“In difficult times keep something beautiful in your mind.” Pascal
Out walking, halfway through my third week of sheltering in place, I spot another roadkill squirrel up ahead on the blind curve in my woodsy Northern California town. That’s three in a week. Are the squirrels sick, so sick they can’t sense oncoming cars? People with CV-19 often lose their sense of smell. I can’t stop thinking about this novel virus. Nobody can. Which has its upside, a we’re-all-in-this-together-side.
Squirrels look a lot like ferrets from the shoulders up. I’d just listened to a podcast about researchers discovering that ferrets — who have the same kind of receptor cells in their lungs that we have in ours — can become infected with CV-19. Having possibly found the perfect test animal for a vaccine, these researchers didn’t follow the usual protocol of waiting to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal but immediately posted it online.
I’m admiring the dead squirrel — clear eyes, delicate claws, luxurious fur, just a small ooze of blood from its mouth — when my friend Jim in Georgia calls. I’m worried about him. Jim has an autoimmune condition that makes him especially vulnerable to viruses, even those we somewhat understand. In this part of town, the cell service is pretty good, and I clearly hear the anxiety beneath Jim’s practiced easy-goingness. Georgia’s governor was slow to order shelter at home. Jim hasn’t dared to do his own shopping for a month.
If ferrets are susceptible, maybe squirrels are, too. This is a goofy non-scientific conjecture, but after 24 days of solitary confinement, I indulge myself. As someone who takes enormous solace from the natural world, my heart goes out to this hapless animal at my feet.
Squirrels’ faces also resemble those of bats, sans those ridiculous ears. Like bats, squirrels don’t mind hanging upside down. I’d googled these notorious viral reservoirs and learned that bats are the only mammals that fly (flying squirrels actually only glide). Of course, flying takes a lot of energy, so bats have tremendously energetic mitochondria. This leads to a great deal of mitochondrial waste, which leads to the kind of oxidative stress and inflammation that should seriously damage bat DNA.
But the original hosts of the coronavirus have evolved a souped-up immune system with advanced DNA repair. Only bats produce interferon alpha 24/7. This ever-present interferon triggers a proactive enzyme that immediately chops up viral RNA, thereby stopping a virus from replicating and protecting the bat. A virus that survives in a bat and ends up in another animal will reproduce so fast the host’s immune system will create what’s known as a cytokine storm, a profound reaction in which the immune system attacks the host themselves.
For two months in 1975, Jim and I were inseparable as we crisscrossed the country on a 9,000-mile hitchhiking trip. Having spent that much time on the shoulders of interstates singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and bivouacking in the middle of beautiful nowheres, so many decades later we’re still finishing one another’s sentences. In the mid-80s, Jim, who’d gone back to school in Boston while I remained in California, received a flu shot that caused his immune system to create a cytokine response that temporarily blinded him, ignited a 104-degree fever, and gradually damaged both his hard and soft tissue.
My dog runs ahead. I make sure to smell the star jasmine and mock orange we pass. Rarely do Jim and I talk for less than an hour, but this time we only talk minutes. He has a slight fever and a sore throat. I’m concerned and say I’ll check in later. Along with herds of antelope bouncing through spacious western twilights, and unexpected human kindness from truckers and even cops — like the one who warned us about the coming storm we mistook for a cooling shower by an onramp to Jackson, Mississippi — we saw plenty of rough moments on that 9,000-mile adventure. There were the filthy motel rooms with paper-thin walls, beer cans that barely missed us and taunts of “Get a job” outside Bakersfield, California, and the old Chevy truck we’d started to climb into in Chattanooga when Jim glimpsed a handgun on the floor. But we were young and fearless and we thought the Blue Ridge Mountains would stay green forever.
Back at my desk, I see that Jim’s sent a link to an interview with a former CDC epidemiologist who says he saw this pandemic coming. I learn the risk of zoonotic spillovers — the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman species to humans — grows as the human population increases and encroaches upon more and more wildlife habitats or brings wildlife into our realms — like the wet markets in Wuhan we’ve all been hearing about.
Around the same time that Jim and I were crisscrossing America, China implemented policies that allowed farmers working depleted land to produce wildlife instead of crops. Early on, farms had just a few animals, but as China’s population exploded so did the number of farms and animals. Farms that once had three civet cats, today might have a thousand. In high demand, especially by the well-off, the wildlife produced on these farms is sold and butchered onsite at wet markets.
Since animals tend to shed viruses especially when they’re stressed, the markets create a perfect storm. Like SARS, where the civet cat was the intermediary, CV-19 jumped from bats to pangolins, then to humans. Unfortunately, since the intersection between wildlife and people is not limited to wet markets, even if China closes them, we’re still likely to experience more zoonotic spillovers. The epidemiologist in the interview thinks there could be one every few years. CV-19 is a monstrous global event, though not a surprising one.
The sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury believed humankind would only come together in the face of an overwhelming common enemy. He imagined an alien from outer space, but maybe the coronavirus is that enemy. I’m not the first to suggest there might be a slim chance, the slimmest that, in this time of coronavirus, the human family could start acting like family. Already many scientists, like the researchers who shared their finding about ferrets, are not putting America or Germany first but humanity first. If we’re to understand this virus in time, most realize collaboration needs to be the modus operandi.
What if CV-19 were a tipping point for us, a chance to change our relationship with one another and our home planet? The big dog Gaia is shaking and many of us know why. We’ve been using her resources as if they were infinite and ours alone. It’s like being in a relationship where one person does all the giving. You know it can’t go on forever and, in fact, part of you doesn’t want it to.
Right after the publication of “On Fire,” I heard climate activist Naomi Klein, offer a pearl of wisdom she surprisingly attributed to free-market economist Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” For decades, climate scientists and environmentalists have been trying to make us see that our wellbeing and the wellbeing of the earth are one and the same. This could be the idea we act on.
The coronavirus proves we are part of a living system where squirrels disperse acorns and scatter truffle fungal spores, where bats pollinate plants, keep insect populations in check, and sometimes shed viruses that jump species. It’s a world where meteorites might end the reign of one species as if to ensure the rise of others.
Before the new C word was on every news anchor’s lips, I might have gone to a movie with a friend after work or exercised in the company of other gym rats. Tonight, I again check in with Jim. “It turns out it’s just my diabetes,” he says. I think about how vulnerable he is. We’re all vulnerable now. I remember a scary ride, all those years ago, across Arizona to the Grand Canyon with an old man we named Mr. Magoo. We’d risked our young lives so we could stand together on the rim of the universe. I see that now.