The weekend ended up feeling tremendously long. I had kept my calendar clear as I had anticipated doing the kinds of things I have generally done before one of my trips to the UK – finishing up writings, organising and cleaning, resting ahead of the overnight flight – and so I found myself with nothing I needed to do. Since it rained – finally – much of the time, I had little incentive to be outside.
The lack of football was notable: I freely acknowledge that this is a way I ‘narcotise’, to use a term that illuminates a tendency most of us have, to want to tune out for a while, to rest the mind in something diverting and unchallenging. Between watching matches and reading about them, I can let hours of a slow weekend enjoyably go by.
I did not attempt to do some of the writing I have due. Instead I went out to the bookstore up the road to pick up the latest Hilary Mantel book, and, since I had the time and space for it, had a good old-fashioned binge-watch, rewatching the six televised episodes to remind myself of the characters and the plots from the previous books that I read avidly when they came out. Having done that, I dived into the book itself.
The setting is resonant, in that it is a part of English history that is taught and focused on in schools. I also appreciated a review that underscored not just the huge fundamental shifts in religious practices that were occurring at the time, but how – no doubt intimately connected – Europe was shifting to a mercantile model that created the conditions for the consequent colonisation of most of the rest of the world.
And, fittingly for this time of pandemic, my attention was drawn again to the losses that the characters suffer due to illness. Reading about the sweating sickness that devastates Cromwell’s family reminded me that things now, however grim and fear-inducing they may be, with many losses to be endured, could be so much worse. Death was always so close at hand then; in our world we have tried so hard to distance it.
On Monday I rode to Rainbow to buy my groceries; it was an entirely different scene to how it had been last week: many empty shelves, gloves, masks, much of the bulk section closed off. Nobody was panic-buying there, but I had never seen so many people in the store on a Monday; the cashier said it had been like that for the past few days. We were encouraged to stay a cart-length away from each other, and I tentatively navigated my way around, and found most of what I wanted to get. This is now the new normal, and I idly wonder to myself if those of us who practise around the understanding of constant change are perhaps less likely to be unbalanced by it as it happens.
And then, even just after I had got back home and added the paragraph above to a post otherwise already written, we got news of the ‘shelter in place‘ order. A new, new normal. I am trying to figure if the prohibition on ‘non-essential travel “on foot, bicycle, scooter, automobile or public transit’ will indeed overrule the permission to get exercise. I guess I will find out soon enough. Apart from that, I can’t say I am alarmed at the prospect – another benefit of the years of monastic training.
Of the other reading I did, some disparate strands of thinking began to pull together a little. As before, I will leave the strands unfinished:
‘A young woman asked Dr. Gagliano how her scientific work had changed her understanding of the world. “The main difference is that I used to live in a world of objects, and now I live in a world of subjects,” she said. There were murmurs of approval. “And so, I am never alone.”’ (from the New York Times)
Having finished Jenny Odell’s excellent book as well over the weekend, there were many notions that added to the subjects I have been wanting to address (and will write about soon):
‘I read for the first time about “species loneliness,” the melancholy alienation of humans from other life forms. Kimmerer writes, “I’m trying to imagine what it would be like going through life not knowing the names of the plants and animals around you. Given who I am [a member of the Citizen Potawatome Nation] and what I do, I can’t know what that’s like, but I think it would be a little scary and disorienting – like being lost in a foreign city where you can’t read the street signs” She adds that “[a]s our human dominance has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”‘
‘“It’s wonderful when it occurs; people in distress find that encounters with the natural world do restore them,” says [Richard] Mabey. But two things concern him about the concept of a nature cure. “I’m worried that it’s become mooted as a kind of panacea – green Prozac. And if there’s anything wrong you just go out and look at the pretty flowers and you’re going to be marvellous. That’s a tall order if the natural world is in a state of crisis with the insect apocalypse and British songbirds collapsing all around us. There is also a danger that therapeutic nature becomes another way in which nature is reduced to service provider. The foregrounding of us being the centre of attention, the central agents of change and growth, all form part of a mindset that I think is obsolete. We need to rethink where we stand in relation to all these other organisms and what the transactions are between us, and stop saying they are all for our benefit, even though most of them probably are.”’
‘But [Lucy Jones] is aware that “the medicalisation of nature” also “demonstrates that we still see ourselves as takers and overseers, the authority figures, rather than being on an equal footing with the rest of nature”’
The New Yorker had a piece about epidemics and human behaviour (and human history):
‘Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.
That’s one of the great messages that the World Health Organization keeps discussing. The main part of preparedness to face these events is that we need as human beings to realize that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere, that we are therefore inevitably part of a species, and we need to think in that way rather than about divisions of race and ethnicity, economic status, and all the rest of it.’
I have been thinking of the term ‘dominion’, that many parts of the human world have assumed we have over the natural world, and how, really, we have very little control over much of what happens. Right now, a virus has dominion over us, everywhere. We are all in this together.
The last word, to Wendell Berry, from the Guardian article.
“Whether we or our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and sterner sense of justice than we do.”
On Friday, before the rain came and set in for much of the weekend, I set out on my bike for a gentle ride, and ended up exploring new-to-me parts of the Bay Trail towards the airport. It was amazing to be riding on a creekside path right underneath the intersection of the 101 and the 380, to see the ducks and egret going about their business, and to smell the abundance of flowering ceanothus, even stronger than the fumes of traffic.