It’s April and gorgeous out, but I am too depressed to get out of bed. I feel like I’m stuck in some viscous fluid and the only sensible thing to do is just go back to sleep. I’m occasionally woken up by the sound of my husband on back-to-back conference calls. Is it really necessary to yell? I wonder. But I can’t complain, since he’s working hard while I’m ... not.
It’s late afternoon when Steve finally notices that I’m still in bed. “Are you okay?” he says.
“When did bedpans go out of style?” I say, avoiding the question. “I bet if Anthropologie started selling them, they’d be a hit.”
“You need to get outside,” Steve says.
The outdoors is the last place I want to be right now. Just taking the elevator is rife with peril, especially when only half of the people in our building seem to be wearing masks. I live in Navy Yard, a densely populated neighborhood south of Capitol Hill in Washington, and the sidewalks are crowded with people who are constantly wandering into my six feet of airspace. It’s stressful trying to calculate dozens of other people’s trajectories and intentions.
I can’t help but wonder if Steve just wants me out of the apartment. We’ve been living and working in the same 720 square feet for more than a month. It’s quite a change from our pre-pandemic lives. Steve’s job had him trotting the globe for weeks at a time, and I was always out and about — writing from coffee shops and then flitting from museums to concerts to restaurants.
I decide to take his advice, though, because I do need some exercise. I find my squeaky old bike and set off toward the Mall. Then I remember that I’m trying to avoid people, so I circle the block and head in the opposite direction, away from the crowded center of the city and alongside the Anacostia River, all the way to its headwaters in Bladensburg, Md.
On my way back home I am feeling better. Getting my heart rate up definitely helps, but even more uplifting is the hopeful spring landscape: lime green fields freckled with wildflowers, trees unfurling new leaves, ducklings splashing in a mud puddle.
I crest a hill, and something panics in the tall grass. A deer! He’s trapped between me and a chain-link fence, and when he leaps forward I instinctively speed up. We race side-by-side down the hill; the fence comes closer to the bike path, pushing the buck toward me. I want so badly to touch him, or, even better, to follow him into a world that makes a lot more sense than mine does right now.
But the ground flies up at my face, and suddenly I’m beside the path with my bike half on top of me. It appears that I’ve skidded out on a patch of dry leaves. My pants are torn and my knees are bleeding, but I’m basically fine. The deer is long gone.
Sitting dazed on the pavement, I wonder what kind of madness has gotten into me. The pandemic and accompanying shutdowns are affecting everyone, of course, and I truly have nothing to complain about when other people have lost jobs or loved ones. But as an extreme extrovert suddenly forced into near-total isolation, I feel like a dried-out husk of my formerly vivacious, gregarious self. Am I so desperate for company that I’ve taken to chasing down wild animals?
In fact, I’m about to go through a profound change. As the pandemic drags on, my need to connect with nature intensifies to the point where I don’t even want to sleep indoors. I spend entire days in city parks and come home with twigs in my hair, claiming to have learned the language of birds. I become so attached to nature that I barely even recognize myself.
As it turns out, the stress of 2020 has many of us looking for relief among the leaves. National and state parks, especially those near population centers, are seeing lots of foot traffic: Year-to-date visitorship as of October was up 14 percent at Shenandoah National Park, 16 percent at Amistad National Recreation Area and 55 percent at Catoctin Mountain Park. People also seem to be engaging with nature more deeply than before the pandemic. As of mid-December, iNaturalist, an app that citizen-scientists use to identify wild plants and animals, had seen a 62 percent jump in users and a 60 percent increase in observations in 2020 as compared with 2019.
A similar shift happened during the last major pandemic, says historian Terence Young, author of “Heading Out: A History of American Camping.” Being outdoors was considered (correctly) to be healthier than the indoors, and that seeded a surge of car-based camping. “In 1918, many people took up car camping because they were afraid of traveling to campgrounds on trains, which was the main way people got to national parks back then,” Young says. “Then the popularity of car camping really exploded after the pandemic, in the 1920s. I think we’re going to see that happen again, but with RVs this time.” (Indeed, RV shipments to dealers have jumped 4 percent this year and are expected to increase by 19 percent in 2021.)
After the 1918 flu pandemic, though, so many people visited national parks that it took a noticeable toll on the beauty of America’s most stunning landscapes. Young worries that might happen again if maintenance budgets don’t keep up. “I want people to go out to the natural world because then they will want to protect it,” he says. “But they need to understand that there is a price.”
The surge of interest in the outdoors since the pandemic took hold isn’t specific to America. One study published in November in the Journal of Forestry Research analyzed Google location-tracking data and found significant increases in park usage worldwide during the pandemic’s first wave.
The recent bump of interest in outdoor hobbies such as gardening and hiking “could be one of the silver linings of the pandemic,” says Selin Kesebir, associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. “Even if they don’t continue with them after the pandemic, we know that being outdoors is a very good way of coping with the current situation.”
Research has been piling up since the 1970s on the many salutary effects of spending time in nature. A walk in the park, or even just looking out a window at some trees, decreases blood pressure, stress hormones and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exposure to natural settings also spurs improvements in mood, cognitive function, and empathy and cooperation.
How green places work this magic is a bit of a mystery, but, according to a paper published this year in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, it seems that natural settings give us exactly the right amount of stimulation. A babbling brook, a Creamsicle sunset, the smell of wet ground after rain — these phenomena capture our interest, but they don’t require the focused attention demanded by most indoor activities, such as doom scrolling or watching “The Great British Baking Show.” Being in nature seems to give the brain permission to relax and just exist. “Something about nature helps us to stay more mindful and improves our executive function,” Kesebir says.
This certainly fits with my experience. I’ve always found it relaxing and rejuvenating to be outdoors, but the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic, the uncertainty of civil unrest and, oh, I don’t know, the potential crumbling of American democracy have made me crave nature like a drug.
About a week after chasing the deer, I’m sitting on the ground with my back pressed against the scaly bark of an American elm. I look around to make sure no one’s watching, then lie sideways on the dirt, with my ear to the ground. I’ve been desperate for sensory stimulation since the movie theaters and museums closed, so when a nature book tells me that a wonderland of exotic smells and sounds awaits anyone bold enough to get their head close to the ground, I decide to give it a try.
The book, “What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World,” by Jon Young, explains that songbirds are the surveillance system of any forest. They work together to keep an eye out for danger, and if you spend a great deal of time just sitting quietly in one spot, you can learn to decipher their calls. I’ve chosen a wooded city park on the Anacostia called Heritage Island as my “sit spot,” but a few days in I’m feeling a little discouraged. I already know the songs of common birds, but I still have no idea what their quiet little chips and chirps could possibly mean.
White-throated sparrows are foraging under a bush a few yards away. They leap forward with both feet to pull back some leaves and then snatch whatever little seeds or bugs they stir up. With my ears so close to the ground, I can hear their whisper-quiet chirps. They sound a little like the jingle of coins in a jar.
A pair of cardinals chatter high overhead; they never stop talking to each other, this couple. But then I notice a sudden change in the tone of their conversation: It’s gotten louder and more urgent. The sparrows disappear into a tangle of branches and vines, and I sit up just in time to see a golden retriever bounding toward me.
A woman appears, grabs the collar of her dog and pulls him back. In the Before Times, I loved petting people’s dogs, but now I keep my potentially germy hands to myself.
“Sorry,” the woman says. “I didn’t see you there.”
The woman looks at me appraisingly, trying to figure out if I’m crazy or homeless or what. I’d love to chat with her; small talk used to be one of my favorite pastimes. But she’s not wearing a mask, so I want her to go away. I pointedly return to staring at the shrubbery, and she takes the hint and leaves.
My heart is beating hard — and it’s not just because of the close encounter with a potential virus vector. I’m excited because I understood what a cardinal was saying. At least, I got the gist of it: Heads up! Danger!
The woods are quiet and still for a while. I hear a two-note song from a robin overhead, and the sparrows drop down from the bushes and resume their scratching. Was that the “all clear” signal? I never quite figure it out, but after that day, I always know when a hiker is coming, especially one with an unleashed dog. The birds tell me.
As spring turns into summer, I find myself spending more and more time outside. I sit quietly in the woods for hours, sometimes lingering well into the night. It’s not just that there’s so many interesting things to watch. The woods are the only place where I feel like myself; when I’m home, I’m a nervous wreck.
Sometime in August, I find that my old sit spot has gotten soggy, so I relocate to a broken boardwalk on the same island. It’s late, and the chirping of birds quickly gives way to the chirping of crickets, and the trees become a proscenium for the darkening sky. I feel a tingle in my spine, and I know the bats are here. A few minutes later, they swoop over me, a moonlit snapshot of complicated aerial maneuvers on leathery wings. I feel like I’m being visited by eccentric friends. This feeling of connectedness is exactly what I’ve needed, ever since all my loved ones were banished to a distant planet called Zoom.
When the pandemic hit, it was immediately obvious that video conferencing was a poor substitute for human contact, bereft of depth and sensory stimulation. But it wasn’t until I started sitting quietly outdoors that I fully realized that physical man-made spaces have many of the same shortfalls. While my apartment is perfectly pleasant, there’s nothing much compelling there, while a similar-size patch of woods is brimming with life and surprises. My sit spot is in a state of continual flux: Vines overtake shrubs, mushrooms sprout, the tide goes in and out. I’m treated to an ongoing parade of exotic visitors — butterflies, praying mantises, ospreys, frogs. And the more closely I pay attention, the more I see. Natural places reward close observation, and as soon as you solve one mystery, another one presents itself. Why, I wonder, is that duck swimming in circles? Why are those crows all gathered in the same tree? I find myself constantly making inferences, testing hypotheses and keying in to senses I usually neglect. It’s odd, but I feel more alive in natural settings and more human than I do in my human-built home.
Best of all, the life-or-death struggles of animals distract me from my own petty concerns. One night, I glimpse a red-tailed hawk with something in its talons, and I go home wondering if it was one of the muskrat kits I’ve been watching grow up. Without really planning to, I wake up before sunrise the next day and bike to my island to stake out the muskrat nest. When the family comes out for the day, I count only three baby muskrats, one less than there used to be. I’m sad for the kit and happy for the hawk — and these emotions fill me up with acceptance and equanimity. This peaceful feeling is the exact opposite of what happens when I read the newspaper, where nearly every story has me wishing something had gone differently.
By the fall, I can’t bear to be out of sight of trees. I set up a home office on our tiny porch and refuse to come in except to go to sleep. When I’m indoors, I’m like a video game character with a rapidly depleting “life” bar. If it gets to “empty,” I’ll get stuck in my bed again.
The view from my porch is mostly other people’s apartments, so I spend a lot of time lying on my hammock and looking at the sky. The most exciting sky show is when dark thunderheads roll in, but I also enjoy watching the cotton-ball clouds scroll by like a filmstrip. Boring, solid-blue skies are my least favorite — or so I think, until one day in September when I find the sky has turned putty gray. Since I’m not really reading the news, it takes me a while to figure out that what I’m looking at is smoke from the California wildfires. The fact of the fires — that they are worse than ever before — has gotten past my bad-news embargo, due to Steve’s habit of watching “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” So when I see a bizarrely hazy sky, I eventually put it together.
The air quality here in D.C. is fine — the smoke is too high to affect us — so I can’t explain why I’m feeling physically sick. I’ve long known about the slow-motion catastrophe that is climate change, but this is the first time it’s felt like a personal assault. Every time I look at the sky, it’s as if someone has punched me in the gut. Perhaps this is the downside to having an intimate relationship with nature.
I’m not the only one making the crucial connection between my health and the planet’s health. Alison Greenaway, a scientist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, interviewed 40 New Zealanders in the early months of the pandemic, and many noted that they felt closer to nature during the country’s shutdown. “One person felt a personal sense of loss when trees in her local park were cut down during lockdown,” Greenaway says.
Her participants also drew inspiration from humanity’s response to the pandemic, including our ability to change our behavior overnight. “People talked about slowing down, and how they wished that they could continue to maybe not produce and consume so much,” Greenaway says. “They talked about their desire for a circular economy, and perhaps growing their own food and how these are exactly the kinds of things we need to be doing in the future, to save the planet and, by extension, ourselves.”
If these insights stick, it would be very good news for the environment, but it’s just as likely that people will simply return to their old attitudes and habits once this crisis passes, Greenaway says. “I would certainly hope that as people spend time in nature, they would think to themselves, ‘Man, I’ve really got to preserve this for future generations,’ ” she says, “but I’m not sure that that always happens. During the pandemic one of the things that’s been really disturbing me is to see the level of plastic pollution and littering that’s just exponentially increased. So, yeah, people might be spending time in nature, but are they making that connection between their own behavior and preserving the natural world?”
I’ve also seen an increase in littering on my island over the course of the pandemic. When I call up Lora Nunn, the vice president of Friends of Kingman and Heritage Islands, to confirm my hunch, she says that she too has noticed more garbage on the islands but adds that this has been accompanied by another, more heartening trend. “More people have been reaching out, wanting to help out or get involved,” she tells me. “We’ve had to turn people away at our last few garbage cleanups.”
I feel a sudden wash of embarrassment because I am not one of those people. Out of fear of covid-19 germs, or perhaps just because it’s gross, I haven’t picked up a scrap of trash all summer. I ask if they need any volunteers. “We’re pretty much done for the season,” Nunn says. She mentions that she’s volunteering with a group called Anacostia Watershed Society. “They might still need people.”
They do, in fact, so the next week I ride my bike past the bridge to Heritage Island, up the hill where I chased that deer, and a few more miles to a trash-choked stream called Nash Run. We aren’t there to pick up garbage, though; we’re tagging and releasing mussels.
Our leader, Jorge, explains that mussels consume the excess bacteria and algae that’s in the water. “A single mussel can filter a gallon of water an hour,” he says. In the spring, we will try to find the tagged mussels to see how much they’ve grown.
Lora is there, as is a woman named Nancy, and we spend an enjoyable hour sitting in a field, gluing labels on shellfish and gabbing about their kids and my cats (while masked and at a safe distance). I’d been worried about being near other people, because of the virus as well as my increasingly rusty social skills, but my anxiety melts as the joy of making friends takes hold. Our conversation turns to the pandemic, and I tell them how I’ve gone from being a consummate urbanite to someone who absolutely cannot live without constant access to green space.
“My husband and I are actually looking at moving to Front Royal, so we can have our own little patch of forest,” I say. “I’m even trying to learn to drive.” I know that impulse isn’t environmentally friendly, but it’s like the time I wanted to hug a deer: Loving and protecting nature don’t always go hand-in-hand.
We pull on waders and carefully place the mussels into the cool, clear water. It would be such a pretty little creek if the banks weren’t lined with plastic bags and bottles and condom wrappers. “I should come back with a garbage bag and pick all this stuff up,” I say. And, a few days later, that’s what I do.
Sadie Dingfelder is a writer in Washington.
Design by Christian Font and Suzette Moyer.