In Consideration of This Connection of Everyone With Lungs
At some point in college, a friend passed off a book of poems to me: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs by Juliana Spahr. I’ve carried it around with me ever since. When I moved abroad after college, when I moved West, to Santa Fe, and again, when I moved to Salt Lake City for graduate school. My graduate program began with an orientation in the Centennial Valley. We were asked to bring a poem to share, so I brought that tenderly tattered book. The poem is a meditation on the movements in and out. An invocation of our interconnectedness. An embrace of the entangled, enmeshed, messiness that is to be a breathing body. Up to that point, its resonance had been more conceptual than concrete. But a few months later, on December 4, 2019, Salt Lake City had the worst air quality in the nation with an AQI exceeding 150. It was my introduction to inversion. Though no numerical figure can give form to the experience. It was an experience felt and fragrant. I was headed to the University of Utah campus to teach an undergraduate writing course that day. And as I steeped in smog over the course of the commute, my intended lesson seemed increasingly insignificant. We read This Connection of Everyone with Lungs in round instead. As climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe says, “If we don’t talk about something, why would we care? And if we don’t care about it, why would we act?” I’d much rather my students write motivated by care than measured by convention.
In the months that followed, a virus danced across the world through respiratory droplets. Such viruses will become increasingly common as our climate crisis intensifies. As temperatures rise and habitats are reduced, animals are required to migrate to “new and narrower ranges,” increasing the potential for viral spill over (1). Extreme weather events are also becoming increasingly common. In the West, that means wildfires. The 2020 wildfire season was record breaking. As millions of acres burned, taking lives human, floral, and faunal, the air filled with smoke. By late September, 50 million people, or 1 in 7 Americans, had experienced dangerous levels of air quality due to the wildfires (2). And as the West was swept in fire, protests proliferated, provoked by the police killing of George Floyd. The body cameras of police officers indicate Floyd said “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times prior to his killing (3). Over the course of the protests, at least 100 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. used some form of tear gas on civilians (4). And though this form of chemical warfare was banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is still employed by our excessively militarized police force (5).
The pandemic has also been approached as though it’s war. Indeed war is a common metaphor for pandemics, the virus depicted as an invading forced to be defeated. Metaphors are a mode of human sense-making. And the use of metaphors is inevitable, no matter how imprecise or inadequate they may be (6). Dr. Lisa Keränen contends that the metaphor of war reduces the complexity of a pandemic, as it does not take into consideration “the factors that might have facilitated its proliferation, such as deforestation and destroyed habitats . . ., or possible risk factors, such as poor air quality, that may make humans susceptible" (7). That is to say, the metaphor of war masks a more complete ecological picture. Dr. Lisa Keränen, among others, advocates ecology as metaphor instead. While the metaphor of war draws divisions, the metaphor of ecology enables us to consider connections. The connections between crises, the connections between corporealities.
It seems that metaphors of war and myths of separation no longer serve us, and likely never did. New and renewed metaphors and mythologies are needed. Gary Nabhan has said that restoring requires re-storying. In this era of converging, compounding crises, this poem has provided sense-making and solace, its sentiment ever more significant. Crises do not exist as isolates and neither do bodies. And it is through our inhales and exhales that we are reminded how beautifully blurry the boundaries between bodies are. We are reminded that we are indistinct from this air, that we are implicated in this air. That we are in connection with everyone and everything through the air that we breathe, though the burdens are not evenly born. The poem concludes, “how lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.” Lovely and doomed indeed.