The Frustrations of the Local

This could be one of the most difficult of all my  blog posts, and that is partly because I don’t know how to get to grips with the topic. Here in Wales we are about to enter the third month of strict “lockdown” which has coincided with an unprecedented period of mostly dry sunny weather and the two best spring months. Living in a country with such an unpredictable climate has nurtured in the people of Britain a powerful urge  to get out there and enjoy the sunshine while it lasts. I feel this almost as a duty, and find myself wandering around the garden, noting how beautiful it is but not knowing how best to enjoy it.  The old story of the countryman asked how he spends his time who replies “Sometimes I  sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits” , sounds like an alien species to me.

Yet it is just this capacity for contemplation which  is the key to getting the most from this period, and I find myself constantly struggling to fully appreciate a circumstance which many would envy. I live in a beautiful upland area with no confirmed cases of Covid 19, My family are all in good health and varying degrees of happiness, I have a large garden with trees and shrubs and a pond, I have a soulmate who is good company, lots of local friends, and I have access to some special places where I can pursue my passion for observing and photographing birds and other wildlife. All these can and do give me great pleasure, but it comes at the cost of many bad days of nervous tension. This Pandemic Spring has brought me face to face with one of my life’s biggest demons. I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to come to terms with an aspect of human nature which has led to fantastic achievements but brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Put simply it is this: whatever our circumstances we look around us and think “how can I improve this?” Every day I look at my garden and think – “I should change this . . ” In another life I might have been a pioneer, a conqueror of the Wild West, a drainer of the Fens, a missionary improving the “lesser” races, a bridge builder, and certainly an inventor. My internal struggle could be at the very centre of the huge problem we all face now.

Our distant ancestors perhaps noticed that an edible plant broadcast its seeds haphazardly and decided to help it by collecting the seed and sowing them in a patch of prepared ground.  Perhaps a group of ancestral humans hauling a heavy object over a series of log rollers thought it would be a good idea to cut two rounds from a tree trunk, make a hole in the middle of them and use another log as an axle. From there it’s not a huge step to the abstract thinking which led to the Scientific Method, the Industrial Revolution and Information Technology. We have been so astonishingly successful at improving our surroundings that we have been able to alter the climate of the entire planet.

To come through this period when threats to our existence are looming larger every day, I believe we all need to look into ourselves and nurture that part of us which loves and cares for the everyday things, which finds joy in the things we have around us rather than always striving for something better. Consider how we  use words. We who love birds and the dense interplay of life that sustains them have seen the name of our interest morph from “Birdwatching” to “Birding”. That change sums up this inner struggle. The Bird Watcher contemplates. The Birder, like a Driver or a Runner or a Hunter, is active. The equivalent in Welsh is “wr” which comes from “gwr” meaning Man, and it is no accident that Birding is a very male dominated interest, characterised by activity, by travelling, by ticking off species collected on lists, and by the researching and purchase of the best in optical technology.

It doesn’t leave much time or inclination to sit down and watch a sparrow.