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17 June 2020

I’m looking for new life everywhere I go. Even the mosquitoes are cheering me up

They are the first living creatures to have arrived in the pond we dug a week ago. 

By Tracey Thorn

I know my world has shrunk, but this is ridiculous. I’m on my knees staring at mosquito larvae in the new pond. They look like tiny tadpoles, or (I imagine) sperm under the microscope, and though I hate mosquitoes as much as anyone, I’m actually thinking, “Oh wow, look, LIFE.”

They are the first living creatures to have arrived in the pond we dug a week ago. The making of it was fun in itself, as we removed a section of lawn and burrowed into the dry, impacted earth beneath, fighting our way past stones and bricks and broken tiles, all of which had presumably lain there since our house was built in the 1930s.

We had read some instructions and watched a video on YouTube, but in the end our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we ignored one vital piece of advice, which was to use a spirit level. 

After we’d lined the hole and filled it with water we realised our mistake. One side of the pond was full while on the other the water only reached up halfway.

Emptying it with buckets made us slightly hysterical, and we laughed more than raged, something about the amateurish nature of our work feeling good. We were doing it ourselves. Learning as we went along, from our idiotic mistakes.

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When a few days later I spot the wriggling larvae in the water, I consult my friend, the nature writer Melissa Harrison, and ask her advice. “You can’t go meddling,” she says, “it has to become self-sustaining. Which means it might go through weird phases that you don’t like. But it’s all part of it becoming a dynamic habitat, which is what nature needs, rather than being something tightly controlled, and therefore vulnerable.”

I trust her so I stand back and let the larvae be. I have to trust her because she has helped me so much through these recent weeks with her podcast The Stubborn Light of Things. I highly recommend this series, in which Melissa takes us on walks through the countryside, while thinking out loud about endurance, and uncertainty, and the nature of memory. In the mornings I sit with my headphones on, watching the bees swarming over the funny-smelling blossom on the rowan tree, and listen, and am soothed. 

I make another pond, in a plant pot. I fill a large dish with water and a few stones, and every day a robin or blackbird comes for a splashy bath. I leave the grass uncut and watch the dandelions and daisies and rosebay willowherb start to appear. 

I watch a damselfly on the courgette leaves and a bee on the creeping jenny planted in the margins of the pond, and on a walk I photograph a hypericum pushing its way through sheer concrete. Again, it’s life that I’m trying to focus on.

Although, as the world seems to be coming back to life, I’m not sure I like it. I hear more traffic, and also more sirens. Plane trails appear in the clear sky. I pass more people in the street, and in the early mornings there is a sense of the day starting, and I’m not sure I like it because I’m not sure it’s safe.

Ben’s original NHS text told him to shield for 12 weeks, and that would have ended on 14 June, but then, by chance, I find out that the date has been extended to 30 June. No one had told us. On the same day a public announcement informs us that he can now go outside, but again, there is no message from the NHS, and no real understanding of how these instructions fit together to make a coherent plan. Are we making our own decisions now? Maybe.

We dig up another bit of the lawn, and make a flowerbed, and plant hyssop, scabious, red valerian and hebe, and I wonder, is all this just distraction? Or is it a form of creativity? 

I haven’t found it easy to read, or write, during this period. In the past couple of weeks I’ve tiptoed back towards work, and have finished the second draft of a new book. But that is editing, the part of writing where you are mostly crossing things out. 

With that finished, I’ll have to move on to something new. I stare into the pond. Hoping some inspiration will arrive. Or maybe a frog. 

This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars