In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Oregon, Emma Marris had a plan.
An environmental writer in Klamath Falls, Marris decided to pack up the car with her two kids, 10 and 7, and high tail it to the woods. At that point, three weeks of camping seemed like a reasonable way to quarantine and practice social distancing.
“In this part of the state, it’s never really crowded,” Marris said. “It didn’t occur to me that those places would close at all.”
Much to her dismay – and the dismay of many Oregonians – Oregon's most popular outdoor recreation sites swiftly closed, a temporary measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Closures hit state parks, popular hiking trails, and all developed recreation sites in every national forest in the Pacific Northwest.
Officials said the closures were meant to align with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home order, which banned all non-essential travel and closed playgrounds and campgrounds state-wide.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought fresh anxiety, with record unemployment, daily death tolls and executive orders that have shut down schools and businesses. Some 45 percent of Americans say worries and stress about the coronavirus have affected their mental health, according to a poll released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.Many Oregonians cope with stress by turning to nature, but our favorite escapes are now off-limits, too. Though neighborhood sidewalks and city parks are still open, they can’t compare to the experience of visiting the Cascade Mountains or the Oregon coast.
Zoe Presley, a counselor and forest therapist in Portland, said she’s seen several clients struggle with the recent loss of access to natural spaces.
“The way we think about our engagement with the natural world is being challenged right now, she said. “There’s a natural grief response to that.”
Allowing ourselves to grieve is a good first step, and after that comes the challenge of discovering similar benefits in the nature that we still have access to.
That requires slowing down and attuning our senses, Presley said. Sitting still and watching tree blossoms can be profoundly relaxing. So can closing your eyes and listening to birds chirping in your yard. Even house plants can provide a dose of nature if we sit and observe the tiny intricacies of their flowers and leaves.
“It’s not the same satisfaction we’re accustomed to,” Presley said. “But there’s a different quality of experience that we can have now, and one that might actually better suit the challenges of stress and the anxieties people are having.”
It’s a process of re-framing our relationship to nature, and finding ways to get more out of the experiences we’re already having, she said.
Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said he’s been experiencing this transformation on both a personal and professional level.
His organization is usually tasked with supporting the natural resources in the Columbia River Gorge, including lands like the Mosier Plateau, a wildflower-strewn paradise that closed to the public in March. The plateau offers sweeping vistas of the gorge, which may go unseen until summer.
“The wildflowers will be more than happy,” Gorman said. The humans? Not so much.
For a lot of people, the Columbia Gorge is a place of spiritual renewal, he said, as much a temple as it is a recreation area. Those stunning views make us feel small, creating a sense of awe that we’re accustomed to getting out of our experiences in nature.
Gorman said he’s been re-framing his experience by switching from a macro to a micro view. Instead of big views of nature, he’s looking at the tiny details, like sprouts, bugs and leaves.
“When you get into a micro examination of nature, I think in some ways it can be as rich as the macro,” he said.
Finding a new way of looking at the world around us can help us tap into resources that might otherwise have gone ignored. Sometimes it’s a spiritual approach, like learning how to commune with plants and animals, and sometimes it’s a more scientific approach.
Marris said she’s started watching the birds at her house, learning how to identify the little brown sparrows that she previously ignored. The same can be done with plants in your neighborhood, or clouds floating overhead, she said.
The key is tapping into your childlike curiosity – an even easier feat if you live with kids.
“It’s a whole different way of living in the world in general,” Presley said. “To be able to look deeply at the ordinary and find the extraordinary inside of it.”
Experiencing nature in this way is essentially a form of mindfulness, Presley said, a practice that has attracted a wealth of clinical studies in recent years, and has been shown to help people with depression, anxiety and chronic pain, among other physical and mental health issues.
Mindfulness is often considered a type of meditation, in which you focus on “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness,” according to OHSU, which also teaches mindfulness classes.
Practicing mindfulness with nature close at hand might allow some people to tap into a whole other facet of the natural world, Presley said, one that can help through these difficult times – and beyond.
Marris has ceased her big hiking trips in favor of familiar natural areas nearby, and has been finding new ways for her and her kids to cope at home. Losing access to state parks and national forests has also forced her to examine her relationship to public land in the first place.
“Somewhere in my brain I think I am the lord of many acres of forest and rivers, and that gives me a sense of security,” Marris said. “It provides us this sense of escape and exploration that’s always available.”
Except when it’s not available. With camping trips canceled and most hiking off-limits for now, it’s a matter of waiting patiently, and trying to find new ways to connect with that Oregon nature we all hold so dear.
And when we do get back out there, we might all be better off for our time stuck at home.
“Maybe the skills we will have learned by trying to squeeze pleasure and curiosity out of our neighborhoods will reap dividends from these fancy spectacular places,” Marris said. “Maybe we’ll notice more on the way.”