I aimed for a weekly post about the health of the natural world, but here I am dwelling on coronavirus again. Is anyone undistracted by this pandemic?
This time I dusted off my copies of Samuel Pepys diaries in which he recorded the bubonic plague in the city I grew up in. Londoners were familiar with the scourge. The Black Death carried off most of the population across Europe in the 14th century and made other appearances. Although believed to be carried in the air (‘miasma’), human contact was a known agency too. Inbound merchant vessels had to rest at anchor for 40 days before disembarking (a number straight from the Bible). Plagues then took months to sweep across the known world in merchant sailing ships as we became more connected by trade, but it only takes a few hours or days by air travel today.
Pepys wrote in August 31, 1665: “the plague everywhere through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week … 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared the number of the dead this week is near 10,000”. He had little confidence in statistics because the poor were often unrecorded and Quakers forbade tolling the bell for their losses. Nor will the true number of coronavirus deaths be known for a long time.
Two weeks later: “To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams is dead of the plague and one of my watermen …” Epidemic is merely numbers until its meaning is wrought in suffering people you know and care about. Willful ignorance and denial of science we currently witness in the news will surely be tested with the fire of personal tragedies to come.
A shipment of cloth from London to a tailor in Eyam, a small village near Sheffield, carried infected fleas in 1665. Dreaded buboes erupting with pus appeared on the skin of villagers. The Eyam community led by an Anglican priest is hailed as an example of self-sacrifice where quarantine was imposed to avoid spreading the contagion outside.
Beautiful myths grow up where facts are scarce. The priest sent his children away and the poor could not afford to go. But it is a fact that only a quarter survived, and maybe the odds in neighboring villages benefitted from ‘lockdown’. According to a math model, quarantine may have made matters worse for Eyam by prohibiting dispersal if closer contact led to a more deadly pneumonic (pulmonary) plague. If there is a hero in the story, it is the priest’s wife because she stayed and died.
We constantly ask how the current ‘plague’ will end, and when? In Eyam it burned out by running out of victims (from herd immunity?), but no one imagined it would take a literal fire in London.
Pepys wrote on September 2 of the following year: “With my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower (of London), who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned down St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already … and did tell the King (Charles II) and the Duke of York what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.” It seemed perverse to add to the physical and economic destruction but in the end was the best policy.
Sometimes we have been lucky in history with leaders who rose to the challenge of crises with coordinated, compassionate and effective responses. This time we have seen dithering politicians scared that bold responses might dent their standing and blind to the bigger picture. This coronavirus emergency is terrible and a vaccine is an urgent goal, but unless its roots in careless stewardship of nature are acknowledged the ancient cycle of plagues will be repeated, because everything is connected.
Of all the things I remember about being in Boy Scouts, the stories told by Akela, our scout leader, about how to survive in the wilderness have stayed with me over the years. Suburban London children didn’t need to know which wildflowers are good to eat, or how to hunt and dress a deer, or escape from a prowling tiger, but the lessons were no less fascinating for being irrelevant. And on nights when foul weather kept us inside the troop hut, he stirred our imagination by reading extracts from The Jungle Book, which we then play-acted. But those stories are only shadows compared to memories of real outdoor activities.
We made shelters from tree branches overlaid with ferns in which we sometimes camped overnight, usually sleepless and scratching at itches. We cooked “twists” of flour dough on green twigs over open fires. We learned how to track “dangerous” animals by following pugmarks left by the rector’s corgi after its morning walk along muddy paths. And we had “wide games” in which a team of boys was sent into the woods to hide after leaving trails for others to track them down. That was an activity I excelled in. I often succeeded in jumping on an unsuspecting boy crouched under a bush after stealthily approaching him. I won my Stalkers badge before my teen years, though it’s not something I can proudly wear on my sleeve nowadays!
There was (and still is) a Green Belt of countryside around London. The boundary was a mere twenty minute walk from home, so I had plenty of opportunities to practice stalking in the “wilds” of Kent. I wandered around woods and fields in a khaki shirt and short pants with binoculars dangling around my neck. I hoped for a close-up view of some unsuspecting target—perhaps a bird on its nest or a badger blinking at the setting sun after emerging from underground .
One afternoon in late summer I was wading through a grassy field up to my waist, the plumes of seed-heads gently rocking in the breeze around me. It seemed impossible that anything could disturb the peace of that moment. But then I heard a low moaning noise that made me pause to listen intently. When I lifted my binoculars I was none the wiser, although a patch of grass had been beaten down some twenty yards ahead.
I guessed it was a deer fawn hiding in the grass calling for its mother. Not wishing to disturb it, I got down on my belly to crawl forward, my arms parting grass stalks to make a path. After creeping for several minutes, I was close to my target and could even hear dry stems crackling, but I still couldn’t see the striped coat of a fawn.
Suddenly, a man’s head and shoulders exploded above the grass and he gazed in my direction. I jumped to my feet immediately because it was no good pretending that I hadn’t been spotted. I was waiting to hear him roar something like—“What the hell are you doing, boy?”—or riper language, but he ducked down, mumbling, “I saw you.”
Taking a couple of steps forward, I saw him sprawled on the ground, his shirt askew, and with four arms, not two. A woman’s face briefly appeared from under his chest, then she quickly hid again.
I jabbered, “Got the time, sir?” It wasn’t such an odd request in different circumstances. I often stopped grown-ups before my thirteenth birthday when I was given my first wrist watch. By the time the man had crooked his arm to tell the time I was already turning to scarper back home over the flattened grass. I didn’t understand then why I felt embarrassed intruding on them, nor did I know until much later the expression, in flagrante delicto.
I already knew it was much harder to stalk wildlife than humans. The challenge became acute when I bought a camera for nature photography. I could only afford one with a fixed focal length of 50 mm, and didn’t graduate to a SLR and telephoto lens until I became a working adult. Consequently, my early attempts to capture animals or birds on camera were mere landscape compositions, and a magnifying glass was needed to spot the intended subject which was supposed to grace a prizewinning picture. But my frustration with the camera led to discovering how to get closer to my targets. Instead of stalking wildlife, I sauntered forth in their general direction pretending to be oblivious of them and, most importantly, avoiding gazing in their direction.
If I wandered past a squirrel or an owl sitting on a branch they often ignored me, giving me a chance to discreetly squint from the side of my near eye to get a closer view. They then seemed convinced that I was not a hunter—or at worst a dimwitted one. Alas, if I turned to raise my camera for a snap they were off immediately, and all I captured on film was a disappearing blur of fur or feathers.
Eighty years ago, the New York surgeon-naturalist, Robert Morris, observed in his autobiography how animals can sense our intentions: “… wild animals in the woods instinctively know whether one who goes among them is carrying a gun heart or a camera heart. In the days when I eagerly hunted for bear, moose, caribou, or deer they were seldom found within easy rifle range. They often seemed to have just departed from a locality after leaving abundant signs for my aggravation. Now with a camera instead of a rifle I can get right among these animals at short range. It seems almost uncanny at times.
“When a hunter goes through woods or fields hundreds of eyes are turned on him without his knowledge. Birds, mice, and squirrels, to say nothing of larger animals, are looking right at him all day long from their points of safe vantage, but he does not know it. Something of his hunting attitude is doubtless passed along the line, a sort of woods’ telegraph, ‘Look out for a killer coming!’ A kind of thought-transference appears to go along the line in exactly the same way when one carries into the woods a sympathetic and kindly interest in all wildlife.”
It is my hunch that animals read intentions in our eyes. A head rotating or eyes roving in their direction are alarm signals. I wonder if dark glasses could fool them, and will try the experiment one day.
Besides hunters and animal predators, subordinates and potential prey must avoid eye contact sometimes, like young wolves who avoid the gaze of an alpha male or female in their pack. I remember a path through the grounds of another school in my district through which my friend and I liked to take a short-cut to home. Few dared because boys at that school had a reputation for persecuting those who trespassed on their territory. Once when we marched boldly through the premises we were taken hostage and tied up for several hours, but after learning our lesson we were allowed to pass unhindered provided we walked submissively with our heads bowed. I had tried valor and found humiliation was smarter.
There are many old stories about the power of staring. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli found that if he looked hard at any wolf, it could not meet his eyes and looked away. He thought this was funny and did not understand that he was different from the wolves.
“The wolves are my brothers,” he said. “Why will they want to send me away?”
“Look at me,” said Bagheera, and Mowgli looked at him hard between the eyes. The big black cat turned his head away quickly. “Not even I can look in your eyes. That is why they want to kill you. You are clever. You are a man.”
Rudyard Kipling probably took the story from a Victorian poem in which nine white wolves coming ‘over the wold’ were defeated by a wandering man who turned to stare them in the eye. Mowgli hoped to subjugate dangerous animals, including the tiger Shere Khan, by simply glaring at them. But if you try this on a tiger or a grey wolf next time you visit the zoo, I guarantee they won’t avert your gaze, except in boredom. And next time you encounter a Rottweiler or German shepherd while walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood don’t try it!