In the late afternoon I walk on the heath. A stonechat perched on a plinth of gorse while a hobby circles overhead, patient, unrelenting, waiting for a chance to pounce. A silver birch tree buzzes with a flurry of finches, continuously moving and impossible to glimpse for more than a second. At the end of the path a pair of hares, or very large rabbits (hard to tell when you are wishing for them to be hares) stand frozen, ears long-pricked as I approach.
Makeshift signs attached to information boards across the reserve alert dog owners of ground nesting birds. It seems that with fewer walkers this spring, some species are thriving and the sound of larks overhead give testament to that. What greater joy than this – to take a walk on a warm summer’s evening amongst the sounds and sights of the natural world. Here in the great outdoors one can feel truly alive and it comes as a revelation every time, as if the idea were newly hatched. But it is as old as the hills, or in the almost flat landscape of Suffolk, as old as the heath.
For many pilgrims, the opportunity to commune with nature is one of the primary motivations to set out at all. The lockdown has many of us itching to pull on our walking boots and get out on the trail. And soon we will. But here’s the rub. It’s quiet out there right now and for those who have not been infected with COVID and are privileged enough to live close to nature, this spring has been the sunniest, most peaceful and most memorable. Fewer people, more birds. Fewer journeys, lower carbon emissions. Quieter and cleaner.
But the flip side is that more disposal PPE and more plastic waste is being washed up on the beaches. And what about on-line shopping? Great when you really do need to buy a spare part, or a new note-book, or some socks, but what of all that corrugated cardboard packaging? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Age of Enlightenment, Age of Cardboard. Is that what we want? To go down in history as the generation that felled millions of trees, not to make ocean going ships, or timber framed houses that would last for hundreds of years, but just to make cardboard packaging for things we bought on impulse while we were waiting for the shops to open up. Here are some figures: 3.7 million tonnes of cardboard consumed in the UK. According to the EPA, each tonne of paper/card represents 17 trees. 17 x 3.7 million = 62.9 million. That’s almost one tree per person per year in the UK alone. So here we are then. The heath in Suffolk is quiet and glorious, but somewhere in a forest plantation in Finland or Scotland or Estonia or Latvia the sound of a giant chainsaw is ringing out for that next lockdown parcel.
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston is now available in both digital and physical formats.