This is not about the deer I just saw on my afternoon walk on a hillside not far from my house. Two does. This is not about how beautiful they were, silhouetted against the still-leafless trees and enveloped in a mist turning to fog. This is not about their long slender legs, the arched backs of their elegant bodies, the white flags of their tails lifted high as they both vanished, as only deer can do.
No, this is about me: this is about how my heart leapt at the sight of them, my spirit soared: it was definitely the high point of my day.
I have always been fascinated by wild animals, ever since I was a child. I started catching and collecting frogs and snakes and turtles in the wild areas (now long gone) near my Pennsylvania home, and graduated to watching and studying birds and whales here on the Cape and elsewhere in the country—but nothing that moves escapes my attention. In later years I have also tried to be more of a plant person, too. Skulls and vertebrae, bird nests and dried seed pods, adorn my home.
While I might be considered somewhat fanatical, I really am just on the extreme end of a spectrum that includes almost all of humanity. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson long ago coined the term “Biophilia,” which is defined as the innate human inclination to connect with the natural world. We moderns have inherited this condition from our ancestors, for whom there was great survival value in a solid connection to nature. Those who knew the habits of the animals so they could more efficiently hunt them; those who knew the growing and harvesting times of wild fruits; those who knew the good mushrooms from the bad—all left more offspring than their couch-potato contemporaries. It has been pointed out that to call the current era the “age of information” is a bit laughable: our forbearers knew so much more detail about the world around them than we do today.
Evidence of Biophilia is all around us: the fish tank in the dentist’s waiting room; the plants we bring inside to turn our living spaces into mini-rainforests; our lovingly-tended gardens; the attention we give to our pets (even if we dress our dogs in sweaters and booties; even if we pose our cats for silly Facebook pictures, there is still an animal essence to them.)
Thoreau wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In this he was prescient in two ways: first, the unbelievable crisis we now find ourselves in most probably had its genesis in wild animal markets in China, where creatures languish in fetid cages waiting to be bought, slaughtered, and eaten. This COVID-19 virus, like so many others before it, seems to have had its origin in the forays that civilization is making into the last remnants of jungles, with roads and mining operations and “bush meat” hunters. Some have termed it “Gaia’s Revenge”: the ancient Earth Goddess striking back at human despoliation. Our problem with ticks follows a similar trajectory.
Second, and more to the point of our immediate situation, the natural world can be a healer: when “social distancing” limits so many of our activities, nature has not been cancelled: whether it is a walk around the block—careful to keep your distance from others—or a major hike in the dunes or woods, our very surroundings can keep us whole and healthy. Breathe a bit of fresh air, feel the breeze off the water, watch the blackbirds flying overhead, as they have done for eons.
We will get through this.