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

If It Makes Me Happy

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” in my head, especially the chorus:

If it makes you happy

It can’t be that bad.

If it makes you happy

Then why the hell are you so sad?

Those lyrics capture how I’ve been feeling about the COVID situation lately. It’s as if my guides are saying “you wanted this, didn’t you?” And it’s true; I’ve been longing for some paradigm rattling global event for years. When it became clear in March that the novel coronavirus would sweep the globe, the impish part of me was undeniably excited: the seismic shaking of the jar had arrived.

But the collective grief and loss of the past 4 months have finally come knocking at my door, and I have to make room for the Dark Mother. All of my daily tasks are accompanied by deadweight, and now that I’m dealing with this profound heaviness that so many other people are carrying, I guess I’m a bit more sober. I don’t get to be an aloof spectator to the Great Unravelling, or even an ascendant beacon of hope and energy amidst the darkness (that can come later).

The racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes in the United States are an echo of the genocides of native people that were integral to the founding of the American nation state. I and my co-citizens have also had to contend with shambolic politics, massive (yet inevitable) failures in unadulterated capitalism, and the institutional persistence of racial caste systems. All told, we’re being forced to deal with inherited karma and the historical baggage of our culture. Even though I’ve been anticipating for months that we as a global collective would be forced to deal with our shadows in this time, I too am struggling, to the point where it feels like I’m moving through molasses. But I guess that’s the point; we can’t quantum leap forward until we’ve been dragged through the mud. As Charlotte Du Cann repeatedly tells her readers, we must descend if we are to transform. We must learn to embrace the Dark Mother.

Toward the Edges: Reflections on Nature in the Time of COVID-19

I’ve been living in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the past 9 months, where I work as an AmeriCorps service member. Almost every weekday between this past September and March, I drove by the general vicinity of Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary on my way to the office. I had an impression of what Tidmarsh is about: a 400+ acre former cranberry farm that now constitutes the largest freshwater ecological restoration project in the Northeastern US. But that was it. I had never actually set foot on the place. So it loomed at the edge of my awareness, an important environmental undertaking that I should probably see for myself at some point.

On a balmy Wednesday in early March, Rob, one of my AmeriCorps colleagues, gave me a tour of the sanctuary, and I was not disappointed. The Entrance Trail, which departs from the visitor parking lot, first follows level terrain through mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland that is typical of southern New England. But even here there are surprises in the details. At one point, Rob pointed out a hummock of brush covered land that is composed of soil that was excavated in the digging of an artificial channel last century, a testament to Tidmarsh’s recent cranberrying past.

Next, we emerged from the forest onto “the meadow,” and I felt like I had been transported to the prairies of the western High Plains. The meadow, which can be traversed by either the Ridge Crest Trail or the Meadow Trail, encompasses what used to be a dumping site for sand. The barren expanse has now been colonized by grasses and, along the edges, young pine trees. If the pines continue to propagate over the years and wildfires are allowed to burn, then the meadow could eventually be home to a proper pitch pine-scrub oak savanna, a habitat type that used to cover hundreds of square miles of southeastern Massachusetts.

The meadow, from the Ridge Trail

Onwards we walked, along the Forest Trail and Red Maple Path, over the recently undammed Beaver Dam Brook, and out to the expanse of open wetland that composes the heart of of the restoration project. Along the way, we passed plantings of white cedars that may eventually restore the regionally rare Atlantic white cedar swamp community.

Beaver Dam Brook
Atlantic white cedar saplings

After Rob showed me around, I returned alone to the Ridge Trail, where a south facing overlook offered a vantage of Beaver Dam Brook flowing through a valley. I sat at the overlook, and the expansive view (who knew there were such vistas in Plymouth?) left the impression that I was regarding a whole contained world. And it was just beyond the edges of an expressway and a state road this whole time! I couldn’t wait to return in a few weeks when everything would be in bloom.

View from the overlook

I haven’t had a chance to return to Tidmarsh. Less than a week after my “tour of the edges,” I retreated to my parents’ house in Connecticut, where I rode out the first wave of COVID-19 until the second week of June. Things change fast. Almost all of us have retreated and battened down the hatches, and here we still are: staring at our computer screens, trying to make sense of a pandemic the likes of which the industrial world hasn’t seen in a century. Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries were closed for a time. But nature never closed. Many of us have seen the videos of dolphins playing in formerly bustling commercial ports, or of coyotes sniffing deserted campgrounds. Maybe you have noticed unusual birds coming to your feeder; a birdwatching aunt of mine in Florida has made such an observation. It seems that the agency and intentionality of other-than-human nature is suddenly demanding our acknowledgement.

The agency of nature is what the world’s indigenous and traditional cultures call the spirits. I am reminded of the message imparted to Bayo Akomolafe by a traditional Yoruba priest: You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening.” Later, Akmololafe is told by a different priest that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern society want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost.” Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, sandwiched between two thoroughfares, is a good place to get lost in. The fact that Tidmarsh is a vast ecological restoration site adds more layers to the art of losing one’s bearings. There, the natural processes of a freshwater ecosystem are being allowed to exert their own intentionality (spirit) after decades of human imposition. True, ecological restoration involves human intervention, but only at first. To walk through Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, one is offered a glimpse of what it can be like when we decide we no longer want to be the stars of the show. Now, though, as the world locks down, the wildlife sanctuaries are coming to us, and we’re witnessing a possible future where the vanity of economic development for its own sake is not the only show in town.

You are not a defective person if you are taking refuge in displays of emerging nature amidst so much human suffering. You do not have your head in the sand. To quote Jack Gilbert, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” Moreover, I’d wager that there’s an imperative to pay attention to nature’s exuberant spirits at this moment in time. They can teach us truths we’ve forgotten.

Here’s one such truth: things change rapidly for the better as well. Through most of March and April, as interminable rain and sub-normal temperatures stalled over the Northeastern US, the return of foliage here in southern New England moved at a snail’s pace. It seemed like the trees were holding their breaths as their branches grew heavier with red, yellow, and pale green buds. Meanwhile, the number of worldwide COVID-19 cases and fatalities ascended a mind-numbing exponential curve we’re all now familiar with. Beginning in early May, though, as the sun re-emerged and the mercury started to crest 70 degrees, a different sort of exponential curve came into focus: the buds were bursting open and the leaves were finally unfurling themselves.

I began composing this essay in my head, while lying on a hammock beneath mature maple and oak trees during that initial warm spell. With each breeze, bud casings showered down, and it became abundantly clear to me that “coming away from the road” and apprehending the spirits need not involve setting off into deep wilderness with a machete. We don’t even need suburban nature preserves for this work. We can become lost in our own backyards, in the margin of woods at the edge of the road. And it turns out, once we leave the road, we won’t find any monsters. Apocalypse isn’t lying in wait for us. There will be blue sky, fresh foliage, and ourselves. We will discover we’re about as discrete from the landscape as dolphins and coyotes.

We may also find that we’re encased too, waiting for a catalyst so that we can unfurl in our own phase shifts of renewal. As the systemic global crises of the 21st century bear down, the spirits, the guardians, the ancestors – they are all waiting for us to ask for their help. They will have our backs. Our story does not have to end in chaos.

Hardwood trees at dawn, Connecticut.