We sat at the edge of brokenness, with a view of what wasn't right with the world: the tempo accelerating, how we worship speed - faster, faster, instantaneous communication, purchasing, travel (to Paris in just a few hours!); the constant thirst for information, driven by its constant production, from 24/7 news, to daytime talk shows, late night talk shows, Tweets, and Facebook feeds, the newest, the latest, the greatest, the Fear of Missing Out; how we pillaged and mined the earth for its resources, gluttonously feeding our ever-growing appetites, and to our own peril careless about the needs of other creatures and the planet's finely tuned equilibrium.
And then it happened, a pandemic of Biblical proportions as if out of an Old Testament story, something about a king, greedy, shrouded in gold, and dismissive of the needs of his people. Like the voice of a divinity, it announces to the people, who had lost their way, "There is something bigger than you!" A force, like the plagues of ancient Egypt, crossing boundaries of state and country and political divides, necessitating that we slow down and take stock. It awakens us from the whirling giddy miasma of modernity, and shakes us into remembering the timeless things that matter most -- our loved ones and communities, to breathe, and the beauty of nature and the world around us.
At the same time that we grieve for the loss of lives and economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, perhaps too there is a way this moment offers medicine for our times, medicine that supports the sentiments of Earth Day on its 50th anniversary.
Things Fall Apart
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
On the eve of the Jewish holiday Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day--we commemorate the millions of people murdered by the actions of Nazis and their collaborators. Many of us are familiar with stories about families hiding out during that time. Some survived. Many perished.
As we find ourselves in a time of hunkering down, avoiding gatherings, isolating in close quarters with a limited number of people, I have been thinking about the far more extreme experience of those hiding from Nazis during World War II. This is with full awareness that the comparisons here are not to be overstated--on the one hand a deadly political force intent on the annihilation of a people; on the other hand a virus, its impact influenced by political and socioeconomic factors, but the virus itself devoid of willful intent to harm.
I delve into thoughts about how people in hiding during that horrific time endured the hardships of sequestering for months on end in basements, in attics, hidden away behind concealed doors, with no ability to go outside, eating only what meager food was provided and being thankful for that. What a luxury it is, even amid this challenging time of COVID-19 pandemic, that we can walk freely within our homes, can select our food and cook, that we can reach out to friends and family by phone, Zoom, texting, and email, and , if we're lucky, can maintain our schooling and employment.
And, I am reminded of the words of Anne Frank and her recognition of the power of nature to bring solace:
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
How fortunate we are that we can still go outside, can admire the changes in nature that come with the arrival of spring and can look upon nature as a constant.
The COVID-19 crisis highlights many things about our ways of being: our woeful lack of preparedness for a pandemic; the broader need for health care; the power of a force of nature so much greater than ourselves and our political structures and leanings; and the impact of job, housing and wage disparities among populations, among them. It also, and perhaps most strikingly, underscores our interconnectedness.
Indeed, central to the coronavirus' spread are the complex webs of links among beings. The virus jumped species, moving from non-human creatures to people, and once rooted within people, each point of human contact becomes its own node of countless connections, and on and on. It's our nature to be social creatures. We engage with family, friends, work colleagues, and fellow travelers on boats, airplanes, buses, and trains. We engage with fellow shoppers, theater-goers, congregations, book club and sports and exercise pals. We hug, we embrace, we walk hand-in-hand.
With the virus persisting on surfaces and in droplets of moisture in the air, our awareness of even traces of human connection become amplified. If I touch a door knob that was touched by someone with the virus who coughed into their hand, and I then rub my eyes, what then? If I handle groceries touched by someone with the illness and then scratch my nose, will I become infected and infect my family? If I walk along a path where an infected person recently sneezed and I inhale that same air, will I succumb to the virus? We become attuned to the invisible strands of countless connections as if we are wearing special lenses or possess a superhero-like powers akin to a UV light that discerns not just actual human encounters but residues of encounters, including those that are intermediated by the surfaces we touch and the air we breathe.
So much of what it means to be human--so much of how we define ourselves--is in relation to others and the roles we play as members of multiple communities. Part of what makes combating the virus' spread is the need to isolate. This runs against our nature, how we identify ourselves, and our deep need to connect with others.
Most glaring in the midst of this crisis are the daily tragedies: countless heart-wrenching experiences of illness and death, loss of jobs, disrupted schooling, and unprotected health care workers. Another, albeit minor, awareness is how interconnected -- and interdependent -- we all are. We are witnessing how a virus originating in central China has, by virtue of the extent to which humans travel and connect with one another, reached people all over the world. Yet, what is alarming in the context of a virus that causes illness and death and other hardship, is also an indicator of our human interconnectedness.
May we one day be able to appreciate that interconnectedness in a context separate from the horrors of a pandemic.
It is a strange feeling to experience emptiness in the city. Streets, subways, and stores only recently packed with people are abandoned. The city's propulsive energy, its alchemy of people, traffic, and commerce, and with these, perpetual noise and motion, has dissipated amid the coronavirus lockdown. It wouldn't be surprising to see tumbleweed rolling across Broadway, as if in a deserted western town.
Absent the hustle and bustle stand the stark horizontal grid of streets and verticality of architecture, like an empty set design awaiting its players, mirroring the empty sets of closed-down Broadway. The street grid, a rigid, fixed geometry that holds, harnesses, and thus enables the city's usual percussive beat and allows endless creative spark and serendipitous encounter rests now like an idling factory without purpose.
The great emptiness resulting from coronavirus-mandated retreat indoors makes it evident that it is people who give the city its sense of vitality, who collectively transform it into a fantastic gigantic organism. As alienating and dehumanizing as a metropolis can sometimes be, we see in this time of crisis the capacity of closely packed people to create an environment that pulsates with energy.
How we look forward to the time when that energy resumes.
A viral pandemic is spreading across the globe. We are advised to wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, maintain social distancing, cough and sneeze into our elbows, and self-quarantine if not feeling well. An invisible force of nature has led to illness and death, schools closing, social gatherings cancelled, and a plunge in the stock market. And, it highlights how interconnected we are.
What began in Wuhan, China has arrived in every continent except Antarctica, and is spreading within countries. Just thinking about the vectors of contact, multiplied across people infected, is mind boggling. An individual in a Westchester suburb of New York City with no recent history of travel to a hot spot is diagnosed with the virus and its illness COVID-19. His communities go on high alert; his house of worship shuts down, his office shuts down, his family and various contacts are found to be diagnosed. The virus pops up in Nassau County, Long Island; in Queens, in New Jersey, in Connecticut, far away from the initial U.S. hot spots of Seattle and California.
And so many of us move into a state of hyper-awareness. Is that occasional cough a Coronavirus cough? Do I dare take the subway? Is that person coughing over there going to make me and my family ill? Do I even need to worry since I am not among the more vulnerable sub-populations (although loved ones are)?
All if this vigilance, on top of contributing to workplace awareness and response planning in my day job, is making me a little nutty. I find myself experiencing tightness in my chest, and wondering if it is a sign of the COVID-19 - or more likely my tendency to feel that way when I am experiencing stress (and a day hunched over a computer to track the latest developments for my organization doesn't help).
So I went for a walk.
And I am reminded that there is a beautiful world out there.
In case you haven't noticed, with the clocks springing forward over the weekend, darkness arrives at close to 7:30. And we can all probably agree that 70 degree weather in New York City before mid-March is alarming and a likely indicator of an existential crisis far greater than Coronavirus. .... But it did feel nice to walk in Central Park amid the soothing, warm air, to feel the sunlight and to notice the earliest of blooms, the beginning flowerings of dogwoods, cherry trees, azaleas and forsythias.
None of this takes away from concern about a highly contagious virus that is potential deadly, particularly for vulnerable populations. But a walk outside noticing the beauty of evening light and early spring blooms sure helped to relieve that tightness in my chest.
From Having it Out With Melancholy
by Jane Kenyon
What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
A coyote was recently sighted in Central Park, a reminder of how as cities and suburbs expand into wildlife habitats, wildlife increasingly ends up in our backyards, including urban parks. Somewhat surprisingly, urban environments--though posing unique threats to wildlife--can also be beneficial for wildlife, offering abundant food sources and even predictable ambient patters, such as morning and evening rush hour.
Coyotes are not strangers to contemporary New York City. The Gotham Coyote Project, a group of researchers, educators, and students is working together to study the ecology of the northeastern coyote in New York City and the region. The project estimates that, as of 2018, 30-40 coyotes live in the New York City area, including in Queens near La Guardia Airport, the Bronx, Central Park, and Battery Park.
Increasingly, as humans encroach on wildlife habitats, wildlife encroaches on human habitats. Books like Feral Cities and Zooburbia, describe ways that human and animal life overlap. Notes an article in The Guardian,
"all around the world, city life seems to be increasingly conducive to wildlife. Urban nature is no longer unglamorous feral pigeons or urban foxes. Wolves have taken up residence in parts of suburban Germany as densely populated as Cambridge or Newcastle. The highest density of peregrine falcons anywhere in the world is New York; the second highest is London, and these spectacular birds of prey now breed in almost every major British city. And all kinds of wild deer are rampaging through London, while also taking up residence everywhere from Nara in Japan to the Twin Cities of the US."
Coyotes in NYC remind us that the wild heart of life collides and coexists with us in our urban homes.
Denuded of their leaves, the verdant raiments of Spring and Summer rendered brilliantly hued in Autumn, trees in Winter allow us to hone in on the subtle and not so subtle differences of their outermost layer, overlaying the wood and vascular cambium -- their bark.
As you make your way about in Winter, take note of tree bark - its color, texture, and form. What colors do you see? Greenish gray? Silver or brown? Red undertones? Is it smooth--as is typically the case with young trees, much like smooth skin of young people--or deeply grooved and weathered, showing its years? Do its grooves appear as elongated parallel ridges or striations? Diamonds? Braided twists? Is the bark rigid? Flaky? Layered? Deep or relatively flat? How does it feel to the touch? Hard or soft?
Every species of trees has its signature bark, and people knowledgeable about trees can identify them by their bark alone. Take advantage of the starker Winter landscape to appreciate the varied beauty of tree bark.
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn't show. -- Andrew Wyeth
Martin Luther King Day offers a time to reflect on the impact of the great civil rights leader and his legacy of respect. A corollary to respecting other human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color is respect for nature -- respect for other leaving creatures and the ecosystems that support them.
Respect for nature, like Civil Rights, is rooted in the notion of "inherent worth." In the context of environmental ethics, Paul W. Taylor, in his groundbreaking book Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, describes "inherent worth" in this way:
Our duties toward the Earth's non-human forms of life are grounded on their status as entities possessing inherent worth. They have a kind of value that belongs to them by their very nature, and it is this value that makes it wrong to treat them as if they existed as mere means to human ends. It is for their sake that their good should be promoted or protected. Just as humans should be treated with respect, so should they. (p. 13)
There are a range of ways to regard nature, many of which ultimately are about what nature can do for people. Nature can be regarded as a resource to be exploited (e.g., "natural resources"), focused on energy, agriculture, timber, and extraction-oriented activities. It can be experienced as a playground for outdoor activities. Perhaps more nobly, nature can be considered a refuge, an escape from hectic modern life. It can be engaged with aesthetic appreciation and with scientific curiosity. Yet, all of these, notes Taylor, differ from the attitude of respect for nature grounded in a moral sense of nature's inherent worth.
A sense of nature's inherent worth is central to a biocentric outlook on nature and the attitude of respect for nature. From the perspective of a biocentric outlook, writes Taylor,
[O]ne sees one's membership in the Earth's Community of Life as providing a common bond with all the different species of animals and plants that have evolved over the ages. One becomes aware that, like all other living things on our planet, one's very existence depends on the fundamental soundness and integrity of the biological system of nature. When one looks at this domain of life in its totality, one sees it to be a complex and unified web of interdependent parts." (p. 44)
Environmental ethics is not an obvious legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Civil Rights work. Yet, there are interrelated threads, rooted in the notion of inherent worth and an awareness of the inter-dependencies of living creatures. As King himself said,
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.
On MLK Day, we can reflect on the wisdom and courage of the great Civil Rights leader, and the broad impact and application of his vision.
Time outside in Winter offers its rewards--pristine settings, a feeling of adventure, and the beauty of nature's muted palette. But let's face it. Winter tends to be a time of huddling indoors and enjoying warmth and shelter. In this way, we are no different than our fellow animals, and as with the shelters of other animals, our shelters make use of available natural features and materials.
Consider caves and simple built structures, such as earthen pits covered with thatched roofs and tents. Writes Roma Agrawal in her delightfully informative and readable book Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures,
For a long time ... humans simply built from the materials that Nature provided, without changing their fundamental properties. Our ancient ancestors' dwellings were made from whatever they could find in their immediate surroundings: materials that were readily available and could be easily assembled into different shapes. With a few simple tools, trees could be felled and logs joined to create walls, and animal skins could be tied together and suspended to form tents.
Nowadays, amid canyons of concrete, steel, and glass skyscrapers, it may feel like a stretch to imagine these simple structures occupying the land that is now New York City. But these were the structures used by the indigenous Lenape people and by European settlers, and many of the engineering principles of these structures find expressions in the giant skyscrapers that give Manhattan its signature skyline.
It's a new year and a new decade, a time for new beginnings and, with a nod to the number of the year we've entered, perhaps clearer vision of what we hope the coming time will bring.
While we often think of Spring, with its plant life bursting forth, as a time of awakenings, Winter's shorter daylight hours and colder temperatures offers a time to retrench, restore, and rejuvenate, to collect one's energies and dive deeply into one's inner creativity. Indeed, writes the Italian poet Pietro Aretino, "Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius." One also is reminded of T.S. Eliot's lines from The Wasteland:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
While nature, with its withered stalks, may appear dormant in winter, there is a drawing inward that supports life and growth. Writes Gary Zukov,
The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.
Allow yourself time during these wintry days to draw within, nurture, and replenish.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.