Above the Waterline: Managing pandemic grief through nature and voting

It’s been six months since the lethal and planet-disrupting nature of the COVID-19 virus became widely known to the public. During these months, many of us have experienced emotions ranging from fear, anxiety and grief to acceptance and adaptation.

At the beginning – during the third week of March – I fell apart. A close friend said that he’d rarely seen me so stressed and fearful, a fact he reported to my sons, both of whom were about to embark on trips—adding substantially to my anxiety. My older son and his girlfriend were packed for a cross-country road-trip to Oregon, where they would live and work for several months; my younger son had plans for a solo surfing trip to Nicaragua on his spring break from teaching.

An article in the Harvard Business Review (“That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” 3/23/20) helped me walk back from the edge of despair – that and the fact that my younger son finally cancelled his surfing trip. David Kessler, a world-renown expert on grief, explains in the article that what we’ve been experiencing is a kind of collective grief: the loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, and the loss of connection.

The term Kessler uses that particularly resonates with me is “anticipatory grief:” the feeling we have about the future when we’re uncertain, when our sense of safety is broken. Parents anxious to safeguard their children (or their own parents) from harm see only the worst scenarios; in my case, sons sick on the West Coast or out of the country with no way for me to get to them.

Denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and finally acceptance, which is “where the power lies,” are the revolving (not linear) stages of this grief, according to Kessler. He says we can’t ignore catastrophic thinking, but we can try to find a sort of balance by coming into the present. By letting go of the things that we cannot control. By focusing on what we can manage and realizing that this is a temporary, and survivable, state. Feel the grief, while finding meaning in the present and keeping an eye on the future.

As one way of finding meaning in the present, my curiosity has taken me deeper into nature. Once the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area re-opened in May, after being closed by the pandemic for two months, I resumed my regular walks through the woods to the river. I decided to focus on things that I’ve seen and heard in nature all of my life, but not really seen or heard, or understood. My first fascination became summer bugs: the buzzing, clicking and chirping cicadas and crickets that announce the arrival of summer, bringing memories of warm, humid days and my childhood. I have long wanted to know more about them—where they come from, what they look like, how and why they sing so loudly and more. Now, I had time to learn.

Once the soil temperature at a depth of eight inches reaches about 64 degrees, cicadas crawl out of the ground – where the insect nymphs have been living for two, 13 or 17 years – from half an inch diameter holes. After escaping their subterranean homes, the cicadas find vertical structures (natural or man-made) and climb as high as ten feet before shedding their exoskeletons through a tiny slit in their backs and unfolding their large, transparent wings. (Remember cicada shell hunts, when you were a child?) Seeking a mate, the two-inch male cicadas produce an exceptionally loud song from vibrating membranes in their abdomens. The sound of a chorus of males in a tree can exceed 100 decibels, almost as loud as a chainsaw, and can be heard up to a mile away.

With this year’s abundant rain, my second fixation has been fungi and their colorful fruiting bodies (mushrooms), which emerged in glorious abundance on my trail to the river in late summer. A special find was a tiny Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, notable for its red cap with white warts and hallucinogenic properties. The vast majority of plants worldwide depend upon fungi and their underground biomass, in order to grow and flourish.

Tiny, thread-like structures, known as mycelium, create an extensive mycorrhizal network that connects with tree and plant roots, enabling them to better access nutrients and water. In return, the trees provide the fungi with sugars produced by photosynthesis. The fungal network also connects trees to each other to enhance their communication and to efficiently share resources. Now, when I walk in the woods, I think as much about what is happening below the ground, as above, wondering which trees are helping each other and how.

Paying attention to our fascinating natural world helps me live in the present and value the meaning found in the continuity and endurance of life. You may find other ways to accomplish these survival goals in these extraordinary times.

While managing our day-by-day lives during the ongoing international crisis, we must also keep a sharp focus on the future, which means taking whatever steps necessary to vote in the presidential election on Nov. 3.

If you can’t, or don’t want, to vote in person (early or on election day), please request an absentee ballot now. Make sure to mail it at least a week before Nov. 3 or put it in a ballot drop-box provided by your county. Help your friends and neighbors get their ballots and post or drop them early. This election is pivotal for our country and the planet.

Registered Georgia voters are eligible to request and cast an absentee (or mail-in) ballot at ballotrequest.sos.ga.gov. Check your voting registration status at mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do.

 

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

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