A box turtle nibbles strawberries on the patio.

We’ve all heard the question about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one is around to hear it. Only in middle age have I come to grasp that the riddle isn’t really about the tree. It is, instead, a reflection of sorts on what lively happenings of the natural world might be eluding us while we’re off doing other things.

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All of this has come to mind these past few weeks as I’ve joined millions of other people in working from home to control the pandemic. My weekday desk now overlooks our backyard, a spot we normally only glance on weekends. Homebound, I’ve been seeing stuff that would have escaped my attention if I’d been at my usual workplace.

The other morning, for example, I was traveling my new workday commute from the shaving mirror to our family study when my wife, also working from home, beckoned me to the patio. She’d stepped outside to field a phone call, where a stirring in the grass revealed a box turtle ambling through the lawn. I fetched our son, who’s studying online since his college campus closed, so he could see our visitor, too.

We formed a silent half-circle around the turtle, like Magi gathered at a creche, admiring its regal reptile head, its lovely mahogany-colored shell. Slowly, it disappeared behind our goldfish pond, leaving us to resume our routines. My wife placed another call, our son returned to his calculus, and I went back to my inbox, each of us feeling slightly lifted above the lowercase drudgeries of the day.

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Our enforced exile at home has brought other epiphanies. One recent afternoon, I spotted a hooded warbler in the courtyard, only the second one I’ve seen at our place in two decades here. Maybe this elegant bird with saffron-yellow feathers and a black cowl is a more frequent visitor, avoiding my attention while I venture out to make a living.

Last week, I discovered the shedded skin of a king snake in one of our flower beds — a long, translucent tube that cast a ghostly presence in its little spot beneath our dryer vent. Before our work-at-home season is over, I might end up seeing the snake as well, a beneficial creature in this part of the world. I noticed one last spring, quick as black lightning across the grass.

Perhaps the biggest irony of the current contagion is that a deadly virus, a terrible turn of nature, has forced so many of us to slow down, helping open our eyes to creation’s kinder gifts. It’s a humbling mystery I ponder a lot as I scan our yard each day.

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I’ve been watching my window in this strange and unsettling spring for the same reason I watch the news — to remind myself how small I am in the scheme of things, and to find out what will happen next.


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