Have you noticed the quiet? I certainly have. Every morning, as the pale-peach tinge of dawn displaces the slate-blue night lying between dark silhouetted tree tops, I lie in bed and listen to birds calling. There are so many of them, and their calls are so varied, each distinct from the next.
I can’t remember many places with such bird-filled dawns. Papershali, Uttarakhand, where we lived too far from the road to hear any traffic. Vancouver Island, just a few minutes’ walk from the shoreline of Haro Strait. The Olympic National Forest, the summer my sister and I went backpacking together. There may be other places I’m not remembering just now, but one thing I do know: It’s rare to wake up to the complete absence of sound from cars, trucks or trains.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed the quieter world that the coronavirus plague has brought us. Scientists are experiencing it too: The sharp reduction of noise from vehicles, factories and other human activity is letting seismologists detect small earthquakes and make finer measurements of earth’s seismic activity.
The air is clearer and purer, too. In northern India, people can see the Himalayas better than they have in decades. Here in Portland, I can’t recall ever seeing such sharp bright crystalline light. Every leaf on every tree is picked out in highlights and shadows. Colors are clear and bright as oil paints squeezed fresh from their metal tubes. And the scents! Walking through the neighborhoods and parks, soft breezes bring whiffs of sweet lemony daphne, sharp rosemary and rich mulchy earth.
I’m grateful for this aspect of the coronavirus shutdown. With offices, stadiums, restaurants and manufacturing plants closed, and huge reductions in commercial shipping, there’s so much less traffic on the roads, and hardly any industrial pollution. Cleaner air and less noise are making me – and other people – happier and healthier.
But alongside this pleasure is knowing what it costs. People are out of work; too many are scared and worried about how to support their families. Food banks open their doors every morning to long lines. In many parts of the world where we’ve stayed over the past couple of years, it’s even worse. These are places where losing even a single day’s work means your family won’t eat. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the suffering and death that the coronavirus sickness itself has brought to so many people.
Is this what it takes to restore the earth? Is there no other way to have clean air, clean water and less noise? Can’t we find ways to heal our planet ourselves, instead of waiting for a pandemic that causes so much human suffering?
I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. I hope others do.