Burying a Robin

As the global lockdown intensifies in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Nick Hunt brings you the third in our series of reflections on the crisis
Nick is the author of three books: Where the Wild Winds Are, Walking the Woods and the Water and The Parakeeting of London. He works as an editor and co-director for the Dark Mountain Project, and has contributed short stories and essays to many of its issues.

When a pangolin is threatened it rolls itself into a protective ball. This might be a good defence against predators with teeth and claws – pangolin bodies are covered in overlapping scales of keratin, the same substance as our fingernails – but it’s a useless strategy against a pair of hands. A human hunter can simply pick a pangolin up to be bound and bagged, a self-packaging commodity that comes in its own casing. Easy to transport, lucrative – their scales, used in Chinese medicine, are valued at thousands of dollars a kilo – they are the perfect tradeable product, either to be dispatched locally or bound for a so-called ‘wet market’ where animals are sold live, like the one in Wuhan where Covid-19 was born.

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.

 

Greenbank Cemetery, Bristol

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.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

Read more
Comments
  1. As always, brilliant writing from Nick Hunt. I agree that this pandemic was not conspiracy-inspired, but the way it’s going offers would-be dictators a road map to control and manipulation — and power! And how easily we have been controlled and manipulated, with the media playing a major role. Is there anything else on the news? It would not surprise me to see tRump move to cancel the November presidential election in the U.S., using the pandemic as the excuse. Fascists are often superb opportunists.

    Stay safe, good people, and, yes, it’s all connected.

  2. Wow. Beautiful, Nick. I’m trying to see the more hopeful elements in all this, like the fact that we have now demonstrated it is possible to voluntarily turn from a global race to make more than the next guy, to a global quiet for the sake of the vulnerable. That is something quite remarkable, which we shouldn’t lose sight of. Plus, the myth that we only change via technological and economic advancement has been upended. Now we see the power and necessity of human restraint and cooperation.

  3. Greetings Nick,

    So wonderfully delightful to see you putting pen to paper and offering this deeply needed response to Covid-19… I was sent a piece from Charles Eisenstein by loads of friends that when I attempted to read I found myself getting nauseous. And now I understand why. When I read this piece from your article:

    “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”

    I could feel my whole body relax. I knew in my guts “now THIS is someone I can trust!” thank you for asking us to question our certainties and for encouraging us to hone our skill of wondering out loud and together about what is happening and what it might mean and for whom.

  4. I read this piece and enjoyed its honesty. I find myself in the strange position of actually feeling slightly exhilarated by this stepping up of the collapse I’ve like many have long thought was coming. I suspect its because I remember the petrol strike that had such an incredible effect on life in less than a week and I followed that with some years of uncertainty during which I came to terms with the fact we cannot predict anything without making assumptions, and while done well that does give some idea of what may come, the individual experience is still unpredictable. I can feel tendrils of fear that reach through the curiosity & sense of quickening I am experiencing and I suspect that the rest of my life may well be less comfortable and secure than I might have reasonably expected prior to this event but nonetheless I have a huge sense of hopefulness and opportunity. I recognise it as a critical time because this is the moment in which our actions could be most decisive. We need to ensure what happens in the corridors of power moves us towards a better more sustainable future rather than grinds us back into the service of the big established players who have controlled the game for so long. I hope we seize the opportunity that we have been presented with. There is always a sense of loss in change even if it’s change that you want but life does not allow us to stand still. Knowing that, embrace the change and relish being alive while history is made.

  5. I to find myself crying at inopportune times, such as when I’m driving a bus. Particularly when i see a dead crow or squirrel or raccoon, flattened by cars. Could the driver not have slowed down, as i do, or honk to warn the animal?
    How to change behaviour? Trade in Pangolin at the other animals for traditional medicine or good is long established in China. Have we the right to demand they change, even as we, and they, know that this latest pandemic was triggered by their “wet markets”? (And what a horrible term that is, it makes me think of torture, which it is, to those animals.) We stay by changing our behavior. Travel less, transition to a vegetarian diet: be less self-centered.

  6. Thank you, Nick, I was drawn in to your essay by the Pangolin, which I learned only this week is a mammal with scales, sold in Chinese markets for various medicinal purposes. But how could anyone kill a creature with a face like that? I love that you said “Attempting to see the unseeable is a practice long overdue.” The public library is closed now, and all I have at home are terribly edifying books that require lots of energy that I simply do not have. Like you, I feel sad. We just didn’t quite start looking hard enough and soon enough, but it’s really a near thing, and I can still feel the shouts and cries of “Wait a minute! We know trees have language. Wait a minute! We know mind fields can actually change genetic structure. Wait! We could really change this time around. . . . .!” But they are likely not increasing exponentially. Thank you again, this made my day!

  7. It’s 7am. I’ve just finished reading this. And through the open bedroom window, instead of of cars and the other sounds of people heading to work, I can hear our local thrush singing his little heart out. That’s what this is for: this xx

  8. Thank you Nick. Beautiful, honest, words. I understand your conspiratorial friend too, but also found this thinking does little to ease the discomfort. I find myself back in the garden. Such solace in soil. And stillness. Wish I could share the picture I took 5 minutes ago of our hopping song thrush. All the birds, bees and flowers seem to be thanking us now as the air clears. All sparkle in this spring Light x

  9. Thank you Nick.

    The aftershock of the pain of the pangolin. I feel acutely in empathy with the suffering of animals now and it’s really hurting. You have extracted the essence in this piece

    x

  10. Thank you Nick. This is beautiful and heartening in the midst of all this confusion.

    Sending a hug to your mum too. May the little birds continue to guide us home x

  11. Beautiful piece of writing, Nick. Thank you so much for putting into perfectly formed sentences the sentiments that seem to have raged around my muddled head for days upon days. The connectedness, the verging on tears, the body of a bird (only mine was a mole), the strange and unbearable lightness of being that I drift around at the moment, through unpeopled streets. Who knew that hope and despair feel so much like each other?

  12. I loved this. Particularly the bit about procrastinating on vegetable growing. I’m in that same boat. Activism, civil disobedience, academia, collapse writing- for some odd reason all of those feel easier than digging a wee hole and planting a vegetable seed. I feel strangely heartened to hear that you’re similarly resistant. Forgive us little vegetables, we’re on our way.

  13. Poignant, heart-felt, and compelling, it resonated with me on so many levels. We too are contemplating a real vegetable garden, after sharing more than half of our previous tomato attempts with clever raccoons. We saw those glaciers in Alaska, several different places, and could almost sense them receding. feel the slow dripping mentioned by Mr. Hunt in “Burying a Robin, Dark Mountain.” We too had to bury a bird we’d learned to love,a house finch we’d raised from a minute pink lump a few years earlier, that bonded to us, Ski especially, so strongly that it\she found a way to make nests from lint, hair, broomstraws and thread, and to lay 4 exquisite turquoise-colored eggs the size of my pinkie nail in each of the nests she built in each of three ceiling light fixtures. Trying a new location when the time for hatching expired in each old one, full of excitement and hope as we cleaned up and began using each previous light. Sadly, she spotted a fourth hanging opportunity when our bedroom door was left open part way, and flew straight at it, at top speed, unaware it was the reflection in the hall mirror she aimed her tiny delicate body into. Our sadness was exacerbated with guilt at not having chosen the other alternative–to let her fly free and be in danger (tame as she was) of harm from hungry hawks or unfriendly humans.

    We also experienced a pang of horror over harm to our planet when we learned the remote equatorial island in the central Pacific, which we visited in 2001, no longer exists. Inundated by rising seas. Can’t help thinking about the generous, friendly and kind natives we met and talked with at length (they were taught the language, and customs, of the missionaries who visited about once a month.) Wonder how they handled the relocation, or did they choose just to stay and die with their land? We were the first cruise ship passengers most had ever met, and they found crisp fruit a novel and fascinating luxury. We gave them all the apples from the stash the Norwegian Sky had brought to the island, on tenders lashed by rough seas and piloted by crewmen likely still in their teens, with utmost skill to get through the hazardous channels that tumbled the round clear life-boats like fishing bobbers and sent frothy turquoise water flying in through the small “sunroof” at top center. Apples and cookies for what they called a “Luau” for the few brave or foolish passengers who refused to heed their warnings of crab holes we’d break our legs in, nothing to see, no bathroom facilities and danger around every corner. And , horror of horror, no shops! Best to stay on the big shop in comfort.

    The world is a very frightening place in these times, but it gives a measure of reassurance to hear the view of others; the honesty, fear, and glimmer of optimism that shine through in this writing somehow work to make us not feel so alone. The one report that seems ubiquitous—from friends in Italy and all over the U.S, from friends of friends in Wuhan itself, and from our own Windsong Gardens in Santee, Ca. is the startling prevalence, practically a universality, of this one observance: BIRDS ARE SINGING. Birdsong where it has never been, or hasn’t been heard for years, decades. Possibly just a fleeting occurrence, but a happy compensation, nevertheless, for humans temporarily moving our of the space that was theirs originally, and allowing the air they breathe to become clean like it once was.

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