Sgo David Attenborough’s final tip for restoring our damaged relationship with nature is reassuringly simple. “One of the simplest things to do if you get the chance, when you get the chance, is stop naturally,” he told the Call of the wild podcast.
I’m wandering around Horsenden Wood in far west London, looking for a good place to stop. Although it is a tightly circumscribed parcel of nature, 10 acres in all, and all that remains of the ancient forest that once dominated these parts, I am, indeed, a bit lost. Walking in circles aimlessly will do that to you. I couldn’t, at this point, even point in the general direction of my car.
Once I discover a place where I can see nothing but trees, mainly oak and hornbeam, according to a sign I have passed three times, I go back to Sir David’s instructions. “Sit down,” he said. “Shut up. Wait 10 minutes. He’ll be very surprised if something very interesting doesn’t happen in 10 minutes. Doing that in a forest, if it hasn’t, is extraordinary. Don’t be impatient either.”
I’m a little impatient because the log I’m sitting on is wet. Every now and then I have to pretend I’m looking at my phone when a dog walker passes by, because a middle-aged man sitting alone and very quiet seems, I think, a little suspicious. If people think I stopped by to check my emails, they’ll be reassured – you’re just working from nature. Meanwhile, I train my ears to listen.
The first thing I recognize is a solid base of noise, a whirlwind of whitewater that underpins the entire symphony. This is the A40, about a mile south. It is annoying, but also comforting. In the 30 years that I have been in the UK, I have always lived within earshot of this river of traffic. His sudden absence during that first panic block was a bit unsettling.
Next: birds, lots of them. “Speaking for myself, then you will realize how ignorant you are,” said Sir David, “how you can’t really recognize what that birdsong is, which you should be able to, certainly should be able to do. “
My wife can identify many different birds from their calls. I, on the other hand, know the names of a dozen common skirting profiles. This does not help, I can assure you, to break the ice at parties.
I do my best. I know the bark of the raven and the cries of the parakeets, but after 10 minutes a complex world of sounds opens up, with calls that I only describe: piper tweets, short harmonica chirps, a distant Swanee hiss and the long weeping fall . of a mermaid. It turns out to be a real siren, a police car heading east.
Then finally a woodpecker starts drumming on the tree directly above me. I recently learned that woodpeckers peck not only to drill for insects, but also to communicate with each other. They have no more call to peck. Sure enough, in the distance, another woodpecker responds. I remember once seeing a woodpecker pecking at the metal mast of a mobile phone. At the time I thought I was being an idiot, but the sound was amazing.
At some point, the songs of the dominant birds die off and a sub-layer of quieter birds can be heard from the undergrowth. I see a squirrel digging for a nut that it clearly remembers burying, if not exactly where. Finally, he finds it.
I have spent more time in parks and forests during the confinement than in any other year of my life, but always walking and always talking, because the outdoors is the only place where you can see other people. Sometimes they scold me for not saying enough, for staying silent and looking around instead of asking the kinds of questions that distinguish you as a good listener. But I could get used to this kind of listening, alone, on a wet log.
• Hadley Freeman and Tim Dowling will converse on February 25 at 8 pm. Find details and £ 5 tickets to your event streamed live on Membership.theguardian.com.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism