I have a job that allows me to work from home, an immune system and a set of neurotransmitters that tend to function pretty well, a support network, a savings account, decent Wi-Fi, plenty of hand sanitizer. I have experienced the pandemic from a position of obscene privilege, and on any given day I’d rank my mental health somewhere north of ‘fine.’ And yet I feel like I have spent the past year being pushed through a pasta extruder.
—Ellen Cushing, “What the Pandemic is Doing To Our Brains”
One year ago, when our house went into lockdown on my son’s 5th birthday, 3 out of 4 of us with 100+ degree temperatures, the thing I did not anticipate is how wiped out and braindead everyone on the planet would seem by now, how, in a world where competence was already in short supply, detecting it in another human in the year 2021 would be a cause for awe.
Like a lot of people, I find myself looking to animals in these times, for some kind of escape, if not inspiration. I spend a large portion of dusk and dawn hours spying on the screech owls out in my backyard. These owls are more competent than any humans I know. They often look tired and weary, but their skills and instincts seem sharper than ever. They’re killers, and they rarely let you forget:
But owls are too god-like to aspire to, and who’d want the life of a screech owl, anyways? It’s a dangerous one, spent avoiding even bigger owls, swooping down to scoop up lizards and bugs and tiny rodents.
Now here’s an animal I can relate to: the sea slugs who chop off their own heads and grow new bodies:
Self-amputation, known as autotomy, isn’t uncommon in the animal kingdom. Having the ability to jettison a body part, such as a tail, helps many animals avoid predation. However, no animal had ever been observed ditching its entire body.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “I know that is poetry.”
Consider, too, the minuscule and seemingly invincible tardigrade, named “il Tardigrado,” by Lazzaro Spallanzani, meaning “slow-stepper,” because they moved so slowly under his microscope.
And here is Walt Whitman, to sum it all up:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
See also: “The Girls” and “Advice from a Caterpillar”