Part of a series on connecting your life to nature by author and naturalist, Ken Lassman.
by Ken Lassman, author and founder of the Kaw Valley Almanac.
Nature in the Time of Coronavirus
Age of Quarantine
As folks stock up and the prospect of staying home is sinking in, folks I know are worried about how much they can take of the drone of screens around them, which are all obsessed with the emerging pandemic and its effect on all things. With sports, churches and other activities shuttering their events as well, folks are uncertain how many movies, how many books and how much time they can spend with their socially-distanced families and friends in the Age of Quarantine.
While it is spring as I write this, we have no real assurances that the spreading COVID-19 will taper off with warming weather, or won’t reappear in the fall and winter like the 1918 influenza did.
In light of all of this, let’s have a little talk about the outdoors.
What is it, is it safe, and how can it be relevant in times like this?
Your World is Embedded in the Outdoors
Outdoors can be wonderful: most everyone enjoys going to the beach, national parks and the like, but the most relevant thing right now is that outdoors includes your back yard, the neighborhood hiking trail along the waterway or wildlife area, and even what you see when you look through your window. You might not ever think about it, but your human-centered world is embedded in the local ecosystems that surround you, which are woven into a fabric of life that covers the entire planet.
It’s an amazing feeling to realize that the living landscape is waiting for you, ready to engage your senses, whether you are in bed or in a chair that looks out the window or are taking a walk, riding a bike or otherwise moving about outdoors.
Nature is the original worldwide web and your body is built to connect to it in ways that are informative, invigorating, renewing and healing.Lawrence, KS Naturalist, Ken Lassman
But wait a minute! Didn’t the newest coronavirus come from the wilds, from humans interacting with other species?
Isn’t nature a dangerous place where I might catch something new and even nastier than the novel coronavirus?
During these days of pandemic, it is important to understand that one of the most dangerous places in nature lies within 6 feet of a fellow human who has contracted COVID-19, far more risky than taking a solitary or socially distanced walk with a friend or family member outdoors.
The viruses that make us sick typically can only last a very short time in the air or on surfaces outside the body, and if those surfaces are outdoors it is typically easier for someone to avoid making contact with that contagion than it is trying to avoid them indoors in a living area.
The Center for Disease Control says it’s fine to go outdoors; indeed they encourage that if classes have to meet that they should do it outdoors and folks should open their windows to increase the ventilation in their homes if the conditions are warm/cool enough.
Virus and the Web of Life
As a bit of an aside, viruses permeate our bodies, our indoor and outdoor environment in all kinds of good ways from our human (or any other plant or animal) perspective.
They are an integral part of our own immune systems, with our nasal mucus full of them not to make us sick but to latch onto any potentially infectious bacteria to render them harmless: viruses’ primary ecological role is as a “bacteriophage,” which means “bacteria consuming.” They do the same in your gut and throughout the entire biosphere. It is estimated that viruses kill 20% of all bacteria on the planet every day, which probably means that higher forms of life wouldn’t have evolved or exist today without viral intervention! *
We are just beginning to develop the ability to study the incredibly diverse, rapidly changing world of viruses and the central role they play in our planet’s web of life. But suffice it to say that most of what you see in the natural world—yourself included—depends on the direct intervention of a diverse, ever-changing viral community. That doesn’t mean you should ignore a tick bite. And, yes, you should take common- sense precautions against disease-bearing mosquitoes and the like on your outings, of course!
It shifts our perspective from pure fear when we understand how we are all supported by the viral community and need to give viruses their due credit for all of the essential services they provide us, too.
Finally, many people don’t know that viruses are not even alive. They cannot even exist without living organisms since they are just packets of RNA that insert themselves into a cell and take over the internal mechanisms inside of a cell to replicate itself.
Language is a Virus
Some folks say that language is a kind of virus since it, too, is not alive, is made up of bits of information that are uniquely and quickly configured to communicate things that we internalize, followed by initiating and modifying our behavior, all of which are essential for our functioning.
Language is not a biological structure, is infinitely mutable, spreads within a population, and is central to its maintenance and health. Learning the language of nature enables us to interact with the web of life around us to our mutual benefit, in the same way as our knowing how to speak another language allows us to understand and interact with another human culture, to our mutual benefit.
So yes, going outside is safe, and outside starts where your “indoors” ends.
It is also where the ever-changing unfolding of the seasons occurs.
And exactly how is that world relevant to all of us at this juncture?
Perhaps the most important answer is: going outside on a regular basis during this time can provide us with a safe place of personal solace, a place where we can let go of our concerns both large and small, and redirect us to processes that have been going on in your location for literally thousands and thousands of years.
There is tremendous power in witnessing the spring migration of birds who have overwintered elsewhere, moving back north as they have been doing in most areas since the last ice age faded some 6,000 or more years ago.
Whether it is the huge flocks of snow geese or ducks moving to their summer breeding grounds or a rotating, multi-generational “kettle” of turkey vultures returning from overwintering as far south as Venezuela, it is inspiring to witness these ancient cycles that renew themselves each year.
Or in your back yard, it’s fascinating to witness the breaking up of multi-species songbird flocks as they stake out their nesting territories, each morning increasingly full of bird songs and colorful males chasing each other or bumping into windows as they attack their reflection. These avian stories are unfolding right now and all you have to do is go/look outside to witness it: contact your local Audubon or other wildlife organization to find out the best places to go besides your back yard.
Outside: Native Wildflowers
Another favorite activity to witness in the spring is the amazing emergence of native wildflowers.
Woodland wildflowers are all attuned to air and soil temperature and poised to get a jump start on the trees by emerging, and blooming before woodland trees leaf out, which then shades out the smaller plants.
In my area, the sequence starts with plants heralding the warming, lengthening daylight with the white splash of petals against the deep green leaves of rue anemone, false rue anemone and cutleaf toothwort, the reddish runway stripes on spring beauty petals that guide pollinators to the nectar-filled middle, the velvety brownish-red blossom of the papaw, which smell like rotting meat to attract the fly pollinators, and so on.
The unfurling new leaves of trees, shrubs, and vines is a special time, with leaves so tender to the touch, some almost translucent and even sweet to the taste before they gain their protective bitterness.
In some arid parts of the country, the brilliance of the spring wildflower season is directly correlated to the amount of moisture received in winter, and many residents in the Southwest love the spring and summer rains that bring the lush aromas of the creosote bush, a smell so special that folks have tried to bottle it.
In the prairies of central North America, the striking pink flush of verbena blossoms, the pastels of the star-eyed grass and yellow swirls of wood betony bloom before the grasses green, then the blooming grassland wildflower species get taller and taller as the spring progresses, keeping up with the growing grasses for sunlight, drawing in their pollinators with aromas like the prairie rose which is strong enough to make a bumblebee drunk. As the season turns to summer, the composite flowers like sunflowers, goldenrods, and asters become dominant, each flowering head actually a cluster of flowers with the central disk flowers devoted to making seeds while the ray flowers on the edge sending out brightly colored beacons telling all comers: “here I am!”
Each ecoregion has its own sequences, its own unique mix of species and details unlike any other place on the planet.
Getting to know those details is like learning a local language, and the benefits are the same: you deepen your connections to that place, you witness deep interdependent relationships that have evolved over millennia, and you can find great comfort thinking about how you are becoming fluent in this local language, becoming a true planetary citizen of place. Your membership in this family of life is also an important one as you can become a witness for and even a passionate guardian of place, able to note the changes that are occurring related to climate change, perhaps providing ways to help our ecological communities to get through that bottleneck.
Outside: Ecological Time
Another benefit of your outdoor observations is that you begin to leave behind your packed, busy daily schedule and shift your awareness to the very different pace that nature takes in its eternal unfolding.
Ecological time is time that all other species on the planet use, based on the physical cues of the changing seasons: sunrise, sunset, the phase of the moon, day length, soil temperature, humidity, precipitation and the like.
The Age of Quarantine has provided you with a unique opportunity to return to what orders the days and nights for every other species on the planet. Species living in the local landscape are not only attuned to these physical cues; they also pay attention to the pace of life of other species who are tuned into those physical cues.
Moths find each other during the nights of the full moon, which also is a cue for bats to hunt for moths and owls to hunt for bats, and so on. We as a species evolved our senses in this world, too, attuned to the pace of ecological time since our very lives depended on such awareness. By inviting nature into our lives, we are coming home to ourselves in a basic, nurturing way that helps orient and ground us in these disruptive times.
A Unique Opportunity to Rejoin the Natural World
So consider taking this time of quarantines and social distancing as an opportunity to rejoin the natural world by reconnecting your life and home back to the planet. **
In the same way that the pandemic has created an unexpected hiatus in greenhouse gas emissions, individuals have been given an opportunity to take pause and become aware of the web of life that we have emerged from and are still a part of.
Maybe this hiatus has made you realize that there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint in ways you can retain after the pandemic has passed.
Hopefully, you also find that becoming aware of nature’s local rhythms is not as hard as you expected, and way more interesting than you thought it would be. And if you learned some things about how the local landscapes unfold in spring, just imagine what you’ll learn if you continue that learning for summer, fall and winter!
Invite Nature Inside
Even if you find yourself unable to go outside, there are plenty of things you can do to invite nature into your back yard where you can enjoy all these benefits from a window.
There are plenty of resources on The Resilient Activist website to help you attract birds, plant pollinator gardens or rain gardens, and other native landscaping projects that will not only help you enjoy the local show, they will also get you outside.
Your local ecosystem can help you stay healthy in ways that it has already worked out—all you have to do is decide to plug into what has been happening all along.
The Benefits of Time Spent in Nature
- The Atlantic: The Dos and Don’ts of ‘Social Distancing’
- The New York Times: ‘It Sort of Gives You Hope’: One Place New Yorkers Go to Escape Their Homes
- Oregon Public Radio: Everything You Need To Know About Coronavirus Now That It’s A Pandemic
- The Journal: Is it OK to go for that walk outdoors? What you need to know about social distancing
*For more on the fascinating topic of viruses in our world, a good place to start is this article, Viruses: the Ugly, the Bad, and the Good in Natural History Magazine.
**Ken Lassman has a Resilient Activist series on Inviting Nature to Your Home that explores this in more detail—here’s the link to Part 1.