David Gilligan is the Director of Field Studies and Faculty in Natural History and Ecology at Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont. He also writes books, articles and songs about our relationship with the natural world. He divides his time between his home in Northern Vermont and the American Southwest.
Photo Credit: J.W. Webb
We were halfway into a wilderness field semester when the pandemic struck, deep in a hidden corner of the Rincon Mountains in Southern Arizona. Sky Island country. Alligator Juniper, Emory Oak, Mexican Pinyon, flowering Manzanita. Big open sky with no one around for miles, the lights of Tucson below a distant, surreal reminder of another world. Our lives were entirely occupied with attending to the nature and the simple, ancient tasks of camp life. My wife hiked in to bear the news, snuck into our camp, waved me over. We talked secretly, crouched behind the bushes. There was no time for lingering. We broke the news that evening: we were hiking out the next morning and had three days to get everyone home. March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day.
May 1st, May Day, Northern Vermont. I have all the time I could ever want. Life is slow enough now that I swear I can see the grass turning greener by the hour. The trees are all bare of leaves. Red Maple staminate flowers have erupted. As if by request on this first day of this most spectacular month, I simultaneously discovered the first neotropical migrant arrival (Black-throated Green Warbler) and our first blooming wildflower (Spring Beauty). Animals seem to be out and about without caution: Wild Turkey toms displaying in the field out back, Canada Goose walking right up to the door, Red Fox trotting by in broad daylight; everyone is out and about like it’s just another day.
I send out our natural history final exam to my students as an email attachment. They will watch the videos, answer the questions, find out the life history of a Gila Monster online. Out there somewhere they are making hand drill fires with Seep Willow spindles and Saguaro hearthboards, kneeling on their living room floors, maybe even in their bathtubs. They are sneaking out to town forests and city parks to make observations for their field journals. We long for connection to wilder nature; we miss each other out there around the firelight.
What have we learned? There is no substitute for contact with nature, tactile, sensory, in the body. We are human in relation to all that is not human. Now that we know what it feels like to be in that consciousness full time, full on, does life now pale in comparison? Now is the real test: connect at all cost! Your life depends on it. When the going is good, Gila Monster stores fat in its tail to get through the hard times, then lives off it when life gets tough.