I’ve been living in this new reality for about a week now, perhaps two. It’s hard to know because the days and nights blend together, though not intolerably (yet). I leave the apartment once every day to walk or run along the river. Sometimes it’s a bit crowded, and I have to maneuver to stay six feet away from the other joggers, walkers, and bikers. I am thankful for my roommate, who is one of my best friends and a hugely calming presence in the apartment. I am thankful for the technology that allows me to see my family’s faces when I cannot be with them. I am thankful for the mourning doves that coo softly outside my window, and the sunshine that filters into my bedroom.
The world has turned upside down. There are many more weeks like this sure to come.
To look on the bright side, which I think is always important in times like these: the planet is getting a chance to catch its breath, I’ve been in much more contact with my far-flung friends and family these past few days than usual, and I’ve got ample time to read and knit with few other obligations (that’s quickly changing though, now that my classes have started up again online and I still have to turn in a thesis in April).
Since I have all this extra time, I thought I’d write a more in-depth review for a wonderful book I just finished—Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. No, it is not science fiction, which the conclusion everyone jumps to straight away. It’s actually nonfiction, and the way I like to describe it to people is as if someone made one of those adventuresome science or history channel TV shows, where the host visits a couple of noteworthy sites and speaks with various experts, except they did it in the form of beautifully poetic prose, with a healthy dose of nature writing and a few black and white photographs.
Underland was reminiscent of travelogues I’ve read from the 19th and 20th century, with charismatic narrators who fear little and rely on the kindness and hospitality of friends and acquaintances around the world. The book absolutely transported me; it reminded me of my childhood in the suburbs, where I lived on a cul-de-sac and had free reign of the street and our sizable backyard. I would spend afternoons and evenings in the mild California climate traipsing through trees and digging around in the dirt. I have a strong memory of discovering a kind of very brightly colored snail that I’d never seen before, and being convinced that I’d stumbled upon a brand new species.
Reading Underland reminded me what it felt like to know (or at least think) that the world was at my fingertips, that I could go anywhere, wasn’t afraid of anything, felt at home outside. Whereas now, after having lived in the city for a few years, I am afraid of nature—of ticks and leeches and other bugs that do harm—I do not feel comfortable taking directly from Mother Nature, as Macfarlane does when he drinks from “starless” rivers—how do you know the water is clean?! my brain screams at the page—and clambers through woods and streams and sewers—what of leeches?! Mosquitoes carrying malaria?! Once I was not so afraid. I love New York but I hate that it does this to me. Reading Underland reminded me of the whole beautiful world that exists outside of this city, in the suburbs, in the small towns, out in the wilds, that you can’t see from behind the closed window of a speeding car, that you can only see when you stop and get out and explore on foot, as Macfarlane does so thoroughly and engagingly.
When we all emerge from this pandemic, pale and blinking and most definitely wounded, I hope that I will be able to return to the natural world to find solace. I still plan to stay in New York, for I feel strongly that this is my home, now more than ever—but when I am finally able to go back to California for a visit, or when I have the means (free time and access to a car) to explore some of the nature outside of NYC, or when my cousins and I finally do the national park trip we’ve been dreaming about, I hope that I will remember Macfarlane’s comfort in the natural world, and the trust and abandon I felt when I was a kid scrambling around outside.
Now, the ever-present question: what to read next?