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22 April 2020

I’ve started to gaze in awe at every leaf. I’m turning into Fotherington-Thomas, on acid

Right now, I am finding more comfort in the natural world than anywhere else. 

By Tracey Thorn

I’m a part-time, fair-weather gardener, a suburban girl turned urban girl, more at home on the Tube than in a meadow. And yet, right now, I am finding more comfort in the natural world than anywhere else. My mind is still too tangled to read much, and I feel overwhelmed by all the podcasts and live streaming and Twitter parties, and so I have turned instead to plants, which all around me are bursting through and springing into life, demanding my attention in a quiet way.

On my early morning walks through the woods I start learning the names of the wild flowers I’ve always ignored, and reciting them is like an incantatory balm – garlic mustard and herb robert, red campion and lesser celandine, wood anemone and green alkanet, cow parsley and dead nettle.

Back at home I take photos of every part of my garden and find blackberries on a sweet box, a red acer curling into leaf, the fronds of a fern unravelling. A single violet plant. And in a far corner, sheltered and hidden, a pink rose, already in bloom, somehow.

I keep thinking of that Dennis Potter interview, given while he was dying, and swigging liquid morphine from a flask, where he talked about looking at a tree covered in the “whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be”. I understand this more than ever now. How the closeness of death focuses the mind on beauty. I feel alert and desperate for signs of life, and so I am seeing, in a way I usually don’t. With a layer of skin missing, or a veil lifted, I walk between the trees gazing in wonder at every tiny leaf. I am basically Fotherington-Thomas on acid.

Although, to counter that, it’s the mood swings that have most caught me out: the lurching from one emotion to another, the impermanence of every fleeting feeling.  Nothing is happening, and yet the things that do happen have taken on a dreamlike strangeness, the sequence of events having no order, no rhyme or reason, no coherent plot or narrative.

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One of my 7am walks through the woods is enlivened by a couple having a blazing row. From behind their face masks. On another morning, there is no one about, and I realise with delight that there is nothing to stop me singing along with the music in my headphones. Or even dancing.

But when I go to the supermarket wearing a mask, it makes my glasses steam up, and the self-service till keeps freezing and saying “HELP IS NEEDED” and I feel my stress levels rise within seconds. Back home I wash the shopping, which makes me feel mad, but later that day I cook a roast chicken dinner. Ben sits at a separate table in the kitchen, at a safe distance from the rest of us, and we all drink wine, and end up playing animal vegetable mineral, and there’s a slightly hectic party atmosphere to the evening – like Christmas, but not.

I think about buying a sanitising wand, I make a cake, I cut my hair. I stand in the garden and look at the beautiful shadow made by the leafless rowan tree, which I’ve never noticed before. I read another Lee Child thriller and am soothed by the poetic refrain, “Reacher said nothing. Reacher said nothing.”

And there is silence, apart from the singing of the birds, and the buzzing of the Deliveroo scooters. The church bells ring on the hour, and every siren sounds ominous. When I hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves I rush outside to watch two mounted police go by and it is the most exciting thing that happens all day. 

I realise that some of what I’m feeling is guilt. Guilt for having space, and a garden, and a full fridge. Guilt for sometimes enjoying things. I rebuke myself for every moment of self-pity, and yet inside my head is a rant going: “I miss the shops, I miss being in a crowd, I miss the Tube, I miss the river and the bridges, I miss being in a bar with a freezing cold martini.”

So I get up and go for another early walk and a woman says, from the other side of the road, “It’s all just surreal isn’t it.” I agree with her and we wish each other well, and we walk on. 

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This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb