How I found the special joy of nature in cities | Alice Vincent

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One Friday morning last October, when we still could, I drove down from Brixton in south London to Somerset. It was one of those autumn days people anticipate in the midst of a sticky summer, with pillowy mist and low-lying sun trying to get through it. Even hurtling down the M3 was gorgeous; trees filling in the shade card between chartreuse and maroon, buzzards circling overhead.

I spent the rest of that weekend mentally checking off an autumnal bingo card. Woodsmoke from chimneys in chocolate-box villages; hedgerows on the cusp of change; woodpeckers flying over trees; that perfect nip in the air. It was delightful, and it was bittersweet. For the first time, I realised why people gave up the rat race to live more rurally. After a soggy few weeks in the greyest of Londons, autumn just seemed better out here.

Having grown up in the countryside, I’ve spent the past 15 years living in cities. It is there that I feel most at home, most comfortable and liberated. And it is in cities that I have found nature is something I engage with daily. Since my mid-20s, nature has been an aspect of my life that is crucial for my happiness and sense of balance. If I’m in a foul mood, my partner sends me outside. And whatever the weather, I come back a slightly kinder person.

The past 10 months have provided a lot of people with that awakening: that being outside can make the toughest of times a little better. Those with gardens embarked on a new kind of relationship with them, seeing fresh potential in the soil and space. Garden centres up and down the country ran out of seeds. People couldn’t stop remarking on simply how loud the birds were – was it that we could hear them now the traffic had stopped, or were they singing more brightly? For those in the one in eight households without gardens, we savoured our daily exercise in parks we could not sit in. April brought heat, blossom and sunshine. We raised our faces and closed our eyes to it. In a country where the gulf between the haves and have-nots has rarely been narrow, a new element of privilege was introduced: those with ready access to outdoor space and those without.

In the last days of July, I moved to a flat in Brixton and joined those with a garden for the first time. Months on, and I have cut new beds, pushed perennials lovingly into them, buried hundreds of bulbs and smothered the whole thing with well-rotted manure. We’re still getting to know one another, really. I stare at it with the fierce expectation of an overbearing tutor; it sullenly reminds me to be patient.

Before I moved, we spent lockdown in a one-bed ex-council flat surrounded by a small patch of woodland nearby. Every day, I’d look over my laptop to the oak trees which slowly changed from bare to leaf-laden. There were a good six weeks where the dawn chorus was so loud that waking up at 5am was sheer inevitability. Watching the birds – the breakfasting of the blue tits, the scramble of the nuthatch, the grim afternoon murder of crows – became a soap opera I was deeply invested in. In Brixton, though, all I could hear was traffic and the thud of the nightclub nearby that I gardened against.

Cities aren’t, traditionally, strongholds of naturalism. This holds true from William Blake’s dark satanic mills to contemporary statistics that found 11 million people in England, almost entirely in urban areas, have to walk more than five minutes to find expanses of green space. Standing in that new garden in Brixton, missing the birdsong, that made sense. But I knew that nature was there for the finding – I just needed to look for it.

It took me a while to make finding it an active practice. I’m not a formally trained gardener; I taught myself on a concrete balcony, four north-facing storeys up on a hill in Camberwell. While I’d been privileged enough to grow up with access to a garden and fairweather-gardening parents, plants hadn’t featured in my life until my mid-20s. The only garden I’d previously had access to as an adult, in Hackney at the start of my career, was used for parties, barbecues and playing with the neighbour’s cat.

In Camberwell, gardening crept up on me. Ripe with horticultural ignorance and curiosity, I picked up plants from supermarkets and Columbia Road flower market, often killing them out of love and then starting all over again. But for every failure, other things persisted. I could lose whole weekends in that small space, looking, fussing, often simply being around my little cabal of plants.

The balcony had a good vista: all of London’s shining skyline beneath high skies that changed colour and cloud by the minute. It was so small you had to look closely, and looking closely is an essential part of enjoying nature, wherever you find it. To be out on the balcony allowed me to tune into things that were bigger than my career, my relationship or my own sense of self. When all three started to waver, it was gardening – and nature more broadly – that enabled me to find a new way of life.

When my relationship broke down and I had to move away from the balcony, via a string of sofas and airbeds and spare rooms, I sought nature out elsewhere. There was a run of weekends at festivals in the countryside, but that expanse didn’t soothe me in the same way that London’s natural offering did. At a time when everything felt like a struggle, I found huge comfort in seeing the resilience of Buddleja davidii bursting forth from railway tracks and station brickwork.

To sit on top of Dawson’s Hill in the hinterlands of south London and watch swifts dip over the runs of terraces offered a freedom that seemed impossible at the time. I caught flights to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Tokyo, and spent days searching out green spaces: ancient bromeliads in botanical gardens; guerilla veg plots in pavement tree wells; blossom, of all hues, searing against the concrete.

Over the course of that year, I realised I’d spent too long unwittingly searching for nature while chasing down the next big night out, the next byline, the next bragging right. It was at Newcastle university that I fell in love with dance music, but for all the lost memories that remain on the dancefloor, the sound of birdsong drifting through the parks as we walked home in the early hours remains perfectly clear. From my first lonely months of living in London – I moved to the city the week before Christmas 2010 – it’s the snow, the foreign call and flash of the green parakeets that nested outside my window, the way the sunlight hit a frosty Peckham Rye of a lazy winter morning, that I remember – more than who I saw, or what I did with my time.

A decade later, somehow city nature seems to me more vital and beautiful than in the countryside. Honey made by London bees tastes delicious because there are so many different flowers to feast upon. Every plant here arrived with a story: buddleja is prolific because it thrived in the lime mortar left on the ground by bombed houses, its featherweight seeds further dispersed by the hot rush of air from an oncoming train. In New York, before the High Line became one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, it was an abandoned railway track. A biodiversity study found that 82 of the plant species growing there were indigenous, and a further 79 were not. Like the millions of New Yorkers walking beneath that elevated ironwork, they had made their way from elsewhere, and put down roots.

While keen to move away from this strange year spent in our homes, I think there is much to be held on to outside them. The councils will start mowing the verges again, but we can sow wildflower seeds in our communal spaces. We can support community gardens with advocacy even if we no longer have the hours. We can plant in the tree wells and share what we grow.

Autumn did arrive in London, in the end. A few weeks after Somerset, I saw the flaming leaves of a maple in a crisp Chelsea street. I cycled through Burgess Park under pink skies, saw dogs surrounded by haloes of their own invigorated mist. And one morning, looking out at the garden, I saw birds there: a pied wagtail on the back wall, two blackbirds on the bed, a sparrow and a couple of robins. Our nature here is different, but no less beautiful.

Alice Vincent’s Rootbound: Rewilding a Life is published by Canongate Books at GBP9.99. Buy it for GBP9.29 at guardianbookshop.com

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