Getting in touch with nature during the coronavirus

person hiking in a green area
Governor Nelson State Park

“I don’t recall in the time that I’ve lived in Madison … I’ve ever seen so many people [out in nature] as now,” David Drake says. Drake, a professor and UW Extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says people are spotting wildlife that they haven’t seen in the past. Not because those species have moved to the area, but because people are taking the time to explore nature during social distancing.

“We’re just so hectic and frantic in our lifestyle … that we don’t really have time to sit down and kind of observe the world that we’re living in,” Drake says. “They’re seeing wildlife that’s always been there; they just haven’t noticed it.”

One of the few things deemed essential during the Safer at Home order was spending time outdoors, as long as social distancing requirements were met.

But so many people were crowding Wisconsin’s natural areas that Gov. Tony Evers ultimately had to close about 40 of the most popular parks, forests and recreation areas in early April before reopening 34 of them on May 1. Throughout the Safer at Home order, Public Health Madison & Dane County deemed local parks, trails and open spaces “essential resources for health and wellness.”

Shilagh Mirgain, a psychologist at UW Health, says connecting with nature is an important coping strategy. Mirgain says many people are feeling cooped up by staying indoors throughout the day and living in a way that’s not natural.

“Nature is a basic human need. We’ve lived as humans closely connected with the land and only in recent decades [have we] become increasingly disconnected.” Mirgain says.

She says studies show even 10 minutes of time outside can decrease stress, increase energy levels, improve cognitive functioning and quality of sleep and boost mood. “When we think about this time where our lives are disrupted, people are feeling almost more stressed than they can bear,” Mirgain says.

Even for those who might not feel comfortable going out for a run, bike ride or walk, Mirgain suggests opening windows to get fresh air. She says that even looking at pictures or videos of nature, watching a documentary or bringing in flowers or plants to your space can help.

“There’s such an opportunity here to connect with nature and really value the natural world around us,” she says. “One of the silver linings coming out of this is that we’re going to feel connected to the Earth and much more proactive about seeking ways to protect this natural resource that benefits all of humanity.”

Drake says most people can find pockets of nature regardless of where they live. He reminds people to maintain social distance from each other, but also to distance themselves from animals.

“People do get a peacefulness and some calm to them by being out in nature and seeing wildlife in particular,” Drake says. “You see that life will go on, and it’s a good indication that no matter what happens with COVID-19 that life is continuing on.”

Click here to read more stories about how we coped with stress during coronavirus.