Over the past month, I have noticed that my Instagram feed has been bursting with stunning images — clouds, sunsets, lady bugs, dahlias. It seems, from pure observation, that we are all paying more attention right now to the natural world. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of staying at home? More time to appreciate the things we might have overlooked if we had been rushing off to the next thing, like a gold finch on a fence, ripe tomatoes and the pink bliss of an early sunrise. The pandemic is, perhaps, bringing out everyone’s inner ecopoet.
Consequently, there also have been reports of abnormal natural phenomenon happening as a result of people being in lock down, like lowered carbon dioxide levels from less commuting and the reappearance of animals in otherwise human-dominated places. Some of this has been fabricated (see dolphins in Venice canals) but it is still interesting nonetheless. In a New York Times article, author Helen Macdonald asks, “What is it that we are desperate to see in the natural world right now, and why?”
As an environmental writer, it has become a central question. We are living through a traumatic year, both in relation to this public-health crisis as well as the social-justice crossroads we face as a country. Personally, my own waves of despair and isolation have been appeased by turning to the natural world — getting outside of my head for a walk along the river or just a sit in the long grass looking up at our swaying willow or out at the vast, green pasture.
Many of my writing heroes have been observing and learning from the natural world for decades. Recently, I was surprised to read a 2013 Harper’s article by Barry Lopez about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. It is a devastating piece; tragic and also precise and brilliantly written like the rest of his nature-inspired prose. I also just listened to a re-aired OnBeing podcast interview with the revered ecopoet Mary Oliver, who passed away last year. She speaks elusively about her abusive childhood and how her younger years spent exploring the woods were a saving grace, a way out of the horrors at home.
I mainly write poems, but more recently I have been working on a memoir that responds to a question I get often: How did you get interested in agriculture? (My husband and I are first generation farmers, and we run a sheep farm in the Skagit Valley). In writing about our life, I have come to realize that I first fell in love with farming in my early twenties as a way of grieving my parents’ divorce and all that was lost in that difficult and drawn-out process. This land has healed me, helped me start my own family, and taught me how to stay put and notice things, and for that I am grateful.
In this historical moment of loss and sacrifice, I think it is useful to ask, “How can nature soothe you?” I wonder how this newfound solace in nature will help us all fully appreciate another pressing issue: climate change. Since writing this piece, the “nature pics” have been replaced by apocalyptic ochre and orange skies resulting from the widespread forest fires across the western U.S., which have increased in duration and severity for the past several years as a result of climate change.
Post-pandemic, our lives will not go back to how they were, and this might not be a bad thing. Many of us know intellectually that our relationship with the ecosystems that hold us, how we use and conserve natural resources, needs to shift, and perhaps all of these new pandemic-induced revelations in nature are a path forward to a better way of being. One where we are able to draw on our own wounds to find true compassion for our neighbors as well as our environment. In my writing classes, I like to refer to this as embodied ecopoetics, which translates into deep empathy for nature; truly feeling, in every inch of your body, why the earth matters and why, as humans, we must change our destructive patterns.
So, I say, let your inner ecopoet loose. Keep the cloud and flower pictures coming. Keep looking outside and write what you see. We all desperately need it.