How Nature Helps Me Through COVID

I was written a one-way ticket to Depressedville in mid-January 2020. When he fired me, I felt a jolt. My pride was slapped, but combined with a wave of relief.  I knew it – knew the exact conversation that my excellent reviews took a turn and the plan to fire me was hatched. It was weeks of nervous anticipation.

When the ax fell, I felt really free for several weeks, spending one of them on a (previously paid for – Thank God) ski trip to Copper, CO. Back home, a month of my isolation preceded this little multi-month lockdown thing. You may have heard of it, COVID-19.

I was free. I truly did not fit that company culture at all, but I was now getting worried. So, I began isolating well before it was the hippest thing you could do.

As the calendar edged toward six weeks of unemployment, I began to panic and for the first time ever was not excited about going to the Rockies. In early March, I flew to Steamboat, CO amid growing media coverage of this virus. Only while I was in the center of the town, in an empty snow-covered park, did I feel peaceful. All my friends were skiing but having lost eighty percent of my income, I chose the free route of exploring the town on foot. Separation from a world I felt was passing me by had become weirdly familiar and soothing. Had I known a historical forced isolation was coming, I would have charged that lift pass, for sure!

No one yet could have predicted the course of action would be ‘hey, let’s literally close the world and make up the rules as we go along’. Churches closed, retail businesses closed…oh, who am I telling? Everyone knows what closed.

I understood the need to slow the roll, sit for a bit, separately, and see how things play out. With my own fears flying, I shut her down. I locked out the world and sat down. I drank too much wine, ate too much gelato, watched too much trash Netflix, and generally self-destructed. I both loved and hated all those who used the time to learn a completely new skill or start a business.

Oh, extra time to dedicate to my passions that have been dying to get out?

Oh, no. I’ll just wallow in the misery for a bit, thanks.

While I have several introvert tendencies, I’m mostly an extrovert. This new ‘mandate’ for solitude brought up a lot of emotions for everyone. While I was miffed at the idea of staying home alone, I imagined the scene for others. I worried about those isolated in an abusive marriage or as a hungry, neglected child. Brain health, which drives mental health is the core of a non-profit I support and serve on the board.

I worried about those situations so much. More fears jumped in the fray ~ I feared the traumatic backlash of forced isolation.

I was also moving in mid-April and needed to be packing. I had plenty of time and no distractions to do it. I just could not talk myself into anything productive. I wanted to sit and pet my dog. So the packing fell behind, but in a nail-biting finish got done.

I’m grateful for several friends, who did not judge my slacker mentality and helped me get out of my home a mere 10 hours before my tenants moved in. You have to look for blessings in a pandemic, right? I found one in great friends. They are the ones who will show up even when the fear of a viral spread was real.

One afternoon, #theamazingblaze finally had enough watching me pack, nap repeat and talked me into letting him leap in the backseat. Destination dog park. Ears blowing in the breeze.

On the gate, I found a large, red CLOSED sign. That was the moment anger joined in with my fears. That single sign triggered some kind of loathe and fear in my heart that really sent me into a shockwave of sad bitterness.

Hearing of closures of the major interstate hiking trails (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide) was a curious moment for me. I tried, yet could not imagine how being in nature could possibly be bad for you. Seriously, was COVID radioactive and they weren’t telling us?

That’s when I had to decide between living in fear and doing what I needed to protect my mental health. Whatever your higher dude or dudette gave you is cool, but mine did not give me a spirit of fear. So, I chose me. It meant getting outside into big nature and probably breaking a few guidelines in the process. It meant pushing myself a bit in several ways too.

As soon as I settled in my new digs, I rebelled. I ventured out. Always solo and distant to respect and protect my new roomies, but I had to be outdoors. Luckily, some greenways and local trails remained open and I will never, ever understand why dog parks did not. Cities became ghost towns and by that time, I was planning to go into the wild.

I needed to disconnect from the world and be among the trees. I craved being off-grid.

I’ve camped in many forms before but had taken no solo adventures that didn’t involve or hotel or VRBO. This time, I needed it to be just me, all on my own listening to just my thoughts and God-guidance. It would be most all my own gear, knowledge, planning, packing, cooking, etc. While my dog is an excellent hiking buddy, he’s no good at food prep or advice.

After several searches, I finally lucked out and found an open one. It was deep in the William J. Bankhead National Forest in Alabama. I cheered a little inside when I found out that the campground and nearby Sipsey Wilderness got very little cell reception. My loved ones weren’t thrilled with my plan and I had a few of my own worries. But after promises to text if I could and immediately when I hit service areas, we were off for three nights in primitive peace. With storms forecast for the latter half of the trip, I wondered if I had all it took to stay through them all.

Would all my gear hold up okay? Could I figure out the best tarp location? Am I really a true hardcore nature girl? What if I liked the camaraderie of camping more than camping itself? Add to that the unknown of what COVID really is and can or cannot do, and my mind could not have been more ready for an unplug. It was more isolation, but it would provide just what I needed ~ insulation from the media.

One of a million falls in the Sipsey Wilderness, a million miles from the world

Unplugging from loved ones was hard but being able to stop the barrage of media-driven fear was like the cool side of the pillow, a calming cool relief. We slid right into a big nature routine of a morning walk (aka squirrel hunting), breakfast for both of us and then him dancing around like a sugared-up child. All about the car rides!

We spent the days driving to trailheads, crossing creeks, forest-bathing and generally immersing in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods. Our bedtime ritual was a short walk to the waters edge to get full, clear view of the sky. There were times I thought the dog might have a quiet fascination with it too.

The day after I got home, a beautifully perfect early May day arrived. With campgrounds closed, dog parks closed, major hiking trails closed, day use areas were my best outlet to nature. I knew just the place, local and underused. My body wasn’t ready to return to walls and artificial lighting, so I heaved Daphne on top of Stella (my kayak and vehicle, respectively) and went in search of paddle therapy.

It was an unusually busy day at my secret spot. I created a decent parking space, unloaded and paddled across a long cove to the shore of a campground. A completely desolate and empty campground beach. What is wrong with this world that you close down nature?

Those fears crept back in and brought with them annoyance. I was just plain fed up with COVID. It just didn’t make sense. Science, medicine, a multitude of researchers in both all agree that being in nature heals, boosts immunity and enhances mental health. Yet, nature was closed. Damn them all, I was going to sit on the empty campground beach and do some healing. You can’t CLOSE nature.

Sitting there in seclusion, with the lake tossing itself on the shore occasionally and a breezy sunshine blowing through me, I breathed. I actually wrote my last blog post from there. I was saddened by the fact that nature was indeed closed. Many people rebelled with me that day. I paddled back across the lake to get my car and found hundreds of others taking up every inch of pavement, a lot of grass and lining both sides of the street. Everyone had the same idea. This little day use area would be their refuge from isolation.

A strange mix of emotions set back in when I spotted a park ranger capturing the scene. Were we being ticketed, reported? What? Even the thought of criminalizing being outdoors sent me into a weird tailspin of fear and anger again. Granted, I was not totally comfortable being around that many people, but I could not waste a perfect weather Saturday. My sanity depended upon it.

By my fuzzy math, in 4 days of adventure . . .

I broke about seventy-four ‘guidelines’ . . .

Had zero regrets . . .

and an immeasurable amount of peace. . .

Everywhere outside but especially among trees is where I am most alive and grateful.

Countless studies have been done on trees and their signature scent, terpenes. Terpenes are complex biochemicals emitted by all plants. A growing amount of research is focusing on the effects of those emissions from trees. One double-blind study I read about diffused oils made from tree terpenes in hotel rooms of study participants. They found remarkable reductions in heart rate and blood pressure. Participants who had terpene scents over placebo oil also reported lower anxiety. Researchers are also finding there’s an increase of natural killers (NK) cells in those who spend time in nature. Those NK cells boost immunity and fight cancer! So, I was not going to apologize for needing to be among trees.

The days clicked further into May and while some evil force had brought us COVID, Mother Nature tried to soften the blow. Other than a short, super rainy week and one blast of crazy hot, early spring in Nashville has been exquisitely weathered. Cool mornings, humid free sunshine and mostly pleasant temperatures. Count your blessings where you can in a pandemic, right?

Now fully settled into my new digs and working again, I had no commute to speak of any longer and the house came complete with an organic garden. With the responsibility of my own home maintenance lifted, I decided I needed in invest that time in more healthy pursuits. I could spend some in that garden. The kind of garden I’d always wanted to have but felt overwhelmed in trying to create from scratch,  was there just waiting to be prepped and planted.

My roommate started off with some squash, pepper and tomato plants. I’ve since planted a long list of things; two lettuces, kale, corn, tomatillos (I’ve never eaten cooked with a tomatillo), cucumbers, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots and herbs. I went a little vegetable happy and I was totally winging it on all of it. I had no idea what would live, die or produce food.

My parents and grandparents all grew up gardening and when I was very young, I helped. That was forty years ago and I had no idea what I was doing, then or now.

All I did was water, remove weeds and share love and energy with the plants. I gardened barefoot at times to gain energy back from the earth. And voila, I’m growing food. Salads have been amazing. Other dishes are well-flavored with fresh herbs and I’m now harvesting peppers and cucumbers.

The squash has nearly choked out the carrots. The lettuce was overshadowed by zucchini, which may have helped the lettuce, but I didn’t even consider and google space between plants! I just had the innate need to have my hands in dirt, so I planted things.

The love I’ve given the garden has been repaid by giving me productivity where I’d been lacking and a strange sense of independence in that knowledge of ‘yippee, yes sir, I can grow food’. I held a green pepper in front of my dog a couple days ago and said “Look buddy, I grew this” with glee. He seemed very excited for me, but really he just wanted to eat it.

There’s a ton of research and science behind a substance (mycobacterium vaccae) in dirt that’s being deemed the natural Prozac. Colorado University-Boulder ranks it in their 2016 Top 10 list for brain research.

As I spent a little time each day with hands in soil, I did feel a sense of satisfaction. Not that I felt any ‘highs’, but over days and weeks my stress eased. Finding a water hose hack to clean dirt from under my fingernails helped!  Gardening truly did make me happy!

Walks have become my morning jolt of choice. Even when I may not want to, the dog motivates me to seek out cures for nature deficit disorder.  In my new neighborhood, I’ve found more areas of the creek and a tiny, one lane road. It’s heavily treed and only a very occasional car comes through. We soak up the terpenes on that road and stop and play in the creek nearly every day. On those walks, I find myself feeling grateful for the wonder that’s all around me.

My favorite morning walk

So while COVID has thrown the entire world on its ear, I am trying to make my peace where I can. The only place where solace follows me is in nature. It has been all along, even when I wasn’t nurturing it. It still is in nature.

Life, my friends, will always contain great doses of nature for me. To be whole, to live my best life, it’s a must. With the overwhelming amount of study and science behind why, I’d beg you to figure out ways to including it in yours.

Big nature is an outlet for me. I’m just back from another weekend in the woods of Fall Creek Falls with great friends and furries. It was the only place one of my most scared friends, felt safe being around anyone and where those friends all had an amazing time with each other, with as much or as little distance as they needed.

Little nature is found in those tiny moments with small things. Even growing a houseplant or a single herb in your kitchen window may be as nature lover as you want to go.

I love it, little nature is beneficial also! The simple act of viewing images of nature is shown to be soothing to the mind too.

YouTube some nature videos, they’re lovely and thankfully have not been censored. I replaced some NetFlix with those videos on rainy days. Watching less trash TV gave me a mental boost too. I found that out only after tossing a couple hundred hours down the tube.

The simple connection to nature, whether seeing it, smelling, tasting or touching it puts you back in touch with who and where we were designed to be. It’s the only way I’ve made my life work in the past couple of months.

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