Only one short month ago, we were asking our kids to get off their phones and go play with their friends, now the coronavirus is forcing them back to their phones. Maintaining a distance of at least six feet from one another can certainly put a crimp in our social plans, but that doesn't mean we have to retreat to our screens. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to reconnect with the world's greatest stress reliever, nature.
A couple of days ago, I drove into work at UNC Charlotte and parked my car like I do almost every day. I usually get in before the parking lot starts overflowing, but I’m still used to seeing a few cars and people, many of whom I know because they follow the same early schedule I do. Not today though. It was lonely in the parking lot. Most of the students were gone and the faculty and staff with them. I took my usual meandering walk through the Botanical Gardens around 7:30 a.m. The sun was up, but shaded by the garden’s trees. The paths were empty as they usually are at this time of morning. I walked to the gazebo to look across the pond and noticed a person meditating. In the face of a deadly virus, and with tablets, laptops and smartphones, this person had chosen to wake up early and commune with the natural world. The plants, squirrels, birds and crickets were all there, waiting for someone to notice them.
There are two ways for the virus to damage us. The first is obvious, the second is more insidious. We know that staying locked away isn’t good for our mental health. Current research strongly indicates that experiencing nature is both restorative and relaxing. Scenes of nature reduce blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension, and we feel less fear. Nature is filled with the activities of insects, birds and other animals. It provides a welcome breather for our overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks.
The situation which we are now in can bring you down. We all feel it. I am painfully aware of how this situation is affecting my family, coworkers and myself. When I sit in my office, I am overwhelmed by the fact that we have canceled so many events at the Botanical Gardens that I have no idea how we can recover financially, and yet, when I go out into the gardens, I feel relaxed. The problems don’t change, but suddenly they feel more manageable. I’m sure you’ve felt it too at some point in your life. Maybe as a kid playing in the woods. Maybe as an adult taking your children camping. Perhaps the time to reexperience nature is now.
I’m lucky. Because I work in the gardens, I’m practically forced to experience this stress reliever. Allow me to recommend it to you. I understand if you can’t make it to the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, but chances are that you can make it somewhere where there are trees and grass and flowers. There’s no need to put yourself at risk. Practice social distancing. Use a sterilizing cloth to disinfect public places where you sit and eat such as picnic tables and benches, but get out. Yes, you are going to be spending more time holed up at home, but don’t forget that there’s a natural world out there that is just waiting to pick you up and shake you out of your doldrums.
Jeff Gillman is director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. A unit within the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Botanical Gardens features the McMillan Greenhouse and 10 acres of outdoor gardens including the Susie Harwood Garden and the Van Landingham Glen.