So how much longer will the confinement last? That’s what everone here wants to know. According to the Bardo Thödol a soul must wander for seven times seven days after death before being re-born (or, if you you are lucky, pass to a higher level of consciousness). So that’s it ! We have just over three weeks left. Let’s see what happens: we wouldn’t want to find ourselves re-incarnated as some lesser creature (say, an insect). One thing is certain is that our lives after won’t resembles our lives before. While in the Bardo, holy men try to talk to the soul of the departed to provide advice and guide them to a “good” reincarnation. Here in our Bardo however we have zoom. The thing is, most of the people we are talking to don’t realise that they too are also in the Bardo…
You see, a few weeks ago, I had invited friends and family from the four corners of the globe to come to Paris for my birthday at the end of the month. Of course, I didn’t expect that the celebrations would be disrupted by a full-on Earth Abides-type situation, but that is precisely what has happened. I didn’t expect that that little protein-coated bundle of RNA straight outta Wuhan (only 20,000 base pairs!) would arrive here so rapidly and have such a pervasive effect on our everyday life.
George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, for those of you who don’t know it, is one of the most classic romans d’anticipation of all time (the French term for SF is just so much better; here I feel that SF is treated with respect). It is also a work of poetry and literature. I read the book when I was 17 and again in my 20s, and it has stayed with me ever since. The protagonist is a graduate student in geology who is up in the hills getting data for his thesis (as you do) when he is bitten by a snake. He falls ill, then falls ill again. In his fever, two men come into his shack, see him lying there, and then leave quickly. Were they really there? He imagines that it is a dream. Eventually, he recovers and comes down from the mountain to discover that he is (almost) the only person left alive. The world’s population has been decimated by a highly contagious and lethal disease which he was protected from by his snake-bite. That is the start of the book.
Stewart’s day job was a forestry ranger with the parks service and what the book is really about is the relationship between man and his environment. How natural systems have been perturbed by humans and how they will change when humans are no longer there. It is also about the relationship of humans to their culture. In Stewart’s book nobody is battling to save civilisation like desperate scientists in a laboratory surrounded by zombies. Civilisation disappears and the few people who are left have a hard time remembering what was the point of it, actually. Stewart’s character, Ish, valiantly tries to keep the Berkeley public library in order and the books in good condition but nobody is too interested in reading and pretty soon nobody can read. His goal of preserving culture and learning recedes and by the end of the book he is happy to have passed on a few suggestions on how to make weapons that don’t depend people using up their rapidly-depleting stock of ammunition.
All of these thoughts have been running through my head over the last few days. Like many places in Europe, our lives have been put under an increasingly severe series of restrictions in order to slow the spread of those RNA base-pairs . The main immediate effect of these restrictions is to greatly reduce the volume of traffic in the centre of Paris. Our apartment, which faces a long tree-lined avenue, normally vibrates imperceptibly to a slow background rumble of cars and lorries. But now, nothing. Opening the window, a car can be heard passing every few tens of seconds, if not less. On the street below one can now hear people’s voices. Birds can be heard signing. Just after the latest restrictions came into force, I leaned out the window and saw a rat the size of a squirrel scuttling from the bushes in the middle of the avenue and to the pavement and back again. In the middle of the day!
A quick walk around the neighbourhood reveals the fuller extent of our apocalypse with French characteristics . Unlike in Spain or Italy, we are not in total lock-down (this was written three days ago; enforcement is much more vigorous today on Saturday morning). You are still allowed to leave the apartment for a range of reasons, providing of course (this being France) you have a signed piece of paper explaining why you are not at home. Not all businesses have closed. The supermarkets are open (and the shelves slowly being re-stocked after the panic-buying of the last few days). In my very short walk on Thursday morning I met a few joggers and elderly ladies walking their dogs. I saw delivery vans bringing produce and electronic goods from Amazon warehouses to people’s homes. Everyone studiously is maintaining a nervously safe distance from everyone else. This morning it was quieter than the quietest day of the year, the 15th of August. Many people have left the city, those wealthy Parisians who have secondary homes in the countryside. We are all supposed to be working diligently at home (teletravail is what’s called here), thanks to the wonder of the internet. Yes, it’s not exactly Earth Abides. The idea that life should continue as normal, electronically, in the midst of all that suddenly seems strange to me. In some ways we are lucky that our lives can be abstracted away like this, converted into bits. But is so sad to see this great city empty of people.
I’ve recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a poetic and profound book about all that is hidden. Macfarlane descends into caves, tunnels and holes all around the world as well as climbing a few mountains too. Much of it is genuinely terrifying especially as MacFarlane interleaves his stories with tales of similar past expeditions which went tragically wrong. And MacFarlane travels to Paris.
While I was reading the book, I took a walk down to the Petit Ceinture, the abandoned railway that rings Paris and that passes under the Mountsouris not far from here. Like the High-Line in New York, the railway has now been rehabilitated for Sunday strollers. The day that I went there, surprisingly, the gate leading to the tunnel under Montsouris was open. There in the middle of that tunnel there used to be an entrance to the carrières, Paris’ former underground quarries where the limestone that made famous monuments all around Paris were extracted. The middle of that tunnel is dark, silent and damp. Today, the entrance to that Parisian Underland that Macfarlane writes about in his book is closed, sealed off. But there in the middle of the tunnel, daylight a thin semicircle a few hundred yards away, one can catch more than just a whiff of the solitude and isolation, so paradoxical a sensation in such a crowded and dense city.
Continuing in the book, I found myself agreeing with much of what Macfarlane wrote, impressed by his learning, nodding in agreement with his little sketch of the scientist making incredible measurements in a cave deep underground with as about as much drama as someone buttering a slice of bread. That’s what science teaches you to do, it tells you how to confront the infinite and to abstract it away so it can’t touch you or affect your judgement.
Further on in the book I found this passage:
In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts or other brinks. This place [Norway], now is one of the thinnest I have ever been.
I looked down again at the words I was reading and I saw that my bookmark was in fact a thin test strip of baryta paper on which I had printed a slice of Aranmore island, a close-cropped landscape with a house in the distance with grey-white walls and the paint only there in places.
Now I understood. Arranmore is a small island just off the coast of Donegal, very close to the mainland but far enough away so that one indeed feels some slight sense of such things. I was there for a few days this summer with ML. Even then in the heights of July and August there are not many people on the island. If one walks around to the other side of the bay, away from where the small passenger ferry comes in and where the pubs are one is alone facing the Atlantic. The lights of the mainland are resolutely blocked by the cold soil of the land. There are beaches with abandoned boats and low grey skies heavy with silvery clouds. People live here, though. I walked past a school and on the wall there was a big map of Ireland. What surprised me about it was there was a big black blank hole in the top of right of the map, devoid of features and writing or place names, that’s where I come from.
I realised reading Underland that in fact I have been searching for these “thin places” like this Island for all of my life. I am not as an adventurous traveler as Mr. McFarlane, but I will bear his words in mind, I think.
I have just returned from a short trip to Heidelberg. Looking back at what I wrote the last time I was there I see that my concerns haven’t really changed at all (and stay tuned for my next post). And I discovered there is at least one person who reads this blog ! So I will try to post a little more.
This time, I was in town for a Euclid meeting on the mountain, in the forest, and I stayed with ML for a few days in a hotel in the old town. The very centre of Heidelberg is certainly beautiful but does not seem to be the most dynamic place I have ever visited. The Saturday market boasts only one stand selling rather tired-looking fruit and vegetables. The streets at night seem strangely quiet.
The last morning there was a heavy fog over the river. It was easy to take photographs which looked like that they were taken a hundred years ago, especially with a film camera to hand, and I had fight hard against that urge. The place where we had our meeting was beautiful, a lovely glass building surrounded by the forest. With some luck, I’ll be back before too long.