A Year in COVID: What My Kin Taught Me

Animal Advice

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          It’s been over a year now since our world changed, and many of us are still reflecting on it. March 2020 brought a threat to our shores that most of us have never experienced. For the first time, we faced our own mortality in a very real, very scary way. Being encouraged to stay away from my fellow humans, I found some new friends--the nonhuman kind. It was with them that I found a simple, life-affirming connection that helped me get through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

           Biologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, that we reserve pronouns of personhood, such as he, she, and they, for humans, leaving a nonhuman species to be an “it.” Wall Kimmerer wanted a word for all beings—plants, animals, landscapes, even elements like rain or snow. Searching her native language, Potawatomi, for inspiration, Wall Kimmerer found the simple word “ki” to describe any living being. “So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, ‘Ki is singing up the sun,' or ‘Ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze,'” she wrote. The plural, kin, is a word with which most of us are already familiar, but perhaps do not apply it outside of the human race.

            My kin helped me to see how each season, each living creature, has an important lesson to teach.

 

Spring 2020

            In spring, life was beginning in the outdoors, while inside, we heard the sad stories of human life waning. In my corner of the world, the Mid-Hudson Valley of NY, it comforted me to see and hear all the new life of Spring in a place called “Giant's Ledges Pocket Park,” a parcel of land that spans the northern part of the Shawangunk Ridge to the hamlet of Rosendale.

            One early April evening, when ki’s magic was already in full bloom, I took the gradually climbing, woodsy trail, carpeted in fragrant, soft pine needles, to an inviting rocky cliff, where one can perch and look out on the valley below. I sat on the summit listening to the sounds of kin around me. The first to hit my ears was the music of the peepers in the leafy green chasm below. It is one of my favorite sounds in nature. These kin tell you that life is renewing, and that warm weather is coming.

It's funny, as you sit and begin to listen to the sounds of nature around you, it is as if a veil suddenly lifts, and underneath, you discover even more layers of “music.” I then recognized another familiar voice—it was the song of the red-winged blackbird, a friend I knew well from grassy flatlands. Ki sings a very strong, beautiful melody, easily recognized by the sharp, chirpy notes. Ki's bold red and black colors also make them easy to spot for my not-so-sharp eyes.

            Pretty soon, the forest was alive with song. What I have learned about these kin is that they have been around a long time; they are resourceful, and they know how to survive. They thrive because they persist. Their wisdom was not lost on me, as they sang out with the great spirit of life on this beautiful evening.

             At this same moment, in perfect synchrony, kin were singing out in the human world, too—from the streets, from porches, from windows—it was the time of the 7pm “applause” for healthcare workers. It's no secret how separated most of us have become from the natural world, but here, I could feel the two songs mixing together in one great Earth chorus. Perhaps all kin cry out in the same vein. We are so much more connected than we realize.

 

Summer 2020

 

           Summer came, and brought with it more lush, green growth, more achingly beautiful days, and cerulean skies with what I like to call cartoon-perfect “Simpsons” clouds. Being outside was easy, and we enjoyed a little more socializing.

           This time, my attention was captured by kin of the six-legged variety. It began with the arrival of the dragonflies in the late spring. On New Paltz's River to Ridge trail, hordes of them flew overhead, with gossamer wings and zigzag movements. I stood, my mouth agape, mesmerized as they danced overhead, their flight patterns reminding me of fancy airshows. They would zip through the air at full speed in one direction, then inexplicably and seamlessly U-turn toward the opposite way. I never knew they could fly so high or so fast, and I wondered what their movements communicated to each other.

            At the Peterskill area of Minnewaska State Park, I was treated to more dragonfly action, seeing them land on streams, leaves, and even my arms in the warm summer sun. Kin were sometimes neon blue, magenta, or even green—and they stared at me with their mysterious alien eyes. It feels like a gift when a dragonfly alights near you or decides to buzz around you. You feel like you have been visited by someone special.

            Being one of the oldest creatures on earth, ki has captured our fancy for a long time. Folklore is filled with stories of ki and many think they carry a kind of magic. What's most astonishing is ki's ability to transform. A dragonfly will molt and change an average of 17 times, with most of the changes occurring during the time they spend underwater, before they even take flight. Ki's amazing flight is the direct result of the ability to change. We, too, must learn to change with grace so that we may continue to evolve and thrive.

            Summer continued to wow me with insect kin of all types—the fireflies at night reminding me there is still hope even in darkness; the monarchs, with their regal saffron-oranges and striking blacks, gracing me with their late-summer visit; and the occasional spotting of the praying mantis, reminding me that it is good to get very still and sit with my thoughts.

Like summer, these beauties are only here for a short time. Next year, we will get to know their children. Until then, we make peace with saying goodbye to the warm embrace of summer nights and learn that life is, indeed, ephemeral.

 

Fall 2020

 

            Hudson Valley, Fall 2020, was another masterpiece, and predictably brought throngs of tourists to view it. I was schooled by others not to get too angry—I mean, can you blame them? Who wouldn't want to see this marvel of color? And truthfully, it's just another reason to feel and express gratitude for being able to live here and see it every day. So, I did.

            I often headed over to the Shawangunk Grasslands in Wallkill, NY. One would think miles of flatlands and grasses would be boring, but I soon learned that was not the case. Look deeper into the grass and you will see that it is not one, but a multitude of different plants, each ki with another shade of gold, blending together in glowing harmony, lit by the sun.

             Here amongst the grasses, I found some very cool residents. Chittering on the dry ground, boing-boing-ing around my knees, there was Grasshopper, a new teacher and friend. Almost looking like a piece of dried grass, ki played among my feet, bouncing along, occasionally springing into a short flight around my face, and then landing again in the grass. I found ki to be a very whimsical creature, though I knew well enough not to think the behavior was for my entertainment. Grasshoppers, I learned, are even older than dinosaurs, and have very strong survival skills.

            Curious about my new friend, I began to read. I learned that ki has the amazing ability to catapult, jumping the equivalent of a football field. Ki is also a music-maker, creating individual rhythms through stridulation, or rubbing the hind legs and wings together.

            Then I found something even more interesting in an article by NPR titled, “What an Insect Can Teach Us About Adapting to Stress.” Normally solitary creatures, grasshoppers only form swarms under stressful conditions. The process of stridulation not only produces pretty music for my ears, but also produces serotonin for the grasshoppers, allowing them to feel good, and thus, more social. When they cluster together, they can share resources and survive. This “new version” of themselves can literally save them. We, too, can no longer see ourselves in the same way. Like the grasshopper, we must accept and grow to survive.

 

Winter 2020

 

            Nature continued to bless me with so many gifts that this winter felt like one continuous Christmas. Early on, I got some of my old hikes back with a much less crowded Minnewaska. Now trained to really look at things, I delighted in noticing how, in the first month of winter, the previous three seasons were also present. When I fixed my gaze upon the forest floor, I saw autumn leaves, their now tan skins mingling with the dark soil underneath. Remnants of the first snowfall dusted the leaves and remained in patches on logs, branches, and tree roots, its fresh white contrasting with pillows of bright green mosses. I could even see summer buds, though now blackened by winter, down in the brambles by the stream. Rocks with glints of reddish orange peaked out along the streambeds, adding even more color to the unique collage. The air had a freshness like no other time of the year—with the rushing water, dripping snowmelt, and carpets of moss and lichens, everything felt alive. It was a wonderful time to be in the forest.

            For Christmas, I received the gift of meeting my first owl at the Grasslands. One day, I found the parking lot unusually crowded. People were everywhere with big, clunky camera set ups, and most trails were closed. I was quickly informed by the photographers to be quiet, as the short-eared owls were wintering here. Since they are large birds, I spotted one within seconds, but coincidentally, I had just been gifted a pair of binoculars from a local swap group. I eagerly took them out and saw my first owl face up close and personal. Perched on one of the many posts in this popular birding sanctuary, ki was both majestic and strange, with a concave face that was at once beautiful and odd. I watched ki twitch that face back and forth, eyeing the land, until taking flight once again with a grand spread of wings.

            In January, no sooner had I commented on what a nice, balmy winter it had been, than Winter decided to be, well, winter. A long stretch of snowfall kept the Hudson Valley wrapped in a powdery white blanket for much of February. As a self-professed non-fan of snow, I groaned. Winter was a long season to begin with, I thought, and now with COVID-19 numbers on another very scary rise, I worried how I would ever get through.

But soon enough, I was seduced by the beauty of the white stuff and I did something I never did before: I fell in love with winter. I couldn't get enough of it—the way the snow glistens in the sun and lets the wind create works of art on its surface. Walking in the woods on a snowy day was like entering another world, a hidden treasure. In a way, winter is the most personal of all the seasons. The quiet is so close, it feels like a friend.

            On what we knew would probably be the last big snowfall of 2021, my partner and I ventured into the woods as the flakes fell and played in the Narnia-like magic that is winter. I purposely went off the trail, submerging myself in the glitter I knew wouldn't be here that much longer. I even made a snow angel and lay on my back, studying the treetops. I couldn't believe it. I would miss winter. Ki had taught me to allow more stillness, to get between the spaces of my thoughts. To be present and experience a deeper knowing.

 

One Year

 

            How will we emerge from this experience? I would like to think I learned a little bit more about just how precious life really is—and that there are a lot of things I thought were important that really aren't. My new friends in nature, kin, were my best teachers. Who were some of yours?

Cynthia Hacker is a writer, editor, and nature enthusiast who loves to spend time outdoors in the beauty of New York's Mid-Hudson Valley, where she lives and works.