Commentary: In the quiet, nature roars back

Commentary: In the quiet, nature roars back

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David Shribman

Herds of goats abandoning their habitat in the Great Orme headland and wandering into the Welsh coastal town of Llandudno. Bobcats and ravens spotted in parts of Yosemite that just weeks ago were the province only of humans. A coyote appearing in the backyard of a suburban home in Westchester County, New York. The endangered least tern and snowy plovers turning up in Southern California, where whimbrels and ring-billed gulls are making unusual appearances.

Is nature roaring back to reclaim its sovereignty on a planet scarred by the novel coronavirus?

“It is catching me off guard that this sort of thing can happen this quickly,” said Jerry Dennis, a naturalist in northern Michigan. “But it doesn’t take very much time. Nature is strong and resilient. We will see more of this the longer this goes on.”

The human species is in partial vernal hibernation, retreating to its nesting places, sheltering in place, surrendering much of its dominion over the Earth, at least for a season. There is no real evidence that the withdrawal is anything but temporary, though the Paris-based International Energy Agency reports that global carbon-dioxide emissions are on track to decline by 8%, the largest annual reduction ever, returning to levels not seen in a full decade. Nor is there any suggestion the Earth is healing from a century of industrial surge.

But if nothing else, the planet is taking a breather.

Around now, the grizzlies come out in Yellowstone National Park, eating winter-kill elk and bison carcasses left out on the plains. This year they are doing so unimpeded by human traffic.

“It is great that Yellowstone gets a rest,” said David Quammen, a nature writer and former professor of Western American Studies at Montana State University. “That rest may help the grizzlies come out of the back country and into the front country because there are no people driving around. It can only be good for them. Maybe we will come out of the far side of this thing and say we need to recalibrate our relationship with the rest of the world.”

Of course it is possible, even likely, the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline. The wildlife liberated by the human retreat may itself retreat from the backyards into the back country.

And this return-of-nature phenomenon may be just an industrial-world phenomenon. “While the newly emboldened wildlife of Western cities brings joy in these dark times and a welcome reminder of nature’s resilience, the world’s wildlife won’t be saved by a temporary economic lull,” said Charlie Gardner, a researcher at the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. “To achieve that, we’re going to have to ensure conservation moves to the top of the agenda in the post-pandemic world.”

And yet the anecdotes multiply.

Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, saw a fox wandering into her backyard in Carlisle, Massachusetts, a suburb only 26 miles northwest of Boston.

“Because we are staying home, animals realize that those stupid people are in hibernation and that they can go back out safely,” she said. “It’s like the Munchkins coming out in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ But we also know this virus jumped from wild species to people and thus is also an example of nature fighting back — in this case reacting to animals being crowded out and causing more contacts with people.”

Carl Hiaasen, whose Florida novels often include environmental themes, is seeing an unusual stream of cardinals and woodpeckers at his home.

“There’s an amazing influx of bird life I didn’t notice before the pandemic arrived, and down the street there are a pair of ancient gopher tortoises that we didn’t used to see,” Hiaasen said in a telephone conversation the other day. “In the recusing of the human race, they have figured out we weren’t the threat we once were.”

Former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and his wife, Wendy, are avid birders. “We’re getting a lot of emails from people who know we watch for birds,” he told me. “These people are slowing down and for the first time noticing and taking an interest in birds.”

It’s happening all over. “We are hearing more birdsong,” said Paul Wiegman, a southwestern Pennsylvania naturalist. “There isn’t the constant din of traffic in the background. It’s nice to hear that in the spring.”

Some of this is imaginary, to be sure, but some of it is real. Byron Shissler, a Fort Hill, Pennsylvania, wildlife biologist who has conducted studies throughout the eastern United States, said that animals react decisively to human behavior.

“In places that normally have human activity that has been restrained, there will be more wildlife,” he said. “We noticed, for example, that deer retreated from parks when people were present and came out when the people retreated. It is natural behavior. Deer become more nocturnal when people are around.”

And so while all this may just be temporary — it may simply be that in our leisure and idleness we are hearing birdsong that always was there, and noticing wildlife that was just beyond our ken — it nonetheless is incontrovertible that there is a small but discernible uptick in our apprehension of nature, and of our appreciation of the natural world.

The Rev. Jim Antal, former president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ and author of “Climate Church, Climate World,” published in 2018, noticed an American woodcock in his yard as he changed his snow tires in Norwich, Vermont, the other day. It got him to thinking, and to hoping.

“In just about every religion, the Earth is the Lord’s, and creatures are as much God’s creation as we are,” he said. “With our retreat into our homes, there’s a reclaiming of the Earth by the creatures of the Earth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if humanity woke up and saw how much better life is if we are conscious of sharing it with all of creation, not just with other humans?”

This spring has been a great social experiment — in communal living, in family cohesion, in national purpose, in personal group selflessness. It also has opened our ears to birdsong and sharpened our eyes to nature. It may not have changed the Earth. But it may have changed us.

And isn’t that a mourning dove I see outside my window right now?

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