The irony of the Corona moment

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An anthropologist who has worked in India and is now locked down in her Texas home reflects on the pandemic

The irony of our relationship with Nature is that we begin to appreciate it only when it puts a life threatening pandemic in front of us to distract us from our virtual reality.

Before this lockdown, for a year and a half, I had been continuously traveling all over the world. Every month I was on a plane on my way to a different place, sometimes out of need and sometimes just for the pleasure of an adventure. I had shrunk the world to where it all started to feel like my playground. The vast distances of space and time all of sudden felt accessible. India to Brussels did not feel all that far. A quick trip from Paris to Turkey, and then to Spain. Spain to Mexico City and back again. Along the way I made many new close friends, while those I already counted as part of my inner circle, too, moved around the world. But quickly the speed started to take its toll on me. As soon as the lockdown hit and I found myself back home, all of the distance I had traversed snapped back like an overstretched rubber band. The debt of time I had incurred now needed to be paid. Like the rest of the world, my modern rhythm of pretending I was larger than the Earth, was given a full stop. And I was left with the trees.

American suburban life

In the state of Texas, in the United States, where my parents live, and where I grew up, we are surrounded by pine swamps, manicured lawns and what seems like the vestiges of a perfect American suburban life. I always hated the fact that I grew up in a place of bloated riches, multimillion-dollar mansions, and an illusion that all the world could just be like this if they only worked hard enough. As a child I found comfort in the marginal places of forgotten backwoods, drainage ditches that held the greatest varieties of medicinal plants, and edges of swamp creeks where the turtles would sunbathe. These were the places where I found life among the illusions of material wealth. And in these spaces, I was almost always alone. The walkways, cradled by trees from the road, were always empty, and I felt like the people who lived here did not know the richness of life right outside their doors. I made friends with the life around me while my neighbours continued on the path of deep forgetting.

The swamp as a mental saviour

Upon coming back, having left all my friends in each corner of the world, I fled to the woods for comfort — again, finding myself only surrounded by salamanders, cranes, mushrooms, and dandelions. But as the weeks progressed, I started to notice more people on my woodland walks. Whole families out exploring the place they had lived in for so long and that I had come to secretly know so well. The bike paths were so full of people, that there were traffic jams. Curious people all of sudden stopped to ask, “what kind of herb is it that you’re picking?”

Here in Texas, the pandemic was not taken so seriously. Be it due to the space in between, the fresh air, the libertarian bent, or flat-out Trump worship, no one seemed too panicked about being outside — a lack of panic eventually vindicated by the lack of cases we have experienced, and no mandatory lockdown implemented. Thank goodness, for the swamp was my mental saviour. Finding all of the places people usually go to show off their money — be it restaurants, high-end stores or fake luxury waterways — closed, people started to actually look around, like groundhogs coming out of their winter slumber, suddenly remembering there is such a thing as the Sun.

This brings me to my point. Regardless of where you stand in the world and your perspective on the virus, it has done the great job of revealing to us precisely the conditions that already existed in our world, be they positive or negative. This tiny virus has stripped us down to the very basics of our humanity and revealed a way of life so rotted on the inside, that anything built upon it is now destined to quickly fall to bits in our oncoming global depression. The virus did not create global poverty. The virus did not create our terrible health. The virus did not create the precariousness of a globalised economic system. The virus did not create the lack of human community I suddenly found myself missing.

The simple priorities of being human

Like peeling a layer back to see the rot underneath, this virus has all of a sudden opened our eyes to the fact that our priorities were the furthest from straight. Space, Time and Life suddenly take on a whole new significance. We were moving so fast in our globalised world, so wrapped up in our social material status and achieving something (anything) within a system so fundamentally life-denying, that we forgot the simple priorities of being a human. For me, this was the sudden shuddering realisation of how important it was to be physically close to those I love, as I now felt the realities of distance. In forgetting the truth of distance, we have forgotten how to exist in actual Time — as in, the long-lasting and steady rhythm of time denoted by the passing of natural cycles, not artificial human time accelerated or modulated by our time-devouring work schedules or the artificial instantaneousness of the Internet. As at first, the long days stretched out to boredom, us only knowing how to fill our days with menial work. Suddenly we realise, the way we filled most of our time was not sustainable, not life-nourishing.

As we have seen with the responses and the framing of the idea of what even is a virus, this war against the invisible enemy has actually been a war we were waging all along — strife based on a declaration of war against all Life, in whatever sense you wish to view it. The themes of health, having a life, what life means, what/who is allowed to have life, how you spend your life and what has value in life have all now been called into question. How real is the real? Did you realise the real was alive?

This goes with whatever issue or side of the virus you wish to contemplate; whether you take the virus for its original projections, or whether you focus on the techno-totalitarian global response. For it is natural for a system that was already ignorant of the life around it to react in a way that continues to deny what it means to live.

Whether these are active questions in the minds of the people I run into on the trails, I’m not sure. But I do wish to believe these questions are at least subconsciously informing this newfound curiosity and interest in the rhythm and contents of the Nature they live in, in their letting it regulate them back to the importance of inter-relation, of spending time with what’s around you, of appreciating what you have and understanding what you don’t, and seeing all the things you might have been denying. Maybe this subconscious desire for a new (but actually old) experience of Space, Time and Life is what is driving people to garden, to bake bread, to go take a walk in the woods, to reach out to those they haven’t spoken to in a while. And for those lacking the ability to leave their homes, for them to contemplate what a life is when life is denied. An opposite experience, if you will, that could lead to the same conclusions.

Standing at the crossroads

But this recognition cannot stop here. As I write, I understand the atrocious consequences this virus has caused in places that already suffered from a confluence of systemic precariousness. Long have those places, just like the woods where I live, been denied, ignored, and mined to feed the bloated monster of social status–accumulation. But we are standing at a crossroads.

During the shutdown we have been afforded a moment to recentre our experience. We can no longer refuse to see what we have attempted to outrun for so long. Time has slowed down back to its natural pace and with it all of the contents of our lives have been flung forward like in a car that has hit the brakes. In this moment, the truth of our lives, personally and collectively, is the only thing left standing, asking for us to stare into its dark eyes to face the place we have come to. Whether that is the tens of millions of people in India considered ‘migrant workers’ who now have been thrown into a humanitarian crisis, (or is this actually a pre-existing humanitarian crisis now on the move and therefore visible?), the other millions losing their already precariously-balanced jobs, whether it is your internal demons and anxieties which you are now intimately living with, or the woods around the corner, the song of birds long forgotten, these are realities of life that have been already prevailing, and ignored for the longest time. In this window of time we have been given this gift of true sight, having been stripped down to a situation where only our deepest priorities remain. What are you living with and what are you missing?

Connected yet alone

But this is a precious moment not to be dulled away by our simultaneous uploading onto the Internet. This is the other side of the juncture. In a fearful attempt to evade the corrosive present, the escapist refuge of the Internet has seemed unusually inviting. The Internet feels safe, personal but not intimate, and open in a way the outside (physical) world may not be. And this open invitation is not without world-defining consequence or important powers’ vigilance. In our current world-moment between the past and future (also known as the Coronavirus lockdown), we have never in the history of humanity been so connected. But is the virtual connection we are experiencing enough? What is the irony of this moment, when we are supposedly most connected via the ethereal Internet, yet feel most alone and separated from those we love?

Which one of us — especially those whose loved ones are dispersed across the world — has not had the fleeting thoughts of Will I ever be able to see them again? Will I ever be able to travel like I used to? They were already so far from reach; how has that distance extended even further? We have been somehow told that through a video call, a text message and photos uploaded onto social media, we can almost replace a person’s presence in our lives. Almost, but not quite. I for one, during this lockdown have come to realise the great hubris of taking a digitised version of my loved ones as close enough to the real thing. Can we really be so badly fooled to think that all life can be lived in front of a screen? What then is to become of real, analogue life, especially when we have been en masse diligently chipping it away?

The well of comfort offered by a hug, the joy of a being caught by strand of sunlight between buildings, the smell of the forest after a spring rain — are these things to just be simply given up for an indefinite amount of time, maybe even forever? I wonder if our hubris has perhaps penetrated so deep into our our lives as to make us think we can replace and out-build human life through this next iteration of modernity — the technocratic sphere. These subtle textures of life experience are completely lost in the crass uploading so many are starting to accept — a deep irony in a moment when those subtle textures are so vehemently denied, and equally as fervently sought. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with finding or maintaining connections via the Internet, only so long as we hold the fact that it can never truly replace the analogue.

Very quickly, as these questions of true distance of place, life and time began to wash over me, I realised how much I longed for the warmth of physical human presence, while at the same time, how nourishing the presence of plant and animal kin could be. In the end, I am hoping my escapes to the woods, as well as for those living around me, have become a way to slowly start shifting our hearts toward a compassionate embracing of Life and what it means to truly be able to live it.

(Through Foundation of The Billion Press)

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