2020: this spring will always be remembered as the Coronavirus Spring, and as I write this the outcome is wholly unknown and beyond guessing, whatever temporarily powerful politicians say. But what is certain, and obvious, is that like all things it will come to an end. Nevertheless, in the regular cycle of the turning year, seedtime and harvest, so immemorial, suddenly everything seems emotionally adrift, in question. Including, to be blunt, one’s own survival. Will I ever finish the book I am writing? Or indeed see this essay posted? (I hope I live to see that question in print…) But like wise Lady Julian, writing nearly 700 years ago in her anchorhold in Norwich while inexplicable bubonic plague regularly came out of nowhere and killed people in as little as 24 hours, we can say, ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.’ But perhaps not in the way each of us expects, or hopes, for good or ill.
There have been pandemics before, several times. We Europeans started one ourselves when we first went to the New World. The peoples who did not know they lived in a New World were easy meat for Old World microbes. Within a generation some 90% of Native American had been wiped out. (Their return gift to the Old World was a new, virulent form of syphilis, the only disease I know named after the hero of an epic poem – Girolamo Fracastoro’s Siphilus, sive Morbus Gallicus, 1530). I have lectured a good deal, over the years, on the world crisis – a dramatic climate shift and a not unrelated pandemic – of the fourteenth century, and it’s more fun than any disaster movie: as long as you are not in it. One point I always stress is that almost everything modern society takes for granted – labour-saving machines, the concentration of capital, the market value of labour, a money rather than a customary economy, lay education and literacy, the demise of legal serfdom, and even double entry bookkeeping – came out of people having to respond imaginatively and practically to the initial collapse of the population by around 50% in a single winter. But, then, nobody knew the rules for the new game, any more than they do now. We are not now in another 1348, or the almost forgotten but almost equally deadly ‘Justinianic’ plague and crisis of 541, or even 1918, bad enough in all conscience. This virus is not the ‘Destroying Angel’ of pestilence that the 1559 and 1662 Book of Common Prayer implores God to make to ‘cease from punishing.’ But the big difference between those thens and now is how intricately connected and interdependent at every level is our worldwide culture. How innocently we trust in science and technology to provide a quick fix! But it can’t undo the moving of the intellectual, emotional and imaginative goalposts: that has already happened. Nobody for a long time will be able to relax into an assumption that normal is normal. If ever you needed a demonstration of the Butterfly Effect here it is: a poorly bat is in a cage on top of a pangolin in a Chinese market, and a few weeks later the stable world as we know it is brought to a halt, and even American Presidents have to acknowledge that there are some things walls won’t keep out. But though it is not yet the Last Trump, there will be changes.
There are already. Nobody is going to work if they can help it, on government instructions. Jobs and businesses have collapsed, at least temporarily. Gardens, after a few days of undivided attention, are almost painfully tidy. Vegetable plots are immaculate, waiting for a nice gentle warm rain to arrive and really get things going. The other day on what was a wonderful bright Spring morning, again, after a run of the same, my beloved and I walked went out early while there was still frost in the shade. Two yaffles (green woodpeckers, in case you didn’t know) laughed at us in their looping flight as we walked seriously along the drove – well, not really, but it is nice to anthropomorphise. A solitary heron stood as if thoughtful in the middle of the meadow, and then took off with the slow flap of his huge broad wings. The scent of the opening leaves of the poplars on the river bank came on the wind – a spring smell I find intoxicating, evocative, recalling the scent of the sticky propolis on the bees’ frames when I happily used to work their summer hives, cutting through that strong glue to extract the waxen combs and their dripping hoard of sweetness. By the corner of the field that used to be Seth’s, where the water of a higher ditch trickles into the lower one with a sound like a tap left half on, a sound that you do not associate with this flat country, his greengage tree seemed to be wanting to start blooming. I remember when I first came to that spot. We had just arrived in the village, and to help out an elderly neighbour (elderly! Younger than I am now!) I drove him down to his field in the Morris Traveller, a cloud of summer dust rising behind us. He wanted help lifting and bringing in his spuds, and never shall I forget the fork going into that black earth and the largest potatoes I had ever seen erupting whitely from its richness. Happy time, and the greengages he gave me were a revelatory delight for one who came from a county where greengages were simply not grown. That was in the days before you could get anything from anywhere at any time… can it last?
Quite a few people are already out and about, taking their permitted exercise. Everyone is trying to be as friendly as possible and as is compatible with keeping an antisocial distance. They greet each other with gestures, talk with the narrow river between them, cheerfully exchange news of gloom and uncertainty on a smiling morn when the birds are noisily marking territory and the first hatched pigeon eggshells lie whitely on the grass the sheep have nibbled close. Further along the hedge, a flamboyance of magpies takes off from the ground as they see us. What mischief to small birds have they been doing, I wonder? Dogs of course know nothing of ‘social distancing’, and run up to me as they usually do and get their usual half-biscuit – I always have a few in my pocket. There are much worse places than this spot of England to be stuck in.
Mornings like these, it is hard to keep the sense of seriousness and gloom properly due to what the morning news constantly tells of the worsening statistics, the hardship and suffering of others, of whole countries in what is inelegantly called ‘lockdown.’ The word seems to have originated in southern California in the 1970s, and was used originally of confining prisoners to their cells ‘for their own good.’ (An ominous etymology…) However…the two of us walked on, further down the Fen and over the new bridge, and into the new wetlands near Wicken – so far they are only teenage wetlands, so to speak, and there is a lot of long term wetting to do before they develop anything like a true wet fen vegetation. Even so, there is a wide expanse of water, a foot or so deep, ideal for the flocks of russet-headed pochard, a few shelduck, some Canada geese, a few greylags, and the usual indignant coots. On a lone willow tree bleakly in the middle, its feet in water, two cormorants perch, their black wings half open to dry out. (They have no oil gland above the tail to waterproof their feathers, as other waterfowl do.) The wintering geese, pinkfeet and brent, have been gone north for some weeks now, leaving the washes of the Cam quiet. As we walk past, the long horned Highland cattle, introduced a few years back as they can thrive on this poor pasture, sit and chew their cud slowly, following us with their longlashed eyes.
We walk on, silently agreeing it is too good a morning to waste, and work can wait an hour or so. We pass where the derelict farm buildings were, a tired mess of badly laid brick and rusty corrugated iron, and concrete floors heaved and cracked with the movement of the peat beneath. A pair of barn owls always nested there. I see that someone has set an owl box on the top of half a telegraph pole. It’s an ugly enough thing, but I do hope it is Des. Res. for the owls as there is precious little elsewhere where they could go. I have a good look to see if I can see owl pellets, but I can’t be sure: after the wind and rain a few weeks back, they could easily be washed out or away. But I have seen an owl hunting silently over this fen this winter. So we may be lucky.
All this fen ‘went back’ to wet wilderness in the farming depression of the 1930s, and James Wentworth Day celebrated its wildlife and its wildfowling in his books, and the much loved local doctor – they named part of the next village after him, Ennion’s Corner – spent perhaps more time doing exquisite paintings of the wild birds and writing a lyrical book (1942) about this Adventurer’s Fen than he did in being a medic. Then in 1940 the War Agricultural Committee took over, drained it within an inch of its life and for the second time it became intensively cropped. Now the wheel has turned again, and once more it is becoming wilderness – this time by design. Some of the old folk in the village who had sweated to keep this land dry enough – bits of it are well below sea level – to farm were appalled when the National Trust revealed what it intended to do with the land it had bought. We all like our benchmarks to stay as we have known them, and as we think them permanent. But they are not, and don’t.
Those old folk who shook their heads would not have appreciated the herd of little Konik ponies that now rove and roam on this soil. Hardy beasts that are used to wetland, they come from the farmland east of the River San in Poland, and descend from the tarpan, the pre-historic wild horse that roamed Britain and Europe since before the last Ice Age. The last pure tarpan died in Russia in 1879, but the Koniks share some of its genes and some of its features, like a dun coat and a black dorsal stripe. They are breeding well. Indeed, the stallions are competing as stallions should, and won the accolade of a headline in the Daily Mail in 2016; ‘WILD HORSES COULDN’T DRAG THEM AWAY: BATTLE-SCARRED STALLIONS SNAPPED SPARRING IN THE CAMBRIDGESHIRE WETLANDS. The rare konik ponies confronted each other on the wetlands of Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. Stallions become frisky at this time as mares come into season and males bear the scratches from battling to breed. The fight lasted for several minutes as the stallions vied to show their dominance and were watched by three foals.’ We watched a leggy foal watching impatiently while its dam had a nice satisfying roll on her back. Then, as she got up, it demanded suck, but she walked on. Now clearly cross, the foal simply put his head under her hers and its neck across her breast as she walked, and stopped her importunately in her tracks. Three times this happened, and then she gave in, with the foal flicking its tail in delight as he guzzled the rich milk, butting his muzzle against her belly.
Soon enough, we turned for home and duty. For an hour or so the world had been a long way away and something deep, atavistic perhaps, had been awake. But you can’t live in dreams or memories. One by one the usual markers of routine are weakening, disappearing. All church services stopped, in the middle of Lent that we were seriously trying to keep properly; then all churches locked, including even the tiny church in the village where on most mornings at the end of my walk I used to go and say Matins. Hector the black Labrador used to come with me: a pious dog for whom I never bought a dog-collar. Thoughts of the other ‘now’ return. Perhaps this is a providential time to draw breath, to stop and think, and in this enforced staying at home, an unanticipated dose of what for a monk would be stabilitas loci, to read and meditate, to make electronic contact with friends whom we have not seen – and probably will not see – for some time. Change is the air – literally. For a day or two I could not think what was, well, different, could not think of what I was being reminded. And then I realised. This extraordinary clarity of the light, which many people have independently noted, this silence – it is exactly what the world was like when I was young and first came here. And that the air is cleaner is true. Hardly any planes are scoring the sky with their contrails, and whether cheap air travel, environmentally prodigally costly, can (or should) ever return is a question not easy of confident answer. Air pollution worldwide is 50% less that it was this time last year. Today’s news tells me India’s electricity use has fallen to the lowest in 5 months ‘due to lockdown.’ The skies over China are clear for the first time in more than a generation. Anyone under 25 in China will see a sight they have never been before, a sky blue by day and full of stars at night. And other things: fish return to the waters round Venice where they have not been seen for years. And there is a real spirit of cooperation and generosity about – at least in the necks of the woods I know. I wonder if it is healing some of the dreadful and unnecessary damage done to our civility by Brexit?
I think we may be on the brink of a paradigm shift: certainly nothing will be the same again, and the fragile hollowness of the acquisitive and economic models that have ruled us for so long is clear as day to anybody who thinks at all. The quiet wisdom of Gaia may, just may, be listened to. The old tramlines are not there any more, though some will try to pretend they are, and they may be powerful enough, or their promises seductive enough, to get people to try to rebuild the old patterns. For the devil you know… There will be a cost.
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