I did it again. I waited, and spring has sprung; it’s racing away from me now, every day slipping closer to the dreary green monotony of summer. I try to grasp what’s left of this precious period of potential not yet tainted, but it slips like sand through fingers. But have I really tried? I’ve made feints, pausing to view a wildflower here or a tree bud there, but then I’ve gotten distracted, pulled back into the seasonless world of the Internet and the crush of coronavirus news and commentary. And now I’ve missed so much.
This problem predates the pandemic, or the Internet. “It is spring,” Annie Dillard wrote in 1974 in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I plan to try to control myself, to watch the progress of the season in a calm and orderly fashion.” Even the great Annie Dillard failed. “In April I walked to the Adams’ woods. The grass had greened one morning when I blinked; I missed it again.”
It started with the maples, or so it seemed to me, refusing to respect winter and decorating themselves with red flowers even in January, when I wasn’t ready. By March, still precocious in the extreme, they were making seeds. From up close the seed pods take on the helicopter-blade shapes familiar to children, but from afar they blend into poofs of radical color in an otherwise dun forest. I’ve been struck this year by the maples’ expansive palette, as though providing color strips for the rest of the woods to emulate. When we learn trees, we learn species: around here, maples are mainly red, with some silver mixed in. But embedded in those seemingly monolithic biological categories is an ocean of genetic variation, further enhanced by the horticulture industry with its Autumn Blaze, Red Sunset and so on. Moreover, apparently, red and silver maple can—and do—interbreed. Thanks to this genetic melange, maple seed coats’ hues smear right across the warm half of the color palette, from pale yellow through ochre, salmon and ruby to a deep, dark magenta. Driving these days, with maples shouting from every roadside, you could forget yourself and think it were fall.
We must seek variety where we can these days. Look at the beeches right now. Some have fully leafed out; others are clad in pastel leaflets delicate as a child’s peach fuzz—charming, naïve impressions of the real thing. Still others (though few now) cling to last year’s brittle leaves like so much tissue paper. I saw a beech the other day that was half leaves and flowers, and half still buds. Truly, the right hand seemed to know not what the left was doing. (That tree has since joined the fully leafed.)
There’s a redbud out back that some thoughtful past owner or landscaper made the centerpiece of my yard. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more perfect tree more perfectly placed. A few weeks ago, as it does every year, it exploded purply. Producing flowers from outer limbs isn’t enough; it adorns its main branches down to the trunk. I learned a few years ago that these flowers are edible; every year my yard makes me a salad bar. I nibble a few in moments of whimsy. Now they’re all but gone, replaced by tiny twinned heart-shaped leaflets that will soon broaden into the summer canopy. The flowering was almost a total waste. Not really, of course; the bees got their snack and took it somewhere, and I suppose the tree got what it needed from the bees and will later drape itself in bean-shaped seed pods, though I never see redbud sprouts in my yard or elsewhere in the urban landscape; why not?
Have you noticed how red is all around us? Leaves of oaks and cherries, serviceberries and blueberries, Virginia creeper and poison ivy, arrive on the scene as tiny, blood-hued versions of their future selves. The plants, apparently, have not been dormant as they seemed; they’ve been busy manufacturing pigments: red anthocyanins; yellow and orange carotenoids.
Protection from external threats is the topic of the day. Plants go about their self-protective business with less fanfare. You may recognize their protective pigments chemicals as those immune-boosting antioxidants we’re told to consume in the form of cabbages, beets and carrots, or, if you prefer, supplement pills. Whether they actually survive digestion and are distributed to our cells is debatable, but for plants their utility is clear: they shelter leaves’ DNA from the sun’s high-energy UV rays. Not all plants produce anthocyanins, but all produce carotenoids, hence why so many leaves come in and go out gold, as Robert Frost noted, bracketing the long months of chlorophyllous green.
Speaking of which, outside my bedroom/office is a curious sight. The Spanish oak that’s actually rooted in the neighboring yard, but that drapes a limb nonchalantly near my window, has completed its drab flowering (oaks are wind pollinated, so need not bedazzle insects nor us) and the spent catkins hang like crusty beards needing a trim. Sperm and egg have met and retreated to some secret place to build acorns. Meanwhile, pale yellow leaves have emerged and droop flaccidly. The tree looks positively sick, though I know it will soon right itself and take on a robust summer green.
Dillard noted the excess of trees’ yearly orgy of production and destruction. “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance!”
Green leaves are everywhere now; I feel personally insulted. How dare trees decide that spring is finished? I wasn’t consulted. I would have ordered a halt, so I could observe all its parts. If human life is frozen, why should nature get a pass? I need a week at least to take in each emergence, each blossoming. Instead, while I was lying on the ground watching bees play in bluebells or fragile may apples sway, my maple dumped its seeds and unfurled its leaves, which now wave in the air, green as June, taunting me.
A few trees are indulging my delinquency, offering a reprieve. My front yard walnut’s bulging buds foretell almost unspeakable possibilities, but it’s being coy for now—always the last to emerge in spring and the first to shed in fall, yet managing an almost unequaled growth spurt within that short window. I still don’t understand how the huge compound leaves I know are coming could be bundled so tightly. The persimmons still hibernate, as does the elm out front. (Larger elms already made and shed seeds, but this one is still a juvenile.) Red oaks race ahead but white oaks linger, except when it’s the opposite.
Why don’t all leaves appear at once? Apparently part of the answer is that leafing out too early can be dangerous. Leaves require water, so trees run pipes from soil to canopy. Some trees, such as oaks, have big pipes that can rupture if frozen. So they tend to wait until the danger of a deep freeze has passed. Others, like maples, have smaller, less fragile pipes, so they get going earlier. I oversimplify, obviously—among the oaks alone I see weeks of variability—but the point is, trees have evolved different solutions to the biophysical problems of living that allow—or force them into—different strategies.
The little beech sapling I planted last fall under the old maple, to take the crusty giant’s place someday (I claim, as if I am really so far-sighted), has finally rid itself of the last of its pale leaves. But its buds are still wrapped tight in spearlike brown sheaths, just pale green tips visible, poised between old year and new, as we are now wrapped inside our walls, fearing danger if we emerge too soon.
* * *
I am, of course, writing this under the pall of coronavirus. I usually make observations of plants during springtime, but furtively and rushed, amid all the busy-ness of work, social engagements and so on. This spring, much of the busy-ness has been lifted. Yet I’m not sure my observations have become any more numerous, or more profound.
That’s, I suppose, because I’m not a pure naturalist. Observing plants gets me only halfway to where I need to be. The other half requires sharing. “I’ve never kept a diary or a journal,” Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker art critic, recently wrote, “because I get spooked by addressing no one. When I write, it’s to connect.” Well, when I naturalize, it’s, in large part, to connect. If I’m opening my own eyes only, not others’, I’m not fulfilled. Others will always be better at secreting out nature’s fine details, perhaps because they don’t care about humans and can devote their full attention to plants, or perhaps because their brains are better tuned to botanical detail. My job in this world, as far as I can tell, is to be a conduit from nature to people. And now, I’m kept away from people. I can’t organize my usual tree walks; for attempting to conduct, I’d be arrested or fined.
I’m not really complaining. I still have work, a home and food; everyone in my life, as far as I know, is safe and healthy. Elsewhere, I know, millions are out of work, billions of plans have been scuttled; countless desires atrophy amid lockdowns. Lives that were going places are now trapped in amber. Young people who had been enjoying fledgling experiences of adulthood and independence have been grounded to childhood bedrooms or parents’ basements. The jobs and hustles they would have found or invented; the innovations and the mistakes they would have made—all on hold, or gone forever. The metrics by which we measure the coronavirus response’s success are lives saved, hospitalizations avoided, curves flattened—all vitally important, obviously. But what about youths lost? Lives overturned? College friendships aborted? Hugs neither given nor received? Hungry stomachs and delayed or foregone educations? Is anyone measuring those?
Amid all this, the closures of many parks and outdoor areas, where one might ordinarily go to encounter the botanical world, may seem trifling. But the outdoors seems among the least necessary casualties of the pandemic. I’ve scoured the news for reports that people are catching the coronavirus outdoors—I want to avoid it as much as you do—and, so far, I’ve come up mostly empty, except for a few specific situations where crowds of people were in very close proximity for long periods. It makes sense: Wind disperses pathogens; sunlight disinfects and builds immunity; people move around outdoors. Park closures seem mainly to be piling a mental health crisis and a chronic illness crisis onto the coronavirus crisis. Not to mention, those who are most at risk—the poor, who often live in apartments—are those least likely to have alternatives for outdoor access, like the private yards that provide outlets to us more privileged.
It has always seemed obvious to me that we exit our doors at some risk. In normal times, we don’t sequester ourselves indoors, but seek to balance risk against the goods gained by engaging in society: economy, liberty, pursuit of human desires. The outdoors in particular is a place to take (reasonable) risks, test limits, in short, to be all the parts of ourselves that cannot be contained within four walls—to unfurl our leaves. Now we’re losing that, too.
If I may make a modest proposal: Each of us knows only our own interiors, and our own needs. Some can be happy indoors; great. Some need to walk among trees, smell the woods. Some need to run or bike long distances; some need to fish. Before criticizing someone’s choices, ask yourself: do you really know the world they inhabit? Might it be more constrained, less privileged than yours? Might they live with 10 people in a cramped apartment? It’s a stressful time; give the benefit of the doubt generously. I would venture there’s enough outdoors in the country for all of us to occupy in a physically distant kind of way, if we don’t rope too much of it off.
This is a cry in the wilderness, I realize. Park managers and public officials surely fear being seen as responsible for overwhelming our health system, which despite being by far the most expensive on Earth, has proven itself unprepared for this pandemic and is now on the verge of collapse. (If not preparedness for a predictable medical challenge, what have all those thousands of dollars we’ve each shoveled yearly into the health system gotten us, I have to wonder?) They can’t risk having their park be the next one called out on Twitter by the self-appointed social distancing enforcement squad. The park closures, I fear, will continue.
In my darker moments, my thoughts turn resentful, self-pitying, petulant. Bear with me here. I’m not one to engage in activities I believe to be excessively risky; I don’t climb rocks or trees or much of anything, I don’t ride motorcycles or use drugs. But I do bike on roads; I’ve done so for most of my life. Do I and my fellow bikers not deserve the same concern now afforded those vulnerable to coronavirus? Every few seconds, a vehicle that could crush me to death, piloted by a person of unknown competence, nears. So far, every time, death has passed me by. (I have been hit twice, once by a right-turning driver who didn’t see me, and once by a driver who didn’t realize I was merging into her lane, possibly because I didn’t signal—it happened so fast I can’t be sure. Both were frightening, but I got away with bruises. I haven’t been hit in 13 years. I hope this means I’ve gotten more savvy about biking on roads, but I’m not naïve enough to think it couldn’t happen again.) If everyone stopped driving cars, my risk of death from biking would vanish. More importantly, so would 38,000 yearly deaths and 4.4 million injuries.
But even to suggest this feels absurd. We accept all the traffic deaths and injuries and trauma, because of some sort of implicit calculation that society as a whole is better off when people can travel long distances quickly in whatever manner they choose. Now that more people are driving trucks and SUVs, our roads are becoming even deadlier—not to mention, we are accelerating toward climate catastrophe, the largest public health threat of all. Yet no one is pressured or expected or even nicely requested to consider anyone other than themselves when making a car-buying or personal transportation choice. Instead, I receive advice from well-meaning friends to stop biking and stop driving my small, fuel-efficient car.
I reluctantly accept the restrictions placed on our lives; I’m not a rebel by nature (except in my head), and I understand and appreciate their value for preventing illness and saving lives, especially given the absence of adequate testing. But I wonder, will this newfound passion for public health, and for shaming strangers for “selfish” behavior, extend beyond the current circumstances? Now that we’ve learned to view groups of human bodies as dangers to ourselves (one neighbor on Facebook recently deemed a group of guys playing soccer “awful people”), will we take the same view of 5,000-pound death machines zooming along within a few feet of bikers, pedestrians and children? I would like to believe so, but truth be told, I highly doubt it.
And yet. I never thought I would write this, but I actually miss the traffic, the noise, the smell, the human commotion, and, yes, the danger I used to bike through. It meant lives were being led, dreams were being pursued, hustles were being hustled, friendships and loves were being forged and lost. It meant bad things were happening, too, obviously, but those bad things are probably still going on, just out of sight now. City streets are heart-breaking when empty, as though someone opened a drain and sucked the people away. Oddly, I don’t even feel safer; what drivers remain on the roads seem empowered to go faster, drive more unpredictably; people are stressed, impatient.
A commonly expressed sentiment is that we’re learning through this crisis what’s really important. If so, I conclude that everything was important. I miss every bit of the life I was leading—the tree walks, the dancing, the music, the sports, the enjoyment of shopping for food, the dinner parties that filled my house with friends and food and laughter, the observing of the human drama, the accidental connections, all of it. I wasn’t wasting time, except on the Internet, which I do more than ever now. Bring it all back, all of it!
I do, however, completely share sentiments recently expressed by Robert Musil, president of the Rachel Carson Council, that we’re realizing, as a society, who is important, and it’s definitely not the people who spend their days trumpeting their own importance.
* * *
Last week we observed the annual ritual of springtime and renewal, Passover. A rabbi friend with whom I shared one Zoom seder asked, how are we feeling free this year? My first reaction was, not at all; we are constrained, in a narrow place like the one the Jews found themselves in in Egypt, according to the Exodus story. But, it turns out, I do feel newly free in a few small ways. I feel free to work on what I want to work on, what I find important.
I also feel liberated from some of the cognitive load of living in the city—of having to constantly choose between social options, and the attendant guilt and FOMO. Now I have no such choices to make, no missing out to fear. Some part of my brain has been freed, though I’m probably just using it to obsessively read coronavirus articles. Ordinarily I would be anxiously making summer travel plans. This year, travel seems unappealing, unnecessary and downright irresponsible. I feel content to explore nearby trails, wetlands and rivers, and grateful to live near so many little wild places, and a population that perhaps doesn’t wholly appreciate them, leaving them mostly untrammeled enough to remain open (for now, at least). I also feel fortunate, bordering on unfairly so, that my partner and I planned our trip to New Mexico the week before the shutdowns really started in earnest, affording us a final binge of big spaces to tide us over until such things become possible again.
Interesting to me, during seder discussions, those who seemed most anguished by the new restrictions were the elderly—the very ones whom the restrictions are supposed to protect. They spoke of feeling trapped in their homes, isolated from friends and family, cut off from what made life meaningful. None, that I recall, bothered to caveat that they were grateful for the newfound societal concern for their health.
In conclusion. I could try to tie this all together and write that I feel free from the guilt of failing to make the most of spring because I recognize the cycle of seasons, that all will be renewed again next year, that I’ll get another chance at redemption. But I would be lying by at least half. This spring is the only this spring I will ever get—that any of us will get. It is—was—a precious, unique thing.
Coronavirus will be a blip in the book of humanity. We’ll eventually beat it with a vaccine and move on to new challenges; I have no doubt in our ultimate resilience. I have every reason—relative youth, good health, what I believe to be good health care (though I’ve never really tested it)—to believe I will survive it, and I try to be grateful for that daily. But I know my springs are numbered; perhaps I will get lucky and have another 40 good ones. I would be naïve to think that will be enough.