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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.
Where once you’d be bombarded by travel photos on Instagram, it’s now full of nature – photos from people’s government-sanctioned daily outings to the park, pictures of forests filled with bluebells, close-ups of vibrant-coloured petals. We are, quite literally, stopping to smell the roses.
“I think people are looking at nature with new eyes at the moment,” biologist Professor Adam Hart, from the University of Gloucestershire, tells HuffPost UK. “With so many of us unable to be ‘out’ in nature, there seems to have been a collective realisation of how important it is to our lives and our wellbeing.”
Hart says he’s seeing lots of people on Twitter engaging with nature in their gardens, or showing delight at discovering insects, spiders, slugs and other creatures that often get ignored.
During lockdown, Marcio Delgado, 40, has explored his north London garden more, rather than just staying indoors. He’s also paying attention to his surroundings during dog walks at the local park.
“It’s surprising how everything has always been there – the birds, unusual flowers, old trees – we just didn’t take the time before to appreciate nature in its simplicity,” he says. “I’m posting it on Instagram, as a permanent reminder to pay attention to it in the future, even when the world goes back to normality.”
Wildlife charity the RSPB has witnessed an increase in social media engagement since lockdown. “This may be because people are looking online for more of their social life right now,” says a spokesperson. It also might be because people are “starting to notice the natural world in a whole new way”.
Nature has always been there, ticking over in the background, but many of us have been too busy to take in its beauty. But now, we have more time to kill – especially those who’ve been furloughed.
Holly Pither, in her mid-30s and based in Oxfordshire, has been focusing on nature on her daily run, as well as at home. “I’ve seen an abundance of wildlife whilst out,” she says. “I hear the birds sing when I wake up, deers walk into my garden and generally it all seems so much more peaceful.”
And Beth Stone, 28, from south London, has enjoyed watching the comings and goings of feathered friends while she works. “I’ve recently become a bird enthusiast,” she says. “We’ve bought 13 kilos of bird seed and installed a bird feeder on our patio at the start of lockdown.”
Stone has also rotated her desk to get a better view of her feathery visitors – “lots of goldfinches – probably more than 10 a day at the moment – a few robins and sparrows. I’m not far off getting a bird-watching guide I reckon.”
We may also be noticing the natural world a little more because there’s less traffic on the roads and fewer planes in the sky. We can actually hear nature’s voice – the birdsong, the sound of rain, the wind in the trees.
Cara de Lange, 46, from south west London, is enjoying the birdsong during lockdown. “Every moment of the day I listen out to the different tunes the birds are making and it brings me such peace and calm,” she says. “I find the singing of birds soothing and maybe now it’s quieter, I’ve started to notice it more.”
The time of year surely also plays a part in the collective renewed interest in the natural world. If it were winter, would we be enjoying nature as much? Probably not. “Spring is always an exciting time when everything seems to come back to life,” says RSPB. “We see birds all around us collecting material for their nests, hedgehogs waking up from hibernation, and toadlets emerging from ponds.
“At times like this, when many of us are inside for large portions of the day, the natural world can seem more precious than ever.”
Nature may also be providing an antidote to our feelings of anxiety and stress right now, offering a chance to be mindful and stay in the present moment. The outside world is so good for us, in fact, that in 2018, doctors in Shetland prescribed birdwatching, rambling and beach walks to help treat mental illness, diabetes, heart disease, and stress.
We can’t ignore the science. Multiple studies have also found nature-based activities like gardening and walking in parks to be beneficial to mental health. A review in 2016 found they can contribute to reduced anxiety, stress and depression. And in a separate study, King’s College London researchers found being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing.
Interestingly, the beneficial effects of being in nature impacted people positively for up to seven hours afterwards.
Why does nature have this positive effect on us? “It’s appealing to your different senses – you’ve got the smell, the feel, the sights of flowers and new bulbs coming up, the sounds,” says Lesley Ludlow, counsellor and chair of BACP’s Private Practice Executive.
“Our lives are suspended at the moment but nature is carrying on. You go out and as far as nature’s concerned, it’s business as normal. Bulbs are coming up, leaves are growing on trees, life is sprouting.”
“It’s calming, more than anything,” she adds. “You can switch your mind off.”
Nature has so much to offer, but will people remember how much it gave to us, once all of this is over? Professor Hart hopes so.
“After lockdown, whenever that is, I’m sure there will be a rush to get outside, but hopefully that will come with a fresh idea of what nature means to us,” he says, “and perhaps how we can be better at looking after it.”