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Enduring Lessons for Humanity After a Year of Birding, Hiking, Gardening, and Just Sitting Under Trees

Covid-19 pushed many outdoors. Will they use their newfound environmental awareness for good?

A group of bird watchers look up through binoculars and cameras.
Bird-watchers use binoculars and cameras to see a Great Horned Owl at The Ramble in Central Park in November 2020.

July 12, 2020, is the day Flynn Murray became a birder. Thats when the 31-year-old Brooklynite left her dog at home, grabbed her binoculars, and made it her sole mission to immerse herself in the avian world. In nearby Prospect Park, Murray found her spark bird—“a species that triggers a lifelong passion for birding,” per the Audubon Dictionary—in a green heron fishing on the lake.

Though Murray, the publishing director for Dissent magazine, has always spent her free time outdoors, those 20 or 30 minutes watching the heron hunt and fish felt like a rare reprieve. Like many Americans, Murray had spent much of the preceding months confined to her apartment for fear of Covid-19. But outside birding, she discovered, your mind has less opportunity to go to pandemic life—who do I know whos sick? What am I going to do about work?”

Murray isnt the only one. The pandemic has given rise to a kind of twenty-first-century transcendentalism: a panic-induced reconsideration of nature and our place in it. From coast to coast, Covid-19 offered the Americans it wasnt killing or bankrupting a mixed-blessing opportunity to rediscover the joys of the natural world. The popularity of bird-watching soared, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose eBird platform processed more than two million sightings on May 9, the most recorded in a single day. While public health officials discouraged travel, many public parks drew record crowds. In July, Yellowstone tourism was up 2 percent compared to 2019. Even among those safely ensconced in their own homes, seed and plant orders skyrocketed.

As year one of the pandemic dragged on, it forced Americans to reckon with our abject dependence on the natural world. People found themselves more and more at the mercy of the slight variations of the seasons, which modern conveniences like air conditioning (itself a viral vector, at least in public spaces) had once rendered obsolete. If the summer was a moment of release and protest, the pandemic winter” quickly became a catch-all for seasonal affective disorder, isolation-induced depression, and grief at an incomprehensible scale. As temperatures plummeted, people puzzled over hour-by-hour weather apps to plan socially distant outings like nineteenth-century farmers poring over their almanacs in preparation for harvest.

For those who have been able to access it safely—hardly a guarantee—nature has remained a lifeline. It was, in many ways, a blessing, the timeline, that it started near the birth of spring,” says Jessica Maffia, a visual artist and pandemic birder currently working on a project to document nature along every block of Broadway in New York City. Its been so much harder this winter, connecting to whats alive and vital—and to hope.”

Americans are once again living for the next heat wave. For some, the summer of 2021 might conjure that of 1967, when barefoot people swayed languidly in the grass, united by an appreciation for the tenuousness of life,” James Hamblin recently wrote in The Atlantic. If the Biden administration can realize its ambitions, there will be enough vaccines for every adult American by the end of spring. While Columbia University epidemiologists estimate we could still see millions more infections before then, these shots could make family reunions and Fourth of July celebrations possible once more.

The timelines may vary, but its clear Covid-19s outsize influence in our daily lives is finally dwindling. The question now becomes, will our new awareness of our eco-vulnerability inspire us to come together in the name of climate action and equal access to the great outdoors? Or will we check our birding binoculars at the door?

From its inception, the pandemic has been an environmental tale. Covid-19 likely emerged from what Cambridge historian Sujit Sivasundaram calls an interspecies frontier”—the place where human development and animal viruses collide. As it spread, the pathogen suppressed travel, temporarily tanking greenhouse gas emissions, but not by nearly enough. In the United States, the lifeless spike protein fueled an ecofascist fable: Nature is healing. We are the virus,” went a popular social media meme, various iterations of which falsely linked the absence of tourists and commuters to increased wildlife activity. Even former President Donald Trump, in his own dangerous and misinformed way, morphed into a onetime nature worshipper when, in April 2020, he promised the summer sun would be enough to eliminate infections.

Trump was wrong. While viruses are in many ways seasonal, the body count continued to grow. One thing the lengthening days did offer was time to consider the sheer number and severity of our cascading crises, including but not limited to our decaying public health apparatus, a nonexistent health care system,” the consequences of a white supremacist police state, the exploitation of workers essential and otherwise, and the rapid unraveling of our shared reality, as conspiracy theorists took hold of the national discourse and, on January 6, the U.S. Capitol. Through sheer juxtaposition, the pandemic knit together a bunch of things that people potentially thought of as separate and distinctive issues,” says Murray, who joined the Feminist Bird Club, which unites delight in mandarin ducks with a social justice agenda. California offers one representative chain of events: Climate change exacerbated its 2020 wildfire season, but the state’s response was impeded by its reliance on incarcerated firefighters, who were trapped in superspreader prisons, leaving dozens to die in the conflagrations or as a result of smoke inhalation.

Such interlocking environmental, political, and economic catastrophes repeatedly proved deadly—and will continue to do so until we overhaul these systems. In Texas this February, a winter storm left millions without running water, heat, or power and killed at least 40. Like so many modern disasters, it was hardly natural—runaway climate change, corporate malfeasance, and complicit politicians had long been on a collision course. ERCOT, the company that supplies 90 percent of Texass electric load, doesnt use climate data and climate modeling to do its assessments for supply and demand. It uses historical data, so they dont project forward,” Amal Ahmed, a reporter at the Texas Observer (and a friend), told Slate. If its an extreme event,” she added, thats not being factored into it.” But extreme events are, increasingly, the only events—and they dont wait their turn in the disaster lineup like they used to, which makes response efforts even more difficult to orchestrate. As Texans learned the hard way, community warming centers are a lot harder to run during a pandemic.

Hamblins predicted summer of love may indeed present an opportunity to watch movies on the big screen, hug grandparents, and dust off the things we left behind on our office desks. But theres a chance Covid-19 will resurge in fall or winter 2021 as immunity wanes and the seasons shift once again. Most immunologists agree that SARS-CoV-2 will ultimately become an endemic disease, circulating in parts of the globe for decades, like certain strains of the H1N1 virus, which fueled the 1918 pandemic and killed an estimated 50 million people globally. It may even become a part of our seasonal flu rotation. (Staggering inequality in vaccine distribution between richer and poorer countries wont help.) It wont mean every year has its own pandemic winter”—the virus, if it sticks around, will likely become less harmful to humans over time—but it may mean we revive our old precautions in the cold months and even continue to mask up.

Where there is human suffering, there is a search for meaning. The pandemic “has been the most profound thing thats happened to us collectively,” says Amanda Birnbaum, an epidemiologist and avid gardener in New Jersey, whos spent the last year taking classes online and in person through the New York Botanical Garden. Its kicked our asses.” She’s one of many hoping the hard-won personal revelations, political developments, and environmental insights of the past year will lead to a more thoughtful postlockdown future.

Whether we will translate the lessons of the last year into climate action remains unclear. By the second half of 2020, greenhouse gas emissions were already rising again. We are putting the historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak of global emissions at risk,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, recently told The Guardian. Even those who have strictly observed lockdown are understandably eager to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles. And the new Congress has yet to pass a climate bill.

Access to outdoor recreation remains wildly unequal while climate change and environmental pollution disproportionately harm people of color and the poor. In the U.S., 74 percent of nonwhite people live in a nature-deprived area compared to just 23 percent of white people, according to an analysis of census data by the Center for American Progress. These challenges are only compounded by gatekeeping, intimidation, and physical and sexual violence in the outdoor spaces themselves. The birding community, for example, is still grappling with a May 2020 incident in which a white woman named Amy Cooper made false and racist statements to the police about Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, after he asked her to leash her dog. More recently, it’s been rocked by the allegations that Jason Ward, something of a celebrity in birding, raped Atlanta-based freelance writer and digital marketer Aisha White. To borrow a quote from a blog he wrote, One black persons paradise can be another ones terror,’” White wrote in a post detailing her experiences. He proved that to be true.”

The obstacles are numerous, but with all eyes on the future, we have a chance to build a brighter one. Public health agencies around the country and leadership at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must begin preparing for the next pandemic, however implausible it may feel. Municipal governments need to expand access to nature among poor communities and communities of color. Congress needs to recommit to the goal of universal health care, universal paid sick leave, and other reforms that would have made this pandemic easier to control in the first place. Texans (and many other states and territories) urgently need to overhaul their grid and replace the legislators who uphold its current incarnation. And every American would benefit from a Green New Deal and all its promises of a just transition to a more sustainable world.

As the virus still circulates and the vaccine remains tantalizingly out of reach for many, people can still revel in the spring bird migration or an afternoon at the lake. But if there’s one thing the pandemic has made clear, it’s that while we’re all startlingly dependent on the world just beyond our doorsteps, our views are often nothing alike.