Back in March, I remember the feeling of the world spinning out of control. What initially seemed like a sensationalized hype was rapidly turning out to be a real and serious crisis. On the weekend of March 28, as news and conversation became nothing but COVID, I went cross country skiing high up northern Colorado’s Poudre Canyon in the far west reaches of the Platte River Basin.
There, among the snow-draped conifers, my surroundings were finally more engrossing than the news. As my muscles strained, my brain unclenched. I was surrounded by incredible green-and-white beauty, and suddenly it was hard to feel that the world was doomed. When I got back to the car, I realized that it had been the first time I’d gone more than a few minutes without worrying about COVID all week.
ABOVE: Snow-covered conifers in Roosevelt National Forest in Larimer County, Colorado. (Evan Barrientos)
Over the next two weeks, state-mandated restrictions ramped up, and my social opportunities died down. Amid all the fear and uncertainty of March, I remember being very worried that the state and federal governments would close access to my single remaining outlet: trails. Fortunately, they did not, and my year has been incredibly more bearable because of it.
Without my typical social activities, hiking, photography, and birdwatching became my only outlets. As a result, I became more attuned to the rhythms of nature than I ever had been. I spent more time outside during the early spring when the prairie was still gray and seemingly lifeless. In doing so, I saw the return of life earlier than I had in previous years: Mountain Bluebirds foraging on dry berries after a snowstorm, iridescent blue tiger beetles emerging from hibernation, fuzzy Eastern Pasque flowers bursting from the cold earth.
ABOVE: A Mountain Bluebird perches in Roosevelt National Forest in Larimer County, Colorado. (Evan Barrientos/Audubon)
On April 7, COVID madness was at its height, and it felt like the world was falling apart. However, I was lucky enough to be able to drive to the sagebrush steppe of Wyoming, set up a blind by a Greater Sage-Grouse mating ground, and fall asleep to the surreal sound of these birds performing their courtship display. The next morning, as I watched the sunrise on these incredible animals performing an ancient ritual, I realized what I had already known: while the world may feel like it’s in chaos, in nature, life goes on. And I found that greatly comforting.
ABOVE: Greater Sage-Grouse perform mating displays in rural Wyoming. (Evan Barrientos/Audubon)
Throughout the rest of the spring, I spent most of my free time alternating between nature photography, hiking, bird watching, and trail running. Yes, I had to work from home and stop seeing my friends, but I never felt trapped. COVID didn’t limit my freedom; it increased it.
At the same time, I read stories and listened to podcasts about people out East or in cities being confined to their homes. My news feeds and podcasts became filled with very concerned messages and articles about mental health. It was clear that I was having a much easier time than most of the country.
I mention this not to congratulate myself, but to emphasize a point that many people have been trying to make for so long: nature isn’t a frivolous luxury; it’s a necessity to our physical and mental health.
In so much of the world, including most of the Platte River Basin, our predecessors have paved, plowed, and drained nature for the sake of what was deemed more important: development and agriculture. Today, we continue to eat up our remaining natural areas, and we underfund the programs and people trying to conserve and restore them.
ABOVE: Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) bloom in a prairie restored by The Nature Conservancy in Hall County, Nebraska. (Evan Barrientos)
If you believe that nature is unnecessary, you can justify replacing it with something more profitable. But for decades, environmentalists and conservationists have tried to say that nature is necessary. As COVID causes us to rethink so many things, I want people to rethink how they value nature.
When our bars close and sports cancel, when your anxiety rises and your happiness sinks, where do you want to turn to? When you’ve spent the whole week in your home, where is your sanctuary?
The votes are already in. Trails across the country have seen record-breaking increases in visitation this year, and this is only a bump in a long-term trend. For years people have been leaving the crowded and developed East and moving west to “The Mountains.”
ABOVE: Wildflowers bloom in Medicine Bow National Forest in Albany County, Wyoming. Vast, natural, public lands draw people to the West and increase residents’ quality of life, especially during COVID. (Evan Barrientos)
Natural public land benefits us all. It helps make us happy and healthy. It sustains the plants and wildlife that we adore. We need to finally recognize its essential, irreplaceable value and enthusiastically fund it accordingly. In the eastern Platte River Basin, we need to better fund the restoration of the prairies and wetlands that once thrived there. In the western parts, we need to relentlessly hold on to natural areas by minimizing development.
Nature is an essential worker. When times get hard, it doesn’t retreat; it tirelessly heals and nurtures us. We should be revering it, protecting it, and creating more of it.