In month six of the pandemic, I find myself pulled to nature - trees, ravines, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses - the less I see signs of people, the better. I don't need to go very far from buildings and streets and cars, I just need to be out of sight and hearing of them, for even a short time. I've never felt the pull this strongly before.
I've always liked being outside, but Nature with a capital N, as some sort of hallowed abstraction, is something I've always been cynical about. I've never bought into the idea of of the natural world as romantic or idyllic. My earliest revolt against sentiment had to do with Nature, in the form of the treacly panentheism on offer in liberal Sunday schools, where we had to sing about "All Things Bright and Beautiful". I appreciate that this is a beloved hymn for many people, but as a child I thought that if God made the rainbows, the sunset and each little bird that sings, surely he also made the typhoon, the hornet, and the tuberculosis bacillus, which we weren't singing about. And of course, the novel coronavirus.
As I got older I developed a more nuanced appreciation of the wild world because to me, trees and mountains and creeks meant The Places Where Other People Are Not. I have an enduring fascination with fire lookouts who spend months atop towers in the forest, or Old Believer hermits who live up Siberian rivers for decades without human contact, because I not-so-secretly want to be one myself. This has more to do with introversion than with the an appreciation of the sublime.
However I do not live in a watchtower or up a Siberian river, I live in a mid-sized city which covid has painted with anxiety and a subsonic hum of dread. I feel a positive compulsion to be among the trees and rivers. I'm fortunate that my city has eighteen thousand acres of green space, most of it undomesticated by condos or recreational facilities, adjoining one river and three creeks. It's mainly aspen parkland, brushy and brambly, not as stark as the southern Alberta badlands or as majestic as the Rockies or as lush as the Great Lakes and St Lawrence valley landscapes that I've lived with.
I want to get in there, to walk into the bush and ravine. I want to be somewhere that I can believe is untouched by human interference, and this is a desire that has come into being with the pandemic.
Pandemics are part of nature, I hear from commenters and news sources. We talk about the natural course of a disease or an epidemic, or about nature having its way when someone dies from covid. But there has never been anything natural about any pandemic. If I learned anything from public health, it's the notion that all forms of generalized sickness are unnatural disasters, and the only entities who carry out this violence even though they could have done otherwise are people.
We - some of us - made the choices that caused the virus to leap across the world; we made the choices that led to, as I write, at least thirty million cases and at least a million deaths. We didn't lock down, we kept breathing on each other, we abandoned public health infrastructure that could test and trace, and we generally made this happen. And by "we" I mean mostly the powerful people in the United States, the engine of the pandemic, although not only those people, as I can see from just driving down my city's main drag of bars and nightclubs full of unmasked people exhaling randomly for entertainment. We chose to open those bars before we opened the schools, and we chose not to provide sick leave for people who are taking care of covid patients. We screwed this up. When I started writing these notes about covid, I couldn't have imagined a million people dead, but that's the line the world is about to cross after six months.
When I'm around around trees and rocks, the human-made world and its catastrophes recedes. It's not that I've entered an innocent Edenic space, it's more that I look around and nothing around me is culpable. I see a stand of red osier dogwood and a burst of yellow tansy and Canada geese and a coyote and the Blackmud Creek at high volume, and I see beings which are not implicated in this disaster. I am somewhere that wasn't made by people and after listening to the nightly pandemic update on the evening news, somewhere not made by people is where I want to be. (As a sociologist, I know that parks are made by people, that the decision to not build condos or strip malls in the river valley was a human one - but I'm talking about the affective experience of walking around the river valley, not the political economy).
With the arrival of fall, things are changing. Plants are dying back or taking on a final burst of color before folding in on themselves for winter, and many of the animals are starting to leave or go to ground. Many will be gone forever. Unlike them, I will keep coming back, with an urgency I didn't feel six months ago. I want to be somewhere that is living and dying and still guiltless. Mortal and beautiful.