Herds of goats abandoning their habitat in the Great Orme headland and wandering into the Welsh coastal town of Llandudno. Bobcats and ravens spotted in parts of Yosemite that just weeks ago were the province only of humans. A coyote appearing in the backyard of a suburban home in Westchester County, New York. The endangered least tern and snowy plovers turning up in Southern California, where whimbrels and ring-billed gulls are making unusual appearances.

Is nature roaring back to reclaim its sovereignty on a planet scarred by the novel coronavirus?

“It is catching me off guard that this sort of thing can happen this quickly,” said Jerry Dennis, a naturalist in northern Michigan. “But it doesn’t take very much time. Nature is strong and resilient. We will see more of this the longer this goes on.”

The human species is in partial vernal hibernation, retreating to its nesting places, sheltering in place, surrendering much of its dominion over the Earth, at least for a season. There is no real evidence that the withdrawal is anything but temporary, though the Paris-based International Energy Agency reports that global carbon-dioxide emissions are on track to decline by 8%, the largest annual reduction ever, returning to levels not seen in a full decade.

Nor is there any suggestion the Earth is healing from a century of industrial surge.

But if nothing else, the planet is taking a breather.

Around now, the grizzlies come out in Yellowstone National Park, eating winter-kill elk and bison carcasses left out on the plains. This year they are doing so unimpeded by human traffic.

“It is great that Yellowstone gets a rest,” said David Quammen, a nature writer and former professor of Western American Studies at Montana State University. “That rest may help the grizzlies come out of the back country and into the front country because there are no people driving around. It can only be good for them. Maybe we will come out of the far side of this thing and say we need to recalibrate our relationship with the rest of the world.”

Of course it is possible, even likely, the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline. The wildlife liberated by the human retreat may itself retreat from the backyards into the back country.

And this return-of-nature phenomenon may be just an industrial-world phenomenon. “While the newly emboldened wildlife of Western cities brings joy in these dark times and a welcome reminder of nature’s resilience, the world’s wildlife won’t be saved by a temporary economic lull,” said Charlie Gardner, a researcher at the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. “To achieve that, we’re going to have to ensure conservation moves to the top of the agenda in the post-pandemic world.”

And yet the anecdotes multiply.

Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, saw a fox wandering into her backyard in Carlisle, Massachusetts, a suburb only 26 miles northwest of Boston.

“Because we are staying home, animals realize that those stupid people are in hibernation and that they can go back out safely,” she said. “It’s like the Munchkins coming out in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ But we also know this virus jumped from wild species to people and thus is also an example of nature fighting back — in this case reacting to animals being crowded out and causing more contacts with people.”

Carl Hiaasen, whose Florida novels often include environmental themes, is seeing an unusual stream of cardinals and woodpeckers at his home.

“There’s an amazing influx of bird life I didn’t notice before the pandemic arrived, and down the street there are a pair of ancient gopher tortoises that we didn’t used to see,” Hiaasen said in a telephone conversation the other day. “In the recusing of the human race, they have figured out we weren’t the threat we once were.”

And so while all this may just be temporary -- it may simply be that in our leisure and idleness we are hearing birdsong that always was there, and noticing wildlife that was just beyond our ken — it nonetheless is incontrovertible that there is a small but discernible uptick in our apprehension of nature, and of our appreciation of the natural world.

This spring has been a great social experiment — in communal living, in family cohesion, in national purpose, in personal group selflessness. It also has opened our ears to birdsong and sharpened our eyes to nature. It may not have changed the Earth. But it may have changed us.

And isn’t that a mourning dove I see outside my window right now?

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


(2) comments


Some coronaviruses that infect animals can be spread to humans and then spread between people. This is what happened with the virus that caused the current outbreak of COVID-19. However, we do not know the exact source of this virus. Public health officials and partners are working hard to identify the source of COVID-19. The first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading from person to person.

Only seven types of coronaviruses, including COVID-19, are able to be contracted by people from animals, and can then spread among human populations. The zoonosis of two deadly coronaviruses which caused the outbreaks of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) were transmitted from dromedary camels and civet cats, respectively, to humans. These diseases have collectively killed over 1,500 people since 2002.

Experts explain that scientists' understanding of the origin of the virus of COVID-19 still isn't perfectly clear. The most notable theory involves a "wet market" - a traditional Asian retail food market comprised of stalls that sell both live and dead seafood along with other wildlife, like fish and birds. Infection transmission from animals to humans is increasingly risky in wet markets, since the markets are extremely crowded, and animals are housed and slaughtered on the market's premises, which poses a challenge to the maintenance of the market's hygienic standards.

While the animal source of the outbreak has yet to be conclusively determined, the original infectious host of COVID-19 virus is understood to be bats, and while bats are not available for purchase at the Wuhan wet market, they are believed to have infected certain intermediary animals, like live chickens or pangolins, which are sold there. Jim LeDuc, head of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high security National Biocontainment Laboratory in Texas, reported to Vox, "If you look at the genetic sequence of the virus, it’s closely related to a bat virus, about 96 percent the same."

Mr Lemons

"But we also KNOW THIS VIRUS JUMPED FROM WILD SPECIES TO PEOPLE and thus is also an example of nature fighting back — in this case reacting to animals being crowded out and causing more contacts with people.”

Actually, we don't know if this virus "jumped" from wild species to people, but it does fit her narrative.

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