• Hannah Bourne Taylor lost her identity when she moved to Ghana, and in the process anxiety and OCD took hold

  • Rescuing a fledgling bird helped her finally find her feet in her new home

For seven years I lived in Ghana as a ‘trailing spouse’ – the label that describes people who follow their loved ones overseas, leaving their lives, their careers and in the process shedding all forms of previous identity. As a spouse, I was not allowed to work, the word ‘dependant’ stamped on my residence permit violently so the ink bled into the page like an irreversible stain. I was 26 when we first moved, leaving a busy life in Central London where every minute was accounted for. Suddenly, I had nothing to do, no one to talk to, a sea of blank days in front of me while my husband worked 14 hour days, seven days a week in a new industry.

We lived in a little thatched bungalow on the edge of a remote village, surrounded by a vast stretch of grassland on the bank of a wide river framed by palm trees. All the way up to the foot of the hills, the grass sways eleven feet high and so I would walk up the vermillion dirt tracks in between the tall green tussocks. There, purple glossy starlings rise in shimmering flocks, iridescent in sunlight; bright green parrots shriek across the sky from palm to palm and kites soar high above the river, small black dots against the blue.

It sounds idyllic but for years I struggled to adapt. Navigating isolation was a smack-in-the-face contrast to interacting with hundreds of people within city life and social networks. It took a long time. I waded through weeks and months where I stayed in the dull ache of over-sleeping, feeling the sag in connection as I gradually became disinterested in my own life. Becoming lonely was a process that, for me, felt a bit like grief. Desperate and exhausting. What followed was the stark realisation of being used to living daily life, often, without talking to anyone.

Next came the unravelling of my sanity. My world of silence was fragile. Stress inflamed everything, my imagination catching fire searching for things to worry about like a budding, frantic collector. I began to latch onto compulsive obsessions as a dysfunctional coping mechanism to deal with isolation. There had always been an obsessive streak in me. Rumblings of obsessive compulsions had reared up within my mind as a child and through adolescence. I had got used to a secret cycle of thoughts that surfaced in various ways, evolving as I got older. 

When I was at my rock-bottom of loneliness, craving England, unable to settle and feel at home, the obsessive compulsions flared up like a sinister jack-in-the-box. My mind egged itself on, attaching irrational promises and threats to each thought, turning me into a gambler addicted to banishing some invisible, made-up threat. When I was in a happy, focused mood, I was able to brush off the confusing, exhausting nonsensical rituals, but when I was tired or anxious or feeling insecure, a distinct part of my mind would grapple and clutch on to almost anything and everything to check, to double check, to fixate on. Without a job or purpose, everything negative was exacerbated but this absence of identity, this lack of connection, ended up being a silver lining, not just helping me with my predicament but with my whole outlook on life.

Trying to counter my lack of occupation and my spinning mind, I spent a lot of my time outside, observing the creatures around me with a keenness that comes from nothing else to do. Gradually I discovered secrets. I watched snakes bask and mud turtles scrabble along the riverbank. In the grove of neem trees near my house I found a colony of weaver ants, named after how they construct their nests. I stared at them in disbelief. Centimetre-long red ants, they formed chains with their bodies, using their collective weight to bend leaves high in trees to form clusters. I counted 113 nests, each one stuck together using silk from their larvae. It was unnervingly clever. Between a branch and a leaf, a line of worker ants held larvae in their forelegs, carefully rocking the larvae in front of them, the touch and movement instinctively triggering the larvae’s silk to come out of their mouths. 

Weaver ant colonies are made up of female workers – a sisterhood that is industrial and fiercely protective. When I stood under the tree, they rose onto their hind legs, their pin-prick black eyes staring at me, some spraying formic acid towards my face in a bid to keep me away. I was an intruder, a thing that did not look, behave or smell like them. Ants are very similar to us in terms of how they divvy out roles in their communities and rely on each other for survival. If a single ant is separated from its colony and unable to find its way back, it will die of exhaustion from searching. They are social creatures, even more socially complex than humans and need the infrastructure of others.

The ants’ loyalty reminded me of my group of friends back in England but the days of gathering with people, with talking and sharing truths, hurts and happenings, felt long gone. Instead, it was the ants’ determination and purpose that gave me a quiet, subconscious hope.

One creature – a tiny wild bird, gave not just hope but companionship. One morning, I found a fledgling finch on the ground, abandoned by his flock after a storm. As a flock bird and because of his young age, I knew he would die so I rescued him, promising to raise and rewild him, having no idea how long that would take or whether I would succeed. Every day I took him out to the grasslands following his flock so he would learn how to be a finch. During the process of rewilding, I stopped longing for my old life in England, focusing on what was directly around me. I tuned into the routines of the flock and the rhythm of the landscape and began to feel a part of it, becoming used to a life lived in the non-human world.

In return for his life, the finch gave me back mine, teaching me how to embrace everyday. He introduced me to a world that did not revolve around people, work, commutes, televisions or phone screens. Once I made a real connection to the nature around me, I felt at home. I didn’t need the support of the human world as much anymore, nor did I want it. My anxieties lessened. The cycle of obsessive compulsions simmered down again. The feeling of belonging to the landscape, instead of a spouse, job or group of friends, felt like an empowering identity. It felt real, secure, and completely mine.

By the time Covid-19 restrictions descended on us all, I was used to living without the layers of work and social life. More than that, I had found the silver lining that nature offers up. In Britain too, all along the edges of human lives, live foxes slinking down streets, badgers bumbling along in the dark, rabbits grazing on playing fields, hedgehogs snuffling around in gardens. There are less familiar lives too – 18 species of bats live in Britain, many of which are small enough to fit into a matchbox. Come dusk, they flit in and out of hedgerows and trees, brushing past the roofs of houses and across gardens. There are even stranger things too like tardigrades, microscopic animals affectionately known by scientists as ‘water bears’ or ‘moss piglets’ because of their scrunched up faces and chubby bodies. Too tiny to see, they live undetected in mosses, lichens, soil and sediment and are virtually indestructible, able to survive in outer space. These existences are everywhere, at our feet, underground, in the skies and right under our noses.

Many people discovered nature for the first time during the global pandemic. People described finding a sense of companionship from the birds who sang songs that weren’t drowned out by traffic noise. The pandemic also gave rise to mental struggles: of huge financial strains, emotional anxieties and tragic realities, but where there is nature, there is something to live for, to learn from and to cherish.

Hannah Bourne Taylor is the author of Fledgling

Further reading

Can you rewild your mind?

6 ways wild swimming boosts mental health

How to connect with the nature around you

What is walk and talk therapy?

Everything you need to know about intrusive thoughts and OCD