Coronavirus in the Woods

Pandemics are scary for everyone. The idea that just conversing with someone over the avocados in the grocery store could lead to your death is a literal nightmare. It’s like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening,” but with less Mark Wahlberg. 

But the truth is, I’m having an easier time coping with the stress of self-isolation than most—with the exception of a few actual shut-ins and hermits, I was better prepared than most. I’m not talking about being “prepared” in the “Doomsday Prepper” sense of the word. I didn’t have a bunker filled with beans and rice—though since I live with a vegetarian we do have our own little stockpile of those goods at all times—or an elaborate bug-out plan. In fact, my preparedness was more of an accident. 

Here’s what I mean:

  1. I work from home full-time, all the time. I have since 2012. I already had a home office area set up, and my routine down. And, fortunately, my clients right now are all in the mobile space—an industry that is, in some respects, seeing a bit of a boom right now as people turn to apps for productivity, entertainment, and education. Frankly, this is a stroke of luck on my part. 
  2. I live in the woods. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve lived in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner in a town best known for refusing to put in sewers, city water, street lights, or even sidewalks because it wants to keep yuppies at bay. We live on a dirt road that wreaks havoc on my car’s suspension (thanks, Subaru, for getting me through mud season) and later today we will have to haul our trash to the dump in the back of said Subaru. In other words, it’s easy to avoid contact with other humans out here.
  3. We don’t have kids. None of this would matter if I had kids. No matter how long I’d been working from home, if I suddenly had to home school a first grader, or spend all day with an infant on my lap, I’d be pulling my hair out by the roots.
  4. I’m an introvert by nature. It’s part of why I choose to work from home, in the woods, without children. I need lots of down-time, and frankly, even when Zoom happy hour goes on for too long, I start to get antsy and look for a way out.  

I’m not trying to gloat or sound smug. This is just my reality. I wash my hands more. I go to the store less. I haven’t had dinner with my neighbors in weeks. Other than that, not much in my life has changed, and I know how lucky I am. My mother is a waitress. She hasn’t been able to work in weeks (luckily, she was able to file for unemployment). My brother had to finish up his last few weeks of trade school on an iPad, and no one got to see him graduate. Now, apprenticeships are hard to come by as business is slow for everyone, even electricians—so he’s picking up hours at his old job with the town, enforcing social distancing at parks. But we’re all healthy. That’s what matters.

The lucky ones get to stay home

I’m observing the city-dwellers from afar, in an unlikely way. Podcasts. I’m a bit of an obsessive podcast listener, and many of my favorite hosts live in New York. One of them fled the city early, taking his husband and daughter to an AirBNB upstate and then in the Berkshires. In essence, he’s one of those New Yorkers other states are so worried about—though he swears they’re social distancing and keeping to themselves. 

But another one of my favorite podcasters seems to be spiraling—as evidenced by Twitter tirades about liberty and protesting the police state that seem to have come out of nowhere. It’s been nice to see people reaching out to someone who is clearly struggling with their mental health while being stuck at home.

But let’s be clear: BEING ABLE TO STAY HOME IS A PRIVILEGE

Many of the essential workers on the frontline are relatively low-paid workers. Whether you’re a grocery store clerk or a CNA, chances are you’d like to say, “Screw this, I’m going home—you don’t pay me enough to risk my life.” But you can’t because you have bills to pay—not only now, but when the economy opens back up and all the people who’ve been laid off rush back into the job market. 

Even if you’re a doctor getting paid top dollar to do your job, you’re probably rightfully angry at the protesters who are flaunting the advice of medical professionals and hitting the streets to fight for their rights to put you and everyone else in danger.

Don’t get me wrong; I remember what it’s like to live in a city, use public transportation, and just know that because a guy on my morning commute sneezed, I would spend the next week fighting off a cold. I stopped biting my nails when I worked in NYC because of all the filthy surfaces I had to touch just to get to work in the morning. I’ve lived in tiny apartments—hell, I still live in the rural equivalent of one—and I know how easy it is to go stir-crazy when you’re stuck inside. I feel for each and every one of you who deal with this every day, and are now having to figure out how to survive the urban jungle during a pandemic—especially those of you who live alone. But the simple fact is, no matter how much it sucks to stay home you’re one of the lucky ones (especially if you still have a steady income).

The nature fix is more important than ever

All that being said, even I’m getting a little testy. I’m as well-prepared for this pandemic as anyone could have been without a bunker, and I’m still counting the days to when I can just pop over to the grocery to get a snack or to the local coffee shop for a chai and a few hours of working from somewhere other than my house. And I don’t have to imagine what it’s like for the rest of you, because I see the cracks appearing in people—on Twitter, in my friends, and everywhere else.

I think one of the things city-dwellers are struggling with most is the disconnect from nature—or what passes for nature, anyway. After just a week inside, Brian and I packed the dogs into the car and went to a nearby state park. So did everyone else. It’s a big park and it was easy enough to steer clear of others on the trails, but we haven’t been back since. 

But Brian works on a farm—one of the single most beautiful plots of land I’ve ever seen—and gets to be outside every day. On a punishing winter day, or in the dead of the summer heat, that doesn’t seem like a privilege—but right now it is. We live on a pond in the woods. While it’s too cold for me to get out on the water, I’m lucky to be able to walk across the road and disappear into the woods with my dogs for a little nature therapy.     

The weather hasn’t been great. Saturday morning we woke up to snow so wet and heavy some of the lower branches on the pines were touching the ground, others were crashing down around us. We didn’t leave the house. But on other unseasonably cold days, we’ve gathered around firepits with our neighbors. We pick a side of the fire and we stick to it. We bring our own beverages to drink and we experience some semblance of normalcy. We’re lucky to have yards in which to do this, and I really feel for those of you who not only don’t have yards but don’t have have a park to gather in anymore.

Yesterday afternoon I crouched at our window with binoculars, watching a great blue heron stalk slowly along the edge of the water while a few mergansers floated nearby, snow still falling from the trees. The heron is always fun to watch, but these days, it’s “Tiger King”-level entertaining.

It’s become so clear how important it is to get outside—to be connected to the natural world around us. And when you have access to the outdoors, it’s easier to maintain some semblance of human connection. If you live in a city where your only connection to nature is a park that’s now closed, I feel for you. Stay inside, do your part to flatten the curve (especially for those who have no choice but to keep going out to work), and hopefully the parks will be open in time to enjoy better weather.

Until then, stay safe, and think of others.

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