Innovation Ecosystem

Taking the nature cure

Rediscovering the natural world around us during the pandemic

Photo by R.J. Aglow

The view of Mount Rainier, looking south from Point No Point beach, with the skyline of Seattle in the right foreground.

Photo by R.J. Aglow

A fisherman in Hansville, Wash., with the Cascades in the distance, with the Mount Baker on the horizon.

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By Francesca Lyman
Posted 10/11/21
In this time of great trauma and loss from the COVID pandemic, Francesca Lyman describes how she and her husband have found solace in rediscovering the natural world around them.
When was the last time you were able to take the opportunity to walk along a beach or a bike path in Rhode Island? Did you know that during the next few weeks many hawks will be making their annual migration south, including red-tailed hawks? What are the best ways to engage with school children about experiencing the natural world around us? How many reporters have added Kerri Arsenault, the late Barry Lopez, Bathsheba Demuth, and Rebecca Altman to their reading lists and Twitter follow lists?
When Facebook shut down unexpectedly last week, along with Instagram, amid testimony by a whistleblower about the manipulations of algorithms that support dangerous misinformation, the connected world suddenly became dis-connected, no longer tethered to the demands of digital social media.
The same day that happened, an inadvertent fire alarm forced all the tenants of my apartment building outside, with their pets in tow, creating a moment of spontaneous conversation, in person, the kind of shared human interaction that has been so absent from our lives, it seems.
The opportunity to get outside of our own lives, our own pursuits, to be both participants and observers, and in recognizing our relationship with the natural world around us, provide us with an opportunity to heal from the great trauma and loss that has occurred during the last two years.
Only through this kind of connectivity can we begin to address the calamities of climate change and pandemic and our perverse relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

HANSVILLE, Wash. – On a golden day in late September, as I look out across the Admiralty Inlet, almost as if I am living in a dream, a snow-capped mountain comes into view. What appears, almost as an apparition, is Mt. Rainier, dwarfing a rarely visible Seattle skyline, which appears tiny despite being much closer than the volcano.

Because the mountain isn’t always out, as people say here in the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to forget how this imposing volcano dominates the Puget Sound region.

A year and a half into the COVID pandemic, my husband and I often find ourselves seeking solace and security in nature, amid our region’s glaciers, meadows and forests. Viewing the mountain from the equally stunning Olympic Peninsula reminds us of the enormity of the natural world of which we are a very small part.

What has been a compass point for millennia for Native Americans and voyagers, Mt. Rainier, thousands of times the size of our man-made Space Needle, is the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States.

Today it is windy, and the water is turbulent. But there is something reassuring about nature being in charge – not us – as we stand on the “Point No Point” sandy beach, among the driftwood, looking back at Seattle.

Beyond the daily drumbeat
The daily drumbeat of news about the virus, debates over vaccine mandates and masks, being socially isolated, watching businesses shutter – and lives shatter – all around us, with the sounds of ambulance sirens still wailing through city streets, have shaken us deeply.

We’ve been witnesses as numerous friends have lost jobs, businesses and lives. We are survivors along with the friends and family of the more than 704,000 Americans that have lost their lives to the virus. And still counting.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the Seattle area became site of the first COVID outbreak, my husband and I have mapped out regular short trips into enchanted places around the Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.

Our weekly refuges have been state parks, national forests, and the urban beaches of the Puget Sound, places like Seattle’s Richmond Beach, the small city of Edmonds, and this beautiful stretch of sandy shore behind the Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville, Wash., the oldest of its kind in the Puget Sound region, operating since 1879.

Un-crowded
When many parks were closed in the early days of COVID, because of short staffs and early efforts at distancing, we ventured out into open, un-crowded areas near us that didn’t require day passes, places like the new city park in Bothell, Wash., a park so new it hadn’t even yet been named, lying across the Sammamish River “slough” from our home.

Here on 90 acres of trails through what was once a golf course, which still contains vestiges of pioneer European settlers’ fruit orchards and farms, we could hike freely up into the forest canopy of Douglas fir trees, observing a woodpecker that gave us a close-up tour of its handiwork.

Even so, we’d be ever watchful for packs of coyote that roam here. Then, safely in our beds at night, the nightly chorus of yelps and howls from the coyotes would remind us that nature is ever present, even here in suburban Seattle.

Red in tooth and claw
Often soaring above us on our walks were fledging eagles, stretching their new wings from an eagle’s nest high up in a nearby fir tree. We could also watch ospreys jealously circling those same nests, hoping to out-compete them for that prized real estate along the river.

As these birds show, nature is “red in tooth and claw,” in the words of the Victorian-era British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. But, as other writers suggest, nature can also feed our spiritual lives.

“Mountains, rivers, and deserts, enjoying a lifetime far exceeding our own, give us a taste of eternity, and an ancient forest or gorge reminds us that our own lives are brief in comparison,” writes psychotherapist and former monk Thomas Moore, author of The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. Even in this secular era, notions of nature and spirituality still seem to go hand in hand.

Steeped in reverence
We were surprised to find in one of the highest, most remote reaches of these suburban forests, human shrines and talismans, with poems, prayers and inscriptions nestled into nooks of trees to commemorate lost loved ones. In a way, it was reminiscent of the kinds of universal religious practices we find around the world, like those referred to by Thomas Moore, such as the Irish monks who built stone monasteries on “steep promontories,” or Tibetans with their remote mountaintop temples.

Being in nature is a way of being re-enchanted with our lives, or as Moore suggests, divesting ourselves of the “busy complex,” and the distractions of our indoor lives and our dependence on digital technology.

Enchanted
Today at Point No Point beach, fishermen are plying their way through rough waters, some returning to shore because the waves are too high for their small boats.

Closer in, a sea lion bobs up and down, swimming energetically through the surf. Locals and families, perhaps enjoying a nature outing like us, watch as the second head of a seal, emerges, yards away. Was it the same seal, having traveled quickly on the waves, or another companion seal? The effect is magical and delightful, but no one stops to snap a picture on their smart phones. They simply watch, enchanted.

Sightings of seal, otter and California sea lions are common here. However, in this passageway for marine mammals crossing between the Strait of Juan de Fuca [the waters separating the U.S. from Canada] into the lower Puget Sound, one can occasionally view a pod of Orca whales or school of harbor dolphins cruising by.

Humpback, minke and even gray whales make appearances, scaring off the fishermen when they come too close to shore.

Our common wealth
Watching the seals, I’m reminded of a popular passage in the journals of wilderness writer John Muir, who once described a school of whales on a sea voyage to a similar location, en route to Alaska, which he watched from the deck of the ship, along with a “merry school of porpoises, tossing themselves into the air.”

“One cannot but feel sympathy with and be proud of these brave neighbors, fellow citizens in the commonwealth of the world, making a living like the rest of us.,” Muir wrote.

When Muir made this voyage in the 19th century, these marine creatures were far more plentiful. He described the scene: how the “half-dozen whales, their broad backs like glaciated bosses of granite heaving aloft in near view, spouting lustily, drawing a long breath, and plunging down home in colossal health and comfort.”

Further, he observed how “a merry school of porpoises, a square mile of them, suddenly appear, tossing themselves into the air in abounding strength and hilarity, adding foam to the waves and making all the wilderness wilder.”

Restoring our connection to the world around us
Today we’re in a pandemic where even the animals are succumbing to COVID. But distanced from our fellow humans and driven into the wilderness for solace, we may discover that the virus has helped us to restore the lost connection between humans and nature.

Francesca Lyman is an award-winning journalist and investigative reporter. Her story, “Unsettled in Seattle,” from March of 2020, described how people in Kirkland, Wash., learned to cope with the coronavirus, when the region became the first epicenter for the pandemic in the U.S.

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