When you’re living through a global pandemic-slash-economic crisis and creating content, you really have two terrible choices: write about it and risk becoming just one more trite voice in the clutter, or don’t and risk seeming woefully out of touch. I’ve chosen the former, but only just. I have some other ideas on what to use this space for during this time, but I think it’s best to first address the two-ton elephant in the room, even if the elephant is actually billions of one-femtogram viruses.
I’m extremely fortunate. I haven’t fallen ill, nor have any of my family or close friends. To my knowledge I don’t yet know anyone who has contracted the virus. My age and health mean I’m pretty likely to recover if I do catch COVID-19. My wife and I both still have jobs and are both able to work from home with relative ease. We’re in a fine position to weather this thing financially. We have access to everything we really need and are introverts who can handle the isolation. Yet still, it takes its toll.
Many friends, colleagues, and neighbors are out of work. There’s an absolute miasma of fear, anger, sadness, and confusion everywhere I look, perhaps especially because all outside human contact is secondary, piped through screens and mics and splattered across social media landscapes. I feel a sense of hopelessness because I can’t really help, and instead I look on in horror as our farce of national leadership continues failing to protect people in a substantive way. Of course I can help friends and family with the little things, and I can do my part to avoid spreading the disease. Yet I know it’s never going to feel like enough until this is over.
I don’t want to just perpetuate doom and gloom, though. I’ve come here instead to discuss how I cope with those feelings. I won’t pretend I have some kernel of wisdom that others do not, or that what works for me will necessarily work for anyone else. But most simply put, I have found that my existing coping mechanisms work for this crisis as for any other. That is in part because my biggest coping mechanism – exploring and observing nature – can be done without the presence of other people. If you are one of those for whom the natural world brings peace, perhaps this will work for you as well. My second-biggest coping mechanism, humor, has mixed results in a time like this. Even great jokes are not always well-received when stress levels are running high, and my terrible ones less so. Still, if I can laugh about it I know some vital part of me is still OK.
Nature is still here. Its processes are not disrupted by the closures of our businesses or the isolation of individual humans. We can all experience it with all of our senses without violating social distancing guidelines or putting ourselves at risk (do be careful, though, and always respect naturalist ethics). Nature is present in our homes and yards, so even while we must stay isolated we can find it. I will share the ways I have been able to engage with nature while compliant CDC and WHO guidelines.
Audubon posted a vital article about this topic, and this could equally apply to whatever part of nature you most enjoy. Of course, as this crisis has progressed it has become increasingly unclear whether even this much is OK – so if you do get outside please be certain to follow the six-foot rule. I personally went from birding a little in local parks and green spaces nearly every day to primarily birding only in my own backyard between one week and the next. But, this is an excellent time of year for simple backyard birding. The goldfinches have their bright breeding plumage back, the spring migration is ramping up, and bird activity will be high and varied in the coming weeks and months. Even with my gradually decreasing trips to the field, I was able to log 69 bird species this March without leaving Montgomery County. I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of a park with excellent habitat for warblers and other spring migrants. This will be a great opportunity for coping in a couple of ways. I will get the benefit of being in open, outdoor spaces. I will also be able to occupy my mind with the complex task of warbler identification. Learning to distinguish their myriad patterns, songs, and behaviors in the field requires study and focus.
I must add the caveat that as the situation changes, what behaviors are and are not acceptable will change as well. Follow the guidance of the experts and your local authorities. Currently my approach is to leave my home infrequently for birding in nearby locations only, and to be absolutely anal about the six foot rule. I hope that’s the right call.
Few things soothe thoughts of mortality and death more than nurturing and sustaining new life. Gardening is perhaps the easiest and most accessible way to do this. It is also a wonderful way to reaffirm our connections to the natural world. This crisis has lined up with the perfect time for intensive gardening of all types, so if you have space and an interest in landscaping or growing food, this is an excellent time to dive in. Mid-February is the start of each garden season for me, beginning with seed-starting indoors and prepping spaces outside. By early April there are a few new plants in the ground, others are hardening in pots outside, and I have divided some of the earliest-returning perennials.
In our household, I primarily focus on flowers and shrubs while my spouse handles the vegetable and herb gardens. There is of course some crossover and overlap, but the combination allows us the perfect blend of activities to share and activities to keep to ourselves. It is not lost on me how important that balance is during extended periods of co-quarantine – maybe something similar could work for a few other couples out there, too.
Gardening connects me to more than the flowers themselves. I choose plants based on their function in the environment as well as their landscape functions. It may be a drop in the bucket, but planting mostly native plants which native animals can use brings me pride and a sense of doing my part. The same can be said from a different angle with the vegetable garden. Planting food reduces our consumption of less sustainably harvested alternatives and contributes to a healthier diet. We still have a sizable lawn, but when I look at how much space we have converted from swathes of grassy monoculture to productive, biodiverse spaces I feel a genuine (and I hope well-deserved) sense of accomplishment.
Reading About Nature
Quarantine is also an excellent time to read, and I have been using it to catch up on some nature-themed writing. My usual predilection for reading material leans more toward fiction, but when things seem bleak good nature writing can be a balm. I just finished the excellent Nature Obscura, which recounts experiences with urban nature in Seattle. I am currently reading My Backyard Jungle, a chronicle of a man and his family who undertook a similar landscaping journey to my own a few years earlier. Whatever your favorite nature topic, there is likely a volume or two available on precisely that.
Of course our old friend the internet is chock full of all manner of writing about nature, from loose collections of personal thoughts like this blog to in-depth scientific journals. You can even read about the impact of COVID-19 on the environment. It seems the experts feel it is a mixed bag. Still, hearing about things like dolphins returning to Italy’s canals and New York City’s energy consumption plummeting is encouraging. I know I’m not alone in the belief that these are signs that our 21st-century way of life should be a little closer to what we’re doing now than most of us are truly comfortable with. Reading about what might come next, and what we should strive for, is comforting to me – although this I understand could have precisely the opposite reaction for many. If you are in a headspace which allows you to process, I encourage you to spend a portion of this time thinking about which pieces of our “normal” way of life we really need back when the dust settles.
I will sign off there, as I see I am in danger of reverting to the kind of talk I said I wanted to avoid. Stay safe, be well, and love nature my friends.