Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, though the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 28: A reader asked me a question this morning that, while as dire as all-get-out, made me reflect a bit about how boned we are as a society. And to question whether, in fact, we are boned. Or if we can even know that.
“The Easter Island inhabitants are purported to have deforested their island which led to their demise. I’m interested in their decision making process that led them to cut down the very last tree. What overarching need made them decide to cut it down? Was it for food, for building a boat, making warfare? Is America in a similar place vis-a-vis the “tipping point”? Are we almost ready to cut down our last metaphorical tree (i.e. healthcare, the elderly, at-risk individuals, etc.) or do we still have time? Is our leadership able to do that or will they be the ones putting gas in the chainsaw?”
Based on random things I remember from anthropology classes in college, the Easter Island deforestation was a product of a number of factors that sort of fed into each other in a negative feedback loop. Parasites and rats were introduced to the island via seafaring excursions causing a decline in plant life, which lead to shortages, which lead to tension, which led to tribal warfare, which led to some messed up priorities in which, out of desperation, the dead were given more resources (the Moai statues) than the living, which lead to more deforestation (to get logs to roll the Moai into place). At some point it all came crashing down.
I have no idea how that relates to what’s going on in America or the world in modern times, but I do believe that complicated systems depend on so many interdependent factors that they’re impossible for people in their midst to fully and consciously appreciate them let alone control them with any sort of certainty. This can work positively, such as when small innovations here or there come together and cause synergistic advances and improvements in a society. But I suspect it works negatively too. When you start plugging one hole another opens up and you end up like those poor sons a’ bitches on Easter Island.
I suspect we’re too close to the situation in our own society to truly appreciate the big picture of it all. I think our broad and determined push to devalue the poor in every conceivable way and to exploit and destroy the environment in what appears to be an unsustainable fashion is, needless to say, pretty damn bad. But whether all of that constitutes evidence of a society in a death spiral or merely a really crappy blip in the broader advancement of humanity I have no real idea.
That question appealed to me because I’ve been trying hard to see a hint of a spark in the darkness. To find a way to frame all of this awfulness in a larger, potentially less-negative light. To that end I’ve been thinking, obviously, about the Black Plague.
There’s a whole area of study out there about how society evolved in response to the Black Plague. How — at least after all of the dying stopped — it hastened the end of the middle ages, led to the advent of the middle class, caused people to question the clergy in ways that, over time, led to the Reformation, impacted architecture and medicine and a host of other things. I’m not comparing what’s happening now to the Black Plague — it’s bad but, nah, it ain’t that, friends — but I do, as I did a few weeks ago, wonder what unexpected things might come after this horrible upheaval. And I wonder if even a few of them might be positives.
I have a lot of friends who live in California and they’ve been talking about how the air is cleaner and clearer than they can ever remember due to the dramatic reduction in driving.
I know people who have realized — and who, I would hope, their employers have realized — can do a great deal of their job from home.
I know people who rarely if ever cooked who have pushed themselves to try and who have been happy with the results.
I know people who have learned some of the lessons our grandparents and great-grandparents learned during the Depression about frugality, conservation and preservation in order to stretch supplies and dollars.
I also know people, unfortunately, who are confronting what it means to simultaneously lose one’s job and thus one’s health insurance at a time of medical crisis.
I’d wish none of the hardships on people from which they are currently suffering and do not for one moment claim that death and disease is “worth it” or anything close to it. But I wonder if our having to endure this misery will lead to at least some positive changes once we’re out of the woods. I certainly hope it does.
I hope it will cause us to drive and consume less, leading to attendant environmental benefits.
I hope that everyone who comes through this comes through it with a killer new recipe or three and an increased self-confidence for having endured something.
I hope that it causes us to care for each other more and come to appreciate that healthcare is not the same as any other good and that purchasing it on the market like we’re expected to in the United States is a horrible idea.
I don’t know that it will. When I’m feeling pessimistic I feel pretty confident that we’ll just snap back into our pre-March 11 habits the moment someone says we can. But I don’t always feel pessimistic and I hope that, even though I wish I could snap my fingers and make this all go away, we come out of it on the other side stronger and better for having had to endure it.
I took another long walk today. 8.05 miles according to my little exercise app. My first stop was yet another cemetery:
This is the original New Albany cemetery, behind the Village Hall and next to the new police station. It predates Maplewood Cemetery, which is the where I took the photos of those 1918-19 gravestones the other day. This one was in use between 1854 and 1881, though there are some graves dating back to 1837 that someone had moved in here at some point from an even older, now non-existent burial ground. Given that New Albany was founded in 1837, that’s about as old as it’s going to get around here.
The town’s founders, Nobel Landon and William Yantis are both buried here. Given how radically New Albany has changed in the past 30-35 years or so, I am certain that it would be harder for them to recognize this place than it would be for any other founders of small farm towns in Ohio. That is, if they rose from the dead all of a sudden and started to look around, but that’d present a whole other set of problems.
I couldn’t believe I’ve lived here 15 years without noticing this place but then I got home and did a little research and realized why I hadn’t.
The cemetery ceased being used in 1881 and, as often happens, the people who remembered the dead there started to die off themselves. At that point the cemetery started to become neglected. Grown over. Gravestones crumbling. Eventually it was little more than a bunch of tall grass, weeds and stones.
According to the New Albany Historical Society, at some point in the 1960s the guy who owned the land abutting it took it upon himself to bulldoze the gravestones and throw them in Rose Run Creek, which is just to the left in this photo, off-camera. His goal, other than making it easier to mow the property, was to create a pond in the creek with the gravestones as a dam, which is what he did. In so doing he was about 30 years ahead of his time when it came to messing up New Albany’s original heritage in the name of misguided progress, but that’s an essay for another day.
In 1979 the New Albany Historical Society retrieved the gravestones from the creek, did their best to restore them, and then just laid them around the base of the big tree in the photo. It was not until just a couple of years ago that the town shelled out the money to do some underground imaging to see where the bodies were actually buried, after which they restored the gravestones in a bit better fashion and placed them over actual graves. Obviously they don’t know whose grave is whose, but they made a nice arrangement all the same. Like everything else in New Albany, it’s sorta fake, but it looks lovely.
This has nothing to do with the pandemic, obviously. I just like to look at graveyards and talk about them. And, I suppose, if we were not all on lockdowns and quarantines, I probably would’ve just gone to Costco or the mall or something today rather than take an eight-mile walk.
As I said above, I wish we didn’t have to go through this at all but, if we do, at least we can get some good things out of it. Like some exercise. And a history lesson.