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 ta