In a forest in the UK, music, survival and signs of normality

Despite the Delta variant and harsh boundaries, things are returning to how they once were

Something truly remarkable has happened. What makes it seem so remarkable is that it used to be just normal. The Timber Festival has been taking place on sunny days in a great forest in the heart of England. There are swans and ducks on the river Trent nearby. Children are playing cricket. And in the forest, people are laughing as they set up tents at the campsite. There are family play areas, food stalls, tee-shirt sellers and environmental activists trying to sign up new members. Above all, musicians on a stage are playing in front of a live audience. It is a taste of how things once were and still might be, despite the fact that coronavirus cases in England are rising rapidly as a result of the Delta variant.

As the vaccine programme continues, the death rate is down and the UK is beginning to return to normal or, as we all suspect, invent a new normal. Much has been written about tourism, air travel and whether we want to work in offices or at home, but there is a far bigger picture that is so obvious at this cultural festival.

When I talked with audience members at the festival, the most striking aspect was our shared profound desire to rethink much about who we are and what we are doing. Coronavirus meant erecting tough borders and harsh boundaries between nations and between all of us as citizens.

Wearing a mask is the most apparent personal boundary, but since the pandemic began, all of our lives have been marked by not being in crowds, not meeting people we love and not joining in music events. We have had an enforced gap in one of our deepest human desires – to be together, to co-operate. It is this desire that brings us together – to yell our support at football teams, to have parties, to sing in choirs and to worship in churches, mosques and temples.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari says co-operation is the key to the success of humans as a species. We are not very big or terrifying – no fangs, no claws – but we are social mammals who can co-operate with one another and that makes us strong.

At the festival, there was an emphasis on preserving the natural environment, especially woodlands. This led to conversations about the 50°C temperatures in the western US and Canada and the problems caused by climate change. If terrible things happen in the Americas, Australia, the Arctic and Antarctic, they will one day happen next door.

As we emerge from the coronavirus darkness, we should ponder not just what we lost, but also the insights gained

Coronavirus is another catastrophe that has affected everybody. On the bright side, there are usually human solutions to human problems, despite some glib comments in recent years from British and American politicians about building walls or creating barriers – as if in some magical way this will keep out problems altogether, by leaving them to others.

Former British prime minister Theresa May once suggested that we are either “citizens of somewhere” or “citizens of nowhere.” This was crude politics, the delusion that nations can keep out problems of the world merely by being more nationalistic. The suggestion is also naive because as “citizens of somewhere” we are also connected to “citizens of everywhere.” The pandemic, economic shifts, climate change, poverty, migration and war have different faces in different countries but even billionaires, who build fortified boltholes on secluded island fortresses, cannot entirely escape the consequences.

Cynics may conclude that I want us all to hold hands and sing along with John Lennon’s Imagine. But I want something much more hard headed because human connectivity is not hippy talk. Thinking and co-operating are means to ensure our survival. If poorer countries lack vaccinations and become petri dishes for coronavirus mutations, the whole world will suffer. We can only survive a pandemic when we also do good, by ensuring a vaccinated world. And while rich countries may dither over the harsh decisions necessary to tackle climate change, this autumn’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow needs to agree on actions. A failure at Cop26 would be a failure of both imagination and of thought. It would be catastrophic if we fail to link the matter of our future survival to reducing our current wastefulness.

But there is good news. The speed at which scientists developed several different coronavirus vaccines shows that human ingenuity can work miracles. Technological solutions to climate change are also possible. And our human hunger to be together, to gather and enjoy our communities dates back a long time. As we finally emerge from the coronavirus darkness, we should ponder not just what we lost to Covid-19, but also the insights we have gained. Inter-dependence between people and countries is not a sign of weakness. It is a mark of strength and of our common humanity.

Here in this green English forest, it has been possible to have some green thoughts and hope – realistically – that they will grow.

Published: July 6th 2021, 9:00 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National