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Coronavirus Lockdown Gave Me Nature Deficit Disorder

Our personal health and well-being is enhanced by interacting with nature.

In “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”, and the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote an entire book— “Biophilia”—about humans’ necessary connection with nature. My friend Charlie Saylan and I wrote a book “The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)” where we noted the importance of connecting children with nature (and then went on to argue that effective environmental education is much more than simply this).

Many others have recognized that there’s a necessary connection between humans and the nature that surrounds us. Research shows that getting outside makes us feel better and reduces stress and anxiety. Louv cites studies showing improved performance for children who spend unstructured time exploring outside. Given that I think a lot about the importance of spending time in natural areas and interacting with nature, I have had a growing awareness that I suffered a lot by being deprived of nature during Los Angeles’ COVID-19 lockdown this past spring.

As a behavioral ecologist, I’ve been extremely privileged to spend 3-6 months per year conducting field research around the world for the past three decades. I’ve been based in tents, field stations and marine labs, and lived and worked from our cars and trucks. Studying animal behavior forces you to sit quietly and really experience the natural world around you. You can’t rush nature so you have to re-set your clock and, since I’m usually very aware of time, it forces me to slow down and appreciate life. Slowing down makes me whole.

When I’m back in LA my family and I head out on weekends to hike local trails, and surf local breaks. My son and I have spent magical times surrounded by frolicking dolphins and seals as we waited for waves. And, by design, I live within walking distance of work. On my daily commute I track the seasons by following the dynamics of bird migrations, bird songs, and flowering phenologies. Nature is where you look for it and even in a built-up urban environment, it’s there for our appreciation. It’s there to heal us.

All of these natural interactions came to a grinding halt as we shut down Los Angeles to combat COVID-19. Beaches were closed. Hiking trails were closed. And, I no longer walked to work because UCLA shut down virtually all research. I tried, with limited success, to replace outside walking with inside exercise. But it just wasn’t the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused, and will continue to cause, tremendous pain and suffering for many. I recognize the disruption, uncertainty, and fear that we are all currently experiencing. Indeed, what we’re learning from our current situation is that we Americans have it within ourselves to do the right thing to help our fellow citizens by making sacrifices. Together, we will eventually move forward and get back to some semblance of our pre-COVID lives. But in the meantime, we need to be sure to take care of ourselves.

I was extremely fortunate to have been able to leave Los Angeles in late May and resume my marmot fieldwork in Colorado. Once here I realized what I missed—nature. I sit and write this from my dinner table looking outside at an alpine meadow. Least chipmunks run around harvesting seeds. A Northern pocket gopher scurries from one hole to another trying to not become prey to the red-tailed hawk or long-tailed weasel that visit periodically on their respective hunting sorties. This year there’s no house wren nesting on our cabin, but broad-tailed and rufous hummingbirds peer in at me through the window. Mule deer are having an amazing year. A muscle bound buck visits me periodically and looks in too, while females, some with spotted fawns, forage on my hillside in the morning and evening. A bushy-tailed woodrat (so cute, yet so destructive!) decided our cabin made a nice home—which set me scurrying around trying to trap it (he’s now living in another valley). Despite the stresses associated with relocating the woodrat, I am privileged to be able to be up close with nature.

The seasons change quickly in the Colorado high-country. I feel connected to the majesty of life when I see these changes. I’m heading back to LA soon. Given my new realization of the essential importance to my welfare of following the dynamics of life, I’ll be sure to spend more time walking around my urban neighborhood, even if I can’t return to my office and lab. I’ll follow the American crows, California towhees, and dark-eyed juncos. I’ll listen to the Northern mockingbirds. I’ll note the flowering and senescence patterns of the non-native, ornamental plants. I’ll look for acrobatic fox squirrels tight-rope walking along powerlines, and at night, the occasional black rat running between bushes. I’ll look for the Cooper’s hawk that must have nested nearby. And I’ll listen, through our open windows, for the great-horned owl that sometimes pays us nocturnal visits. I’ll track the shortening days until I’m getting up in the dark. And, I’ll look forward to the longer days when I will again hear the birds sing in the morning.

Nature surrounds us. I think many of us will feel better if we work to appreciate and interact with whatever nature we live near and focus on the changing seasons as we await the development of better treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19.

References

Louv, R. 2005. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Workman Publishing Company, New York.

Saylan, C.S. and D.T. Blumstein. 2011. The failure of environmental education (and how we can fix it). University of California Press, Berkeley.

Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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