The bipeds are gone.
Most of them, that is. I’m still here. So are several other instructors and lecturers who live in a residence building at the edge of the campus. And maintenance workers who keep the entire complex functioning now that it has lost its purpose. But the 99 percent of humans who used to be here are nowhere to be seen.
And yet they haven’t really left.
It’s early and fresh and I go out for a jog. The air smells of flowers – and murky waters of the canal that intersects the campus. Sinewy tree trunks emanate animal-like vigour. Visible and invisible birds loudly claim territory, competing for the soundscape with cicadas.
There’s concrete beneath my feet. And asphalt. And paving stones made of whatever aggregate could be utilised. Underneath all these convenient surfaces there’s compacted earth that no longer breathes.
The campus is not even 20 years old. Until then, the island cleaving the waters of the Pearl River on its final stretch through Guangzhou towards the South China Sea was a rural area of villages and farmland lost amid lush hills and wetlands where egrets and cranes waded. Then the construction crews came. Tens of thousands of university students followed. And now here I am.
Until SARS-CoV-2 shut it down, the place had been bustling with young people from all over the country. Year on year, thousands more were enrolled, new buildings constructed, remaining wetlands drained. There was no stopping it.
Until it stopped.
I stop in my tracks, trying to catch my breath. Unable for months to go on my usual weekend hiking trips outside the city – teachers need to stay put for the public good – and in front of the computer most of the time, I regress. Waiting, I look up at the silent buildings towering above me, where students used to live and learn.
“University” was never supposed to be a physical location. The clue is in the name: universitas magistrorum et scholarium can be roughly translated as a community of teachers and students. But its physical representation furnished in glass and steel has become one of the symbols of development and progress. And now all the energy, material, and waste needed to build these immobile giants turn out to have been unnecessary.
Humans may have left, but their footprint hasn’t.
I walk back to my apartment. Temperature and humidity go up fast, and I have a class to teach. On the other side of my computer screen there are students whom I haven’t seen in person for months and others whom I’ve never met. Perhaps never will. Hundreds and thousands of kilometres away and apart, we all converge on the virtual space of an online class for a time specified in a schedule set in a different era to discuss literary works and cultural achievements from a different age. With the buildings outside my window abandoned, the universitas is not a fetishised location anymore. It has been forced to become a community again.
Shouldn’t more things be like that from now on. Couldn’t we reduce our dependence on physical space. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we did. Pandemic or not.
These questions come on their own, tantalising, disingenuous.
The class is over. For now. To be continued. This is the new normal, it seems. Quiet, easy, and frictionless, save for occasional network problems. Lulling us into thinking that to make this virtual community possible, no energy, material, or waste is necessary.
But – out of sight, and more conveniently so than before – it’s all there.
– Dawid Juraszek
In the yard, fantails/tiwaiwaka dart in and out of trees. They are living light, wave and particle at once. They glide smoothly one moment and are ionised into a frenzy of movement by loves and dangers invisible the next. They stop, change direction, rotate and twist effortlessly with dizzying speed. Scaled up to human flight, such movement would knock a pilot unconscious. They taunt feral cats that roam our yard and flash their eponymous tails. I fell for them immediately. I cannot work when they are in view; I can only observe.
Four months before the first stories trickle out of Wuhan, my wife and I upend our world and move from Salt Lake City, Utah to Wellington, New Zealand. The birds, the trees, even the night sky are entirely new. Each day we find our attention pulled in a thousand directions by our desert minds recalibrating. Three months later, my older brother, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, makes a trip to China. He is a nurse and historian with a specialty in pandemics – Spanish flu research took him throughout the Pacific, Ebola took him to Sierra Leone, measles to Samoa. His texts and emails to us are sobering.
A few days before the first COVID-19 cases are announced in New Zealand, we leave Wellington for the tiny community of Featherston, an hour away. We planned to make this move eventually, but a landlord forces our hand. We have never lived in a small town. It feels safe, tucked as it is at the foot of an imposing pass through the Rimutaka. We are two blocks from my brother’s home.
The yard is full of fantails. What I marvel at most is the adaptive nature of their flight. No path seems impossible for them, no option off the table. I do not yet know if this is instinctual or trial-and-error parenting each fledgling endures, but this versatility makes them both a wonder and a danger to any thing that threatens them. There is no way to fend off a fantail. You run and you learn where and how they want you to be.
We have barely unpacked when lockdown is announced. Our neighbours introduce themselves from afar. They leave bags of apples and feijoas in the driveway as we work in the yard. We wave as we manoeuvre around one another in the market or cross the street to avoid meeting on the sidewalk. It is how I imagine small-town life but it feels elongated, like a dream in which, no matter how fast you walk, you cannot quite reach your goal.
Life … feels elongated, like a dream in which, no matter how fast you walk, you cannot quite reach your goal.
My younger brother and his girlfriend are on vacation in New Zealand when the flood of cases, and the lockdown, arrives. They migrate between our homes. We manoeuvre through a second childhood – us trapped in this limited space, no parents to be found, but rules ever-present. We make the most of this strange gift. It is unlikely we will ever have a month together again in our adult lives.
We discover the Barr Brown Bush Reserve near our home –a ten-acre sanctuary set aside by a timber company to protect old growth forest and its inhabitants. It is full of fantails, careening around the dense growth. They are one of the few native bird species to have coped well with human settlement and the introduction of other predators that accompanied them. Each time we visit, we encounter two fantails, one on each side of the reserve, who follow us for the same stretches each day – tiny, noisy sentries.
Friends and family in the US message to say how they envy us, to voice their fear. They are right. We had luck and good timing repeatedly. I follow their social media compulsively while largely muting my own. I feel guilty. I want to believe I am adaptable, while in actuality I am safe and surrounded by beauty, even in tragedy. New Zealand leadership publicly mourns each death while that of the U.S. simply tallies. I am also afraid. So many differences between the two places are an issue of scale. That is true here as well. Differences in a lockdown of five million people versus one of 330 million are vast. Solidarity is dear. Common cause scaled up cuts corners. But when ‘I am asked to sacrifice for others’ is rent into ‘I ask that others be sacrificed for me’, we achieve ethical freefall. Where do we learn how to redirect at such velocity?
My favourite feral cat walks the garden fence outside my office window, looking for birds. A fantail lands on a stalk of fennel gone to seed just outside his reach. She screeches and shakes at the cat between pecks at the stalk. Were he hunting any other bird, I would pound on the window to scare him into failure, and her into flight. But she has all she needs, even as the pendulum of fennel dips in and out of danger.
– Michael McLane