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“As I dipped my paddle in the river, a chattering kingfisher flew in front of me, and I thought, This is the city that I know: commuters heading home, rowers heading upriver, tide going out, river flowing, planes flying. This city, not the gridlocked city of partisan rancor on a hill that the world often views with scorn. Everything here flowing gracefully in all directions with one cautious juvenile osprey still clinging to the crown of an island tree.”
-Melanie Choukas-Bradley, “Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island”
Amid political turmoil and an ongoing pandemic, Washingtonians have been turning to the outdoors for recreation, solitude and a break from the everyday.
Author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley joins us to discuss how she’s found solace in the natural world, and particularly Theodore Roosevelt Island. Plus, WAMU reporter Margaret Barthel talks about the increase in traffic to local parks and her recommendations for getting outdoors this fall.
The Kojo Nnamdi Show is providing special coverage on climate issues this week as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of 400 news outlets designed to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Melanie Choukas-Bradley Naturalist and Author, "Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island," "Resilience: Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis," "The Joy of Forest Bathing," "City of Trees" and "A Year in Rock Creek Park"
- Margaret Barthel Reporter, WAMU; @margaretbarthel
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Amid an ongoing pandemic and political turmoil, Washingtonians have been turning to the outdoors for recreation, solitude and a break from the everyday. Joining me now to discuss where to go to find peace in the natural world and what benefits might be there for our bodies and minds is Melanie Choukas-Bradley. She's a naturalist and author of "Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island" and "Resilience: Connecting With Nature in a Time of Crisis," along with many other books. Melanie, thank you so much for joining us.
MELANIE CHOUKAS-BRADLEYIt's wonderful to be with you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIMelanie, why is getting outdoors so important, especially now?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYOh, my gosh, there's so many reasons why it's especially important now. First of all, many of us are spending a lot of time looking at screens. And there's no better antidote to staring at a screen than getting outside and looking at the trees and listening to the birds and feeling the wind on your face. It's a very healing thing after you've been looking at a screen.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd I think, also, these are very troubling times that we're living in, and I think a lot of us have stress and anxiety. And, you know, we've been through a lot. People have lost loved ones. And whatever you're going through emotionally, if you get outside and take a walk, visit one of our beautiful parks. I mean, it's just an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the parks in the Washington area and the gardens. And you get out in one of our beauty spots and, you know, your cares can just slip away. And you can feel so much better.
NNAMDIWell, your newest book is about "Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island." Why did you choose to write about this local island, in particular?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, it's kind of a funny story. I was paddling along the shore of Theodore Roosevelt Island in the summer of 2016. I was getting ready to lead a tree tour via kayak for Casey Trees. And I was paddling along, and it was sunset time. There was a crescent moon over the Virginia shore. And this king fisher, which is a beautiful bird with -- it's a blue bird with a crest. It was flying in front of my kayak as I paddled along the island shore. And I paddled for quite a ways behind this king fisher.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd then I felt very sad that I had to turn around and return to the Key Bridge boathouse. And I thought, well, I've got to say goodbye to the king fisher. But low and behold, when I turned around, the bird came with me...
CHOUKAS-BRADLEY...and flew all the way up to the northern end of the island with me. And it was such a magical encounter. And then I started to, you know, just bond with the island. I had written -- my most recent book had been "A Year in Rock Creek Park" and, you know, I consider that my wild home. But I just took an interest in this island, guided by the king fisher. And I spent an entire year going there as often as I could in all the seasons, all kinds of weather, all times of day, and just fell in love with our island here in the Potomac.
NNAMDIThat's a fascinating story. You know, Roosevelt Island is pretty easy to find. It's right off the George Washington Parkway, but if you're not looking for it, it's also easy to miss. How would you describe it for someone who's never been?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYeah, that's so well put. Kojo, it's really kind of hiding in plain sight. So, if you cross any -- you know, if you cross the Key Bridge or Theodor Roosevelt Bridge or the Memorial Bridge, you see this tantalizing island sitting there in our midst. But the only way to reach it is by a footbridge from the Virginia shore.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYSo, that can be accessed from the Mount Vernon Trail or from the George Washington Parkway. And there is a parking lot there which does fill up on weekends. So, if you can get there in the week, that's best. And then you can walk from the city -- you know, from Georgetown, across the Key Bridge and down the Mount Vernon Trail, and then get to the footbridge that way.
NNAMDIJoining us now is our own Margaret Barthel who is technically a reporter in the WAMU newsroom, but we call her our own because she was a producer on this broadcast. Margaret, thank you for joining us.
MARGARET BARTHELThanks for having me back, Kojo.
NNAMDIMargaret, the pandemic has many of us seeking out the great outdoors with more enthusiasm than ever before. What did you find in your reporting on park attendance over the past six months?
BARTHELYeah, at the beginning of the pandemic, you know, you really saw many state, local, even national parks -- Shenandoah being the one in our region -- shut down a lot of their facilities or closed to visitors entirely. So, there's a pretty significant drop-off in visitation in the first couple of months, in the spring. But since places have started to reopen, parks have seen this explosion of visitors.
BARTHELThe state park systems in Maryland and Virginia, as well as Shenandoah National Park, look like they're on track to meet or beat their previous visitation totals for the year. And many of them are still looking ahead to busy fall seasons. So, in Shenandoah, for instance, they usually see about one-and-a-half million visitors per year, or something, in that neighborhood. And they're already close to a million visitors. And they usually get a quarter of their visitation in October, with the fall foliage. So, there's a lot more to come.
NNAMDIWell, why are more people seeking out parks during this time, in particular? Give us a personal experience.
BARTHELSure. Yeah, for my own personal experience and also from some of the broad themes that my fellow reporter Jordan Pascal and I, you know, did in reporting on this issue, one big reason that people, and certainly I am seeking out parks these days is that being outside is a form of recreation that's relatively safe. You know, I'm not an epidemiologist, but I think it's reasonable to say that, you know, being in open air spaces is kind of a better move these days, particularly from a public health standpoint.
BARTHELBut also, and to use kind of a cliché, you now, nature can really be healing. I would echo what Melanie was saying, you know, that it can be a really centering and affirming experience to be out in the natural world. It can give you a sense of perspective and joy and maybe even awe, but feel even more necessary now when so much feels like, you know, everything is always in crisis.
BARTHELAnd I also think that, you know, people are kind of bored of some of the other coping strategies that they had been taking early on in the pandemic. You know, we've got Netflix fatigue. We're tired of interacting with people solely on screens. And being outside can be a nice alternative to that.
NNAMDIAlana tweets to us: I love Theodore Roosevelt Island. Just this morning, I saw two wild turkeys there. Good for you, Alana. Melanie, how have you managed to find peace during a time of so much turmoil?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, you know, when I walk across the footbridge to Theodore Roosevelt Island, I just feel my blood pressure dropping. You know, when I'm out in nature and when I'm, you know, walking slowly around the trails on this beautiful island, I feel very connected to all the life around me, to the people that are also out there with me. And it's just an incredibly rejuvenating and healing thing to be out, you know, in a natural area where there are trees and wildflowers and birds and turtles, wild turkeys. (laugh)
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYNot only is it comforting, but it's very entertaining. I think a lot of people, during the pandemic, have discovered how much excitement and drama there is in nature, when you pay attention. And I always find that the most exciting things happen when I'm on Theodore Roosevelt Island or in Rock Creek Park, or one of our other amazing parks here in Washington.
NNAMDIMelanie, I'm wondering if you might read a passage from your book. This one is about autumn.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYYes. So, this passage is -- I wrote it -- my year of record in the book "Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island" is the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2017. And this was on October 18th, and I was paddling around Theodor Roosevelt Island from the Key Bridge boathouse on a windless afternoon with colorful leaves drifting along the surface of the river.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAs I dipped my paddle in the river, a chattering king fisher flew in front of me, and I thought, this is the city that I know. Commuters heading home, rowers heading upriver, tide going out, river flowing, birds flying. This city, not the gridlocked city of partisan rancor on a hill that the world often views with scorn. Everything here flowing gracefully in all directions with one cautious juvenile osprey still clinging to the crown of an island tree.
NNAMDIThat is Melanie Choukas-Bradley, reading from her new book "Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island." I think that's a very accurate description of what we love about Washington. Here now is Elaina (sic) in Washington, D.C. Elaina (sic) , you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELANAHi, Kojo. Thank you for this show. My name is Elana Mintz.
ELANAI'm the executive director of Urban Adventure -- Elana, yeah, that's okay. I'm executive director of Urban Adventure Squad. We're a D.C.-based nonprofit. We've been getting kids outdoors for about seven years, and we're just finally back outdoors now after a summer of virtual programs. We think it's critically important to get children outdoors and explore D.C. green spaces. We also love going over the bridges to Theodore Roosevelt Island.
ELANARight now, we're doing small group programs with scholarships for any family who needs it, because we believe this is a time that children really just need to get outdoors. We're exploring Carter Barron and Fort Reno and Fort Cotton. And we're popping up around the city. And we really hope that the D.C. schools find ways to get children outdoors that are safe that support teachers and their families. Because we're seeing immediate happiness from those children when they're arriving to our programs, and we're just outside in the woods.
ELANAIt's beautiful. They're happy. I had one child tell me last week, I just don't like being on mute all the time. You know, they want chances to talk with each other and socialize and listen to those natural sounds. And you can -- it's almost like watching a switch flip when we get them outdoors. So, I appreciate all of the attention to the outdoors, and I hope that we can focus on getting children outdoors, as well, in equitable ways.
NNAMDIFascinating. Thank you for your call. Have you visited Rock Creek Park, Great Falls, Shenandoah or another hiking trail? Tell us about your experience: 800-433-8850. Charlie called, but couldn't stay on the line: Amazing guests today. Some spots I'd recommend that people visit, Potomac Overlook Park in Arlington. All through Arlington there are streams and parks leading into the Potomac. Another spot is Turkey Run on the GW Parkway. It's a 10-minute drive outside the city.
NNAMDIAnd Tom Sherwood, whose name might be familiar to our listeners, tweets: I'll put in a plug for the peaceful Merkle State Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in nearby Prince George's County. Woodlands, fields, Patuxent River. I did see Tom post pictures, I think, on his Facebook page from when he took a trip out there, and it does, in fact, seem very beautiful.
NNAMDIWell, Melanie, you've got another book called "The Joy of Forest Bathing." While a relatively new movement here in the U.S., this Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature has long been valued in many communities. What does it mean to forest bathe, and how does it differ from, say, hiking?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYForest bathing is something -- it's a term that was coined in Japan in the 1980s. It's a translation of (speaks foreign language), which means “forest bath” or “forest bathe.” And all it is really is slowing down. That's kind of how it differs from a hike. You slow down, you breathe deeply, and you tune into the beauty and wonder around you with all your senses. And it sounds like such a simple thing, but it's a very restorative practice. It's a mindfulness practice, really. It brings you right into the moment. It connects you to the life and the beauty around you.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd it started in Japan in the 1980s. I have spent time in Japan on a forest bathing trip with guides in parks in Japan. And then it came to this country and just took off. It's really taken off all around the world. And I was the first certified forest bathing guide in Washington in 2016, and we now have over 30 in our area. And people love to go on forest bathing walks. During this time, of course, we have to be either socially distanced when we're out, or we do them virtually.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI did a virtual forest bathing walk yesterday for Smithsonian associates, where people called in from their wild homes. Someone called in from Texas, someone from North Carolina. And it was just kind of magical to be able to connect with people in very distance places, right in the moment. We were all forest bathing together. And you don't need to be in a forest. You can forest bathe in your own...
NNAMDIThat's what I was about to say. You have also written a book about connecting with nature in times of crisis. It doesn't have to be a trip to Shenandoah National Park. It can be right in your own neighborhood, for those who may not have the time or means to escape to the mountains. What do you recommend?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAbsolutely. If you are lucky enough to have a backyard or a porch or a neighborhood park, you know, I really urge people to find what I call a wild home, which is a place that you really get to know, intimately. And you get to know it in all different types of weather, times of day, throughout the seasons. And you form a relationship with a place that's nearby. It's almost like a relationship you form with a person.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYAnd if you can just spend a few moments each day, you know, a few minutes, as much time as you can take, as often as you can, going to your wild home and just connecting -- you know, slowing down, breathing deeply and connecting with all your senses. And in my books, I do give some tips about, you know, different things you can do to help you connect and forest bathe right in your own backyard.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you taken up a new outdoor hobby like roller skating, jogging, biking or kayaking? We'd like to hear from you: 800-433-8850. Martha Barthel, in recent months in my own experience, some parks, trails and walkways are becoming really crowded. Is that something you have noticed?
BARTHELYeah, yeah, it is a bit of a concern on a couple of fronts, both from a public health perspective and from, you know, conservation perspective, land use. When I was doing this reporting on local parks, I didn't find any real evidence of COVID-19 significant transmission that was linked to parks. But crowding outside is still something to be mindful of, you know. And that's from an experience perspective, as well.
BARTHELSo, for instance, Shenandoah National Park did shut down a few of its most popular hikes pretty early on in the pandemic, Old Rag, White Oak Canyon, because they were really crowded, and people weren't social distancing properly. Those are now back open, but, you know, I had park officials tell me that Old Rag parking lot usually fills up about 9:00 a.m. on weekends. And people are sometimes waiting more than an hour to get through the rock scramble sections at the top. So, you know, there are a lot of people who are taking advantage of this, of being outside. And that is sort of a reflection of that.
BARTHELAnd the other thing is state parks are dealing with capacity issues. They often actually just shut down as soon as the parking lot fills up. They don't allow any more people in after that. And some of them say that they're even closing down on weekdays now, not just the weekends. So, that's something to be aware of.
BARTHELAnd then the other concern I mentioned is conservation, right. The impact of all these visitors on park ecosystems. People maybe no staying on trails, maybe leaving trash behind, you know, not treating the land well. And this is especially an issue, of course, in Shenandoah National Park. You know, state parks tend to be a little bit more sort of built to withstand heavy use.
NNAMDIMargaret, other than hiking, what kinds of outdoor activities are Washingtonians seeking out?
BARTHELYeah, there are a wide number, and I think, you know, what you're hearing from Melanie is that there are so many different ways to be outside that can be meaningful to people. So, I think you can define that pretty broadly. You know, I spoke to a group that has been part of putting together a community garden in Ward 8. There are people who are getting into bicycling, kayaking, many other activities.
BARTHELIn my neighborhood, I often notice there's just so many people who seem to be taking sort of regular evening walks together, which I think is really lovely. So, there are a lot of different kind of ways to be outside that aren't necessarily restricted to going on a hike or going camping.
NNAMDIYeah, and I just read this morning that there's apparently an explosion in roller skating. People are roller skating again and trying to see if they can get roller skating rinks back in Washington, D.C. Here is Matt in Silver Spring, Maryland. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHi, Kojo. Please forgive me for background noise. I'm at work right now in a shared kitchen, so...
NNAMDII'm at work in a shared house. Go ahead. (laugh)
MATTRight on. But I would like to say that the northwest branch of the Anacostia is an excellent place to go out and enjoy nature. I am an avid fisherman, and when they stock it with trout in the spring, there's awesome trout fishing. Even once it gets further into the summer, you can still catch a bunch of sunfish and some small-mouth bass. And even though they don't have any size to them, if you're using ultra light tackle, is a ton of fun. And I tend to go out for fun more than bragging rights.
MATTAnd I would just like to say -- and, I mean, if you go through the gorge area that's just south of route 29 is some of the most beautiful landscape in this region. And Teddy Roosevelt even said it was second behind the Grand -- the Great Falls, the prettiest part of this country. And...
NNAMDIOkay, Matt. Thank you -- thank you very much for sharing that. And I'm sorry I have to interrupt, because we don't have a great deal of time left. Margaret Barthel, I know you're personally quite comfortable in the great outdoors. Did you grow up spending a lot of time outside?
BARTHELI did, Kojo. I grew up, you know, exploring the woods behind my parents' home. My family has always spent vacations hiking and camping in parks. So, in many ways, you know, being outdoors really feels like coming home to me. In the past year, I've also kind of tried to expand my horizons a little bit. I've been getting into some solo backpacking trips which I've been finding is both a really challenging and also pretty meditative experience.
NNAMDIYeah, I often wondered where you wandered off to when I didn't see you for a while. (laugh) Now I know. We heard from the cofounder of Capital Nature Area, Leilani, who emailed us: Melanie is our advisory board and we curate a monthly calendar of nature-related events at Capitalnature.org. We add hundreds of events per month. As a fellow forest bathing guide, my favorite spots are the National Arboretum and the Tregaron Conservancy in D.C.
NNAMDIAnd Christina tweets: Every fall for 30 years my kitchen window is covered with spider webs. I turn on the light at 5:00 a.m. and moths cluster, and all matter of wild kingdom stuff happens until daylight. This year, my kitchen window is empty. No spiders, no moths. I guess, therefore, you need to be getting out a little bit more, Christina. Here is Carol in Silver Spring, Maryland. Carol, your turn.
CAROLHi, Kojo. I just want to endorse forest bathing. We back up to a wooded area. I sit here, you can reflect on the trees, the plants, the wildlife. I noticed a hummingbird that comes on a regular basis every day. There's just the sounds of nature. And for those that can't do a lot of hiking, just finding a place near a wooded area or in a wooded area is a wonderful place to reflect. It's very therapeutic, and I definitely endorse it. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd I think that pleased Melanie Choukas-Bradley, right?
NNAMDIYeah, that's the thing to do. We don't have a great deal of time left, Melanie, but in about 30 seconds, as it gets colder, what activities do you recommend for escaping our indoor lives?
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYWell, I think, you know -- have you ever heard the saying, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes?
NNAMDIHeard it from you, actually, yes.
CHOUKAS-BRADLEYI think (laugh) -- I think that, you know, you should just keep getting out all winter long. I'm from Vermont. We never stayed inside when it was cold, and I think that...
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all -- I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Melanie Choukas-Bradley, Margaret Barthel, thank you both for joining us. This segment on getting outdoors during a pandemic was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about the effects of warming temperatures on local wildlife was produced by Ines Renique.
NNAMDIComing up Friday on The Politics Hour, a Maryland Senate panel reviewed 15 policing bills this week. We'll talk with State Senator Will Smith about how the hearings went and get his thoughts on the Purple Line. Then we hear from D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh on the Vision Zero bill passed this week and the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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