Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
From Lines Written in Early Spring (3rd verse) by William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
According to his biographers, William Wordsworth was very much in harmony with the beauty of nature.
“Like many young English people of his generation he was suffering from profound despair in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He had lost his idealism and his hope … He was in despair but he found a great source of healing in natural images,” wrote Rodger Kamenetz in 2017.
“By contemplating these ‘restorative images’—as he called them, he found he could heal the ‘impaired imagination.’”
In recent times, a growing body of research shows that spending time in nature can improve your mood and your health, by reducing the level of stress you feel emotionally and physically.
“Even caring for the potted plants on your windowsill may be good for you,” according to a review of the research by Consumer Reports. “Even if you can’t get outside, there’s evidence that looking out a window or even viewing scenes of woodlands and meadows on a computer screen may do some good.”
Sandra Schwartz, executive director of CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society), has been thinking about how people can continue to benefit from the benefits of nature while having to stay at home and take measures of social distancing.
“The healing powers of nature mean that people are trying to get into the parks. But now, that’s contrary to public health advice. But we can talk about the healing power of nature in our back yard,” she says, “taking the chance, if you can, to look out the window, at a tree, at the lichen, at birds.”
Dan Kraus is the national conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), an expert on Canadian species and landscape ecology.
“We are hearing stories from around the world of wildlife moving into cities,” he says.
“Most of the reports I’ve heard are from our cities in Canada, and I think people are just having the time to observe the wildlife that has always lived in our cities and lived around us.
“I’ve noticed pileated woodpeckers at my bird feeder, for example. I’m sure they’ve always been coming there, but I’m home all day and looking outside more,” he says. “It is so much quieter, with fewer people out and about, and fewer cars on the road. We can hear birds in the middle of the city.
Spring is a very busy time for nature.
“Migrating birds have started to come through, things like spring peepers are starting to call,” says Kraus. “And I’m sure there are places in our cities where the hustle and bustle kind of dims a little bit and we can hear the sounds of nature that have been there, but we just have not heard them before.”
In downtown Toronto, you can find coyotes and whitetail deer, Kraus says, and deer and moose occasionally pass through cities all across Canada.
“But that has happened in years before. We had been welcoming wildlife back to our cities for decades now. And I think we are just starting to see it and, maybe, becoming aware of what’s already sharing our urban spaces.”
At the same time wildlife is taking its place in urban environments, human encroachment on animal habitats is being cited as a major contributing factor in the animal to human leap made by the novel coronavirus traced to bats in China.
Humanity is placing too many pressures on the natural world, with damaging consequences, UN’s environment head, Inger Andersen, told the Guardian newspaper. She said failing to care for the planet means failing to care for ourselves.
“COVID-19 has been attributed to human interferences such as deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats and biodiversity loss,” says Pushpam Kumar, United Nations Environment Programme, Chief Environmental Economist.
“Regardless of its cause or origin, the emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the mutually-affective relationship between people and nature. Now, we must try to understand and appreciate the limits to which humans can push nature, before the impact is negative. Those limits must be embraced by our consumption and production aspiration.”
A reduction in economic activity has already shown positive impact on the environment in China.
The United Nations Environment Programme reports that, “efforts to contain the virus by restricting movement have had a remarkable environmental impact. According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, data recorded between January and March 2020 reflects an 84.5 per cent increase in days with good air quality in 337 cities, and satellite data from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration shows a decline in nitrogen dioxide over China.”
The positive impact of reduced human activity on wildlife is also being felt closer to home.
“We’re just starting to get into the season where turtles are going to be going out of their lakes and their wetlands to lay their eggs,” says Kraus.
“We know being hit by cars is a major issue for turtle populations, and that’s why in Ontario all of our turtle species are considered to be at risk. With fewer cars on the road, maybe fewer turtles will get run over. And I’ve been thinking that if we’re maintaining some of our playing fields a little bit less, because there’s no one’s on them, there may be an opportunity where birds will actually move into some of those grassland habitats.”
Knaus hopes that the current situation provides an opportunity for people to welcome nature into their backyard and learn about the species that live in their local area.
“You don’t even have to go outside,” he says, “looking at pictures of nature can help to relieve stress.”
“The Nature Conservancy has a partnership with Google Trekker where you can do a virtual hike of some of NCC’s properties. If you cannot get out, looking at pictures and learning about nature can help to relax you.”
Nature speaks slowly, in geologic time, in a language of systems rather than words, and she is not always speaking directly to us. Her message here is nuanced. Stay home people, pay attention, take stock of what’s around you, see what’s already there, appreciate my beauty and healing qualities. But take note of my ability to overpower you.
Perhaps the last verse of a poem written in 1798 gets to the point,
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
From Lines Written in Early Spring (last verse) by William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)