Learning to Live Outdoors

Reflections from the Longest Year

Since March, aside from speedy grocery runs and a few medical appointments, I’ve hardly been indoors. When I’m inside, the announcement that played in airports after 9/11 rings in my head: The threat level is…orange. When I step outside, I feel relief, filling my lungs with the sweet, safe breath of the natural world. 

Until this year, I considered myself fairly outdoorsy, getting into the woods on weekends, enjoying sunny days with friends on porches (preferably screened), and walking to the grocery store when weather permitted. And then 2020 turned our lives upside down, sounding its clarion call of you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In the spring I took several walks a day, circling the neighborhood and watching the world closely. I saw buds form and open, smelled each bloom. I heard the whine of table saws and marveled as decks, garden beds, and chicken coops materialized. People I’d never seen before became familiar faces: the young woman with short, bleach-blond hair and John Lennon glasses, the young man walking his Corgi, the middle-aged guy with a bushy beard, big headphones, and a blue and orange Durham Bulls hat. Curious and also bored, I paid excruciating attention to everything, hoping to unlock a secret, to make a reassuring discovery that would restore sanity and security. 

Although the world seemed to stand still, time was apparently elapsing. Summer, my least favorite season, arrived, bringing its twin infuriations of humidity and mosquitoes. In normal times I spend the summer in movie theaters and coffee shops. In 2020, with nowhere to hide out, I walked after dark, against the hot hum of cicadas, and plugged the box fan in for a backyard breeze. It scattered some skeeters but the rest found me and I surrendered, reminding myself with every jab that we were all just trying to survive.

On clear nights we watched movies in the backyard with friends, our chairs at a safe distance. It was a balm to be with others, to connect without endangering ourselves. We stayed up late talking, emptying our basket of worries, the breeze dispersing our anxiety as Saturday night stretched into Sunday morning. The ice cubes clinked and the barred owl hooted. The neighborhood possum dropped by, perching on the high fence. I guess he was lonely too.

The chill of autumn always shocks me, a thrilling reminder that summer can’t last forever. This year I was startled again to realize that while I was stuck, still at home, still doomscrolling, the seasons continued to rotate. I spent the fall sitting in the backyard, watching leaves drop one by one, drinking hot chocolate and mulled cider by the warmth of the fire. On election night we left our screens inside and gathered by the fire, staring at the burning logs and wondering what the future held.

This longest year will be over soon, but we will tell and retell the story of 2020 for the rest of our lives. I will recount a weekday afternoon walk in the woods in late September, my husband and I moving quietly through the trees, the screenlessness and silence settling our brains. As our minds wandered, the winds picked up and the temperature dropped. Dried leaves, the first layer of fall coating the path, rose and swirled before us, as if under a fairy tale spell. 

Had the forecast called for rain? It didn’t matter. There was nothing we could do about it. It fell cold and thick on my skin, heavying my clothes, pushing me toward the earth it was feeding.

Just a few weeks later, it happened again. I was out walking with a friend. A steady rain came on. We kept walking. It was quiet in the woods and once you’re wet, you’re wet. I had arrived at the trailhead by bike. As I rode home, the rain flew at me, off me, pedals and wheels spewing it back onto the road. The deluge continued, water everywhere, inescapable. 

This year has subjugated us humans to the will of the body, to biology and principles of infectious diseases we hadn’t considered, to the many ways the natural world has the upper hand. There was a time when I considered the elements a force to negotiate with and around, but now I know the relief of relenting. Nature’s vast expanses embraced me this year, offering space to connect with other humans and ponder our capacity for endurance and survival, lessening the great aloneness of 2020. 

Cover photo by Julia Green

Places to Go, Things to See: