In the Woods of a Pandemic
Imagining a Terrifying Beauty In the Midst of Loss
By Sherrida Woodley
I once wrote a novel about a flu so horrendous it paused civilization. No one could halt the onslaught, least of all me. For three years the story filled my life and more than once disturbed me enough to stop writing. “Why,” I kept thinking, “do I want to keep imagining this kind of devastation?” I had written only one other novel when I began Quick Fall of Light in 2006. Living in the woods of Eastern Washington, as a mother, a wife, a medical transcriptionist, and a budding novelist, there was only writing to decompress and act as a form of self-expression. I’d enjoyed the experience of creating characters and a plotline to carry them through one literary try. But this was a novel both vaguely dystopian and a grim projection of what had happened in ages past, and there were times, many of them, when I was basically overwhelmed.
Pandemics, by their very nature, have the shock value of a gigantic earthquake. They are rapid in their approach and voraciously unpredictable. Initially, they appear to have all the ingredients that would propel a story through tension and adversity, literally following a track of devastation that could boggle the mind. But unlike an earthquake, virulent disease does not make for good story. As strangely alien as it is to human life, disease on a massive scale makes for silence equally as massive. Very little moves unless characters somehow remain healthy. I realized early on that without compelling characterization, I couldn’t write something that a reader could identify with. The horror of a worldwide catastrophic flu simply wasn’t enough.
When I think about it now, I was at the right age to explore this kind of human upset. In the last couple decades, AIDS had cast a long shadow across America, a virus known for its ravaging course and the fear-fed realization that a disease could be present and hidden all at the same time. For many, AIDS exhibited the visibility of smallpox in combination with something as dreaded and evasive as syphilis. There was stigma and caution and the pervasive feeling of “social distancing,” even as early as the 1980s. I took part in that first wave of assumptions. You can escape a virus if you live with discretion, in cleanliness, and with full intent to insulate yourself from contagion, I believed. But over time, this infection unveiled a harsher truth. No one would ever again claim a blanket of immunity. We had relinquished the great conquerings of polio and measles for a new age of virus on the rise. Smoldering and explosive, crippling and strangely enigmatic, viruses could lay waste entire populations. This turn of disease left me uneasy, and as a medical transcriptionist I considered a shaky future for the world. But it was actually one other, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that struck a writing nerve. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even a virus.
Working in the pathology lab of a local hospital, I can still recall precautions that were being addressed in the mid-1990s to deal with its potential rise in humans. Also referred to as Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), great preparation was being taken to work in unison with others who were battling vCJD, and as a transcriptionist, I was privy to some of the most gruesome details, including transcribing notes about transmission of the disease via eating diseased cattle. Prions, unlike viruses or bacteria, were the culprit this time, infectious abnormal proteins that re-shaped the human brain. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease could occur in older adults through inherited tendencies of the brain, but it was in eating diseased cattle that young people suffered symptoms that included dementia and, in time, advanced involuntary muscle twitching. It was horrifying to see a video, and the lab itself discussed the oncoming threat in hushed conversation.
Ironically, the first case of Mad Cow Disease was discovered in a dairy cow in the State of Washington in late 2003, but by this time I was no longer working for that hospital, and my current transcription was no longer associated with the specialty of pathology. Also by this time, scientists had witnessed the spread of the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from the United Kingdom in the 1980s onward to other countries, including the United States. Most Americans had seen pictures of advanced disease in infected cattle, but they were spared the details of transmission to humans. That I recall, the situation never really exploded here, but I remember thinking back on those early lab warnings, and a story began to bud in my mind.
Over time I realized zoonotic disease or infection transmitted from animal to human (and sometimes vice versa) was part of the new paradigm. Along with so much else in life, disease is very social and that includes and has always included animals. However, the joining of our fates was becoming more noticeable and certainly more lethal. I focused on bird or avian flu, a highly contagious viral infection that passes mostly between wild birds or poultry and humans and was on the rise in China by the mid-2000s. This became the impetus to interject a different kind of character into the story, one I could develop in a compassionate attempt to ease the terror of a pandemic. That animal took the form of a bird.
This facet of writing has always appealed to me — choosing a character, sometimes a very unusual one, to power the action, and in this case I was very torn about specifics. Two bird species became part of my original obsession with character development. The extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker had recently come to my attention through one of the saddest recountings in birding history — the shameless destruction of old growth forest that included the Singer Tract in Louisiana in 1944, resulting in the final days of one of the largest woodpeckers in the world. I remember putting together a storyboard with the Ivory-Bill front and center as the bird that would move the story from one side of the United States to the other. But that’s exactly what didn’t feel right. What I needed was a natural high-flier, a bird so renowned for flight that it would hardly leave the air.
Passenger Pigeons, another distinctly American species, seemed a better choice. Extinct since about 1914, I read everything I could get my hands on about these shy creatures — from their strange habit of flying in flocks up to three days in length to falling prey to hunters with no more than clubs to knock them out of roosts. They had the rudiments of something long forgotten in our skies — avian super flocking. And they glistened in colors of vibrant blue and violet with streamlined chests of russet brown. One particular Passenger Pigeon would become idealized in Quick Fall of Light, but as I developed scenes, one after another, I realized it was his kind, the flock that was secreted away in a medical facility in the Olympic Rainforest of Western Washington that would hold the story to some degree of authenticity. Likewise, it was the bird itself that carried the story into realms of speculative fiction that could never compare with the complicated machinery of a virtual pandemic. Without this balance between the real and the imagined, Quick Fall would’ve been only an accounting, much like what has been written about the 1918 flu. Instead it became a dynamic that kept me up nights writing and re-writing scenes, convincing me to look down the throat of an oncoming disaster and imagine it full-force among us.
As I fleshed out three other human characters, I continued to live in a place both quiet and somewhat forgotten in the assurance that little disturbance would lead to a sense of getting lost in an alternate universe, much as we’re experiencing right now. Many days were spent transcribing, and just as many nights spent writing. I seldom left my computer. My children were frequently taken care of by my husband, and when I did get outside it was often to walk back and forth between pines trying to figure out how a global community would react to unprecedented disease with little promise of relief and the strange after-effects of a mysterious bird being mined for the world’s only anti-virus. There was power in immersion, in never really letting go of the storyline. I lived through a pandemic in full flower. And in some ways, I’ve never been the same.
There are, however, many parts of Quick Fall that have receded from memory. Josephine, a recent widow at the story’s beginning, in my mind has faded into the dreamy outline of a woman completely lost if it weren’t for the mysterious experimentation of her once-thriving husband, a man who foresaw the impact of an unstoppable virus. Gary Sterns, a man who logs forests with a team of horses remains the improbable hero, one never fully fleshed out except for his overwhelming love for Josephine. In one scene he takes her to the forest canopy to witness birds coveted for their power to offset a modern-day virus because of their original exposure to a similar one a century earlier.
It is, however, the character of Martin Pritchard who still sends a chill through my being. A man tightly wound, trained in warfare, for a while he represents that part of our civilization on medical lockdown. He carries out sweeping judgments regarding an anti-virus, decides who receives, who doesn’t, and it is only through his view of a suffering world that I began, as a writer, to recognize the scope of a pandemic, especially the twin losses of freedom and safety, often in conflict and invariably at the same time.
Now, well over a decade after writing a novel of an epic disaster, while my obsession has slowly dissipated, I still feel the stinging realization that to write about such tragedy is to be forever linked with it. Pandemics, in the scheme of things, are rather rare events, but they clobber humanity with the force of an apocalypse. Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider some twenty years after surviving the 1918 flu recounted that the past never holds still. She was right, especially when the subject is as grim as humankind’s greatest vulnerability. And especially when I’m witnessing the unfolding of a reality I could barely imagine except once upon a time.
It is in the current momentous struggle to recover from an ongoing pandemic that I can’t deny a bellyache of worry, however transient it may be. Many days my only wish is for the timely extermination of angst — for everyone, everywhere. With a strange measure of survivor’s guilt, I can remember ramping up these same feelings, pacing back and forth while in the midst of a deliberate written outpouring of fear and withdrawal in story form. At times I alluded to close comparisons to what we all share now — distancing and lockdown and the strange dictums of a viral scourge. And then there were those other, more punctuated writing benders when all I wanted was to declare the small acts of compassion that resonate within each of us, especially when we’re straining for hope.
For now, it is as though I’ve lived out one narrative only to be thrust into another. Writing of a pandemic has in no way prepared me for one, and yet there is some amount of privilege connected to the thought-provoking experience. Like others before me, I’m reminded that sometimes a writer must live a story through more than once to finally reach the end. It is sometimes the only way to begin anew.