How to Find Joy in Nature When You Need It Most

These six tips will help you fend off feelings of isolation by finding safe ways to play, explore, and connect with the wild world outside.

A raspberry bush on Lands End Trail in the San Francisco Bay

Credit: Drev Hunt

Connecting with nature remains a powerful way to de-stress and fend off the isolation that social distancing can bring. But with beach and park access limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, that connection may look a little different this year.

Kate Poole, a senior director in NRDC’s Nature Program and a resident of the Bay Area, recently asked a group of colleagues to share their strategies for bringing the outdoors into their lives with so many traditional activities on hold. “Just like many of us who are feeling disconnected and thrown by what the world is doing to us right now, I find that being outside in nature feels very rejuvenating and provides a lot of comfort. I was on one of my morning walks, feeling a lot of that solace, and thought we should all be sharing this with each other.”

Here are a few creative ways to bring the wild world into your daily life.

Juan (Crystal) Wang enjoying a picnic—and stunning wildflowers—with her husband, her younger sister, and younger brother in Beijing
Credit: Juan (Crystal) Wang/NRDC

Take a walk (or a hike).

Perhaps never before have simple daily walks felt so rejuvenating for so many. Whether feeling cooped up inside or in need of a mood booster, daily walks offer fresh air, sunshine, and a slice of nature—if you’re paying close enough attention. Beijing-based NRDC Nature Program staffer Juan (Crystal) Wang has been practicing the art of noticing, finding peace in observing small details in the natural world around her: “Every day I find the scenery is different from the day before: Flowers are gone, thick leaves are shining in the sunlight.”

Elevate your stroll by being mindful of the wildlife buzzing around you. Notice the jacaranda trees in bloom and breathe in the scent of the gardenia blossoms. Snap photos of the plants and critters that catch your eye—identification apps like iNaturalist will help you identify the species. (Is that critter a lizard? Play herpetologist Earyn McGee’s social media game #FindthatLizard to learn more about what you’ve spotted!)

A crystalline ice plant growing in Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, California

Forage for wild edibles.

All around you, there are likely dozens of species of wild, edible berries, nuts, seeds, flowers, greens, and mushrooms—if you know what to look for. Scout out a chicken of the woods mushroom growing from a decaying tree or one of the dozens of varieties of wild mustard. But take it slow. Rely heavily on foraging guidebooks and lean into the online community of botanists, like @wildfoodlove on Instagram and Justin Robinson’s @countrygentlemancooks.

Some good rules of thumb: Don’t eat anything unless you know exactly what it is; trust your senses by avoiding anything with a disagreeable odor; and avoid any plants that grow with leaves in groups of three, such as poison ivy. Like NRDC program coordinator and Los Angeles resident Ellen Lee, you may be surprised by what you find close to home: “Among the eucalyptus trees near the University of California, San Diego, I found some crystalline ice plants that we foraged for a nice salad in a sesame dressing. I learned of these edible, succulent-like vegetables from my trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where they enjoy these greens fairly often.”

Red-shouldered hawks in Klingle Park, Washington, D.C.

Get to know your backyard birds.

The United States is home to slightly more than 1,100 individual species of birds—and we bet you can spot a few from your window or a local park bench. That’s true for city dwellers, too: Wildlife expert and Washington, D.C., resident Bobby McEnaney, director of NRDC’s Dirty Energy Project, often spots raptors near his apartment downtown. “As far as animals go, downtown D.C. mainly consists of a lot of smaller fauna: eastern squirrels, brown Norway rats, European starlings, house finches, cockroaches, and pigeons,” he acknowledges. But all of those squirrels and rats attract something else, he adds: a whole lot of raptors, including red-tails, Cooper’s hawks, and peregrine falcons. When he first moved to the city from Montana, McEnaney says, “we learned that almost like clockwork in October, peregrines would move in from the river into the city to hunt pigeons.” And that’s not all. “A few times a day, I will see a whole host of avian and bat species making their way through the city. For instance, we spotted two bald eagles that were soaring over town Thursday morning.”

To get started as a bird watcher, find yourself a pair of binoculars—any will do at first. A guidebook or an easy-to-use birding app, like Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will help you identify the species you see. Start by documenting the handful of birds most common in your neighborhood—and if you’re feeling ambitious, start your “life list,” a comprehensive record of all the birds you’ve seen in your lifetime. Log your findings through the eBird app, which consolidates bird sightings into conservation data for researchers and students.

Jennifer Sherry paddling into a frozen offshoot of the Madison River near Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, Montana
Credit: Jennifer Sherry/NRDC

Get out on the water.

Explore your local waterways from a kayak, rowboat, canoe, or paddleboard; in many states, restrictions on nonmotorized boat rentals have been eased, as these recreational activities are considered low risk. Often, exploring the outdoors by winding through rivers and across lakes offers you access to parks that are more remote and less crowded than those you could otherwise explore. And if you’re lucky enough to live near the ocean, sea kayaking gives you more distance from the crowded shore.

Bozeman, Montana–based NRDC wildlife advocate Jennifer Sherry paddles down the Madison River when she’s in need of a recharge. “The high mountains have always been a refuge for me,” she says. “The section of river I floated through recently runs through arid, mostly open countryside surrounded by several snowcapped mountain ranges.” Sherry says it’s not uncommon to see beavers and mink on the water, but her most recent trip was “all about the birds”—including sightings of a juvenile bald eagle, a bluebird, and a great horned owl.

Bike lanes provide transportation alternatives and a way to access nature during the pandemic.
Credit: AbsolutVision

Hop on a bike.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have found freedom and delight on a bicycle,” says Amy McNamara, who directs the Northern Rockies Program at NRDC and is also based in Bozeman. “I think the joy comes from a combination of things—the wind hitting my face, the ability to explore using my own power, and the freedom to let my mind wander while I am pedaling, to name just a few.” Of course, many city dwellers and rural residents rely on bicycling as a basic means of moving around town, not just a form of recreation. As cities and communities increasingly invest in infrastructure for low-carbon transportation options that can replace polluting cars and cut down on traffic congestion, the hope is that biking and pedestrian networks will become a safe and more accessible way for residents to relieve stress as well.

Study the roots under your feet.

“Our ‘citizenship’ in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together,” says writer Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing. Odell embraces what she calls “bioregional awareness”—or giving yourself a sense of place. Often that practice begins with the simplest tasks of recognizing, and naming, what lives alongside you.

Wood sorrel that Arohi Sharma discovered in her garden
Credit: Arohi Sharma/NRDC

Arohi Sharma, a policy analyst and NRDC’s resident Dirt Diva, has taken the chance to reconnect with her garden while her outdoor access is otherwise limited. “My plants may say that I’m obsessed,” she says. Sharma recently discovered that what she dismissed as weeds in her yard were in fact edible (though surprisingly sour) wood sorrel. “Thank goodness I didn’t throw her away,” Sharma says. “She’ll make a wonderful addition to salads when she gets a little stronger and her roots take hold. And her beautiful yellow flowers provide a food source to pollinators like bees and butterflies, which we always want more of in our garden.”

As you learn the species of plants in your yard and where your town’s smaller rivers lead, remember to also acknowledge your land’s Indigeneous history. If you’re unsure whose land you occupy, the Indigeneous-led Native Land Digital offers a map that you can easily search by address. Go a step further and learn about how that land is serving communities today—and what you can do to help expand access for those who have been excluded from natural settings and the physical and mental benefits they can bring.

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