The Path to Return

Updated: 4 days ago

April 10, 2020

Heavy rains last night, all night long. The air is water-drenched and clear. Mist and clouds sit low upon the trees. In the quiet morning, I can hear the pounding ocean a mile away. There is a gentle ease to the Earth, the sense of having expelled a long-held breath, something I have on only experienced in the wild.

We see more seagulls now, my wife Jean points out, for they are flying farther inland. There is much hoopla in the broader human world, but here in my neighborhood, the human world is quiet. Birdsong, soft wind, the budding leaves of the birch tree, the first pink-white apple blossoms in the garden—these things have taken their place as the real essence of our lives.

Has birdsong been brighter, more loud and alive these past weeks? Some mornings it seems almost like the tropics here in Northern California, the air full of chirps, trills and the loud calls of unseen birds. I wonder if this is because the din of cars has lessened and we can hear what was always there underneath, or if in fact there are more birds among us now that humans have quieted. A friend told me she wondered if the change was in her, for in this precarious time she is more aware of the ordinary gifts of life: the fact of a warm shower, the mysterious glad-note symphony of birdsong. Another friend mentioned that her local birds are friendlier, coming closer to humans. In this changed world, the impact is immediate, and it is everywhere.

Anyone who has ever cried for the forests, the oceans, the plight of wild animals, must quietly exalt in this previously unthinkable worldwide halt to human activity—enacted by the tiniest of entities. The rapidity with which the Earth is repairing herself is astonishing—blue skies in China after only a few weeks of economic shutdown, clean waters in Venice, air pollution in Europe cut by 60% after only three weeks.

It suggests that the great, deep force of Earth is merely tolerating us and our hyper-activity--and will expel us and recover without sentimentality once a certain threshold of human destruction is reached. Perhaps this terrible moment will pull us back from the brink. Only something of this magnitude might reach humanity on a species-wide scale.

The corona virus that has caused all this disruption is simply doing what all living things do: it seeks to live. One could argue that it is rather like us—relentless in its growth, uncaring and unaware of all it is upending in the process. Yet too, the virus when magnified is hauntingly beautiful, like a minute, intricate flower of magenta and blue, in the form of a perfect mandala. Not unlike humans, who, when observed up close are often profoundly beautiful, tender, loving to the core. And both of us—human and virus—are run amok just now, mindlessly growing, again and again killing our host.

For we have created a world based upon a fiction that only humans matter--and, in a way, even exist. The rest of the Earth is for our use, our profit, our entertainment, and the occasional viewing awe. A mountain to climb, a river to ford, a desert to cross, a forest to exploit, land to manage, animals to raise and eat. Small birds and animals have been allowed to remain, but any wild creature that threatens our economic activity or causes us discomfort we have killed or caged.

This is our world, and it is a tightly-managed, tightly-controlled fiction. We are part of a living, dying, active, dark, magical force at the essence of the Earth. We are her beings, no matter the story we tell ourselves. We are Earth creatures. We live and die by Her.

This unimaginable moment could begin our path to return.

This essay was written in the early weeks of the pandemic, and recently published in slightly different form in Pandemic Corona: Poems of Shock, Fear, Realization, & Metamorphosis, edited by Pamela Eakins.

What do writers do at the End of the World? They write. In PANDEMIC CORONA: POEMS OF SHOCK, FEAR, REALIZATION & METAMORPHOSIS, 36 women writers from around the world explore the emotions and politics of Locking Down, Dancing With Death, The Choices Before Us, and The Emerging Revelations. From inside the lockdown, they write. From inside the mirror of impermanence, they discover the breathtaking wonder of becoming alive inside a meltdown within a chrysalis of permanent transformation. Anyone who is living through, or who has lived through, the Great Pandemic of 2020 will want to read this book.

The photograph at top of the essay is by © Kim Há Quách

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