That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
What animals are helping you through the pandemic? Family pets and backyard birds are helping lots of folks manage the stressors of this time, but for writer, professor, and naturalist Eli J. Knapp, the planet’s creatures are providing more than companionship. Author of The Delightful Horror of Family Birding: Sharing Nature with the Next Generation, Knapp looks to his fellow earthlings for instruction in these pandemic days.
by Eli J. Knapp
I’ve long regarded myself a lone wolf. A person whose daily happiness isn’t predicated on constant human contact. Windows, the bigger the better, draw me to them. And when I’ve daydreamed sufficiently, I head outside, to putter, or walk, or simply, be. I’m that bipedal paradox, a lone wolf who rarely feels alone. Lots of nerdy writer types fancy themselves similarly. We’re simply able to get happily lost in our heads a little longer than most.
The well-trodden paths of my mind have become more byzantine, grown over by a tangle of pervasive uncertainty.
But since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, my inner maze has become more disorienting. The well-trodden paths of my mind have become more byzantine, grown over by a tangle of pervasive uncertainty. And while they used to reliably lead to mollifying peace, the destinations now are suddenly fickle. My questions are everybody’s questions. BIG questions. Can we really flatten the curve? Will the economy ever recover? Will my elderly parents be okay? Interrupted by smaller, sundry questions. Will my children ever get another playdate? Should I go ahead and get the gutters repaired? Do we actually have enough toilet paper?
Like the rest of the world, a few weeks ago my life came to a screeching halt. In a period of days, my shoulder-to-shoulder college teaching went online. My overscheduled life went belly up. Florida? Canceled. Peru? Canceled. Alaska? Canceled. And daily life has gone with it. Dinners with grandma? Nope. Church? Nope. NBA playoffs? Nope. Life has been utterly upended. Capsized into a roiling current.
But after initial thrashing about, I’ve settled in. The fact that I’m home confirms what I’ve always assumed: I’m an unessential part of society. Unnecessary but increasingly content. I like not having to rush out the door (unless it’s to see a spring migrant). I like hanging out with my kids (most of the time). I like watching daffodils spring up (they have a beautiful and aromatic corona, incidentally). Most of all, I like this unexpected sabbatical, a valid excuse to be a recluse. To be a lone wolf.
The lone wolf, however, is a myth. Wolves are pack animals with strong social ties.
The lone wolf, however, is a myth. Wolves are pack animals with strong social ties. They need each other to survive. The lupine lack of social flexibility is exactly what led to their extirpation from the continental US. So intensely social, they were easy to locate, trap, and poison. In Coyote America, author Dan Flores suggests the coyote presents a far better parallel for people. They have fission-fusion societies, a sociality that allows for an unusual breadth of flexibility among individuals. They can be either intensely gregarious or reclusive, depending on what conditions call for. They can act independently, or cooperate with ease. Such flexibility, Flores contends, allowed coyotes to survive challenges in North America that wolves couldn’t. It’s exactly the same sociality, he says, that humans have. A sociality that allowed us to colonize the planet.
For decades I’ve marinated in the deft science writing of David Quammen. Better for it, I’ve wanted my college students to taste it too. So, several years ago, I assigned Quammen’s Spillover to the students in my Global Issues class. It’s a magisterial book about animal-to-human disease transmission and “predicting the next pandemic,” as the subtitle reads. At 500+ pages, it’s not a book you want to drop on your toe. I coerced my students, quizzed them relentlessly, and endured their weekly groaning. All the while with a stable of my own doubts. Was I too draconian? With all the global issues to choose from, focusing on past and possible pandemics seemed reckless, especially since none of us had ever experienced a particularly bad one.
Now, of course, it seems providential. In addition to giving my students buckets of info and context to past pandemics, Quammen’s book offered hope. As did the recent blog post on this site by David Quammen and his spouse—and THP author— Betsy Gaines Quammen (Sheltering in Place with the Quammens, A Python, and Prince). How did Quammen justify hope in Spillover, and why does he do it now? By returning to the uniqueness of human behavior. “It’s various,” he wrote. “It’s flexible. It’s adaptive to circumstances.”
It is, in sum, exactly like the behavior of coyotes.
Native American people have long recognized the value of mimicking coyote behavior. That’s why, after Navajos were forced to endure miserable years on a reservation in New Mexico 300 miles from their home in the Four Corners, they turned to their Coyote Way ceremony. It worked. Where years of pleading and negotiation failed, the ceremony infused the Navajo leaders with “Coyote power,” to which they credit their release.
European descendants struggle with concepts like this. At least I sure do. Indoctrinated in logic and empiricism, ceremonial rituals from long ago are opaque and confusing. Coyote power? I won’t ever understand it completely. Culturally, I’m too limited. But Flores offers a useful clue. He likens it to the Navajos’ acquisition of a new way of being in response to profound suffering. A mode of existence. “Surviving by one’s intelligence and wits when others cannot,” he writes, “embracing existence in a mad, dancing, laughing, sympathetic expression of pure joy at evading the grimmest of fates; exulting in sheer aliveness; recognizing our shortcomings with rueful chagrin.”
What if we all embraced existence in a mad, dancing, laughing, sympathetic expression of pure joy?
At this moment, coronavirus is our grimmest of fates. We all know somebody affected by it. Or at least we will soon. What we don’t know is how to respond to it. Relying on our intelligence and wits seems as good a starting point as any. Maybe now we need coyote power more than ever. What if we all, in the face of this pandemic, stopped pointing fingers? Paradoxical perhaps, but what if we all embraced existence in a mad, dancing, laughing, sympathetic expression of pure joy? Yes, we’re sheltering in place. We’ve canceled our plans and are isolated. Our lives are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we can’t exult in sheer aliveness.
I’m going to try. I’m also going to do this: trade in my lone wolf metaphor. As the coronavirus marches on, perhaps all of us reclusive types should. Lone wolves, after all, are a myth. Even if they did exist, they can’t last on their own. And history hasn’t been kind for pack wolves, either, with their hardwired, inflexible hyper-sociality. This is a time for precisely the opposite. For flexibility, adaptation, and reinvention. For cleverness and cunning. For delayed gratification; fission now, fusion later. Lean survival in hopes of future thriving.
In short, it’s coyote time. Time we realize that while our employment status may be unessential, our lives aren’t.
ELI J. KNAPP, Ph.D., is professor of intercultural studies and biology at Houghton College and director of the Houghton in Tanzania program. Author of The Delightful Horror of Family Birding: Sharing Nature With the Next Generation, Knapp is a regular contributor to Birdwatcher’s Digest, New York State Conservationist, and other publications. An avid birdwatcher, hiker, and kayaker, he lives in Fillmore, New York, with his wife and children.