Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Prescriptions for healing during the pandemic: Six takeaways

Let nature give you a ‘jab in the arm’

Photo by Stephany Lyman

A great white heron resting on the Bayou St. Jean in New Orleans.

Photo by Robin Rogers

Mia, the granddaughter of Robin Rogers, with the forest cake for her 12th birthday

Photo by Sophia Lyman

Students creating artwork, studying patterns in nature, such as honeycombs, at the Alcuin Montessori School.

Photo by Jim Diers

Sunrise over Mount Rainier.

By Francesca Lyman
Posted 11/22/21
In a follow-up story to “Taking the nature cure,” environmental writer Francesca Lyman offers six takeaways as natural world interactions and prescriptions for surviving the pandemic.
If you had to draw a picture of your neighborhood, without using words, what would it look like? When was the last time that you took a walk along the beach? How many readers have become followers of the photography of Mike Cohea in capturing the nighttime skyline of Providence? How many folks on their Twitter feeds have taken to posting photos of the natural world, sunrises and sunsets, and landscapes aglow with the intersection of sky and sea and shore? What is the best way to engage with school children about the natural world?
There are a team of brilliant women writers – Rebecca Altman, Bathsheba Demuth, Sandra Steingraber and Kerri Arsenault – that are redefining the boundaries between the personal, the political, and the world around us.
Demuth’s most recent essay, “On Mistaking Whales,” published in Granta, begins with this haunting first sentence: “Before a gray whale becomes a home, or a barrel of oil, or a metaphor, before she enters the realm of human meaning, she is being complete in herself.”
As Demuth described her own writing process, “Another essay worked out during walks with you [Rebecca Altman] along the Seekonk [River in Providence].”
On Monday, Nov. 22, Sandra Steingraber, is hosting a free online talk celebrating the new three-book series, “Rediscovering Rachel Carson, Poet of the Sea,” published by Library of America and edited by Steingraber. The trilogy is described as “prescient books about the world’s oceans – their beauty, fragility, and immense consequences for life on earth.”
And, on her Twitter feed, Altman recently retweeted an excerpt from “Earthshine,” by writer Zack Savitsky, on the day of the full moon. “Earthshine is the glow created by sunlight reflecting off Earth and onto the moon: a new analysis reveals that this light has darkened, confirming satellite measurements that our planet is getting dimmer and absorbing more heat.”
The shared sensibilities of these writers illuminate a pathway toward a better understanding of the natural world around us – and its collision with the disliked truths of our economic system, made especially poignant during a time of pandemic.

Editor’s Note:  In her story, “Taking the nature cure,” which featured a stunning photograph of Mount Rainier by R.J. Aglow, Francesca Lyman wrote about the rediscovery of nature in a time of pandemic, serving as a tonic for the soul. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

In this follow-up story, Lyman offers her reflections – what she calls “Prescriptions for healing during the pandemic,” with the insights about how interactions with the natural world can give you a “jab in the arm” as a kind of booster shot, inoculating against the anxiety and trauma brought on by the COVID pandemic.

Lyman shares the responses she received from friends, family members and colleagues to her first story – including anecdotes, artwork, and photographs.

During this time of national “darkness,” in the midst of Thanksgiving week, Lyman’s latest story offers some recipes for finding a better balance in our lives, a light in the forest, with the hope that it can help us navigate forward in our lives, finding a sense of common ground.

KIRKLAND, Wash. – Sunshine, fresh air, trees, and birds. Being out in nature can work wonders for our wellbeing. To quote philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who perhaps knew walking better than anyone: “I took a walk in the woods and I came out taller than the trees.”

Today, however, awash in our digital world – beset by the extreme weather of climate crises and tethered to our phones, computers, video games and indoor lifestyles – we are increasingly becoming detached from the natural world and “the great outdoors.”

Long before the pandemic sent people scurrying indoors to tamp down COVID’s spread, public health experts warned of children becoming perilously disconnected by what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, called a “nature deficit disorder.” Likewise, many adults were diagnosed as suffering from an assortment of ailments, both psychological and physical, blamed in part on this disconnect – everything from anxiety and depression to heart disease and obesity.

Then COVID hit. As in past pandemics, many recognized an ancient wisdom. “Outdoor spaces, including outdoor classrooms, can offer more protection from viral contagion and from depression,” wrote Louv,  in an essay on the website for the Children and Nature Network. “The pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human hunger for nature connection.”

The value of our reflection
Our interactions with nature often can have a profound ability to enhance human healing and growth, scientists say, but because such interactions seemingly come for free, they are often seen as having little or no value.

But a growing body of research is producing evidence that contact with nature restores us, aesthetically, spiritually, mentally and physically. And already, some research shows that this pandemic is driving more people outdoors, “creating new nature lovers.”

A recent study by the University of Vermont found that 69 percent of survey respondents had increased their visits to natural areas and parks in the early days of the pandemic – and 80 percent attached an "increased importance" to these areas.

A second study by this university found that women were more likely to report increasing their outdoor activities during COVID.

“Outdoor activities seeing the largest increases were: watching wildlife [up 64 percent], gardening [up 57 percent], taking photos or doing other art in nature [up 54 percent], relaxing alone outside [up 58 percent], and, yes, making their masked and distanced way on walks [up 70 percent],” the study found.

Other studies have shown a corollary: that a lack of access to green spaces and blue bodies of water had negative effects on people’s health during the initial COVID isolation period.

Taking the nature cure
As the pandemic wore on, once restrictions were lifted on parks and wilderness areas, many escaped into the outdoors, at a safe distance from others, getting physical exercise, and also consciously engaging in “nature therapy.”

This changed awareness was reflected in the response by many readers to “Taking the Nature Cure,” published in ConvergenceRI on Oct. 18. Several dozen readers shared photos of their jaunts into city parks and other refuges, along with their own stories about the ways they’ve sought solace in nature.

Whether it’s taking kayak trips to photograph birdlife in a Louisiana bayou, or student outings to paint landscapes, or simply communing with a potted plant on a windowsill, readers reported that they, too, were embracing Mother Nature [my family members among them].

The article elicited a rhapsody of photos exchanged via email – as well as thankful declarations, such as: “Gorgeous! It’s so wonderful to live on Planet Earth.”

• Takeaway 1: Nature is beautiful – and endlessly creative.

“The pandemic and particularly those first few months of the shutdown drew many of us to the meditative beauty of nature, even here in the rust belt where the urban industrial city is filled with green space and waterways that provide humans and animals with comfort and sustenance,” wrote Sophia Lyman, an art teacher at the Alcuin Montessori School in Oak Park, Ill. "We took these local parks for granted but grew to appreciate them so much more in 2020-21."

Her family frequently took excursions canoeing on the Chicago River and hiking local parks.

Sophia teaches art with a nature-infused curriculum, employing leaf rubbings and "nature prints," using cyanotype coated paper, and encouraging students to recognize and appreciate patterns in nature, such as honeycombs and the unique and stunning geometric or mandalic designs on the wings of butterflies. [See second image.]

“Children love nature,” she said. “They are fascinated by the world around them. We did a great honeybee study last month as well. They loved it.”

Children’s book writer/illustrator Robin Rogers, author of Journey to the Never-Ending Sea,  was delighted to find that her granddaughter, Mia, chose a forest theme for her 12th birthday party and even designed a birthday cake in the shape of a tree log, surrounded by mushrooms and forest creatures. [See third image.]

“Everything was edible, except the plate,” Robin said. “She loves to hike in the woods, explore new places and familiar ones, wade in the big creek at the park, find creatures, flowers, plants.”

Party-goers donned masks of deer, fox, and other animals.

• Takeaway 2: Nature puts us in contact with wildlife, animals and birds.

Apparently, there is an exploding new pastime in bird watching, judging from increased sales of birdseed and feeders, as well as online data that monitor bird watching. Avian numbers are sadly declining, with a drastic drop registered in songbirds in North American and Europe, but these are the creatures in our backyards and local parks that we often fail to see.

Surprisingly, over time, with regular visits into natural habitats, one can form bonds even with wild animals.

[Editor’s Note: Photographer Jocelyn Anderson has developed a strong following on her Twitter feed, @JocAPhotography, offering what she calls her “hand of snacks” to birds in a Michigan wildlife preserve, with video images of birds landing on her outstretched hand to partake in the treats.]

Stephany Lyman, an artist and retired English professor and artist living in New Orleans, started taking her kayak out on Bayou St. John with her dog, Leo.

When Leo passed away, she started paddling solo, often at sunrise, making friends with birdlife – wild geese and ducks, blue heron and great white heron, even anhingas. This has enabled her to drift closer to the birds than they would have allowed were a dog on board. [See first image.]

That, in turn, led to cell phone camera shots recording these newfound bonds. “While I went out on the bayou more often in the last administration, as respite from dark times, it became a regular sunrise ritual when COVID ruled out swimming in a public pool,” she wrote.

Across the country, amateur photographer Stephanie Walls Vedvik, in Washington state, said she joined an informal group of bird watchers and photographers at the start of the pandemic. Living near the Green River trail in Kent, Wash., she has since been watching and photographing eagles.

“Nature reminds us how to be in harmony with life itself,” Vedvik wrote, quoting blogger Harold W. Becker. "Being outside and taking photographs brings me a lot of peace and joy," she said.

• Takeaway 3. Being in nature encourages exercise, which is hugely beneficial.

Mix in physical fitness with being in nature, and you’re helping your joints, your circulation, and your brain.

To quote wilderness writer John Muir: “Gain health from lusty, heroic exercise, from free, firm-nerved adventures without anxiety in them, with rhythmic leg motion in runs over boulders requiring quick decision for every step.

“Fording streams, tingling with flesh brushes as we slide down white slopes thatched with close snow-pressed chaparral, half swimming or flying or slipping – all these make good counter-irritants. Then enjoy the utter peace and solemnity of the trees and stars.”

Even without fording streams or scaling mountain boulders, being in nature can also ease the strain of occasional aches and pains, chronic conditions, or even grief and worry.

Apart from enjoying the beauty of the Bayou St. John shoreline on her paddling trips, Stephany Lyman enjoyed the companionship of her dog Leo: “Both of us [were] water-lovers and both challenged by walking. We always paddled together, so his passing five years ago felt like that much more of a loss.”

Meanwhile, Michael Marcus, a Raleigh-based community organizer, credits much of his recent hiking to Jackson, a dog he and his wife, Virginia, fostered after he was scooped up by the ASPCA along the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a survivor of Hurricane Katrina.

“Having Jackson kept me at it as we both aged. I think his daily 1 to 3 miles and 4 or 5 miles on weekends kept him alive for a couple of more years.”

Marcus, who tried to keep kind of a Facebook diary of those hikes, penned an “ode to Jackson” eulogy in October 2021: “His patrol route always included an outside portion, if only to sniff the air and listen to a bird.”

Marcus continued: “During one of our last walks in the woods, he stopped after a few hundred feet, sat down, and listened intensely, content to hear the wind, the birds, the noise of the leaves and trees, and a nearby brook. We stayed there, still, just listening, for nearly 15 minutes.”

• Takeaway 4: Nature is the best teacher.

Painter Mela Lyman, an art professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., takes her students on nature outings to teach them landscape and perspective drawing. Perched at a deck on the roof of Tufts library, these 17-to-22 -year-olds survey a vast panoramic view over houses and buildings toward the Boston skyline. “Seeing the shapes, light, shadows, reflections on the trees, it opens them up,” she wrote.

“Having been in Zoom classes for a year and a half, now suddenly with the open sky on a sunny day, it engages them in all the possibilities before them,” she continued. “As they to figure out how to fill an 18 x 24 inch empty canvas, it gets them in touch with themselves.”

Not all her students will grow up to become artists, but she feels that artistic skills will help these future engineers, lawyers, doctors and others in their future professional lives. For example, she found that her pre-med students will, in their future professions, “be all about touch.” She observed that drawing engages the tactile senses as well as sharpening visual observation, “as they feel the edges of what they’re drawing.”

• Takeaway 5: Nature can attract and create new community.

Many fled into the outdoors as an escape from other humans that might be carrying the virus. Yet Stephanie Vedvik found it to be a way to socially engage, too. “Far from being isolated, I actually met quite a few people on the trail,” she wrote.

"For me, being outdoors has been a kind of meditation. First you start noticing garbage along the trails, paths and in the lakes and rivers. You see people who are homeless sleeping in their cars and in tents; you see people who are mentally ill, drug deals. You also begin to care about improvements being made and land use," she said. "It opens up a lot."

Jim Diers, former director of the Department of Neighborhoods for the City of Seattle, said that he found more community than ever before among his neighbors on Vashon Island, Wash.

“The pandemic has been really tough, but it has also had a silver lining,” he wrote. “I’ve never spent more time in my neighborhood or had a greater appreciation for my natural environmental and my social community. I’ve been awed by the way that so many people from all walks of life have found to use their gifts to help one another cope with the pandemic.”

His own gift has been documenting his community's beautiful environment with nature photography. [See fourth image.]

Among those community activities is a haiku festival, which not surprisingly featured poems addressed to COVID and nature.

"Blue sky. Tears falling. Like spent cherry blossoms. The COVID 19 spring,"  read one poem.

The pandemic, Diers wrote, "has forced us to slow down and discover what is really important in our lives – our relationship with nature and with one another."

• Takeaway 6: Nature restores us, but can we restore nature, too?

When the pandemic hit, people went back to nature because they felt disconnected from civilization. They stopped driving as much, carbon pollution dropped, and the air was cleaner for a time. But that moment was short-lived, says eco-psychologist Michael J. Cohen, founder of a hands-on wilderness therapy course called Project Nature Connect.

“We’re living in a nature-disconnected way and using up the planet’s resources,” he said. Even thinking about nature’s gifts as ‘resources for us’ is a narcissistic fallacy that has produced the climate crisis we’re now plunged into, from catastrophic flooding to wildfires and sea level rise, Cohen argues.

On the verge of irreversible and catastrophic climate chaos, with evidence all around us, it’s time, he continued, we begin to think about nature in a more even-handed way. If you can escape to a stunning natural spot, he says, great. But you don’t need a blue lagoon. “Even a potted plant can satisfy the need for nature.”

Give back to nature, he advised, by hopping on a bicycle or taking a stroll, versus driving an SUV or flying to some far flung tropical paradise that will pump more carbon dioxide into the air. “We need to apply the golden rule to all of nature, not just civilized humanity.”

His hope, Diers wrote, "is that we have also learned that just as it was possible to make radical changes in our lifestyle to preserve our health, we will be willing to make major changes to save our planet."

Francesca Lyman is an award-winning journalist and investigative reporter. She is the author, with World Resources Institute, of The Greenhouse Trap: What We're Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming [Beacon Press].


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