Richard Dawkins

Raynor Winn: What being a lockdown mother taught me about family

As Covid struck, the author of The Wild Silence found her brood scattered across both country and the city. Then a single phone call changed it all.

Raynor Winn

I have a memory of small children in tall buttercups. They sit huddled together laughing over something in their hands as the yellow flowers move in the wind, lighting their soft cheeks in a golden glow. Just a memory, as the children now live on opposite sides of the country living very different lives and the field of buttercups is long gone.

Most of my life has been spent immersed in the natural world; growing up on a farm, then living in a remote spot in the hills where the seasons and the weather dictated my days. To watch my own children grow among buttercups was the most natural and obvious progression from that. But then the children left, one moving to a life that cut her off from nature as surely as my husband and I were cut from our roots when we were evicted from the field of dancing flowers. My daughter’s life changed, from one where she ran free in the natural world to one where she lived in a grey landscape, away from the light. We moved to a small house in a spot tucked away from the wind and the weather, where the only natural view we had was of a tiny strip of blue sky above our heads.

Until someone made the most unexpected offer and we found ourselves moving to a neglected, overused farm, where the fields were stripped bare by over-grazing and the land was polluted with every kind of agricultural waste. But the owner had a dream that we could find a way to bring back the wildlife to a place where only a few sparrows squabbled in the hedgerows and two crows watched from a tree. A no-man’s land for wild things, where the possibility of achieving what he hoped for was slight. But we seized the chance to be back out in the environment, in the natural world where our days would be filled again with light and wind. A chance to create another field of buttercups and watch life thrive in it.

'I couldn’t imagine how my daughter could face weeks locked up in a flat in the city'

Within a year the sheep and cattle numbers on the farm had been reduced by two thirds and the pollution had be cleared away. Plastic waste from every corner, landfill rubbish from the stream and no more pesticides, nitrates or weedkillers. All we could do now was hope. Then everything changed. Lockdown.

I couldn’t imagine how my daughter could face weeks locked up in a flat in the city and begged her to come to us. But no, she’d have what she longed for – time to herself, time to write and think and work out where life was taking her, the things that there’s never time for in ordinary life.

"But you have no outside space, how can you bare it?" What she was facing seemed so contrary to the life of the child in the buttercups.

"I’ll be fine, anyway there’s a flat roof outside the window, I can sunbathe on that?"

"But who’s roof is it?"

"It’s over the fried chicken shop, but it’s ok they’re closed, there’s no-one there."

The sun returned and it was the warmest driest spring for years. Clouds of insects hung over fields of grass allowed to go to seed. As I watched the wildlife moving back onto the farm, my daughter sat in her flat writing a life-plan on a whiteboard.

She phoned every day from her isolation.

"I’m fine, I just jump onto the roof and sunbathe, I have so much time to think."

Then for three days she didn’t call, or answer the phone. Three days during which we both found ways of coping with the unexpected time we were living through.

I watched skylarks rising in song over the hillside.

'My daughter picked up the phone having decided how to change her life'

She finally wrote her way into being the main character in her own life story:

She jumped off the windowsill with her towel and sunscreen, fell through the roof and landed in the store room of the chicken shop. Her phone was still on the windowsill. She was stranded, a vegan in a chicken shop.

Day one: she shouted, she banged on the walls, she panicked. Then she got hungry.

I watched a blue-tit catching insects and feeding its young in the bird box.

Day two: the mountain of chicken in the freezers was threatening her morals, but she held out. She stood in the window, hammering on the glass, waving to passers-by. They laughed and waved back.

I spotted a roe deer in the orchard, it’s new faun walking close by on spindly unstable legs.

Day three: she gave in to a piece of cheese in the fridge and became a vegetarian. Ripped the whiteboard off the wall and put a sign in the window. ‘Help me, I’m trapped.’ Passers-by stopped and laughed. A lockdown art installation.

The woodpecker’s brood left the nest, four tiny balls of scruffy black-spotted feathers landing on the wall by the house.

Badgers rooted in the orchard in the early light of dawn. 

When lockdown three was looming, my daughter picked up the phone having decided how to change her life.

"Mum, I’m on my way."

Two months later and she’s still here, packing cheese sandwiches for a day surfing with her brother. Faces glowing blue now not yellow, but once again reflecting the same light of nature that shone in the buttercup field. Wildflowers are pushing through the ground in abundance and the endangered yellowhammers are calling to each other from the hazel bushes.

It seems life has a way of working out, of putting things right and seeing us through the hard times. Usually you have only to stand back and hope, but just occasionally you have to rip the whiteboard off the wall and make it happen.

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Raynor Winn is the author of The Wild Silence.

Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin  

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