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updated: 4/22/2020 9:42 PM

Constable: Clean skies give us glimpse of future possibilities

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  • Video: Shutdown resets environment


Have you been enjoying seeing those blue skies, feeling the gentle rain, and listening to songs of birds? April is the coolest month (environmentally speaking), with Wednesday's 50th anniversary of Earth Day and Arbor Day on Friday. Step outside your front door, breathe in the clean air, and enjoy the traffic-free sounds of nature.

COVID-19, which has brought horrors and death, isn't an environmental savior. It's more like a postcard from nature's future, explaining how our environment could be if we change our ways.

"It's a preview into what is possible," says Stacy L. Iwanicki, natural resources education coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "It's just a shame that it takes a crisis like this against humanity that is easy to observe to help us see that we can do better."

The air above Los Angeles looks smog-free and clearer than before. We've seen photos of the Himalayan mountain peaks taken from cities in India where pollution had blocked that view for years. The earth has a remarkable ability to heal itself if we give it the chance. Environmentalists point to the gains made in a couple months of lockdown as evidence that we can rebuild our lives and economy after COVID-19 in more environmentally friendly ways.

"As we inch from a 'wartime' response to 'building back better,' we need to take onboard the environmental signals and what they mean for our future and well-being," Inger Andersen, the head of the United Nation's Environment Programme, writes in an editorial on the UN website. "As the engines of growth begin to rev up again, we need to see how prudent management of nature can be part of this 'different economy' that must emerge, one where finance and actions fuel green jobs, green growth and a different way of life, because the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same, and both can thrive in equal measure."

Iwanicki, who usually is organizing April outings in Volo Bog State Natural Area, Moraine Hills State Park and McHenry Dam Trails, has been working at home, same as most people in the suburbs lucky enough to still have jobs.

"How can a naturalist work out of her home?" Iwanicki says. Well, she emails people encouraging them to take in the wonders of nature from their homes, whether that means waking before dawn to watch the sunrise, joining in Earth Day's "Lights Out, Starry Night" to gaze at the stars, or just paying attention to all the life unearthed by digging holes in a garden.

"We have a fascinating world under our feet," Iwanicki says.

People who generally commute to the office and return straight to the garage might get their only outdoor time when they roll down their car window at a drive-through. People working from home have the chance to step outside or take a walk around the block.

"It's incredible, the birds I see in the neighborhood," Iwanicki says of her strolls among the mature trees in her Wonder Lake neighborhood.

She often hears from adults who complain about not hearing the spring frogs they remember as children.

"Like when you were 8 years old and spending all day outside?" she counters, reminding people that the Western chorus frogs and American toads are serenading us right now, if we simply walk to a wet area and listen.

In December 1952, a blanket of smog, mostly caused by coal-burning plants, hung over London and was blamed for thousands of deaths. That led to the Clean Air Act of 1956. A decade later in the U.S., after an offshore oil rig spilled oil onto California beaches, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire, and Americans worried about dirty air and water, President Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. But temporary successes can also change our environmental thinking. Instead of being content with trying to prevent a backslide of EPA protections, we can use the lessons learned during COVID-19 to fuel a healthier relationship with nature.