How to enjoy nature during lockdown – even if it’s only out of your window

Even city-dwellers can enjoy the natural world from their windows. You just need to know what you're looking – and listening – out for. Alice Vincent talks to fellow nature writer and Losing Eden author Lucy Jones about how to start.

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

I haven’t set an alarm since lockdown. I’m an early riser anyway, but there are no buses to catch, no rush hours to avoid. Our working days have shifted, our routines moulded too. Now, at 6.30am, I wake up to the chirruping cacophony of the dawn chorus. At 8am, I’ve become dependent on watching a handful of blue tits peck at the hawthorn, shortly after I cast the day’s fortune by how many magpies join us at breakfast. If we’re lucky, the keening call of a nuthatch, and its pale pink breast, turns up for elevenses.

Things pale a little as the day wears on: wood pigeons stupidly chasing mates around tree branches; squawking parakeets. Then the nadir: 4 o’clock squirrel feeding time from the lady upstairs. Everything sent a-flutter. By dusk, though, order is restored: the blackbirds sing the sunset in, the quiet drill of a woodpecker reverberates through it all.

I watch it play out through my window. I’m lucky: despite living a stone’s throw from the South Circular in London, my flat sits five metres away from woodland. Watching what happens there, all day, has kept me sane while social distancing.

‘I’ve been blown away by people wanting more of a relationship with nature'

It would seem I’m not alone: social media is a-twitter with budding ornithologists, who have become fascinated with the natural world around them at a time when we are being forced to see – and cherish – it in a new light.

I’ve been aware of the necessity of engaging with nature for my own wellbeing for a while; tending to tiny urban balcony gardens has seen me through some of the most difficult times of my life. But it’s fascinating – and cheering – to see so many other people reap the benefits of nature when everything else seems so newly uncertain.

For author Lucy Jones, the notion that the great outdoors can make us feel better isn’t new, but nor did she expect to see the academic studies she explores in her book Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild come to such strange fruition. ‘I’ve been blown away by people wanting more of a relationship with nature and how hungry and thirsty they are to learn more,’ she tells me.

Jones moved from Hackney to Hampshire a few years ago, and the cemetery that aided her recovery from addiction in Losing Eden has become the site of her daily walk with her two small children. But, I ask her, how can those who aren’t privileged enough to have access to a garden or balcony access nature – what can be achieved just from looking through a window?

Like me – and everyone else listening carefully by their window these days – Jones starts with the birds. ‘They’re very, very busy at the moment,’ she says. ‘They’re singing, mating and breeding. So I would suggest getting in a habit of seeing what kinds of birds you can spot outside your window. They’re gathering material such as moss and feathers and lichen to make their nests, so I’ve started to watch them more closely to see what they’re carrying in their beaks, too.’

I’ve been opening the window to let the dawn chorus in, and have become reliant on Lev Parikian’s Twitter Birdsong Project to learn the different calls. ‘It can take a while for your ears to attune to it,’ cautions Jones, but stresses it is worth it. ‘In Losing Eden, I discovered that natural sounds, including birdsong, have an impact on our mental health and reduce stress. The dawn chorus might help you get back to sleep.’

After the listening, comes the looking. Trying to spot things – such as different types of butterflies, bees or blossom – can be challenging if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Jones encourages trying to visually work through the rainbow, instead, to hone awareness: pink blossom, blue forget-me-nots, green leaves, the orange of a sunset. Noticing things is the first step to start acknowledging them; once you’ve acknowledged them, you’ll find it difficult not to see them.

If you are able to take daily walks, the same practice can apply, and – within reason – you should be able to get a little more up and close with the wildflowers that are closer to the ground. Jones also recommends looking into the cracks in the pavement: ‘I’m obsessed with sprays of weeds because they're often fractal.’ By this, she means – to quote Losing Eden – ‘a self-repeating pattern of a shape that varies in scale, rather than being repeated exactly. If you can see a tree outside your window, you are looking at a fractal shape.’

Fractals – found in everything from fern fronds to broccoli – have been found to affect the brain. ‘An American professor named Richard Taylor found that when we look at fractal shapes, they provoke brain waves associated with calmness and relaxation,’ Jones continues. ‘Once you realise they’re there you see them everywhere and they’re so pleasing. Because the eye is fractal too, it locks into place with fractal-shaped plants and flowers.’ It’s an effect Taylor called ‘physiological resonance’.

'Our activities are constrained, but outside our windows there is so much life'

Finally, there’s the pollinators. I’ve noticed one particularly fat and sleepy bumblebee frequenting the flowers on my balcony over the past week, and Jones has spotted different varieties of butterflies over the past few days. Again, a little patience is required: Jones saw a ‘quite boring-looking shrub’ in a whole new light after discovering it was luring in hundreds of bees. ‘I thought I knew this cemetery really well, but I’d overlooked this enormous shrub that was providing food for hundreds of bees in April, where there’s not a lot of nectar around yet.’

While time is a slippery and shape-shifting thing during self-isolation, we are nevertheless spending more hours in one place than we ever have before. Setting even a few minutes aside to sink into the view from our windows - or taking a few slower moments on our increasingly familiar daily walks - can lead to all sorts of tiny, precious discoveries that can help ground us at a time when we need it most.

‘Our restoration activities are currently constrained, our communion with others is constrained, but outside our windows there is so much life, colour and beauty,’ says Jones. ‘A hallmark of the living world is that things grow and change and heal. And so I think people are, as they have always done, turning to the living world for comfort and sustenance and grounding.’

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