Nature Notes: The high cost of a quiet road

Male chaffinch in full voice

NATURE NOTES by Chris Mitchell

The coronavirus pandemic has made us realise how vulnerable we all are.

As well as the direct threat to our physical health there is the more insidious effect on our mental health.

It’s difficult enough communicating when we are being asked to keep two metres apart, but how will relationships fare if we are obliged to cover our mouth and nose with a mask?

What price the loss of a smile?

“Don’t go out; keep a distance from your neighbour; don’t forget to wash your hands after you have touched a surface that someone else might have touched”.

We are all potential sufferers of agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and general anxiety.

For all our belief in rationality, our mental state is fragile and can easily be knocked off balance.

It brings to mind a problem I once had with a chaffinch – pathetic I know, but yes, a chaffinch!

At the time I was spending most of my time writing and researching a topic that required prolonged concentration.

And then along came the chaffinch.

I tried wax earplugs. I tried keeping them in all day but I ended up with an ear infection.

I tried noise-reduction headphones – very expensive – but anything to keep out that incessant 50-decibel shrieking.

I even tried wearing them whilst gardening and playing an early Queen album at full volume: “Sheer Heart Attack” – that should drown it out, if it doesn’t give me one …

What next?

I was so sensitive, or to give it its psychological name – “sensitised” – that I could even pick out the faintest suggestion of a chaffinch on a TV programme.

It might be while watching the golf or some Jane Austen adaptation with a scene near some trees – and that blooming chaffinch was there in the background. Why doesn’t anybody else notice it?

What next? What next to do? Chop all the trees down around the house, down to ground level – that’s what next to do.

And so I take an axe and like a deranged lumberjack, I fell every Sitka spruce within earshot.

I cut down the white fuchsia to within feet of the ground, and the sessile oak and the sycamores and the rowan and the Swedish whitebeam – the lot, all down to within a few feet of the ground.

That should do it. Just tell everyone it’s to give the deciduous trees more space, and the coppicing of what’s left will make them grow all the stronger.

And then, next spring – all potential perching sites cleared from near the house….but the traffic!

You open the door and there is a car stopped, looking at us; and we look out of the window and there is a car stopped looking back at us….

What a state to be in!

Quick – replant some mature trees to provide an instant screen. The Christmas trees from past years with root balls still intact – they should do it; and that escallonia and the New Zealand holly – evergreens to block the view of the road.

This is madness. One month I am cutting down all the trees; the next month I’m desperate to put them back!

There is humour here.

Someone calls when the trees have disappeared only to find that when next they visit, just months later, the trees are back again – some fully grown.

Complete amazement: “Things don’t half grow fast here!”

Thankfully, it’s an episode from the distant past.

Time is a great healer; I gradually managed to rewire my brain circuits and become habituated to the noise of the chaffinch.

I can laugh at it now, but it shows how fragile and vulnerable the human mind can be.

And so to the news that’s on everyone’s mind – coronavirus.

As someone over 70, I am trying to minimise the risk of catching it and passing it on. Self-isolating is a daunting prospect and who knows how long this lockdown will last and what the future will bring?

I am reminded of that classic story from 1902: “The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs. “Without, the night was cold and wet … ‘Hark at the wind … Path’s a bog and the road’s a torrent.”

Gosh! This is far too close to home.

The tale has been adapted many times for radio, television, film and theatre, and the full short-story text is available on the Internet.

In the present circumstances it would be in poor taste to dwell on the details.

Suffice it to say, the message is a salutary one, beginning with the anonymous quote: “Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it.”

As I sit here in this eerie quietness – no more tourist traffic rumbling by and stopping outside our gateway – I cannot escape the jarring irony.