MARCH 31, 2020
I can’t remember why or when my friend John and I began sending each other news reports of animal attacks. I think it was a few weeks after I moved to Wyoming to teach literature at the university. There was an article in the local paper about a couple who’d been found dead on a deserted stretch of two-lane highway near where I lived. It wasn’t clear, the lone paragraph documenting their end said, if they had died of exposure or wolves. It took me a moment to realize that both things happened — there was just no way to tell which first.
It’s also hard to say if it was only because we began searching, to out-do one another, that the animal attacks seemed to become a near daily occurrence. Some were more spectacular than others — the Fort Collins man (just an hour down 287 from me) who wrestled a mountain lion to its death became national news. Fewer people seemed to care that the Yellowstone bison were goring people monthly, spinning children up in the air like foosball figures. And elsewhere, a pregnant woman in Cambridge was attacked by a rafter of wild turkeys; deer in Texas were found feasting on human remains, an octopus maimed a Japanese instagram influencer.
The joke was that after our plunderous behavior, the animals were getting organized and fighting back. As with most of the best jokes, it was funny to us because it was serious to us: John’s research centers on climate change, and particularly the impact of the meat industry on global ecosystems. And I work at a university that once went into lockdown procedures because a lion had wandered down from the mountains.
The other day, outside the grocery store, a man with a face covered in tattoos was yelling, “I don’t know what all this fuss is for the flu! It’s a hoax!” Then he winked at me as though he were my worst uncle. When I read the paragraph about the wolves who ate the couple by the highway, I thought “I’m going to die here,” which is something people usually say about the place they love most, that they’ll always defend — not the place they feel is threatening to kill them. I’ve come to mean it in a little of both ways.
I don’t live out on the prairie. In town, the houses are close to one another. It’s possible to get practically anywhere on foot. Still, it’s unusual to see anyone in the streets the past few days. On March 19, the governor finally closed bars, restaurants, and daycares after Wyoming was one of the states nationally shamed as a latecomer to the reality of the virus by Rachel Maddow. Last week, the Washington Post gave Wyoming the worst score in the nation on social distancing behavior in a much-posted map created by tracking user movements on smartphone data — a grade that may have been affected by the fact that many people in Wyoming, like me, don’t travel outside of their 2-mile radius too often in the normal course of things. Our movements look unchanged because we’re never really moving that much to begin with. Others regularly travel great distances to go to the grocery store, and need to still. Many of us are also using this as an opportunity to drive out into the vast uninhabited spaces of our map governed by the Bureau of Land Management, public lands where the public doesn’t typically go.
There are good reasons to be more afraid and less afraid of COVID-19 in Wyoming. We are the least populous state at fewer than 600,000, but our largest hospital has only 212 beds. The hospital where I live (population 32,000) has 86. In the normal course of things, anyone from Wyoming with a complicated medical emergency is taken by helicopter to Denver.
After the store I don’t go home. I end up driving and driving. The sun is bright, as it is most of the time, the sky a cheery blue. The mountains stand where they have always stood, at the horizon. As Demetri Martin, a comedian based in Southern California who performed at the university here three weeks ago said, “you guys have a lot of really beautiful things that are very far away.” I see antelope everywhere, out enjoying the rare warm day. They seem positively glib. A line in the Auden poem about Breughel’s painting of Icarus falling to his death floats into my head, “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / where the dogs go on with their doggy life,” and I finally feel calm. What if the poem isn’t a warning but an exhalation?
It’s been a long day, and I end it as I have the last several, in the worst of all possible ways — scrolling news stories and scientific research articles, poring over modeling studies and trying to teach myself statistics. A research paper published in the Journal of Autoimmunology last month (which has already been cited thirteen times since then) suggests that the zoonotic origin of COVID-19 is the wet animal market in Wuhan City, China. I text John: “This is how the animals get us in the end. Everything else was just warnings. How are you guys?”
No answer. I realize it’s almost 1am where he is. I should go to sleep myself. But I can’t stop seeing the shape of a pattern, in these floating images of a molecule that looks like a planet itself. I marvel anew at how the universe endlessly repeats at different scales, the perfect symmetry of actions and reactions: gravitational pulls, tides, imperceptible waves of movement, contractions of muscles — systole and diastole.
I think we will recover from this. But we will be very different after, having been loudly reminded that people are not the only thing going on this rock moving through space. It’s the hallmark concept of deep ecology, a term coined by Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring. Deep ecologists criticize the anthropocentric view of mainstream ecology, which they see as myopically concerned with how the deterioration of the ecosphere effects humans. The school of thought is often characterized as misanthropic but some more recent philosophers have come to find optimism within. Samantha Vice, a Distinguished Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg writes, “perhaps the thought that we will return to the earth and become, again, a part of the ongoing natural cycle can fulfill our yearning for meaning. If nature itself, and the cycles of life and death, are thought valuable, perhaps our own natural lives find their meaning within this timeless process.”
Maybe because I am not a philosopher — or maybier still I am not a philosopher for this reason — meaning has never seemed to me like the right thing to search for. Nor do I think it’s all that productive to try to qualify the role humans have played on earth, whether we have been bad or good. As I tell my students, it rarely does well to make your central question the intent of the entire work. Instead, I urge them to search for clues and draw more discrete conclusions.
Wyoming has long been extraordinarily rich in dinosaur bones, fossils, and coprolite (fossilized dinosaur dung), new paleontological findings are another kind of news story one could keep busy tracking here. The dinosaurs are still with us, to some extent, not so different from the deer carcass I once stumbled upon in the woods, maggots just beginning to crowd the flesh left on the bones by a bear. What humans will leave behind is strange and unprecedented, scars we’ve inflicted — some jagged deep wounds, others beautiful drawings. I find the image of earth at night, which we have chosen to light to a visibility of nine billion miles, both beautiful and terrifying. It’s the same way I feel stepping into a cathedral. My best clue for now is that I am grateful to know how that feels.