24th March 2020
Like many others, when it got real, I ran to the trees. Literally ran, slamming the car door shut and jogging up a woodland path. I wanted clean air in my lungs and to breathe, to feel them expand. But mostly, I needed the trees.
My patch is a liminal South Downs Sussex zone at the back of Worthing, rolling towards the villages of Findon, Patching and Clapham and away from local hotspots Ditchling Beacon and Cissbury Ring. So far, as a working mum, my Covid19 readjustments have been a combination of manic project management and a weird 1950s housewife vibe of wanting to endlessly fill the pantry shelves and cook stews. I’ve gone a bit foragey in the hedgerows and block out anxiety by imagining myself in a romanticised rural world – possibly in the interwar years – where everyone knows the names of obscure herbs and is a dab-hand at lambing. I want to ferment, pickle and preserve things. I suppose I want both to control the chaos and to be sure there will always be jam.
For now, my family have come to the following arrangement: my husband takes the kids running on the beach three mornings a week. I take the kids on the downs three days a week. Sundays, God knows, we haven’t got there yet. After exercising we attempt a combination of home-schooling, working, eating, TV, etc. all together in close quarters. The dog is in shock at getting so much human company. We bumble around the house simultaneously exhausted and wired and tell each other that things will soon settle down.
On my alone-with-the-dog no kids walks I opt for a natural, ancient bit of woodland. It’s a jumble of hawthorn, sycamore, ash, oak and beech. Bluebells are on the cusp of coming. It’s the tail-end of the daffodils and primroses right now and it seems to me that in these last days the trees have expanded. Their presence – always noble and impressive – has increased, deepened.
I’ve been walking this area for over a decade. I know where to find a cluster of fig trees that will be dripping with fruit at the end of the summer. I know where the best conker tree is and the best patch for wild garlic. I’m on speaking terms with two horses called Rabbit and Friend who live in a triangular field at the part where the hill really gets steep. As I write this the authorities have said we are allowed one walk a day with our family group and the thought that this could be taken away brings on an asthmatic contraction in my chest, a claustrophobic-panic feeling that I imagine is like the first moment of drowning.
Yesterday, desperate to feel like I know how to manage the enormous responsibility of home-schooling I printed off worksheets for the kids. One was an illustration of a lung’s bronchial tree and at the kitchen table they earnestly labelled the separate parts of the lung-tree: Upper lobe, lingula, lower lobe. My mum has advanced lung disease, COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (what used to be called emphysema). She’s been in isolation for three weeks already. As the kids were colouring in my daughter asked me what a virus is so we looked it up. 2019-nCoV. So freaky-looking: half-alive, half-not-alive, these strands of RNA floating-cosmic-particle-blobs with the power to bring the human world to a halt. She asked, What happens when they enter the lungs? They infect the respiratory tree, I said. My mum sent a WhatsApp message: I miss the kids. They are my oxygen.
My need to be in amongst the trees is as physical as hunger. I’m allergic to anything hippie, so please don’t call me a tree-hugger, but being under the green of the leaves is truly like having a bath, or being covered in a blanket. It’s more than just soothing, though. Being near trees at a time like this taps into a primal, non-verbal need to be embraced and held. It’s not just ‘nature’ I’m after, in the generic sense, though obviously it’s healing and pleasant to be out in the sun and wind. It’s similar to the feeling I’m guessing a toddler has when they eat soil: wanting to be part of it, dissolve into it or find protection in immersion. What I want, I think, is a chalky, aching reassurance that comes from beyond humans.
At the top of the hill my path opens up from the beech tree-tunnel and I emerge on to a high grassy plateau where I can see as far as the sea in one direction and way over towards Chanctonbury in the other. My kids call the bench up here The Queen’s Bench and it does feel majestic to reach the top. I’ve never felt so grateful to call a scrubby, shaggy, green patch of land my home and because it’s home I have not looked up this area before. On the Ordnance Survey map I discover that this place I walk in every day has a name. Surprisingly, but not surprisingly, it’s called ‘No Man’s Land.’
Suzanne Joinson is a writer and academic. She has published two novels with Bloomsbury, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer’s Wife. Her writing appears widely and she and writes regularly for The New York Times. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester. Read more about Suzanne on her website.
Photographs by the author.