18 May Nature Connections In the Time of Covid-19
Over the weekend I packed up the Jetta Wagon for a short Joy Trip. After almost two months of working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown I was eager for a long car ride to go someplace pretty. A good friend had recently purchased a piece of property on a lake with a series of hiking trails about an hour east of Madison. Loaded with my boots, hip wadders, a backpack and a fly rod I set out on the open road under a clear blue sky through the sunshine of a beautiful spring day in Wisconsin.
“Your GPS may try to get you to turn on the wrong road,” my friend warned in a text message. “Our driveway is directly off the highway. It’s a shared driveway, so stay to the left and just go through the gate.”
I had a good idea what he meant. GPS isn’t always an exact science, but how far off could it be? With good cell phone reception on a well-marked road, I figured I’d be able to eyeball it once I got close. As fate would have it, however, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“You have arrived,” said Siri through my iPhone. “Your destination is on the left.”
As I cocked my head in that direction to look, I eased up on the accelerator and slowed down, ready to the make the turn. But what I saw next caused my foot to reflexively hit the gas and cruise right on past. There in the driveway was an enormous banner that read “Trump 2020”. This was definitely not the right place.
It’s really a shame that I am emotionally triggered by something as simple as flag. Being a Black man in these strange times there are many things that I cannot take for granted. Many across our nation have openly expressed hostility and animosity toward people of color. Much of that ill will has expressed itself during the pandemic and unhappy people with short tempers are being encouraged to defy customs of common courtesy and basic human decency. If anyone objects to this characterization I would happily entertain an argument to the contrary.
A few weeks ago, not far from where I was, protesters angry over Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order held a rally in the town Brookfield. At least one person felt it was appropriate to wave a Confederate battle flag, a symbol of white supremacy. Though I am sure many of those gathered there are very fine people, too seldom have they publicly rejected or denounced the harmful rhetoric that denigrates black and brown folks just living their lives. The rights and privileges of their fellow citizens don’t much seem to matter.
After the murder in February of Ahmaud Arbery I cannot assume that anywhere I go in America today I will not be targeted for abuse or violence simply because of the color of my skin. Arbery, a Black man, was killed while jogging through a mostly white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. On a public street two white men with guns believed he didn’t belong there. Ahmaud Arbery could have been me.
It’s important to understand that this is not something that only happens in the South. In America, this land of the free, I will go anywhere I want to that is open to general public. Wherever I travel, however, if there are those who believe that I don’t belong, I know that I am in danger. Sadly, that includes the great outdoors.
During this time when so many people from marginalized communities are already at risk from the Covid-19 pandemic spending time outside may be more critical than ever before. My colleague Kim Moore Bailey, the CEO of Youth Outdoors, penned an article with other noted professionals on the website of Grantmakers In Health that makes the case for a connection to nature as a way to ease the burdens of the current crisis.
“Studies show that nature’s benefits are relatively greater for those who are negatively impacted by economic disadvantage, systemic racism, trauma, opportunity gaps, and other challenges,” they write. “Three main factors emerge from the research on nature’s health benefits that are particularly relevant right now, especially in communities most impacted by systems of inequity: 1) a sense of calm, restoration, and a measurable reduction in stress, 2) enhanced mood, reduced anxiety and depression, and 3) improved resilience and ability to cope with adversity.”
But in a cultural environment with little apparent regard for the safety of black and brown people, we have created an additional barrier to the natural world. If the outdoors is indeed for everyone to enjoy, then we must openly declare our support for the health and comfort of all people. As stay-at-home orders begin to lift, the outdoors can provide many positive benefits for the mental and physical wellbeing of folks who can really use it. Organizations and institutions that advocate for environmental protection in particular must also express and affirm their commitment to keeping all people safe from harm. As we venture into the outdoors after so many weeks in confined isolation the managers of parks, forests and other natural areas must assure all visitors that these spaces are indeed for everyone.
“We will not rest until all Americans can safely enjoy the outdoors without fear of violence,” wrote National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara. “None of our work in support of people and wildlife will matter if everyone cannot safely go outdoors, none of our work to restore our public lands will matter if everyone cannot safely make it to the trailhead, and none of our work to secure cleaner air and water matters when black men and women are dying in the streets.”
As the car idled by the side of the road, I consulted the map on my phone. When I realized my mistake, I turned around and headed back toward the highway. Once I got my bearings straight, I managed to find my friend’s new home. The only thing more breathtaking than the beautiful landscape all around us was the comfort and security I felt to be in a place where no one would question whether or not I belonged.
After a tour of the house and its ground we went for a 3-mile hike along the trails and around the lake. Taking our time in the warm sunshine we cast our rods over the water to fish for bass. There I surrendered my mind to the calm serenity of this beautiful place and made a silent wish that everyone could have somewhere outside to enjoy the wonders of nature.
But even when it comes to public land, we cannot assume that all people feel safe in the outdoors. We must work to create opportunities and programs to engage those from all walks of life. In solidarity with the National Wildlife Federation, other environmental groups across the United States might consider making a similar statement acknowledging the importance of equitably including all people in their efforts to protect and preserve the natural world.
“The work of nonprofits like Youth Outside, Outdoors Alliance for Kids, the National Recreation and Parks Association, the Children & Nature Network, the North American Association of Environmental Education, and others is critical right now in providing information and resources for connecting to nature safely during the pandemic,” the writers of the Grantmakers In Health article suggest. “Their work will be even more critical as leaders and communities think about nature connection as they plan for a new normal post COVID-19.”
If each organization truly believe that the outdoors is for everyone then they must put that affirmative belief into words. To say nothing in this time of a global crisis reminds me of what Martin Luther King Jr once said. “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
The time to act is now.