In mid-March, the perimeter of my physical world shrank to the area from the back of our house to the nature strip outside. Having recently returned from London against the backdrop of international lockdowns, I felt the size of my existence shift from big capital city to a strict fourteen-day quarantine in my Mum’s house by the coast, followed by another four weeks of going out only for essentials and exercise.
As my quarantine began, I instantly craved a bigger space than my childhood bedroom. Though I was aware of my privilege in even having access to such a space, it didn’t assuage my anxiety. I wanted to be outdoors looking to the largest expanses available to me. I looked to the sky each day, the only infinite space left available, and waited for it to close in on me.
Staying connected to the world in times of physical distancing has meant FaceTiming, Zoom calls, using the internet to check in with loved ones. But I checked in so many times I began to check out. At these times it was Melbourne’s suburban nature that kept my lockdown from feeling like I was locked up. Observing and connecting to the small patterns of nature in my backyard kept me from spiralling into dark thoughts during isolation.
A week into my quarantine period, I receive a phone call from my grandmother in Queensland, also isolating with no family nearby.
My Pa has not-so-early-onset dementia and doesn’t understand the pandemic. My Ma has stopped explaining it to him. Instead, we talk about family of peewees that visits her garden every morning. I can hear them through the phone. ‘They call for me,’ Ma says. ‘Talking to the birds keeps me sane. Or insane.’ She laughs.
In my Mum’s garden we also have a frequently visiting peewee. We have an abundance of Wattle Birds that circle their shiny bodies around our garden like it’s a race track. Silver Gulls drop by in groups after an afternoon at the beach and direct their sass at the more subdued water birds – grebes, moorhens and the occasional heron – that sometimes venture in from nearby water.
At sunset an entire neighbourhood of lorikeets takes up residency in our largest Banksia tree. They gossip and make a mess, pulling seeds out of the trees and knocking them to the ground. They scream over each other and the cacophony reminds me of the Twitter/news/Instagram/Zoom spin cycle I am stuck in, indoors. Within the cacophony of screeching, I cannot pinpoint a single bird.
My Instagram feed is filled with people making sourdough from scratch, but this isn’t my style of domesticity. Instead, once my initial quarantine period is over, my sister and I build a veggie patch and plant dark leafy green seedlings.
I help my Mum repot a Magnolia tree. Some of its leaves are turning yellow and autumn is a good time to repot deciduous trees: as the days get shorter, the trees exert less effort into producing the chlorophyll they need to photosynthesise and grow. Instead, they channel energy into downward growth through their roots so they can absorb as many nutrients from the soil during winter.
I think about using this time to ground myself like the Magnolia, slowing down and channelling my energy into rooting myself to this moment. If I slow down now, maybe I too can burst into creamy white and fragrant flowers in the springtime.
At dusk, I leave my phone inside and go to stand underneath our Banksia tree. There are yellow brush flowers under every step. The sun sets, the lorikeets rush into the air at the same time, and as the light leaches from the sky, everything begins to go quiet.
My Mum’s house backs onto a tiny tidal creek. Every day the tide rises to the banks of our garden, and every day it drops to expose the dark silt it runs over. My moods in lockdown are the same. Sometimes I am flowing, able to concentrate to read or craft, or commit to an online yoga class. Other times I’m muddy and sluggish and feel vulnerable to news headlines and misinformation. As lockdown becomes a routine, I forget how to measure days and weeks with no memorable features.
But the days are still passing and eventually comes the announcement of restrictions being eased. It’s a relief to be able to go a little further afield in my day-to-day: go to the park, to the beach or for a hike in larger green spaces. On the first evening of new freedoms I walk to the beach to watch the sunset. The same Silver Gulls from my garden are floating on the golden stripe the setting sun paints on the bay. A soft south-easterly washes past my face but aside from the suggestion of waves in the water, everything is still and calm. I let the mood of the sea wash over my feet planted firmly in the wet sand. It’s a high tide.
There is a body of research and articles about how spending time in nature can improve your mental health. Visit Victoria lists an entire database of local and regional green spaces where you can ‘unplug from your devices and de-stress by reconnecting with nature’. Australian Geographic has an urban birdwatching guide to Melbourne. Even from suburbia, Melbourne has a vibrant natural world to breathe in and out, in and out.
Banner image courtesy of Emily Westmoreland