In our household we were already home-schooling. By late January, both our teenage children were out of school. One because of illness, the other because it was stifling him. As soon as he left, he sprang back to life like a long-squashed plant, eager to stretch out, to learn and joke and bounce around like any lively fourteen-year-old. He and I tackled various subjects, and in history opted for the Cold War GCSE module. Within weeks we were planning a field trip. On the last day of February, rucksacks over our shoulders, we travelled from Cornwall to London and from there took the train to Berlin.
In the news, Italy and Iran had begun to see a cluster of infections. The ski-jump graphs of projected deaths had started to appear. I had a day or two wondering whether we should cancel; in the end I went with the official advice, and there was no advice not to travel.
It was the first visit to Berlin for both of us, and we shared in the thrill of discovery. The city suffered all the madness of the twentieth century – total war, economic collapse, the catastrophic ruin of ideology and collective fear. We walked huge distances. We had long conversations. We washed our hands, a lot.
On the day we left Berlin, the city recorded its first case of Covid-19.
14 March. Cornwall, the sun just rising. I’m looking at the frost from my studio window, at the pale of the grass and the early mist hanging in the valley, and I am coughing. I woke this morning from an unusually deep sleep. I sense something strange in my body, an alien ache in the limbs. At first it doesn’t occur to me that it might be the virus – but there is something about it that is different from ‘flu. We self-isolate.
16 March. We all have symptoms – up-and-down temperature, low energy. But it’s manageable. I carry on at my desk. Outside, in the afternoons, I am working through a pile of wood from trees felled last summer, splitting it into logs. Today, after an hour or so, I feel tired and sweaty. More and more convinced it’s the virus.
19 March. The days are slow now, the house suspended in convalescent torpor. I go about my tasks heavily, as if the gravity dial has been turned up. A friend leaves bags of groceries at the top of our track and I drive the three-quarters of a mile up to collect them. We unpack the food, the children in pyjamas, everyone over-excited by the packets of cereal, the fresh fruit, the pizza dough, the sausages and chocolate.
23 March. Full lockdown begins in the UK. Makes little difference to us, already in self-isolation.
Through my studio window, first thing, I watch a heron in the grass standing sculpture-still. Our spaniel lollops into view and the bird opens its slow-motion wings and banks off to land again at a safe distance. It’s after voles, the fish of the field. There’s a glut of voles this year. They’ve been kept in check by a couple of barn owls. But this winter, I’ve seen no owls. I suspect they haven’t survived – possibly the unusually wet weather around Christmas, preventing them from feeding. Their numbers are down everywhere. I miss their ghostly presence, I miss their vole-hunting.
It is exactly ten years ago now since we moved to this old Cornish farmhouse. It came with a large field fringed by a tidal creek: seventeen acres of ‘improved’ pasture, highly-productive grasses good for fattening cattle but hopeless for biodiversity. I have become more and more involved in trying to restore the land, to reinstate habitat. The biggest part of that has been planting four thousand trees.
The project has taught me many things. Most of all, I have learnt of the unforeseen consequences of intervention, the knock-on effects of our good intentions. You want to put trees in a field, and the greatest cost in time and money turns out to be not the trees but the deer protection. To prevent browse, I had to bring in a ton of plastic. Each tree is sheathed in a 1.5 metre-high deer-guard, a plastic tube, which is then staked. I tell visitors proudly about planting a wood. When I show it to them, all they see – spreading out towards the creek – is a crop of plastic deer-guards. And the deer themselves thrive because, long ago, all their predators were killed.
Then there’s the grass, the rich grasses which if not removed would smother the seedlings within months. Most projects use herbicide. I refused. In the first summer, I spent weeks laying hessian mulch mats around each tree to stop the grass. The voles loved those mats; come winter they burrowed in under them for warmth and, while there, gobbled the tender roots. I lost dozens of trees. Then came the owls and the voles were knocked back. But the owls have gone now and the voles have multiplied.
In the late morning, feeling better, I go out to inspect the plantation. I can feel a faint give in the ground as I walk across the field. Vole-tunnels. I spot countless holes, glimpse scurrying shapes. Reaching the trees, I peer down into the tubes. Most are in bud now, but there are many too which are brown and dead-looking.
Filled suddenly with a flood of post-viral emotion, I vow that I will check and hand-weed every tree. These are my trees and, like a parent, I am responsible for their welfare.
25 March. I was scheduled for a round of book events over the next couple of months: festivals and interviews and talks. One by one the cancellations come in, sad emails written after hopeful delay, from organisers whose entire year is focused on a few days of crowds and ticket sales. Their loss is echoed a thousand times around the globe.
We are all over the worst of the virus. All of us are a little low, prone to sudden bouts of fatigue. I am left with anosmia. I can detect sweetness and texture in food, but all flavour has been stripped away. Morning coffee is hot and bitter water, wine is anonymous, I cannot smell soap.
I spend the afternoon with the trees. Starting in the south-west corner, I set up a rhythm – opening the cable-tie that fixes the tube to the stake, inspecting the tree, pulling out the grass, then replacing it all. It is satisfying work, and I’m lucky to be outside.
In the first half-hour of weeding, I work through twenty or so trees. Then I look down inside a guard and see just a brown stalk. I remove the guard and take the stem between thumb and forefinger. It comes up with sickening ease: a rootless bulb, vole-nibbled. I work the stake back and forth, yank it out and throw it with the plastic tube towards the path.
Out of eighty-odd trees weeded today, eleven are dead.
28 March. This pared-back world. No visitors, no need to go anywhere. The days repeat, with growing symmetry. The ephemeral and non-essential have been stripped away – and I find it liberating.
What remains are core responsibilities. There is the immediate family – the four of us staying fed, staying warm. My own writing and research in its given hours, homeschooling in others. There is also the house to run, the chopping and storing of logs, the shifting of pellets for the biomass boiler, the gutter-clearing, all the jobs long put off.
Then there is the land. I have noticed in myself and in others that the crisis has brought out a certain compulsion to do the right thing. Unable to help in any direct way, my piety is directed instead at habitat improvement. I finish off a pond, digging in the liner and edging it with slates. I mow, on a high-cut, an acre or so of pasture that I’ve planted with yellow rattle, a laborious attempt to restore meadow flowers (the yellow rattle feeds off the grass roots, reducing its hegemony).
And I tend to the trees.
5 April. A day of cloudless blue, light so sharp you could cut cloth with it. Several hours out with the trees.
A whole corner covered, seventeen dead.
Our spaniel works with me, poised over mounds of cocksfoot grass, chin down, ears flopped over her eyes, waiting for the vole-rustle – then she thrusts in her face, snorting and lunging. She rarely gets one.
A kestrel has appeared over the field. With fanned-out tail feathers and quick wingbeats, it fixes itself to the sky, eyeing the grass below for any movement.
7 April. Another crisp and cloudless dawn, another warm day. Out into the field at midday. I weed around a group of oaks that I’ve grown from local acorns.
When I originally sourced the trees, I was surprised to find that the nurseries brought in seedlings not just from around the country, but from Holland. The greatest problem with the recent enthusiasm for tree-planting is disease. Large-scale projects mean large-scale movement of tree stock, which in turn has helped spread a number of highly contagious arboreal pathogens: Dutch elm disease, knopper gall, sudden oak death, oak mildew – and recently, ash dieback.
Weeding the trees now, in lockdown, with the world stilled, I can’t help thinking of the great restlessness of our age, the same restlessness that led us here. We became used to the ease of movement, to the planet’s outer mesh of flight-paths (now oddly absent overhead). But then, within months, a single human infection in China spread across the entire globe.
Habitat loss is a widely known eco-threat, but another not so often recognised is species spread, the mass transfer of people, parasites and viruses from one habitat to another. Oliver Rackham, the great sylvan historian, was clear about the danger to woodland: ‘Globalisation of diseases has become the top threat to the world’s trees and forests.’
My planting has not yet suffered from disease but it is not without its threats. Across the river yesterday, I counted a herd of fifty-four fallow deer, up from forty last year.
Today, fifteen dead trees – voles.
And in the field’s hedges, I have noticed the first blackened branches of hymenoscyphus fraxineus, ash dieback.
8 April. It has a long tail, this virus. You think it’s gone and then all at once, at some random hour, it swings round and hits you. This morning: tight chest, pain in the joints, sloth, a taste in the back of the mouth – or rather not a taste, because my receptors remain out of action, but a chemical sensation.
In the mid-afternoon, I go out into the field. The sun is warm, the wind light. Across the river, the wooded slopes are still winter-brown but brushed now with the faintest of greens.
Ten dead trees in the first half-hour. The discard pile grows.
11 April. Gathering stakes and guards. All over the plantation they lie like the fallen on a battlefield. More than a hundred so far. I have tried without luck to have them recycled. Perhaps they can be re-used for local woodland projects. I make small stacks of them for later collection.
12 April. Announced today that, in the UK, over ten thousand people have died from the virus; the number of confirmed infections is at eighty thousand. We have all become statisticians, eager crunchers of numbers, analysts of graphs. Death tolls, fatality and infection rates are the crude co-ordinates in this unfamiliar world, offering the illusion that we know where we are.
Statistics ring round my head as I work. Several hundred trees weeded; about one in eight dead – more than in previous days.
A large number of bumblebees today, pollen-questing. I watch their black shapes zigzag over the field, pausing on dandelions. Thousands of bumblebee colonies are now imported to the UK each year to help with pollination. It is estimated that three-quarters of those bees carry disease-spreading parasites.
The kestrels are busy this afternoon, wing-flicking in the cloudless blue. I watch their sudden stoops, see them catch several voles.
The spaniel catches none.
14 April. Seven hundred and seventy-eight reported deaths today, five thousand two hundred and fifty-two new infections.
In the field one hundred and twenty-five trees inspected. Thirteen dead.
Two kestrels – one vole caught.
Spaniel – none.
16 April. Early to the field. Dawn – a red glow to the east, mist over the river. At the wildflower acre, I pause to inspect the yellow rattle. It’s denser this year than ever. There are signs that it’s achieving its intended effect – to thin out the sward and allow other species to grow. But it now looks so thick, I worry that – like the pigs in Animal Farm – it will simply take over.
Beyond the meadow is the first planting from six years ago. There are gaps where trees have been lost but the overall impression, among them, is of plenty – hundreds of young oaks and alder and hazel and birch, at different levels of growth, in dozens of shades of green.
I stop at a hawthorn. Last year, I removed its guard and it still holds the memory of confined growth – tall stem and a large bushy crown. I look at its wealth of lobed leaves, so thick there’s hardly room for more. I look at the slender spikes and the red tinge to the branch-ends. Beyond it are others and I am aware for the first time in here of being enclosed, of being in a wood. All around is the performance of spring, the engine of growth silently whirring beneath the surface. It stirs in me the same deep-down swelling – a feeling of participation, of awe, of healing.
Absently, I pick a hawthorn bud. The brilliant white flower is already half-out. Hawthorn flowers or may are famous not just for their spring-time beauty but their rank smell – described as ‘corpse odour’ by Ted Hughes, and known in some places as ‘the smell of the Great Plague’.
I pinch the bud and put it to my nose – and just for a moment I am baffled why it doesn’t smell.
3 May. The tree-weeding is finished. We all spend the afternoon gathering up the guards. They make a sad stack outside the barn. More than two hundred. Each one a lost tree. And the voles are still at work.
In the evening we are eating supper, and I am listening to my daughter talk about the book she is reading and its plot-twist involving a blind soldier, when I see a flash behind her shoulder. Through the window, beyond the garden, for the first time in six months – a barn owl ghosting along the orchard wall, heading out towards the big field, hunting.
All images courtesy of the author
Philip Marsden’s book The Summer Isles is on sale now in hardback and ebook and will be available in paperback in June.