One Year in Pandemia Part 2: Out from the Wild

The desert teaches respect for nature. So does COVID-19.

In Spanish, the word for pandemic is pandemia. It sounds to me like academia or eudaimonia or even Portlandia: a state of mind, or a place, a world unto itself. This is a monthlong series on life in the pandemia, in response to Medium’s writing prompt.

The desert, I’ve learned, teaches respect. We were camped out at the base of Eureka Dunes, the tallest sand dunes in Death Valley and possibly North America at 680 feet high. The weather report had indicated clear weather, but halfway up the dunes, a strong wind caught us, as distant clouds rolled in faster than expected. My camping partner and I found sand everywhere, burst forth from the dunes and into tiny crevices in our electronics, clumped up in our bags and stuck to our hair.

Like many during this pandemic, I’ve found myself spending time in nature, backpacking into the deserts and mountains of California as much of the world has shut down. While nature brings peace, it also brings storms, fires, bears and bees. With little human infrastructure in the midst of the backcountry, I find myself thinking less of the transcendentalist possibilities espoused by Henry David Thoreau and more like the dark forests of the Brothers Grimm, where danger and mystery lurk around every corner.

Camping and nature activities have hit record highs during the pandemic, and for good reason: with a combination of outdoor air and social distancing, few things are safer while offering terrific mental health benefits. But one year into the pandemic, I find that my relationship with nature has changed. Rather than the idyllic vision of the nature as a place for meditation and oneness with the elements, I’ve learned to fear and respect it. From pricking my feet on cacti one too many times to being surrounded by a swarm of bees, I’ve learned to feel tiny in the face of nature.

As has become more and more clear, the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can’t be separated from humanity’s encroachment on the wild. Rather than a random black swan event, the pandemic is very much a yellow canary, a harbinger of humanity’s ravages on the environment that contribute to climate change. COVID-19, the freak snowstorm that hit Texas this year, the wildfires of California, the smog above Beijing and the burning of the Amazon — these all hit us with the same force that caught me off guard up in the sand dunes of Death Valley.

So much of contemporary civilization teaches us to think of nature as something to master and extract, from the coltan that powers our phones to the oil that makes our cars work. On the other hand, there is also the view of nature as a place of peace and calm, a system we’ve been torn away from in favor of urban life. Both a mechanistic view of nature and a romantic view of it paper over the wilderness beneath us, above us and in the air. A tiny virus, emerged from a small mammal somewhere in Asia, has shut down our industrialized world. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time. This year of years has forced us to reckon with nature in a new way: as a force that teaches respect.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

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