We Are Not a Virus

In the dream, I am walking with a companion through the woods. Up ahead, a golden, glowing orb is blowing through the trees like paper caught in the wind. I understand the orb to be what I most desire in life right now: complete physical, mental, and emotional healing. My companion, an older male, gestures to the orb and says, “If you want it, you must ask the trees, the birds, and the wind for help.”

At this point in our walk, we approach a diminutive ash tree that looks like it’s infested with the emerald ash borer. Despite its sickly appearance, I approach it and do as my companion told me. “Ash tree,” I say. “Please help me heal.”

The moment those words are out of my mouth, a rapid sequence of events ensue. The ash widens and shoots upwards to the sky to the point where it is one of the tallest trees in the forest. Its trunk and foliage is framed by a blazing fire, but not the fire of destruction; in front of me is the fire of creation and vitality. Next, the golden orb is caught in the updraft of the fire until it is held aloft above the ash tree, motionless. Two small birds appear out of thin air, and I understand them to be the spirit of the wind. They catch the golden orb in their talons and start circling towards the ground, right to where I was standing. 

I had that dream in early May of this year, when the Northeastern US was descending the first, destructive surge of COVID-19 in this country. So sickness was on many peoples’ minds. Discussions were also cropping up online and in the news media about how the relative helplessness of human immune systems in the face of the novel coronavirus mirrors the violence being visited upon nature in the form of habitat destruction, overexploitation, and pollution. You’ve probably heard the meme by now: humans are a virus on the planet, and COVID is an antibody. Proponents of such an idea point to the  images of clearer skies and frolicking wildlife in locked down regions as proof: “See? Earth is so much healthier without humans.”

I disagree. The proposition that humans are uniquely suited for annihilation is born of the same anthropocentrism that, in a different spirit, would suggest we are god-anointed masters of the planet. Not only is human erasure from nature philosophically questionable, though. It’s also historically myopic. In many parts of the world, natural ecosystems have coevolved with human land use. Large swaths of North America, for example, were periodically burned by indigenous Americans prior to European settlement. For America’s first people, these fires improved hunting, foraging and horticultural conditions. For the other-than-human environment, periodic burns created mosaics of varied natural community types that incubated a diverse range of specialist plant and animal species. In southeastern Massachusetts, the entire coastal pine barrens ecoregion evolved to be fire dependent; according to early Pilgrim settlers, the indigenous Wampanoag people set fire to alternating portions of the landscape twice per year. In the absence of this human intervention, generalist, overgrown oak forests are replacing the pine barrens at the expense of rare species like the barrens buckmoth and the grasshopper sparrow

My dream seemed to suggest that this hands-off approach to the landscape won’t work. Humans and non-human nature need each other to thrive, and intentional burning is just one way that we have achieved the end of mutual health. Large-scale burning no longer takes place in southeastern Massachusetts. There are, however, a number of ecological restoration projects in the area, and I visited several to see for myself how a cultural presence in the landscape is beneficial.

My first visit was to the Coonamessett River. The Connamessett is fed by coldwater springs and runs less than three miles through the heart of Falmouth on Cape Cod. The river used to be a rich spawning ground for eels, herring, and brook trout. Since the 18th century, dam construction to power mills has blocked many of these native fish from their spawning sites. Impoundments for cranberry farming have also created obstacles for migrating fish, while the obstruction of the river’s flow by both mills and impoundments raised water temperatures beyond what many native fish could tolerate. Since 2015, the Town of Falmouth has been working with conservation organizations to restore the Coonamessett River to its original state. So far, a cranberry bog has been converted to a naturalized wetland, wet meadows have been planted along the Coonamessett’s banks, several of the dams that used to impede the river’s flow have been removed, and improved fish ladders have been installed on dams that cannot be dismantled.

When I walked a portion of the Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail in July, I had never seen the Coonamessett River before, so I did not know what it looked like when it was clogged with cranberry bogs and mills. But the Coonamessett I did see resembled an actual river, and that is important. There was the swift-flowing main channel meandering through wet meadows where spotted knapweed was in bloom. I walked above the fish ladders where water descended from so-named Pond 14. I didn’t doubt that, if I were at the same ladder in a different season, I’d see migrating fish. 

Upgraded fish ladder

I’ve pondered before about how the proliferation of ecological restoration projects may indicate an emerging cultural desire to see the landscapes we inhabit be restored to wilder, more organic states – in Falmouth alone there is also the Quashnet River Restoration and the Child’s River Restoration. Whatever their latent cultural origins, these restoration endeavors point to the often-overlooked fact that restoration of natural habitats usually involves human intervention to some degree. Many people think that when we passively let things “go back to nature,” all will be well. Passive ecological restoration sometimes does work. Too often, though, when we abandon disturbed landscapes, they become colonized by invasive plants and noxious weeds at the expense of regionally particular species. Or they may only support generalist wildlife (deer, rabbits) instead of endemic specialists. When human-altered environments include earth modifications like dams or dikes, letting things “go back to nature” can be an excuse for not cleaning up after ourselves.  

Just west of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary (which itself is a restoration project), the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration has partnered with the Town of Plymouth to restore the wetlands of Foothill Preserve, which have been degraded by cranberry farming. Foothills Preserve also encompasses springs that form the headwaters of West Beaver Dam Brook. When I drove by the Preserve after my visit to the Coonamessett River, I was met by the sight of construction vehicles and earth-moving machines that were temporarily idled in their task of removing dikes and dams formerly used for cranberry farming. If it takes a dozen-odd backhoes and bulldozers to undo the modifications of agriculture, then it’s questionable whether the headwaters of the West Beaver Dam Brook would ever be able to recover on their own. 

Foothills Preserve

Thus, I am forced to circle back to the message of my dream – by “presencing” ourselves in the landscape, we benefit our own health while nonhuman nature is revitalized too. But we don’t need to focus solely on the mechanics of ecosystem regeneration in order to understand the necessity of human presence in the landscape. You can come to similar conclusions on your own, in your individual wanderings outdoors.

Not long after my trip to Falmouth, I returned to a juniper woodland in Ellisville Habor State Park in Plymouth, which I explored in October of last year and where I first felt at home in Massachusetts. In reality, the area is a savanna of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and red cedars marooned between the salt marshes of Ellisville Harbor and the strand of Cape Cod Bay. My time in Plymouth was coming to a close, and I wanted to wander in the location that first made me feel like I belonged in the Bay State. This time around, the vegetation was more dense; there was more poison ivy and greenbrier between the cedar and pitch pine trees. But I still felt at ease. After a sweaty hike through upland oak forests and a tramp through overheated sand, my heart rate and breathing slowed down when I was back amidst the sandy patch of evergreen trees. And when I sat down beneath a red cedar to catch my breath, I didn’t just relax: I felt welcomed. I sensed that I mattered to this place. By making myself present to a part of the landscape that I loved, I was reciprocating nature’s abundant nourishment, and in that manor I was facilitating a small degree of ecological healing.

This mode of healing only makes sense if one understands that “the environment” is not an inert substrate, absent of its own desires and intentions. When we do jettison the Cartesian concept of nature as unfeeling and nonliving, the truism reveals itself that every organism has its place in the landscape, including humans. At its root, I believe that most of the environmental degradation we see in our world today is the result of us removing ourselves from the landscape and thinking we can transcend material nature. But when we “return to Earth,” we come home and make the ecological picture whole again.

I don’t think we can truly heal the planet unless each one of us does the internal work of interrogating our relationships with place. Similarly, I don’t think that a frenzy of ecological restoration projects on their own will have a lasting effect unless the architects and the citizen beneficiaries of these projects thoroughly transform their mechanistic Industrial Age mindset to one of holism and ecology. And somewhere in there, we have to let ourselves feel welcomed by other-than-human nature: the trees, the birds, and the wind. Only then can we give love back and restore the places we call home just as I restored the ash tree to health in my dream.

Ellisville Harbor State Park

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