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

In his forthcoming book, Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape, writer and archaeologist R. E. Burrillo traverses a sweeping landscape in the American Southwest. Today, travel curtailed by stay-at-home directives to slow the spread of COVID-19, he takes in a different stretch of the West: his urban backyard.


Quarantine Ecology

In her 2002 book The Last American Man, author Elizabeth Gilbert profiles an impressive (if somewhat…problematic) survivalist type named Eustace Conway. It’s nowhere near as well-known as her follow-up book Eat, Pray, Love, a fantastically written biographical romantic drama that spawned a dozen spoof sitcom episodes and one awful movie. But I think it’s just as good—if not better. A sere and unflinching study of American masculinity, written by a skilled and thoughtful woman.

In one noteworthy scene, Eustace buries himself and a group of kids up to their faces in the ground, in order to demonstrate—in an intimate way—just how alive the woods really are. “Now we are the forest floor,” he exclaims, asking all of them to describe what they feel. Dead pine needles and small droplets of moisture falling on their faces. Wriggling worms and insects. The echo of the wind. An unforgettable dose of wilderness ecology, a literally in-your-face appreciation for the relationships of living beings and their natural environment, and all within an area no bigger than the hole it takes to bury a few kids.

I thought about that scene a lot when the COVID-19 sheltering orders started rolling out.