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Op-Ed: I grew up admiring nature from afar. COVID changed me

An illustration of hiking boots.
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)
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I was raised to see nature as unclean. I can remember the exact moment when that dawned on me. It was a few years before the pandemic when, well into my 30s, I went camping for the first time. My husband and I took our kids to a small lake on the San Juan Islands while on a trip to the Pacific Northwest to visit my parents. We swam, tended to fires and played card games as raindrops plopped on our tent overhead.

When we returned home, my mom met us at the door and insisted we leave absolutely everything we had taken along with us in the garage. She wanted to sanitize each item before it entered the house.

I recalled then how I had been discouraged as a child from getting dirty at the park. Or how the first thing we did when we came home from school was change our clothes. We lived in Northern California then, our first home after we moved from Pakistan when I was 5. We went to the beach often — yet it was never to play in the sand or swim in the ocean. Nature was to be admired from afar, with the car windshield in between. Those trips were about the drive, winding through the Santa Cruz Mountains until the road opened to the coast. We would wave at the sea lions from the boardwalk, watch the sunset and drive home.

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My parents were raised in crowded, polluted cities in Pakistan where maybe it was safer to stay inside. Without knowing it, those attitudes seeped into me.

It was my own children who started me down another path. When they were toddlers, their natural curiosity about the living world, from playing with earthworms to jumping in mud, allowed me to see the natural world in a different way. On beach trips, I found myself wanting to dig into the sand with them and enjoy its cool graininess as they buried me in it. At first, I diligently bagged all our belongings at the end of the day for careful cleaning back home. But over time I realized that sand falls off when it dries, the ocean makes a fine basin to rinse off toys and there’s nothing a hot bath can’t clean.

Whatever my parents’ logic was for seeing the outside world as dirty, and what parts of that I may have inherited, COVID-19 upended it. Being indoors meant sharing confined space with one of Earth’s most bacteria-laden, virus-carrying entities: the human being. Outside, the fresh air and ability to distance were lifesavers, the way to reconnect with one another safely as the pandemic raged.

In New Jersey, where I live with my husband and kids, the early weeks of the pandemic felt like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. We stayed cooped up in our house, barely daring to step outside as birds and squirrels took over the vacant streets. With dozens of neighbors and a car wash on our block, we were accustomed to the constant hum of urban activity. Suddenly, it was still, except for the sound of ambulances.

When we could finally go outside, we were desperate to escape. We began venturing out to the Jersey Shore. The typically rowdy beaches were abandoned. We swam with the tide and collected shells. My children rolled in the sand and escaped into their imaginations, oblivious and content. At the ocean, we could flee our troubled reality for a moment. My parents had given me this, a love for the beach, even if they had approached it cautiously. Now, I saw what a balm it could be — that when human connection became more difficult, nature offered its own comfort.

I started taking long, aimless walks around my neighborhood. Then I downloaded the AllTrails app and discovered an entire network of paths close to home that I had never stepped foot on. My walking excursions turned into jogs. I ran and ran, until I had managed to train for and run a 200-mile relay with a group of friends.

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Last summer, my nosedive immersion into Mother Nature led to us buying a house in a farming town at the base of a mountain range near the Pennsylvania border. As a city girl, it’s something I never would’ve imagined.

As I approach middle age in this pandemic-confined world, I’ve found a deeper connection to the natural world and I’m grateful for it. There are miles of trails around us that I explore every day. I stomp through snow, mud and rain, dirtying my boots — which I bring straight into the house.

Ambreen Ali is a writer and journalist based in New Jersey.

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