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

8:39 to Grand Central

Several days ago I took the train to Manhattan for one of my Avastin infusions at NYU-Langone, and thus joined the roughly 300,000 commuters who rely on Metro North Railroad on a daily basis.

Let me begin by saying that I like riding Metro North. Whether it be Amtrak or commuter rail, I enjoy the rhythm, the feel – the atmosphere – of trains, and believe railroad travel offers the most logical means of transporting large numbers of people between population centers. Yes, passenger railroads in this country has become more than antiquated, especially in the Northeast, and trains are occasionally delayed or cancelled altogether. But nearly two decades of never-ending military campaigns in the Middle East plus a distinctly American aversion to reasonable tax policy and infrastructure spending means that our roads aren’t in much better shape. And whereas one can read a book, pull out a laptop, or take a nap before the local service arrives, there’s not much you can do when stuck in rush hour traffic except wait for the cars ahead of you to ease up on the break pedal. If you happen to ride Metro North into Manhattan, there’s also the added bonus of rounding out your morning commute at the unequivocally grand Grand Central Station.

On this most recent trip into the city, however, I found myself thinking about the unquestioned modes of living that undergird our modern commutes in all their forms, and how radically novel the idea of the commute is. The rhythms of our days are shaped according to necessity, and for the vast majority of human history the biological imperatives of energy conservation have bound our days within an overland radius that rarely exceeded ten miles. Yet this physical limitation of a day’s or week’s tasks cultivated an exceptional depth of knowledge of one’s immediate surroundings. The Tri-State area’s Lenape and Quinnipiac inhabitants knew just which springs yielded the sweetest water, which valley’s soils were best suited for maize and tobacco planting, and which coves were populated by reliable shellfish beds. They had to possess this knowledge in order to make a living with what was available.

Life today in the New York greater metropolitan area are governed by an entirely different suite of imperatives. Will traffic be heavier on the Merritt Parkway or I-95? Tomorrow will be rainy; should we take the kids to the aquarium instead of the zoo? Many people, my parents included, end up in Darien because they’ve pondered the long term. Which suburb has the best schools? Will my home be worth more after I’ve paid off the mortgage? These are the sorts of questions that the Industrial Revolution and the combustion engine have made possible. The automobile, expressway, railroad, and airport means we can work and live wherever we choose, regardless of the logic of the landscape, and count on civil engineers to smooth out any wrinkles. Destructive storm surges? Higher sea walls should do the trick. Chronic drought? Start digging those aqueducts.

Being a relatively old city that predates interstate highways and mass landscape modification, New York and its periphery aren’t saddled with quite as many design follies as America’s newer megalopolises. It isn’t sinking like Miami and Houston, or desiccated like Phoenix and LA. Instead, New York owes it’s status as a global financial capital to it’s natural deep water harbor, a fact of the terrain that immediately caught the attention of the commercially-minded Henry Hudson, who sailed through the Verrazano Narrows under the flag of the Dutch Republic in 1609. But, of course, Europe’s Age of Exploration was a commercial endeavor. The Dutch and English, followed by the American Republic, transformed New York Harbor into a nerve center of Atlantic shipping, and the rest is history. So the reality remains that New York sits at the helm of corporate globalization, and the increasingly financialized nature of the world economy means that the five boroughs and their outlying suburbs have become even more untethered from biophysical reality since the Great Recession.

When I’m waiting at Noroton Heights Station, the closer of Darien’s two Metro North stations to my home, it’s not uncommon for me to cross paths with a smartly dressed former high school classmate of mine. We’ll catch up on what we’re up to, and my classmate will invariably tell me he or she has an internship/job at a financial firm, or a marketing firm, or consulting firm. I never remember the specifics names, and I sometimes perform a mental eye-roll at the cliche (“You grew up in Darien and work in finance? How unique”). But I know my snark isn’t justified. My classmates are only making a living with what is available, and in 2018 in Fairfield County there is no shortage of jobs related to servicing the corporate world’s finances.

So it is that on this most recent commute in and out of the city, I found myself looking out the window and wondering how many of Westchester and Fairfield County’s 1.9 million residents really know this place when we see most of it while in transit, when the necessities of our days orbit around Manhattan instead of the nearest springs and shellfish beds. Sure, I fancy myself a pedestrian naturalist, and I can point out the sugar maples and shagbark hickories leaning over the railroad tracks. But can I tell you off the top of my head how all of those trees are pollinated? Er, no. What about the sexual habits of the eels who used to surge up Connecticut’s tidal rivers every spring? Ditto. I don’t have much on my fellow commuters in terms of deep ecological knowledge.

Readers of Thoreau, that Yankee contrarian who insisted that “the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot,” and that “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” will be more than familiar with my musings. Almost every American environmental thinker since the Transcendentalists has decried an estrangement from the landscape wrought by our fixation on profit in the industrial age. But what of it? Should I refuse my Avastin treatments and instead wade through the salt marshes of Long Island Sound while schwann cells multiply unchecked throughout my body? Should my high school friends ditch their suits and take up ornithology? Or maybe we in the West should cut to the chase and flagellate ourselves for the original sin of the steam engine? Human life, like ecology, is complex, and the responsibilities that give shape to personal habits and decisions span our families, our communities, our culture, and even history itself. Such a web of connections cannot be dismantled in a day.

So the question remains: if we are committed to reversing our dislocation from the land, what to do when faced with the rigid scaffolding of the status quo? In “Homebound, Once More,” I recount the richness that has been added to my life by exploring the cracks and interrogating the commonplace of Darien, and here I’d like to suggest that such a practice of probing the contours of one’s own locale is a first step towards bridging the divide between our lives and the physical places where we live. Anyone can do this. You don’t need to claim Native American ancestry or live sixty miles from the nearest post office to forge a deep connection with stone and water. Learn to identify the shrubs growing in the abandoned lot down the road. Spread out a blanket at the nearest park and observe the birds, insects, and people coming to life on a sunny day. Or marvel at the way the roots of a mature oak will chew up and mangle a neglected stretch of sidewalk. If Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island teaches us about righting the injustices of history, and the Mohawk people of St. Lawrence Valley offer a model for commitment to a single landscape through centuries of dispossession, then a study of Darien suggests that a re-enchantment with the wider world is possible in the most unassuming of places. Thoreau famously found spiritual correspondence in the thawing sand of a railroad embankment, and we can do the same if we look hard enough.

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Tilly Pond Park with the Darien train station in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

Home, Again

What does it mean to be back in Darien at the age of 23, to have the architecture of my days once more be molded by the place where I grew up? To begin to answer that question I recently reread an essay I wrote at the close of my first semester of college. The essay, which I titled “Commonplace,” verbalizes my then-newly crystallized belief that the places we are most familiar with on a day-to-day basis have the potential to yield the most profound insights and discoveries about the world at large. In “Commonplace,” I recall a bike ride to a local beach one cloudy September Saturday during my senior year of high school:

Long Island Sound was a drab, grey monochrome. The unbroken clouds overhead sapped the trees of any bright hues. A wind blew off the water, just crisp enough to forebode a change in seasons. In short, it was the type of day my suburban neighbors would use as an excuse to stay inside and do chores around the house. But, standing there alone on the sand, looking across to the opposite shore of New York, the thought came to me, “How could I ever turn my back on this?”

Because it is scenes like this, times when the world shows its capacity for the unabashedly mundane, that catch me the most. My earliest vivid memory rooted in the coastal Connecticut landscape where I grew up is of swimming in a neighbor’s pool with my brothers and some family friends one summer evening and insisting that everyone look at a sunset-streaked cloud that happened to be passing directly overhead. I was interested not in the sunset itself, but that one small stratus cloud, brushed with pink and purple. As I got older, no matter what interests took hold of my attention and state of mind, I always found time to stop and contemplate the perfectly commonplace interplay of the naked natural world and the built, suburban environment I called home. And in those mundane scenes and moments, sometimes as unremarkable as a dull orange twilight horizon set against a foreground of dusky houses and maple trees, I have found sources of wonder comparable to looking across the Grand Canyon or out at a panorama of the Rocky Mountains.

Where I grew up is in many ways a mundane place, easily written off as a mere bedroom community where an absence of definable local culture is paralleled by a lack of distinction in the natural or ecological sense. My town’s woods, where they exist parceled between roadways and residential development, do not erupt with orchids and wildflowers in the spring, nor are its horizons animated with the melodrama of snowcapped sierras. Yet it is precisely this mundane landscape that has left an imprint on my psyche. It was amid the suburban spread I called home for the first eighteen years of my life that I learned to appreciate not just the occasional scenes of ostentatious natural beauty, but also the world in its simple, unremarkable manifestations, be they a mellow twilight or a cloudy, colorless day at the shore.

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Weed Beach, November

I typed those paragraphs five years ago. Five years! I had no idea then in the fall of 2013 the scintillating path I would take in the next stage of my life: two brain surgeries, hearing loss, a season of peripatetic farm work, two experimental rounds of chemotherapy, and a bout of major depression. And I am still working towards my college diploma. Darien and my parents’ house on Thomasina Lane has remained a constant this whole time, and that constitutes a generous mercy. Any measure of stability is helpful in a time of transition and turbulence.

Yet I am grateful for my anchorage on the north shore of Long Island Sound not just because of the consistency it has provided. In “Commonplace” I conclude that

On that grey September day at the beach, I did eventually turn my back and let my future take me wherever it may. Because these moments of mystery and silence are not exclusive to a pebbly stretch of New England coastline. Rather, they exist everywhere and every day as the inherent beauty of this world.

The knowledge that profound insight – mystery and silence – are present everywhere has sustained me on a spiritual level through my setbacks and disappointments these past five years, and by regularly returning to Darien I have kept that knowledge fresh.

I don’t mind that I never got a chance to study abroad or spend a summer backpacking through the latest haute ecotourist destination; I don’t need mementos from far-flung places to make my life richer. Through the first 18 years of my life, followed by all of my recent convalescences and languid vacation days away from school, the shingled rooftops and hardwood woodlands of Darien have been the stuff of my world, just as cattle paddocks and baobab trees are the stuff of a Herero’s world, or freeway underpasses and chaparral hillsides are the stuff of a southern Californian’s world. Wherever you happen to make your life, there are layers of discovery waiting in the cracks between the most unassuming features of our natural and human landscapes.

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Casement Street, sunset

Several years ago while walking in Darien’s Woodland Park I picked my way through underbrush and encountered an army of shrimp-like arthropods marching across a scummy pond margin. Last summer I kayaked to a cove in neighboring Stamford and explored 1 acre-square Vincent Island, where the mason shell of a house that burned down before I was born is being swallowed by poison ivy and other sun-loving herbaceous plants. I don’t have as much time to explore the woods or go kayaking this summer, but only a few days ago, on a visit Darien Town Hall, I saw a justice of the peace presiding over an outdoor civil wedding ceremony between a young couple dressed in shorts and t-shirts. These are the sorts of discoveries that lie in wait if one chooses to interrogate the commonplace and see what happenings unfold behind the static of the day-to-day.

While I could sigh with regret or resignation that I am now well into my third decade of life and still bound to the address where I grew up, I don’t really feel regretful or resigned. I will leave Darien for good at some point, likely sooner rather than later, then end up in a new locale whose commonplace is just as fertile as any other. But in the meantime I can explore the endless crevasses and cul-de-sacs of my immediate environs and try to understand Darien as much as I can.

Lunch at Mama’s

Not long after I returned from Shelter Island I made plans to meet up with a friend for lunch at Mama Carmela’s Italian Deli.  Mama’s, located in a strip of commercial zoning along the Boston Post Road, is less than half a mile from where I live, and I had dropped in on Mama’s for sandwiches several times in the previous year or so. But this most recent sandwich stop was the first time in a while where I actually sat down with my lunch at one of its tables and took in the details of the place. Except for the Darien Times articles detailing the latest local sporting and academic exploits stuck to the tack board by the back entrance, I didn’t notice any significant changes in the appearance or atmosphere of Mama’s. Nor did I expect anything to be different. Mama’s is one of those places that has always just been there.

Of course, Mama Carmela’s has not occupied 1981 Post Road since time immemorial. It set up shop in the summer of 2001. But Mama’s, mind you, is a “deli” deli, one of those salt-of-the-earth sandwich joints that’s as embedded in the local geography as the nearest hill or stream. Every American town needs such a place. Your equivalent to Mama’s might be flavored with a German, or Latin, or down home accent depending on where in the country you live. But whether you order fried okra or a potato knish to go with your wrap, America’s long-standing lunch and breakfast joints are all kept alive because they connect their patrons with the local ecology of human interactions that make a community. This sense of community belonging, which Wendell Berry describes as “membership,” is the topic of many an impassioned op-ed screeds, most of which (rightfully) bemoan the loss of said belonging in the face of globalized corporatocracy. But I’m not going to get caught up in a post-modern spiral here; I’ll leave that to the op-ed writers. Instead I want to briefly reflect on how precisely I feel a sense of membership when I’m standing in line waiting to place my order at Mama’s.

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Here’s a primer: Frank, Patty, Carlos, Sue, Frankie, and Juan are the vital names you need to know. Frank Colandro is the founder and head proprietor of Mama’s, and, appropriately, with his bushy beard and ham arms, mans the deli’s meat slicer on most days. Next to Frank’s work station, Patty, a sharp-eyed older woman works the cash register and speaks with an exacting, cut-to-chase tone of voice to match. At the other end of the counter, the cooks – Frankie, Carlos, and Juan – cantilever around each other with spry precision as they switch between frying eggs and bacon on the one hand and slicing vegetables and cheese on the other. Amidst all this, Sue (wearing a pink shirt in the photo above) makes sure the machinery of Mama’s stays greased. When I’ve stopped by for lunch over the years, I have seen her at work taking orders from customers, unpacking supplies from cardboard boxes, helping the cooks with food preparation, and relaying information between the entire crew. If Frank is the pater familias, then Sue is the grande dame of Mama Carmela’s.

On any given day there are bound to be alterations to this ensemble of employees. Frankie’s or Carlos’s places at the fryer might be temporarily replaced by a seasonal worker, or Frank will be stationed at the cash register instead of Sue. But the variations in staffing at Mama Carmela’s are minimal, and employee turnover is low; a sure sign that you can trust a dining establishment to prepare your food. It is this stability that allows me and dozens of other Darienites to know the staff at Mama’s on a first name basis, and the familiarity is reciprocated. You can usually count on there being a laminated flyer posted on the deli counter displaying the go-to order of a faithful patron (usually a high school athlete or local first responder): “Caylee’s Post-Game Recovery” or “Sam’s Morning Pick-Me-Up.” When I myself was a DHS student, and spontaneously grabbing lunch with friends at a local sandwich joint was a rite of establishing teenage autonomy, I became a regular enough face at Mama’s that after placing my order one afternoon, Frankie gave me a fist bump and introduced both himself and his co-workers. In effect, Frankie bestowed on me a membership that went beyond the walls of the deli and encompassed the entire web of Darien affairs that crosses paths with 1981 Post Road.

As the writer Arundhati Roy suggests, we should not make complicated what is actually quite simple, so I will not parse and dissect every meaning behind the ideas of ‘membership’ and  ‘community.’ I am even cautious about using the word “idea” to describe what I feel when I’m standing in line at Mama Carmela’s, since ideas can be maddeningly ambiguous; mere ideas, without any grounding to them, are the playthings of convoluted philosophy treatises that no one will read. Home, however, is not ambiguous. Home is where you feel most comfortable, the place you go back to, where you belong. Even though I spend significant portions of my time in New York’s North Country these days, my permanent address is still in Darien, and ordering lunch at Mama’s during summer and winter breaks serves as a reminder of where in the world I am grounded.

And did I mention that the sandwiches at Mama Carmela’s are pretty damn good?