With all of us stepping back from many of our usual daily tasks, we have been forced to look at things differently. Some are having a hard time with these changes, yet others are finding a new connection to the natural world for the first times in their lives. Trail systems in our local parks have been busy this spring, and there’s one comment that I hear over and over again –– “I’m so glad the trails are open. I wouldn’t be able to keep it together if I didn’t get my nature fix.”
There are many reasons that people find a connection with nature. If you are a nature enthusiast, think back to a moment that spurred you forward. It might have been another person who introduced you to the natural world, or it might have been a moment of personal discovery; a flower, singing bird, beautiful tree, or landscape. Whatever your reason, it was something that deeply affected you as an individual. That process is happening to many during this pandemic. More and more people are finding solace in nature.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth day took place in April, 1970 as a nationwide focus on the environment. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., looked to harness the energy of a society that was becoming collectively aware of the ravages of pollution, chemical contamination and species loss. It started an environmental renaissance that produced the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It is sad that on this 50th anniversary, most in-person Earth Day festivals and events were cancelled or moved to an online event. However, there is something going on below the surface of the pandemic that would be heartening to the founders of this movement. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Air quality in huge cities has improved and has been described as “alpine” quality. Water quality has improved in costal communities. Levels of CO2 released into the atmosphere have dropped to levels not seen since WWII. Unfortunately, these current gains are due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, and are somewhat accidental, it does show us that the Earth’s environment is a resilient thing. Our challenge ahead is finding ways to make global environmental improvements without relying an economic disaster to drive the process. This was the fire behind the founders of Earth Day, and 50 years later we are experiencing a real-time example why it is more important now than ever.
While working on trails at Forest Park Nature Center this spring, a hiker came up and thanked me for keeping the trails open. She said that she had forgotten what a joy it was to be out and able to get away from the craziness of 24-hour news cycles. She lived alone and was riding out the pandemic in solitude, but somehow being “alone” in nature was different. “You really aren’t alone when you are hiking,” she said. “Here you are surrounded by life… trees, flowers and birds. It’s when you are in nature that you learn how to bend without breaking.” That’s a lesson we should all remember. Maybe we are on the verge of a new environmental renaissance –– the inner enlightenment.