Distant wings of Tropical Storm Arthur ruffle over the lake I walk by daily, May 16, 2020.
Stay with me folks, it will take a while to approach what might be called a grasp of the challenge …
Today (I began drafting this weekly challenge on Saturday) it’s warm toward hot as you’d expect late-spring in Florida, blustery as Invest 90 foments into Tropical Storm Arthur off the eastern coast. Not much effect from it here a hundred miles to the west—as the storm was frothing up, it raked south Florida with storms. But if there’s a truer, balder herald of summer in the Hot Years to Come, it’s not the arrival of the rainy season (due in a few weeks) but these early and earlier big and bigger storms. The oceans are heating faster than the land, and our annual columnar proof comes swirling, vast, and fraught with increasing peril.
Facts of life in the Change: Already tired from gardening efforts the day before, I did my weekly mowing small beneath that slowly heaving, more muscular sky, feeling mortal, diminished and vulnerable. It reminded me that my part of the collective story is just a tiny sensor or beacon upswirling into a vast dark mass.
So much for business as usual in a heating world turbocharging its lessons these days with pandemic. Or would it be more appropriate to say the pandemic is fast recalibrating what we call business as usual?
You could say this pandemic is a gas pedal flooring us faster into
the surging realities of a mastered world careening out of control. It has taken the focus off the greater change in the Earth’s climate, yet speeds in one of those weird timescales we explored here some time ago, the rapid unfoldment of the pandemic replicating a spike in months what the saturation of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere will uptick over decades. It’s an apt lens for humans to understand how fast all this is coming at us, how little time there is to prepare, and the vast particularities of that which we can explore in our poems.
Climate change has only faded in the news, filtering through more randomly during this pandemic and its primarily human shock. But it surfaces and echoes with fearsome volume. There’s record heat up in the Arctic for this early in the year, with scientists wondering if this will be the year the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free this summer and how much melt will accelerate in Greenland. In the Antarctic summer just passed there was record heat as well. Ninety percent of the Earth’s stable glacial ice is located there, which means that melting and calving of the ice steppes there means glub glub everywhere, a pandemic of rising waters.
Wildfires have started up in Florida’s panhandle and in the state’s southwest, fanned by high-pressure hot winds still thronged with ghosts from earlier great fires in New South Wales and Jakarta, the Amazon rainforest and California. They came and they’re coming again, infected with the prior stain and rising degrees. One doesn’t have to wait for long for a new disaster to begin, much for less concurrent disasters to flare and rage.
And yet, this: Despite the ferocity of evidence now piling in—a rising tide of dire proof that action is desperately needed—the human response is weirdly less engaged and empathetic. It’s as if there is a secret corollary between ever-more dramatic spikes and duller, slower, more fiercely denialist inaction.
The pandemic could be blamed for this—who gives a shit about rising tides in Southeast Asia, when in the USA (for example) 40 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year are now unemployed? But again, our human response to the latter is a weird duplicate of the former: The greater the infection and death curve, the louder the hysterics about everything the pandemic is not, from Chinese military lab shenanagans to bleach cures to armed rightwing militias parading outside state capitals chanting Open ‘Er Up, a minor variation on the good ole Lock Her Up intonations at legacy Trump rallies.
I’ll get off purely USA difficulties in a minute, but the worst-case scenario for handling a major pandemic is in ample evidence in my native country. We ignored the news, didn’t prepare, didn’t isolate, don’t test, don’t contract trace, waited too long to lock down and open back up way too early. How could such wealthy and self-aggrandizing nation fuck up so miserably? It’s easy (and probably fit) to blame our current President and the will of his administration to gut the workings of government, but there’s a collective will behind his ways, and its main directive seems to be arm up, hunker down and blame something else.
A vastly bad particular: in our state of Wisconsin, the partisan Republican Supreme Court sided with the Republican legislature against the stay-in-place orders of Democratic governor Tony Evers. The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with bars opening en masse in some while other locales still struggled to contain the virus. Who knew that something so apolitical as a virus would become such a partisan wedge?
Most Western democracies are suffering the same to varying degree; it’s as if the 21st century consciousness they embody is woefully unprepared for the greatest challenges a civilization could face—a global human pandemic and the greater extinction of life on the planet due to human-induced climate change. Our mastery has been outstripped by primitive impulses of greed and fear; does one invoke the other?
Who knows. But today the wind is blowing, heaving the live oaks outside my living room window in a way that smirks at my air-conditioned, suburban stasis. Just like the teeny tiny COVID 19 virus, those big winds don’t care one whit about what I believe or think. Poke the Earth too hard and you get an angry mama bear of a future; sweep the virus under the rug and it glows and glowers all night, whispering our names, our loved one’s names, so many names we can never absorb the total from our solitary vantage.
Like climate change, this pandemic is a global phenomenon with myriad local and personal inflections. Some countries have their collective act in decent enough shape to be beneficial for most of its residents; South Korea has only suffered some 260 fatalities from the virus. Other countries are a mess—USA, 89,000 fatalities, a number which would be higher if state authorities weren’t locking down the count. Bangladesh is too poor and populous to do more than suffer COVID’s spread; New Zealand sits at the other end of that spectrum, and returns a wise normalcy having taken decisive, right and affordable action right from the start. Despots in Russia and Brazil and the Phillipines prevaricate and hide the truth of pandemic in their ruined worlds. In Moscow, several COVID wards have burned due to ventilators catching fire, and health care workers who have been forced to work and have few protections have been reported jumping from hospital windows in suicide attempts. But health care workers in the most well-furnished ERs in New York City are suffering into a mid-game with the pandemic, initial spike soothing, adrenaline fading, leaving a daily grind and toll which cannot be relieved in a hospital system going broke.
Very few have passed the time unaffected—scientists working in the Antarctic, astronauts in the International Space Station, a lone sea traveler who just came to shore after three months. So few that it shocks the awareness how globally unprepared and vulnerable the human population of Earth is in the age of COVID.
Two more lines work in opposite directions: an upwardly spike of deaths, the downward precipice of economies. In between, the casualties are too many and varied to properly count. Clothing factories at a standstill, daily workers starving, the tide of hunger rising. Locusts swarm in Africa, murder hornets behead bees in Washington State. Upwards to 40 million unemployed Americans face hunger and rent payments without healthcare, many in states which have lagged horribly in getting unemployment benefits out to them. State and local governments struggle to keep firemen and police officers on the payroll.
The vast particulars are local. A neighbor’s wife who had gone to visit her sick mother in Germany has been stuck there on lockdown for three months. Local mothers whose work and family lives have collapsed into each other walk their kids late in the day with distant eyes. I wonder how the black community in my town is faring, normally off the white radar and now even more impoverished and remote. Who knows what it’s like for undocumented workers cut off from work and government benefits. My wife is desperate to get her father into memory care at a nursing facility but the virus reaper treads heavily there. I attend Zoom AA meetings and worry about all the AAs I don’t see there, how many may have relapsed trapped in diminishing spaces. Who knows what it’s like for opioid addicts whose thread of sobriety is far more perilous, or compulsive hand-washers and schizophrenics cut off from supportive human contact. What new victims madness will claim, through nightmares, insecurity, lost connection, too much time. What a terrifying cavern the lonely human self, in this most indulged age of the individual …
The suburban everyday fabric is slow to dissolve, but this summer I fear there will be food riots in Miami which will spread here in the form of masked store employees getting beat up or shot by the outraged and unmaskable. Teeth grinding this way result in a long low simmering headache and botched dreams, like the one the other night where someone pounded dead animals—a giraffe, a dog, an alligator—against the pavement in a grotesque comedy routine I could feel the world cheering for.
This forum was founded in the hope of a collective forum for a changing medium—some number of local inputs on a global phenomenon. We are still about that work. We learn late and slowly that pandemic is one of that changing world’s apocalyptic horsemen, rare in that it preys mainly on the perpetrator where other events—rising seas, water scarcity, oppressive heat, wildfire—wage even harder war upon the victims, our companion animals and plants and their intermingled ecologies. A strange comeuppance in one view, humans leveled by the viral; in another, shifting the time’s focus in ways that both help and hinder the Earth.
On those thoughts, this weekly challenge of VAST PARTICULARS:
- Illustrate the changing tenor of the time with a snapshot or observation or tale which is both vast and particular.
- Do vast particulars – global yet local, earth-sensitive yet human-driven, pandemically reeling a decades-long unfolding—document the news of the moment?
- What new tensions are revealing themselves? Stripped of our daily routines, shriven from assurance of a well-meaning (at least, promised) future and encroached by shadows of collapse, just who stares back in the mirror of this moment?
- If pandemic is the astringent which is fast clearing away the niceties and collective givens we call human, what vast particulars reveal homo sapiens behind its peeling mask?
The mythic cycles we’ve employed – hero’s quest, perilous chapel—have been traversed and leave us (gifted or cursed) with this new world, one whose outlines are vaguely, slowly revealing themselves. Who are we now? What do we do with enforced solitude, which changing social norms and the omnipresent specter of a crusading disease? Who do we wear the mask for? We have sacrificed our own security in the name of collective good; what is the payoff?
Maybe it seems like pretty wide reconnaissance (my wife correctly accuses me of Big Picturism), but reportage of the moment requires vast particulars. That’s an odd phrase, but it contains the tension between two curves moving in opposite directions.
For example, this poem I read in the May 18 New Yorker offers such a vantage:
In Chuck’s dream, a strange woman
is smoking in our kitchen.
She’s doing her best, she says,
exhaling into the oven.
Then three military men
burst in without knocking.
They say they’ve come
to establish order,
but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.
Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—
close enough to spread a virus.
I take a photo of a house
painted half blue, half pink.
Why am I drawn
to things that make no sense?
Or is their sense excessive?
You need to decontextualize
in order to see it,
I once said.
in a pocket of rain forest;
on the wingless breeze.
What particulars—daily iota of evolving knowns, raw data becoming the softest sursurration of changing weather—are vast with the news of what we really are and/or can be no more?
Weeks before the official start of the hurricane season, Tropical Storm Arthur looks to brush the coast of North Carolina before spiraling out into the colder waters of the mid-Atlantic. Good news for the East Coast of the USA, but another storm, Cyclone Vongfong, barreled last Friday straight into Luzon, the most populous island of the Philippines. The evacuation of a hundred thousand residents was complicated by efforts to maintain social distancing during the nation’s lockdown. Facing off with the West Pacific’s first named storm of the season, shelters were only allowed to fill halfway and evacuees expected to wear masks.
I went out to water the impatiens and gardenias we planted out back—slow curve of slight water from a hose, feeding what we have chosen to flourish—while the sky bucked and rolled and heaved—gently enough—with the distant swelling of Tropical Storm Arthur. I don’t have a job, what else am I gonna do? Stay home and keep safe. I looked down at those pretty, tiny, frail blossoms weaving in the same wind and whispered the same to them before heading back inside to the air-conditioned shelter of this post.
Who wins, I wonder. Who knows.