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 COVID-19 is done with us, to fight a government trying to use this crisis as a cover for nefarious actions. I’ll certainly do that if necessary. In the end, most of us will emerge together, and do the best we can to reclaim our own agency. For now, I’ll hold on to what’s sustaining me—Prince, dogs, family, friends, and a comfort in the inevitable passage of time.
Like Betsy, I’ve been experiencing a swirl of emotions, as well as a swirl of thoughts, since we all first became aware of this new coronavirus infecting humans and being transmitted, back in the middle of January. My first feelings were foreboding, worry, and frustration. The first two are obvious, but why frustration? Because the scenario of a new virus, a coronavirus in particular, coming out of a nonhuman animal and getting into the human population was so predictable. That it happened in China, probably as a result of the trade in wild animals captured for food—bats, pangolins, civets, all sorts of animals, brought to markets and piled up in cages—was also predictable. The same thing had happened before, causing the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003, which killed 774 people and easily could have killed many more. I had written about that event in my book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, published in 2012. I had also projected in that book, based on what certain scientists were telling me, what the next pandemic would look like: It would be caused by a new virus, possibly a coronavirus, coming out of an animal, possibly a bat, and spilling over into humans someplace where wild animals from diverse ecosystems are killed or held captive for food—possibly China. Amid my swirl of feelings, the one emotion I haven’t felt is surprise.
Another feeling in me is gratitude: I’m enormously lucky to be sharing such a bizarre, difficult period of isolation with Betsy and a little gang of animals, in the Bozeman house on the small Bozeman lot where we have lived together for seventeen years. Nowadays the family posse includes two borzois, a cat, and a rescue python: Steve, Manny, Oscar, and Boots. We gather together joyfully, usually in my office in the morning or the living room at cocktail hour (Boots attends the office meeting because he lives in a tank near my desk, but doesn’t come out with us in the evening), and confer together lovingly. We are family. Sometimes we even howl, in crazy chorus, for the good times and through the hard.
“Amid my swirl of feelings, the one emotion I haven’t felt is surprise.”
This is likely to be a bad one, this pandemic—worse than any since the 1918 influenza, and possibly as bad as that. But there’s still plenty of uncertainty. There are important factors that aren’t predictable. Human behavior is unpredictable. Leadership decisions, at this point, are unpredictable. Even the evolutionary trajectory of this virus, SARS-CoV-2 (that’s its name, COVID-19 being the disease, not the virus itself) is unpredictable. Add so much unpredictability into the best of mathematical disease models, which experts use to project the future, and the outcome is uncertain.
But I also feel hope. I take this hope from something I was told, while researching my book a decade ago, by a very smart disease ecologist named Greg Dwyer. He is a builder of fancy mathematical models himself. We talked about pandemics. Are we humans doomed to suffer a very grim takedown in the next pandemic? I asked Dwyer. He thought carefully about that, looked at his models, and then said: No. No, I don’t think that’s inevitable.
Why not? I asked. Because human behavior is so unpredictable. It’s various. It’s flexible. It’s adaptive to circumstances.
We might be stupid, or our leaders might be stupid, getting humanity into a terrible fix, Dwyer was saying. But we can also be clever. We might be selfish, but we can also be generous. We might be reckless, but we can also be wise. We invented science. We invented Gregorian chant. We produced a Hitler but also an Einstein, a Beethoven, and a Prince. You just never know, with humans.
That’s the good news. Viruses can be tough, but they aren’t smart. We can be both.
Betsy Gaines Quammen is a historian and conservationist. She received a doctorate in Environmental History from Montana State University in 2017, her dissertation focusing on Mormon settlement and public land conflicts. After college in Colorado, caretaking for a bed and breakfast in Mosier, Oregon, and serving breakfasts at a café in Kanab, Utah, Betsy has settled in Bozeman, Montana,where she now lives with her husband, writer David Quammen, two huge dogs, an overweight cat, and a pretty big python named Boots. She is the author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West.
David Quammen is the author of a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, including Blood Line and The Song of the Dodo. Spillover, his most recent book, was shortlisted for several major awards. A three-time National Magazine Award winner, he is a contributing writer for National Geographic and has written also for Harper's, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone. He travels widely on assignment, usually to jungles, mountains, remote islands, and swamps.
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