HALLE, Belgium — There is no stopping flowers when they bloom, blossoms when they burst. Unfortunately, people have been stopped from enjoying them these days.
In pandemic times, when so much goes against the grain, some beauties of nature are no longer embraced but kept at bay.
From Japan’s cherry blossom trees, to the endless Keukenhof tulip fields in the Netherlands, to the riot of purple bluebells in the Hallerbos south of Brussels, everything looks its best this spring when conditions are at its worst.
“The flowers are there. Nature refuses to be stopped by anyone,” said Halle mayor Marc Snoeck, who for the second year in a row needs to keep people away from the municipality’s famed woods instead of inviting them.
Across the world, authorities are seeking to stave off a new surge of COVID-19 infections to contain a death toll which already exceeds 3 million. Crowds are anathema to health. Yet at the same time, the soothing glories of nature are said to be an ideal balm against the psychological burdens of loneliness, disorientation and fear that the pandemic has wrought.
When those two concepts clash however, caution beats joy by a long stretch these days.
“The weather is great and there is beauty to enjoy,” Snoeck said. “But on the other hand we have to watch it. Safety trumps everything. And even though it is good to enjoy this nice time and the beauty of the purple bluebells, we absolutely don’t want anyone to get sick.”
Normally, more than 100,000 visitors spread over three weekends come to gaze at Halle’s fields of purple. Last spring, when Europe was already grappling with the first surge of infections, Snoeck already closed off the woods as much as possible.
Since it is an open forest, a full ban is out of the question, so Snoeck has cancelled special bus shuttles, and issued parking bans to discourage people from coming.
“If they all had to show up in these three weekends, then there really would be too many people and safe distancing couldn’t be respected. Not everyone wears a mask at a moment like this, and it is of course necessary,” Snoeck said.
Keeping the masses away is a counterintuitive reaction seen in many places. For Snoeck and the Hallerbos, it is easy, even though tourism income hurts badly. With the bluebells, nature gives and little needs to be done but enjoy.
For the Keukenhof tulip fields 300 milometers (180 miles) north of Halle though, the tulip fields are very much a man-made creation with planting starting already in September. Two years ago, 1.5 million people visit in its eight-week run, but now, it took a special anti-virus pilot scheme to allow just a few thousands in on the rescheduled opening day.
“Every year we make the most beautiful possible Keukenhof. We don’t think about visitors not coming. We always do it for visitors — if necessary. digitally — but there’s nothing better than having visitors,” Keukenhof gardening foreman Stefan Slobbe said.
Like Belgium, the Netherlands is struggling to stifle a third surge of COVID-19 and is still limiting public events, while the whole process of blooming and wilting takes no heed.
It was no different in Japan when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom last month. The blossoms, known as sakura, have deeply influenced Japanese culture for centuries and regularly been used in poetry and literature with their fragility seen as a symbol of life, death and rebirth.
Yet, this year, like last year too, the pandemic had its impact. “Please refrain from gathering to enjoy the cherry blossoms,” signs in Tokyo said, putting a dampener on the usually exuberant atmosphere.
Some, however, couldn’t be restrained.
“Last year I couldn’t come here due to the state of emergency. This year I wanted to come again, so here I am,” 21-year-old university student Miyu Obata said.
The lack of mass tourism flocking to the Hallerbos will have its beneficial side too. Any flower that gets trampled won’t reshoot the year after, Snoeck said. So once the pandemic is contained, the bluebell fields might even look better.
“Fewer visitors will make nature even more beautiful,” Snoeck said.
Mark Carlson and Virginia Mayo in Halle, and Mike Corder and Peter Dejong in Lisse, Netherlands, contributed to this report.
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Raf Casert, The Associated Press