penstemons in flower

As the Director for a program that encourages folks of all stripes to document seasonal changes in plants and animals, I talk a lot about why looking at plants and animals is worth your time. I’ve recently written about the value of this practice to relieve climate change-related anxiety, to achieve health benefits, and to reveal how some species have advanced their springtime activity but others have not.

But to be totally honest, as I’ve been touting the mental and physical benefits of being in nature with our non-human friends, I’ve felt a bit like an imposter. I made my (generally) weekly observations on a handful of plants in my backyard partly because I really like plants. But if I’m truly honest, my primary motivation for logging the leaf status and flower abundance on the project app on my phone was so that I wasn’t lying when I would say I’m a participant in the program I lead. But truly taking the time to connect with the plants, to really pay attention to what was happening around me? Not so much.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly I was working from home with my kids underfoot, still juggling the stresses that had been plaguing me prior to the transition to working from home. My stress level continued to increase as the housekeeping needs multiplied (having all family members home all day long leads to a much messier house!), the schools started to send home assignments, and we had to find ways for all of us to burn off the energy that we used to accomplish via our recently-cancelled extra-curricular activities. Through it all, I continued to tout the value of looking at the plants, and even wrote about the program as something to keep kids busy while families are home during the COVID-19 school shut-downs. And I stepped up my observing – it’s so easy when I can see the plants in my backyard over the top of my computer monitor and can mull over how many flower buds are on the grapefruit tree while I’m on a conference call. I started to look at the plants multiple times a day – and even increased the frequency of reports I made through the app to every couple of days.

As I know is true for so many in the last few weeks – my sense of control over anything in my life spiraled out of my grip blindingly quickly. Our summer plans were all been cancelled; our futures feel so uncertain. Then two family members passed away in one night – one from pneumonia, the other from a sudden heart attack, both many states away, where we cannot travel. It’s all too much.

So, I retreated – to my backyard. I honest-to-goodness looked at things. I watched a tiny red mite creep steadily along the seam of the tablecloth. I observed so many crane flies bobbling along drunkenly in their final days of life. I breathed in the decadent scent of grapefruit and lemon flowers starting to open. I rejoiced in the riot of fuchsia penstemon flowers crowding our tiny backyard. And I stopped fretting, for a moment. I experienced the true value of looking at the plants.

My previous messages weren’t wrong; there is definitely worth in observing plants – for science and for fun. But now I’m embracing being with my non-human friends as necessary refuge from the acute sense of chaos I’m experiencing.

I invite you to join me. When you are feeling a total lack of control over the very fabric of your life – an experience we are all grappling with on a daily basis right now – step outside. Let your eyes drift to the nearest green (or soon-to-be green) thing you can find, and just look.