There’s much debate about the likely long-term effect on our post-pandemic lives of closing down much of our social and economic life for the past eight months. Optimists like me hope that ultimately the impact will be positive – an opportunity to do things differently (I have refused to use the phrase ‘build back better’ since the government hijacked it). One view is that, based on recovery from two world wars, it will take more that even a year of lockdown to bring radical and lasting change – good or bad – to society. In truth, nobody really knows what will happen, but it doesn’t stop hopeful speculation.
The negative short-term impact is undeniable – the tragic loss of life, physical and mental ill health, businesses that have closed and jobs losses that may never be replaced. On the positive side, it heartens me to see how any people seem to have connected with nature when connection with each other has been so restricted.
The healing power of getting outdoors for both mental and physical ill health is well-documented and I can recommend at least two recent books – The Natural Health Service and The Wild Remedy – which recount how science and nature helped mend (a word much-used in this context) the minds of the books’ authors. More specifically, as Michael McCarthy – co-author of The Consolation of Nature: Spring in The Time of Coronavirus writes “…nature at its loveliest and most inspiring, in springtime’s wondrous transformations, could offer people comfort at a moment of tragedy and great stress.”
Aside from the fact that lockdown is a new experience for everyone, I think people are seeking more positive new experiences to keep their heads above water. Over the past six months and more, I’ve come to the conclusion that what works for me is combining new experiences (in which I’d include learning new things) with comfortable routines. Some have suggested that, in this social media-driven world, the search for the new and exciting – something a bit wild maybe – is also a pursuit of something to brag about. I hope not.
Talking of The Wild Remedy brings me to my word of the pandemic – wild. As a lover of language – a strand running through my personal and professional life – I’m currently interested in the increased use of ‘wild’ since the start of the lockdown.
To me, ‘wildlife’ seems benign, but mention ‘wild animals’ and my mental image is of danger – to myself. These days, of course, wild animals are probably more endangered by man than the other way around. At the start of the first lockdown, the desire to bring the great outdoors indoors saw a spectacular growth in viewing figures for webcams in remote places. Apparently combined views of the webcams of the 47 wildlife trusts across Britain from March to May 2020 was 433,362 – an increase of 2000% compared to the same period in 2019. The wildlife trust is just one magic carpet to transport us to the nests of birds all over the UK, most famously perhaps the Ospreys of the Lock of Lowes, north of Perth in Scotland https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/things-to-do/watch-wildlife-online/loch-of-the-lowes-webcam from the comfort and confines of our four walls.
As the lockdown eased, but with social distancing still uppermost in most peoples’ minds, the idea of ‘going wild’ became more about personal experience than watching online from our armchairs. And so it was that the country saw a massive rise in wild swimming https://www.wildswimming.co.uk and wild camping.
As spring and summer blossomed and indoor pools remained closed, demand for regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com was forces to take down it’s online map of wild swimming spots in an attempt to prevent overcrowding.
The desire to ‘escape to the country’ was the source of a bad press for wild camping during lockdown. Dartmoor is the only place in the UK outside Scotland that it’s legal to wild camp – in certain parts and for a maximum of two nights – under non-pandemic conditions. Even then there was a temporary ban in Dartmoor during August, and this summer saw the countryside rubbished, the landscape ‘soiled’, and environmental damage from wild campers in parts of the country, trashing the golden rule of wild camping – leave no trace behind.
This points up the ‘paradox of popularity’ for adventures in nature. As more people join in, it threatens the very thing they want to experience – the wild-ness of being remote and away from others! It always amuses me to read articles on ‘the best kept secret beaches in the UK’…
Assuming the newfound delights of wild experiences will remain for many post-pandemic – not in itself a bad thing – there may be a way forward. We need to recognise that it needn’t be all or nothing; there are different degrees of wilder-ness for both swimming and camping. Lockdown has seen a massive increase in interest in (organised) outdoor swimming that seems be sustained as winter approaches. The unheated Tooting Bec Lido in south London reports double the number of people swimming daily this October compared with than last year. Beyond the ‘built’ open air pools, there are probably venues across the country you never knew existed – take a look here https://www.swimming.org/openwater/open-water-swimming-venues.
This summer I also discovered a brilliant idea – nearly wild camping – as organised by a co-operative of the same name www.nearlywildcamping.org. Nearly Wild Camping connect landowners offering secluded ‘back-to-basics’ camping with people who want a wilder experience than a traditional campsite. And an unrelated initiative – Tentshare https://www.tentshare.co.uk – allows you to further polish your green credentials by doing what it says on the, er… canvas.
And finally, if intrepid exploration is not your thing, you can always answer the call of the wild and enjoy life at a slower pace thanks to another brilliant new collaborative project – Slow Ways https://slowways.uk.
Books mentioned in this piece