One of the few poems I remember learning at school is “The Horses” by Edwin Muir. It tells of the aftermath of a nuclear war, but nonetheless has a kind of uncanny resonance for today when a rogue virus has changed our world out of all recognition. When everything we have taken for granted – unlimited travel, the global marketplace, unconstrained growth – has turned against us and thrown us back on our own resources of resilience and ingenuity in order to overcome a silent, invisible and deadly enemy.
“We listened to our breathing and were afraid”
Of course some of the fruits of globalization and growth are now being employed in our struggle. We use social media when we cannot touch one another. If we can, our work comes to our home instead of us travelling there. We are dipping into our reserves of wealth to support those who can no longer support themselves. Scientists and politicians learn and share their knowledge of what we need to do in order to survive.
It is all halting and imperfect, but I do believe that mostly we are doing our best as far as that goes. They say that Covid-19 affects us indiscriminately. That is blatantly untrue. The virus hits hardest those without a home, a reliable income, a garden, an ethnicity which hasn’t suffered decades of oppression. The disadvantaged remain disadvantaged. And some of them number among those heroic humans who brave the danger in order to render service to others – nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, binmen, shop assistants… I wish I could list them all.
“That bad old world that swallowed its children quick”
And on the other side, perhaps a re-balancing. Perhaps a world where we do not travel profligately from one end of the planet to the other just to have a meeting. Perhaps a world where our first consideration is towards those with no resources of their own. Perhaps a world where we have learned to appreciate and value what true heroism is.
I know. It all seems too much to hope for, crazy optimism. But I woke this morning with the spring sunshine shining in my window. Those rays seemed full of hope and forgiveness. They seemed to remind me that nature is always there, always has been, ready to embrace us, to remind us that we are part of the natural world.
We have tried to master nature, and have brought calamity upon ourselves – global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ozone layer, of habitats, of the very air that we breathe. Why has it taken a 17 year old activist from Sweden to show us what we have known for decades – that we were destroying our own ecosystem? I’ll tell you why – it’s because the vested interests of the rich, powerful and greedy have always won out and left consideration for the environment floundering in the shadows. No wonder Greta Thunberg is angry; I’m angry, we should all be angry.
If it would take a global catastrophe to make us stop and take stock, well here it is! Here’s our chance to take a wider view and DEMAND that things must be different when we are finally released from our enforced isolation. Let’s not pretend it would be okay to go back to the way things were. In my crazy optimism I’m hoping for something better than that. I’m hoping for a world where we don’t ignore the consequences of unbridled wealth creation and tragic imbalances between rich and poor. A world of true respect for each other and for our planet, for Gaia.
The Horses by Edwin Muir (1889-1959)
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.