There is a large redwood tree behind my parents’ house. As a child, I used to worry that it would fall in a windstorm and crush us all. But as an adult I developed a newfound appreciation for it — as a play structure for squirrels, a lookout for crows, and a magnificent sucker of carbon from the atmosphere.
Since the pandemic, my parents’ deck has become my home office, and I spend at least a couple hours there getting my daily dose of vitamin D. Last week, as I took a break to gaze up at this glorious tree, suddenly in my vision appeared a whole world of insects, pollen, and who knows what else — tree detritus? — buzzing with life. Flies and bees zipped from here to there like streaks of light. I sat there for a few good minutes, stunned. How had I not seen this before?
And then, a giant oak tree nearby began vibrating. There was barely a breeze in the air, but every leaf seemed to catch it, shaking gently as if alive.
Of course, it is all very much alive, but somehow it had not registered before. Somehow my vision had narrowed and dulled. Now, everything was illuminated.
When I was asked to contribute something about my changed relationship to the natural world as a result of COVID-19, a million thoughts entered my mind. How to encapsulate the inner transformation that has taken place these last several weeks? Indeed, it has been a journey, one that changes from week to week and, sometimes, moment to moment.
The first couple weeks were filled with anxiety, worry, and sleepless nights. Suddenly, my high-deductible health insurance plan and status as a contract worker for nonprofits felt like a death sentence. Would I get sick? Would I lose my job? And then people I knew did begin to get sick and lose their jobs. My father’s doctor said he wrote up his will and prepared his kids for the worst.
At the same time, the pandemic has forced many of us to live more sustainable and present lives. Personally, that has meant that I no longer drive, I haven’t bought anything other than food in weeks, I eat less, savor every vegetable and piece of fruit, and reuse everything (even plastic bags). I’m growing lettuce and bok choy from scraps. I make my own kimchi and almond milk. I appreciate my parents and my boyfriend even more and look forward to the day when I can hug my best friend again.
The benefits of this slowed-down life have counteracted the fear and feeling of helplessness. Granted, I am not a healthcare worker in the midst of the crisis. At least for now, I am still employed. There is food in my refrigerator. For that, I am so grateful. But for the fortunate among us, it is not a moment for apathy or inaction.
Thankfully, my job — I work with women’s peace organizations to end the Korean War and create peace on the Korean Peninsula — empowers me to take action. Since COVID-19, we have shifted our work to call for structural changes to society, specifically US foreign policy, by adopting a feminist approach that values all human life. That means stopping war, eliminating weapons, lifting sanctions, and reprioritizing true human needs like healthcare, jobs, education, and housing.
The fact that this country has framed the pandemic in militarized concepts — Trump has called himself a “wartime president” and the media describes healthcare workers as “on the frontline” — reveals not only how we think of crisis but also why we allow hundreds of billions of dollars to be invested into our military and comparatively little on our public health infrastructure, which is partially responsible for landing us in the health crisis we now find ourselves.
Previously, creating huge structural change felt like a slow and arduous process. But if this experience has taught us anything, it’s that we have enormous capacity for transformation. We can change things rapidly, especially when we realize what’s at stake.
We can find housing for the unsheltered.
We can give money and food to those in need.
We can halt our endless stream of consumption.
We can prioritize taking care of the elderly and the sick.
We can do these things because it is for the greater good, because people have value regardless of their ability to contribute to the economy. It is no longer possible to see ourselves as independent beings whose actions do not affect others.
That said, we must also acknowledge the gender dynamic of this pandemic — the nurses, caretakers, working mothers, single mothers, teachers, and grocery store and agricultural and domestic workers who are particularly exposed to the virus and/or its effects and whose work, paid and unpaid, is invaluable to society.
Now is the time for us to come together to realize true change, and to do that we must fundamentally transform our connection to the natural world. Although we have gotten away from our relationship to nature, it is possible to relearn old ways; they are still within us.
Thus, our public health infrastructure must emphasize our connection to the natural world. The vast benefits of exposure to nature on our mental and physical health have been well-documented. “Healthcare” should not just consist of trips to doctor’s offices but also to the wild and untamed places left in our midst.
Our definition of “national security” must incorporate our responsibility as stewards of the land, and we must reorient our priorities accordingly. Imagine if we built cities — and our lives — around what benefits nature instead of the other way around? Maybe now we will realize that our very existence depends on it.
Prior to this pandemic, I had already begun a process of personal transformation, healing myself by actively shifting thoughts. A lifetime of vexing health problems and searching for answers led me inward. Many of these problems could be traced to childhood trauma as well as the intergenerational trauma stemming from my mother’s experience of the Korean War.
But it could just as easily be connected to a fragmented relationship to nature, to the food I eat, the chemicals I have been exposed to, and the pace at which I accelerated through the world.
Besides improved physical health, one result of this shift in mindset has been expansive gratitude. That led me to an even deeper appreciation of the natural world — to the swallowtail butterfly coursing through the garden, to the barn owl screeching at night, to the iridescent poppies springing up between cracks in the pavement.
The ability to reframe has been particularly useful at this moment, to be able to find moments of deep joy, connection and gratitude.
We can remember what’s essential to our very existence.
We can fix our country’s decimated social safety net. We can elect leaders who value human life and do not sow racism, violence, and division. We can take care of one another and the world around us. We are resilient.
This is what I sleepily wrote in my journal the other night:
I am here. I am filled with joy. My vision is so beautiful. The world is pure light and joy. Every atom feels illuminated. Every speck is shiny and sparkling. I love even the dust. We are all connected in this great big world and I am open to receiving any and all love. I am so content here in this place. In my future but also right now.
The future is bright.
The future is a dip in an ice-cold lake.
A plunge into hyper-being.
There are many things that must happen personally and collectively, and these things are connected just as we are connected. Individually, we can and must transform our inner selves to connect to every speck of life in the world and thus deepen our respect for all that exists. And then we must come together collectively to create the world we want to live in with policies that embody these values.
It is there. We just have to be able to see it.
Kathleen Ok-soo Richards is a writer, editor, and former journalist.