Early on during his custodianship of the Garden of Eden, Adam was tasked with naming the birds and beasts – and presumably bees, too. Simon Barnes reminds us of this story (Genesis 2:19-20) in his Rewild Yourself, illustrating how giving names to animals makes us somehow know them better. “After the name comes liking, affection, love, understanding, responsibility and a desire to cherish,” he writes. Barnes suggests that learning the names of a few common-or-garden animals – five butterflies you’re likely to see on a buddleia, say, or a few indigenous British birds – we can deepen our connection to the natural world, feel it more vividly and ‘rewild’ our minds.
Barnes is a bird- and butterfly-watcher primarily, and doesn’t stray much into the world of flora, but I can attest that his theory works in the vegetable kingdom too. I spent the first lockdown with my in-laws, the garden designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, as they created a new garden at a new home in Somerset. Helping out with the sowing of seeds, the pricking out of tiny plants and the weeding of beds not only made me feel useful, it filled the days with anxiety-relieving physical exercise and fresh air. And to know that this little seedling would turn into a bushy broad bean plant, and that one into vivid calendula, made it all the more exciting. This time around, with my senses sharpened, I am much more aware of bulbs shooting through frosty ground and the first little patch of crocuses than I would be were it not for lockdown.
And I am far from being the only one. Three and a half million people were estimated to take up gardening for the first time in 2020, with sales of plants growing at a Triffid-ian rate. The healing plant echinacea saw a 3,000 per cent increase in sales. David Robinson, managing director of Suttons Seeds, told the Financial Times he thought there had been a glitch when sales of seeds tripled over the first weekend of lockdown. And after the almost hallucinatory clarity of the birdsong that rose up in the absence of traffic and airplane noise last spring, birdwatching has become a popular pastime for many. Nearly a fifth of British adults feed their garden birds every day.
But you don’t necessarily have to garden to appreciate the nature all around you, as a new spate of nature books proves. Barnes’ Rewild Yourself came out in 2018, but his “spells” for making nature visible have never been more pertinent. They include simple ideas such a buying a pair of waterproof trousers, to be able to sit outside even on a wet day, or looking out for the hidden network of tracks that small mammals make in mud or snow. He is inspired by St Francis of Assisi to use binoculars to make deer and hummingbirds appear to flock around him; Although Barnes calls each of his ideas spells, they could just as easily be called meditations or even prayers – the act of making yourself open to receive the sublime, in the form of the natural world.
Meanwhile, the television nature presenter Kate Humble’s A Year of Living Simply (2020) makes the case for pottering around in the garden and living sustainably. Psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith’s The Well-Gardened Mind (2020) demonstrates the benefits of gardening for anxiety and isolation. Richard Power’s novel about trees, The Overstory, won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize; and shepherd James Rebanks’ English Pastoral was a Radio 4 Book of the Week in January.
Whether you call it mindfulness, meditation or simply just pottering, rediscovering the joys of the natural world has been an unexpected boon for many during a difficult year. My grandfather Cyril Connolly was once asked where he went to church. “I prefer to worship under the blue dome of heaven,” he replied. In a year when churches have had to close their doors, this blue dome has proved a perfectly satisfactory second best.