Florets #8: Birding
by Joanna Pidcock
I had a vivid dream one night in lockdown, about giving birth in a potting shed. Too far into labour and too far from the hospital, I lay naked on the ground with sprouts and shoots germinating all around me, supported by steady, soil-covered hands, and howled my first child into the world.
I went to Norfolk in a bad way. Pandemic notwithstanding, I was grieving the end of a relationship and the sudden death of a friend. I was also exhausted after a lengthy immigration process, unsettled by my first trip back to Australia where I felt like a visitor, dealing with multiple health crises, and devastated by the cancellation of all my theatre work just after I’d proved I was talented enough to stay in the UK.
Before all of this, someone I loved very much taught me to identify two birds. First, a red kite: milvus milvus, the beautiful russet bird of prey with a wedge cut into its tail. Next was an arctic tern, the little migratory black and white ocean swallow. The birds of my childhood were different – black cockatoos, galahs, big Australian magpies – and when I looked into an English sky I felt all at sea.
Doomscrolling in the early days of lockdown, I started to notice people talking about cottagecore. Rows and rows of little online windows showed a paradoxically offline rural idyll: homegrown food and flowers, gingham, picnics, dogs. The general sentiment was a desire to somehow escape capitalism and live a life selectively connected to modernity. I was, in many ways, living cottagecore. I was eating delicious home cooked meals that often contained things I’d foraged, like wild garlic. I was in the countryside, watching the steady march of spring into summer by observing the changing hedgerows each day and the arrivals of baby animals on neighbouring farms. I was wild swimming, going for walks, picking flowers, making a flask of tea and putting it in my rucksack to go on an adventure, wearing tasteful workwear. It was magic, almost unsettlingly so - like I’d inadvertently gained access to a parallel world. I started to fantasise about what my life would look like if I didn’t live in a city. About marrying a horticulturalist and living in a big old rambling house, growing food and keeping chickens and sheep, inviting friends to visit and eat long lunches outdoors, doing things with my hands. Getting into bed and hearing owls and falling sound asleep next to someone whose body felt like home.
I don’t know why I decided to learn to birdwatch. I was in the Norfolk countryside with no work, and feeling increasingly alienated from my own brain. I was struggling to focus. I’d convinced myself I had forgotten how to read. Grasping for something to drag my mind out of the deep dark pockets it seemed to be falling into, I decided that I wanted to know the birds. I took binoculars with me on walks, and then scoured a bird guide in the evening to match what I’d seen with the precise and delicate illustrations. I listened when the dear friends I was staying with pointed birds out, and turned their names and calls over and over in my head. I reached way back into my memory to find the way a marsh harrier had been described to me, and was overjoyed when I could recognise a pair of them over the saltmarshes, elegantly careening above the reeds.
It is interesting to me that cottagecore is centred on the idea of land. The security of owning a little piece of this rainy island, of being able to invest your time and labour in land that will support you for years to come. Planting seeds that might take longer to mature than the length of a rental agreement. In a city like London it can often feel like you are building a life that you’ll never properly be able to afford. My twenties have been a shuffle between different flats, weighing up sacrifices and compromises – is not having a living room worth it for cheap rent and good bus links? Should I put up with living with people I hate because there’s a big green space just down the street? The fantasy of owning a bit of land, a secure home where you can choose the colours of the walls and hang pictures, is a deliriously tantalising one. How much easier would it be to sit inside your own identity, feel like you belong somewhere, if you weren’t constantly packing up all of your belongings as you bounce across the city from one rental to another? Ultimately cottagecore is about belonging – about finding a corner that is yours and yours alone, where you can plant yourself alongside your heirloom tomatoes, and slowly sit and watch everything grow.
I started following young female potters on Instagram who lived with their lovely boyfriends in sweet houses in Norfolk and Suffolk. They posted stories walking down to the river for a swim after a day in the studio, varnishing Ercol chairs that they found on eBay, baking things that they then traded with one another and ate off plates they had made themselves. The seeming authenticity of these young women made it easy to forget that Instagram doesn’t show the gnarled roots of a life, its hidden tragedies and stresses. It also struck a chord so deep inside me that I was unsettled by the reverberations. The stability of it all, these tiny fiefdoms full of books and pottery. The prospect took the independent, molten part of me that moved to the other side of the world and built a life on my own, and made it ache to settle down.
A strange thing happened over the months that I was in Norfolk. The more birds that I was able to identify, the more I felt like I belonged somewhere. The more able I was to come to terms with the sense of rupture I had felt in Australia, the knowledge that my home wasn’t really there anymore. When I went outside into this England and saw a bird and could call it by its name – blue tit, goldfinch, shelduck, avocet, blackcap, kestrel – I bound myself slightly more to the landscape. These were my saltmarshes and dunes too, my forests, my fields.
The proprietary nature of all of this is telling, given that for the most part, and excepting land justice projects, cottagecore is a form of gentrification. Young people yearning to move into a new area and bend it to their lifestyle, without consideration for the existing community – largely farmers and food producers. The political reality also tends to be ignored. The countryside in England is overwhelmingly conservative, and the majority of land is privately owned. You can’t build a utopia on your own. No cottage is an island, and not everyone has the privilege to excuse themselves from systemic injustices. None of the cottagecore fantasies involve challenging your neighbours on their right-wing views. None of them express the discomfort and discrimination that visibly non-white and/or queer people can face in mono-cultural rural areas. None of them deal with the increasing challenges of managing catastrophic climate collapse while living a life on the land. Any friction is blended into the background, inaudible under the congenial laughter and enlightened dinner conversation of friends gathered around a kitchen table, warm from the Aga.
One morning I woke up before dawn, my body wracked by wearily familiar panic-induced spasms and great wrenching sobs. I put on a coat and got a pair of binoculars and went out into the fields, the sun only just rising. I felt like the only person on earth. As I was walking, I saw a red kite hunting: gliding and manoeuvring right over my head, so close that I could see some of the feathers missing in its tail. The first bird I learned, keeping me in view as it scoured the countryside. We watched each other for a little while, until the pain that was too big for my body dissipated and faded away.
Cottagecore is aspirational in the way that its antithesis, girlboss feminism, is aspirational – maybe you can have it all. It’s a yearning for release from the pace of living in a city, where standing still on the tube escalator instead of jogging up the left hand side is a special treat. It’s a desire to be swept along by the tide of the seasons – daffodils, then spring blossom, then bluebells, then elderflower – to relent to a rhythm that feels ancient. To loosen the stranglehold of the social and economic climate we’re in; to not live to make rent, to go online by choice rather than necessity, to feel like you’re driving societal change without having to put your lifestyle on the line. It’s a fantasy, a vision of a world that could be, but isn’t, and can only be glimpsed through a thin wavering film, through a filter.
I’m back in London now. I have some interesting work, I’ve been seeing beloved friends and I even had a joyful summer fling which thawed bits of me that had frozen over. I’ve moved into a flat that feels like home, with a big tree out my bedroom window full of birds. I often imagine what my life will look like five, ten years into the future, and I keep seeing a rambling old house in the countryside. The bubble of want in the pit of my stomach holds what might be an impossibility: satisfying work, friends at the other end of the phone who like to visit, a garden, deep and steady love, birds that I know by name. A potting shed where things can start to grow.