Nature is a Respite during Disconcerting Times, Part I

Part 1. Exercising Your Body and Your Mind

Written by Mary Free, Extension Master Gardener

Simpson Gardens, Alexandria, Virginia. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

Spring is a season of hope and renewal and yet we find ourselves battling together, in isolation, an unseen enemy–novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In the United States, the details of mitigation strategies from “shelter-in-place” to “stay at home”1 to “hunker down” vary by jurisdiction. However, history indicates, and scientists and medical professionals agree, that physical (aka “social”) distancing–keeping a distance of six feet from people who are not part of your household–can help reduce the severity and spread of this new virus. Staying home, though, does not necessarily mean staying indoors and physically distancing ourselves from one another does not mean distancing ourselves from nature.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) encourages “your child to play outdoors—it’s great for physical and mental health.”2 That is good advice for adults as well. Spending time in nature provides numerous health benefits3 from decreasing our risk of chronic diseases through exercise to boosting our immune system through exposure to vitamin D (from sunlight) and phytoncides3 (from plants) to healing through relaxation.

Physical Exercise

Fairlington Park playground, like all Arlington County playgrounds and parks, was closed for an indefinite period on March 23, 2020. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

On March 23, 2020, Arlington County closed its parks, fields, dog parks, and athletic courts to the public. Currently, the County’s paved multi-use and additional hiking trails and community gardens remain open with “strict social distancing.”4

The City of Alexandria has closed public play spaces, but as of now “unfenced parks, trails and fields remain open to the public” with the belief that “safe, socially distant opportunities for exercise are crucial for our community, to maintain both physical and mental health.”5

This solitary stroller may have her cell phone in hand, but her eyes are elsewhere, perhaps appreciating the daffodils and ornamental cherry abloom in this Arlington neighborhood. Photo © 2020 Mary Free

Since each locality has its own restrictions, you should keep up-to-date with your city or county website to see what public spaces remain open and what requirements are in place. Visit those open parks or trails close to your residence but avoid remote places as well as times and areas of high use. If a local park or trail is crowded, then choose the road less traveled. Exercise in the early morning or evening. Take a stroll along the many tree-lined streets to enjoy gardens abloom in your own neighborhood that you might have otherwise overlooked or explore your own backyard. Practice physical distancing and good hand hygiene. Most importantly, if you are sick, stay home.

Identifying Plants and Wildlife

As you look for new ways to entertain yourself or your children outdoors, learning more about your natural environment can be fun and educational. The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (MGNV) post a weekly Mystery Plant series (Tuesdays on Facebook: Virginia Cooperative Extension – Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia) and Bark Quiz (Sundays on Facebook). Take the mystery plant and bark quiz challenges and then see if you can find and identify these plants outdoors.

Capturing a flying insect with your camera may not yield the sharpest picture, but it might give you enough clues for identification. Can you identify this insect flying toward the flowering Amelanchier arborea (downy serviceberry) tree? In addition to the large green eyes and yellow “mustache” evident in this picture, it has a glossy, hairless abdomen.6 Photo © 2020 Mary Free

When you take a hike or a stroll (or work in a garden), bring a field guide with you or use one of the many apps available to try to identify plants and/or wildlife that you observe. These apps offer suggestions as to what the species might be from pictures that you take with your cell phone (or iPad). Some of our favorite free apps include: iNaturalist, LeafSnap, and Virginia Tech Tree ID. Or, visit websites like All About Birds, for bird information and identification, and, a collection of insect photographs from all over the United States and Canada. If you cannot identify your insects, then add your pictures to the collection and have the naturalists identify them for you.

TIP: Plant and wildlife identification is easier when photographs are clear and sharp. You can study a plant at your leisure, but wildlife are fleeting so act quickly before they disappear. Different picture angles–front, back, side, top, bottom–can be helpful in distinguishing some species.

Having trouble finding insects to photograph? The Nature Conservancy offers some advice on their web page describing the City Nature Challenge. Mark the date–from April 24 through April 27–on your calendar and plan to participate. Due to COVID-19, the rules have been relaxed this year, and you are encouraged to explore nature wherever you safely can–even around your own home. On the designated days, use the iNaturalist app to record your observations of plants and wildlife and the locations in which you found them.

In nature, pollinators are abuzz gathering nectar and pollen and birds are busy building or tending their nests. Colors and scents from budding and blooming plants abound. So while people are scarce in social gathering places, take advantage of the solitude and commune with nature instead. Although there is nothing more brutal than the natural world, there also is nothing more beautiful.

Sometimes you don’t have to venture far to marvel at nature–from the comfort of my home I watched these mourning doves build their nest right outside of my dining room window in late February. Video © 2020 Mary Free



2. Centers for Disease Control COVID-19. Virginia Department of Health: COVID-19 in Virginia.

3. Ming Kuo, “How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway”, Frontiers in Psychology, 2015 Aug 25

4. Arlington County Government Status Updates in Response to COVID-19

5. City of Alexandria Novel Coronavirus COVID-19

6. This male eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) may be large and territorial, but don’t worry, males can’t sting!

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