Like most Westerners I didn’t know much about pangolins until very recently, until everything changed. Until the face-masks and the gloves. Until the fear of touching friends. Until the pubs, cafes, restaurants, schools and theatres were closed. Until the dismal new vocabulary of isolation and distancing. Until our civilisation rolled itself into a protective ball.
On Caroline’s birthday, a group of friends comes to sing to her in the street. They stand outside in the dark, beyond the gate, which they do not touch, while we listen – two silhouettes – from the lighted doorway. Afterwards, Caroline laughs and cries. Then we shut the door.
In these strange days we are somehow required to see things that can’t be seen. Not only the possible presence of a microscopic threat, but a web of imagined connections stretching back and forwards through time, from the last person whose air we breathed to the parent we are not allowed to touch, an invisible network that runs through the population like mycorrhiza.
Attempting to see the unseeable is a practice long overdue. If the transmission routes were suddenly made visible – an intricate, overlapping mesh reaching out across the world that leads back to a frightened animal in a market in a cage – the world’s other invisible threads might be made apparent. The thread between the flight we take and the drop running off the glacier. The thread between the internet search term and the rising water. The thread between the product we buy and the bulldozer tearing down the trees, or the suicide nets under factory windows, or the lack of butterflies. The thread between one person breathing and another dying.
For someone who has spent years immersed in narratives of collapse – believing that massive systemic change is inevitable, even desirable – I’m slightly embarrassed to discover how dismaying collapse really is. And this isn’t even proper collapse yet; more of a swift contraction. The internet is suddenly full of people knowing what to think (the end of globalisation, the vindication of socialists, the vindication of xenophobes, the start of the next great depression) and people knowing what to give (free online lessons, book recommendations, communal singing from balconies). In amongst the turning-inwards people are turning outwards.
But I don’t know what to think, and I don’t know what to give. I always imagined that, when the collapse arrived, I would feel exhilarated.
I just feel confused and sad.
The headlines don’t make sense to me: All schools to close indefinitely. Police to enforce social distancing rules. Economy to shrink by 15%. The Foreign Office advises against travel to any other country.
More than each shocking announcement, though, the thing I have been least prepared for is the speed at which normality shifts, the sense that everyone – societally, even globally – has simultaneously fallen down the same collective rabbit hole. Within days, natural human behaviours – meeting in groups, going for walks, sharing food and touching hands – have taken on an air of transgression, selfishness, even criminality, and violators of these new rules are accused on social media of everything from moral bankruptcy to murder. The change has come, like the virus, at exponential speed.
A friend explains to me what ‘exponential’ means. Imagine, she says, that you are sitting beside an empty swimming pool. At the bottom of the pool is a single drop of water. It doubles, and doubles, and keeps doubling, and for a long time you notice nothing at all because double a tiny amount is still a tiny amount. Then the pool is half full. When it doubles again it will be full. By the time the awareness hits you it is already too late: at the next doubling you will be deep under water.
Gradually then suddenly. The graphs depicting the rates of infection, and the rates of mortality, indicate nothing, nothing, nothing, a slight rise – then a skywards zoom. The trajectory is identical to that of global plastic production, forest fires in Australia, carbon emissions from aviation, animal extinction rates and human population growth. We are looking at the same archetypal line on a different axis.
At what point, on that upwards curve, does gradually become suddenly? At what point do you run?
Another friend tells me that some intention is behind all this. What’s happening is too vast, too simultaneous, too complete; this is the great power-grab, the beginning of the new regime, a move to force all of us to accept controls on our movement and the people we associate with, to police all social interaction and keep us staring at our screens, disconnected from the natural world, to live in perpetual paranoia and to follow orders. Look at China, he says, where this started: the facial recognition technology and the tracking of mobile phones, the system of social credit and debit, this is being rolled out everywhere. What’s happening is not collapse but its opposite.
Anxious as I am right now, this is not really what I want to hear, and I gently disengage. Maybe, I say. Who knows, I say. I walk into the garden. It is a bright spring day and the wind is rattling the branches of next door’s walnut tree. Later my friend sends an apologetic message:
‘Sorry about my irate conversation. I don’t think there’s an organised cabal directing the planet. Just a strange wind that is blowing us in a very unusual direction. Why, I don’t know. Who’s doing it? We all are, in some weird way.’
The thing I have been least prepared for is the speed at which normality shifts, the sense that everyone – societally, even globally – has simultaneously fallen down the same collective rabbit hole.
While Caroline digs up the flower bed I make a planter from scaffolding planks. A friend with an allotment has given us seeds – French beans, broad beans, broccoli, kale, rainbow chard, rhubarb, calendula, lettuce – and we are, at long last, growing things. It feels like the right time.
I have always admired growers in the same hazy, distant way as I admire teachers, house-builders and paramedics. I know it’s a good thing to do, I know it’s something I should do, but I have never done it myself. That choice was a luxury. Now, with the tenuousness of global supply chains made apparent, it feels like something I can’t not do, or something I should already have done. The best time to plant a tree, goes the saying, was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.
Perhaps one of the reasons I have not grown my own food before is my blinkered inability to visualise cause and effect. I find it hard to truly believe that the seed being thumbed into the soil will, in a few months’ time, re-emerge in altered form; that a tiny action I take now will be manifest in the future. Like the microscopic creep from surface to surface, skin to skin, here is another invisible thread that connects one thing to the next, a line between two points in time, that ends in a sudden blossoming. The best time not to catch Covid-19 was seven days ago.
On a wall near a supermarket in Bristol, a short walk from where I live, is a mural of a pangolin. It has been there for years. One eye is visible, and the sole of a chubby foot; it is curled into a defensive ball, armoured in its scales.
‘The Most Trafficked Mammal In The World!’ says the writing underneath.
‘What the hell’s a pangolin?’ I’ve overheard someone say.
The scales are painted with polka dots, flowers, geometric shapes, stripes, interlocking patterns, helixes, even tiny fish, as if its body is a quilt, a tapestry that contains the world.
Now all I can see is writhing viral lifeforms.
Everything that’s happening now is an aftershock of that creature’s pain.
I keep wanting to burst into tears and I don’t know why.
There are unexpected breaking points. I call my mother to check how she is and find her sobbing, inconsolable. Through her tears she tells me that the robin who came to her doorstep every day, hopping for crumbs on the kitchen floor, a creature she talked to and knew as a friend – he was trying to teach her to sing, she says – must have flown upstairs and bashed his head on a window pane. His body was bunched up on the floor. She’s convinced that it’s her fault for leaving the back door open.
Fuck the isolation rules; I go round straight away. I simply cannot bear the thought of her crying alone in an empty house over the body of a bird. She has placed him in the garden next to the little hole she’s dug. Wearing gloves, with a scarf wrapped round my face, I watch from several metres away as she plants him in the earth. I ring the handbell I’ve brought. Then she says some words.
The words are the story of why she got arrested.
In the Extinction Rebellion uprising of April last year, she sat in the road on Waterloo Bridge – the first act of civil disobedience she had committed in her life – and waited as the police carried the people around her away. They came exponentially; gradually then suddenly. After long hours of waiting it was now her turn. Frightened, she was filled with an urge to simply get up and walk away. In that moment of decision, as the officer gave the final warning, as he started to read her rights, she tried to remember all the reasons she was doing this.
The only thing that came to mind was the robin in her garden.
When I was a child she taught me not to be cruel to worms or flies. As a teenager she embarrassed me by rescuing wasps and spiders. Seeing other boys my age throwing snails against a wall, to hear the wet crunch of their shells, horrified me so viscerally that I can still feel it.
If the death of one insect is too much, how to mourn the loss of a species? How to mark the collapse of everything you know?
The robin’s red breast is covered by earth. She pats the soil back into place, underneath the forget-me-nots.
On the morning of the equinox I go to the cemetery. In these times, simple walks like this – who knows, they might be banned in a week – feel more exquisitely beautiful than they ever have before.
Greenbank is a place with as many trees as graves. Here and there entire trunks burst out of broken tombs. I walk with one eye looking down, on all those Ediths and Ethels and Stanleys from the days of industry, and one eye looking up, at the spring-green canopy of cherry, silver birch, holly, lime, oak and weeping ash.
The Victorian railway viaduct that runs along the northern edge has rewilded into a nature reserve. Trees grow on that too. Beneath my feet, beneath worms and bones, are pits and shafts, excavated seams, from the time when this whole area was mined and hollowed out for coal. You would never know that now – no trace of the industry remains – apart from the fact that houses here are slumping with subsidence.
In one place silver birches stand in a protective ring, their bark shining in the sun as brilliantly as metal.
In another a pink cherry blossom has flowered exponentially, gradually then suddenly, each bud erupting into life.
I keep my distance from people I pass, the length of a grave between us all, and sometimes we share nods or smiles, as when snow is falling.