PLAGUE DEATHS CHANGE THE WORLD
Because our pandemic is unstoppable so far and because so many people of every sort and everywhere on the planet are affected, I’m wondering how thinking about death is changing. One suggestion is that it makes people callous about the value of human life, like the suggestions to just let everyone take their chances. Another reaction is the near-beatification (deserved) of those who battle to save every person, even risking their own lives. Or we can wonder about the justice of a disease that allows an evil and destructive person to survive in spite of have every predictive factor for death: fat, addicted, morally and sexually deficient, out of control.
Attachment, which is a word I use instead of “love” which has been so corrupted and particulated that it’s nearly useless, is a natural phenomenon of mammals who feel any loss, through death or otherwise, like moving away from a familiar place that seems to be part of them. Reptiles do not grieve. Birds grieve. But they don’t have fantasies about death.
I reject the supernatural, but not the unknown. It’s clear that we only know a fraction of existence, even those who are privileged. The supernatural and the unknown are closely related, except that people who try to evoke the supernatural always use the terms to which they are attached, what they already know, a repetition and bringing back. But science confronted with the unknown tries to find clues, possibly by changing their assumptions about what is known.
In the case of our current plague, I still have not heard opinions from survivors of previous episodes. My mother, especially in old age, often reflected on the fact that she survived the 1918 world plague but her doctor did not. She was a little girl whose mother gave her the best care possible — at home, not even in a hospital which in those days would not have had ICU. She never mentioned any other person who died except the doctor.
Wallace Stegner wrote whole novels about that pandemic, but so far as I know he never discussed it directly. He was more concerned about the death of nature, and surely that must also count as a plague. Famine, which is not due to disease but to bad distribution, bad weather, bad social patterns, should also be considered a plague.
James Welch wrote a powerful novel about the smallpox plague when it is interpreted as a moral punishment for individuals but didn’t confront it as a national cultural game-changer. Still, there is always a moral dimension to disease, none more so than HIV that gave rise to a whole body of writing, mixing it with the stigmatizing and defining of what we know now as “gay” in spite of human desire being so fluid and unpredictable that no binary is very useful.
In fact, the VD plagues of war are so insidious and yet so demonized that we don’t call them “venereal disease” anymore but rather STD’s — sexually transmitted diseases, lumping viruses with bacteria and whatever travels in bodily fluids or locates in generative parts. Just so disease is mixed with behavior.
This town has a high proportion of Belgians who must have been plague survivors way back when, so have become morally committed to cleanliness and neatness as controllers of the spread of disease. They have not evaded diabetes because of their association of good health and prosperity with sweet baked goods. Nor have they let their devotion to chemicals, poisoning anything that doesn’t fit their plans, protect them from the plague of cancer. The plagues of drugs and alcohol addiction are calling whole cultures into question. How can we blame “culture” when both Valier and Heart Butte suffer in spite of major differences?
These destructions are at war with attachment, which is so much about needing and valuing the way things were and maybe always have been to the point of not being able to accept change even when it is reform, life-saving. They would rather die. They feel that ripped away attachments are already little deaths and indeed it means one’s brain has to do a lot of changing, maybe editing.
I don’t romanticize death nor do I relish change. I see humans as a short trajectory of development that is a fabulous coordination of tiny elements, atoms forming molecules, molecules forming cells, then tissues and the ability to survive. Through my own life I’ve been forced to change and those changes have challenged my identity as my old ways “die” and new ones are “born.” People who don’t change remember me from one role or another and assume that I must be like that permanently, but sameness is an illusion, an assumption, a convenience. I fall prey to the same mistake about others.
Places fare a little better, but I had not realized the briefness of glaciers, the vulnerability of climate. Luckily my life is so much shorter than theirs, I can pretend that the Sweetgrass Hills still look the same on the horizon even though I’ve see pictures of what gold-diggers have done with their machinery. When I finally dared to drive to the laundromat in Shelby, I passed a wind turbine in giant pieces, traveling in a swarm of small pilot vehicles flashing lights. Under the double-highway interstate traces of the narrow early highway and its engineering are still apparent.
Resources and transportation force change all the time and the politics follow them — so do plague. Pondera County where I am is showing about 40 cases with one death; Toole County where the laundromat is shows 422 cases with 8 deaths. Pondera is a small irrigation town. Toole is an “intermodal exchange” and a port of entry from Canada. The two are also different sizes. By Thanksgiving I should know whether I am infected. I spoke to only one woman from six feet away. I had my mask in my pocket, not expecting her to be there.
We describe plagues in terms of death, rather than the body of recovered people, and though the scientists tell us that many of our plagues result from us invading places where we have no immunity so that the viruses on rats and bats find us easy prey. They are only fighting back. We are told this has been happening for so long that the previously described “junk DNA” we can identify in the human genome are fragments of old viruses that have become part of our replications.
Our demographic statistics will be greatly changed by this plague. It’s already improving the environment just as the Black Plague cleared and slowed agriculture in Europe and the many deaths of indigenous people changed the landscape of the Americas.