Photograph by Alex Saberi, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A group of red deer graze in the early morning mists of London's Richmond Park.

Photograph by Alex Saberi, Nat Geo Image Collection

Appreciating nature through the lens of lockdown

With limited opportunities to enjoy the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a writer reflects on how the internet has given humankind a new way to connect with nature.

My plan was to spend the 50th Earth Day up in Alaska. A college in Fairbanks had invited me to give a reading this week, and I’d hoped to extend my trip and spend a few extra days on a nearby lake, staying alone in a rental cabin with a deck—maybe one near lots of trails where I could spot eagles, otters, and moose.

These are the kinds of experiences I’ve always subconsciously connected to Earth Day: Watching from an airplane window while the planet beneath shifts from biome to biome and then landing in a place with unfamiliar fauna. Maybe it was all those filmstrips and videos they showed in grade school every April—of howler monkeys or racing orca pods or underwater reef activity. When I was taught about Earth Day, the Earth that we took time to celebrate existed far from the pixel of the planet I could see outside the classroom window.

The Alaska trip was booked months ago, when my earthly trajectory was much wider: traveling for work, weekend hikes on the Oregon coast, annoying fellow patrons at karaoke bars. Over the past month, however, my planet has shrunk to the size of my house and the yard that surrounds it, with occasional spacewalks to the closest food store. I feel lucky to have some trees abutting where I’m hunkered down—trees in which, as I type this, scores of finches, warblers, and wrens are going berserk.

I’m also grateful that the window by my desk offers daily sightings of suburban wild animals. Their visits are an unadulterated highlight, and I’ve named every single repeat passerby: Stripey Joe the raccoon, a deer family collectively called the Doofers, and the blue-headed, menacing King of the Knight Turkeys. The other day, I opened the window, pressed my head against the screen, and gobbled at King while he strutted by, and when he gobbled back, I ran to the front yard to continue our exchange. My cell phone was in my hand (as usual) when I heard the call of the wild turkey, so I immediately posted the video of our exchange online for all my housebound friends to see.

My favorite daily visitor is a black-tailed doe with apparent leucism that I’ve nicknamed Roberta Redfur. On my community Facebook page, other neighbors post photos of Roberta—they’ve been tracking the white-blond deer too. I’ve noticed a considerable uptick in animal talk on both Facebook and the Nextdoor listserv since the order to stay home. Apparently, we’re all sitting at our desks, lonely residents of our own scant planets, looking out our office windows and watching, listening for life.

I’m hearing a new bird in the area, one Facebooker writes in an early morning post. Both descending and ascending whistles… Anybody have a clue? Over on the American Birding Association’s local message forum, several of my neighbors rave about rare sightings on the uninhabited edges of town. Their bird fervor often yields entertaining readings, including what must be the sentence of the decade: There’s a dickcissel down by the sewage pond!

Of course, the internet doesn’t only allow humans to connect over our local animals. At any hour on any day of my confinement, I can fire up my laptop to observe faraway creatures, trading the office window that separates me from Roberta Redfur for a glass screen that connects me to a wild, live-streaming menagerie.

THREE LIVE CAMERAS play across the devices on my desk right now: phone, tablet, and laptop. As I type this, a half-grown royal albatross—Earth’s largest seabird—sits alone on its nest, perched atop a headland of Otago Peninsula. Still downy, the young bird sports a long beak, which is slightly parted and tilting toward the noonday sun. At the same moment, over at the Lubee Bat Conservancy, several species of fruit bat are (quite literally) hanging around with each other. One just grabbed a wheel of melon from the food tin and walked upside down—feet gripping along the wire-gridded ceiling—to eat its snack in peace. As the bat munches in the evening light, a night-vision camera hidden near a watering hole in Tembe Elephant Park captures the 3 a.m. buzz of insects, as well as the sight of two glossy young lions goofing around. And as these screens on my desk take me to New Zealand, Florida, and South Africa, my stealthy cat, Spooner, runs beneath my feet to swat a housefly.

More often than ever before, I check in with my families—both the Zoom-able human kin and my cervine family of Doofers—as a way of passing the workday. I also check in with the distant creatures made familiar to me by nature websites, social media, and wacky news reports. The north-migrating monarch butterflies breached the 38th parallel today, an online tracker tells me. Instagram darling and “bark ranger” Gracie the border collie shooed some deer from the abandoned residential grounds at Montana’s Glacier National Park. And in Hong Kong, after 10 mating seasons of will-they-or-won’t-they drama, two giant pandas finally got it on.

I’ve found comfort these past weeks in watching the planet’s creatures roam wild spaces, but the irony of doing so is not lost on me. Last spring, I was visiting Seattle Zoo, staring at a brown bear in her plexiglass enclosure. A year later, I am the enclosed one, watching Katmai National Park’s freewheeling brown bears slap sockeye salmon in Brooks River.

THIS REVERSAL OF FORTUNE reminds me of a short story by the Argentine writer (and fellow cat enthusiast) Julio Cortázar, called “Axolotl,” in which a man becomes obsessed with a tank of axolotls—pale salamanders with feathery gills—at a Paris aquarium. He first visits the tank daily, and then twice a day, “gluing his face to the glass” to stare at the amphibians while they “abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility.”

“I knew we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together,” the narrator says. By the end of Cortázar’s story, the man finds himself changed; he is now looking from the other side of the aquarium glass. All that looking has shortened “the distance that is traveled from them to us”—so much so that he has become the incarcerated axolotl, thinking from inside of its body and looking through its golden eyes.

Nearly all the humans in my life are as contained today as an axolotl in a Parisian zoo. I haven’t hugged a human from outside my household in five weeks, and all my collaborators only exist to me online. But now we use the tools that bring faraway creatures closer to us to keep tabs on one another. Last week, for example, I poured a cocktail and video chatted with a pal, just watching her make soup for dinner—another kind of habitat cam, I suppose.

It’s all pretty funny, if you think about it: Earth Day 2020 will be the first in which my ability to connect with earthlings both human and non-human, named and unnamed, is identical. This might be the only time when my access to the creatures most like me directly mirrors my access to the creatures I was taught to separate from myself. I’ll undoubtedly spend April 22nd as I intended when I made my Alaska trip plans—enjoying the solitude and looking at animals. But now, some of these animals will undoubtedly be human. And all the animals I keep tabs on, person and axolotl alike, will be virtual.

This equal footing humbles me; it brings to my perspective a new kind of fragility. It also connects me to our planet in a manner that I’ve not experienced in previous years. So I take a fresh satisfaction in this weird gift that we’ve been given: a unique way of being alive in the world for Earth Day’s 50th observance.

Elena Passarello has written about pop culture and the natural world for Oxford American, Paris Review, New York Times , and other publications. She is the author of two award-winning collections, Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses . An Associate Professor at Oregon State University, she is now writing a book about Elvis Presley. Elena appears weekly on the PRX radio program LiveWire! Follow her on Twitter or check out her new nonfiction podcast.