Growing up in semi-rural Northumberland, I have long been accustomed to residing in scenic and ecologically diverse areas. I am used to the presence of bustling nature reserves a mere stones throw from my front door and green-fringed streets ringing with the chirrup of Tree Sparrows; I am accustomed to having a garden, complete with frogs, visiting squirrels and jampacked bird feeders; and, above all else, am accustomed to my daily life being wholly intertwined with nature. Never, not once in my lifetime, have I taken this for granted, but such things have long been the norm.
Six months ago now, I moved to the city: Newcastle Upon Tyne, to be precise. A city which, despite its merits, is just like any other: complete with traffic, concrete, artificial lighting, pubs, clubs, shops, bustling high-streets and transport links – all the factors that have come to define human dominion over the land. The soundtrack to my days here made up of anthropogenic sounds, as opposed to natural ones: the hum of engines, the screeching of brakes and rumble of passing metros where once, birdsong and swaying leaves reigned supreme. No longer can I nip out and lose myself in fields, wetlands or woodlands – a culture shock, to say the least, which has uprooted all that I have grown pleasantly familiar with.
Like most cities, Newcastle poses a real challenge for those living within its reaches who aim to create a life built around nature. Here, the rhythm of life is more hectic, commutes are more tedious and less scenic, quiet moments are few and far between and nature, as a whole, appears muted – diminished somewhat by myriad distractions thrown up by daily life. So much so that those who seek wilderness and harmony in nature are forced adopt new habits, routes and tendencies so to sate there lust for a wild-life. Or else risk going entirely mad.
While I have lost touch with the wild spaces I encountered daily prior to my move, I have come to realise that wilderness does exist in the city. Albeit scattered and defined by a new set of rules – far from the undulating hills, sprawling woodlands and shimmering wetlands present elsewhere but here and alive, nonetheless. Of these, our parks are the obvious candidate for adventure, though they are not alone. And wilderness, in its modern form, exists all around, ready to be snatched and savoured in the forlorn space separating railway lines from civilisation; in flowerbeds tended less than half as often as they should be; and in the overgrown, tangled grounds of offices, stores and public amenities. Wildland present among the gravestones of cemeteries, between pavement stones, in window boxes, gardens and lone, roadside trees. Places I would have ignored previously which now keep me sane during my time spent living and working in the midst of this churning sea of man and his creations.
Perhaps we celebrate wildlife more when it is obscured or in short supply? Perhaps we notice nature more when expectations are diminished by circumstance and ecological horror stories about the urban realm? Either way, I now find myself able to delight in the simplest of wild sights: in the pioneering Dunnock nesting in the base of an overgrown roadside Fuschia, in the bumblebees which visit the ornamental blooms adjacent to my house; and in the vibrant flowerheads of Oxford Ragwort poking up through cracked pavement slabs and home to countless, vibrant Cinnabar caterpillars. Small snippets of natural beauty in the heart of the cold, grey city, snatched on my daily ventures which now, after the initial upheaval, balm worry and yearning.
Now, while wilderness in its traditional sense is denied to me by daily life, I have been forced to rethink my definition of the wilds and alter the ways in which I seek them. Here, I must look harder and appreciate all life, regardless of scarcity or grandeur, and in doing so, visit places I would have bypassed, ignorant, a few short months ago. The forgotten places, the “wild” places, home to species who deserve respect and admiration for their resilience, if nothing else – etching out a living in spite of the wholesale changes thrust upon the landscape here.
Staying sane in the city is a matter of optimism and observation. And life here is not all that bad when you alter the way in which you view nature. I could, if I wished, venture forth to the empty, beautiful places I yearned for previously during moments of free time but now, after all this, I am not sure I want to. The intrepid Mistle Thrush nesting in the grounds of Newcastle’s Civic Centre and the fox that prowls the streets of Heaton by night are far too entertaining.
Oh, and erecting a few bird feeders certainly helps too…