I drove to the Evergreen Cemetery in Eastham the other day to try to see the rare clay-colored sparrow that has been reported there. I didn’t find it, but it was a beautiful day and I did spot quite a few birds — robins, bluebirds, and others. Curiously, the robins were hopping around in the middle of this pandemic as if they did not have a care in the world.
The cemetery is beautifully maintained; I enjoyed visiting all the headstones, many with well-known local names. Whenever I visit a cemetery, I do the math (1859 – 1923 = 64 years old) and compare my own number (don’t ask); I can’t help myself. The ages of the dead ranged from one day (poor dear) to 90-plus years.
Overall, it was a peaceful experience. None of the interred seemed especially perturbed, in spite of the growing, palpable anxiety everywhere else. I recommend a walk in a cemetery in these anxious times: it grounds you. The Buddhist philosophy of nonattachment prevails. If all these people passed on, how big a deal can it be?
The takeaway: “This, too, shall pass.”
Still, we are in a bit of a mess. A disaster is barreling towards us that is undeniable, and unknown in its eventual extent. The week or so that passes between these words scrolling onto my laptop screen and then hopefully rolling into your minds is a terrifying cipher. People are sick and some people are dying, and they will continue to do so. There is talk of medical triage. The complications are manifold: the census is screwed; the primary is screwed; can the November election itself be screwed? Will there even be an election? And President Donald J. Trump now has state-of-emergency powers.
But just to focus on the Cape for a moment: the repercussions are unimaginable, yet that is just what we must do: try to imagine. This is a challenge for our primate brains, which have evolved to review new information, compare it to what is already known, and come up with a response. People caught in a mass shooting begin by thinking they are hearing fireworks, because they have experienced fireworks but never an eruptive AK-47. People who experience an earthquake for the first time think they are hearing a thunderstorm; they have no reference point for the ground beneath their feet betraying them.
What can we expect if this pandemic goes on for months? What are the possible social and economic repercussions? No visitors, or very few. No foreign workers. No amenities. No bars. No restaurants. No shops. No whale watches. No dune tours. No jobs. Empty streets. Tourism eliminated or greatly reduced. What else do we have? What is left?
Was there a Cape before tourism? Yes. But it was well over a century ago. Thoreau describes the Cape in the mid-19th century as “wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.” But then there was a fishing industry (and whaling).
So, we shall see. It will be different from anything anyone has experienced. There will be fewer of us on this narrow spit of land. We will still have the ocean (and the sharks), the bay, the dunes, our woodlands and wetlands, our narrow streets, our Cape light. We will still have community — at six-foot intervals. Perhaps there will be creative responses; perhaps art will flourish. It will be quiet.
It was calm and quiet in the cemetery. All those buried people had their fates resolved. Behind me was a stream of traffic on Route 6, people coming and going. What will become of them?
What will become of us?