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Ben Dolphin: Rhythm and blues – nature’s undisturbed cycles bring comfort in the chaos

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tony Hamblin/Flpa/imageBROKER/Shutterstock (5301526a)
Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), adult male, drinking, standing at edge of pond, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tony Hamblin/Flpa/imageBROKER/Shutterstock (5301526a) Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella), adult male, drinking, standing at edge of pond, Scotland, United Kingdom, Europe VARIOUS

“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel”

That was Day 1, now it’s Day 2 and I haven’t slept. I’m awake at 5am when a thrush starts singing, so clear and sharp it sounds like it’s in the bedroom. I can’t remember hearing so vivid a song, or ever listening so intently.

Ben Dolphin.

The curlews return to the hill in the third week of March almost every year, and so their clockwork consistency on Day 4 is wonderfully reassuring. Next day, as I leave for work, I check the fence post for the yellowhammer. Yep, he’s there again, singing “a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese, a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese”. He was clearly in Asda the same day I was.

That afternoon I come face to face with a roe buck in an urban woodland. He doesn’t seem surprised, so we stare at one another for a full minute before he remembers to retreat. Driving home later that night, bars and restaurants are told to close. It feels ominous, but next morning on the radio, Shereen Nanjiani picks hearing a blackbird’s song as her uplifting moment of the week. Something is happening out there.

Day 7 is a low point. I feel bewildered, disappointed, angry and scared, and at work the next day there’s an unspoken, nervous anticipation of the inevitable. When the full lockdown comes that evening, it’s not a surprise but it’s still shocking in its implications. Exercise once a day, they say.

On Day 9 I’m told not to come into work, but this isn’t a holiday and by Day 10 life already feels listless. Day 11 and..…does anyone even know what day it is? Thursday? Friday? I’m not sure and neither is Twitter.

Day 12 dawns, and before I open the blinds I realise I haven’t the faintest idea what the weather will be doing. I haven’t checked a forecast in days. They’re irrelevant now, because I’ll be going for my walk regardless. Walking is rationed, so I make damned sure I stock up every day in case it’s taken away completely.

On Day 13 the local car park is coned-off and the hill falls silent, but even on the stillest, snowiest Sunday mornings it never sounds as quiet as this. ‘Tsip tsip tsip’ go the meadow pipits, and as the second week comes to a close, primrose, celandine and coltsfoot bring yellow back into the world. Nature, eagerly escaping its winter lockdown.

On Day 15 I fetch my computer for ‘home working’. The roads are quieter but people are walking in the strangest places now they have no choice, along formerly dangerous A-roads without pavements. Buzzards glide quietly over the empty laybys, emboldened by the absence of traffic.

That evening, on my walk, I stumble upon 22 golden plovers. In 10 years living here I’ve not seen or heard a single one, and a local farmer remarks he’s not seen them here in 43 years! Coincidence? Probably.

Day 16. My first day working from home is also the day the wheatears return from Africa. In the absence of much-loved office chit-chat I’m surprisingly productive, but it still doesn’t take much to distract me and on Day 17 I excitedly rush to the window after hearing the unmistakable ‘pe-peeep’ of an oystercatcher. They’re rare up here. The first bumblebee then drones past.

As Week 3 ends, posts appear on my Facebook feed from friends who’ve lost someone to Covid-19. Till now it’s all felt distant and unreal, like something happening in another country. Daily stats are cold and impersonal, but friends of friends are dying, and I’m struggling to reconcile the intense feelings of comfort and reassurance I’m deriving from the natural world during this crisis, with the horror of what’s happening out there. It’s heartbreaking.

On Day 22 many of my online pals seem to be looking towards the heavens for solace. Folk are hundreds of miles apart but we’re all seeing the exact same thing. A beautiful full moon, just one of many expressions of unity just now.

Week 4 brings wood anemones, toad mating balls and the first wee lambs. It’ll be summer before we know it at this rate. Temperatures rise and so do tempers, as police motorcyclists chase folk away from the car parks. If anything it’s even quieter, and when a very rare vehicle drives past as I walk along the road, the driver waves at me. I wave back. That’s never happened before but now it happens twice in two days. It’s like being on Islay. Island-like.

Into Week 5. We’re told this can’t last forever, but for now the routine is set and this has become our new normal. The unchangeable has changed in the blink of an eye. Life is smaller but less intimate. The state is bigger but more precarious. Uncertainty rules, and yet everywhere I look, everywhere I go, I see natural cycles spinning on regardless. In uncertain times, I wonder if that’s the only certainty there is?

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast, countryside ranger and former president of Ramblers Scotland

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