Photos by Richard Feldman
During long minutes at home in the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic and being a materials chemist with few real-world skills, I found myself wondering what I could do to help others while minimizing contact. I recalled walking past a wetland behind a chain of stores and seeing its reeds and willows full of trash. Home to ducks, pheasants, Redwing blackbirds and others, the wetland is the sort of landscape migrating Sandhill cranes will stop to rest and feed.
in the brown reeds
a tattered Bible
opened to Genesis
Materials – plastic, chemically-treated wood products, styrofoam – decompose slowly, if at all, within a human lifetime. The decomposition products pollute lands and waters. Overtime an increasing concentration of harmful chemicals threaten all – people, waterfowl and countless unseen beings. A Zen Buddhist, my definition of others including all non-human species, I chose to help the wetland and created a self-volunteer project spending a few hours each week ridding the reeds and willows of human garbage.
told to stay home
I take refuge
Behind the Home Depot store bordering a pond I anticipate much of the debris will be that from the construction retailer. And I do find some – pieces of two-by-fours, foam packing, plastic sheets and straps, crumbling sheetrock. But there is also consumer debris – potato chip bags, beer and soda cans, a picture of a young couple in a broken frame, take-out coffee cups and lids, deflated bubble wrap. Surprises too – a $5 bill and picture puzzle pieces.
Sun Face Buddha
Moon Face Buddha
what merit in picking up trash?
My not-knowing if the wetland birds appreciate my efforts does not matter. Instead, as I place each piece in a large plastic bag I think of the many connections between the Covid-19 pandemic and an overpopulated human species whose resource consumption and pollution exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. I also think about the uncountable acts of charity and unselfishness happening globally during the pandemic. Humanity’s growing recognition it has very little time to change its behaviors to save itself and all other beings matters now more than we can imagine.
budding willows –
nests of last years’ grasses
HUMAN RESPONSES TO EPIDEMICS by Lawrence G. Duggan
Two of the most famous descriptions of human responses to the ”plague” (aka the “Black Death”), arguably the most devastating of all forms of epidemic, are literary. A celebrated depiction of the Great Plague of London of 1665 was published in 1722 by Daniel Defoe; although fictional, it seemed eerily accurate, then and now. The other was composed by an eyewitness of the outbreak of plague in Florence in 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio, in his Decameron. The long introduction (c. 25 pages) not only describes in detail the onset of this seemingly unprecedented catastrophe and its death-toll (30+%), but also the range of responses to it. Although Boccaccio acknowledges that some people (both clerical and lay) came forth to help their friends and neighbors, the picture he paints is otherwise unrelentingly gloomy, in which the plague brought out the worst in most people, especially their selfishness and greed. This prologue provides the setting for the book, the telling of one-hundred amusing and often bawdy stories by ten young rich Florentines, who wait out the course of the plague by progressing each day from one villa to another outside the city, passing the time in storytelling while the poorer urban population is decimated. Significantly, Boccaccio does not provide a full picture of European reactions to the plague, for in much of northern Europe there occurred widespread scapegoating and slaughters of the Jews, blamed for introducing and spreading this novel disease, the culmination of 250 years of vilification of the Jews from the First Crusade onward, resulting in their killing, pillaging, mulcting, and expulsion. Little of this happened in Italy, and so Boccaccio says nothing about it. He is, however, typical of chroniclers and historians across the ages in strongly emphasizing mostly negative human reactions to epidemics, even if there are few patterns across the board. The blaming of the Jews for the plague in the 14th century occurred in much, but not all, of Europe, and in fact is somewhat unusual in the annals of epidemics. Thus, the Jews weren’t blamed for the influenza of 1918-19, but they most certainly were for Germany’s defeat in WWI, which led to their systematic extermination in the Holocaust a few decades later.
Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. Epidemics can and do prompt these and other forms of bad, sometimes even evil behavior, as well as self-absorption and greed (time to review the list of seven deadly sins!). But in this history there are no clear patterns, much less repetition, and this is hardly the full picture in any event. Nevertheless, in presenting the ‘news’ of today and of yesterday, we tend altogether too readily to emphasize the negative. It is this tendency among historians that recently prompted Samuel K. Cohn, Jr, a distinguished historian of the plague in late medieval and early modern Europe, to publish a riposte to all this negativity in his Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford, 2018), in which he argues that human beings have also responded with great compassion and selflessness to such catastrophes across the ages, along with scapegoating of Jews in the 14th century and of gays and drug-users during the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. In the present crisis, while there is plenty of stupid behavior (with potentially ghastly consequences), it is worth stressing is that, perhaps more than ever, we see again and again people reacting compassionately at many levels. Why? Partly because, a century after 1918-19, we have a vastly superior array of knowledge and weapons with which to fight such epidemics (as discussed in the first blog) and allay our primal fears; but it is also partly because of the internet itself, which instantaneously communicates across the world not only epidemiological knowledge, but also awareness of great, loving responses of fellow human beings, which impels others to compassionate action as well. In short, knowledge of divers sorts is helping us live up to the better angels of our human nature in this present crisis, even if many of us in the end neglect our knowing and choose to behave badly anyway. (The following useful maxim has recently been offered online: Imagine that you might be carrying this virus, and behave accordingly toward everyone else.)
P.S. Speaking of good behavior, Oxford University Press, publisher of Sam Cohn’s book, has this week been prevailed upon to slash the price of his book from around $140 to $30. Get it while there are still copies!
I’ve known the author for over forty years–and he has said some very memorable and fascinating things over these decades. I asked him to share some of his insights with readers of this blog. This is the first of three posts.
Lawrence G. Duggan is professor of history at the University of Delaware. He teaches and works on later medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and church history. He received his A.B. from the College of the Holy Cross (like Anthony Fauci) and his Ph.D. from Harvard.
Interview with Myself
Me: Hi Mir, as I’m sure you are aware, we’ve been in pandemic lockdown for about two weeks here in New Mexico. How are you holding up?
Me: I’ve been pretty stressed out, worried about everyone and the neighborhood, more weepy than usual, but there are some bright spots.
Me: Well, I know you are pretty annoyed at parts of humanity. Care to elaborate?
Me: I hate fake medical news. Things like—put such-and-such up your nose or behind your ears to prevent the virus. I’ve always found putting things up noses pretty amusing—but no more.
Me: Any other pet peeves?
Me: Anyone who bad mouths millennials, or “the young” in general.
Me: Are you practicing good deeds in the tradition of Maimonides?
Me: Yes. On the level of ordinary kindness, I’m checking in with a person a day, even if I’d previously voted them off my island. Seems I am a foul weather friend.
Me: Yes, we’re cooking for St. Elizabeth’s Shelter—by the way, they could use more help here in Santa Fe. Just call them. You cook at home and drop off.
Me: I’m concerned—do you have enough turquoise jewelry to make it through to the end of the pandemic?
Me: Yes, thanks for asking.
Me: Thoughts on hoarding?
Me: I’ve given up toilet paper.
Me: Umm…too much information. Let’s move on to our last question for today. Why are you always wearing that dorky purple coat that got trashed out two years ago on the Japan trip and is now faded and worn?
Me: I like it.
Me: OK! Thanks for checking in.
Me: Bueno bye.
Bio note: Miriam Sagan used to divide her time between Tune-Up and Counterculture cafes, but now she is home.
Night rising, stealing
away from winter.
The closed, blue
Atlantic Ocean and
I am silent.
It’s always different
awakening to the
razor sky, silent
sheep, soft earth,
the me of
bone and moon.
The author says–This poem came about because I was missing the colors of Iceland in this brown landscape. It was fun to do and hang in a tree in my neighborhood.
1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.?
I like to establish one thought or half a thought per line. When a line is not end-stopped, I sometimes like to leave an idea hanging so that I can create a surprise or mild surprise pay-off in the following line. This is true whether I am writing free verse or formal verse. I don’t try to force enjambments, though.
2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
Writing reminds me of exercising: I put it off and find a bunch of other things to do, but when I apply myself to the page, as when I make myself go to Zumba or Pilates class, I eventually get into the zone. Getting a poem started, then using self-discipline to forge ahead is a big part of that idea of writing as physical endeavor. Once you get started and the words and ideas flow, it is as if the heart is pumping and the muscles working, and you feel alive. I am not an athlete, far from it, in but I think the comparison between writing and physical body is apt. Then after hitting the desk for an hour or two, you get that pleasant sense of exhaustion for time well spent.
3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?
I dislike being a poet when I am not being a poet, that is, when I do not have a work in progress.
LYNN LEVIN’s most recent poetry collection, The Minor Virtues, is listed as one of Spring 2020’s best books by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her previous collections include Miss Plastique, Fair Creatures of an Hour, and Imaginarium. She is the translator, from the Spanish, of Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales and co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, Artful Dodge, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and other places.
The first installation! To join us, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cooped up by COVID-19, many people are taking to streets, sidewalks, trails, and paths for exercise, fresh air, and a sense of (socially distanced) community. To make being outside a little more interesting, the Poetry in Public Places Project (Poetry in Public Places Project) and the blog Miriam’s Well (www.miriamswell.wordpress.com) are throwing a Pop-Up Poetry Party!
Here is my first contribution, placed in a shrub bed by the street.