Love of nature growing exponentially

Mary Custard at Bash Bish Falls in Mt. Washington, Mass.Photo: Mary Custard

When COVID-19 struck last spring, many found themselves isolated and trapped in their own homes. Like many of us in Western Mass, I felt fortunate to have access to the beautiful landscape of our local environment, and I took full advantage of it. 

Whether it was getting up early to go fishing at the sunrise or being a camp counselor at a local wilderness program that I had attended as a child, I spent almost every waking moment outdoors. 

I was not alone. Outdoor activity and gear sales surged across the country, as fresh air activities were the safest way to interact with others and even enjoy being alone. Getting outside provided a very necessary contrast to the gloom of being cooped up at home, staring at a screen.

 According to OutdoorIndustry.org, “Americans took up new activities in significant numbers in April, May, and June of 2020. Among the biggest gainers were running, cycling, and hiking. Looking at April, May, and June of 2020 versus the same period in 2019, unweighted participation rates for day hiking rose more than any other activity.” 

And according to NPR.org, bicycle sales “jumped 63% in June from a year earlier. There were similarly big gains in sales of golf equipment, camping equipment, and binoculars.” 

During quarantine, ARHS science teacher Nick Shaw spent as many hours as he could outside, discovering local bodies of water to fish in, exploring the Holyoke Range, and even winter camping in below-freezing temperatures. 

Shaw said fishing had been a source of food and entertainment “basically all my life.” He also took Covid as an opportunity to get out on local waters. “My canoe basically lived on my car,” he said.

Mary Custard, the ARHS dean of students, shared Shaw’s sentiment that COVID presented a unique scenario in which we had to rely on our local environment to fulfill our desire to explore the natural world. 

“I can’t believe I had all these beautiful trails around me; it took Covid to make me find them,” said Custard. 

Shaw agreed. “I did realize in having to focus so much on my local environment, how rich and complex our local surroundings are,” he said. 

Sonai Donnell, an 18-year-old senior at ARHS took a different approach to her outdoor endeavors, moving beyond the local area. On a whim, she applied for a Kroka Expedition Program. 

According to Kroka’s website, it is a “non-profit wilderness expedition school based on a year-round, organic farm in Marlow, New Hampshire.” 

Donnell traveled around the country on her various expeditions, biking through Tennessee, hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and canoeing the Rio Grande on the Texas- Mexico border. 

“I was just thinking about the prospect of online school and not being able to see people. I don’t really want to do that,” said Donnell. “It was definitely like a really hard transition. I had never done anything like this before.” 

Donnell’s activities were slightly more intense than my other interviewees; she had days where her group biked upwards of 80 miles. “It made me realize what I am capable of,” she said. 

One theme that was consistent throughout these three people was the need for physical activity. This wasn’t just important for their physical health, but also their mental wellness.

 “Teaching during Covid was one of the most isolating experiences of my life,” said Shaw, who noted that many of us adopted an “unhealthy sitting posture,” and spent too much time on screens. “It became absolutely critical to get out and be active.”

Custard made it a goal to visit as many local waterfalls as she could, traveling all over Massachusetts to find trails and rivers that she did not know existed. 

This was a tradition that was already in place, as she and a group of her friends had an exercise group they referred to as “boot camp” and a hiking and walking group, primarily made up of women of color, called “The Walking Divas.” Keeping these traditions alive was difficult with COVID and shifting schedules. 

“We’ve been doing different trails and because our schedules are so different, it hasn’t been the regular thing that we used to do every weekend,” said Custard. “I’m not the kind of person that likes to just sit around.”

Custard added that while everybody was recommending all these shows and movies, she needed to move. “I can’t just sit in the house all day long,” she said. “That would have made me crazy. Walks have kept me active.” 

Interactions with the natural world can change lives, and this year, heightened exposure to nature made that even more the case. 

“It totally changed my life; it changed the trajectory of my life,” said Donnell. 

“What I want to study totally changed. I am also into different things now,” she explained. “I’m more outdoorsy, more capable of just being able to go with the flow, and I take whatever comes. I am a very different person than I used to be.”