Illustration by Lars Leetaru • Special to the Star Tribune

COVID-19 and the outdoors

Peace in the wild

Under the weight of the crisis, several outdoors writers have come to appreciate the power of nature all the more.

Embracing the peace found in the prairie and bluffland of Afton State Park.
Bob Timmons, Star Tribune

For mind and body, add time in Minnesota's outdoors to your virus prevention kit

In the middle of last week, I took a long-planned camping trip with three of my college kids. We settled in at a small but comfortable cabin, Big Bluestem, in Afton State Park.

The skies were leaden with clouds and the breeze was cold when we arrived in midday. We quickly dumped the gear, pulled up buffs, and hiked off to the nearest trail to get close to the St. Croix River. As we walked, birds pierced the quiet with song, or darted past. Wind rustled the oak holdovers. Our icy ski trail was giving way to spring’s thaw — and the crunch of our boots. We dropped down and down some more through the river bluffland.

I’m sure our blood pressure dropped, too. There wasn’t a COVID-19 tweet in sight.

You’ve been told to wash hands and keep social distance. This is also vital to your well-being and to help flatten the curve: Spend time outdoors.

Doing so might be as important as anything for your mind and body — and ultimately the people you love — in our tumultuous days.

Scare or no scare, Jean Larson thinks a lot about the healing power of time outdoors for people’s health. She runs nature therapy programs at the Landscape Arboretum in Chaska and is an assistant professor at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.

Larson, too, has been outdoors at her farm in Princeton, Minn., and elsewhere contemplating our trying times and the peace that can be but a step away.

“When you can be out in nature, when you can connect with that biophilia part of yourself, your mind and spirit can relax, and you can reconnect to the higher executive function. And that is just how our brain works.”

Larson says the best way to understand biophilia, an environmental psychology term, is to understand its opposite: biophobia. We are hard-wired to react to things we connect with fear. Our brains, she said, go into survival mode, and that hijacks our thought process. What’s also innate is how we connect nature with peace and calm. That’s biophilia at work.

“That’s a calling kind of a thing for us,” Larson says. “It’s unconscious. It’s part of our DNA. It’s part of who we are, and when we’re presented opportunities to be in nature that can activate that in us, our bodies can start to relax and find a sense of calm.”

That sort-of flow state can center us. We find a higher level of consciousness — and an ability to process the good and the bad, to find our balance.

“If we’re out on a walk in nature, if we’re being present in this moment, feeling the air,” says Larson, “it does bring a momentary calmness to you, and that is restorative.

“We live in this world of a thousand paper cuts. It’s just an accumulation of stress. So, these moments where we can turn that off, and let our brains and bodies and spirits reboot, reinvigorates us and brings us that ability to go back into it.”

Larson gave a little shoutout to health care providers carrying so much weight in the crisis. She hopes they find some refuge in the healing gardens and therapeutic landscapes that have become commonplace at facilities for patients and staff.

There is a hope in nature, Larson says, seeing that the natural world carries on regardless of our human demands and frailties.

“There is a constant. We have air to breathe — that’s a constant. Why do we have air to breathe? Because we have trees around us.”

Elementary? Maybe. But Larson says we as a species have worked so hard to protect against weather and calamity and discomfort — to survive — that we’re disconnected. “We are not in touch with the biophilia parts of minds anymore.”

Yet, look around. The opportunities are ever-present. And as Minnesotans, don’t we have an even greater appreciation of natural spaces?

The ridges and ravines and prairie of Afton State Park were that opportunity for my kids and me. We grounded ourselves in what was real in that moment — our interconnectedness in scary times and our bond with the outdoors. We could for a time wrap our brains around all of it.

The research and literature are abundant about nature’s abiding therapy. At Afton, we were living proof. We found freedom in the birds and the rustling leaves and the river’s thaw. All changing and, thankfully, unchanging.


Bob Timmons • • 612-673-7899

Angela Gustafson braved the -13 degree temperatures for a run around Lake Harriet at sunrise, Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in Minneapolis, MN. (ELIZABETH
Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Solvitur ambulando -- solved with running

Thoughts on time outdoors in the lens of the coronavirus.

March 13 was the sweet spot.

The snow had melted on Highland Golf Course, the rolling greens calling to me as a runner but not yet to golfers. It was quite lovely — tree-spangled, wide-open acres of soft ground. Again in November, I look forward to those raw days before serious winter when golf courses are free of both snow and golfers, and I can enjoy the black branches etched against the blue sky, the undulating turf, manicured but de-peopled. It’s short-lived, the golf course season, but it brings fun and beauty to otherwise uninspiring times of year. I don’t deny, my standards for entertainment are low.

What I’ve been calling going for a run could now be called social distancing. But it’s been so much more than that. I work at home, and run in the middle of the day when my brain loses charge. After 20-some years of prioritizing kids’ or work schedules, toddling along by myself, whenever and wherever I want to, is the most ridiculous luxury. It’s balm, it’s tonic, it’s sane-itizing, it’s de-stressing, it’s recharging, it’s an idea farm, it’s real grass and dogs and wind in my hair after hours of screen living. It’s free. And freeing. There’s a Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando, or “it is solved by walking.” I extrapolate that to running.

Outside is never closed; my run is never canceled. Another thing that’s not going to be canceled? Spring. My large wall calendar indicates that I spotted the first robin of 2019 on March 14 — any day now. The magnolia tree, a Canadian variety, has had fuzzy buds on it since February. The chive and the daylilies near the house were already green when the snow melted. I’ve been overwintering a curly willow in the basement with a dribble of water every couple weeks and the light from a glass-block window. It tells me it’s ready to brave the elements, soft pale-green leaves sprouting along the branches.

The Boston Marathon can be postponed, schools closed, sports canceled, and everything seemingly upended, but a person can still put on her shoes and go out and breathe, look for robins and live pretty large. Solvitur ambulando.

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.

A male cardinal watches the feeders. credit: Jim Williams
James J. Williams

Sustained by wild nature

Thoughts on the coronavirus and the solace of the time in the outdoors.

One thing defined my daily routine in childhood: a walk on the beach. I chased retreating waves, stopped to inspect hermit crabs in tide pools, or just sat down to watch flocks of scurrying shorebirds. The subtle shift of seasons, the conflicts and interconnections in nature, the beauty behind the inevitable challenges slowly became clear to me. As an adult, I am sustained equally by my relationships with people and wild nature.

Social distance is now required to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For a while, like millions of others around the world, my family will work and learn from home. We’ll practice diligent disinfection, limit trips to public spaces, and cancel our spring break trip. We also will go outside.

Being in the outdoors focuses my attention on the moment but also on the promise of change. Walking in a local park this week, I noticed a willow shrub in a wetland beside the trail. Fuzzy gray catkins sprouted from its bare branches. As the days lengthen and warm, each catkin will split open to reveal a cluster of tiny flowers whose pollen is among the first food available to native bees emerging from their winter hideaways. A slender stream winds between dry cattails in the wetland. Ice still covers its surface, but I heard water gurgling below and watched a tiny fish swim through the chilly current.

Later, at home, I watched several American goldfinches on the feeder outside our kitchen window. Their feathers showed the first blazing patches of summer-yellow. On the ground below, a male cardinal collected a fallen seed to feed his mate — a simple act to reaffirm their bond before undertaking the monumental task of parenting.

Life strives to persist. I am grateful for the reminder.

Christine Petersen is an environmental educator and freelance writer.

Tapping into something big
Scott Stowell

Tapping into something big

Thoughts on the coronavirus and the power of the time in the outdoors.

When I spend time in nature, I recognize life that’s bigger than me. Sometimes it’s a moose. Other times, it’s even bigger — not of this physical world — in the form of a spiritual or intuitive awareness.

A microscopic germ has recently become bigger than all of us. We cannot ignore the coronavirus. But we can attempt to mitigate its influence. I head into nature and set aside everyday life, hoping to grow for the better.

Year-round, I sit quietly at my deer stand, for solitude, in the forest. During deer season, the hunting element of my presence is secondary. If no deer come by, no complaints. Instead, I may have witnessed snowflakes settle onto a nearby cobweb and cling for a while like laundry on a line.

Other times, I enjoy company. Two weeks ago, my wife and three nieces trekked to a lake on the wilderness fringe. Along the way, our husky-on-a-leash flushed a grouse so close it almost took one niece out at the knees. We came upon quinzhees and sat on melting snow furniture. In the warmth, nobody had worn snow pants. It didn’t matter. The eagle soaring directly overhead captured our attention.

Chatter about our trip flowed long afterward. Selfies began flying across the internet, sharing life being lived in the moment and hopes of return.

Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely.

An ice house on Medicine Lake in Plymouth, MN. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ - January 4, 2017, Plymouth, MN, Ice Fishing on Medicine La
Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Staying put, keeping space

Thoughts on the coronavirus, and meshing it with the outdoors.

I think about space a lot these days because of the COVID-19 virus, which along with food, water and shelter are what all living things need to survive.

How much space should I put between us? How dangerous is too little space? Whose breath is floating unseen germs like puffy dandelion seeds in a summer breeze?

I sometimes wonder if I should just stock up on vittles and head north to the cabin. It’s isolated. Mostly lake, forest and a few seasonal retreats. I could wait it out. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Just go.

But I haven’t.

I haven’t because the global pandemic is knocking at Crow Wing County’s door but has yet to cram its foot in the jamb. I will reassess my prevention strategies when that happens. Meanwhile, I will stay put and enjoy the outdoors as often as I can.

To that end, I jigged for perch on Leech Lake earlier this week. No crowds there. I also take our black Lab, Storm, for longs walks each day on the frozen wetlands and woodlands behind our house. No crowds there, either. Surprisingly, I am even looking forward to long hours of chain-sawing. Yes, deer ticks may be waking on snowless slopes, but the air will be crisp, and slightly scented with the essence of Husqvarna. That outdoor activity will be good, too.

Though I rarely offer unsolicited advice, I suggest that if you can spend more time outdoors, you should. Wild turkey hunting, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, mushroom-picking and the like are excellent ways to have fun while maintaining social separation. I am looking forward to all of these activities in the weeks ahead. And when my wife and I head to the Twin Cities to see the grandkids, I am looking forward to simply plopping my butt on a park bench. Nature puts on quite a show in spring.

Conversely, I am worried about my indoors life. One of my favorite habitats is a racketball court. It’s where a dozen of us have been playing for years. We breath hard. We sweat profusely. And we repeatedly toss a rubber ball to the server.

Yes, COVID-19 makes me think about indoor and outdoor spaces all the time, and how, more than ever, I and others need to make smart choices.

C.B. Bylander, a writer, lives in Baxter, Minn.

Some of the many shed deer antlers in Sam Beamond's collection. ] ANTHONY SOUFFLE • Shed hunter Sam Beamond showed o
Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Self-quarantine is a daily reality

Thoughts on the coronavirus and the power of the time in the outdoors.

I think about how this virus has drastically affected so many people and realize that I, as an artist working from home, live in sort of an accidental voluntary self-quarantine. I often don’t leave this place for days at a stretch. The key is, we live in a beautiful place where I can get my nature fix just by watching out the window or walking out the door. This winter the deer have been bedding on the ridge across from my studio. Today I hiked up the ridge in hopes of finding the shed antlers of a 12-point buck. My search produced nothing, but on the ridge I ran into a friend cutting firewood. We greeted with an elbow-bump, and chatted. It turns out his dog Bella has brought home shed antlers! At least I got some exercise and even some social interaction. And, as far as I know, the 12-point rack is still out there.

Jim Hautman is a wildlife artist and Federal Duck Stamp winner.