During the winter, nature goes into lockdown. Trees have shed their leaves and stand to attention …. birds scrabble around desperately searching for their next meal ….. insects live as eggs, larvae or cocoons. Waiting … patiently waiting for longer and warmer days.
And now spring is here! Birds are singing their heads off in anticipation of imminent breeding and the raising of a new family, butterflies are pursuing the same goal but rather than singing they are flittering. Trees are beginning to come into bud, leaves are magically beginning to appear.
But this is not a normal spring, we are part of nature, whether we think so or not, yet we now find ourselves in lockdown when the rest of nature is not. I am reminded of a poem …. The Waste Lands by T.S. Eliot, written in a different century about a far bigger catastrophe – World War One. Two of the most famous lines spring to mind ‘April is the cruellest month’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. The next few weeks are going to be difficult and traumatic for us, but, and I don’t want to sound trite, as a nation, we will get through this and life will go on, as The Waste Lands shows us.
Of course, elsewhere life is going on and watching it unfold is my favourite hobby, because whilst I think I know what is going to happen nature doesn’t always read my script. For many years now, I have been looking at the oak and ash trees in my garden, prompted by the old country expression ‘oak before ash – we are in for a splash and ash before oak – we are in for a soak’, I want to see who wins the race to be the first species to come into leaf.
In reality oak pretty much always comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often produce leaves before oak – thus the quote.
Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak comes into leaf in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually comes into leaf during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.
However, first in 2017 and now again this year, it is pretty much a dead heat – the ash is early. I’ve got 5 different oak trees in the garden and one big ash (seriously affected now by ash dieback). The oaks appear genetically different so I think they have come from different parent trees as the come into leaf at strikingly different times. One is way ahead of the others – the same happens every year. This particular oak has ‘beaten’ the ash, but the ash is ahead of the other four. I can’t really explain this as it has been a very mild winter in a warming world so oak should have beaten the ash by quite a distance.
When this pandemic madness has passed, at least for now, and we begin to reconstruct our lives and rebuild the economy, we need to remember that the global climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away and still need to be urgently addressed. If we learn one thing from all of this, it is that we live in a very connected world, and actions taken in one place can impact detrimentally elsewhere. Who would have thought three months ago that fruit bats and pangolins (the presumed original source of COVID-19) would play such a key role in our lives but we also need to remember that in reality they are the victims and not the villains in this whole saga.