Updated: May 24, 2022
In Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, the character, Patricia, standing in front of a grove of trees, expresses her gratitude for the gifts of nature:
Thank you for the baskets and the boxes. Thank you for the capes and hats and skirts. Thank you for the cradles. The beds. The diapers, Canoes, Paddles, harpoons, and nets. Poles, logs, posts. The rot-proof shakes and shingles. The kindling that will always light. . . .Thank you for the tools, The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The paneling. I forget . . . Thank you” she says, following the ancient formula. “For all these gifts that you have given.” And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know how hard it is for you to grow back.” (p. 135)
I found this quite meaningful when I first read it, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic. It fit with my musings about our intimate relationship with the earth.
As I see it, human life begins with our participation in the biosphere; when air enters our bodies and it breathes us. I know, it seems like we breathe it, but that is a rather egocentric way of seeing things. Instead, it looks like humans live through their participation in the biosphere, just like fish live through their participation in water.
So, what does it mean that the coronavirus disrupts our breathing and in many cases stops it. We have employed thousands of ventilators and millions of masks to keep breathing, to continue our participation in the earth and for many, we have failed. What can I say? Not so much right now. It does make sense to acknowledge that grieving is not the same as gratitude.
We are not the only primates that grieve. We do seem, however, to be unique in constructing social worlds that extract us from our body’s earthly context—the origin of the breath of life. I hope our experiences of the coronavirus is correcting this misperception.
We exist as parts of larger wholes, and the parts ultimately depend on the whole. The whole is not simply our biological or social life. It’s both. Still, we begin with breathing and we end when it stops. In between we live together on a planet that we continue to poison and exploit, and we also have to say, whose rhythms and patterns we do not control. Sometimes, they can be deadly, and we need to protect ourselves from them. Today, it still makes sense to be grateful for the earth’s provisions, but we should also be grateful to, and never forget, all those who have stood up to protect us.