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A Pandemic Journal

By Alexis Lathem

It has been more than a month and I have been to town only once, to mail some
packages. I live in the country, where the stay-at-home order does not feel so confining,
only strange. And sad. To live inside a circle of life, watching the seasons turn, apart
from history, which comes to us on the radio not like a distant foghorn, but like a
blaring siren inside our living room. I cannot shut it off. I talk with family members
almost everyday who are sheltering inside their Brooklyn apartment, all of them sick,
and feel as if my hands were bound. I would endure this time of seclusion with more
grace if I did not feel so useless, so removed from the overflowing hospitals and the city
of my childhood where so many are sick and dying.

We are boiling sap on our woodstove as we do every year planting seeds indoors for
this year’s vegetable and flower gardens. The end of winter always comes slowly, but
this year time is distended, fraught by strangeness and necessary hope. We had a few
days when the sun was out, the crocuses up and early daffodils; we turned over the
compost piles and cleaned up winter’s debris. And then a cold rain came, falling to the
earth like so may thrust spears. More darkness, more winter.

For a long time I associated spring with death because my mother died in spring, and so
did my brother. We held his memorial in Washington DC, where he lived, while the
cherry trees were in bloom. The magnificence of color hurt my eyes; I blinkered
through the lengthening days in my grief. After so many years, this association has
faded a little. But we will never forget this time, all the burials, the intensity with which
we watched for the lilacs to leaf out, listened for the song of the white throated sparrow,
waited for permission to resume our lives again.

Usually at this time of year we are lambing on our farm. But we chose not to do this
anymore, at least for a while. I did not know, of course, when we made that decision,
that .come spring, we would be forced to stay home; that this would be a time when
new life would have brought much-needed delight. More life. I look out at the paddock
where I should see tiny lambs standing beneath their wooly mothers, their little tails
trembling, while the ewes raise their chins into the air, as if whistling a familiar tune. I
miss them.

I chose this life because I have never had much confidence in a precarious, bloated
economy of global supply chains, credit default swaps, technological dependency, two-
thousand-cow dairies and over-specialization. Instead, it is the rhythms of a rural life
–collecting sap in buckets, cutting wood for the stove, caring for animals – that are more
reliable. When everything else is failing, these do not fail us, cannot fail us. John Berger
wrote that when the animals are gone, it will be “their endurance we [will] miss.” An old
ewe dies, but she has “already lambed her permanence.” It was the same ewe, forever
and forever, her milk flowing into eternity, the lambs arriving year after year. Animals,
who have always been with us, are our link to the past before the past. By caring for

them, for the soil and the forests, the carbon and nitrogen cycles and the rain, we are
keeping forever alive and this is surely not useless.

The good news is that CSA subscriptions and farm stand sales have doubled in recent
weeks. Local food, honestly grown, is something we can trust, and if we want our farms
to be there when we need them, we better support them now. Meanwhile, the mega-
dairies are dumping milk as prices are in freefall. I am reminded of those images from
the Great Depression of mountains of surplus grain, farmers burning corn and, yes,
dumping milk by the roadsides. These became our symbols of the cruelty and insanity
of unbridled capitalism, of allowing the Invisible Hand to control our lives and to grab
us by the throat. The Vermont legislature is considering emergency rules for putting a
floor on milk prices – so that prices don’t go below a farmer’s cost of production – and
for distributing milk surpluses to kids, food pantries, and shelters. These were the kinds
of policies put in place by the New Deal, and over the decades since have been
dismantled chip by chip. And here we are again.

It is hard to see how we will ever go back to the way things were. Putting a floor on milk
prices so a farmer doesn’t lose money by working seven days a week to feed us, and
buying agricultural surpluses to feed the hungry – is this something that will ever make
sense not to do? Will we go back to mass evictions of poor black single mothers and
their children? Throw the homeless back on the streets? Can our system of medical
apartheid really continue after this? This pandemic has made visible to all the faults in
the system, the gross inequalities, so that they can no longer be denied.

The other day my husband was looking through some boxes for some old photographs
and found a newspaper clipping from 1979: “Use of fossil fuels called threat to world
climate.” The story appeared on page D1 of the New York Times. Even a magazine
printed a few weeks ago arrives in our mailbox as if it were sent to us from a distant
past, as did this newspaper clip. The world before corona. I worry that the climate
threat is once again pushed back to page D1, although we know now that the effects of
fossil fuel burning will not wait two hundred years, as the professor thought in 1979.
That they are already here, and that climate change will bring more pandemics, more
economic disaster, and will kill many people. We will have to reckon with the
knowledge that, once again, it is only in times of economic contraction that emissions

I worry that the climate threat will always be pushed back to page D1 because there is
always an immediate crisis, because people need to eat, to work, to live, while the earth
is more and more diminished and ecologically disturbed, meaning that there will be
more crises, more unmet needs. A forest, writes David Quammen, “with its vast
diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over
with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.” We have been warned.

Friends and family members tell me they are rereading those plague-themed books, like
Camus’ La Peste, and Love in the Time of Cholera. I am rereading Angels in America, and
grieving for the millions who died of AIDS while the world was indifferent. We did not,
as a collective, stand in our doorways to bang pots and pans at seven o’clock. The stars

did not go out, we did not pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. I want to believe
that the near universal solidarity we are living right now will not fade away, that it will
change us, deepen our powers of empathy; that the circumference of our sphere of care
will expand in time and space, to include the past, the far away, the seventh generation,
the neighbor we never knew. The animals, too, who are our permanence, our forever.


Alexis Lathem is an environmental journalist and author of the poetry collection, Alphabet of Bones (Wind Ridge Books, 2015), and two chapbooks. She has received the Chelsea Award for Poetry, a Vermont Arts Council grant, and a Bread Loaf scholarship.