So the blue tits finally fledged, having had many of us repeatedly checking the livecams when we should be getting on with our own, human lives. We’re in the season of Springwatch – the marathon outside broadcast that is testimony to the peculiarly British passion for nature. Over half the adults in the UK feed the birds, with a dedicated minority setting up their own webcams so they don’t miss a flutter of what’s going on out there.
It’s tempting to see this British biophilia, with which we see nature as intrinsically meaningful and regard it with love, reverence, respect, as a kind of secular religion. And recent years have seen the emergence of a new form of nature writing that is its discourse: I’m thinking of the work of Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, along with a host of new books that celebrate very specific natural passions, such as Matthew Oates’ In Pursuit of Butterflies. This kind of writing is genre-bending, a blend of memoir and science with the sense of quest and discovery that traditionally belongs to travel writing.
I was unaware of this emerging literary movement when, a few years ago, nature started creeping into my own, subject-based, travel writing. The shift grew out of my attempts to cultivate my newly-acquired suburban garden, a rough patch of ground bordering other gardens and allotments that was overrun with brambles and heavily populated by local creatures. Annoyed at having my plants squashed and bulbs dug up, I tried at first to keep them out, blocking up their runways and putting out discouraging odours. But gradually my attempts to establish exactly the kind of garden Iwanted gave way to the realisation that things would go much better if I took into account what suited the local animals and plants.
My prime teacher in this respect was Little Fox, a cub who lived on the other side of the fence and seemed to be orphaned. Although I wasn’t feeding him daily, he would seek me out, coming to watch what I was doing in the garden or curling up for a nap among the plants. We got to the stage where he would come when I called and retrieve objects thrown to him. The garden had become a kind of nursery, a safe, hospitable place for wildlife and, as a result, I was rewarded with a rare friendship with a wild animal.
So now I leave the animals’ entrance holes unblocked, plant only open-faced flowers for the bees, and put out food and water for the birds and foxes. Heard of ‘conscious uncoupling’? I call it ‘conscious wilding’. Others call it wildlife gardening: once more, I’ve unwittingly joined a national movement that puts nature at the centre of things.
And Little Fox? He grew up successfully, patrolled his patch for a couple of years and then disappeared, as urban foxes tend to do. Although I rarely see them in my garden, his kind continue to use it as a safe place to eat, rest and play, and I’m delighted with this fresh evidence that someone the size of a fox has been sleeping in my flowerbed.