By Gary Swick, President
As the COVID-19 pandemic infiltrates the human space on the planet, many things well known in nature are surprising us. We humans are relatively an infant species here on the 4-billion-year-old Earth. We are still just learning nature’s laws and the consequences that come from ignoring them.
Like infants we think our world is something we control, and if we cry loudly or stomp our feet enough, we will get our way. Climate change is a good example but that’s a bigger story for another time. Let’s consider our current pandemic period. We now know that we are merely a vulnerable organism and that our way of life is being completely disrupted by a “lower” life form, a virus. We are not in control of the planet.
The first law of Ecology is that all things are connected to everything else. Our political borders are nonexistent to a virus, or a river. We quickly learned that an animal-borne virus isolated in a small region can rapidly become a global crisis. As things change in nature, organisms have three typical strategies: adaptation, migration, or death.
Those regions that quickly adapted, changed their normal social practices, and controlled migration of the COVID-19 virus into their realms, realized a lesser consequence. Making early sacrifices led to lower death rates and following the findings from scientific studies gave solid direction. However, even within our small watershed we see differences in behavior relative to virus reaction. Like it or not, we are all connected.
No New Normal
When the stay-at-home policy was first implemented many folks reported signs of human’s reduced impact on nature resulting in cleaner air, less noise pollution, reduced seismic activity, and wildlife expanding their range into more populated areas. The Fox River’s level is primarily influenced by weather, therefore any impact upon the river relative to increases or decreases in domestic water use and sewage production is not clear. But the Fox River is an “essential worker” and continues to provide drinking water, wildlife habitat, and a conduit for storm and sanitary sewage. To the Fox River life was, and is, still normal.
When warmer temperatures arrived last spring and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that outdoor activity was relatively safe, an outpouring occurred in public spaces. The Fox River Trail was overwhelmed with cyclists, runners, strollers, and groups of young people seeking their otherwise isolated friends.
Cook County had to close their forest preserves on weekends, and Kane County advertised which high-use areas to avoid. Starved Rock State Park parking lots filled to capacity by mid-morning on weekends. Local bicycle and kayak demand left retail racks as bare as the toilet paper aisle in March. Fishing license sales reached a record high. People were rediscovering nature.
Youth Getting Connected
For Friends of the Fox River (FOFR), education went virtual and the large, and planned clean-ups became a large number of small family outings. It was not optimal but it had benefits. With the exponential increase in screen time while attending school online, going outside for students became a treat! Families began nature explorations right in their own yards. Gardening and home cooking experienced a surge.
These adaptations in social behavior may have rekindled a lost connection to nature. Nature appreciation and advocacy comes from a valued relationship. The pandemic restrictions were facilitating a reawakening. Folks were hearing birds outside that were actually always there, but the people weren’t. We hope that hands in the soil and eyes to the sky will develop into healthy habits for young people. Our society’s future lies in the actions of today’s youth. Lessons learned, or not, through this experience will impact our relationship with the environment.
And the People Stayed Home
Life in pandemic times has changed many things for everybody. It offers a reawakening with nature and a harsh look at our weaknesses as a vulnerable organism. The Fox River rolls along doing its essential work of nourishing, replenishing and offering beauty to those who pause to perceive and receive. Neither the river nor our lives are ever the same during pandemic times. Culturally, we are working through tough conditions. We have had ample opportunities to recognize and honor our interconnectedness. We can reevaluate what is necessary and important as reflected upon in the poem And the People Stayed Home by Kitty O’Meara.
We are a young species with incredible knowledge and power. We must do better, can do better, and will do better. When Europeans settled in the Fox River Valley, they overharvested mussel populations, dammed the river in nearly every mainstem community, and freely dumped their waste in it. The Fox River kept flowing as we learned better ways and with our improved local practices we now have a healthier river. With better global practices we can achieve the ultimate goal of a healthy planet.
For additional perspectives on this subject view a recent panel discussion on “COVID 19 and the Environment” focused on the Fox River Valley.