Inside the Outdoors: There Can Still be Joy in Mudville

Apprehension, if not outright fear, has gripped our nation as we try to deal with an historic pandemic that will likely replace the post-World War I Spanish flu as the standard by which we judge global health disasters.

The termination or abandonment of virtually all athletic events and seasons—which mere days ago seemed a radical step—now seems obvious, as state after state suspends school attendance, closes pubs and restaurants, and we curtail travel in and out of the country. Like no other event in my three-score-and-then-some lifetime, the outbreak of the coronavirus infection—COVID-19—qualifies to be called “historic.”

A co-worker of mine, just as avid about sports as I am, had just informed me that Major League Baseball had called a halt to spring training, with no plans to complete a 2020 season. Having raised a family that includes seven children, all of whom have been athletes, he is deep into competitive team sports. I responded with a comment that could have been interpreted as an elbow to the ribs: “I guess you’ll just have to become a serious angler!”

“Guess so,” was his good-natured response, though I’d never known him to be a hook-and-bullet sort of guy, and his disappointment over the demise of the baseball season was evident. The ways in which our minds connect things are not always clear, but—perhaps because baseball was the underlying theme—I found myself remembering the poem “Casey at the Bat.”

If you don’t know the poem, the story is of a hometown—Mudville—baseball hero who to—to everyone’s disappointment—strikes out when the game is on the line. The final line to the poem reads: “…there is no joy in Mudville; mighty Casey has struck out.”

It must be heartbreaking for high school and college athletes to have trained hard, honed skills and demonstrated dedication to teammates and coaches and their own ideals, only to have it all come to an abrupt and undeserved end. The risk that any large gathering of people could contribute to spreading the potentially deadly virus demanded we limit contact with others. Competitive sports and crowds are virtually inseparable, thus the radical step of curtailing sports that has been taken.

It’s hard to see a silver lining in all this. Hard to subscribe to aphorisms like “It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But for those who find some of life’s greatest enjoyments in nature, or around a campfire, in honing a hunting dog’s skills, gathering wild edibles, or wielding a fishing rod or sporting firearm, the isolation and “social distancing” demanded by this health crisis may not be as much of a hardship.

These and other pursuits of the out-of-doors—if not always solitary—are pursuits that do not depend on a crowd. Though we might fish or hunt with companions, we don’t need an audience. In fact, solitude is likely to make these pursuits of the outdoors more enjoyable, not less. Meeting the northward migration of brilliantly plumed waterfowl with binoculars or a camera, wading a trout stream, casting to panfish in the shallows soon after ice-out or searching for morel mushrooms, are but a few of the many ways that those of us with outdoor inclinations can continue to find fulfillment.

To call the times that lie ahead uncertain would be a gross understatement. Only the very oldest among us remember the upheavals of the Great Depression, which threatened financial well-being, but not immediate survival. No one alive today would have been old enough to recall the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more than all the soldiers and civilians combined who died during World War I.

Today’s virus and the illness it causes—COVID-19—may someday be remembered for effects of the same magnitude. The primary strategy for limiting its spread, social distancing, will result in some level of personal or economic upheaval—perhaps both—for many of us.

If there is a bright side, it might be that many of the largely solitary outdoor pursuits so many of us enjoy will still be open to us. They may provide the dose of normalcy and sanity we need to maintain our composure and optimism in the face of challenges that may lie ahead.

There may still be some joy in Mudville, after all.