Thoughts toward a New Home

BY Devin Choudhury | | Pandemic Diaries

In the two months or so since the quarantine began, the fiddle-leaf by my bedroom window has become a sundial. I’ve taken to following its shadow as it tracks across the surface of my sheets, warping the rugged terrain born of last night’s shallow sleep; I listen, as the shadow creeps, to the unique silence of this space, the ambience of my four walls, out of which echo far-off barking, the Dopplered bass of passing cars, and — once or twice a day, painful, soothing to the ears — the laughter of children at play. Each day, the plant grows, or wilts, or turns toward the sun. Each day, the silence and the shadow change their shapes. I’ve lived in this room for years, and it has never felt less familiar than now — here — in the midst of this prolonged confinement.

Here, now: in, during, this pandemic and the resulting quarantine, these two words have grown hazy even as the skies have cleared. For those of us trapped inside, the here of home is now the only where, a stand-in for all places. There — restaurants, bars, the homes of friends — lies out of sight, each day less accessible even to the imagination. Meanwhile, now reverberates. If COVID-19 is a single event, a single moment, it is one that refuses to end. Instead, it lurches onward, oozing into a future that is doubly horizonless: on a global scale, chaos reigns, and events warp with such velocity that we can no longer discern even vague details of the time that lies before us; at home, we float in the increasingly familiar monotony of an everyday bereft of change, unable to envision any otherwise, any future then. As there and then disintegrate — leaving only traces preserved in memories and photographs, through windows and laptop screens — here and now are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish. Already locked in an intricate dance, they are folding in on one another, becoming a world in themselves: the shrunken, monotonous world of COVID-19.

I don’t want to overgeneralize. Inspirational advertisements and sidewalk chalk notwithstanding, we are not all in this pandemic together. The severity of COVID-19’s impact in the US has unsurprisingly varied along lines of class and race. In India, Hindu nationalists have been quick to cast blame on the nation’s embattled Muslim minority, sending the “CoronaJihad” hashtag viral. And yet perhaps this here, this now — this horizonless, dull-grey world — perhaps, like the responsibilities and respective capabilities of various countries in relation to anthropogenic climate change, the world of COVID-19 is “common but differentiated.” The pandemic has infected our senses of space and time at a far greater rate than it has sickened our bodies. Despite what some may claim and most may hope, it seems unlikely that this infection will ever truly come to an end.

In trying to make sense of all this spatiotemporal turmoil, I find myself returning to an idea from the farmer-philosopher Wes Jackson: we must, he writes, “become native” to our places. This is not to suggest that we adopt false pretensions of indigeneity; nor is it a push for nationalism or nativism or any combination of the two. Rather, Jackson is asking us to become responsive to the demands, limitations, and offerings of those ecosystems and, more broadly, places in which we dwell. It is only by doing so, he tells us, that we might build a sustainable form of agriculture that does not deplete the Earth’s rich topsoil — or, as I’ve been thinking these past few days, that we might weather a pandemic that is affecting far more than our health. If we are all living in the world of COVID-19, and if this world is not going away anytime soon, then I think it is incumbent upon us to ask: how can we go about becoming native to this pandemic?

Suffice it to say that following the fiddle-leaf’s shadow will not be enough — but maybe it is a place to begin. In the early days of the quarantine, I hoped in vain to reclaim some small slice of the outside world, to reestablish a there and a then such that the horizon might reappear. I quickly realized, though, that by doing so I was demanding more of the quarantine than it is capable of offering. To try to continue forward as before would be to wish for the return of a way of life that has caused near-irreparable modifications to the planet’s topsoil, that has acidified the oceans, that has driven the not-always-so-slow violence of climate change. It is this way of life that brought about COVID-19 in the first place, driving resource-hungry humans into closer and closer contact with the animals that carry novel coronaviruses. Jackson’s fellow farmer-philosopher and good friend Wendell Berry describes the attitude that underlies this mode of existence as a lust for endless industrial growth, for the endless consumption of energy — a lust connected to an older shift, in which certain human beings drew a sharp distinction between themselves and what they called nature, proclaimed their sovereignty over all that was not them, and proceeded to exploit this ostensibly inert matter with what they imagined to be impunity. To demand more of the world of the pandemic, our new here and now, would be to continue along the same path that has already wrought unparalleled suffering upon the Earth.

And so I return to my fiddle-leaf: my imprecise timepiece. If I’m going to live in and during this pandemic, then I must make its world livable; if I’m going to make this world livable, then I need to respect it as a world rather than waiting for it to disclose something more, something that makes it more like my pre-pandemic world, something it is incapable of offering. First and foremost, this means learning to live with versions of space and time that are radically different from those of life pre-pandemic. As Coordinated Universal Time becomes less and less reflective of everyday experience, maybe my fiddle-leaf’s shadow offers a truer understanding of when, exactly, I am. Its shade discloses the intensity of the sun; the patterns it paints on my sheets tell the story of another night of nightmares, still with me as I sip my coffee; its shape — its wilt or growth — draws my thoughts to the stuffiness or freshness of the room, the water I’ve drunk and poured into its soil, the life I’ve lived these past few endless days.

This is a first step, but it isn’t enough. What next? How do you come to understand a brand-new world into which you’ve been thrust? I don’t yet have the answers. Like Rilke, I suspect that they can’t be given, only lived — and so for the time being I’ll try to find more fiddle-leafs, more ambience and echoes, other ways of dwelling in the break. I’ll turn again to the words of Jibanananda Das:

 

Leaving it all, I become like an old tree

Rising alone in the red clouds of that distant early evening!

Casting off human skin, dissolving in the scent of tree-bark;

In the darkness of early evening, I will encounter a bat.

 

In that place the pale path gets paler,

Leaning upon the white breast of the mountain, the time has come;

I will go, — that path — the wonder of the stone face

I dab upon my humanlike face![1]

 

Devin Choudhury, PhD Student, Rhetoric, Berkeley, CA

[1] Jibanananda Das, “Leaving It All, I Become Like an Old Tree,” in Complete Poetical Works of Jibanananda Das (Kolkata: Bharavi Publishers, 2001), 783. My translation.