Joe was showing me ‘photographs’. ‘This is me riding my horse, and this one is the view from the top of the mountain… and this is a fox I saw… and here is one of the flowers’. My experience, as I sat there, was that of viewing holiday snaps of a place I’d never been to, and yet Joe’s photographs had been taken within a virtual world, they were screen shots of somewhere that does not exist.
I find it difficult to relate in any meaningful way to people’s holiday photographs unless they are of a place I myself have visited – even my own photographs frustrate me sometimes – and looking at Joe’s photographs, I realised why. Photographs of places in the world that I have not explored are only as real to me as Joe’s virtual photographs; there is no difference in my reaction to pictures of places, unknown to me, that do exist and my reaction to those that do not. Neither place has context – there is no smell, no setting, no touch or feeling or noise. I suppose that is why good photographs are the ones that can hint at those things, and why artwork that is not photographic can work better than a snapshot to give the feeling of a thing or a place. And I realised that this is what the current pandemic has done for me. So many things have become virtual; the elements that made an experience real and relevant to me have disappeared from my interactions with life. I have lost those feelings of place and touch and discovery and connectedness that come with being around people and moving between different places. I feel sensory-deprived and no amount of video contact or phone calls or virtual tours of new places can make up for it. Joe will be the first to admit he likes it like this, he prefers lockdown. He avoids all those people who want to touch him, cuts out all those elements that cause him to feel he is in sensory overload. He has no need to interpret faces when messaging. The world has become, like his virtual game, a place he is able to do away with the constant bombardment of noise and smell and visual stimulation. Joe is not in a hurry for change at all, whereas I feel utterly drained by the whole experience of this pandemic and want it to stop – we have changed places.
Fortunately for me, there is still our wood, a place where we can go and see the season’s change, feel the real rain and watch real leaf-buds swelling. Nature seems one of the few places we can go to forget that the whole world has been altered. Yesterday, there was the smallest hint of leaf in the hazel buds, a tiny glint of emerald where primrose leaves were starting to push up full of the optimism for spring. There was a green smell in the air, a slight change of hue on the woodland floor and the glimpse of a shift in winds whispering in the trees. The outdoors is important for Joe too. In a pre-COVID time, the wood was a place he could go to escape the sensory overload of a busy life. The wood is a place our experiences become more similar, a place Joe is required to devote less of his effort into coping with too much information and can be calmer. Until the time our lives move back towards normality, nature is providing some much-needed reality and in the future, nature will be there as space from the busy world… where would we be without it?