I’ve been lying for weeks. I’ve lied to my friends and to my neighbours, to strangers on Twitter and readers of my nature column. I’ve lied via Whats-App, Signal, FaceTime and Zoom, on Radio Suffolk, BBC 6 Music’s weekend breakfast show and on Radio 4’s hallowed The World at One. I’ve done it cheerfully, smilingly and completely sincerely – so sincerely, in fact, that I even fooled myself.
Since the start of the year I’ve been reassuring people that spring is not only almost upon us, but is, by phenological markers such as aconites and catkins, actually under way. I’ve been reminding everyone that time spent outdoors can be a powerful mood-booster, and that even in cold or wet weather the natural world still feeds our souls.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe these things, which are increasingly well supported by evidence; just as I believe that reminding people of the year’s cycle, pointing out its milestones and demonstrating a way to live connected to the seasons is a helpful and even transformative act. But the truth (and I hid this as carefully from myself as I did from everyone I spoke to) was that this year, no number of snowdrops or drumming woodpeckers was enough to dispel the grinding loneliness of living by myself for months on end. Still, I walked every day, looking for natural phenomena to write about. I planted bulbs, filed my weekly pieces and said “spring is coming!”, cheerfully, to anyone who’d listen; but somewhere along the way I’d stopped believing it. There was only the long, unchanging, suffocating now.
And then, at last, the temperatures rose, and all the lies I’d been repeating came true. I stood in my tiny garden one Saturday afternoon with no coat on, the back door open behind me and the sun on my face, and I cried at the fragile but familiar sense of welcome and possibility, the return of the bone-deep feeling of rightness the outdoors has given me ever since I was a small child. With the newly mild air it was as though the comfort I’ve been offering others was at last available to me, and I believed in the truth of chiffchaffs and frogspawn and blossom – not just intellectually, but with my body, too.
In the space of one warm afternoon spent pottering in the garden my entire imaginative landscape shifted. My world was no longer just the living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, but the front flowerbed with its sleeping cargo of half-forgotten perennials, the side return with its sparrow terrace and wood pigeon-haunted hedge, and my narrow back yard with its bird feeders, log pile, roses and wild garlic, the first shoots of which were unfurling almost as I watched. To feel part of it all again, to trust in its processes, was like waking from a bad dream, or perhaps an acute episode of sleep paralysis; and while the temperatures will doubtless drop again during our long run-up to summer, I don’t think I’ll fall back into the frozen numbness and disconnection that gripped and held me all winter long.
The recent cold snap had made the relief more acute. Here in Suffolk, the snow had lain deep for eight days, and with our rural lanes ungritted there was no way out of the village for a nervous driver like me, while an icy north-easterly wind scoured our flat landscape and made even short walks something of an endurance test. My 320-year-old cottage lacks central heating, and is uninsulated (something I hope to remedy this year); with temperatures rarely above freezing all week, and in minus figures every night, I found myself genuinely struggling to stay warm. I’ve loved snow ever since I was a little girl, but the freezing weather increased the sense of being locked in and isolated. This year, for the first time, the white world outside the windows was hard to enjoy.
So while it wasn’t the whole picture, there was a definite sense of having survived something as I checked my tender plants for frost damage and greeted the dear, familiar garden birds who I’d helped make it through. For the first time in months, the outside wasn’t inimical and I didn’t have to don protective clothing to be in it; I could walk straight out, as I was, and feel comfortable and relaxed. Even being able to prop the back door open felt like a milestone, after months of jealously hoarding heat by fitting Perspex to the inside of my draughty iron windows, hurrying my supermarket deliveries inside and ensuring the iron escutcheon always covered the whistling keyhole. To let spring air rush into the cottage mere days after the last snow had melted felt profligate and liberating: a foretaste of the long months when the doors and windows will often stand open, and I’ll spend more time outdoors than in.
And that’s where the tears had come from, I realised at last: the sense of gears meshing, a sunnier future appearing distantly on the horizon, familiar, inevitable and plausible at last. The world warming up may no longer be a matter of survival, as it was for our forebears, but humans evolved in nature, and its rhythms and meanings still move within us. Winter is about stasis, but spring brings change and progress – and dear God, never have we all needed to move forward more than now.
When I was close to finishing this piece, my dog Scout got up from her bed, stretched performatively, and came over to stare at me: we should go outside now, she told me quite clearly, so we did. One of my neighbours was getting out of his car, and from our doorsteps we waved to one another. “Spring!” he called over, gesturing at everything: the blue sky, the sparrows voluble in the hedges, the yolky crocuses on the verge. I smiled back and agreed with him that yes, it really was.
Melissa Harrison’s latest book is “The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary” (Faber & Faber)
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus