The world smelled different after lockdown. For 55 days I had been gazing down my street at the unreachable green glow of Parco Valentino; before the pandemic, I walked by the river just about every day. After two months confined to a one-bedroom apartment and the 200m radius of streets around it, months in which going outside meant heading to the bins or the supermarket downstairs, I had gotten used to a palette of walls, roof tiles, asphalt, and parked cars. The existence of so much green space was overwhelming to the senses. I ascertained my social distance, and then I inhaled deeply.
The season had changed without us. The park had transformed. It was warmer, sweeter, filled with perfumes. The grasses had been left to run wild, and had turned into meadows, rich with insects. Happy dogs leapt in the knee-high weeds, disrupting bumblebees. The river was luxurious from recent rain. The magnificent plane trees that line the paths were verdant, shady, and filling the air with pollen. If that inhalation brought tears to my eyes, it was only partly due to hayfever.
We missed the cherry blossoms, wildflowers, new shoots, but from the fourth floor we saw the hills turn greener. Mid-lockdown, we watched the return of swifts and swallows, migrants that share the lengthening evening sky with crows, blackbirds, and pigeons, until the bats arrive for their shift change. Seeds we planted at the end of February came up in their pots. They put on second leaves, peered over rims, budded and flowered. Radishes had time to swell, and I had time to pickle them. Sirens all around, and death tolls, and all this life unfurling.
Since late last year I’ve been reading Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet in time with the northern hemisphere. Apart from here and two years in Beijing, I’ve lived mostly in Australia, so the neat alignment of festivals and seasons, things and the words for them, still surprises me. At the end of Spring, Smith mentions that April’s name has its roots in the Latin verb aperire, to open. My 1930s dictionary agrees with her, though etymonline calls this ‘old folk etymology,’ not that that would trouble Smith. She calls April ‘anarchic.’ Its behaviour, she says, is hard to predict.
The Italian verb is still the Latin one, more or less. So la riapertura, the reopening, contains the month of April in its belly. It would have been fitting if the quarantine had ended after 40 days, coincident with its naming and roughly coincident with Lent; if Easter had offered a rebirth. But we missed April. We have had to wait until May. The virus has compressed time in some ways, and stretched it in others. It has been an airless time, and a clarifying one.
Folk time, the circling of harvests and plantings, falling leaves and green that is embedded in Italian and English, is not the only time that Europeans live with. Industrial time hurtles forward, clock-caught, urgent. Capitalism whips us on with promises of future ‘returns’ that (for most of us) will never arrive. Then there’s Anthropocene time, which is a muddle: the foreshortened futures of these traumatic emergencies, the stolen futures of a heating planet, the sense that modernity might be hurtling off its own map.
I found the observation of ‘natural time’ a great comfort during quarantine, despite knowing that we’re making such a mess of it. Spring is glorious, even when it’s eerie. ‘This air,’ I kept saying, that first day out. ‘This green.’
‘April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers,’ wrote Edna St John Millay. Edna St John Millay was not convinced. ‘Beauty is not enough,’ she declared, throwing shade on Spring’s exuberance. [https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44728/spring-56d223f01f86e]
To the west of my apartment, above the roof of the strawberry-marzipan railway station, I can sometimes see the Alps. During quarantine I saw them often. Winter was dry, and without Turin’s usual aura of industrial and transport pollution the skies were mostly clear. At some point each day, I would lean out over the terrace to observe the mountains’ changes. They were mostly white when lockdown began, and now they’re mostly dark again.
Last week, a study of satellite images of the first 18 years of this century reported that 78% of mountain areas worldwide have experienced a reduction in snow cover. The snow is arriving later and retreating sooner. It’s my first winter here, so I don’t know first hand what it used to be like. But I know that the Italian Alps are warming about twice as fast as the global average.
‘Spring started very early this year,’ Claudia Notarnicola, Deputy Head of Eurac’s Institute for Earth Observation and the researcher responsible for the study, wrote in her report. But it’s anarchic, isn’t it? It’s unpredictable.
‘Himalayas visible from India for first time in 30 years,’ read one headline.
Though they seem abundant, and are labelled common, swifts, swallows, and the insects these acrobats devour mid-air are all in decline.
The world also smelled different because the air was clean. Flights were grounded. The planet had a chance to breathe. Without the factories and the traffic, the skies changed colour. The light was clear, crisp, at times almost painfully bright. The research that has shown a strong correlation between high levels of air pollution and high levels of COVID-19 mortality is painfully bright too. Italy’s cities are hurriedly allocating more cycle lanes in the hope that this will help. The government will reimburse citizens for the purchase of bikes and scooters. A greener Italy, Prime Minister Conte promised.
Now the traffic is returning, and some of the pollution. Parco Valentino has been mowed. People fill the bins with waste, and crows empty them. How long will the horizon feel expanded, the sky grandiose? Two hundred people a day are still dying, but the numbers are steadily falling. They’re not sure yet, but many epidemiologists say that the warmer weather is helping. It will take a long time to calculate the true figures, and to understand the loss.
But the numbers are encouraging, and la riapertura is proceeding. The oppressive, fearful atmosphere of the pandemic has all but evaporated. Cafes are serving espresso again, the old men have their bocce courts back, children can see their friends. I go to the park most days, and every day it’s beautiful. Heavy rain and snowmelt have swollen the Po river; she’s fat, brown, and swift, and she’s swallowed some of the paths that flank her sides. Yesterday I watched her from above as she rushed through town, carrying, in those thirty seconds, several whole trees, innumerable branches, many plastic bottles, two footballs, and a shoe.
I want the green spring to open. I want the promise of its resurrection. But this can’t be a return to the way things were before; we need a transformation, and spring is not enough.