It’s 35 degrees outside. Rain fell last night, but today snow may fly. Thick gray clouds cover the sky. A stiff north breeze blows the last of the fallen leaves across the brown lawn.
What a perfect moment to take a walk through the neighborhood. Or to sit in a lawn chair in the backyard. Or to go bird-watching at a park.
Or … not, right?
Wabash Valley residents may need to rethink their acceptance of winter. In the past, Midwest winters drive people indoors to escape cold temperatures, rain, sleet, snow and icy winds. Then, if cabin fever sets in, they’d bundle up and drive for an evening out, maybe with friends, or they’d invite others into the warmth of their home for wintertime parties.
Old routines won’t apply to this coming winter.
Public health officials warn that traditional indoor gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with family and friends around a table or mingling through a house, will leave even more people infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, exponentially worsening the surging pandemic. Such an explosion will cost more lives and threaten the health care system and its workers.
Signs of hope, the widespread distribution of effective vaccines, glow on the horizon, but that won’t happen until spring of 2021.
So, the reality of spending holidays and the rest of a difficult winter with just the immediate household members, home alone, is setting in.
Venturing outdoors may provide a respite.
Already this year, people around the globe have rediscovered camping, hiking, bicycling and backyard games and activities as ways to recreate in less COVID risky settings. Airborne transmission of the virus is less likely outdoors than indoors, researchers have found.
Demand for fire pits and backyard seating has increased across America. The demand has kept landscapers busy through summer and fall. Terre Haute landscaper Hank Metzger confirmed that his company has noticed the uptick in interest.
Such amenities may continue to be useful through this winter, instead of going into storage until spring.
Being outdoors — whether it’s on a patio or porch, or a county park trail — could become a physical and social lifeline as 2020 flows into 2021, even in the wintry conditions.
Norwegians call it “friluftsliv” or open-air living. It’s not just a pandemic thing there. Getting outside is a lifestyle in that Arctic nation, renowned for having the world’s happiest residents, perhaps because their smiles are frozen in place. By contrast, friluftsliv would be a new experience for many Wabash Valley residents.
Amber Slaughterbeck spends most of her time outdoors, regardless of the season. She’s served in various parks and recreation roles, and has led such wintertime adventures as New Year’s Day hikes in state parks. She now serves as regional specialist for the Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management, helping the region contain and eradicate invasive plants that threaten native species.
Her work and recreation time frequently happens outdoors.
“I’m pretty much outside all the time,” Slaughterbeck said.
She’s sensed the growing appeal for outdoors activities in 2020. “I’ve never seen as many people interested in being outside,” Slaughterbeck said Wednesday.
Such outings don’t have to be as rigorous as cross-country skiing, though that activity is doable in the Terre Haute area. Slaughterbeck suggests walking a city or county park, or volunteering for cleanups at those facilities, tackling invasive plants, or social-distancing around a campfire.
Fatigued by enduring too many virtual Zoom meetings? Take your laptop outside for your next Zoom or Google Meet session. “Then it sparks a conversation,” Slaughterbeck said. “Like, ‘Where are you?’”
City residents can walk around their block. The outdoors is, literally, as close as a back door. “I encourage them to take a handful of seeds, sit outside and see what birds come out to get them,” Slaughterbeck said. “Find your outdoors wherever you are.”
Tom Nesser also feels at home outdoors. He grew up in Minneapolis, where winters last five or six months and Minnesotans are accustomed to ice fishing, sledding, ice skating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and just being outdoors. The same was true in South Dakota, where he later lived.
“It’s part of life,” said Nesser, a Terre Haute resident for the past 19 years and chairperson of Indiana State University’s Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport. “People can go stir crazy if you don’t go outside and enjoy the snow and ice.”
Wabash Valley winter weather varies far more than the Great White North, with icy rain as common as an accumulation of snow. The key is to dress appropriately for whatever the day brings. Nesser recommends starting with a light layer of clothing, letting your body adjust to the climate, and then adding layers (perhaps from a backpack) as needed.
Several days of single-digit temperatures may make ice skating or ice fishing possible. Taking a dog for a walk is another option. “I need it more than they do,” Nesser said. He walks his dogs at night.
“If you’re outside at night, the stars are out, the air is crisp, and it’s quiet. It’s definitely therapeutic. It’s refreshing,” he said. “I need it.”
The therapeutic benefits of the outdoors are well-documented. Hospital patients placed in a recovery room with a window tend to get discharged sooner and need less medication, said Kevin Jordan, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at ISU and a clinical psychologist.
Jordan uses the outdoors with patients in his private practice in Terre Haute. A “5-4-3-2-1” exercise asks patients to notice those numbers of things with each of their senses, such as seeing five objects, hearing four, and so on. “Even in the dreariness of Indiana winter, you might see a red cardinal,” he said. “It’s restorative.”
Experiencing outdoors beauty in the cold months requires the old Nike slogan — just do it.
“The trick in Indiana, where weather can be cold and vary, is to be intentional about getting outside,” Jordan said. “And as adults, it’s important to model this for kids by going out and enjoying nature and disconnecting from screens.”
That can be as simple as sipping a steamy cup of hot cocoa on the patio, feeling sunlight and the chill on your face in your yard, or standing beside the Wabash River at Fairbanks Park, “and being grateful for the things you’re getting to be around and looking forward to spring,” Jordan said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.