Could this moment in time, when humans are forced to slow down and stay home, also become the moment the smallest details of nature get the attention they deserve?
There are many lessons we’ll take from this strange, dark time. Lessons on hygiene, self-sufficiency, the importance of community and family, and the power of coming together as people who, across cultures and continents, have found themselves in a very similar and frightening situation.
Here, on this blog, we write about gardening and the natural world, and so I’ll resist venturing out too far into my anxieties as a mother, daughter, and employee navigating this situation. Instead, I’d like to share my thoughts on what has helped our family find restorative moments during these long days.
I’m hoping you’ll find some peace and purpose in what I’m about to share. I’m not going to suggest time-intensive projects, or anything even closely resembling a schedule. As a working parent of two, I’m acutely aware that not everyone’s got time for that. Instead, I’ll talk about small changes that might help you right now at this very moment and even have a lasting impact when all of this is over.
Finding Respite In What’s Always Been There
Light and beauty can be found so easily in times when you need it. It only requires learning to notice the small, amazing things happening in nature.
When the news, personal circumstances and anxieties, and constant clutter from social media overwhelms and drags our attention into unhealthy cycles, research has found that connecting with the natural world counters the negative effect. This connection does not to happen on a mountain summer or a place far away. It can happen in whatever space you have.
It’s common knowledge that gardening is good for our mental health, for our souls. Watering a plant, pulling weeds, and taking time to observe the diverse beauty found in leaves, blooms, stems, and trunks – all of this can be meditative.
Connecting with nature also has proven positive impacts on our state of mind. The natural world offers respite, connects people, expands our minds, and can bring us closer to the place we’re from and where we live.
When these two ideas are combined, the positive impact is more than double.
Indoor plants — exotic ones we surround ourselves with and care for throughout the year — provide joy, distraction, and a common ground on which we can connect with others online. We have many in our own home, and always will. But these plants serve a different purpose than the plants that support local ecosystems and improve our earth: They’re purely for us.
The boost in happiness and indoor air quality is important, for sure. But what I’ve found is that the positive impact is magnified when the plant species I care for and/or make room for in turn sustain other beneficial life and restore the earth humans have flattened, ravaged, or neglected for hundreds of years.
It doesn’t take much. The simple act of clearing an area of turf grass and witnessing the native plants that emerge is pretty profound. When we first started doing this, snake root popped up almost immediately, and soon after butterflies and bees were all over the little white flowers. It had been there all the time, just waiting for someone’s perspective to change.
In these moments of forced isolation, which causes boredom and anxiety for so many, my hope is that more people will start sharing in this kind of experience.
The Power of Supporting or Simply Observing the Natural World
It’s a weird time.
Tim and I know that we’re lucky, despite the anxiety, regular cracks in our sanity, and quips of feedback given to each other way too often throughout the long days of this crazy new normal. We’re not living perfect lives. We worry. We’re not exercising enough. I’m obsessing over the fact that I cannot obtain Fleischman’s Active Dry Yeast right now when I need it.
We are lucky enough to be juggling two jobs and two young children and a slightly less active side business — a recent development after years full of frustration and uncertainty.
We’re not bored, but I also think we’re a little less susceptible to boredom. Being at home isn’t as much of a shock to us as it is for others, almost like by being parents of young children without a ton of expendable income, we’ve been practicing for something like this. When we’re not juggling parenting and work, we have hobbies to settle our minds. Tim plays his banjo, powering through short practice sessions while the children shout requests at him. I’m trying to draw more, though most of my subjects these days are quick renditions of stuffed animals and flowers for Mae. We listen to a lot of music. We dance. We laugh a lot. We get to Facetime with my parents every day, during which my dad makes the kids laugh and my mom listens intently to our 4-year-old as she share stories of what would otherwise seem like a very boring day.
We’re experiencing this crazy world through the eyes and hearts of our children, neither of whom know what “the news” really is. We’re all right.
One of the things we’re thankful about right now is that our home includes a backyard full of native plants (and a veggie garden). Spring’s magic is unfolding, and that alone provides hours of entertainment and respite from our screens. The children play in the mud, find new flowers or buds, and overturn stumps and old branches to watch bugs. Honestly, Tim and I pretty much do the same.
Now that our world is reduced to our own homes and yards, nature is keeping us sane. And to be clear, we don’t have a magazine spread-level situation over here. It’s no secret garden dotted with stone pathways. There’s a chain link fence. There are plastic outdoor toys. But there’s also life. So much life.
Native spring bloomers like foam flowers and wild geraniums are emerging. Fern fronds are constantly unfurling. The pink and white buds of viburnums are turning from little feathery buds to pretty little packs of flowers. The chickadees have arrived, scoping out new homes, adding their unique little tweets to the soundscape.
There is always something new to discover, and when life is completely overwhelming, looking to the ground and to the trees for signs of life and growth does, well, ground us.
In artist and writer Jenny Odell’s beautiful and important book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she explores the power of community and bioregionalism as resistance to the attention economy. (If you haven’t read it, there is seriously no better time than right now. We bought it at Inkwood, which also has it available online.)
Odell reminds readers that “simple awareness is the seed of responsibility,” a concept I so wholeheartedly believe in. Once you see them, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the the resilient little living things humans try so hard to get rid of, but which still show up and thrive if just allowed to. And once you start noticing all of that, protecting it seems obvious.
Putting down the phone and observing the natural world will do wonders for your stress levels. It will probably also will impact the way you see and treat the earth long after this virus is gone. Odell writes:
“The creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other life-forms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic.
“Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.”
There really is no end to what you can learn just outside your window or door. Odell’s only outdoor space is a small balcony, but she learned enough about crows (brilliant animals) to find that they spend a great deal of time learning who they can trust. Now that they trust her, they return every day at the same time to catch bits of seed she throws to them. Sounds like a pretty decent quarantine activity, right?
Even here in our neighborhood, where unfortunately so many trees have been cut down in recent years, the opportunities to discover are endless.
As you start to pay closer attention, you’ll notice the birds and squirrels have routines. When we see the male cardinal, getting brighter now in spring, we know the female will be in view soon as well. They stick together, usually with one standing guard as the other eats. When our birdseed runs out and stays empty for a couple of days, the male cardinal will sits at our window — closer than he ever comes regularly — as if to say, “Hello? You forgot something!” (We do stop filling it in summer so they can eat the bugs and plants.)
Two squirrels take the same path from one tree to the next, and down toward our garage, eventually making it over to the bird feeder each morning. Think squirrels aren’t interesting? Take a look at what’s inside the big piles of leaves, which are nests called “dreys.” Every mother squirrel maintains two of these homes just in case one of them is wrecked and she must urgently move her babies.
There are at least three species of woodpeckers living in our one oak tree, and it doesn’t take much time or expertise to spot the remarkable carved doorways to their homes. One bright moment for me the other day was noticing two red-bellied woodpeckers hopping around together. My hope is that means we might see babies this spring.
There are beautiful things happening outside our door and yours. In this age of 6-feet-apartedness, when anxiety is high even simply trying to walk children around the path at Newton Creek, the only place I can truly find peace is our home and the backyard that is an extension of it.
Naturalist Rachel Carson wrote that “there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” It’s true.
I encourage you to start seeking out the small things. They’re not insignificant. Make space in your day for all of the beautiful non-human life of the natural world. And maybe, if you’re finding it a bit sparse in the space you have, this will be the moment it all finally clicks. There’s a world out there worth saving.
Simple activities to do in your own backyard:
- Leave an area of your yard untouched, or simply pull up a patch of turf grass. Nobody is coming over. You have nobody to impress. Experiment. Learn what your space might be like if we didn’t think like sheep. Watch what happens, what pops up. Call it “science” on whatever schedule you’re maintaining with your children your children, because that’s what it is.
- Start noticing the birds and bugs you find. Look them up, learn what they sound like, take a few minutes each day or evening to stop talking and listen.
- Learn about the trees you’re lucky to have, or plants you know nothing about. Read about that. Observe.
- Remove ivy from any trees on your property to stop it from killing them, and any other invasive plants. Research shows that removal alone allows new more beneficial and sustainable plant life to return.
- When you’ve accidentally slipped into the COVID-19 Internet hole, as all of us do, or reached your Instagram limit without even realizing it, as I’ve done too many times, stop and remember there is a big wide world out there and you can inexperience it even just from the steps outside your door. I recommend doing this in the morning with a Revolution coffee, or in the evening with a Tonewood beer.
- If you already have natives, spend more time observing plants and the critical life they support. Order a regional guide to butterflies, moths, bees, and birds.