Connecting with nature in the time of COVID-19

Richard Louv child in forest

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, people around the world are doing their part to prevent the spread of the disease by staying at home and practicing social distancing. If we can’t go to the gym, the theater or out to eat, we can still go outside — or at least out our front or back door. And with spring in the air — this may just be the perfect time to do it.

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Richard Louv has authored nearly a dozen books about connecting with nature and is the co-founder of the Children and Nature Network. He and his wife live in a small town called Julian east of San Diego, about 4,200 feet up in the mountains. Louv said they moved there to get closer to nature, and they are happy to be there now, during this strange and difficult time.

Related: ‘Our Wild Calling’: Connecting with animals transforms lives

“We’ve been glad to be able to go out the door and walk, not see very many people, see a lot of deer and wild turkeys and all of that — that’s doing a lot for our mental health right now,” Louv said. “And not everybody has that, obviously.”

Louv is self-isolating for 14 days because he travels a lot and his wife has underlying lung conditions.

“There are some folks that think this kind of response is an overreaction, but we have to be very, very careful,” he said. “And hopefully, that bell curve will start to reduce sooner than it otherwise would. But in the meantime, I’m lucky I can step outside the door and walk for five miles.”

Related: Tips to cope with self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic

Louv spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about the benefits everyone can experience by connecting with nature, from the biggest to the smallest of ways.

Steve Curwood: The last time we spoke, we were talking about your book, “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs.” What might people do during this pandemic to connect with wildlife and how might that help us?

Richard Louv: I think if you are privileged, as I am, to be able to go for a walk in the forest, that’s a good thing. That will help your mental health; it will help your physical health. Actually, there’s some evidence that it helps build immunity. If you stay inside all the time, your Vitamin D level goes down, and Vitamin D deficiency is connected to all kinds of diseases. We have a lot of research that shows that it reduces stress, you get better mental and physical health.

Also, connecting specifically with animals — whether they’re the dog or the cat, if you’re lucky enough to have one right now, and wild animals — may also offset the downside of social distancing. We need a larger family around us. We need contact, and some of that comes from our domestic animals or companion animals. But just looking out the window and watching the woodpeckers where we live, who are quite funny. They’re kind of the bird corollary to raccoons. I like raccoons and woodpeckers. They’ve both got a bad attitude that I kind of admire. That kind of connection, I think has great value, maybe even more value than normal right now.

Related: ‘Our Wild Calling’: Connecting with animals transforms lives 

In fact, you’ve come up with a concept that you like to call Vitamin N, meaning nature.

That’s the follow-up, or one of the follow-up books, to “The Last Child in the Woods,” which introduced the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder — what happens to us when we don’t get enough nature. And the research now is just really exploding. When I wrote “Last Child in the Woods,” there were maybe 60 studies that I could find to cite. That was 2005.

Today, if you go to the Children and Nature Network website, we have a research library now. And it just recently went over 1,000 studies that we have abstracts for. They all point in the same direction, which is more time spent in a natural setting improves just about everything. I don’t like these kinds of books myself — the 500 things you can do. But enough people asked me enough times, What can they do? And I realized a generation has gone by — maybe two generations — where this is not familiar territory. Even if you know about the health benefits and the cognitive benefits and you want that for your kid or for yourself, you may not know where to start. So, that book was done to answer that question.

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On the Children and Nature Network’s website, you’ve published a list of 10 nature activities a family can do while being sequestered during this pandemic. Tell us a little about this first one, picking a “sit spot.” 

John Young, one of the world’s preeminent nature educators, takes hundreds of people out into the woods to learn bird language. … In a book called “Coyote’s Guide,” that I wrote the introduction to, he advises kids and adults to find a special place in nature. It could be in your backyard. Whether it’s under a tree or the end of the yard; it can be next to a creek. He recommends you sit there for a long time. Know it by day, know it by night, know it when it rains and when it snows, know the birds that live there, know the trees that live in it. Get to know these things as if they were your relatives. It seems to me that doing this can reduce our sense of isolation, right now in particular. Not only the isolation that we’re feeling right now because of sequestering ourselves, but this deeper loneliness that I’ve written about in “Our Wild Calling,” which is species loneliness. Our deep, deep feeling that we’re alone in the universe, and we can’t be.

So, by sitting in a “sit spot” in your backyard or wherever, pretty soon you notice you’re not alone in the universe. There’s a lot of life around us…When I was a kid, I’d go down to the creek and I’d sit next to the creek. As you approach, all the frogs jump into the water. But then, if you sit there, really quiet, wait for a long time, the frogs start popping up, one after another, and you just watch them. It’s a lot like meditation. But I think it’s even deeper in some ways than some forms of meditation. The primary thing I think we get from that — in some strange way — is not feeling as alone.

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Now, you’re in the city, sequestered. Maybe you have a sort of 3×3 patch of dirt next to the front walk to your apartment house, a porch maybe. How do you do that?

I grew up at the edge of the suburbs. There are a lot of people that don’t live in the suburbs, who don’t get to live in Julian, up in the mountains like I do. And we’ve talked about this a lot at Children and Nature Network — the whole issue of equity, about the distribution of parks. You can tell people to go to the park, [but in] many neighborhoods, it’s quite unlikely there’s a park and if there is, you’re competing with other issues. So, the idea that this kind of thing is available to everybody is not true, but nature is everywhere. … If you can’t go outside today, set up what I call a “world watching window.” Bring the outside in. That’s finding a window view or other view. It’s designed to induce our feelings of deep relaxation and awe and vitality. Watch the birds, watch the life outside that window. Even in the densest urban neighborhoods, there are birds. Also, you can do cloud watching. You can sit inside and look at the different kinds of clouds and watch the weather go by.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a guy who’s head of one of the major conservation organizations and I met his son who literally had a condition [that meant] he could not go outside, period. But he loved nature. And he talked about it a lot. And this idea of being able to see beyond the walls of your building — you can still do that. And I know that most of us would rather not be inside now, but I think that’s an extraordinarily important thing we can do.

Among the suggestions you have about connecting with nature in this time of sequestration is to get a big load of dirt and dump it in the backyard for the kids to play in. What are you talking about?

That’s one of my favorite ideas because it’s so simple. A guy named Norman McKee, several years ago, wrote me an email and he said that his kids weren’t getting out in nature; he couldn’t hardly get them out the front door. So he bought a load of dirt that he put in the back of his pickup and he drove home. And he dumped it in the front yard for his kids to dig in. Immediately, they were outside, they were digging in it, they were making things, they were making tunnels and roads. And he sent me a picture. It’s a great picture of his little girl, 3 1/2 or 4 years old. She’s sitting on top of this giant hill of dirt that he had just dumped in there. She’s sitting there waving her plastic bucket and her plastic shovel around her and she looks so happy. Sometimes these really simple things are the best things to do.

One of the suggestions that you have for people to do in this time of sequestration is to tell nature stories. How does that work?

That’s something we can do all the time. But maybe it’s particularly true right now. Imagination is a wonderful thing. It gets us out of our shell; it gets us out of our current reality. We don’t tell nature stories enough. Our ancestors did. They went outside, they went into the forest and they got to hunt to bring back food, whatever it was, then they came back and they would sit around the fire with the others in their clan and they would tell stories about what happened and sometimes they would act them out with their bodies. They would dance these stories. They would become the bear. I think that much of what we see on YouTube, all those YouTube videos of animals — I went to sleep the other night while watching cat videos, by the way — is very soothing.

But I think a lot of that reflects our desire as a species not to feel alone. To get out of our species loneliness. I hope one of the things that happen is that they begin to tell stories, they sit around the kitchen table and tell their stories. Have parents tell their stories of animals they encountered when they were kids. The kids tell the stories of what happened just the other day in the backyard when they ran into this huge grasshopper. People change when they’re telling those stories, their affect changes. They become very excited about life. So, now that we’re having to spend more time indoors, I think a good thing to do is to tell these stories, and also to tell the stories about what might happen next fall. Maybe we’ll go outside more next fall, or whenever this lifts. We’ll not only value each other more, I hope. But maybe, we’ll value our larger family, the animals and plants all around us more.

In times like this, I think we could all do with a little hope. What do you have to offer us in terms of hope?

By missing nature right now, and each other, this may be a way to fall in love again with nature and with each other. I’m thinking about imaginative hope. I’m not talking about blind hope. Imagine what the world would be like if things went right — if we acted on climate change, if in fact, we set aside big areas for biodiversity; imagine a different kind of city, where it’s filled with biodiversity. If we begin to imagine that now — and I hope that this occurs, particularly with young people — it’s a lot more likely that we will get that world than we will get the post-apocalyptic world that we’re too used to imagining.

This interview aired on Living on Earth from PRX. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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