By Luke Funnell 

Under the all-encompassing veil of Coronavirus and the collective pain and fear this has brought to people, I have noticed something remarkable and heart-warming happening: quiet footpaths are becoming well-trodden, previously secret hideaways are now being explored, the sound of children’s laughter is drifting through the woods as naturally as the sound of the blackbird’s song, Hastings is rewilding. 

I am the founder of Project Rewild, a Hastings-based community interest company which aims to get people outside more, to re-establish our connection with the natural world.

When we had to stop all of our outdoor groups for children, adults, families and communities, I was devastated. In the early stages of lockdown, I feared that this pandemic would push our already critically disconnected communities even further away from the natural world. This was definitely the case at first and still is for many: more time indoors locked away from the magic of spring springing, more time on screens, computers, phones, online workshops and classes. But I have noticed something wonderful. As I walk around my favourite natural spaces with my children in Hastings and St Leonards, I have been struck by how full of life they are, indeed, busier than they have been in years. It’s not the regular crowds, I now see parents and children enjoying time outside together. 

PICTURE: Project Rewild

Our local woodlands are busy: they are now full of shelters built by children, and parents have the time to really play with their kids, to explore and discover new wild spaces. 

As our urban spaces have become deserted, the town’s incredible greenspaces are thriving. I have been banging the drum for years: our town is full of magical wild and natural spaces – we are so lucky, and now,
finally, it appears more people are discovering and enjoying these places.

The country park, the secret seaside gems, Combe Valley, lesser-known areas of Alexandra Park and the wonderful woodlands all over town are busier than I have ever seen them, especially in the more hidden places. Despite the crowds, I have found people to be sensible with social distancing and on the whole positive and polite. A new energy has been brought to these spaces. 

For frequent visitors to our town’s magical array of natural beauty, there is a temptation for us ‘regulars’ to feel resentful that our once quiet spaces are now bustling with new visitors. Indeed, I have had similar thoughts myself. But I truly believe this is a positive step. 

I have read a lot about how the lockdown has been positive for wildlife and reduced air pollution. This is, of course, wonderful and creates an element of rewilding in its self. But the point I am making is about people. I am a huge advocate and supporter of the desperate need to cut our emissions and to conserve and protect our beautiful world. I have spent years desperately seeking ways to support change. While I think campaigning, protesting and lobbying governments and big business are all valid means of attempting to bring change, I believe everything boils down to our relationship with nature. We have become so far disconnected from the natural world, from our true wild nature that most people are unable to care. And those who do care have no idea how to make any significant change, so it can feel like swimming against a colossal tidal wave. 

Which is why for me the only hope we have as a species is to rediscover this connection. We all need nature, we are nature, we belong in nature, all of us, for the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness. We may think we are domesticated but we are not, we are feral in pheromone and intuition, feral in our sweat and fear, we desire and crave wildness because it is what we are, wild! We are physically, physiologically and spiritually connected to this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable world: there is no separation. 

People all over our town are experiencing more time feeling the rhapsodic, ecstatic bursting forth of awe that comes from spending time in nature. Hearing the birds, seeing the dappled sunlight in the woods, smelling the springtime flowers in the air and feeling the morning sun on your face or wind on our skin. All of these experiences expand our perceptual parameters and allow the world to seep in, we connect with the universe through our senses, and it changes the way we feel and experience the world. No documentary, no rousing speech or well thought out literature can be more inspiring than being absolutely ravished emotionally by time in nature. 

PICTURE: Thom Kofoed and John Murray

My point is that if more people are enjoying our wild spaces, they are building those emotional connections with nature that are innate in all of us. These connections are the building blocks to everything. If we don’t experience nature then how can we be expected to understand it, how can we be expected to care about it? We must have a relationship with nature in order to protect it and ultimately protect ourselves. 

I am not advocating that people ignore government advice, nor am I downplaying the seriousness of this virus, I know for some, going outside might still be impossible. I know that some continue to work harder than ever on front line services. Some people are very scared to go outside. Being outside is essential for our health, happiness and wellbeing: if you can, go outside – stay safe – but go outside. You don’t have to drive to enjoy our magnificent natural spaces – walk cycle, run, play! As lockdown eases, keep going outside, let your children play outdoors every day. Our very survival as a species depends on our relationship with the natural world. Let’s all enjoy our wonderful green town, let’s not go back to business as usual, let’s reconnect and rewild.

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