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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Seven


 Embedded in Nature



The oldest, easiest to swallow idea was that the earth was man's personal property, a combination of garden, zoo, bank vault, and energy source, placed at our disposal to be consumed, ornamented, or pulled apart as we wished."


             Lewis Thomas, "The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher" 



As outdoor swimming is over for 2020, and indoor pools are closed for the duration, I have—virtually—immersed myself in a nutrient-rich kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, and the faux floating G gravity of actors on wires –the wires digitally removed—inside a space module catapulting to Mars in the Netflix series, Away. But it is the kelp forest in the award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, that has imprinted on my dreams and daytime reveries.


The Atlantic off Capetown is known as the "Sea of Storms," so fierce is the ocean on the southwestern coast of the African continent, home to one of the biggest kelp forests on the planet. Craig Foster's family had a bungalow on that shore and his diver parents put him in the cold water when he was three-days-old. Amid a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, and a period of burnout and depression, he decided to return to the site of his childhood pleasure and curiosity to immerse in the healing primordial waters. He'd just been filming the indigenous trackers in the Kalahari Desert and was inspired by their gifts and reverent relationship to habitat. He began to explore the kelp forest with a similar reverence, tracking its abundant life underwater, at first without his camera, and then with his camera. Years passed and he was diving every day, without a wetsuit, without scuba gear, to become more amphibious, he explains in the narration. Each dive in the shallow water lasts about two minutes—and  in 2015, on one of these daily forays, he discovered an octopus. His evolving relationship with this intelligent short-lived, "liquid" animal became a collaborative film project—his son and wife, his friends, professionals—culminating in a Netflix release, and The Sea Change Project, an environmental conservation group.


I was so smitten with this film, and all who worked on it, that I messaged Pippa Ehrlich, one of the directors and cinematographers. I woke up to her replies the following morning. The production company has been inundated with requests since the film was launched, and yet she took the time to answer my questions, for which I was grateful.


"Like all ecosystems the kelp forest is facing a myriad of threats including plastic and chemical pollution," Pippa told me in our email exchange when I asked about environmental degradation of the forest. Darwin did not mention pollutants in his reports from the Galapagos in 1835, but he gave us fair, passionate warning:


Amidst the leaves of this [kelp] plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, and otters, seals, and porpoises, would soon perish also


What did Darwin know, what did he see, that some still refuse to know, see and understand? Everything. It seems incredible, almost tragic, that his scientific prediction went unheeded. Yet, it has. I am consoled, at least, that The Sea Change Project  is looking after the kelp forest a continent away from where I live, and that Pippa, Craig, and the rest of the crew of My Octopus Teacher, have used their storytelling gifts to tell an enlightening, inspiring and entertaining personal story. Find more information  on the website: https://seachangeproject.com/



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Six


Prayer Flags



Do something. Start with pleasure. Make a list of all the things that are pleasurable in your life and then make an art form out of one of them. And if you're courageous, make a list of all the things that are difficult in your life and make an art form out of one of them. 


 --Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who "pivoted" to pottery. He was Kaete Brittin Shaw's mentor at Swarthmore, founded by the Quakers.


Never forget that we are artists, every one of us, creating and sustaining a life out of this pandemic wilderness, our connection to others, the new challenges we face every day—joys, sorrows, ups and downs. We digest and enjoy one another's stories, in whatever medium they are rendered: culinary, sculptural, written, or photographic. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Water Dancer this week, a gift from my daughter, I am in another time and place, transported by Hiram, a first person intimate narrator. I've only known Coates as a polemicist and essayist, and now this novel, not quite arrived but of interest nonetheless. Perhaps his next book will be better. And I try to touch in with visual art and visual artists as often as I can, too, even if I can't get to museums and galleries these days. The "arts & culture" app on Google helps, so, too, the occasional interview with an artist when I have been inspired or consoled by the work. This week: the ceramicist and colorist, Kaete Brittin Shaw.

I had first met Kaete at the Unison Arts gallery in New Paltz where I have taught a couple of workshops, but it was an acquaintanceship in passing until this summer when a mutual friend suggested I contact her to ask if I could buddy up for a long distance swim at Lake Minnewaska at the non-life-guarded beach, exclusively for those who have passed a test. Much as I would normally--and in normal times-- resist an exclusive club, mea culpa, I joined this one. I was already on Kaete's mailing list and was paying attention to her work. Then about ten-days ago, exhausted from a hack on my dedicated Virus Without Borders blog book site-- the realization that we'd have to take it down, the sadness of that-- I went up to the Unison Arts sculpture garden for respite.

It was a beautiful, soft, mellow day. The light dappled through the trees onto a simple wooden stage that had recently been built for outdoor, distanced performances. Interesting installations all around, weather ready, solid yet ethereal. I turned to my right and there were Kaete's prayer flags strung between the trees. I hadn't expected to see them there catching the light. My agitated spirit stilled.

I am always interested in an artist's choice of medium, analogous to a writer's choice of genre. Kaete only works with porcelain. Why porcelain? "Because of its whiteness," she explained during a telephone interview. "I'm a colorist and other clays absorb the color too much." For the prayer flags, she's added a layered screen. I'm not sure what this is exactly and look forward to examining them more closely when I'm next in the sculpture garden, or visiting Kaete's studio. That day will be a celebration.

When I asked Kaete about the inspiration for the flags, I assumed she was Buddhist, or had a meditation practice of some sort, but her inspiration was unexpected: she was raised Quaker. I have attended Quaker meetings and know that the long silences, though strange at times, nurture self-reflection and the solitude of artistic endeavor, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, silence is good for artists and writers, whenever and however we can find it. It allows the work to surface. Oddly, we've had too much silence and isolation during the pandemic, the gesture of touching expunged, our voices muffled by masks. Life out of balance.

"I have stalled on a major work," Kaete told me. I could relate as my plan to begin a new book project this summer never happened. I don't think anyone I know anticipated the long haul, the months of struggle, containment, uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues. our families, the world, an election looming. Who will have a job at the end of all this? When will we be able to travel, or walk into the grocery store without masks?

What has raised your spirits during this difficult time? I asked Kaete. "Biking and swimming," she said without hesitation. "Just floating on the lake, looking at the clouds and the cliffs. That helps." I know the feeling. All troubles drift away.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Five

Image of 9/11, a day that disrupted and reconfigured the definition of America: "Devil's Inferno" © copyright Peggy Weis 



What is America to Me?



Amid expanding global conflicts, 79.5 million people are now displaced worldwide… UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)



Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? 


Jenny Erpenbeck,  "Go Went Gone"





I met an acquaintance as I was walking in New Paltz this morning. Masks on, we stopped to talk, always a pleasure in these more isolated times. I'd heard from a mutual friend that she'd had a rough time, lost a good friend to COVID, and taken a fall some weeks ago, her knees and back slow to heal. Now she was out on the trail again, but her partner was feeling frustrated, she said, because they wouldn't be able to travel anytime soon and get away from what will surely be a harsh winter, especially if the virus spikes. I thought about the word frustration after we said goodbye, about the privilege it implies, and I tried to feel sympathetic, but couldn't. This is a family with money, a beautiful house, a pantry brimming with delectable food, access to the best medical care. How dare they complain, I thought to myself, when so many people are suffering here and all over the world? What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?

America. God Bless. When I received an offer of Austrian citizenship recently it suddenly dawned that I could go "home," that "home" was somewhere else, the country of my parents' birth, and childhood, and education. I fantasized the last quadrant of my life—if I am fortunate enough to have a quadrant—with an EU passport, universal health care, daily writing sessions at my favorite Viennese café, and nightly indulgence in the opera. My mother grew up standing room only; I'd treat myself to a loge seat.

I filled out the preliminary Austrian citizenship application. I sent it back and had a return email from the Austrian Consulate in New York. Oddly, I couldn't remember my father's birthday and had to look it up on the internet. I'd blanked. It was not surprising considering the fugue state I was in. What about my daughter? What about my husband? Was I planning to escape to Europe on my own? Never mind that I cannot speak German and have always refused to speak German even during and after I took a (free for me) German class at NYU. English is the lingua franca all over the world, I told myself, extending the fantasy to every detail of an imagined life in Vienna or, with an EU passport, Paris or Madrid.

I called my sensible cousin, Peggy, the creator of the American flag illustrating this blog post. But she was angry with me. I paraphrase and extrapolate: Have you forgotten what they did? Have you forgotten about the right wing surge in the EU right now? Have you forgotten what America meant to our parents? A bit late, nicht? Didn't the Germans offer repatriation to survivors and descendants a long time ago. And so on.

I woke up. And let the application slide.

I don't think I would have even been tempted if I wasn't feeling worried about the election, the crypto-fascist in the White House, and what will happen to all the people I know who have been laid off, and all the undocumented students I've had and what will happen to them, and how the migrant workers in the orchard will survive the winter, and whether or not those near and dear and near and far will survive the winter. COVID crazy. I laugh hysterically when I hear all the suggestions for grounding and breath counting and goodness knows what to manage our grief, our anxiety, our day-to- day coping, the necessity of continuing vigilance to stay safe. Always the words, "stay safe," at the end of every email, every conversation. Bizarre, indeed. But amidst all this bizarreness and uncertainty, I do know this: If artists and writers lose connection to pain as well as joy, we'd might as well quit working.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Four



What We Choose to See



I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.

                         Donna Tartt, The Secret History


Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, Grow."


The Talmud



Andrew Geher and friends are cleaning up a dead zone, as deep and dark as a pit, cavernous and hidden, behind the local MacDonald's on Main Street in the small town where I live, New Paltz, NY.   It's an unofficial dumping ground and, possibly, a homeless encampment. In the past that would have been hard to believe in this affluent town, less so now that the pandemic has decimated so many jobs.  Andrew was walking by the site with his friends, a walk he's made often, but this time he saw the mess. This shock of recognition—the realization that our landscapes as well as our bodies can be compromised, trashed, or destroyed—stayed with him.


"I'd had a quiet, introspective few weeks when classes were suspended in the spring," Andrew told me in a phone conversation. A performer specializing in musical theater, going silent could have been especially difficult, but Andrew relished it. Both his dad and his sister had come down with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined in their respective rooms, both were very ill, though not hospitalized. They recovered, but it wasn't an easy time.


Still in his junior year of high school, Andrew didn't have his driver's license yet so he made plans with friends to walk masked and distanced around town, a safe way to get out and hang out.  Teenagers talking and walking. And then, one day, they passed the site and Andrew decided he'd organize a clean-up and posted an invitation on the community Facebook page. In addition to a cohort of personal friends, about a dozen of the local citizenry showed up, young and old, including Andrew's dad who was hauling a couch up a steep embankment when I arrived on a warm day in August.


Life for all of us has changed beyond all our imaginings; we all have been afflicted and challenged in particular ways.  Andrew and his friends will be entering their senior year of high school on Zoom, so the initial clean-up and a spin-off project is a give-back to the community, a broader, ambitious activism, and a way to stay sane and connected during the still difficult months ahead.  


On his new website,  donthurthearth.com,  Andrew says that he hopes to inspire his generation to be part of the solution, not the problem.  He deserves encouragement, support and applause.

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