I suppose it was inevitable, after shuttering almost everything else, the coronavirus would come for the outdoors. Washington State Parks closed Wednesday. Parks in Oregon, Florida and Marin County, California, are shuttered as of Monday. So is Yosemite.
Access to two of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park, which I think of as my home national park, has been closed. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has shuttered its popular cabins indefinitely; I just learned a weeklong cabin trip I had planned for April will not happen. Here in Maryland where I live, the privately owned Sugarloaf Mountain nature preserve was shuttered Friday. Public parks remain open, but I fear that may change by the time you read this.
Especially at a time of crisis and high anxiety, we need a safe outlet, and the outdoors is pretty much the only one left. While the impulse to shut down everything is understandable, blocking the public’s access to nature could have terrible consequences.
It doesn’t take a physiologist or neurobiologist to realize that a walk in the woods does the mind and body good. Thinkers and doers from Beethoven to Darwin to Wangari Maathai to Rachel Carson to Robin Wall Kimmerer to the Buddha have found inspiration, solace and renewal among trees and nature.
In recent decades, a rich scientific literature has documented the outdoors’ physical and mental health benefits — which, of course, are intimately connected — and found more reasons than ever to spend time outdoors. With respect to physical health, a 2018 review of more than 140 studies by researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom found that exposure to green space and spending time in nature reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure. Exposure to sun stimulates cells in the skin to manufacture vitamin D, which is crucial to maintaining strong immune systems that can help us avoid the worst consequences of coronavirus. Even the view of trees from a hospital room window seems to lead to better surgery outcomes — though that does not mean the mere sight of greenery can satisfy all our needs.
On the mental health side, people who have regular access to green space have been shown to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Walking in the woods has proved more calming than walking the equivalent distance on busy streets. Outdoor therapy has helped children with ADHD and veterans with PTSD. In her book “The Nature Fix,” science writer Florence Williams documented how the colors, sounds and smells of the woods directly influence our “nature-primed neurons.”
Less easily quantified is societal health. I sometimes think of society as a bottle of liquid that is pressurized, then shaken. We are all thrown together in close quarters, attempting to achieve different and sometimes competing goals, and expected to get along without harming one another. In normal times, our churning societal bottle has multiple relief valves: bars and restaurants, music and performing arts, sports (both participating and watching), dancing and even hatchet throwing (the latest fad, I’m told). I’m sure I’m not the only one who took some of these activities for granted and am realizing how badly I miss them — something as simple as watching new highlight videos of NBA or Champions League games would be so, so welcome right now.
Even with all these outlets, it often feels that our societal pressure cooker can barely let off steam fast enough. Now they have been shut off simultaneously, and we don’t even know when we will be able to enjoy them again. We’re desperate for relief, and there’s only one universal valve left: our front doors. Now that valve is being tightened.
While limiting numbers of people crowded into indoor spaces is obviously crucial for slowing coronavirus spread, that need not apply to the outdoors. And the American outdoors is vast. I was reminded of this on a recent trip to New Mexico, where empty spaces stretch into every distance. Even in the relatively crowded East, there is plenty of room for everyone to remain well over six feet away from one another. New trail etiquette is important, obviously — choose less-used trails if possible, give oncoming hikers a wide berth and don’t congregate. Everywhere I’ve been recently, people have been observing such protocols, even going beyond what’s strictly required. (Obviously this is not true everywhere, but if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we can learn to move through the world in new ways.)
It’s not just about hugging trees: The outdoors also allows us to be in sight and earshot of other humans at safe distances. We are social beings, genetically wired to take comfort in each other. Especially at this awful time, we need reminders that we still live in a society of fellow flesh-and-blood humans, not just two-dimensional simulacra thereof.
And let’s not ignore the health benefits of exercise — including for fighting some of the “underlying conditions” that increase COVID-19 risk. Just two weeks without exercise can have harmful metabolic impacts such as elevated blood sugar and lowered insulin sensitivity. We’re all barred from gyms; if the only place we can walk or run is on sidewalks, those will get crowded fast.
I am privileged and can at least spend time in my small, wooded yard. But many are not so lucky. Municipal and state parks are crucial outlets for poorer people who often live in apartments or houses with little green space. To cut off their access to nature seems especially cruel and unfair.
“Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city,” Williams concludes in her book. “Short exposures to nature can make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall.”
Some groups, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, have warned of crowding and damage to park resources and encouraged people to stay away. While these are legitimate concerns, crowding could be mitigated by limiting parking in popular areas and by the same kind of clear, effective public messaging that’s already convinced most of us to socially distance, as a group of neighbors and I did on a tree walk in a nearby park this past weekend. And damage caused by hikers (as opposed to by industrial machinery) can be repaired. Perhaps it could even be fixed by a Civilian Conservation Corps-type restoration organization that could employ some of the newly unemployed once the virus is contained. Meanwhile, the mental health damage of lost access to the outdoors may be irreparable.
This is not just a plea on behalf of urban tree-huggers, by the way. Hunters, fishers and trappers are among the outdoors’ most avid users and passionate advocates. The outdoors is a rare thing that can bring liberals and conservatives together, all the more essential at a time like this when we need to see ourselves as a national community.
I don’t know exactly what would happen if our nation’s parks were to join the list of shuttered societal institutions and we were all forced to endure four, eight or even more weeks of near-total indoor isolation. We’ve never run this experiment. But I suspect that the health toll in terms of heightened anxiety, depression, addiction, suicides and deaths of despair — already likely to rise from the massive economic downturn we’re experiencing — would be catastrophic.
The whole point of our coronavirus response is to reduce illness and death. Keeping people physically and mentally healthy during the most stressful thing many of us have endured in our lifetimes is a crucial part of that.