Countryvile

A few decades ago, during the giddy long days of the first lockdown, I wrote about how nature was returning as the skies cleared, the roads emptied and McDonald's suspended its hedgerow sponsorship programme, under which it is contractually obliged to pepper every road, path or pavement with its rubbish.

Now, in the middle of a third lockdown, leaving the WFH kitchen table or downtime sofa for a walk doesn’t seem to offer up the same sights and sounds of nature in all its glory.

I appreciate we are in the depths of winter, but it’s one of the warmest winters for years, thanks once again to those such as McDonald’s. Something should be stirring in the undergrowth, surely?

It’s almost like nature knows something is up this time around. Road traffic having returned to its pre-pandemic levels as soon as last September, perhaps nature vowed not to get caught out again? Maybe all those earnest TV cameramen have inspired camera-shyness, not dreams of animal stardom? Perhaps nature had all its fun in the summer and has now given up on going out, just like the human race?

Well, despite what your eyes and ears may tell you, nature is still there – if only you know where to look, as I discovered on a recent journey into the woods.

In secret communion with their earthbound, bulbed cousins the crocus and the daffodil, legions of dog poo bags – the low hanging fruit on winter’s brittle-boned tree branches – are blooming everywhere.

Like a murmuration of starlings in a summer sky, the appearance of hundreds of bags of dog poo in a winter tree is one of the undoubted wonders of the natural world, even meriting its own collective noun: an ‘ignorance’ of dog poo baggies.

The appearance of this phenomenon is aided in no small part by the legions of new dog owners who don’t seem to understand that, just as a dog is for life and not just for lockdown, bagged dog poo can well survive the walk home to be disposed of properly.

Never mind. The sight of all those plastic turds dangling from their barren scaffolds is a welcome reminder that, off-stage, joyous spring readies herself in a changing room mirror, surrounded by bouquets from excited admirers.

Soon the first leaf buds will appear, as delicate as salt crystals, and the poo bags will recede from view as trees are once again baized in billiard green.

In the meantime, these glossy black petals turn greedily skyward to catch the light, and drink in every drop of sunshine the season has left – offering the nature lover on a lockdown walk the tantalising promise of longer, if less fragrant, days.

Nature’s presence in these newly hard times is measured not just in poetry, but also in prose.

Returning home recently from a walk in the gloom, I spied a fox, frozen under a streetlight, mid-bin manoeuvre. This briefest glimpse belied the progress that urban foxes have made over the last 12 months. For, just like the dog poo blooms, vulpes vulpes is revolting.

As in, it has had enough.

Nourished by overflowing bins filled with lockdown baking disasters, Ocado order food waste and failed heat-at-home restaurant meal kits, urban foxes have climbed several rungs up the evolutionary ladder during lockdown.

Yes, these creatures of the night, widely dismissed as disease-ridden bandits, have made the evolutionary leap long-anticipated by zoologists, binmen and insomniac dog walkers alike. Fuelled by the excess calories available to them and driven by the corresponding increase in brain function, urban foxes have proved themselves pivoters par excellence in a year of stiff competition.

Satisfied only twelve months ago with a tossed kerbside kebab, these ambitious creatures have since developed a rudimentary system of governance, a basic if reliable financial system, and a nascent industrial agricultural complex that will eventually see millions of chickens reared in organic space and comfort before making their way to the fox hole table.

As Aesop established, the fox is an opportunistic animal. So, in celebration of their development, and as private jets were idled and champagne returned to cellars when the WEF’s annual meeting in January moved online, our newly-intelligent four-legged disrupters descended on the Swiss resort of Davos instead to hold their own annual meeting.

Thousands of foxes from around the world attended a keynote speech in the rarified alpine air from billionaire philanthropist and former Neasden bin raider, Ray Nard, who called on the vulpine delegates to reframe their cunning — and place sustainability at the heart of street-originated sustenance. At an after-party where the champagne flowed and the rotisserie never stopped turning, Ray also talked about his Foundation’s ambitions to eradicate mange.

The birdsong is muted, the hospital wards are full, and families are confined to home. Authorities struggle to contain a pandemic caused by humankind’s growing interference with nature.

At the same time, consider that an entirely new lifeform has emerged during lockdown to grace our tree branches. Meanwhile, one of nature’s favourite sons has gained new-found freedom.

So, as you stare out of the rain smeared window think of Fabulous Mr Fox as he hits the slopes after a packed day of seminars, excited about the evening’s networking over drinks, and driven by the prospect of eradicating scabies.

As I say, nature is there if you look for it. Just don’t mess with it.

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James Tate

James Tate

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.