• Johanna DeBiase

Oxygen, Water, Food and Happiness


“I longed for peace, and a wild and quiet place to find that peace in, and the time to sit and listen to the land as I once had begun to do. To find my connection again, to plug back into the Earth, to remember what it was to begin to belong. And so I looked for, and then I found, the house at the end of the world.”

-Sharon Blackie, “If Women Rose Rooted”


 

At Spring Equinox, I attempt to balance two opposing ideas in my heart at once. Our habitat is dying. There is hope that we can turn things around.


I want to believe the best. I want to believe that we will all wake up at once and realize we must act fast to change the course of destruction the planet is currently on. I remember the first few months of the pandemic when travel ceased, industry shut down and signs of the natural world resurged. People happily proclaimed across social media, the return of nature! Animals took over, reclaiming spaces usually overrun with humans. Bears, deer and bison casually meandered through once crowded parking lots of National Parks. Gangs of javelinas roamed the streets of Phoenix.


There was certainly hope during that time that perhaps this was the one silver lining to all the disruption and death caused by the plague, perhaps quarantining would slow down the destruction of the planet. Unfortunately, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the Covid quarantines had little impact on the rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.


I want to believe the best. But according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we are harming the planet faster than we can adapt. Record droughts. Rising sea levels. Extreme weather, such as storms and floods. Rising heat is killing crops and trees and increasing the risk of disease, water scarcity and malnutrition. Wildfires. Deathly heat waves. Current governmental adaptations are no longer enough to abate the oncoming disaster. What is needed instead is major transformational changes. We need to rethink the way we operate in the world, the way we grow food, build infrastructure, produce energy. We need to majorly increase conservation efforts.


This truth can be too hard to fully grasp and too painful to ingest. It is easy to become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. What can we do as individuals? It is tempting to feel apathetic or exhausted. We want our governments to act and yet they often seem to be fighting petty battles internally and externally over money and resources, none of which are as important as reversing climate change. We hope science and technology will save the day, but if so, when? Why haven’t they already?


There is hope. Of course, there is. Humans are a resilient species and I believe that somehow, we will figure out how to work together to save and restore our habitat and the habitats of our fellow animals before we all go extinct.


My family and I moved off the grid into a 750 square foot strawbale structure in the summer of 2020 soon after the shelter in place orders went into effect in my state of New Mexico. We collect rainwater in cisterns, power our home with solar and compost our waste as we strive to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible. In this “wild and quiet place,” I have been able “to sit and listen to the land.”


I am not the only one who returned to nature during the pandemic. Because gyms and indoor activities shut down, more people moved to the outdoors for exercise and socializing. Studies showed that the use of parks and public green spaces increased in the summer of 2020 from previous years in some places by 100%. Donations to nature conservation groups increased. There was a spike in the sales of outdoor equipment, such as bikes and camping gear.


This chart from Nature England shows that 40% of people agreed that natural spaces have been important to their wellbeing during the pandemic.


During a time of isolation, fear, scarcity, death and illness, nature helped many people to feel better. Perhaps you are one of those people? I know I am.


Last year, while the pandemic was still going strong and New Mexico was still very much strictly enforcing policies that made it difficult for people to interact indoors, I began teaching Nature Writing courses. I met with tourists and locals at the park or on hiking trails and we walked, talked, meditated, and wrote. This was a truly healing experience for me. Not only did I get to connect with people from all over the United States and learn about their experiences, but I was also able to hear their writing. I was deeply moved by the ways in which strangers uniquely connected to the natural world around them and expressed this connection so intimately with words.


According to the American Psychological Association, expressive writing can strengthen people mentally and emotionally, as well as boost our immune system. The way I teach, using meditation as a channel for our creativity, we can surpass our inner critic and get to the raw truth of our embodied experiences.


Nature is also healing. There is much scientific research out now about the positive physiological effects of spending time outdoors in nature. Writing and nature combined make perfect sense to me as a way “to remember what it was to begin to belong” and to find peace.


Additionally, creating a more dynamic bond with our natural world heals our relationship to our ecosystem. For centuries we have perceived nature as a resource for our consumption, but we cannot begin to restore the damage this attitude has brought until we are able to dismantle and repair this attitude. We must begin to see ourselves as we truly are, a part of nature, not separate from it.


I thought if all my students shared their writing with their community, then others perhaps would be moved to experience nature in this way too. So, part of my teaching is to encourage people to share their writing, unfiltered and real. Of course, this takes a lot of bravery, but if we each take the time to connect with the non-human natural world and share what we discover with others, we could create a quiet movement of cherishing the earth, of understanding the depth of our codependency on our habitat and the deep desire to restore it. Oxygen, water, food, and happiness. Possibly we can contribute to the necessary and immediate transformational change required of our species.


I found my “house at the end of the world,” but I don’t plan to quietly hunker down and watch the world crumble around me. I want to connect with like-minded folks who long for this relationship to the wild and to the wild within. The written word is my tool and maybe it is yours too for expressing your love for our planet earth. Let’s spread the word to the most unlikely corners of society. Perhaps if the floods and fires and storms and plagues won’t convince them, our gentle poem will. There is hope. I want to believe.


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