This short essay is a follow-up by author Shauna Laurel Jones, whose feature article “Of Birds and Barley” is included in the Summer 2020 issue (available in print only).
Meanwhile in England, a situation no one could ever have predicted: we invested millions of hastily misguided pounds into a songbird because we had failed to take a swan seriously, and we continue to hold our breath for any meaningful guidance from a culinary herb.
It just so happened I had started reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks as SARS-CoV-2 was settling like a fine post-industrial mist over London, and the book inadvertently colored my experience of lockdown. Reading restively in my fifth-floor, gardenless, Zone 1 flat, I looked for a reprieve in the woods and waters of the British countryside. I would like to be there, I would like to go there, to let my daughter run through the dappled light of an age-old apple orchard, to poke a nervously eager toe into the bracing water of a hidden loch in the highlands. But long after finishing the epilogue, I find myself coming back to Macfarlane’s opening pages in which he laments the loss of words describing or entangled with nature, and the reappropriation of nature words to not-so-natural things. Specifically, I’m thinking of the latter in terms of the NHS Nightingale, Exercise Cygnus, and Sage.
The new NHS Nightingale Hospital London—the flagship of seven Nightingale hospitals frantically built to cope with Covid-19 here in the U.K.—was fashioned out of the ExCel convention center in a matter of days, at an undisclosed cost. Obviously, the hospital’s namesake is Nurse Florence, not the winged Luscinia megarhynchos. Now, apparently, it’s turned from a little brown bird into a white elephant, as some have said in the news, because for all its grand expense and promise, it has proved largely useless (although it might become critical during subsequent Covid peaks and is thus on standby).
It would have been needless from the get-go if lessons had been learned from Exercise Cygnus, the 2017 simulation of an influenza outbreak that showed England was far from prepared for a medical capacity surge. In early May, it came out that many recommendations from Public Health England to the government following the worst-case-scenario of a fictional H2N2 “swan flu” were never implemented; if the public health infrastructure had been suitably reinforced, the country wouldn’t have had to build that Nightingale-turned-elephant at all. And the herb? An acronym, of course: for whatever it’s worth, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has been activated for the Covid-19 crisis; its proceedings are conducted in the belly of a venomous snake (as in, COBRA, the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms located in Whitehall). Sage has since been criticized for its opacity and its own unpreparedness, to the extent an alternative group has formed.
So I’m thinking about the recycling of these words associated with the living world during these emergency times—the endowment of these words with connotations of impracticality, absurdity, scandal—and in the next thought, I’m returning my attention to our neighbor fox, my greatest comfort at the moment, a welcome connection to the natural world in my not-so-natural environment. Grey and grizzled, she climbs up the fire escape with her lame front left paw and sleeps on the roof of the building next door, where I stare at her through our living room window and find relief in the thought that at least someone I know is doing well during lockdown.
And I’m thinking about the more successful home-school lessons we’ve had with our six-year-old during this time: lessons on dolphins, on bats, on the coronavirus itself. She delivered a phenomenal monologue the other day on the origins of Covid; if it came about as a result of humans’ interference with nature, she reasoned, then it ultimately must be Donald Trump’s fault, given that he doesn’t like animals (she remembers a piece of 2019 U.S. policy, the endangerment of the Endangered Species Act). And while I haven’t been as pedagogically rigorous as environmental writer George Monbiot—who’s apparently been teaching his daughter about all the earth’s habitats and using that as the jumping-off point for an admirable range of ecocentric lessons—I have talked with my daughter every time we leave the house about the living things we see. She can now distinguish Lady Blackbirds (as I call them) from their Gentleman counterparts, and certainly from starlings or robins. She loves spotting the don’t-forget-me-nots (as she calls them) and playing with the sound of their name in her mouth.
Many words have been written about the renewed importance of nature, and nature experiences, in pandemic times and hopefully beyond. Yet some of the crucial British vocabulary of the pandemic seems to reproduce the nature-culture divide. With the NHS Nightingale, Exercise Cygnus, and Sage, I’m truly recognizing the loss of nature-connectedness as starting in the imagination. When we talk these days about hospitals, emergency simulations, and advisory groups in current events, and we’re not thinking about songbirds, waterfowl, and perennials, something vital has been lost. O