Remember those stories, from what seems like a century ago, about dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice? I fell for them, even though they were absurd. Why would dolphins want to enter those narrow canals when they have the entire Adriatic to disport themselves in?
But the reason that so many of us fell for the story is that it corroborates the consoling idea that Nature, given half a chance, immediately begins to recover. In fact, many cities are seeing cleaner air as a result of stay-at-home rules. Here in Vermont, with traffic noise drastically reduced, I’ve never heard so much bird song. It’s an anything but silent spring.
While coyotes roam the empty streets of San Francisco and Chicago, around our cottage the foxes are flourishing. Yesterday evening I watched one kill a squirrel right under our bird feeder, and head up the hill to his den across the road. I told myself that his wife and four children would eat a good dinner, but the violence of the killing, although it was over in seconds, stayed with me.
I stood at the sink washing my hands for the umpteenth time and repeating my hand-washing metta: may all beings be safe, may all beings be healthy, may all beings be content, may all beings live with ease. But for whose safety and contentment was I praying, the fox’s or the squirrel’s? I couldn’t have both: if the squirrel is safe, the fox goes hungry; for the fox to live with ease, the squirrel must die. And it doesn’t stop there: when the squirrel eats the acorn, the future oak perishes. When the fox dies, its flesh melts into the earth and feeds the tree.
Everything comes at a cost. The clean air of the city is paid for by the cab drivers with no fares, and by the mountains of packaging materials overflowing the dumps. In factory farms across the country, thousands of pigs are being reprieved, while the workers who would have butchered and processed them at the now-closed Smithfield plant in South Dakota sicken and grow poorer by the day.
Is there no way out of this zero-sum game? Not, I think, as long as there are so many of us on this earth. And even if by some miracle all the visions of Margaret Sanger, Bill McKibben, Al Gore, and Rachel Carson were to come true at once, death would still be the necessary condition of life.
But to be human means, almost by definition, living with the illusion that we are exempt from the turning of the wheel. In our frantic culture, normal life allows us to maintain that illusion. But in this spring’s eerie silence (except for the birds), distractions are harder to come by.
And so between watching the fox on the prowl, and worrying about the sick and the unemployed, I strive to accustom myself to the image of my flesh dissolving and my molecules gently dispersing for the benefit and nourishment of something or someone. Does this seem morbid and medieval? I don’t think it is. Rather, I suspect that getting comfortable with this vision is where true ease and contentment lie.