“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!

deep in the woods

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum

On Saturday afternoon my sister and I did some hiking in the uncultivated part of the Connecticut College Arboretum. It was like being in the woods we played in and rambled through as children. We encountered a doe along our path, she stopped short when she spotted us and then darted off sideways into the woods.

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum

Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —
Sometimes — scalps a Tree —
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die —
~ Emily Dickinson
(The Poems of Emily Dickinson, #457)

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ gypsy moth caterpillar, an invasive forest pest from Europe

When I was at the doctor for a check-up last week he said it seemed like he was treating nothing but rashes from these little villains. Why do people even touch them, I wondered? But they can dangle from invisible threads and I was startled when I walked right into one. No rash, so far…

Death is like the insect
Menacing the tree
Competent to kill it,
But decoyed may be.

Bait it with the balsam
Seek it with the saw,
Baffle, it cost you
Everything you are.

Then, if it have burrowed
Out of reach of skill —
Wring the tree and leave it.
‘Tis the vermin’s will.

~ Emily Dickinson
(The Poems of Emily Dickinson, #1783)

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum

For some reason I am drawn to trees that seem dead, but sculptural, and yet still have a few green leaves up near the crown. Sometimes dying is a very gradual process.

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ this feels like a carefully composed still life to me

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
~ William Shakespeare
(As You Like It)

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ roots

One will see roots while looking down (photo above), of course, but also when looking up (photo below). The tree below decided it could grow sticking out of a rock face, high above the ground. There must have been just enough soil between the layers of rock for it to sustain itself. Maybe it is strong enough to move the rock some to give the roots more space.

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ tree growing out from between two layers of rock

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
~ William Wordsworth
(The Tables Turned)

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ ferns and mosses on the rock face

Ferns (above) with visible roots growing on the rock face. Plenty of moss to soften the surface, too.

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum

A tree (above) seems to have been blown over in a storm and left with a large cavity between its roots and the rock below. Stones and boulders, dumped by receding glaciers eons ago, are so ubiquitous in Connecticut and it seems the trees have no choice but to grow above, below, around and between them.

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ two more of Emily’s “scalped” trees

6.10.17 ~ Connecticut College Arboretum ~ a stone benchmark?

I wondered if someone might have set this stone deliberately pointing up as a benchmark for future hiking adventures. It’s amazing to contemplate that these stone walls deep in the woods once surrounded fields and pastures in colonial days. Farmers used the stones cluttering their land to build the walls but in the end, growing crops was difficult. Many eventually abandoned their homes and headed west for better farmland. The woods slowly came back and claimed the landscape once again.