How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Drawn Our Attention Toward ‘Negative Love’
From the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this week’s episode, Daisy Hildyard examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn our attention toward the space between things. She notes that these “negative spaces” reveal relationships that normally lie beyond our perception. The intertwinement of our lives—human, plant, animal—has become more apparent: our lives trace through other beings, and their lives trace through our own.
From the episode:
Now is a time to think negatively. At some point in the last year, two viruses were co-existing inside one animal’s body. Reader, they got together. A novel virus was formed, scientists currently propose, inside a pangolin’s body, from a reservoir in a Rhinolophus bat. This virus, a chimera, was able to cross species boundaries. In late 2019 it began to communicate itself through human bodies.
As the spread of the virus through the human population gained momentum, people from many different parts of the planet gained a new sensitivity to previously unnoticed worlds. These were the worlds of negative space—the spaces between subjects—worlds which had been invisible, transparent, or simply overlooked. A sneeze disperses around the room in a pearly cloud; populations of millions are hosted on a fingertip; body warmth from another person’s hand leaks only slowly out of a coin or a door handle. Phenomena that lie beyond the faculties of human perception have become the subjects of widespread, mainstream public health campaigns attempting to make human minds alert to those minuscule living beings who occupy the negative zone between skin and air. Germs and viruses, like radioactivity, are imaged as a pool of neon green—the most natural color in its most lurid tone. It feels uneasy, expressive of a longing to escape the fact that viruses and respirators, like nuclear reactors, are a part of our natural world.
It’s time to think negatively, too, because there is no avoiding death. If you are one of the fortunate people not at risk of death from COVID-19, you will have a heightened awareness of the inside-out power of your own negative acts—the outings you don’t go on, the meetings you do not attend—and that these not-done things will, in turn, imprint the shape of your life on other lives; your choices and necessities are revealed, in relief, in their effects on the other people who you do not touch, meet, pass, travel beside, work with, sell to, purchase from, or care for.
The consequences of the virus—which breach boundaries at every scale, from the intracellular to the global—leave even the most positive thinkers struggling for air. A negative thinker, though, might find a new interspecies space. I had, for some time, been thinking about deaths when the virus started making its presence felt, and it drew my attention to the practical uses of looking negatively.
I am, I felt, badly in need of new ways of relating. But thinking about relationships is difficult. I don’t want to think only from my own perspective, because that would become narcissistic, and swiftly boring. On the other hand, I do not want to project or imagine the experiences of others when I have not earned the knowledge of those experiences.
The new negative awareness makes me wonder whether it might be possible to see new stories in our relationships—stories in which a subject is comprised of its interactions with others; and those others have force. This was made apparent to me as I read about the rising prevalence of zoonotic diseases—diseases which jump between species—as a result of widespread, large-scale human behaviors like industrial farming and habitat destruction. The negative zone which I had recently become hyperaware of—the spaces between things, the points of connection—could offer new ground for noticing or listening to other ways of being. I wondered whether it would be possible to make any sense of these interactions as a felt presence, in absence. To feel interconnection in conditions of unprecedented enforced solitude. It seems logical—in the negative space created by a disease, which has acquired the ability to cross species boundaries—to examine the conditions of interspecies lifeways by looking at interspecies deaths.
There is a large ash tree in my local park which is still alive. It’s tall and thick-trunked; it’s planted in the grass, with roots so substantial they make waves in the tarmac on the nearby path. Some hippies have carved into the trunk a sun with a face. The tree is so large and so apparently vital that I find it hard to believe that it will die, but one day it certainly will, and that day is likely to come soon. The fungal disease known as ash dieback is predicted to kill 99 percent of ash trees in Europe; this specific tree is likely to become a constituent subject of this voracious and spreading death.
When I first read about ash dieback in the newspaper, I thought about this tree. I wondered whether it had already contracted the disease, and I was concerned, as I read about the slow and at first invisible spread of symptoms, about the experience of sickening and dying. The next time I walked past my ash tree, though, looking at the smiling sun on its trunk and the black buds shaped like hooves that were pushing out of its smallest twigs, I felt that it probably wasn’t hugely concerned with feelings. I could never, of course, learn what it would feel like to be an ash tree. I borrowed a couple of books about ash trees, but something was missing. I realized that I was relatively ignorant about the actuality of mortal illness, and that, rather than fantasizing about this experience within an ash tree, I might also listen to an account of this particular experience in a body that was not a tree.
I contacted a local hospice in which a close friend’s mother had recently died. Some time later, I received an email from a Dr. Kaur, who asked politely about the nature of my inquiry. I explained to Dr. Kaur that I was interested to hear a perspective on extinction from somebody who was no longer personally invested in survival. Dr. Kaur put me in touch with a woman called Anne, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in her thirties and was now, in her fifties, living with brain cancer.
Anne and I sat in a small side-room at the hospice, which was much like a doctor’s consulting room, though the chairs were more comfortable. I was nervous, but from the outset Anne was happy to talk to me because, as she told me, she felt at peace with the concept of human extinction. Though she wasn’t particularly engaged with narratives of climate emergency and extinction, she noted that mass extinctions had happened before, and she had come to terms with the fact of death. When I asked her about her individual experience, she said that the thought of her death made her feel sad because of her children—her children were adults, but you always need your mum, don’t you, she said. So she saw her life as something which was formed and had meaning in relation to other lives.
On the way out of the hospice, I had a conversation with Dr. Kaur. He was a religious man and spoke beautifully about the composure and fulfillment that can come about at the end of life—there is a type of sunflower that will bloom only in the desert, he told me—but he also described the moment of death as shocking and traumatic. While he was talking about this, he mentioned that the Greek term for “good death” is euthanasia. I asked him about his feelings on euthanasia, and he was noncommittal but made an interesting comparison: humans experience pain in dying that we wouldn’t allow an animal to suffer.
I say that this comparison is interesting—what’s interesting to me about it, in a way, is that it’s so predictable. It would seem to me almost inevitable to compare human euthanasia with putting an animal down, because they share this narrative that a good death can be a solution to suffering. The comparison is not anthropomorphism, exactly—it isn’t about projecting human characteristics onto animal lives. It involves a more complicated process of identification and imagination. A bewildering and unknowable aspect of human life is given ground in this experience which is a reality for nonhuman animals. And when a vet puts down an animal, the grounds for doing so call on a reasonable projection of the suffering that the human believes the animal to be experiencing. Dr. Kaur was navigating across species boundaries to help us both make sense of what it might be to live a good death—he used differences between species to draw attention to similarities. The boundaries between species poke up, becoming apparent when a disease acquires a new ability to communicate itself across them, and so, like language, they are most noticeable when broken. But passages through these boundaries are always at hand, in an ordinary way, at the critical moments, in the hospice or the veterinary mortuary.
The spaces between things, the points of connection—could offer new ground for noticing or listening to other ways of being.
The fact that Anne felt sad about her own absence when she thought about her children is interesting to me because it is unsurprising. I would guess that many human beings, if facing the prospect of death as Anne had, would find themselves thinking of not only the absence itself but also the way that absence would make itself felt in other people’s lives.
These experiences of death then—from the perspective of the doctor or the patient—have some negative sense of what it is to live. Though they are thinking and talking in different contexts, in different ways, they see the critical experiences of life via its constitutive others. They suggest to me that the concept of a life as something which is characterized by its relationships—something emergent—is already available to human thought. This is the case even if our interconnectivity makes itself felt only during a disaster like a radiation leak or pandemic, during which the agency of nonhuman beings becomes suddenly and terribly obvious, not only in the fact of its existence but also in the fact that it is often beyond the capacity of the human senses to detect it.
And yet in ordinary life, outside the disaster zone, these interrelationships are often denied. I deny them conceptually, when I think of myself as an individual. I deny them practically, when I use pesticides that sicken those they are designed to convenience. I wonder whether this human habit of denying interrelationships is in fact a consequence of interconnection—a need to separate oneself from affinities or responsibilities which would be painful. Anne had mentioned that she’d struggled to be heard by her doctors, family, and colleagues. She was a middle-aged woman who had worked in a supermarket before she became ill, and she described herself as unassertive. She struggled to get a diagnosis or proper treatment.
I was struck by the connection between these factors, as it came up several times, and I asked her how others might have done things differently. Anne responded with practical, physical advice, and what she described sounded to me like a process of attunement. She said: Adapt yourself to the patient physically. Make contact. Be polite even if they have debilitating physical symptoms. She compared this attunement to speaking with children: the way you might bend down to the child’s level or be more tactile if they can’t yet talk. And even if you don’t have much to say to a person, you can still listen or make some gentle physical contact. That seemed to strike her as especially important as it came out, and she said it again more emphatically. Listening, she said, is a massive thing.
Daisy Hildyard is the author of The Second Body and Hunters in the Snow, and a recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award and a “5 Under 35” honorarium from the National Book Foundation. She holds a PhD in the history of science and lives with her family in North Yorkshire.
Eden Gallanter is an artist working primarily in ink and watercolor. Her work is informed by her background in English literature, restoration ecology, and neuroscience. Her most recent exhibitions include: Virtual/Window #1 at Avenue 12 Gallery and Women Rising at The Drawing Room Annex, in San Francisco. She lives in her home town of San Francisco with her wife and daughter.