Pandemic Nature Walks

By Connor Hardy

“Did you know that there’s a bird sanctuary in West Philly?” my roommate’s now-pixelated figure asked me online, sometime in April. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Philadelphia, I had left our apartment to isolate with my family in Maryland. We had been going on daily strolls there, while my roommate had discovered the Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary, tucked behind an alley off of 45th street in Philadelphia. I listened as she told me about how to attract the birds with breadcrumbs, and later I told her about my own adventures exploring my home state.

View from the WB&A Trail

With a limited set of “allowed” safe activities, I was happy to explore new hiking trails or parks in Maryland, sometimes with a distanced friend. Walking along the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis (WB&A) Trail, I saw more frogs than ever before and learned that the spiky balls we had called “monkeyballs” as children are part of the sweetgum tree. Maryland has a surprising variety in its natural landscape, from the city’s beloved personified urban trash wheel to bald eagle habitats; wetland sanctuaries to waterfalls. By using apps like iNaturalist, or by paying attention to informational placards, I was able to identify plants and creatures as a novice trail-walker.

A frog, identified as the green frog, Lithobates clamitans

Time outdoors is important for physical and mental health, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Limitations on indoor and outdoor activities because of the coronavirus have made outdoor activities more popular, and made many reimagine what it means to be in “nature.” For example, when the weather became nice in my cousins’ town in New Jersey, they set up a tent outside to do homework and online classes. They let me “visit” virtually when they called from their outdoor sanctuary with math questions, and told us about how they spent afternoons swimming in the chilly Musconetcong River that flows by their house. A few friends have gone backyard or porch camping, and I’ve noticed lots of sprinklers in alleys and yards. Without as many places to go, people are getting creative with the physical and virtual spaces that they have access to.

The Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary is shady and cool, a welcome relief from the beaming summer sun.

The other day, I finally got to visit the Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary. Part of a longer city nature walk, I took my time looking at the ways that the blossoms on the mimosa tree near my house can be translucent when you look from the right angle. I’ve noticed that in Philadelphia I don’t see as many cardinals or catbirds, even if I can hear their calls. Small scenes noticed on walks have started to stick in a way that they may not have before: a miniature Hobbit door, a patch of sunflowers, the spot at Woodlands Cemetery where you might see a woodchuck, the tree with leaves big enough to keep you semi-dry during a thunderstorm.

I walked past familiar blocks, made unfamiliar turns and found the bird sanctuary, tucked behind an alley in a hidden courtyard. To get to the heart of the small sanctuary, you have to walk past a garden with flowers and budding vegetables, past concrete patios and thin wire fences. The path and sanctuary are shady and cool, a welcome relief from the beaming summer sun. The block-sized courtyard is equipped with bird feeders, benches, a community library box, a compost bin. For a moment, you may forget that you’re in a city as the tree branches obscure the edges between the houses around the sanctuary and the sky. If you close your eyes, it smells more like a forest than a city. I took my time looking at the flowers around the edges of the park, listening for birds, and sitting on one of the benches. The next day I went back with a friend, who noticed different parts of the sanctuary.

This nature walk was one of many. I invite others, readers and friends, to try a nature walk, wherever it may take you. There are no rules, only suggestions and ideas: go on a walk, near your home or far from it, and try to notice new things. Let yourself stop and look at plants, creatures, the sky, or your surroundings. Notice what other people notice. If you’d like, write down what you see or take a picture. Walk with a family member, roommate, or friend. Maybe think about how your relationship to the outdoors has changed in the past few months and how it might continue to change as we all adapt to life during COVID-19.

All photos in this article were taken by Connor Hardy

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