I note with odd irony an email received one year ago and kept as a kind of souvenir. It was from the Friends of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Refuge announcing a lecture entitled “Conserving Insects and What You Can Do To Help,” to be delivered on Saturday, March 7 by Dr. Rebeccah Waterworth, entomologist in the Office of Pesticide Programs at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The email arrived with an invitation attached and ended with these words: “The attachment is virus free and safe to open.”
The reference was to a computer virus, of course, not the kind of virus that has sickened millions and led to the deaths of 518,000 Americans in the year since it arrived. But I had to weigh those words a moment: Virus free. Safe to open.
The man who wrote the letter, a wildlife biologist named Lowell Adams, was merely trying to assure me that I could download his invitation without fear of malware. He was not declaring his email free of contagious disease. (As far as I can tell from internet scans, not even conspiracy nuts think the coronavirus travels by email.)
I mention the lecture about bugs because it was the first event I was unable to attend due to the pandemic. I had planned to go with my brother, a scientist and lover of nature. But on March 5, Gov. Larry Hogan reported the first positive tests for the coronavirus in Maryland, and that ended that.
That ended a lot of things.
This will sound familiar: I have not seen my brother for more than a year now, except in virtual meetings.
We would have liked to hear what Dr. Waterworth had to say about the state of insects in the American ecosystem because, even with humanity facing a killer disease, it’s important to keep learning, to keep eyes on the horizon, to hold all life precious and to keep believing in a livable future.
The cancellation of a lecture is certainly trivial in a year when so many people died, when businesses collapsed and millions lost jobs. But I think about what it represented — for me, precious time with a sibling and a chance to learn something; for Dr. Waterworth, an opportunity to share her knowledge; in general, a celebration of science — and so, I list it as a loss.
Sure, there’s the internet. There’s Zoom. There’s FaceTime. There’s WhatsApp. There’s endless Instagram.
But after a year of living virtually, looking into screens large and small, I am eager to return to real life and see the country on the road to a better one, and I’m sure that sounds familiar, too. Everyone wants that.
In the year since life seemed to come to a halt, life still went on in a strange, circumscribed, uncertain and relentlessly tragic way.
It was a year of adjustments, of daily deference to a disease, of death counts beyond comprehension and difficult to appreciate because of our isolation.
It was the year of masking up and keeping distance — and not taking it personally when a fellow pedestrian spotted you on the sidewalk and decided to cross to the other side of the street, or when another shopper stood back and waited for you to pass in a grocery aisle.
It was a year of fear and getting over fear. It was a year of worry and worrying less as time went on. It was a year of not minding inconveniences, of learning not to complain so much because, after all, you could have been on a ventilator.
It was the year we learned to live with ourselves, to take measure of how we live and work, the spaces we inhabit, the habits we keep. We came to know better the corners of our homes, the boundaries of our yards, the dynamics of life in the neighborhood.
It was a year of paying attention to sounds that had become background — the chatter of children at play in the middle of the day; the arrival of the trash truck and crew; the songs of birds; the squeak of a mailbox hinge when the letter carrier arrives.
It was the year of noticing things — that the massive tree in your neighbor’s yard is a rare elm, that the little boy next door is now a young man with a driver’s license, that more Baltimoreans than ever have dogs.
It was a year of revelation — that too many Americans live right on the edge of ruin while a wealthy elite continues to prosper; that too many resent, even despise, the government yet look to it for help; that too many have the wrong idea about what constitutes great political leadership; that too many dismiss expertise even as expertise tries to save their lives.
You look back on the last year — the denialism, the needless deaths that occurred because of the haphazard initial response to the pandemic, the attacks on our democracy — and yet you cling to faith that, as the nation recovers from pandemic, it will also recover from bitter division and resentment.
And if we learned anything from the last year, it’s that, while tucked away at home and isolated from the greater society, we are still part of that greater society and must always be, each of us, invested in the greater good.