Nature shows us missed anniversaries aren’t the end of the world

Recurring events ebb and flow in nature and in our lives.

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crushed cupcake

The disappearance of annual social events from our calendars this year is just another way that COVID-19 has made our lives difficult. Many of the predictable seasonal events and milestones have been scrubbed from our calendars in the past several months, including proms, graduation celebrations, sporting events, annual trips and summer vacations. Even though the days got longer and warmer as we stepped through April, May, June, and July, the social events that traditionally mark the calendar were missing, leaving us swimming in an ocean of indistinguishable days and grappling with disappointment, sadness, and even grief.

Outside of our windows, seasonal milestones continue to hit their marks. Recurrent events like leaf-out, flowering, and the springtime arrival of migratory birds continued to occur predictably, marking the passing of weeks and months and providing a measure of definition and relief to the year. The desert willow in my backyard has been raining down an abundance of lush fuchsia flowers, cluttering the pool filter and filling our hearts with joy for the pure decadence of it, since late spring. In March and April, redbud, dogwood, and cherry trees burst into bloom, indicating the progression from winter gloom to spring growth. Several weeks later, fireflies lit up the night sky in an explosion of twinkling bioluminescence. Across the country, the chirping of crickets signaled warmer nights and the ripening of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and watermelon indicated the peak of summer.

Recurring events anchor us in time, providing waypoints for our journey through the year and conferring a sense of security. Predictability in our days reduces stress levels by reducing the number of decisions we must make. We crave routines and reliability in our days and over the course of our years.

The loss of annual events that mark the passing of the months — milestones and anticipated anniversaries like 4th of July barbeques on the lake, birthday celebrations, and even back-to-school shopping — has left us with a sense of unmooring, floundering for markers of our progression through the year. We are missing the annual events that nature has not lost as a result of pandemic-related shutdowns and cancellations.

But, if we look at little more closely at recurring events, or anniversaries, in nature, we see they, similarly, aren’t always as fixed and sturdy as they first appear.

From year to year, the timing of an event like flowering in a single tree can vary by many weeks. The desert willow in my backyard graced us with the first magenta blooms in early April in previous years, but kept us waiting until April 30 this past spring. Sometimes plants change up the order in which they flower, or stop flowering and restart again mid-season. Our lemon tree has confused us all summer by putting on a burst of blooms every few weeks and acting nothing like it did in the last few years. In arid climates, where I study plants, short-lived annuals can speed up their life cycles in response to dry conditions, sometimes producing seed when they are smaller than half of their size in a wetter year. Sometimes plants will skip flowering altogether for a year, if conditions are unsuitable. And others like the resurrection plant can go dormant for years to survive extreme drought.

Plants are resilient – changing up or skipping their annual milestones when necessary, and restoring their routines when conditions once again become favorable.

The flexibility that various species of plants exhibit, holding back when conditions are poor and then blooming abundantly when conditions improve, offers us a much-needed dose of optimism. We are missing many of the seasonal events that bring us joy and security this year. But this feeling of being lost at sea, drifting from one interchangeable day to the next, need not be permanent. Just like the resurrection plant, which uncurls from a protective, tight ball when exposed to life-giving moisture, we, too, will once again flourish. We can be confident that once conditions improve, the social events that we hold dear and wish to celebrate each season will once again crowd our schedules.

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