July 2020: Nature in the time of COVID-19


As I walked in the Sourlands during the pandemic I tried to make photographs that reflected the times. The ones that succeeded best for me are soft and a bit fuzzy.

As I walked in the Sourlands during the pandemic I tried to make photographs that reflected the times. The ones that succeeded best for me are soft and a bit fuzzy.

Several years ago scientists interested in human circadian rhythms—the pattern of sleeping and waking—put volunteers into a confined space that contained no clues about the time of day.  They found that their volunteers were on erratic schedules at first, sleeping for a few hours, then wakeful for a while before sleeping again for a few hours.  After several days the volunteers developed a rhythm more like the rhythm of people in ordinary circumstances.  They slept for about eight hours and were awake for about sixteen.

My response to the pandemic felt similar to this experiment.  During the early stages, I had to think for a minute to remember the day of the week.  Nor was I quick to remember when things had happened.  Had I talked on the telephone to my daughter who lives in Los Angeles two days ago or a week ago?  Everything on my calendar had to be canceled and the days seemed to be without structure or even to follow any sequence.  Gradually, things started to form a pattern and I felt a lot less disorientated.

One of the things that helped me most was my daily walk in the Sourlands.  It was mid-March and I felt as though I was seeing spring come to the forest with greater clarity than ever before.  I had the woods entirely to myself at first, so I could stop to look at whatever caught my eye without distraction.  I could even just sit on a rock in solitude for as long as I wanted and bathe in the soothing forest air.   I was particularly struck by the contrast between the human world that was descending into chaos and the natural world that was going through all of the usual changes as spring progressed as though nothing was in the least unusual.  The virus, the grim statistics chronicling its spread and the political reaction to it dominated everything when I was quarantined at home and was totally absent from the Sourland forest.

 It was obvious that if humankind totally disappeared the natural world would continue with its pattern of birds returning in the spring, flowers coming to life before the canopy shut light off from the forest floor and ferns raising their fiddleheads.  Over the course of several weeks visiting the same spot I saw a pair of scarlet tanagers mate, sit on a nest and then bring food to open baby mouths.  I watched the parade of spring flowers change from little clumps of rue anemone to spots of cutleaf toothwort at many places, to the climax of spring beauties everywhere. I was dazzled by the many shades of iridescent green as leaves emerged on trees and shrubs.  The virus could not have been more distant.

My tranquil forays into the Sourlands forest did not last long.  Soon other people were discovering the same paths that I frequented. The forest actually became more populated with hikers than it was before the virus.  I knew that it was good that many people were finding the same joy in being in nature but I missed being alone.

We still do not know the future.  There is a possibility that it will be a long time before we return to what had been normal.  Any catastrophe, however, brings with it people of all persuasions who see this chaos as an opportunity to do things better.  An article in today’s newspaper talks about the great opportunity to build infrastructure.  Now is reportedly a good time to restructure the out of balance financial relationship between CEOs and their employees.  Maybe we can restructure our political process to make it fairer. If you have a favorite topic, this may be the moment to become its advocate.

My topic is the environment.  My approach is not to advocate political action—many people do that better than I can—but to look for things in nature that give me great pleasure and report on them with the hope that my reports will be infectious. I am convinced that there is joy, health and wealth from living in peace with the environment.  I hope to spark a renewed effort by us all to live as though we love Mother Earth and are grateful to receive her sustenance.