The trees must be startled.
The green ash, cottonwood and tulip poplar arch their branches over large numbers of us on county greenways during ordinary times. Now, if those trees could think, they’d likely be marveling at all the people strolling and biking beneath them.
As we barricade against coronavirus, so many of us are returning to the natural areas in our communities. There we seek relief, release and the solace of spring. Though we have long cherished our green spaces and fought to preserve them, now more than ever, they are preserving us.
Mecklenburg County’s “stay at home” order allows us to exercise outside, and though playgrounds and nature centers are closed, trails remain open, so long as people stay well apart. Carolinians are heading outside in what anecdotally appear to be far greater numbers than usual. In my own McAlpine Creek Greenway, I and my two rough collies are passing people (and their kids and dogs) whom we’ve never seen before.
In our new apart-together life, we’re taking in the calls of the southern chorus frogs, the screech of the pileated woodpecker. It’s exercise, it’s a break from worry. It’s a banquet of blessings – from the sight of browsing deer to the scent of unidentified blooms in the underbrush.
For those of us escaping our racing thoughts or, sure, maybe our own families, our region’s trails remind us that as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “nature is never spent.” Right now preserves and greenways are birthing tadpoles, violets, may apples, mushrooms. The brown-headed nuthatches – they make noises like squeak toys — are nesting in shortleaf pines and the shy box turtles on are on the move.
Spring is the South is seductive, always. You sleep, if allergies and safety permit, with open windows, waking at First Bird – about 6:30 a.m. in our neighborhood. Somebody mows a lawn, and the scent jolts you right back to childhood, when you played tag outside friends until the streetlights popped on. Maples unfurl leave like little damp hands. Redbuds freckle the understory with a heart-stopping pink.
But the truth is, most years, we enjoy spring in snatches.
We notice what we can between shuttling children to sports or commuting to work or solving the thousand personal dilemmas of an urbanized age. We’ll catch a barred owl calling “who cooks for you” while we’re fending off queries about what we’re cooking for dinner. Those leaving a late shift glance at the sprinkle of stars the city lights let through. But mostly, we wait until the weekend to join the spring already in session.
The pandemic is changing everything.
It’s wiped clean the whiteboard calendar of our frenetic lives, pulled us from friends, stolen our sense of security. Coronavirus is sending more of us into nature, where we are now opening our eyes to the season’s daily changes.
More of us – but not all. Even during this crisis, finding respite in our shared green space is, unfortunately, a privilege rather than the birthright it should be.
Some are barely hanging on, frantically piecing together work and a sudden plunge into homeschooling. Many others are isolated far from a trail or even a weedy patch of waste ground. There is no “outside” to send the kids to play in, no nearby woods for everyone to enjoy. Coronavirus has laid bare the environmental inequity in our communities.
Far too many neighborhoods are cut off from trees, creeks, grassy fields. Green space should not – must not – be a luxury parceled out to a privileged few. Maybe those who live surrounded by cement make do in busy times. But now, when commotion is stilled, where can they walk to rest beneath the reassuring bulk of an oak tree, to breathe in the calm of a creek?
Mecklenburg County residents have in surveys ranked nature trails as their most-wished-for recreational opportunity. Over the years, visitation to our nature preserves – islands of nature in a paved-over county – has risen and risen and risen. More of us should be able to walk out our front door or take a short drive and be able to reach a park, greenway or nature preserve.
There, with the din of traffic and our own thoughts quieted, we can be reassured that amid the fear, ferns are still uncurling. In the pandemic, pines still purr in the breeze. Maybe those ferns and trees are surprised by how many of us are out there now, enjoying them. When this is all over, maybe we’ll all keep coming back.
Amber Veverka lives in Charlotte