In the Green

Photo by Susan Lago

I. Green

I’m not a very good nature tour guide. For one thing, I don’t know much about nature. For another, I walk very quickly; I have to keep reminding myself to slow down. Despite my shortcomings; however, two days before Halloween 2019, I take my English Composition class on a walk to a nearby greenspace, a short walk from our community college campus in Queens. Greenspace. It’s such a recent compound that Word autocorrects it into two.

Do you think it will rain? asks Aciella.*

It’ll be fine, I say.

By the time we reach Oakland Lake, the skies open up.

Miss, says José. My phone says this a bombcyclone.

I’m getting ready to turn back when Amanda pops open her umbrella. You can come under here with me, she says to José.

We’ve just started reading Walden in class, close reading Thoreau’s passages about building a cabin out of found materials (You mean like upcycling, Professor? one student asks). My nature walk objective is to make Thoreau’s decision to retreat to the woods more concrete to them, these urban dwelling, newly emerged adults.

I open my own umbrella and soon enough, there’s enough of us umbrella people to offer shelter to those who came without.

We start on the half-mile circuit around the pond. I encourage them to use an app that identifies flora and fauna with their scientific names. José takes a picture of a flower with white petals (Erigeron spp.). Other students are excited to identify that tree as an oak (Quercus spp.), another as a weeping willow (Salix babylonica). We observe two swans (Cygnus olor) gliding across rain-pocked water. I tell them about how there can only be two swans per lake and that a racoon had eaten this pair’s eggs and one of them left. For a while, there was only one swan, but a few weeks later there’s two again! Is it the same one? Did she come back, asks Grace? Or is it a new squeeze? I call her a trophy swan and get a polite chuckle from José. We see ducks and Canadian geese, and take pictures of the willows.

“It was raining,” Aciella writes later in her post-Nature Walk assignment. “It is not usual to go for a nature walk on this [sic] weather. However, the experience game me another perspective of the beauty of nature. The smell of wet soil reminds me of my childhood. For instance, while I was running and laughing with my classmate with one umbrella for us, I felt like a kid. I felt happy.” She describes the “sound of the rain hitting the plants” and imagines that “the soil was pleased, reflecting that “[i]n this city, it is difficult to hear something else than cars.”  Finally, she remembers Henry David Thoreau’s description of Walden Pond: ‘[a] lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eyes; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his nature’ “Nature is everywhere,” she concludes: “It is a tree. It is the grass.” For Aciella, the rain, the lake, and her memories help her make that connection to Thoreau’s metaphors, which for some students remain as impenetrable as a fairytale wall of thorns.

The following semester, Spring 2020, I take another class to the greenspace. This early March day calls for buttoned jackets and hands in pockets. Brisk, as my mother would have said. We gather around one of the swans who seems to be posing for the camera. Layla gets so close to the edge of the water that I am afraid she’ll fall in, but she’s smiling more than I’ve seen her smile all semester. Can we have all our classes outside, she asks?

We spend about an hour at the lake and during that time, news about the coronavirus seems far away. We aren’t washing our hands and wiping down our phones. We aren’t sharing the feverish results of our doom scrolling and asking ourselves what will happen next. For a brief time, we watch Canadian geese peck at the ground and swans glide across the lake as if pulled by an invisible string. In the words of Thoreau, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” All week, I have been doing just that, hurrying from class to class, and then meeting to meeting. What a pleasure to stop and watch a little stream do its own rushing over roots and rocks.

The next morning, on March 12, 2020, the university alerts the campus community via email and text: in-person classes are canceled. We are going to “distance learning,” the first of many oxymoronic euphemisms that will come our way in the weeks, and then years, to come.

I am faced with a dilemma: how do I replace sitting in a circle in a classroom where I can walk over to where they’re sitting and point to a place in the text? How do I draw out the quiet ones who are not only struggling with English, but also Thoreau’s nineteenth-century prose? The book has been hard enough for them; now they are being asked to take on another difficult task, that of engaging with the class through their screens. These students, for whom reading and writing has already placed them in a category of learners deemed not ready for college-level writing, are now forced to communicate primarily through writing. The natural brightness that they are able to convey in animated classroom discussion now has to take a backseat to the weaker skill of writing. Despite these misgivings, I am optimistic.

So I ask students to take a walk in a park close to their homes — if COVID-19 conditions permit. If not, I post an alternative nature experience, a link to a livestream where they can choose to watch lions cavorting on the savannah, an underwater cam of fish darting in and out of a technicolor reef, or hear sounds of a rainforest half a planet away. One student, whose face I have never seen, writes about their urban greenspace experience in Fall 2020: “I went to the central park to enjoy the sunny day and distract my mind from a lot of stress…by seeing other kinds of people and looking at the colorful fall season…Unfortunately, I couldn’t smell anything with the mask. But I did feel that it was very cold that day. Lastly, it was amazing to distract my mind on this beautiful park [sic].” Through such fragments of thought, the student captures the experience of Pandemic New York, still lovely even when viewed through the vantage point of social distancing.

Exactly two years after that first Nature Walk, I’m back again with another class in the Fall of 2021. A scant number of classes has resumed in-person instruction this semester, but they are “hybrid,” meaning that we are only in the classroom a couple of hours a week while the rest of the class takes place online. The campus looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie with grass growing in the cracks of the nearly empty parking lot, a sky-blue mask tumbling across the deserted quad. By the time class ends at 6:00, the hallway is dark. No students running to make their next class. No giggling, no video chatting, no contemplating the offerings in the vending machine. No triggering of the sensors that keep the lights on.

On this day, however, we are all together, taking a walk. The October air is “brisk,” the sky overcast. Once we are beyond the campus entrance, I take off my mask. A couple of students follow suit, but most keep theirs in place. Four or five students keep pace with me, three of them young men who haven’t turned in any work, but seem glad enough to take a walk with their professor and chat about their plans for Halloween. One student says he travels to our Queens campus from Harlem. All of them say they don’t really go out much with their friends due to the pandemic.

Then we are at Oakland Lake. Most of the leaves are still green, but some are turning orange, or are completely yellow, with an occasional bright red thrown into the palette. Someone had set a Jack o’ Lantern by the water’s edge, the orange face seeming to grin for the student crouching to take its picture.

We start walking. I stop by the stone boat launch. Bryan is terrified of the waterfowl, backing his six-foot bulk to the edge of the path to keep away from the green-necked mallards swimming about. 

What’s that? asks Ali, pointing to a floral arrangement in the shape of a cross on an easel surrounded by a group of votive candles. 

I glance at a woman sitting on the bench next to the memorial. She’s crying. I hurry us along, whispering to Ali about the young man who committed suicide there a few weeks ago. Too late, I remember that this same student had emailed me about some mental health issues he’s been having as the reason for not submitting his assignments and I regret offering that information, although he seems to take it in stride.

Janette remarks that the last time we were here in September, the pond had been bright green with algae. Where did it go, she wonders?

Because I don’t know, I redirect their attention. Look, I say, pointing. Lily pads.

They look. Someone takes a picture.   

In class, before we set out on our walk, we went around the room reading passages aloud from Walden and I tried to explain to the semi-circle of faces, some paying attention, others looking out the window, a couple sneak-texting behind their books, how French philosopher-scientist, Bruno Latour, makes the point that it is “utterly impossible to tell our common geostory without all of us — novelists, engineers, scientists, politicians, activists, and citizens…” Look here, I tell them, pointing to the paragraph Janette just read. See how Henry David Thoreau views science through a poetic lens to describe observations of flora, fauna, and geographical features of the ponds of Walden wood: “White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light…Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature?” he asks.

As we meander around the pond at Oakland Lake, I hope they see that even this urban patch of nature has its own “luxuriant beauty,” even as we skirt the evidence of its “human inhabitants.” Marcella, a 2022 summer session student, wants to write her paper about pollution. When called upon in class to describe her project, she murmurs something about dirty air. On this June afternoon, however, she notices every piece of litter on our way.

Miss, you see that? she says, pointing to a mask moored in the algae.

Lots of water bottles, too, says Peter. He looks down at the bottle he purchased from the vending machine outside the classroom before we left. Maybe I should start carrying one of those metal ones like you got, he says to me.

A turtle perched atop a fallen branch stretches its neck toward the sun and Marcella sighs. Poor thing, she says.

Scholars debate the term “anthropocene.” They disagree about when it began, about its accuracy as a causal relationship to the current age. The general agreement, however, is that we are in it, the Anthropocene. Ultimately, the term refers to the conjunction of geologic history with world history. I wonder if our Nature Walk ever translates to changes in everyday habits, or awareness of anthropocentric impacts on the Earth. Maybe I’m hoping that when we all spend time together in this greenspace, we witness the inspiration for Thoreau’s prose for ourselves and question our own impact on our living world. Although these students have grown up with recycling bins in public spaces, they do not always connect personal action with global consequences. But Marcella noticed the mask. She witnessed the turtle sharing the space with the mask. Latour argues that science needs to tell a story, one with a linear structure that observes the conventions of subject, object and eliminates passive voice. The mask floating on the surface of the water along with the animals that live above and below its surface tells a story of personal safeguards against a global pandemic that ultimately failed to protect the actual globe.

When Marcella writes her paper, however, she doesn’t mention her observations at Oakland Lake, relying instead on platitudes about how everyone, all over the world, needs to recycle. For a brief moment, however, she was the subject of a story about the real impacts of human negligence on nature.

Photo by Susan Lago

II. Green Space

I moved to Queens in 2016. I tell the class that the first time I was ever in Queens was the day I was interviewed to be an instructor at this community college. Many of my students and their families traversed more than bridges to settle in New York City’s most diverse borough. The website of the College proudly boasts as of “Fall 2020 our students have 64 different languages and have 117 countries of birth.” This cultural richness means that an eighteen-year-old student recently arrived from Taiwan may be sitting next to a retired Army veteran born in the Dominican Republic.

I am eager to bring my classes to this sliver of greenspace, to introduce them to the swans and turtles and geese, to experience the change of seasons, and to expand our understanding of a learning space beyond the door of the classroom. At this eastern end of the borough, many people of Chinese and Korean descent have made Queens their home. On the main thoroughfare, a Greek restaurant abuts an udon place, a taqueria truck idling by the curb.

The path around Oakland Lake reflects this diversity. As we stroll along, we pass a tiny, wizened woman wearing a wide-brimmed visor in hot pink, a man on a unicycle, a woman watching what sounds like a telenovela on her phone as she power walks by. A man stands at the edge of the water holding a fishing pole. A bit further down, we pass a photographer crouching in the reeds to get a picture of the regal swans with a telephoto lens. An artist has set up an easel and stands contemplating the reflection of the weeping willows, the oak trees, and cattails on the surface of the water, the algae a verdant shmear across the palette. We hear many languages other than English, and stroll among people of all ages.

This isn’t to say that this landscape is not complicated. In class, we’re reading an interview given by environmental justice scholar, Dorceta Taylor, where she lists the names of Black men and women who were doing nothing more than being in natural surroundings, including Ahmaud Arbery and Christian Cooper. “Recent events,” she says, “should erase all doubts that race—blackness in particular—is inextricably connected with racism, violence, and gross inequalities in the home, on the street, in the park, and elsewhere in the outdoors.” I remember that day when six-foot tall Bryan recoiled from the swan as she spread her white wings wide, and reflect on what that says about his comfort level in this public space.

Some of the women in class have also expressed trepidation about walking in the park by themselves. The park in my neighborhood is safe, disagrees Mi-Seon.

What’s the latest you’ll walk there alone? Jordanna asks.

Mi-Seon stops to peer at a pale pink flower trying to poke its way up through the wild grasses surrounding the lake. Sundown, she says, her voice lifting at the end as if she’s asking a question.

 We resume walking. After a while, Jordanna wonders if maybe the park isn’t so safe after all, not if someone doesn’t want to go walking in it after the sun goes down.

As New York City continues its attempt to return to normal, I notice that the impact of the pandemic on mental health sometimes reveals itself on this walk in the park. After our excursion in Fall 2021, Irina recounts how she’s passed Oakland Lake on her way to campus but has been afraid to go further than the sidewalk between the street and the lake. Other students pull their hoodies up over their heads and walk with eyes focused on the screens of their phones, while others nervously brush invisible bugs from their arms with their fingers. A study on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of New York City public university students conducted in the early days of the pandemic found that urban students from marginalized backgrounds disproportionately suffered stressors on multiple fronts, including economic issues, isolation, lack of childcare, and COVID-19 itself.  It’s no wonder that these students self-reported increases in anxiety and depression. That said, by the end of the Fall 2021 semester, on a third, or even fourth trip to the greenspace, the students seem more relaxed, walking with faces turned up to the sun instead of down into their phones. Friendships have formed and the fauna around the lake seem like familiar faces.

Photo by Susan Lago

III. Nature/nature

I can divide my Nature Walk experiment into three distinct periods: The Before Times, The COVID Years, and The Return. In The Before Times, I was looking for a way to bridge the gap between theory and action, text and lived experience, city and nature. In The Return, I’ve come to realize that it’s not only that our species has a mandate to take care of nature, but that Nature is intrinsic to us, and not just in a “isn’t it so lovely” kind of way, but because we are of nature, not separate from it. In Hebrew, the word אַחְדוּת (achdut), means oneness, unity; yogic traditions seek a state of nirvikalpa samadhi,” or blissful oneness with a greater consciousness than our own. “The land is a being who remembers everything,” writes former US poet laureate, Joy Harjo, in her poem, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” and in another: “My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world.” So many ways to express this ineffable sense of interconnectedness, of unity.

But then it breaks. We enter the COVID Years. On March 22, 2020, the city shuts down. Great swathes of the country shut down. We go from voluntary self-isolation to a stay-at-home order. We will not be returning to campus. We will not be going on any more walks, this semester, to Oakland Lake.

Around the time we retreat behind closed doors, our second week of online learning finds us starting the chapter “Solitude” in Walden. Against the backdrop of the New York City shutdown, mandates to maintain social distance, and empty supermarket shelves, I continue to read that OG of self-isolation, Henry David Thoreau, who conducts his own experiment by going off to live in the woods by himself.

For those of us who live in Queens, finding a respite from the loneliness resulting from “social distancing” and “sheltering-at-home” is difficult. These euphemisms do little to mitigate the reality of being told to stay inside. Thoreau had the company of birds and squirrels, but my students and I are city-dwellers, even if we live in one of the outer boroughs. I post a blog on my website asking students how the current situation has impacted their lives. One writes, “Being at home all day has made me more depressed than when I was still at school. Keeping up with school online is also very different. I certainly have lost my balance in my daily routines; everything is mixed up.” Thoreau, from his cabin in the woods, on the other hand, writes, “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery.”

He’s taken by this “slight insanity,” but then the sounds of the woods around him, of “Nature,” make “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.” For those of us forced out of our social spaces, though, the insanity was anything but slight. This same student advises her classmates to “get some fresh air from time to time. Even if it’s just sitting outside the house.” She exhorts them to “remember that your mental health is just as important as your physical health.” She sees that we all could become slightly insane — maybe more than slightly.

For Thoreau, the sound of a spring rain brings peace, although when the weather keeps him housebound, he reflects on “a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves,” which perfectly describes my anxiety after long days of being inside. My students, too, are unsettled. Fatima writes about the impact of the campus shutdown and the subsequent move to distance learning, saying that school has always been a means of distraction, but now she has no way to distance herself from her own thoughts. Where Thoreau finds “it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” quarantined New Yorkers simply feel alone. In The Before Times, I often sought out space and time to be by myself. At the onset of The COVID Years, confined to my small apartment with only my cat and my screens, I crave company other than my own thoughts. That said, I am inspired by knowing that Thoreau finds his own company to be sufficient for a good deal of time. Whether he is planting, fishing, or wandering in his beloved woods, his keen eye for detail and his love of metaphor keeps his mind enlivened. Birdsong takes the place of chit-chat at the post office. Sounding the depths of the pond with his own handmade plumbline keeps him as entertained as the Tiger King on Netflix does us.

When asked if doesn’t he feel lonely in his cabin in the woods, Thoreau replies, “This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?”

Who knew the answer would be that that space is the size of an invisible virus? I wonder what my students think of this chapter. I wonder if any of them are still reading the book. Or are they too ill or too scared to peer with Thoreau at the stars, too busy working at their “essential” jobs as healthcare workers or Walgreens cashiers to contemplate our place in the solar system?

Now that we can’t even find solace in nature by visiting our local parks, I hope that the memory of our expedition to Oakland Lake inspires them to weather the storm. On the blog, Layla writes, “Going to Oakland Lake was my last nature walk before having to stay home and I’m grateful that I had the chance to be there. I remembered one swan posing for us and the other one taking his bath. It was hilarious. In those days that I have to spend home, I try to remember this day the joy the peace that I felt being outside enjoying nature while I am trying to gain information about the Lake. I can’t wait to go back outside and see all Newyorkers outside too, be back to normal [sic].”

I like to think that Henry David Thoreau would be proud of my Spring 2020 semester students for cherishing their scant hour in that green oasis in their urban jungle. “There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still,” he counsels.   

In The Return in Fall 2021, my students and I tentatively venture outside, reclaiming this natural space that exists in the midst of the cityscape. We come to a group of ducks sitting all in a row on a branch hanging out over the water. Canadian geese paddle themselves about and Bryan backs away to stand behind me. As we walk, Jeremy blasts hip-hop on his phone. I am happy to see them walking together in groups, chatting away through their masks. On the other side of the pond, we come upon one of the swans dipping her head in the water and then undulating her long neck to swallow whatever she had caught. Her mate waits on the shore beneath a leafy overhang. An old man passes us several times on his run, seeming to appear from the opposite direction each time. We wonder where the turtles are and a student looks up turtle behavior on his phone and explains that they burrow in the mud for the winter.

Finally, we are back where we started. The sun is going down, I say. What time is sunset today?

They dive into their phones and came up with the answer: 5:57. I tell them they’ll see the sun descend toward the horizon as we stand here. Most don’t seem to care, but others take pictures. Then I tell them they can leave. They peel off in groups and pairs to walk back to campus, a dramatic contrast from the group I had come upon just a couple of hours before. Back on campus, they had been standing in the deserted hallway, about fifteen of them, all looking at their phones, nobody talking. Of course, I made fun of them and a few tucked their phones away to turn shyly toward their neighbor. Now they are laughing and talking as they bound up the sidewalk back the way we had come. I don’t know how much they learned about nature, exactly, or if they are inspired to care more about climate change, but a group of young people simply took a walk together. Maybe, after what we’ve been through, this experience is enough. They are asked to do nothing except be present. I hope that they will remember seeing the sun sink into the pond, the light setting the colors of the trees ablaze, the surface of the water reflecting it all back like a mirror. The swans and ducks and geese, the old man jogging, their weird old white lady professor who keeps stopping to tell them to “look at that!”


*Names have been changed.


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Rudenstine, McNeal, K., Schulder, T., Ettman, C. K., Hernandez, M., Gvozdieva, K., & Galea, S. (2021). Depression and Anxiety During the COVID‐19 Pandemic in an Urban, Low‐Income Public University Sample. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 34(1), 12–22.

Schochet, Jacob Immanuel. “Principle of Unity,” Accessed August 26, 2022,

Taylor, Dorceta. “The Challenge of Diversity in the Environmental Movement. ” Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly, 14 Oct. 2021,

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“What Is Nirvikalpa Samadhi? – Definition from Yogapedia.” Yogapedia.Com, Accessed 26 Aug. 2022.

Susan Lago

Susan Lago teaches composition and literature at CUNY / Queensborough Community College. Her work has appeared in publications such as Noctua Review, Adelaide Magazine, Pank Magazine, The Smart Set, Monkeybicycle and Prime Number. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter: @SusanLago

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