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Bursting out from a cocoon

The average suburban garden can provide glimpses of the extraordinary for anyone who is prepared to sit still and simply observe its magic, writes Michael Fewer

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Great outdoors... A robin perches on an apple bough, now in flower and spreading colour all over

Great outdoors... A robin perches on an apple bough, now in flower and spreading colour all over

The hoverfly, which makes the music of early summer

The hoverfly, which makes the music of early summer

The urban fox

The urban fox

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Great outdoors... A robin perches on an apple bough, now in flower and spreading colour all over

For these last months we have lived under the dark cloud of an awful pestilence, hearing dreadful day-by-day statistics, and having to deal with the new realities of self-isolation and cocooning. But even the darkest of clouds has a silver lining: we are fortunate that the 'emergency' has occurred at this time of year, as winter's wind and rain are receding and spring is weaving its powerful magic on the natural world around us. Early mornings are full of the blackbird's mellow tunes and gardens ring with the wren's melodious but indignant call and the robin's tinkling song.

Social distancing has resulted in loss of employment and income for huge numbers of people, and because this period has gone on longer than most people's annual holidays, many are beginning to miss the everyday rhythm of the work that they were so accustomed to. All of us lament the lack of some measure of productivity in our lives.

We should be aware, however, that although productivity itself is important, it only a part of a whole, and during the frenetic lives we lead it can get in the way of other essentials such as real relaxation. Covid-19 has certainly brought death and anguish, but for many, it has also brought a unique and very valuable opportunity to slow down, and gently reconnect with nature.

In spite of our deep immersion in the technological world, our brains have not really changed in millennia and we still retain strong, if latent, links with the natural world. As a species we evolved with all the other living things on this earth, and, still part of that community, our souls can be soothed by closeness to it.

Those who live in cities should not feel deprived of nature: city parks, deserted old churchyards, canal banks and disused railway lines provide valuable asylum for natural habitats: a quick look, via Google Earth, at any Irish city will show that even the most built-up areas have a surprising amount of greenery. Our city suburbs are particularly rich in flora and fauna, richer, in fact, than many rural areas, and the trees, plants and shrubs with which people fill their gardens provide a very diverse landscape for our wildlife, particularly our birds.

For those of us 'cocooned', the average suburban garden can provide, at this time of year, soothing tranquillity for those who are prepared to look beyond the obvious. Why not seek the exotic of the nearby, or, as the poet Michael Coady put it, spend some time "sifting the extraordinary from the ordinary, plucking the lyrical from the everyday".

There is always something fascinating and new to observe, even in an ordinary garden, and the closer you look, the more you will find. The poet Kavanagh wrote that to know even one field is a lifetime's experience. For me, during the last few weeks of lockdown, this has never been more true. Every spring and early summer I give out to myself that, as usual, I've been too busy, too frenetic, to notice and enjoy all the subtle, fascinating changes that our natural world undergoes at this time of year.

Now, however, I have no choice: rather than vistas of the open mountains, woodlands or sea coasts, I am limited to our very average suburban garden. In my slowed-down state I have been able to closely observe the swift appearance of the crusty brown catkins on our Himalayan birch, the beauty of the glistening droplets of dew in the grass, and the speed at which the beech trees begin to display that delicate green mist of new foliage, pleasures that I have not had time to enjoy for years.

And what has surprised me are the new discoveries, until now hidden in plain sight, that I have made. Now that I don't have to be doing something, such as reading, as I sit in the garden, I find I am content to just be. And being, just sitting quietly, has allowed me to note wonderments that I haven't experienced before, and learn new things, from the small scale to the large. I'm fond of hoverflies, those little insects that wear the clothes of wasps to ward off their predators. Like the drone of the bumblebee, their humming sound is the music of early summer, and this week I have had time to sit for long periods and watch them hover, glinting, in the sunlight. I knew that they are the gardener's friend, because they prey on many garden pests, but I have now seen them in action.

Each hoverfly I watched seemed to have its own patrol area, I was amazed to see them, on occasion, make sudden darts away from their station to catch tiny flies, before returning to their patrol point to eat them on the wing. I had never noticed these tiny flies before, but Dr Google later informed me that they were probably thrips, which damage plants.

In the garden I was frequently picking up the aroma of a delicate perfume, and wondered about its origin. I at first thought it was our primroses, but it eventually dawned on me that the scent, something I had never noticed before, was from that little, very ordinary powder-blue flower called the forget-me-not.

Goethe called it "the loveliest flower, the fairest of the fair". In European folklore it is a symbol of love, probably derived from the legend of the knight who falls to his death in a river, but, somehow, has the time to throw a bunch of the flowers to his lover, calling out "forget me not". As I studied the intricate beauty of the blossoms, a large, furry bumblebee quartered the plant from tiny flower to tiny flower, dunking its proboscis into the centre of each, rejecting some clumps for no reason I could see, but busily concentrating on others without pause.

Our birds are always a joy. My constant companion in the garden is the robin, which is very tame, and circles my chair, seeking insects. When I am doing a little digging, it perches nearby and sings, and is probably trumpeting to other robins "Keep away! This is my human! Mine! He organises food for me every day". The little bird darts in now and then to harvest some tiny creature too small for me to see. They enjoy a diverse menu, robins, and include beetles, moths, caterpillars, crane-flies, earwigs and ants among their favourite snacks.

I was surprised to see a pair of woodpigeons ducking and bowing and hopping on a nearby roof, going through their hilarious ritual of mating; they must be planning a second clutch for 2020. The pair of bullfinches that visit our birdfeeders have become quite used to me sitting nearby. They are among our most colourful birds, and wouldn't be out of place in a tropical jungle. It is wonderful to know that they must be nesting close by.

Yesterday, however, I had one of my best cocoon moments so far. It was a bright and sunny morning and I hadn't slept very well, so I wrapped up and took my seat to the end corner of the garden which gets the early warmth, and sat, breathing in the sweet, fresh air: have you noticed how fresh it is with fewer cars? I was not long there when I sensed, rather than heard, something behind me. Turning, I saw a fox on the wall, little more than that familiar two metres away. Foxes often visit our garden, but this was my closest encounter so far. At this time of year the female usually stays with the new cubs, so it was probably a male. He stood gazing at me, very relaxed and with no fear. Every detail of his colouring, from gleaming white chin, throat and belly, rusty gold shoulders and neat black feet, was highlighted by the low sun.

I was thrilled to be so close; man has tried to eradicate this vibrant wild animal for millennia, but it has survived against all odds and is an ecological success story. We stayed, the admirer and the admired, like this for but a few moments, then he seemed to nod to me, and loped casually away into the undergrowth.

Michael Fewer is the author of recently published 'A Natural Year: The Tranquil Rhythms and Restorative Powers of Irish Nature through the Seasons' (Merrion Press) info@merrionpress.ie

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