Journal of the Plague Year (#15)

Berkeley, CA June 29, 2020 — Once, I lived, very briefly, with bats.

It was in a partially collapsed barn, on the edge of a large 50-acre field in southeast Vermont. Once part of a setting for small subsistence farms, partly gone to seed. The 20 or 30 cows who once grazed there had been gone for decades. My urban refugee friends had been given two replacements by an elderly farmer down the road, whose family had been in the vicinity for as long as anyone could remember.

The cows, joined by a pig or two, some goats, twenty or thirty chickens, and lots of dogs and cats, tolerated us, their caregivers. We benefited greatly from their presence in practical ways – milk (which also became butter and cheese) was astonishingly plentiful, eggs, and once in a great while, bacon.

There was also another benefit we did not mostly appreciate. Peace, quiet, and vistas of green in abundant shades. And skies that changed not just with the seasons but with the hours. An occasional small herd of deer came to visit, though they were immediately chased away by the dogs. Often the only sound you heard was the wind orchestrating the trees, and the deer munching where the dogs had not yet gone downwind. 

Trees filled out the property in second-growth forest. It wasn’t necessary to cut down any living ones; they were abundant enough to provide naturally dead and dried wood to fuel the kitchen stove and a large fireplace for heat. 

The cows grazed peacefully most of the year, though in winter they mostly stayed on the lowest level of the barn structure, eating hay that had been harvested dried, and baled for them all summer. A small peach orchard, neglected and yet valiantly putting out blossoms on its unpruned branches, was up a steep hill. All of this on a dirt road, lost to mud and snow at least half the year.

I had not thought so long and intensely about that land and the abundant life there until last Sunday’s (6/21/2020) New York Times Magazine piece by Farris Jabr, “Out of the Wild.” Whose alarming subtitle accurately reflects its information-packed pages. “As humanity degrades animal habitats, reduces biodiversity and reaches ever deeper into the wilderness for resources, we’re all but certain to unleash more diseases like Covid-19.” 

Jabr usefully compresses material from others who intensively study the little known field of zoonoses - diseases spread between animals and humans. Some of these are familiar, and have been controlled if not eliminated: rabies, Lyme, SARS, Ebola, West Nile and Zika. Others seem to be gone, but not before doing enormous damage on their way through human, and animal, life: AIDS and the Bubonic plague. 

Jabr’s most important conclusion is that we can expect more viral based dangers even as COVID-19 continues to spread. “Deforestation, mining, intensive agriculture and urban sprawl destroy natural habitats,” he notes, “along with “excessive hunting and out of control human population growth which feeds on nearly exterminated wild animals” who are often killed and distributed in unsanitary conditions.

He cites David Quammen, an independent research scientist ( i.e. not dependent on government or corporate control) whose 2012 book, “Spillover” is the most thorough and easily accessible text on the subject. He was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in early February, before COVID-19 began its worldwide spread. It was already known – and has since been confirmed - that the virus began to surface in China’s Wuhan region. Quammen says it was perfect laboratory for such an affliction, since it’s in Yunnan province, one of China’s most biodiverse, rural areas. Mostly untroubled by scientific review and official permitting, “Yunnan grew to 46 million people in 2010, from 19 million in 1958” says Jabr. “Logging and human set fires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness. Houses, fruit trees and rubber plantations have displaced tropical rainforest.”

Which brings us to my old roommates, bats.

The barn, on whose upper hayloft I camped, erupted shortly after dark. It became a whispering chamber of swift wings and muted squawks. Bats Those I could see had highly erratic flight paths, never flew in pairs, much less flocks, and didn’t run into each other or barn swallows or walls or windows. Alternating with bullfrogs in the scuzzy pond outside and with fireflies everywhere in the star-lit nights, it was a blissful place to drift off to sleep. An occasional two-tone (mom and calf) “Moo!” from two shaky floors below helped. I didn’t fear the bats, since I had been told (correctly) that they didn’t bite or scratch. Unlike the omnipresent mosquitoes, which they in fact ate. 

Bats are both smart and fast, wise about danger such as a person carrying a net. Back then we typically uninstructed citizens of the urban middle class were a long way from knowing that bats, captured, with difficulty, often start rotting before they can be brought to rural markets in places like China and Malaysia. In poor people’s homes they are often cooked unhealthily in smoke choked kitchens. 

 There seemed, and seems, to be an inexhaustible supply. Approximately 1,000 bat species exist; 175 different species live in Indonesia alone. And what are they up to, if allowed to do their thing? According to the World Atlas, “bats play a significant role in pollination, fruit dispersion, and seed dispersion, as well as in the destruction of crop-destroying insects.” 

Presently, one out of every four living mammals is a bat. They are very diverse; among their approximately 1,000 species, some have wingspreads of seven feet. Jabr says “they have been co-involving with a vast array of viruses for around 50 million years.” They ordinarily do not get virus-related illnesses, because they have evolved to the point where their systems can combat disease effectively – the famous herd immunity. But if, as in Malaysia recently, serious damage is done to their environment through human activity, disaster can result. Like rotting fruit poisoned by uncontrolled human-caused forest fires, which became food for bats when the smoke killed the insects they usually ate.. The rotten fruit fell into pig pens under fruit trees. The pigs ate it. People, with no immunity to such viruses, ate the pigs. Beginning to get the picture?

Raise your hand if you remember “The Smiths” and their 1985 song, “Meat is Murder:”

 Heifer whines could be human cries

Closer comes the screaming knife

This beautiful creature must die 

A death for no reason

And the flesh you so fancifully try 

Is not succulent, tasty or kind 

It’s death for no reason

And death for no reason is murder

Kitchen aromas aren't very homey

It's not comforting, cheery or kind

It's not natural, normal or kind

The flesh you so fancifully fry

Keep your hand up if you’re familiar with Pulitzer Prize winning Laurie Garret’s 1994 book, “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.”

The first two times I read Jabr’s magazine piece I was profoundly depressed. Then I read it again. In an eerie parallel with the completely dissimilar “Black Lives Matter,” movement, Jabr shows how the COVID-19 moment, so deeply and destructively upon us, can be transformative. There is not going to be an effective, thoroughly tested vaccine for COVID-19 any time soon. Racist violence against our country’s endemically oppressed African-American ethnicity is not going to go away any time soon. But where there is quite possibly going to be a recognition that if we want environmental and socio-political transformation need to repair the damage humans have done. 

Here’s an idea. While the present occupant of the White House visits Mt. Rushmore on July 4, secure in the knowledge that his unpopular likeness will never further deface that landscape, what if something else was happening at the same time? 

What if there was a viral campaign to put George Floyd’s likeness on Mt. Rushmore? And to reduce to rubble the Mt. Rushmore sculptures of slave owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson! 

On-line, in a school or workplace (even virtual), and in the streets, it would be great to see that image adapted everywhere!

People, in that social justice campaign like all others, will have to get used to the idea that monumental (sic) change usually comes slowly, when it comes at all. You don’t get fulfillment just by showing up. As was shown again last weekend, when a small car caravan wandered through Berkeley, signs waving, horns honking. We got divided and lost at unmonitored intersections but everyone had phones and arrived to the destination, an abandoned Marina parking lot. There were no TV cameras. No obvious journalists of any kind. But texts and social media photos no doubt were buzzing through cyberspace. And – most encouraging of all – there was a human being around whom energies can crystallize. Laura Bobitt, a parent of four Berkeley public school children, and an activist with groups like Parents of Children of African Descent, will be elected in November (there are only three candidates for the three open seats) to the Berkeley School Board. Restorative justice, rather than expulsion, criminalization, and incarceration are among her issues.

Like the progressive candidates who are winning many local primary races, sometimes against establishment Democrats (there were three more in New York this week) she is someone that the Bernie Sanders campaigns helped motivate to get involved. The environmentally aware, racial justice movement is more and more widespread – in France on Sunday the Green Party won elections in Strasbourg, Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, and Besancon, while a Socialist with strong environmental policies was re-elected mayor of Paris.

How difficult it is to navigate the swamp of complicated, constipated electoralism in this country can be seen in Marin County. Absent a last minute change of plans, schools will reopen there in a few weeks. But there is a County Office of Education and a County Superintendent of Education. And sixteen local school boards. There is a web page of information about COVID-19 situations. But there are, 40,000 school age children.. There are hundreds of teachers, administrators, and support staff. Many are unionized, some are not. How do you approach such a structure with even a simple task – like reading Jabr’s article and making it a base document for discussion, education and possible action?

How many diseased animals will be consumed as food while you’re doing that? How many dollars will be spent on establishing new U.S. military bases in Poland (!)? That wouldn’t seem to matter, except that government funds are too often fungible. Meaning that once the money is taken from citizens by taxes, it can be spent by governments in widely different ways. Money to buy weapons that Poland will never use, except possibly in oppressing troublesome Poles, could instead be used in pandemic related pursuits. Like re-establishing destroyed and damaged contiguous forests so that animals can be animals, not weakened targets for disease,

Here again, citizen involvement is going to be the indispensable key. And here again almost anyone can be involved.

Let’s leave the last word to David Quammen, author of Spillover (Interview, Orion Magazine, 3/17/2020): “We are all connected. Bats, monkeys, apes, pangolins, civits, people. We are all dependent not only on each other but on the ecosystems we inherit. Zoonotic spillovers will keep on coming, as long as we drag wild animals to us and split them open. A tropical forest is like a beautiful old barn. Knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust. Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.”

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