By Melanie R. Meadors
The sun lingers in the sky longer each evening. Temperatures slowly rise on average with each passing week. One moment, the forest floor is pooled with water; the next, that pool is full of frog eggs. Juncos at the bird feeder suddenly give way to catbirds and goldfinches. In a snap, a previously empty forest path is now swarming with tiny insects. Barely noticeable sprouts pushing up on the leaves that blanket them erupt into a jungle of skunk cabbage and other plants overnight.
If we look at the clock through the lens of Mother Nature, we can see delicate changes happening day by day. During this time of COVID-19 isolation, however, days tend to slide by, one melding into the next until we can’t tell them apart. Indoors, our houses look the same on a daily basis. Our routines are the same. It can be hard to feel connected to a larger world, even with social media and television. In fact, these tools so many of us use to connect with others also serve as a constant reminder that things aren’t how they should be. The first subject to come up is usually something about the virus, how we are coping, who we have lost. Yet there are opportunities for us to take a break from what can feel like the mundane suffocation of day-to-day social distancing. According to Colin Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust in Worcester, MA, spending some time in nature can be a great alternative to the constant low-key anxiety we face in the wake of the pandemic.
“There are no pop-up ads, no news bulletins, no updates on infections and mortality rates,” Novik says. “Instead, there is the sound of rushing water, the swaying of tree branches in the breeze, and the first signs of spring with a chorus of peeping frogs in wetlands and flowers by the side of the trail. More than that, it is also a chance to get out, stretch your legs, get moving, and breathe deeply in the sun.”
Worcester is hard to beat for being an urban area with a lot of green forested space that is open and accessible to the public. We are also lucky in that most of the trails in the city and the surrounding area are still open, offering lots of opportunities for new and experienced hikers alike, as well as for people who simply want to take a stroll in the fresh air. The effects of being outdoors and in nature can be palpable.
“I usually feel more energized and alert after a hike, like it wakes up my brain and my body,” says Rebecca Lulu, a senior at Worcester State University. “All of a sudden, there are things to look at, smells, noises, etc., and the brain becomes actively involved in noticing these things, whereas the normal monotony of life doesn’t have that same effect. Being in nature reminds me to stop and smell the flowers, literally and figuratively.”
As a board member of WSU’s geography honors society and outdoors club, Lulu is an avid hiker who has spent a lot of time in the woods of Worcester and beyond. With the closing of other sources of recreation, the trails in Worcester have become a bit more popular in the past. Yet, this hasn’t deterred Lulu or detracted from her enjoyment of the outdoors.
“I thought the increase of people in the outdoors, perhaps at my higher trafficked trails, would be a bother to me because I value aloneness and quiet in the woods,” she says. “But on the contrary, it’s become a new favorite thing to see, people enjoying nature, because I know that nature affects people to their core, and by connecting with it regularly, I feel as though there may be a paradigm shift [of people appreciating the environment] sooner rather than later.”
Greg Doerschler, the coordinator of GWLT’s Worcester Intercollegiate Outdoors Initiative, agrees that his time outdoors hasn’t exactly been the same since COVID-19 social restrictions were enforced. He claims his experience isn’t better or worse but different.
“Our Intercollegiate Outdoors motto is ‘discover nature, forge community, refresh mind and body,’” he says. “The ‘community’ part was always what excited me most. Small group hikes are such a great way to get to know people you might otherwise have never met. Now I’m doing mostly solo walks. They still help enormously but no more so than other times.”
Of course, even out on the trails in the seeming wilderness, people should still respect social distancing rules in order to be safe and courteous. Some trails can be narrow, and people can travel in both directions. And even when you try to only hike places that are relatively empty, you still might come across other people. What are some good guidelines to follow on the trail?
Hiking with a mask on can be difficult, especially on a more challenging trail. If there are no other people around, it’s fine to not wear one constantly, according to the latest guidelines of the Center of Disease Control. Novick from the GWLT suggests wearing a banana around your neck while you hike, which can be a good idea anyway, to absorb sweat from your neck and keep insects off.
“If you are headed up hill and see folks coming downhill,” he says, “just step off the trail to give them space and pop up your bandana out of respect. That way we can all enjoy being outside.”
Hiking and walking on the city’s trails aren’t the only opportunities where people can enjoy nature in Worcester. We are lucky to be home to many programs and organizations that champion the environment and have the mission of educating the public and making nature accessible to all, even people at high risk of getting sick. While the Massachusetts Audubon Society chapters have had to close their trails and buildings, many of them—including Wachusett Meadow and Broadmeadow Brook—are sharing videos on Facebook with staff members talking about wildlife and plants, especially birds. They even have activities people can do at home, trivia questions that can be answered as comments on social media posts, and more. Massachusetts Audubon even had a “Bird-a-Thon” on May 15-16, where residents watched their yards and bird feeders and recorded as many different species as they could. This activity was not only fun but provided a much needed fundraising opportunity for the nature sanctuaries; people collected pledges for the birds they found.
The Ecotarium in Worcester opened some spaces to the general public as of June 4, and Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston reopened on a limited basis on June 8. Both have come up with alternatives to visiting physically, however. The Ecotarium offers virtual tours on their website where visitors can learn more about their exhibits and their animals, and Tower Hill is offering online webinars, videos, crafts, and games for all ages on their website. Their newsletter is also full of articles about nature, gardens, and conservation.
Many Worcester residents are taking advantage of this time at home to plant gardens and to install bird feeders to feel closer to nature. There are opportunities all around, especially now that traffic has quieted down a bit.
“Just go outside for a walk. Then look and listen!” says Greg Doerschler. “Nature is all around us. With the din of urban life so much more subdued these days, it is easier than ever to hear the song of birds, the breeze in the trees, insects, and more. Walking along Worcester’s Pleasant Street this week, I was able to hear peepers in a wetland from 600 yards away. I’ve explored nearby dead-end streets which I’d passed by a million times but had never before ventured down. Sometimes you get your best dose of nature on a road to nowhere.”
The Greater Worcester Land Trust has trails throughout the city of Worcester. Some, like Cascades near WSU, can be very busy, so people interested in a quieter hike without a lot of people should have a backup plan. There are other nearby places, like Asnebumskit Ridge Trail, Southwick Pond, and Holbrook Forest, that are quieter. Maps for all these trails can be found at here.
“There are two parts to being healthy in a quarantine,” says Colin Novick. “First, there is staying physically healthy, and that means masks, bandanas, handwashing, and distancing. Second, there is mental health, and that is Mother Nature’s role! Get out there and keep your spirit up and your sense of adventure will help pull you through the rest!”