Birdsong and sirens are the soundtrack to my days, now.
Amidst the regular chatter of the birds outside are three, clear descending notes: a song so smooth, so distinct, that it stands out from all the rest. After some online sleuthing, we’ve deduced that our solo-singing feathered friend is a white-throated sparrow. I haven’t spied him in the wild of the urban jungle yet, but I look, every time I hear his song drift in through the open window.
In Lewis, I was used to hearing the birds from the garden: the cuckoo, the corncrake, and the stonechat. (Whenever you hear the cuckoo, my Granny used to say, rain isn’t far away.) At home in the Outer Hebrides I take the natural world for granted, whether that’s a seal in Stornoway harbour, an eagle above the Harris hills, or a hedgehog outside the kitchen door in Point. It’s taken lockdown and confinement in a 600-square foot apartment for me to learn to listen for the birds and find some of that joy in nature here in the city.
When I lean out of our living room window here to watch the birds, I see a pear blossom tree to my left, and Manhattan to my right. From this vantage point, the city looks unchanged. The skyscrapers still glint as the sun rises and sets; the lights of apartment buildings still twinkle in the twilight, when we leave the curtains open for as long as possible to admire the view.
But of course, everything has changed.
In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, all except essential businesses have closed. Schools are shut. Parks are locked. Masks are strongly recommended if you are outside. A curfew is in place in our neighbourhood, banning movement between the hours of 10pm and 5am.
Travel is all but suspended, and global air traffic dropped by more than 50 per cent last month. And for me, that means my physical connection to home is temporarily severed. Many people who choose to move abroad do so with the certainty that they can jump on a plane and return home to their families whenever they want or need to.
Having that option closed off, with no idea of when it will return, is hard, and I know other islanders (and expats) I’ve spoken to feel the same. In a way it reminds me of the first year I moved to the USA, when I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. These lockdown days are the first time I’ve felt this level of cianalas, or homesickness, since. (At night, I’ve started having dreams where I go shopping in Tesco for Stag bread, which if you’re a fellow islander, tells you everything you need to know!)
But Mr. Stories My Suitcase Could Tell and I are safe and well, still able to work from home, and that’s all we can ask for right now. In our neighbourhood alone, with a population of about 14,000, there are 266 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 18 people have died. In New York City there have been over 12,000 deaths, and more than 60,000 across the United States. To add to it all, almost 30 million people are now unemployed, too.
With everything that’s happening, as frivolous as it may sound, watching nature carry on as normal outside is a small source of comfort.
In the seven weeks I’ve been staying at home, the pear blossoms outside have bloomed, faded, and been replaced by green leaves that stir in the breeze.
It’s ironic that this year I had resolved to spend more time outside in the fresh air, after our day trip to Mount Rainier last summer reminded me how much I enjoy being in nature. Having researched and written about how natural environments can improve our happiness, I should have known that long ago.
But while I might not be able to walk on the Lewis beaches, breathing in the sea air as I had planned to do this month, at least I can watch the leaves bloom on the trees and listen to the city birds. And dream, of course, of the day I’m back in the Outer Hebrides, listening to the corncrakes, the cuckoos, and the roll of the waves. (And eating Stag bread, of course!)