Did spring seem unusually long this year? Did you notice the miracle of new plants you’d never seen before pushing out of the earth and into your garden?
When stay-at-home orders rained down we were on the off-ramp of winter, last year’s dead plants still plastered to compacted earth, and we had nowhere to go but — here. And so we did. We looked outside and registered anew our reduced “home range.”
Colleagues, peers, friends, reporters, high-ranking officials all seemed suddenly aware of what was underfoot, out the window, blooming. When you walk by the same spot every day, slowly, you register the swelling and aerating of the earth, the first sprout, the bold first plant, the tentative blossoms, full bloom.
While we were noticing our home turf, creatures across the globe decided to reclaim theirs in our absence. From our electronic windows into a restricted world, I reveled in stories and photos of the resilience of species that had been hiding out in a kind of quarantine from us, now able to move about freely and reclaim spaces that had become too perilous because of our presence.
One of the first of these stories came from an early COVID-19 hotspot: Venice, Italy in March. Boat traffic on the iconic canals slowed to a standstill, sediment settled back to the bottom of the water column, native seaweed twinkled in the sunlight, and fish were visible in the clear waters.
Flamingos in Mumbai, India enjoyed unimpeded access to their traditional wetland habitat, swelling in numbers while humans were held at bay. By April, other predators besides us had noted our absence and moved in to fill the void: pumas in Santiago, Chile; coyotes across California; a wild pig in Rajasthan, India; a jackal in Tel Aviv, Israel.
We marveled both that these creatures had been here along, and that we were lucky enough to see them. I hope that being confined to indoor and nearby outdoor spaces for a prolonged period will have taught us to observe nature with more sustained attention, to recognize how precious life on our planet is, and to care for it accordingly.
Perhaps we were unprepared for another kind of animal-behavior phenomenon that arose from the pandemic: Many animals had come to depend on us and our wasteful ways. City animals such as rats, pigeons, peacocks, monkeys and street dogs have adapted well to finding and consuming leftover food humans discard, and in our absence, these animals roamed city streets in sizable gangs, searching for a new supply and even battling and starving in its absence.
Is this coexistence an ecosystem we really want for a legacy? What if we left (or created) more natural habitat and food sources for these creatures instead? Wouldn’t the herbivores spotted in urban areas looking for easy handouts (sika deer in Japan, a wild deer in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka) be better off with greater range upon which to forage? Doesn’t our quarantine illustrate that we humans can occupy much less space and fewer resources and leave more for them?
Nature is resilient. Even after countless generations, seagulls in Italy can return to their carnivorous nature when the easy trash-forage disappears, and elephants in Thailand can make a 100-mile journey home to forage their ancestral lands.
Ocean traffic is also down, making life quieter for whales. Less air and land travel has made for notable, if temporary, decreases in greenhouse gas emissions (down 17% in April, according to one study); great news for people and all living things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we’ve learned to observe more and live with less?
In my home quarantine, we stopped, and we looked. We became attuned to the nature around us. We discovered robins’ nests, several neighborhood black bears, three species of ferns, and exactly how quickly Japanese knotweed grows to the height of an average adult despite the kids’ diligent destruction of its rhizomes (just over a week).
Paddling at a nearby lake, we observed insect trails in the curious texture of pollen during the boom of early spring, and identified a freshwater bryozoan (also known as a moss animal). When we stop to look, what else can we learn from our nature?
Christine Hatch is research-extension liaison for the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, and extension associate professor of water resources and climate change in the Department of Geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 11 years. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center has developed special new programming, but their doors remain closed to the public and their budget is severely impacted. To help the Hitchcock Center through this very challenging time, please make a donation at www.hitchcockcenter.org.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.