Nature and Anxiety/Depression

A recent emotionally difficult situation has triggered a return of some anxiety and depression I have lived with off-and-on for a decade or so. Many others – celebrities, acquaintances, and unknown strangers – have used online outlets to share their experiences with these types of mental illness. These have helped me become more comfortable with this part of me. They have also pushed the zeitgeist regarding mental illness to one of mainstream acceptance. Now is the time for me to fulfill an obligation by adding my voice to the chorus.

To those close to me, this is not a cry for help. I am fortunate in that I recognized my old nemesis early. My therapist already has me on the path to recovery that has worked before, and I can feel it working now. Of course support is always welcome, but I will be OK.

IMG_6646One thing to understand about anxiety and depression is that the triggering event doesn’t matter. It’s not “I’m very sad or upset about this thing.” In my case (this time) it was a sudden serious illness of a much-beloved dog. I am very sad about it and the continuing maintenance and care is stressful. That’s not depression, though, nor is it exactly the source of the anxiety (in my case, the more pronounced of the two issues). My mental illness is not caused by having other intense life problems. I live a very comfortable life. It’s aided by straight white male privilege, only lacking the “obscene wealth” checkbox (but neither do I live in poverty). None of this matters to anxiety brain. The knowledge of the utterly incomparable suffering of so many others layers guilt for feeling bad in my position of comfort atop the existing depression.

When my brain gets word it’s time to be anxious, everything becomes difficult. Work is hard: can’t focus, feels pointless, seems overwhelming. The same applies to home obligations. At the worst moments, it even applies to carrying out basic bodily functions and routine daily tasks. Escapism into my hobbies doesn’t really work – too transparent for that asshole brain. It knows I’m trying to fool it. The anxiety and slowdown of accomplishments makes me depressed, which leads to additional anxiety about the depression itself. Anxiety about depression makes me feel stupid, which depresses me – you see where this is going. It’s all a big ugly feedback loop of nothing. Since it’s not rational to begin with, rational thinking is no escape.

What does help – for me, and for many others – is the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. In general those of us suffering from these conditions do not need non-professional advice, except for this: if you think you may be experiencing mental illness, seek help. Call a licensed therapist and explain what you are feeling. They’ll know whether you should come in, and once you go they’ll know whether you need continuing treatment. It’s not an easy step. You may go down many other avenues of identifying your problem first (I sure did, the first time). But calling for and accepting help is the single most important step.

There’s no instant fix, and progress won’t be wholly linear. But while the meds and/or the therapy are still taking hold, I’ve found some tricks that help. Keeping myself busy is one, to occupy my mind and keep it from spiraling. Most human contact – even when I don’t really want it – helps some. If I enlist rational brain in the fight firmly enough, sometimes together we can subdue anxiety brain for a time. All of these methods can be draining and hard to keep up for long. Of course different things will work for different people, and we all have to find our own allies against our demons.

It’s my intense appreciation of nature which may be my own strongest ally. Whether it’s getting some exercise in the fresh air or just basking in the immensity and complexity of the natural world, it can ground me. It brings a feeling of significant insignificance. I am so small, and yet connected in so many ways to such elegant and harmonious beauty.

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One such boost came while taking our other (healthy) dog for a walk in a local park. It was a lovely day, and I was enjoying the sounds of the birds. We took a familiar route along a paved path and past a small lake. Nearing the end of our loop, we passed a family with a little girl who pointed and said “what dog?” or some similar question. All I got from it was “dog!” so I smiled and kept walking. The father said, “I think it’s a dachshund mix.” I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t quite catch the question. Yes, he’s a dachshund and… ‘something.'” We all laughed and I moved on. Such a tiny interaction, but my spirits were nonetheless lifted.

Another instance involves my medication. The short-term fix, Xanax, does its job. However, the first few days of taking it, while my body adjusts, keep me pretty sleepy. For now I need a couple doses to productively get through a work day. So one of those first days I timed a dose around lunchtime, took my lunch to a local park and ate quickly. Then I let the birds sing me through a thirty-minute nap and returned to work much fresher and clearer.

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It doesn’t always work. I’ve tried gardening, which usually leaves me fulfilled and energized, but sometimes even that feels as pointless and overwhelming as anything else. Right now I am in an adjustment period, and during that time there doesn’t appear to be such an animal as a thing that always helps.

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Still, yesterday’s brief trip to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area was another success. It was a hot day, but beautiful. A Washington Post piece Laurel shared with me reminded me of the huge sunflower fields they plant there. The section known as “Hughes Hollow” is also one of the better birding sites in the county, so I was all-in for an excursion. We went around midday, so the birds were less active than I’d hoped, but I saw quite a few common yellowthroats and two yellow-billed cuckoos as highlights. Of course the sunflower fields themselves were filled with darting goldfinches. The Post article did its job – quite a few people made the same journey on Saturday, but not quite enough to make things feel over-crowded.

I do think that when my brain chemicals are in the right balance and my mind mostly settled, my love of nature is one of the major factors keeping them that way. Combined with the medication, anxiety brain is no match for hikes through the woods with the sights and sounds of other living things all around me. Trees, mountains, lakes, streams, oceans and beaches all confer a placidness I would otherwise struggle to find.

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Featured Species #6: Gray Catbird

CatbirdThe gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.

These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.

Dumatella carolinensis (7)One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.

Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.

Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.

Gray Catbird Links:

Wikipedia
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study

Climate Pledges

Five weeks ago, the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement. I found this inexcusable, and so I chose to take action by re-committing to my own carbon cutting efforts and publicly documenting them. The general idea was to make one new pledge every week for as long as the US remains out of the accords, track my progress, and generate conversation. If I could bring a few others along with me, so much the better. This week’s pledge was to commit an entry in this space to the project, so here we are.

I will spare you the arguments about climate change being real and human-caused. They’ve been made elsewhere better than I possibly could and at this point the deniers are pretty much in “Flat Earth” territory. It’s real, it’s our fault, and I’m moving on to “what do we do about it?”

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I have found myself increasingly frustrated in recent months with regard to communication about important issues. I believe social media is an important platform for advocacy, but simply expressing one’s opinion using that platform is ineffective to the point of being self-defeating. So when I heard the news that the US had pulled the plug, I felt impotent. I wanted to shout into the echo chamber, share every article, chastise all the deniers, and comment on every post. In my fuming I hit upon a possible answer: do something, then talk about it. I knew I might not reach anyone who didn’t already agree with me, but I could still exchange knowledge and ideas with those who did. Maybe a few needed only a tiny nudge to make an adjustment or two of their own.

In order to make sure all my pledges were meaningful, I first thought about what I was already doing and disqualified those things from consideration. That increased the challenge, and it also means I haven’t yet touched on a lot of basics. Before I move on to the pledges so far, here are just a few ideas:

 

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Some of the lawn reduction in my yard.

My Pledges So Far

 

Pledge 1: Bike to work at least one day a week.

Reasoning: This one’s self-explanatory. Use less gas!

Status: My initial pledge was delayed getting started due to a busted-up bicycle and some weather issues, but it is officially underway. I’m behind but hoping to make up the missed days in July-August and stretch this as far into the Fall as possible.
Pledge 2: Eat no beef for 30 days.

Reasoning: Cattle ranching is extremely bad for the environment in a lot of ways, one of which being the high carbon footprint beef brings with it.

Status: Because Pledge 1 was behind, I opted to extend this to 45 days, allowing myself the exception for July 4th. So far I haven’t cheated once, outside of the one hot dog on my prearranged cheat day.


Pledge 3
: Turn off the water when soaping in the shower, and lower the temp.

Reasoning: Believe it or not, conserving water (especially hot water) lowers your carbon footprint too!

Status: I’m at about an 82% success rate in following this guideline.


Pledge 4
: Drink less coffee.

Reasoning: Coffee is another commodity with a high carbon footprint. My office uses a Keurig, which intensifies that problem.

Status: This is going a little more slowly than I intended, but I haven’t really cheated much or backslid. My consumption is down.


Pledge 5
: Commit to more fuel-efficient driving.

Reasoning: Use less gas.

Status: So far the gas light hasn’t come on, but I’ve only refueled once since making the pledge. The other things are hard to measure this early, so TBD.


Pledge 6
: Post about the pledges on my blog.

Reasoning: There’s a finite amount I can lower my own carbon footprint, but if my efforts spread to others that amount grows exponentially, like a pyramid scheme.

Status: If you’re reading this, mission accomplished! Remind me to hang a banner.

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Generic nature image to inspire conservationism!

Ancillary benefits to these pledges abound. Biking helps keep me in shape! Cutting beef is healthy! Taking quicker and cooler showers is god for my skin! Drinking less coffee is healthy, and makes me pee less, thus conserving water! Fuel-efficient driving saves money! Writing about it all teaches me I should use fewer exclamation points!

It’s starting to look like I will need a lot more ideas to keep this going for the duration of US non-membership in the Paris Agreement. I do have a few more thoughts, but please hit me up with yours! Leave ’em in the comments, email me, reply to the Facebook posts, DM me on Twitter, text me, beam ’em to me telepathically, send smoke signals, or do whatever you’ve gotta do. And of course, steal my idea – or let me know if you’ve been independently doing anything similar. I would be thrilled to hear about your own pledges I hope some will join me.

Earth Day/Science March

Fair warning: this post will be a tad political. I don’t want to use this space often for such things, but after careful consideration this topic is relevant to my content and frankly has no business being political in the first place. I am talking about the acceptance of facts and science. Our current administration is hardly the first to have an adversarial relationship with the scientific method, nor is it exclusive to conservatives in general. It is nonetheless much more on the surface now, and so I chose to celebrate Earth Day by attending the March for Science and writing about it.

I will focus on climate change here, as it’s one of the most relevant, most publicized, and most important manifestations of the rejection of science. It is hardly the only case in which science is willfully rejected; it happens with evolution, gun control, abortion, human sexuality, fracking, and really any topic about which people have strongly held opinions and/or financial interests. I understand it and am not immune. We all tend to reject things that don’t support our existing belief structure. It’s not exactly science, but just this week there was an argument in my office about which direction a backslash goes. We looked it up, and I was one of those on the wrong side. Despite the unanimous agreement of the sources we consulted, it was hard for me to accept my wrongness. Isn’t that stupid? I did accept it, though, and I guess the point I’m making is that we should try to be aware of our biases toward what we already think. It’s this one, by the way: \.

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Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker giving an interview at the March for Science

I mentioned in the mission statement of this blog that I have no patience for climate denial, and I don’t. Climate change is real. It’s objectively proven, consensus has been established, and the models for its impacts have proven essentially accurate. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion without doubts. During college I was exposed to the opposing views and few dissenting publications, via news and Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, among other things. At that time I did have a strongly held belief that climate change was real and anthropogenic, but I forced myself to review and study the science that seemed to support the other side. As I did so, I came to find that those works were systematically refuted by better science. I say all of this not to take some sort of moral high ground but to establish that on this particular topic I have done my due diligence and I do not speak from ignorance.

If I had doubts of my own, why am I so aggressively opposed to climate denial now? Because doubt is an important part of the scientific method, and the evidence is more than strong enough to withstand that doubt. Because the “science” of dissension has become more fringe and earned those quotation marks. Because rejecting this particular science is not just wrongheaded and short-sighted, it is dangerous. If you don’t believe in evolution I will disagree with you, and I will argue, but ultimately your belief does no direct harm to others and so I can accept it. Deniers of human-caused climate change are doing tangible harm to me and to the world in which I live by way of their beliefs, and so this is a disagreement I cannot ignore.

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And some slick dinosaurs

I can’t quite wrap my brain around the arrogance of politicians and pundits that tells them their opinion on a scientific matter is more valid than that of the actual scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying it. Of course my opinion isn’t more valid than those scientists either, but the difference here is that I find myself in agreement with the climate scientists. There are surely subjects on which I hold opinions or beliefs in opposition to the scientists in that field. I am almost certainly wrong about virtually all of those things. I hope I am wise enough to accept that wrongness and adjust my worldview when and if I learn about the science that contradicts me.

I suppose I’ve spewed forth on this long enough now,  so I’ll just end by saying Happy Earth Day!

Taking a Moment

It’s a beautiful Tuesday at lunchtime, and I need to be outside. I hit up a McDonald’s drive-through and park near the Rock Creek Trail. I eat hurriedly and begin a stroll with rap music incongruously providing a mental accompaniment (I’ve been reading Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book). Robins sing and doves coo while squirrels scurry by amid a blanket of lesser celandine and leaf litter. The cover is dotted here and there with purple violets and white spring beauties. I hear the calls of other birds I don’t quite recognize, but I have forgotten my binoculars. One in particular is harsh and low, tantalizing in the middle distance. Squinting and straining, I almost misstep into a pile of deer scat. When I recover and glance down, I spy a water strider gently keeping pace against the slow flow of the stream before me.

A moment later I spot a single bloodroot in bloom on the other side of the path and pause to snap some quick pictures with my phone. A nuthatch scolds me; I accept the criticism and move on. With my shift in perspective more bloodroots and some cutleaf toothwort emerge from the background. A review of my photos tells me I had completely missed a small patch of ground ivy, as well.

As I near the stream’s mouth where it joins Rock Creek proper, a tree hangs perilously over the far bank, its mossy roots exposed and entangled like something Jurassic. Goldfinches and crows punctuate this scene with their starkly contrasting calls.

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I turn back, knowing I have little time left to appreciate nature’s masterwork. Either the cacophany or my perception of it intensifies. I pick out a cardinal here, a downy woodpecker there, then suddenly and obviously a pileated woodpecker. Frogs, too, add their voices to the composition. I pause to roll over a log, remembering a handsome garter snake I’d found in this exact spot some months ago. Nothing this time, so I rock the log easily back into place.

During the final steps of my journey, a few less than pleasant thoughts start to creep in: the invasiveness of all that lesser celandine, the casually discarded garbage scattered about the streambed, my need to return to my office in but a few moments. I push them aside, aided by a pair of passing blue jays calling back and forth. “This,” I think. “All of this is life.”

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Two Bird-Related Discoveries

Listen, I understand that three posts in a row about birds might not be ideal, and I promise this isn’t about to become a birding diary. It’s winter, though, and birds are kind of the most exciting thing going ’round these parts. So, I’ve been birding a lot and in the process I’ve discovered a couple of great new tools for bird identification. Well, one of them is new to me and the other is a new feature to an existing tool, but I call poetic license here. Either way it’s an excuse to post a bunch of old bird photos.

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The first is ebird.org, a tremendous undertaking of citizen-science. The site collects data from birders all over the globe and uses the information in all manner of scientific endeavors. It’s teaching biologists about birds distribution, relative abundance, movement patterns, habitat preferences, responses to climate change, and more. You don’t have to know a ton about birds to contribute, just be able to identify a few and report on what you’ve seen. Submitted checklists are reviewed and flagged for further confirmation if anything seemingly unlikely shows up. Observations can be submitted online or via their handy smartphone app. Their data is available to the public at large, and the amount of information available is staggering. I’ve already learned a lot from the site in a short time. For one thing, I now know more about how bird counting works: precise numbers don’t matter much but any estimate is better than saying “at least one.” That’s just from a couple of the articles, though. The “Explore Data” tab is an unparalleled  wonder of nature nerdery. You can subscribe to alerts for rare bird sightings in your area – or temporarily for places you’re traveling to. You can export targeted lists of birds you’re likely to find in a given place at a given time. I guess what I’m saying is, “Nature’s hottest club is ebird…”

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The second is that the Cornell Lab of Ornitholigy’s Merlin Bird ID has added a photo ID feature. It takes up a bit more space but once you download the add-on it’s basically two taps to a fairly reliable ID. I took the below bad-to-mediocre photos of a winter wren today at lunchtime (yes, I spent my lunch break birding). I’d already IDed the bird through conventional means, but I used it to test the app, starting with the best photos and working through to the worst. Winter wren was the first suggestion every time. I know this is anecdotal, and there could be any number of reasons that this particular bird is an easy one for the app to get right… but I am impressed.

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12 Months of Nature: January

Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam

Some time ago at a used bookstore in Silver Spring I discovered Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. It’s a month-by-month guide to seasonal events in nature offering tips on how, when, and where to observe some breathtaking scenes. I’ve relied on it to point me toward new and exciting experiences a number of times, and this year I’m going to choose one event per month to talk about here.

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One of the very first eagles I saw at Conowingo Dam, in 2012.

It wasn’t long after I bought the book that I put it to good use. Its first entry for January is about viewing bald eagles at Conowingo Dam (where US Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River). At the time I’d only seen a handful in my life, and the opportunity to see several at once was too good to pass up. I thought maybe we’d get the chance to see four or five, a treat well worth the ninety minute drive. We arrived and saw a promising number of folks with fancy cameras, binoculars, and spotter’s scopes, but at first all I saw was a few black vultures and a ton of gulls. Given a few minutes to adjust to the landscape, though, we started seeing them. At first we saw one in a tree right in front of us, and then a couple more soaring overhead, and gradually more and more until we realized there were dozens all around. One dove into the river and returned to a tree right next to where we were standing to devour its prize.

This congregation of eagles happens predictably at Conowingo Dam every winter. As ponds, lakes, and streams in the region freeze the Susquehanna remains one of a few ready food sources in the region. As a bonus for the eagles (and gulls, cormorants, ducks, and vultures) the dam stuns fish every time its flood gates are opened. The birds have learned that the sluice alarm is a dinner bell for them. Even in relatively warm winters they appear in great numbers knowing that a feast awaits.

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Speaking of feasts… vultures hang out to bus the tables, so to speak.

Laurel and I have made this an annual pilgrimage since that first time, and only once have we come home disappointed. That year we were forced by weather to wait until February, by which time the activity had tapered off. The area around the dam is almost always decent for birding in general, but the eagles thin out between February and October. I was inspired to go early (December instead of January) this year because I had heard there was an “official” count of over 250 bald eagles in a single day earlier that month. I’m not an experienced bird counter, but when we visited on 12/23 I came up with a conservative count of 67 bald eagles, not to mention at least 150 black vultures, hundreds of gulls, a dozen or so geese, a pair of cormorants, and a small flock of mallards. In past trips we have seen golden eagles as well as many species of “backyard birds” in the woods downstream of the dam. The highlight of those was a pair of pileated woodpeckers a couple years ago; always a treat unto themselves.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about bald eagles is what they sound like. We’re enculturated to believe they possess a primal scream, unleashed with fury as they dive upon their prey. The Colbert Report, for example, uses the call of a red-tailed hawk for its snarkily patriotic intro. However, in reality they sound more like some kind of gull or blackbird with a sort of high-pitched chortle. I lack adequate onomatopoeic skills to describe it, so I’ll just recommend you listen.

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This one seemed to have a wound in its right eye – probably from a fight with another eagle.

Another thing that can be confusing at first is that bald eagles don’t develop the distinctive white heads until their fourth or fifth year, and that males and females share the feature. Juvenile bald eagles can be difficult to distinguish from golden eagles for this reason, but after a few trips to Conowingo it’s become much easier for me.

I don’t think I have quite the patriotic reverence for bald eagles that some of my countrymen seem to, but I am awestruck by the site of even one. To see them in the kind of numbers one might expect of robins or starlings and watch them fish is an unforgettable experience. I can’t recommend a winter trip to the Conowingo Dam highly enough. I’ll refer you to another WordPress blog I came across for a great write-up of how best to enjoy a great day of eagle watching.