Down the Waterslide

Latest in our ongoing series of reflections on the current pandemic, Robert Alcock pens a darkly humorous tale. With image by Robert Leaver.
is an eco-designer, builder, writer, father, and XR activist, mostly based in Edinburgh, though these days he's at Abrazo House ecological learning centre in northern Spain.  
Lately you’ve been waking in the small hours from a nightmare: there’s a monster coming towards you, but you can’t see it, and you’re paralysed, so there’s nothing you can do but sit and wait. Now you’ve woken in the dark again, but the dream’s changed. You’re at the top of a waterslide, just at the point where you start to accelerate. You can see the ground far below, and your limbic system, the ancient reptilian part of your brain that takes charge in a crisis, is starting to put two and two together and send out panic signals: grab something, quick, or you’re going to fall! But there’s nothing to grab hold of, so your heart does a somersault and for an instant you feel intensely alive, like these could be your last moments on earth – even while the conscious part of your brain knows that you’re perfectly safe, it’s only a ride.

But now, lying awake in the dark, you know this is no bad dream, no fairground ride. This is real. The waterslide is broken, and you’re going to be all over the papers tomorrow morning.

Except that everything’s upside down. There’s a deadly threat, and you’re accelerating towards it, but it’s only your conscious mind that’s aware of it. To your lizard brain, everything seems normal, quiet: too quiet, like the start of a horror movie. Out in the city people are still going about their everyday lives, laughing it off, taking it on the chin. Now the monster’s in China, now Italy, now Spain. Now deaths are in the tens, now the hundreds, now the thousands. Yet still people are going to the shops, riding the bus, running in the park, having a drink after work.

People are dying, maybe you’ll die too; yet you feel like, for the first time, you’re doing something meaningful with your life. Finally, you’re in a real story with life or death choices! You’ve been in “self-isolation” for what, four days now? The only thing you’ve done is stay home, wash your hands and keep your distance, but just by doing that, you feel like you’re contributing to something that’s bigger than just you. You’re helping to save the lives of people you’ll never even meet.

You used to say you had a decent life: boring, sure, but safe and comfortable. Eight hours a day for the past three years, sitting in your little cubicle doing your pointless tasks, surrounded by other people in their own cubicles, doing their own pointless tasks. Talk about isolation! You knew you were just a cog in the machine, that you weren’t doing anything meaningful, in fact, you were playing your own little part in the destruction of the planet, leaving a poisoned world for future generations. But what choice did you have? You weren’t responsible for anything, everything was controlled from elsewhere, ruled by the fluctuations of a stock exchange in some distant metropolis.

Maybe you’re a total idiot for not appreciating what you had, way back when, in the prehistoric era of last month. But there it is: you feel more alive now than ever. Maybe safety is overrated. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. OK, you can’t say it’s a good thing exactly, I mean it’s a pandemic for fuck’s sake, but maybe it’s a long-overdue alarm call. A red-bordered envelope, a final warning before ecosystem services are cut off.

You picture Mother Nature sitting at her cluttered desk typing up the letter, tutting to herself in frustration: what kind of irresponsible morons are they, anyway? Can’t they see their so-called civilisation is trashing the place? They’ve seen the albatrosses with their stomachs full of plastic, they’ve seen the ice sheets calving. I’ve sent fires, I’ve sent floods, I’ve sent hurricanes, and for what? A few of them have been blocking roads and waving placards, as if that’s going to make any difference. The rest just crank up the denial and keep on trucking. Right, that’s it, I’m sending a pandemic, and if that doesn’t make them change their ways, they don’t want to see what I’ve got up my sleeve next. Wake up and smell the apocalypse, suckers.

Fat chance, you think. Denial is our superpower. We’re the world experts at lying to ourselves. No sooner does the house of cards come crashing down than we’re scrabbling to build a bigger and better one. Bail out the banks, bail out the airlines, bail out every damn thing and get back to business-as-usual as soon as possible.

Turning over your dark thoughts in the dark, you notice a pale light creeping around the edge of the curtain. It’s almost day, and outside there’s birdsong. So much birdsong! This must be what they call the dawn chorus. So many different voices, each singing its little heart out. Why didn’t you ever notice this before? Is it because there was too much pollution, or was it the noise of the traffic drowning it out, or were you just too wrapped up in yourself to pay attention? Have you ever actually listened to a bird before, or looked at a flower? And the smell of green life in the mornings, like the world’s just beginning. Now, of all times, when the seasons are all out of whack anyway, when people are dying, you start to notice all this. It’s the first time you’ve ever truly witnessed the coming of spring, and probably next year – if you’re even alive to see it – it’ll be back to traffic and pollution.

Is this the last spring, you ask yourself, or could it be the first?

__________

 

IMAGE Man Down, Gravel quarry, Catskill Mountains, USA by Robert Leaver (photo: Teddy Jefferson)

‘In most of the shots it looks like this man is down, and he’s been down for a while and it is not clear if he is going to get up again any time soon. Over four seasons I did Man Down in the woods, in the dunes, on country roads, in meadows, in streams, barber shops, supermarkets, public toilets, abandoned houses, playgrounds, on highways, and in a stone quarry at the foot of a massive earth-shredding machine. In a way I suppose these are pictures of defeat and surrender. Collapse forms a question mark. It is human nature to search for clues. What happened here?’

Robert O. Leaver is a musician, writer and performance artist. His base of operations can be found on a dead-end road in the Catskill Mountains. Man Down is the third series of his photographic work to be published in Dark Mountain, following Hole Earth in Issue 9 and Crawling Home in Issue 6. robertoleaver.com

 

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