It’s bluebell season and the dandelions are full. The woods near my house are dense with the last wild garlic. Tulips in the garden are blousy and drunken, and nature is everywhere. I’ve long identified as someone who casually spurned nature, agreeing it was too green and badly lit, but this year something appears to have shifted. Now I spend evenings coaxing strawberries to grow and weekends at garden centres the size of new towns, nodding knowingly at strangers over their hopeful magnolias.
A stroll on Sunday through the woods is mirrored by a scroll through social media, where blossom and the greenness of plant life is as ubiquitous as a fancy latte, and signifies similar – moments treasured, a spiritual glee, a display of healthful joy. In a recent Atlantic piece about influencers, they explain that the Instagram aesthetic of pink sofas and artful avocado toast has quietly gone out of fashion, to be replaced by more “authentic” feeds – private moments, stories about mental health. So it makes sense that green spaces (as opposed to staged sets) are accruing likes online as spring births summer and bluebell woods stand strong under trampling picnickers. Green spaces, of course, are proven to boost mental health. “Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities,” says the World Health Organisation, “improve wellbeing, and aid in treatment of mental illness.”
And yet access is often restricted: children in the most deprived areas of Britain are nine times less likely to have green areas to play in. This season’s pictures of trees in the wild, it could be argued, are as accurate a visual representation of privilege today as an influencer’s winter tan. Like green juices and no-makeup selfies, they have become status symbols for people keen to show their depth. Unlike an expensive handbag, which anybody can save up for, the nature selfie requires things beyond cash, too – time and travel, a sly superior spirituality.
Blossom and the greenness of plant life is as ubiquitous on Instagram as a fancy latte
In Luke Turner’s memoir Out of the Woods, about sex and solace in Epping Forest, he distinguishes his interest in nature from the sentimental version displayed so vividly and seductively online, “Where photographs of forests exist as memes complete with trite and inspirational slogans.” I listened to the audiobook while walking to work through the hayfeverish mist of the first hot morning, past a jogger who’d paused for selfies beneath a handsome wisteria vine. It stuck with me, his point about the meme-ification of nature, a thing that’s been cleanly repackaged as valuable, a wellness product to sit alongside jade eggs or yoga mats.
I’d already started to notice the number of people who seem to approach the outdoors, whether wild swimming or on a winter walk, with a “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality. Alongside the portraits of influencers in flower meadows sits an Instagram account called Our Public Lands Hate You, documenting the damage that these picture-seekers are doing to the plants and the soil and the freshwater pools they’ve colonised. To holiday on Instagram is to witness the psychological disconnect in those presenting nature as magical and divine on social media, while at the same time clambering over warning signs to piss on poppy fields.
But, of course, new to the outdoors myself, a person who has grown up mistrustful of natural light and remains extremely keen on central heating, I understand their impulse. Like nature itself, a machine programmed simply to survive and reproduce, people are drawn to record these spaces in part because of a similar internal throb. By displaying them as symbols of our success, our status and our spiritual reverence, are we not inviting potential mates to judge and join us in our parallel quest – to survive and reproduce?
The urban squabbles for proprietorship of nature are overshadowed by the countryside wars, where Chris Packham is receiving death threats for successfully challenging the killing of several bird species – two dead crows were left hanging from his gate. Ramblers are campaigning for the new agriculture bill to improve people’s narrow access to the countryside. Since the practice of installing netting on trees and hedgerows to prevent birds nesting has risen, environmentalists have been campaigning to get it banned, some broadcasting themselves ritually ripping it down. The question of who owns nature rumbles on in spikes of class and violence.
It is a reminder that, despite its happy side-effects, nature is not for us. It exists in spite of us. It persists greenly, finding new ways to grow around our awfulness. It is not all glory and magic, all bucolic rhapsody and inspiration. Another reason, surely, why the new nature lovers attempt, in increasingly irritating ways, to capture it on their phone, to frame it neatly, to cage it as therapy. But, as sure as trainers follow heels, nature as an Instagram trend will soon be out of fashion, to be replaced by something new. Social media has seasons, too.