March 21, 2020: A Silent Spring

In the year 1348…that most beautiful of Italian cities, noble Florence, was attacked by deadly plague. It started in the East … and in a few years killed an innumerable quantity of people. Ceaselessly passing from place to place, it extended its miserable length over the West. … Orders had been given to cleanse the city of filth, the entry of any sick person was forbidden, much advice was given for keeping healthy … And yet, in the beginning of the spring of the year mentioned, its horrible results began to appear…The violence of this disease was such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it. 

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened.

From the opening pages of The Decameron,
by Giovanni Boccaccio (circa 1350)

I’ve been holed up in my home for the past week due to this pernicious pandemic, the wrath of this indiscriminate agitator: COVID the 19th. Hardly yet the 14th century as described above by Boccaccio, but it’s ominous tidings are beginning to settle on the collective psyche of mankind. 

Although there is plenty to do around the house — and I’m still required to deliver a public service to the Canadian taxpayer — I have found myself suddenly afforded the luxury of time. For some, this rapid onset of solitude and immobility induces cabin fever. While others, such as myself, who have trained hard at becoming athletes of isolation, this current situation simply means fewer societal demands on my inner life: A universe the depths of which I am always eager to traverse. Combined with my throne of privilege (I’m sorry) and job security (at least until the Federal Government decides to start laying off non-essential public servants, for I’m certainly non-essential), I feel it would be stupid not to use this opportunity to document my thoughts. Perhaps, in the spirit of Boccaccio, I should be aiming to capture something of the experience of one who lives to witness such times. 

Where to begin?

The privileged vantage-point is peaceful. Outside my window, the dregs of winter melt away exposing its fallout. I know Spring is coming and it creates a warmth in my heart, a warmth that still refuses to rise with the vernal sun in Ottawa. The make-shift swing, crafted with climbing ropes and an old wooden chair, sways beneath the crab apple tree ever so slightly by the force of a gentle breeze. Cars sit in my neighbours’ driveways as they have done so for the past week. More often than usual, folks walk down the street in singles and pairs, mindful of their distance and crossing the road to avoid contact if necessary. It’s an odd sight to behold, but these are odd times.

The only in-person contact I’ve had this past week has been with the few Skip the Dishes delivery drivers, but even these encounters have been awkward. They arrive, step out of their vehicles knowing that they’ve been instructed to perform “contactless deliveries.” The young, always male, driver then gauges my disposition with a hesitant smile and inquiring look. I immediately shatter the wall, “Damn, eh? Everyone’s hiding in their homes.” The topic has been broached and I can see their reservations thaw faster than the ice in my downspout. They always gift me a chuckle and validation. Alas, we’re both humans once more.

And so it is, the world from my window. I’m conscious of the fact that many struggle with less fortunate circumstances. The necessity to cut back jobs and services has left many without means, or without that modern necessity of future financial stability. I think that is what I think about most these days. That is, how we’ve structured the world in this way: to do in the present things that depend so much on assumptions about the future, assumptions that rest in no way on guarantees. Instead, we do things based on assumptions that rely on abstract promises of continued global supply chains, predictable consumer behaviours, dependable public services, and unobstructed mobility. Then a thing like this occurs, and our conceptions of what is safe, secure, absolute, predictable, guaranteed, promised – these conceptions all vanish, blown out of the sky like pheasants in the Canadian Fall.

The global economy and the local marketplace depend on the promise of tomorrow. The promise that despite the clear warnings of antiquity, our society and the ways it engenders will survive and persist. This illusion of immortality produces a pathological Superman complex, like the type you see in adolescents during a biting winter: Where style and aesthetic take precedence over sense and practicality. We live in this way, investing, consuming, neglecting, destroying, producing with little regard for the environment, posterity, the social bonds that matter in the present, or even ourselves; because although these behaviours are seemingly selfish, they are in fact impressed on us as a means to ends that benefit the few.

This system of rapidly moving consumer networks, tearing into the bowels of the Earth, filtering quantities of precious resources into materials that supply the manufactured needs of the masses while funneling profits into a handful of insatiable coffers – this system was never meant to withstand the onslaught of Nature’s fury. 

Now look at us? Scrambling like crabs to make sense of what’s happening; hoping against hope that this crisis will quickly subside, so that we can all go back to our normal lives and habits; so that we continue to buy those things that we really lust after like the $40 Pokémon Clip ‘N’ Go Poke Ball Belt Set from Amazon. Yet, there’s a chance this won’t get any better before it gets a lot worse, and while humanity closes its doors, parks its cars, and slows its engines, the Earth takes a deep, clean, breath of relief. 

As my dearest friend told me today, “it’s ironic that in order for the Earth to breath, humanity literally must choke and die.” It’s unquestionably a tragedy, and every indication suggests that we are reaping the fruits of a system that was never meant to sustain us in the first place.

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