That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Sheltering in Place with the Quammens, a Python, and Prince

After solitary months spent writing American Zion, Betsy Gaines Quammen was looking forward to hitting the road to visit indie bookstores across the country. Coronavirus, of course, meant re-envisioning her book tour. THP has partnered with the independent bookstores she would have visited for a series of live-stream conversations between Betsy and her spouse, writer David Quammen. Catch Betsy and David from the comfort of your couch at the Facebook pages of these bookstores: Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho (April 4 at 7 PM MT); Third Place Books in Ravenna, Washington (April 15 at 8 PM MT); and Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana (April 23 at 7 PM MT) as well at the Torrey House Press Facebook page during each event. In this latest installment of That Thing With Feathers, Betsy and David parse through their emotions—and listen to Prince—as they shelter in place.


Before Montana governor Steve Bullock’s “shelter in place” order, the parking lot of our local ski area was packed daily with cars. Bozemanites continued to gather at the community-owned resort, though it was closed for the season, skinning up so they could ski down the broad face of our beloved Bridger Mountains. After their runs, they’d hang out, drinking beers under a Montana spring sun that distracted them from the process of contagion. As a result, our county, Gallatin, has more cases of COVID-19 than any other county in the state—we are nearly double the cases of the county just behind us, Yellowstone, the location of the state’s most populous city, Billings. Our community is in trouble.

We are sequestered in our home, but still I feel uneasy. Unease, one feeling among many—I’ve got a lot of feelings going on right now. I am angry at the people who flocked together, skiing and partying while possibly shedding and absorbing virus, then maybe taking it to our doorknobs, grocery aisles, and gas pump handles. Would I have done that as a twentysomething? Not, I don’t think, if I understood what was at stake. But there has been no consistent or honest messaging or reliable federal leadership since COVID-19 started its insidious spread through the United States and into our town. Our current administration began by defining COVID-19 as a trifling matter, no worse than a simple seasonal flu, or, even more egregiously, as a hoax. So in addition to uneasiness, among my many emotions right now is fury; we could have dealt with this so much better if everyone had been informed, proactive, and prepared.

We are now facing a worst-case scenario, in terms of deaths and hospital collapses, because our leadership in Washington has been misleading and incompetent. Now they’ve made clear, their priority is dollars over lives. They’ve also begun unravelling essential regulations protecting human health and the environment. So yet another emotion bubbling up in me is fear. I’m afraid for the health of those I love and afraid of what is happening as we hunker indoors. How many will die due to respiratory distress or lack of hospital beds and ventilators? How will our country be disrupted? Will there even be an election in November? Will we be stuck with Trump for four more years because, somehow in this age of twisted media spin, he will emerge from this as a hero? And where is the candidate who will beat him? Everything is unfixed and obscured in this time of coronavirus.

Which brings me to my last layer of feeling—despair. How are we ever to navigate through this when we are sick and stranded? As I watch the death count move ever higher, in the confusion, Trump tries to consolidate more power, flout laws, weaken laws to protect our environment, while leaving states without support because he doesn’t like certain governors. I wonder what will happen to Montana under the stalwart leadership of Steve Bullock, a Democrat doing the best he can for our state. Crisis brings out the best and worst in us and we are seeing a federal government at its worst—dishonest, vindictive, inept, and deadly.

On my run yesterday with my dogs Steve and Manny, I considered what the entire world is facing together—pandemic. I had Prince blasting into my earpods, which has a way of making me feel buoyant under any circumstance. In this case he reminded me that even though we are living under a crisis of biblical dimensions, there is still an opportunity for joy. As my world has shrunk to a tiny quarantined patch, I’ve still found abundance in it. I live with a person whom I love and feel safe with. My dogs are a constant source of hilarity and comfort. I’m regularly “Zooming” with pals, laughing and swapping tips for how to cope. Much of my family lives within just a few miles—my father and stepmother, my sister and her gang—but our regular Sunday dinners together have been suspended. Instead, we share a virtual family dinner on our computer screens. The social distancing hasn’t interrupted our closeness. At a time of deep uneasiness, I’m surrounded by familiarity and community.

“The social distancing hasn’t interrupted our closeness. At a time of deep uneasiness, I’m surrounded by familiarity and community.”

In this moment, as things unravel beyond what I myself can control, all I can do is watch this and take note. And I am taking lots of notes. One consolation in this is the inevitability of the passage of time. In the next months and years, we will get to the other side of this. Humans have lived through plagues and rotten leaders throughout history. And we emerge, take stock, and carry on. I’d love to believe that we’ll learn great lessons from this moment in history—on leadership, preparedness, and acting ethically for a greater good than our own, but we seldom if ever learn these lessons for very long. Perhaps this time will be different, who knows.

When I first met my husband David, he had just come back from a kayaking trip through the Grand Canyon. He was on the river during 9/11 and, though his group happened to get word of the cataclysm on that morning, September 11, they didn’t emerge from the canyon and learn the details until a week later. In a piece he wrote for National Geographic Adventure about the trip, he set the collapse of his first marriage and the ache that came with it against the enormity of geological time. The rocks that clasped him through his journey down the Colorado River lent perspective to his own painful experiences. I think of this story, one that I had read while falling in love with him, and it soothes me a bit. Life will go on for those of us who escape the ravages of this current crisis, this disease, the collapse of many of our community hospitals, and the unimaginable loss of lives. Perhaps we’ll have to risk our health and emerge from our shelter, before