S01E09: Keeping Quiet

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“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.”

As the days of the lockdown pass by, I think of these words by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda from his poem – Keeping Quiet. Only maybe we as Indian’s have been counting down to May 3rd, the date India’s absolute lockdown comes up for review. In the months behind, other countries around the world have been counting too. Countries across Europe, America, South East Asia. You remember that old saying which goes: May you live in interesting times? I bet none of us had this in mind. Yet here we are – counting. Yet here we are – forced to keep still.

Like Deepika said in her episode on connection: not too many of us have lived in a moment quite like this before. It’s surreal and universal in a way few experiences have been in the past. And the strange universality of it can be summarised simply by this little piece of whatsapping I’ve been doing around the clock: I have had lockdown conversations with friends in Finland, Netherlands, Canada, US, UK and of course the most right here in cities across India. The 3 of us who have founded The Curio-city Collective – Nidhi, Deepika and I – live in 3 different cities! And I often imagine that the conversations I am having of concern and care are magnified to millions around the world. These conversations transcend so many of our social boundaries – everyone from prime ministers to royalty to doctors to policemen to pharmacists to migrant workers to students – everyone across races, class, caste, religion, region and what not – is part of this constant ongoing whispering anxiety: who will the coronavirus touch next?

It’s surreal because usually our realities have little in common. We live what we think are extremely unique lives in extremely different contexts. What we recognise as the connection that binds us is a delicate thread of love and friendship, kinship even… we see it as the invisible connective tissue that binds us across space and time. But there is one even larger network, actually a much more obvious one, but one that human beings have made a habit of forgetting. It is the most significant network we are bound to, yet we are strangely numb to it, separated from it in our daily humdrum of office, home, children, cooking, shopping, driving, commute. Yet through this almost dystopic moment of the lockdown, of forced stillness, of counting days on our fingers – something is shifting, changing. And it has been difficult to not take notice.

News clip: This was China last year, covered in pollution. But this year, the skies are clear. This is because the coronavirus epidemic had brought much of the country to a standstill for several weeks. Causing a drop in several pollutants like Nitrogen di oxide, a harmful gas emitted during the burning of fossil fuel. Compared to previous years, its below typical levels. 

News Clip: Amidst the 21 day coronovirus lockdown the air quality in several cities has also improved drastically with most of the metro cities falling in the moderate category with their AQI between 100-200. The national capital that’s been trying to combat the air pollution has witnessed a significant improvement in their air quality. The AQI in Delhi on March 22nd on the day of the Janta curfew stood at 144 and on March 26th, that’s yesterday, it came down to 54. 

China came up in news first simply because it’s where the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic emerged. A NASA image comparison of Wuhan before and during the pandemic was shocking. The before was a thick brown swirl of haze and pollution, and then the period of the super lockdown, was marked with an equally shocking clearing of the haze till blue skies emerged and the change was perceptible even from the ground. As the virus caught flights to various countries and spread at an astonishing rate, so did this strange outcome. Social distancing, the tried and tested method to stop virulent contagious viruses from the Spanish Flu in 1918 to the Ebola much recently – was the method that countries began adopting to prevent its spread. As more and more people sat at home, as more industries were closed, more skies began clearing up – including in India as we heard.

So much so that the city of Jalandhar in Punjab woke up one fine morning to a mind-boggling view – the snow capped Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas was suddenly looming in their skies!

News clip (in Hindi – translated here): These photos might remind you of a hill station but let us tell you, the images in the video are not from a hill station but from Jalandhar in Punjab. From Jalandhar the Himalayas are now visible! It is being said that in Jalandhar since the past few days the air and environment have cleaned up so much that you can see the distant Himalayan range quite clearly. 

Senior citizens from Jalandhar reported how it was almost after a generation that the mountains have become visible from the city. Forget about the kids, most of the adults in the city have not known what has been looming behind the grey smog curtain. And it’s not just air pollution. As lockdowns unfold, we are hearing from scientists who are telling us how there’s been a reduction in seismic noise because of changes in human activity, the lack of traffic in cities in particular, has made birdsong more evident and we’re seeing animals tentatively venture to spaces otherwise occupied by humans. A Nilgai was spotted roaming in Noida, an elephant in Dehradun, a small Indian civet in Kozhikode. So much so that the Wildlife Institute of India came up with an app to record these incidents using citizen science methodology! The app description says: “In this time of the Covid-19 lockdown, where we humans are locked inside homes, there are more and more reports of wildlife exploring human-dominated areas or ‘rewilding’ urban areas.” And this ‘rewilding’ that they refer to is not happening only in India. Similar reports have been coming from around the world.

Yet it was when I came across the video of a little girl in Haridwar peeping out of her window one night during the lockdown and spotting sambar deer on the streets of the city, that something from my own childhood popped up for me. The video shows a stag walking through the darkened road, his shadow suddenly enlarging under the streetlight expanding to mythical proportions. The little girl screeches in delight: 

News clip (in Hindi – translated here): Papa, papa, look a reindeer! Look – its a reindeer! Wow! Wow, a reindeer!

What came up for me was this. When I was possibly around the age of 7 or 8, maybe the same as the little girl in the video, my father, a government official, was posted in what was called an ‘interior district’ mostly because it was still marked by large tracts of wilderness and forest. On a visit to a neighbour’s house, which was a large rambling bungalow on a hill abutting the forest – the morning appearance of a pack of sambar deers was something out of a dream. I don’t know if this is how it actually happened – but my memory is of a misty cloudy morning, my mother gently beckoning to me to come to the window.. to be quiet, still..and as I peeped out – there appeared the most majestic stag with his retinue of does. Nothing could have been more mythical and beautiful to me at that age, suffused as I was in the magical world of Enid Blyton and of all her talking animals. The dark eyed quiet giant male sambhar carrying his large crown of antlers – stood there tall and stately.. watchful. And just for a moment he turned and stared back at me as I stared at him.

It was a moment that confirmed all that my little beating heart had always felt – Blyton was not lying. The world was enchantment itself, and it had creatures in it of grace and beauty, that were the embodiment of quiet strength and nobility.

I thought of this incident because the underlying tone of every reported story of animals and mountains showing up at our doorstep through this period of the lockdown – was that feeling that I remembered from my meeting with the stag – it was awe, that sheer feeling of shivers up your spine in wonderment. Afterall, something that she had only seen in her books or on Christmas cards, had sauntered right outside the little girl’s window one dark night! And let’s not even begin to consider the idea of an entire mountain range showing up!

Awe is a strange and fascinating emotion that is increasingly catching the interest of researchers. As attempts have been made to define the experience of awe further, researchers have divided it into two parts. The first is an experience of ‘vastness’, that is, you find yourself in a situation outside of your usual experience that might make you feel like you’re part of something larger, greater than yourself. The second element is a need for ‘accommodation’ – which implies that the experience you’ve had pushes you to shift or expand your conception of the world in order to make sense of your experience. To take my example, the sambar deer at the window gave me reason to believe that there was much to explore outside the boundaries of the life I knew. It brought forth my curiosity about the world and all the mysterious creatures in it. Or you could consider looking at a clear night sky full of stars that make us realise how much more larger the universe is, how tiny we are – and that pushes us to consider what our relationship with the universe might be.

Richard Dawkins, author and evolutionary biologist, once said:

Reading by Abbas:There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.”

The feeling of awe is one such conduit to awakening from the sedative of ordinariness as he says. It helps us not only see our own world in unfamiliar new ways it then pushes us to re-evaluate our relationship with the world based on that new way of seeing. Although still a relatively new field of research we are already hearing of the many benefits of experiencing awe. From being a conduit to other positive emotions like joy and gratitude to bringing forth creativity, curiosity and critical-thinking, to even improving our physical health – awe is an emotion worth having more of in our lives. Yet what strikes me as the most powerful outcome of the feeling of awe is best described in the words of Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley:

Reading by Abbas:In subsequent studies, we have found that awe—more so than emotions like pride or amusement—leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life. And still other studies have explained the awe-altruism link: being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”

In other words, awe is a feeling that lifts us, it helps us leave behind our self-interest and makes us look up at the larger world and engage with humility. It is this feeling renowned philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, referred to when he said: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes.”

But why am I speaking of such things as awe and awakening in these times of the coronavirus?

You see, in some ways, the lockdown and its side effects come at a momentous time. Much before the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold, much much before in fact – there has been unfolding a far greater threat to our existence.

Well let me try to present the case like this. E.O.Wilson, famous American biologist, naturalist, and writer aka the father of biodiversity in a Ted talk just last year said: “If we were to wipe out insects alone, just that group alone, on this planet — which we are trying hard to do — the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. And within a few months.”

Meanwhile, in a book entitled ‘A World Without Us’ journalist Alan Weisman put together another kind of thought experiment, he asked in his book: “Look around you, at today’s world. Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavement underneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place, but extract the human beings. Wipe us out, and see what’s left. How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms?”

Through conversations with a whole host of experts, he begins to piece together a narrative of what would happen if all mankind were to disappear, as if by Thanos’s snap. How long would man-made artifacts last? How would the remaining lifeforms evolve? Since the book came out in 2007, many have taken up this enquiry and have come to similar conclusions as him. Here’s one from BBC:

BBC CLIP: Within days the electricity grid fails as fuel supplies run out and there is nobody to overide the power stations fail safe mechanisms. Within weeks, the subways we’ve built will be under the water table, flood. The 47,000 litres of water that was pupmed out of the London underground everyday, innundates tunnels. Without heating and air conditioning mould flourishes on moist surfaces in homes and offices and ice bursts pipes. Within weeks plants take over buildings as the strongest species compete for space. Noones there to cut them back. Fast forward in time, the lines between city and countryside are blurred. Windows fall out of rotten frames and wildlife recolonises towns. Farmland is blanketed by scrub and then trees. And scattered on the surface are the things that will never degrade. Metals corrode, plastics start to break down and disburse but stainless steel pans, stranded granite worktops and billions of car tyres remain.   

What most of these videos and the book will tell you is that even without humans, the negative impact of humans on this planet will be felt for ages – plastics and rubber tyres are small examples of what will take 100s and 1000s of years to break down. Yet mostly what will happen, is that the planet and all other species will breathe much easier and begin to regenerate and flourish.

So, just to summarise this in short: insects die, we all die. Humans die, everyone else flourishes. Now I know this isn’t one of those eureka moments of insight. Most of us theoretically understand this conclusion of course. And we have been hearing the horrific news reports which tell us how the climate crisis is upon us and is already taking a huge toll on the planet. Actually, EO Wilson explains it really beautifully in his talk with the acronym HIPPO:

CLIP: “The human juggernaut is permanently eroding Earth’s ancient biosphere by a combination of forces that can be summarized by the acronym “HIPPO,” the animal hippo. H is for habitat destruction, including climate change forced by greenhouse gases. I is for the invasive species like the fire ants, the zebra mussels, broom grasses and pathogenic bacteria and viruses that are flooding every country, and at an exponential rate — that’s the I. The P, the first one in “HIPPO,” is for pollution. The second is for continued population, human population expansion. And the final letter is O, for over-harvesting – driving species into extinction by excessive hunting and fishing. The HIPPO juggernaut we have created, if unabated, is destined – according to the best estimates of ongoing biodiversity research – to reduce half of Earth’s still surviving animal and plant species to extinction or critical endangerment by the end of the century.”

Just think about it – human beings are going to be responsible for the annihilation of half of Earth’s still surviving animal and plant species by the end of the century. That’s just another 80 years away! One study even estimates that extinction is currently taking place at the rate of 100 to 1,000 species lost per million per year. We are destroying the very creatures and eco-systems, that our own lives depend upon! The coronavirus is a very distant qualifier for our mortality. Our own behaviour and lifestyles are inducing a scale of destruction the history of the world has possibly never seen.

But like I said: midst office, home, children, cooking, shopping, driving, commute – it isn’t always quite so clear that when we say human impact or human behaviour – we mean us. You and me. The reality of the climate crisis is so huge and complex, so heart-breaking, that we would rather look away, explain to ourselves that this is the task of experts and policy makers – tell ourselves that one person does not equal change.

And this is where awe comes in. It gives us another conduit to enter the conversation of our own species imminent demise. It gives us a chance to look up and away from daily pre-occupations to re-claim our connection not only with the stars but with birdsong. It allows us to awaken to our kinship with the other creatures of this world. It pushes away fear and awakens the possibility of seeing and being in the world in fresh new ways.

If all this seems abstract – then let’s take the simple example of what happened in China during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. During that period Beijing held the unholy title of being one of the most polluted cities in the world. For the period of the Games, for two months the Chinese authorities made an extraordinary bid to decrease pollution by shutting industries, cutting down transport – in some ways creating some of those circumstances that the lockdowns have. And similar things happened – skies cleared up, and what’s more important people experienced the possibility of living in a better cleaner city and this made them push the authorities to keep these changes. And that over time pushed China to a path of better regulation, more industrial efficiency, new transport systems in order to improve urban air quality.

The lockdown has brought us exactly another such experiment. A. it has made us homebound, leading to the closure of most polluting industries and of course vehicular movement; and B. it has broken our crazy schedules and suddenly driven our attention to the spaces immediately around us, the view outside our windows and at our doors. And that means we are attentive to the change that takes place immediately around us when human beings stop going about doing things that they do! We are living the thought experiment that the book ‘A world without us’ attempts to construct – we are seeing and experiencing, at least in part, what happens when we quote unquote – disappear. Outside our windows is in part a world unfolding – without us. A ‘rewilding’ world. The lockdown has created those circumstances where we have been brought to shed our anaesthetised selves and look at our world in unfamiliar ways and we find ourselves filled with awe, with wonder. We have been given the opportunity to glimpse for a little while the possibility of living in another way – a way that does not require human beings to live in conflict with the world it inhabits, instead to see how it looks when we quieten, we slow down, when we are in attendance to the world that holds us and raises us.

Today is the 1st of May. In two more days, we will rethink this lockdown. It may be continued or maybe we’ll find ourselves outside again. It is difficult to predict. For those of us privileged to be safely inside homes with food and other concerns at bay, the lockdown has granted us an interlude filled with pause, possibility, silence and awe. Yet the day is not far when schedules and routines will rush back into our lives and engulf us. Truth be told, there is a very high probability that we will lower our heads, turn them away from the world that sits at our doorstep asking to be seen and heard. The animals will again hide away. The mountains might quietly wear their shrouds of smog again. The possibilities might fade.

As privileged members of our society, it falls on us to ask the question: who will we be when we step out into the world again? Will we continue on our old path as consumers of the Earth or will we build a new path, one that allows us to re-enter the web of life as one of the many citizens of this planet?

“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

Outro: If you liked this episode, please share it with your friends and family. Also, more importantly if you agree with it, join our newsletter and our social media spaces to explore further reading and various kinds of actions you can take to begin to change your relationship with our lovely planet! We would always love to hear from you at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

In our next episode, I continue to explore the relationship between the coronavirus and the planet by looking the research around zoonotic diseases. Don’t forget to listen in!

Credits: Special thanks to Abbas Raza Khan for lending us his voice for this episode. This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Deepika Khatri and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company.