NASHVILLE — A two-week bout with flu turned me into a person I didn’t recognize — a hopeless, coughing, exhausted person. I lay in bed, phone in hand, skipping from news outlet to news outlet: refreshing, clicking, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. The news was always bad, every update worse than the one before.
By the time my fever broke for good, Covid-19 was an official pandemic, and the news was all about social distancing: no meetings, no coffee dates, no dinner parties, no book clubs. I work from home, and the loss of such communal activities would have been disheartening if it weren’t for the fact that the world had changed during the two weeks I spent in bed.
I don’t mean our cities and towns, our trailer parks and hamlets. True, this pandemic has altered our lives so fundamentally and so suddenly that no amount of scrolling can explain it in a way that sinks in. For the worried well, our whole world is now unrecognizable, and it’s too soon to tell what it will look like when the virus finally burns out.
But there’s another world that has always existed both apart from and alongside civilization. While I was sick it changed, too, in the age-old turning of the earth itself. By the time I could walk outside again, springtime had come to Tennessee.
In our yard there are violets and spring beauties and stickywillys and buttercups. The invasive but lovely deadnettle has turned the ditch next to our house into a cascading drift of purple. Every year it reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Out in the woods, the trout lilies are opening near toadshade and bloodroot and mayapple, all of them reaching up from the cold soil to bloom in the brief sunlight of early spring, before the trees leaf out and the forest overstory draws in all the available light.
For now, the limbs are still bare, but the songbirds have registered the mild light, as well, and their courtship season has begun. The television may be full of terror, and the terror may be growing with every passing hour, but the trees are full of music. The normally cacophonous blue jays are singing their tender whisper song, and the quarrelsome beeping of the Carolina chickadee has been transformed into a glorious four-note song of love. Birdy-birdy-birdy, the cardinal sings. Birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy. He is serenading a female, and if you follow the song to its source you might be lucky enough to see him bringing his mate a seed or a grub, demonstrating his fitness as her partner. In the avian world, a grub is an engagement ring.
Alas for the poor grubs, and also for the earthworms struggling to the surface as they escape their tunnels inundated by spring rains. But pull up a weed from the wet soil of the water-drenched garden and smell the rich life the earthworm has left behind. Just a whiff of it will likely flood you with a feeling of well-being. The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.
Here is the alternate world we need right now, one that exists far beyond the impulse to scroll and scroll. The bluebird bringing pine straw to the nest box she has chosen in a sunny spot of the yard, like the chickadee bringing moss to the nest box under the trees, is doing her work with the urgency of the ages. She has no care for me at all. Even her watchful mate ignores me as I pull weeds in the flower bed beside our driveway.
The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context. And the natural world is everywhere, not just on my half-acre lot in suburbia, and not just on my favorite trails at the local parks. You can find it during a walk on city streets and in the potted plants on city balconies. It’s in the branches of the sidewalk trees as they begin to split open and change the grayscape green. It’s in the sparrows and the starlings taking nesting materials into the cracks around the windows and doorways of commercial buildings. It’s in a sky full of drifting clouds, and in the wild geese crying as they fly.
I can scroll and worry indoors, or I can step outside and remember how it feels to be part of something larger, something timeless, a world that reaches beyond me and includes me too. The spring ephemerals have only the smallest window for blooming, and so they bloom when the sunlight reaches them. Once the forest becomes enveloped in green and the sunlight closes off again, they will wait for another year. Sunlight always returns the next year.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”