blackbirds are doing their best to sing all the parts of the dawn chorus. The evenings are still drawing out, and there skylarks over the field near the church. The first swifts have made it back from Africa, even if they come now as single spies and not battalions. There is a world to build, but for a moment I need to go out and listen to the sound of silence. And build up the fierce heat of remembrance for the times to come.