UVM Researcher says Vermonters are turning to nature to cope

By Ellie French

People are turning to nature to cope with social upheaval during the pandemic, according to new research from the University of Vermont.

A study led by Rachelle Gould, a UVM professor of sustainability and global equity, asked Vermonters about the impact of Covid on their engagement with nature-based activities and how time outside affected their mental health. The results were overwhelming, Gould said.

People generally think of Vermont as a pretty outdoorsy state, Gould said, but during the pandemic, even people who don’t normally engage with nature said they were getting outside more and had a deeper appreciation of the benefit of time outdoors.

“Even indoor cats look out the window,” she said. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘I’m looking at my bird feeder, I’m looking at the tulips coming up in my front yard.’ It was very much not like conquering mountaintops; a lot of things were much more everyday.”

Gould said her grad students approached her with the idea for the research, and suggested applying for funding through the Gund Institute at UVM. She said it wasn’t hard to come up with a research proposal — in fact, she said, the pandemic made it so they hardly had a choice.

“It was just very obvious when you study what we study and think about what we think about all the time that there’s something interesting going on with the way that people are interacting with nature in this crazy, crazy time,” she said.

The survey was sent out in May, both on Front Porch Forum and through a variety of state agencies and nonprofits working in community development and outdoor recreation. More than 4,000 people took the survey, and at least 3,200 gave full responses.

Ultimately, the responses were so dense that the team decided to split them into five research papers, diving into different categories of responses.

Their research showed that Vermonters have spent significantly more time outdoors during the pandemic — especially women, people earning medium-range incomes and above, people in urban areas, and people who lost their jobs because of Covid.

Improvements in mental health were the “far and away most common” benefit from time outdoors, the study found. Gould said people reported that when they spent time in nature, they were engaged in less circular thinking about themselves and their problems, and reported much greater senses of perspective and humility.

Gould said that’s a key finding for mental health professionals. If they’re not already prescribing time outside, maybe they should, she said.

“It’s just recognizing that, especially during the pandemic, depression and anxiety are very, very common problems,” she said. “And what this shows is that a lot of people are consciously recognizing that ‘nature is the way I deal with my depression and anxiety.’ People are very explicit and aware of that.”

But Gould said that brings up a big concern: If nature is this amazing cure for people’s problems, what does it mean when it’s not equitably available for all Vermonters?

There are many ways to engage with nature, but often the people engaging the least are the people for whom it is hardest, and there can be real consequences associated with that, she said.

Another finding: Covid has affected people’s sense of place, Gould said. People who used to consider their city as their home base might now associate their sense of place with their neighborhood or house.

One question is whether that changing sense of place is also changing people’s attitudes and behaviors toward the environment where they live. Those results have yet to be fully analyzed.

The ultimate question from the study, is what, out of all the changes that the pandemic brought to people’s relationships with nature, is Covid-proof? What will last once the pandemic is over?

The team conducted the first study in May, and then did a follow-up in October to see how people’s original answers had changed over the course of the pandemic.

But now that winter is fast approaching, Gould said she’d like to conduct a third study when it’s tougher to relax in nature, to see how Vermonters are affected during the cold weather months.

“Winter is so extreme in Vermont, and there’s so much winter activity in ways that are not the case in other places, that may even exacerbate the distinction between Vermont and other places, potentially,” she said.

One problem the team ran into was how specific their research was to Vermont. Josh Morse, one of Gould’s grad students, said that came up a lot in the peer review process.

But at the same time, he said Vermont does have a Census-designated urban area (Burlington) that allowed the team to compare urban and rural populations, and those initial results suggest  there would be at least some overlap between the study results in Vermont and a much more populated place.

“In general, we would say take these results with a grain of salt if you’re going to generalize them outside of mostly rural, mostly Northeastern contexts,” Morse said.

Published in VT Digger on December 8th, 2020.