outbreak

“Cleaning Corpses During an Epidemic” by Fyodor Bronnikov

The other day I finished reading a riveting book, Spillover: Animal Infections & The Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. A terrifying account of the recent history of disease scientists investigating bizarre and unheard of new diseases of animal origins, a thriller written by a gifted storyteller. Quammen explained the science so well in layman’s terms. This is one of those rare books I couldn’t put down. The fact that it was published eight years before our current worldwide coronavirus pandemic, a fair warning, makes it all the more pertinent.

Spillover is the process by which pathogens, hiding in wild animal reservoirs (also in factory farmed animals), travel into and infect the human population. But near the end of the book, after discussing the plagues of gyspy moths, which come and go, Quammen introduced the concept of outbreaks. We had a memorable outbreak of gypsy moths here in Connecticut in the 1980s so I could easily grasp the concept.

Ecologists have a label for such an event. They call it an outbreak.

This use of the word is more general than what’s meant by an outbreak of disease. You could think of disease outbreaks as a subset. Outbreak in the broader sense applies to any vast, sudden population increase by a single species. Such outbreaks occur among certain animals but not among others. Lemmings undergo outbreaks; river otters don’t. Some kinds of grasshopper do, some kinds of mouse, some kinds of starfish, whereas other kinds of grasshopper, mouse, and starfish do not. An outbreak of woodpeckers is unlikely. An outbreak of wolverines, unlikely. The insect order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) contains some notable outbreakers — not just tent caterpillars of several kinds but also gypsy moths, tussock moths, larch budmoths, and others.

We are prodigious, we are unprecedented. We are phenomenal. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like this degree. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.

And here’s the thing about outbreaks: They end. In some cases they end after many years, in other cases they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash. In certain cases, even, they end and recur and end again, as though following a regular schedule.

What could account for such sudden and recurrent collapses? One possible factor is infectious disease. It turns out that viruses, in particular, play that role among outbreak populations of forest insects.

~ David Quammen
(Spillover: Animal Infections & The Next Human Pandemic)

Chills have been running up and down my spine ever since I read the excerpts quoted above. We are an outbreak on this earth. Our population explosion can be fairly compared to an infestation of gyspy moths. Provocative thought, I know. But it’s humbling and sobering to appreciate that we are part the cycles of nature and while we like to think we can control our environment to some degree, when all is said and done, we know so little about the forces shaping our existence here on this little blue planet.

We now have 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our town. Our county (New London) has 1,276 confirmed cases. Of those 7 are still in the hospital and 102 have lost their lives. Hospitalizations are way down here, which is encouraging, but we are still staying home due to our health risks. Please stay safe!

helping hand

RenoufHelpingHand
“The Helping Hand” by Émile Renouf

The first time I ever saw a print of this painting was at an estate sale, not long after my father died on September 19th in 2013. The expression on the man’s face reminded me of my father and the little girl reminded me of myself so I bought it. It’s not in the greatest condition and the coloring is way off. Perhaps the coloring on this digital copy is off, too. Some day I may replace it with a better copy.

He’s been gone for three years now and I still miss him, my favorite teacher. Papa taught me how to wash my hair, how to cross the street, how to trust my own instincts, how to treat animals, how to be compassionate and kind, how to swim, how to ice skate, how to paddle a canoe, how to chop an onion, how to look up words in a dictionary, how to do research, how to enjoy bird-watching, how to garden, how to walk (and play) in the woods — the list goes on. I think of him every time I do any of those things.

It’s almost autumn and I will be eating as many Macoun apples as I can while the season lasts. They were his favorites. He often told me the following story when I was growing up. (It first appeared almost 6 years ago on my blog!)

When my father was a boy growing up on a New England farm during the Great Depression, his family picked as many apples as they could and stored some of them in a barrel in the root cellar. Of course he ate as many as he could while picking them, but his parents had a rule about the ones in the barrel he found exasperating. If anyone wanted an apple later in the fall or winter, he was required to take one that was the least fresh. By the time they got to the fresher ones they had also become much less fresh! So all winter he was having to make do with eating not-so-great apples. If only he had known he might have called on Iduna to keep the apples fresher longer!
~ Barbara Rodgers
(Iduna: Keeper of Apples)

But perhaps I miss him the most whenever I hear a story on the news about a threat from a new virus or other infectious agent. Dad was a microbiologist and was utterly fascinated with microorganisms — viruses, bacteria, spirochetes, amoebas, fungi, parasites. He would never tire of explaining things about them to me and correcting any misinformation the media might be passing along to his fellow citizens. And I never tired of listening. I find myself wondering what he would have had to say about the Zika virus. It’s not easy finding someone so interested in this subject!

I didn’t notice it at first, but my father died on his older brother’s birthday. Jon Stephen was born on September 19th in 1909 in Ukraine. My father, Theodore William, never knew his older brother because Jon died of a ruptured appendix on March 15th in 1919 in New York, when he was only 9 years old. Papa was born three years later on March 13th in 1922. A little bit of synchronicity there I think.

Still missing you, my dear old Papa!