Poetry, nature and covid-19

This year, of all years, people have become much more aware of their local surroundings; in particular, places they can visit to experience nature in their everyday lives – or at least those who were physically able to get out of their houses and weren’t stuck inside shielding. The Covid lockdown threw into sharp contrast the difference between leafy green places, where a few minutes’ walk would gain access to a park or a field full of wildlife, and those dominated by dense high-rise developments with rectangles of close-mown grass.

But this is nothing new. Back in 2016, a long-standing research project with the unprepossessing title “Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE)” found that children from minority ethnic backgrounds were much less likely to visit local green spaces than others. 74 per cent of children from white backgrounds made a visit to the natural environment at least once a week, compared with 56 per cent for those from BAME backgrounds. The differences were almost as stark when socio-economic backgrounds were studied – 77 per cent of children from the wealthiest backgrounds, compared with 65 per cent from the poorest. 

We know how important being in nature is, for children and adults. We know how it benefits their mental and physical health. Despite this, the disparity between different social and ethnic groups’ capacity to experience nature in their local areas remains. People Need Nature is a charity created to highlight the importance of nature – as a source of inspiration, for solace, for enriching people’s spiritual lives. We have worked with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network (YPN), setting challenges inspired by nature for young poets over the last four years. The first challenge, set by Scottish poet Jen Hadfield, explored “ways to be wilder”, asking young poets to write about how nature makes them feel:

Look for a place where there’s some wildness left. Look for life that isn’t human: plant, animal, fungus, parasite, forest, river, a fox roaming the suburbs, a bee following a Hawaiian shirt on a city street. Go, watch, wait, listen, breathe. Try to put your clever aside. Try to put your knowledge aside.”

The quality of the submissions was stunning and you can find the winning poems on our and the YPN websites. Our second challenge, also written by Jen Hadfield, asked young poets to explore the names of things in nature, and whether naming changed the way we think about nature. We had over 100 poems from around the world.

This year we decided to focus our challenge on this subject of access to, or exclusion from nature. It’s clearly a more political (small p) issue and we’re aware of and happy with that. This is what People Need Nature is here for. We want to highlight how important nature is in people’s lives – not for how many tonnes of carbon is locked up in a new forest, or how much economic value can be allocated to piece of habitat, but for the intangible but incredibly important things that we gain from being in nature, being part of nature. And for nature’s own sake.

Young Poets Network editor Helen Bowell suggested we ask poet Gboyega Odubanjo to write the challenge and he accepted the opportunity with alacrity. In the challenge, he dissolves any idea of people being separate from nature, and asks for poems that don’t ignore the human element:

“Our lives, whether in the city or the country, are inextricably linked to nature. This is the nature poetry that I am interested in. One that does not disregard the human element or involvement. I want poems that are able to appreciate nature in different, interesting ways. Tell me about the park that sits alongside the shopping centre. Or the spider that finds its way onto the ceiling of your room. What is your relationship to it? How does the rain fall onto the cars parked outside your house? When the sun shines through your window what does it land on? How does nature make its way into your life? How do you make your way into its life?”

If you are aged 25 or younger, or you know someone who is, consider sharing and submitting to the challenge for free, by 1 November 2020. Gboyega has offered writing prompts, thinking points, excellent poems and more.

Gboyega Odubanjo Credit: Sylvia Suli

We’re thrilled to be working with The Poetry Society and with Gboyega Odubanjo this year. We look forward to being challenged by the poets – to take action; to ask how has it come to this, where nature is available to some and not others; and to discover what has to change.

Miles King is CEO of People Need Nature.