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Extreme Social Distancing In The Age Of Coronavirus

Tom Pelton

In these times of the coronavirus, the public health strategy of “social distancing” is hard on people because humans are, by their nature, a social species.

We evolved to hunt, live, play and survive in groups.  But the virus takes advantage of our evolution and spreads through groups.  So we have to know our enemy and work against our very nature to save lives.

In my effort to practice an extreme form of “social distancing” – and escape the claustrophobia of working at home – I set off with my kayak and a few supplies to the most isolated place I could think of: the pathless, maze-like wilderness of rivers and marshes at the heart of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.


In a way, I was not isolated at all.  The refuge was a party of nonhuman life, from the pickerel frogs I heard singing the roadside ditches.

To the red-winged blackbirds socializing in a sweetgum tree.

To the great blue herons, in their dense city of nests high atop loblolly pines, croaking to each other like pterodactyl moms as they watch their young.

At a place called the Bestpitch Ferry boat launch, I dragged by kayak down into the Transquaking River. And I set off paddling through golden marshlands, on waters rippled by warm winds, between swaying reeds.

After about an hour of winding upriver, I saw an island of oaks and pine trees rise up from the vast flatness of the wetlands.  From maps and books, I knew this was Guinea Island. It’s unoccupied now. But the island was once used by Native Americans as a place for feasts – judging by the piles of thousand year old oyster shells that scientists have found here.  

I landed and dragged my kayak onto the spartina grass. And then I set off slogging through mud until I entered a forest.

It’s a beautiful place, eerily quiet, populated only by a few gnarled stumps. But, strangely, in the middle of this forested island, covered in vines, is an old Studebaker automobile, from the 1940’s. It is rusted out, the rear bumper falling off, the springs in its seats exposed, and the steering wheel missing.

I thought to myself: How did this get here? There isn’t a road anywhere in sight. The island is surrounded by miles of impenetrable swampland. But then I realized: the waters here were much lower 80 years ago, before climate change and sea-level rise.

If it was the 1940’s or 1950’s, and there were still roads through the marshlands back then, maybe someone drove this Studebaker out here on a hunting trip. Maybe it was a trip to the wilderness escape the memories of World War II and an earlier generation’s calamity.

It occurred to me: Despite our terror of coronavirus today, and the illness and financial chaos unfolding all around us, the world will not come to an end. It did not during World War II, and it will not today.  And perhaps there is an upside to the social distancing and the stillness.

Perhaps the shadow of death allows us to see, more sharply, the beauty of life all around us.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.