Finding ways to connect with nature while living in a concrete jungle

As Earth Day approaches, a Vermont native reflects on how Manhattan’s surprising natural beauty has kept her going through the pandemic.

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Sabrina Choudhary

Barrow Street Garden at St. Luke’s in the Fields is dressed in greenery and plant life. As Earth Day approaches, New York City can provide for those searching for nature and a seasonal spring atmosphere, despite being labeled as the “Concrete Jungle.” (Staff Photo by Sabrina Choudhary)

By Sabrina Choudhary, Deputy Culture Editor

On a rainy day, stepping into the Barrow Street Garden at St. Luke’s Church feels like stepping into another world. Cardinals and sparrows flit through the trees, their squawks drowning out the racket of passing cars. Puddles are disturbed only by falling raindrops and bright pink flower petals, and the church’s brick wall presides over it all, dressed in shades of ivy green. When I passed through a few weeks ago, the plants were brown and bare. Now, this little oasis is awake. 

Tomorrow is Earth Day, and this is a beautiful spring to celebrate it. As our second “spring break” gave me a moment to recharge, I leaned on the pockets of nature I’ve found in Manhattan. 

I’m a Vermont gal at heart. I’ve lived in three of New England’s six states, but for the past decade, I’ve called the Green Mountain State home. Even after all that time, Vermont’s beauty still amazes me: the Green Mountains to the east, New York’s Adirondacks to the west and dark blue Lake Champlain like a river in between. My backyard offers enchanting views of sunsets and of the Milky Way at night. On recent visits home, I’ve spotted owls perched in trees in broad daylight and foxes darting across the road at dusk. 

Yet as much as I love the landscape, 18-year-old me was more than willing to trade it for a few years of adventure in New York City. I swapped mountains for skyscrapers, Lake Champlain for the Hudson River. The past three years of moving back and forth between those two extremes have increased my appreciation for both. If I spend too much time in one environment, I’m itching to return to the other.

When I moved into Greenwich Hall in August, I quickly realized that social distancing would make the concrete jungle more tiresome than usual. I used to love life in the city for its fast pace and excitement, but the pandemic changed everything. Instead of spontaneous outings with friends, I needed to carefully plan COVID-safe activities. Time alone in my room now made me feel restless, which meant that all I wanted to do was garden, hike or swim as I had over the summer. More than ever, I missed the fresh air and utter quiet of home.

Hudson River Park was my lifeline. Just two blocks from my dorm, the park is a true green space, unlike the concrete spaces of Washington Square or Union Square. The views from the park’s many piers remind me of the Burlington, Vermont waterfront, though I’m gazing at Jersey City instead of the Adirondacks. When I feel listless, I’ll walk through the park while listening to music until I cheer up. I’ll observe the people who are always there exercising and having picnics. Sometimes I’ll bring a book and lean against a tree to read like Rory Gilmore. Ever since my college experience moved online, the park helped me tighten my grip on reality.

Over the course of the year, I’ve acquired three houseplants: a prayer plant, a succulent and a calathea. They’re sitting on my shelf and windowsill, watching me type this. The prayer plant’s leaves are dense, and they move with the sun throughout the day. When I sit at my desk doing work, I’ll hear a soft rustle from my windowsill once every half hour, then turn to see the leaves still twitching. It used to worry me, but I now find comfort in having the company. It also sprouted a tiny purple flower overnight.

I even hung some of those fake vines from Urban Outfitters to bring an imitation of life to my blank walls. Before the pandemic, I didn’t realize that surrounding myself with plants, real or fake, could improve my mental health. They’re small things, but they make me feel more at ease.

With spring came not only more vitamin D, but also more opportunities to spend time among the flora and fauna. When the weather got warmer a few weeks ago, my friend and I rented Citi Bikes for the first time and biked up Hudson River Greenway, the path alongside Hudson River Park. It stretches the whole length of Manhattan, from Battery Park all the way up to Inwood Hill Park. We biked a total of 10 miles from the West Village to the Upper West Side and back, traversing 120 blocks. There was a white-knuckle section at the end where we braved a traffic circle with oncoming cars, but it was otherwise a carefree afternoon.

I challenged myself to spend part of my second spring break by attempting a quintessential Vermont activity: a walk through the woods. If you brave the more challenging nature trails through Inwood Hill Park, block out the noise of passing airplanes and you squint, it’s almost like being in Vermont. The glacial rock formations, indigenous trees that predate the park and the view above the wide part of the Hudson provide an eco-friendly escape from the chaotic scene of the city.  

For Earth Day 2021, do yourselves a favor: Reconnect with nature. After the year we’ve had, I promise you won’t regret it. 

Email Sabrina Choudhary at [email protected]