The Last Long Night
It was winter solstice, the longest night of 2019. The growing days, the new sun, would rise on a world being radically reshaped by a pandemic. That night we banged pots and pans, not in appreciation of NHS workers — that would come later — but standing huddled close around an apple tree in the community orchard. We passed round a communal bowl full of warm cider, oblivious to the contagion risk, and spilled some of it at the roots of the tree. The ceremony, a wassail, gets its name from the Anglo Saxon greeting “be thou in good health”.
Countless “excess deaths” later, conversations don’t end in “ be thou in good health, for thine good health is mine”, but an abbreviated version: “stay safe”. The pandemic has made visible how our health is a common good. Parents might remember the time their toddlers first went to nursery and the whole family caught cold after runny nose after nits after worms as our immune system pooled with that of strangers. Covid19 showed us our immune system is pooled with the whole living planet — strangers, bats, pangolins.
Moments after the cacophony of our ritual, the skies put on a display that would have been a portent to those who first gathered in orchards to sing to trees. “Shooting stars” exclaimed the littlest. But these were not the streaking accidents you pin your dreams on. These bright spots marching across the night were human theatre — starlink, an array of microsatellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
As we looked up at the spectacle in the sky, the cold seeping into our feet from the mud beneath, we were caught between the prospect of colonising space and this season’s harvest in one wind-swept orchard. The moment filled with meaning for the challenges ahead as we strive to keep the earth we walk on healthy enough to feed us, healthy enough to breathe, so that if we seek second homes in the stars its not because we’ve exhausted this one, but instead because we can fulfill our role as the creatures that can increase the range of circumstances in which life can flourish. At the moment we are on the path to be the creatures that self-terminate before they can protect and then recreate the conditions needed to replicate.
How do we learn to thrive within the boundaries of the ecosystem such that when we reach other planets we don’t repeat our depletive instincts. Such that we don’t become the rapacious alien species that hops from planet to planet making each unlivable in turn.
Adapt before the apocalypse
John Vervaeke describes a near-extinction moment in the Upper Paleolithic period that gave birth to modern humans. Deep freezes and volcanic erruptions created environmental degradation of such a scale that humanity was vastly reduced, toiling away in little pockets just to survive. Our re-emergence from that period was enabled by a flourishing of new social practices of collaboration: trading rituals of trust with strangers, initiation rituals of loyalty to the group. It took a near-extinction level event for humanity to upgrade in the Paleolithic. Our response to Covid-19 could be an opportunity to adapt and upgrade to the challenge of climate change without (and hopefully heading off) the cataclysm.
All around us, in pockets, we are (re)learning the relational commoning skills necessary to swerve the darkest of the storm, and weather the fierce unpredictable winds at the edges that we are now obliged to navigate. In the communal responses to the pandemic we have seen groups of people self-organise with what they have, and where they are. They responded faster than governments at any level, directed resources more effectively than stuttering markets and restored a sense of shared endeavor to splintered nodes of humanity. Often they drew on the networks and knowledge of pre-existing groups, they always repurposed the system as it was. And it did not break anyone, it was entirely doable: it was the rediscovery of a lost skill like riding a bike, or juggling. We are innately geared to cooperate. These mutual aid or neighborhood response groups (of which there were over 2,000 in the UK) are the latest, most visible bloom of this quiet spirit of building the world we want to see. From community farms and community energy organisations, to platform cooperatives and protest encampments, we have within us the skills to relate to each other and the ecosystem in ways that enhance, not deplete, our planets life support systems. These groups have not scaled yet, but could, if the attention on big centralised responses was refocused.
Day of the Dead: Now, 3 months into this new world, there are nights my seven year old cries herself to sleep, with nothing but I’m fed up with lockdown by way of explanation. We talk in overviews about the months ahead. About November she asks anxiously “will Day of the Dead be cancelled too?”. The farther I get from Mexico the tighter I hold some of our traditions. Here, near that wind-swept orchard in the South West of England, I put up papel picado -paper bunting depicting jovial skulls in full party swing -and fill with candles the niches of an old crumbling dovecote built nearby on the land that once belonged to a sugar plantaion owner. We invite new acquaintances and friends alike to bring a picture of someone they would like to remember and a morsel of food that person would enjoy if their spirit crossed back for a moment.
Ours is a hybrid altar; the tiered post-colonial display rises above an older magic, a mandala-type map of the universe in which we lay fruits, apples, directly on the earth. The copal incense fills the space and rises out through the missing roof into the night.
This year the celebration will be heavy as the population on the other side of the veil is burgeoning. The pandemic has brought with it the deaths of hundreds of thousands around the globe already. But the pandemic has also brought into relief that there is a world that has already died, we just don’t know it yet.
Mary Anais Hegler articulates, the grief of the pandemic is similar to climate grief: “both bring a sense of finality, that ‘nothing will be the same again’.” We need to feel the grief to be able to address the climate crisis. The memories of seasons that our children’s books, that are referred to in our parent’ s cookery and gardening books are consigned already to a past that we are still desperate to hold onto. But it is already gone. In playing along with the pantomime that climate change is some future challenge to confront, we are the mother whale who carries her dead calf floating, decomposing, unable to move on. Or maybe more like the psycho Norman Bates living with his mother’s corpse. That world is dead, failure to grasp that holds us back.
There is also another world that has to die; that we have to hospice. The world of things we have got accustomed to whose cost, when we look at it honestly, we cannot bear regardles of our wealth. In films as air runs out in the cockpit, or the boat fills with water, parents hold their breath so their children get a few more gasps and a chance of rescue. But we are gulping lungfulls, we are pushing our children under the gushing waters for leverage into that last bubble on a sinking ship. We have been pushing others under for a long time, historically through enslavement, colony ; currently through the enslavement of people down mines whose lives are taken so these lines might get to you.
William Gibson said: “The future is here- it’s just not evenly distributed”. More detail might reveal there are many futures already unevenly distributed here, we have work to do to widely distribute the one in which we are able to protect and then recreate the conditions needed to replicate.
Come November, when we burn the papel picado at the close of the ceremony, it’s ephemeral embers will rise into the sky. Goodbye to the world that has to die. Hello to the one that has to grow up. It is here already.