I may be alone in this, but what lockdown has done, over the past year and counting, has been to recover and renew old memories that I no longer knew I had. It is as if, rummaging around in the attic on a rainy day, I had unearthed a treasure trove of lost photographs – pictures that, by rights, should have been faded and worn, but are instead vivid and highly coloured.
These snapshots are in no way glamorous, they are simply the images accumulated by someone who has occasionally been obliged to travel for work. But as they re-emerge now, in the quiet of lockdown, I begin to see how lucky I was in my various journeys, especially in those that allowed me brief forays into the countryside. I have never seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight, or drunk tea in the shadow of Mount Fuji, but I have encountered a world’s worth of wildflowers in various, surprising places, and the sense of privilege this brings is immense. Naturally, I would love to visit the temples at Kyoto, or the Great Wall of China, before I die, but what strikes me now as the greatest of luck is to have walked in a wood carpeted with anemones, somewhere in Transylvania, or to have rambled for hours in the alpine meadows of Monte Baldo, high above Lake Garda, the ground around me a sea of gentians and saxifrages.
These remembrances of flowers past do not come easily, however. As someone who has long suffered from a sleep disorder, I have experienced various problems with memory for years and, until recently, recollection has been a fickle thing. Cities I once knew merge one into another at the back of my mind; a road that leads out from Buenos Aires quickly peters out, for some reason, on the outskirts of a Bavarian village; a canal walk in Amsterdam morphs quietly into a town square in western France. And, as far as urban life goes, I continue to inhabit a world of my own making, a collage of traffic and architectures and back-alleys that obeys no rhyme or reason. It is only with wild land that things seem clearer. Perhaps, with fewer stresses in life to disturb them, my sleep patterns have improved but, whatever the reason, lockdown has begun to remap this more bucolic part of my inner world, setting the pictures in order and recovering wild meadows and desert landscapes that I had thought were, if not lost, then irretrievably clouded.
There is no doubt that I feel blessed by these memories – but it strikes me that, even though I live in a nation that claims to love the countryside, a nation whose cultural traditions are distinctly pastoral in hue, very few of the meadows and woods and waterlands that I most vividly recall are located here. Pockets of wildness exist, of course, but as far as I can see, they are fewer and further between than they are in Estonia, or Switzerland, or Spain. I would love to think that it was just my faulty memory that was responsible for such dark notions (the wild meadows being greener on the other side, perhaps) but the truth is that this land of avowed nature-lovers has doggedly squandered its hoard of wildflowers for decades. According to a recent study by the conservation charity Plantlife, we have lost 97 per cent of our wild meadows in less than a century – and those losses continue. Soon, if we do not take real, rather than cosmetic, feelgood action, nobody in this country will be able to remember wildflowers, no matter how untroubled their sleep, or how precise their memories.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas