“I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
Emily in Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Most of my life, I have been an outside person, but never much of a nature person. I am drawn, you see, to the sun more so than the natural world because, in part, I am allergic to much of that natural world.
I have been thinking a lot about this during the current Covid-19 pandemic and the expectations of social distancing and staying, mostly, at home (which means indoors).
My childhood throughout the 1960s and 1970s occurred in the South where my working-class parents practiced under the expectation that children played outside if the weather in any way made that possible. In fact, my sister and I gleefully raced outside much of our childhood.
I recall very fondly playing pick-up sports in the large field near our rented house in Woodruff, South Carolina (the field on the property of the adjacent junior high school) and the variety of make-believe adventures we neighborhood children constructed in the large field on the other side of the house that stored giant mounds of gravel.
Once we moved to the house my parents built on the town golf course, Three Pines, I was ten and soon found refuge in the huge expanse of woods surrounding our large lot as well as spending a great deal of my life playing golf or outdoors pick-up basketball.
My entire adult life has been spent as a recreational cyclist, riding for many hours each week on the roads and trails around upstate South Carolina and the mountains of North Carolina.
One of the great ironies of my life is that when I was a child my parents often wanted to go driving in the mountains of NC (along the highway where my parents spent their secret honeymoon after a hushed marriage at the courthouse), but I fought these trips with the sort of pettiness children excel in showing; as an adult, I have ridden my bicycle thousands of times along those same roads.
It is in my cycling life, I think, that I can best describe the dichotomy of being an outdoor person but not a nature person.
One of the more common cycling loops we did for many years throughout the spring (and more) included climbing up Hogback Mountain near Tryon, NC. The climb is anywhere from 3-5 miles of climbing depending on the turn-around point (and the paved road has been extended over the years of doing this ride).
Once just before starting the ride with a cyclist I hadn’t done the climb with before, he said that he loved riding Hogback because of the view at the top. I immediately said, “What view?” You see, I really never saw the climb as a way to see the view or take in the surroundings because it was a physically and psychologically demanding feat.
But I worshipped every chance I had to be outside, to be in the sunshine for hours at a time.
With our brave new world of social distancing and commitments to staying at home, I have had an unexpected shift in how I view the natural world.
A week or so ago, I noticed the large amount of wisteria in the area. I wrote a poem about that, but I have continued to see and think about the blossoming of spring all around us while most of us have our heads and our minds focused on an invisible virus, a pervasive threat that is not just beyond our senses but may actually disrupt our senses of taste and smell.
As with forms of socializing, the recommendations and mandates restricting groups to fewer than 3 people have brought to an end group cycling, something that has been at the center of my adult life as well.
So my lifelong need to be outside has taken on a new form and a new importance.
Each day, a friend and I schedule one outdoor activity, road cycling, mountain biking, or a walk/hike. Instead of a hobby or a form of leisure, these have transformed into a necessity, an elixir against the terror of the pandemic and the claustrophobia of social distancing and staying home.
But as the world wakes up around us this spring, the world available to us is shrinking. In my home state, all the state parks have closed—no hiking or mountain biking trails left open.
Since road cycling alone or in pairs is less safe than larger groups, mostly, we had been mountain biking and walking/hiking a great deal. And all while flowers and trees are bursting to life and everything has a dull yellow layer of pollen announcing the coming of spring to the South.
Wisteria and Dogwood trees are going about their usual business, oblivious to Covid-19, social distancing, or stay-at-home mandates. Pollen dusts everything in sight while we sit inside staring at our variety of screens.
Nature without the interference of humans will persist as nature. In Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake, Snowman, believing himself the last human, witnesses just that:
The buildings that didn’t burn or explode are still standing, though the botany is thrusting itself through every crack. Given time it will fissure the asphalt, topple the walls, push aside the roofs. Some kind of vine is growing everywhere, draping the windowsills, climbing in through the open windows and up the bars and grillwork. Soon this district will be a thick tangle of vegetation. If he postponed the trip much longer the way back would have become impassable. It won’t be long before all visible traces of human habitation will be gone. (pp. 221-222)
Early in the move to social distancing, we drove the hour to Dupont forest to hike. The hiking trails to waterfalls are always popular, but on this trip, the crowd was disturbing since we were confronted with a dilemma—the need to be outside and our commitment to avoiding large groups of people, particularly strangers.
Regretfully, this experience was an omen of the new restrictions that now ban anyone hiking those exact trails, just as most of our mountain biking trails are now officially closed.
Covid-19 is exposing some of our greatest urges and weaknesses as humans. We desire community, socializing, but we are often our own worst enemies, especially when the greatest threat to our safety is unseeable and each other.
For me, the new reality has forced me to rethink my relationship with the outdoors I have cherished my entire life, a new recognition of the natural world.
As we were cycling laps around a park in my hometown, a friend and I talked about my new fascination with wisteria and we both acknowledged not really knowing the names of trees and plants all coming to bloom around the lake at the center of this park.
It seems a different kind of important now to see the various plants and trees individually, and to know their names.
That day we were climbing Hogback I recall now that I did pause at the top, I did look at the view, and I had to agree it was more than worth my time to not just look, but really see the view from above the trees and across the valley.