I’ve been making a conscious effort, since January 1st, to notice nature in the grey bleakness of the city in winter. One morning last week, buttoned up against the irrepressible sleet and the bitter cold, I was walking fast through an industrial park in South London, having deposited my car at the mechanic. Following my nose, I headed for a gap between two walls, where, sure enough, there was a footpath that cuts through the buildings and then came out, completely unexpectedly, alongside a river. Three long-tailed tits bobbed from twig to twig in a bush in front of me and a robin manned a post on the footbridge. The red, straight twigs of the dogwood brightened the riverbank and the swish of the water over the little weir was a pleasant sound. By the time I reached the bus stop, the sun had come out and the streets glistened after their cold shower.
The following day was a windy one and I took a walk along the river. On impulse, I turned right through a small gate and into the nature reserve that lies between the Thames path here and the road. There’s a steep incline as you scramble a few paces up the bank to join the footpath that follows the edge of the reservoir. I reached the top and caught my breath. For a moment, I felt as if the entire population of ring-necked parakeets had arranged a party in the branches above my head. They were perched at all levels in a plane tree, holding animated conversations with each other. The squawks weren’t going to stop soon so I walked on, the river to my left and reservoir to my right; I was walking through the water, with the security of knowing I was on dry land. Three herons, sitting on three different bundles of twigs, surveyed the world from their watery look-out posts. Two Egyptian geese flew over my head to settle in a plane tree, from where they produced deep honking squawks to rival those of the parakeets. I came down from my river road and through the gate back onto the path, the greyness not bleak, but beautiful in a subtle way.
On Sunday I visited an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in East London. It centred on the depiction of the garden, of cultivated nature, in paint and textiles. Light shone from the works, not only in the sun-filled skies of one or two but from the greens of the leaves, the lawns and the vines enveloping the brick walls. A painting by Pissaro epitomised the sense of light oozing from the paintings, in which there was often just as much green as yellow. This was a bright, colourful collection and we left inspired by its cheerful optimism. After a mooch around the rest of the gallery, where nature is a constant inspiration in Morris’ designs, we headed out to the gardens behind the house. Despite the bitter cold, a spontaneous desire to be in nature, however, cultivated, seems to have prevailed; we were now really amongst the green, the birdsong and the floral designs that were yet to appear in the formal beds. The light, in the clear sky of the late afternoon, though faded to sunset by the time we reached the road to go home, had lit up every branch and shrub with its brightness. Nature imitating art, imitating nature.