It’s an uncanny time to be an evolutionary biologist. Because I’m versed in the literature and the lexicon, I can mostly follow the epidemiological science in the news and separate fact from fiction. That’s a huge help with the incessant and ever-shifting barrage of confusing, conflicting, and sometimes just plain unscientific information surrounding the COVID-19 virus.
But at the same time, I study interactions like those between predator and prey, parasite and host, viral pathogen and susceptible population for a living. I’ve committed those classic papers and figures to memory. And because I am painfully familiar with how the dynamics of what our species is currently facing could play out, I will speak candidly. I am worried. I am scared. My colleagues and mentors and friends in the field are as well. Decades of research tell us that the measures we all take now – strict social distancing, rigorous hygiene and cleaning, a complete restructuring of our institutions, sacrificing the day-to-day customs of our lives – are critical if we hope to flatten the curve of this pandemic.
I have never felt more viscerally a part of nature than I do right now, as our species faces a biological enemy that poses such an immediate existential threat.
Life is eerily on pause. Still, we all have to try to keep moving and muddle through as best we can. My coping strategy is to pour my energy into little projects that can perhaps have some small positive impact. Or at least, they help me feel as though I’m making a connection and adding a little color and light to what feels like a very bleak world.
So, I’m trying my best to see this time as an opportunity, albeit one forced by unimaginably awful circumstances. This is an opportunity to slow down. To reflect. To take life one day at a time. In essence, to enjoy being an animal. I’m so fortunate that I’m at a place in my life where I can afford to do just that.
Here is my personal challenge. I’m going to try to observe and share one small piece of nature every day. I’m also going to try to be kind to myself if I can’t keep to that daily schedule. We all need to be patient and gentle with ourselves and with each other as we adjust to this new era.
Some entries will be short observations out my bedroom window, some will be longer investigations of local natural history. Some will be polished and posted by mid-morning, some will go up late into the night. All will be written with a spirit of curiosity and with honesty regarding my own complicated state of mind. It’s going to be a journey.
If you’re able, I invite you to join me. Find connections with nature, however you can. Maybe you see a deer on a woodland hike or otter tracks in the snow by a frozen river. Maybe you have a magnolia tree in your backyard that’s in full blushing bloom. Maybe there’s a stink bug crawling across your kitchen floor. Take a moment to observe and jot down or take a picture of what you’re seeing. If you have kids, help them play along! And if you have questions, explore them! Ask the internet. JSTOR just announced that they are opening public access to a huge selection of their journal database. Ask the old dusty field guides on your bookshelf. Ask friends and family, just wonder quietly to yourself, or ask me. Chances are I won’t know the answer, but I’ll do my darnedest to find out what I can. Please. I really need things to keep me busy.
On my end, I won’t lie. I’m doing this first and foremost for my own sanity. Posting keeps me accountable to the project and forces me to get off my butt and go outside. But I hope this diary gives you something good too. A distraction, a chuckle, a new kernel of cool nature knowledge, maybe a little spot of brightness on a lonely grey March day.
I use science to make sense of life. That pragmatic method of knowing is small comfort now, but I’m clinging to it still. Because as an evolutionary biologist, I also know that incredible growth and powerful change can emerge from exactly these kinds of challenges. I’m speaking metaphorically of course, but I’m seeing hints of positive changes already: people being kinder to each other over social media and sharing stories, jokes, videos, songs, and support. People searching for ways they can help others, even remotely. People reevaluating what really matters in their lives and what they really need to live well. People rethinking our current institutions and governance. People putting aside their differences to band together in this international response effort. I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to prompt such a recognition. Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to see so much human goodness in the midst of terrible tragedy. I hope we can carry these bold ideas and caring practices beyond this unsettling period of our history. If we can, I believe the benefits for our species and our world are vast.
And for the time being, I will do the little things. I will try, as all creatures must, to enjoy being an animal.