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

In a Heath Hen, Everything

Extinction has been on my mind. Recently at work, I helped construct a list of every known plant and animal species that has been lost from the landscape of Massachusetts in modern times. Some of the species on the list, like the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and Appalachian tiger beetle (Cicindela ancocisconensis)  have only been extirpated, meaning they can still be found elsewhere in the world. Other species, like the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) are fully extinct. All told, 46 known species have been lost from Massachusetts in historical times, most of them in the past two centuries.

But quantitive data, such as the number of species that have gone extinct in a given area, is inadequate. Raw numbers obscure the singular gravity of what it really means to lose an entire lineage of organisms. The world is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with thousands of species disappearing every year. Exact estimates vary widely (one of the larger figures comes from the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, which pegs the annual number of species going extinct as exceeding 50,000). Holding in our minds the singular gravity of a lost bird or flowering plant, rather than a quantitative list, is perhaps the only way we can comprehend the rolling tragedy of shrinking biodiversity.   

In order to understand the ”singular gravity” of a lost species, I trekked to Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod. Frances A. Crane WMA encompasses one of the largest sandplain grasslands that is managed for conservation in New England. Sandplain grasslands are prairie-like assemblages of grasses and bushes that are dependent on periodic brush fires for perpetuation. They used to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Northeastern United State’s coastal areas. Now, due to urban development and fire suppression, sandplain grasslands cover less than 10% of their former area. In their heyday, these natural communities supported a population of the greater prairie chicken (Tympanchus cupido), which is now only found in pockets of the Great Plains. Sandplain grasslands were also home to the heath hen (Tympanchus cupido cupido), a related ground nesting bird whose males, like those of the prairie chicken, emitted distinctive boom sounds as part of their mating ritual.

Heath hen illustration

The heath hen was endemic to coastal grasslands from Maine south to the Carolinas. The bird was said to be so plentiful and easy to hunt that early American colonists complained of eating heath hen too often; its meat may even have been served at the first Thanksgiving. 

You can probably guess where this story is heading. Intense hunting pressure (by both humans and feral cats) and destruction of coastal grasslands led to the extirpation of the heath hen from the US mainland by 1870. A population persisted on Martha’s Vineyard (in what is now Manuel F. Correllus State Forest) but was decimated by a wildfire in 1916 that was made worse by fire suppression and the accumulation of dead wood. The island’s last heath hen, a male, was heard booming for a mate in the spring of 1932 and died soon after.

So loss was on my mind when I set out for Falmouth. Even the drive through the Upper Cape was punctuated by a sense of loss; I couldn’t help thinking of how, over the decades, the homogenous stretches of dry oak forests on the roadside have replaced a more ecologically dynamic mix of pine barrens, meadows, heathlands, and cedar swamps. Once I arrived in Falmouth, I could see that Frances A. Crane’s several hundred preserved acres were in fact picturesque and worth conserving; the milkweeds, wild carrot, and dozens of other wildflowers I couldn’t identify were in bloom, and there were probably rare insects buzzing through the grasses. But the boom of a once-abundant galliform was absent.

Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area

In his essay, In a Rhino, Everything, Charles Eisenstein writes that the sadness we may feel for an extinct or disappearing species contains in it all of the grief we have suppressed in response to the other injustices of the world: poverty, police brutality, the destruction of nature’s beauty, the list goes on. The sadness I felt due to the absence of the heath hen was in fact grief, and my grief was wide ranging. I was sorrowful that the wide open skies and natural beauty of the grassland surrounding me could now only be found in a few fragmented conservation areas; about the possibility of exponential global warming, which imperils even these conservation efforts; about the thousands of daily deaths due to COVID-19 and the social isolation society is practicing to prevent further fatalities. 

This grief had a purpose, though. Earlier in the summer, I attended a webinar conducted by Native Penobscot educator, writer, and attorney Sherri Mitchell named “Processing Our Grief.” Mitchell reminded us that when we allow ourselves to grieve, we are feeling the pain of all of Mother Earth; when we feel this planetary pain, we can effectively pray to and ask for help from the spirits. So I suppose that my grief first for the heath hen, and then for the rest of the world, was a ceremony of seeking guidance for how to live with integrity in the unravelling years of the early 21st century.

I cannot say that my vigil immediately led to any epiphanies or profound solace. Only now, as I think about guidance and the lessons I can learn from the heath hen’s extinction, I am remembering the words of another Penobscot elder, John Bear Mitchell, which he imparted to Elizabeth Rush in her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

The losses [from climate change and natural resource overexploitation] have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

If physically absent animals and cultural artifacts can live on in our stories, as John Bear Mitchell suggests, then how can the heath hen live on in the collective imagination? The effort of conservationists to protect the heath hen, beginning in the late 18th century and going through the 1910s, was one of the first times in the US that a conservation project was directed at preserving an endangered bird. The effort’s failure therefore animated future conservation measures and helped prevent wildlife officials from repeating mistakes. So we could say that the spirit of the heath hen is still extant in the joy of animals that continue to thrive precisely because we learned from the hen’s extinction.

I think that when we acknowledge loss not only as an occasion for grief, but as an opportunity for integration, learning, and growth, we start getting at what it means to heal in these times. If the only stories we tell are ones of linear decline and apocalypse, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where all the future holds is further darkness. Therefore, I’d like to think that each story that acknowledges loss, but followed by renewed resolve to protect and celebrate life, creates a ripple of light that disempowers the narrative of doom that we are all too familiar with. In this manner of mindful grieving and celebration, we may be relieving – transmuting – the sorrow of the past and all the injustices of the world.