The Nature Rebound

How a pandemic brought people back to their roots and transformed the climate change conversation

Shelby Mosello walked along the flower beds at Loy Farm, monitoring plant progress and enjoying another quiet, reflective morning at work.

“Quite frankly I think there is no better way to start the day then waking up, driving to school and watering the plants,” Mosello said.

Mosello walking the garden beds in the morning at Loy Farm.

Loy Farm is the home for experiential environmental studies at Elon University and has served as Mosello’s green office for the past two months. The farm is currently supplying both Elon Dining and Allied churches with fresh produce every week.

Elon Dining Executive Chef Jay Vetter and Elon Dining staff harvest bok choy at the Loy Farm greenhouse.

When lockdown measures began to take place in North Carolina, Mosello needed to find an outlet where she could continue to contribute to her community and to her own personal development. Mosello had some rewarding experiences at the farm for classes, so she officially registered for an internship and began working immediately.

“In this time where we’re all similarly yet uniquely going through this pandemic,” Mosello said, “I think we all have been given the ability to slow down and focus on those things in life that really matter and are affecting us. Something that I so appreciate is how many people are doing that through involvement with nature.”

Mosello is one of many people around the world taking the time in quarantine to slow down and reconnect with nature. One of the most popular ways people are reconnecting is through hiking trails that remain open.

The Mountains-to-Sea trail is a 1,175-mile trail that stretches across North Carolina from the Great Smoky Mountains to the coast. Jim Grode, trail resource manager at the Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail, said that his organization reported a spike in visitors.

“We’re seeing huge numbers of people,” Grode said. “When our staff or volunteers go out on the trail, they see more people and then at the trail heads they are just packed.” One volunteer noted 22 cars on a Sunday afternoon in April that regularly saw little to no traffic prior to lockdown.

Shallowford Natural Area parking lot on a weekday afternoon. Shallowford Natural Area is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Danielle Guttman, a land conversion specialist at the Bureau of Recreation and Conservation in Harrisburg, PA, has also noticed this surge in visitors. “I have coworkers that go out and hike during the weekends on trails that we protect and some parks have seen up to a 300% increase in the amount of visitors compared to this time last year,” Guttman said.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Americans spent on average 87% of their time indoors and 6% of their time in the car, according to a study from the Environmental Protection Agency. Most Americans spend a fraction of their day outside, if that. But it wasn’t always like this.

Journalist Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder,’ in his book Last Child in the Woods, to define the dangers he saw from the gradual decrease in the amount of time children spend outside. Louv described the connection, creativity, sense of play and wonder that children today are missing out on because of the shift indoors.

Mosello’s 3-year-old nephew with his personal butterfly habitat.

In an interview with The Sun reporter Arnie Cooper, Louv recalled his childhood in the 50s which was spent mostly outside. “I was lucky to have parents who introduced me to nature,” Louv said. “Being outdoors gave me a sense of balance and a little bit of escape from family problems.”

This sense of balance and escape was one of the main motivators for Mosello to find these opportunities in nature. “I’ve connected with myself through nature and connected myself with my own insecurities, my own childhood events that I need to process — I’m a better person the more I engage myself with nature,” Mosello said.

This was not the first time Mosello sought out an outdoor outlet. Mosello left Elon University a year and a half ago during her junior year after feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what she wanted to pursue after school. She also suffers from chronic headaches after sustaining a concussion her senior year of high school, which has made staying in school challenging.

“I was continuously entering this cycle of reaching burnout and then having to give up because I would overwork myself and that’s when my headaches would get worse,” Mosello said. “In terms of my own health, I wasn’t ready to go to college when I went to college.”

After leaving Elon, Mosello spent time with her sister and her family in Baltimore. Her sister had just given birth to her second child, who was born with a hole in her heart, and needed a number of surgeries before she was able to leave the hospital.

Mosello and her nephew on a sunset walk.

While her sister and brother-in-law were at the hospital, Mosello occupied her three-year-old nephew and began spending more and more time outside with him.

“I started gardening with her three-year-old and we went on walks,” Mosello said. “My nephew was only three but you could see the emotional effect of having a sister born and having his parents both be out of the house all the time because she’s in the hospital, not getting to meet her, and you just see that evolve in a kid no matter their age. Kids are so resilient and that was when I saw the power of going outside and being outside and in doing so dissecting yourself, becoming yourself outside almost.”

Mosello’s nephew discovering new things in nature and taking time to sit and observe his surroundings on one of their regular hikes.

After living with her sister, Mosello returned to Elon with a new passion and perspective. She changed her major to adventure based learning with an environmental focus and started spending time at Loy Farm through classes. She even noticed an improvement in her headaches.

Through her newfound path, Mosello met Dr. Scott Morrison, associate professor of education at Elon University, who focuses on ecologically-minded teaching and everyday environmental learning. Dr. Morrison helped Mosello discover her drive to help and educate people through nature and show how impactful experiences outside are.

Most recently, Mosello offered to help her friend’s mom, an elementary school teacher in Utah, transition to Zoom classes and keep seven-year-olds engaged in online learning.

One of the gardening videos Mosello made at Loy Farm for the first graders she has been working with.

Mosello already knew how fascinated children were by the outdoors from the time spent walking and gardening with her nephew. She decided to take the Zoom class into the greenhouse while she was working on the farm and showed them everything she was doing. The class was immediately hooked and Mosello was excited to see their enthusiasm and interest.

She began making before and after videos of the flower beds to send to the class so they could follow along with the growth of the crops and learn how this process works. Dr. Morrison stressed the importance of this kind of experiential outdoor learning at this time and how beneficial it can be.

“I’ve seen a lot of creativity where teachers are asking kids to go outside and do things,” Dr. Morrison said.“Teachers can play a huge role in prompting their students and their families if they are home together to go do some work in nature too. That connects to the research we’ve known in the 80s and 90s on significant life experience research in environmental education, which is that meaningful experiences in nature are the predominant reason that adults attribute their own environmental values.”

Data from IQAir.

This pandemic has not only reminded people of the benefits of spending time outside, but has given the planet an opportunity to recover from greenhouse gas emissions and pollution rates that have contributed to climate change.

In November of 2019, a group of 11,000 scientists from 150 countries published a statement in the journal of Bioscience declaring a climate emergency. Carbon dioxide levels, temperature, sea levels and extreme weather events have all increased over the past few decades. Scientists warn that if nothing is done and the climate emergency persists, there will be large areas of the planet that will become uninhabitable.

Only a few months later, the International Energy Agency released a global energy review report highlighting the impacts on COVID-19 on the global energy demand and carbon dioxide emissions. According to the report, the limited mobility and activity due to lockdown measures reduced the global energy demand by 3.8% and is estimated to drop by a total of 6% in 2020 if similar lockdown measures persist throughout the year. A drop like this hasn’t been seen in 70 years.

“What has surprised me the most,” Dr. Morrison said, “has been the rapid pace of the air pollution reduction and water becoming clear. There’s something there that shows that is not really so much about the build up over time but it’s about the everyday pollution that we create which does make us think about consumption and our collective impact.”

Tropospheric NO2 Column, March 15-April 15 2015–2019 Average, Southeast USA. Image from NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.
Tropospheric NO2 Column, March 15-April 15 2020 Average, Southeast USA. Image from NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail, is connected to conservation efforts in North Carolina and remains hopeful for the future. “Usually when there’s a shock like this there’s an opportunity to do different things that you couldn’t do before, so I think the big question is will we rebuild in a way that cares for the world better than we have been,” Dixon said.

Mosello on a hiking trip in The Enchantments in Washington after returning to Elon to finish her degree.

Caring for the planet and preserving its resources has proven to be not only beneficial for the long-term health of the environment, but also for humans’ long-term wellness.

Mosello knows she needs nature for her personal well-being and hopes to see a change in the way humans interact with the planet, both for the sake of the environment and human connection.

“We’re given this gift of seeing how easy and simple it is to really create change and it goes in either direction,” Mosello said. “It is also simple and easy to not create change. We’re in this vulnerable moment where we can either grasp that or let it slip away and I think it would be really beautiful if everyone could grasp it together.”

Data from EPA.

Student journalist at Elon University. Fascinated by stories and the people who make them.