Thursday, April 16, 2020 — Report from Space Station 38

When Olive Fredrick­son pub­lished her auto­bi­og­ra­phy in 1972, after a long and hard life in Canada’s wilder­ness, her cho­sen title, The Silence of the North, was instant­ly mean­ing­ful to any­one famil­iar with the hard and emp­ty coun­try north of the tem­per­ate decid­u­ous forests. Most of the forests of the world are noisy. At night, the relent­less sound of cicadas, the scam­per­ing of ani­mals, the sway­ing limbs of trees and rus­tles of leaves, and the sounds of human­i­ty, even if only in the form of dis­tant trains or high­ways, are evi­dent. But the vast bore­al regions of Cana­da, road­less, train­less and town­less, dom­i­nat­ed by motion­less black spruce and tama­rack, are silent at night. You have to be near a water­fall or a stretch of rapids to hear noise. The cold lakes are like black sheets of obsid­i­an. Iron­i­cal­ly, if there is a noise, it will car­ry across a lake for miles, so that you can make out a qui­et con­ver­sa­tion by a camp­fire from the oppo­site shore, and when a loon makes its occa­sion­al solemn cry, you don’t know if it’s near­by or three kliks away. I have vivid mem­o­ries of that silence, and the phrase nev­er had to be explained to me.

I live in a small apart­ment in down­town Toron­to. In fact, it is known to sta­tis­ti­cians as the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed place in Cana­da. With­in a short walk from my door, there are more peo­ple than in all of the Yukon, North­west and Nunavut ter­ri­to­ries com­bined. Nor­mal­ly, this is a very noisy neigh­bour­hood. The streets are usu­al­ly crowd­ed with traf­fic, peo­ple pour in and out of the sub­way sta­tions, the stores are full of shop­pers. There is always music. A few blocks from my home, the gay vil­lage has been a con­tin­u­ous­ly live­ly par­ty for the last half cen­tu­ry, and it’s nor­mal to see flocks of peo­ple on the streets at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morn­ing. Forests of con­do­mini­um tow­ers fill the air with domes­tic nois­es, and con­struc­tion crews are always ham­mer­ing, hoist­ing, and mix­ing con­crete to build new ones. Motor­cy­cles, heli­copters, cop cars, fire engines and ambu­lances add to the din.

Now, under lock­down, my neigh­bour­hood has the Silence of the North. For most of the day, you hard­ly hear a sound. For me, it’s a bit of nos­tal­gia. For the hard­core denizens, those “bred and but­tered in Toron­to” as the say­ing goes, it must be very dis­con­cert­ing. It’s “damned eerie,” one elder­ly gen­tle­man told me. But, every day, at 7:30 on the dot, a rau­cous din erupts, and lasts for about five min­utes. You hear the nation­al anthem loud­ly play­ing. Peo­ple are out on their bal­conies blow­ing whis­tles, bang­ing pots, and singing. The cus­tom, which began in Italy and spread around the world, is a need­ed emo­tion­al out­let as well as a trib­ute to the doc­tors, first respon­ders, care-givers and store clerks who must risk infec­tion so that life can go on.

For myself, I’m as sat­is­fied as a well-fed cat sleep­ing near a fire­place. Well-stocked with sup­plies, blessed with good neigh­bours who are self-dis­ci­plined and mutu­al­ly help­ful, and sur­round­ed by a vast col­lec­tion of books, films and music, I am in no posi­tion to com­plain about any­thing. While the pub­lic author­i­ties made some errors in the begin­ning, on the whole they are act­ing respon­si­bly ― even the ones I vot­ed against. None of them are wast­ing time with self-pro­mot­ing pro­pa­gan­da videos and all of them are pub­licly com­mit­ted to fol­low­ing the sci­ence to deter­mine pol­i­cy. Alber­ta, which began plan­ning for the pan­dem­ic last Decem­ber, and is con­se­quent­ly less seri­ous­ly affect­ed, is shar­ing its sur­plus med­ical sup­plies with the oth­er provinces, and Air Cana­da has vol­un­teered three large jets to move them. Pol­i­tics in Cana­da is not as a rule much con­cerned with race or reli­gion, as it is in our neigh­bour to the south, but it has always been char­ac­ter­ized by extreme rival­ries and con­stant bick­er­ing between the provinces, each of which sees itself more or less as a mini-nation. But in this cri­sis, all such rival­ries seem to have dis­ap­peared. I’ve nev­er seen the provinces get on so well, or co-oper­ate so effi­cient­ly. The one sour note is that the cri­sis has revealed the shock­ing lev­el of ill-pre­pared­ness and incom­pe­tence in pri­vate­ly-run homes for the aged, where half of our deaths have occurred. In one case, crim­i­nal charges are being con­sid­ered. On the brighter side, a com­pa­ny in Ottawa has devel­oped an effi­cient portable test­ing kit, giv­ing results in less than half an hour, that meets the government’s stan­dards, and mass pro­duc­tion of this kit is already under­way. Mass test­ing, when com­bined with social dis­tanc­ing and con­tact trac­ing, is the solid­ly proven way out of this mess. Let’s hope that the kit is real­ly as good as it seems, and that it is prop­er­ly deployed. I fol­low all the avail­able covid sta­tis­tics dai­ly. New Zealand and Ice­land, both of which are places whose sta­tis­tics are unques­tion­able, demon­strate that the virus can be beat­en if the cit­i­zen­ry, med­ical pro­fes­sion, and elect­ed offi­cials co-oper­ate and are pro-active. Cana­da is, of course, a much larg­er and more com­plex coun­try than those two, with some inbuilt dis­ad­van­tages that nei­ther the Kiwis nor the Jáarar have, but the evi­dence so far is that the meth­ods should be basi­cal­ly the same. We will not come out as squeaky-clean ― the scan­dalous fail­ure in our care for the elder­ly will be a stain on our record ― but we may at least get a “good effort” report card. As I write, test­ing lev­els have been con­sis­tent­ly bet­ter than aver­age, with imme­di­ate prospects of dras­tic improve­ment, no region­al med­ical sys­tem has been over­whelmed, though some are work­ing at a fren­zied pace, pro­cure­ment of essen­tial sup­plies seems to be assured, pub­lic response has been as good as any­one could rea­son­ably expect, social sol­i­dar­i­ty and pub­lic morale have remained high, the co-oper­a­tion between pri­vate indus­try and gov­ern­ment has been exem­plary, and there are no food short­ages or sig­nif­i­cant fail­ures in the sup­ply chain. I went to a super­mar­ket to stock up on fresh veg­eta­bles on Tues­day morn­ing, after more than a week spent entire­ly at home. I arrived just at store open­ing, and there was as yet no line-up to get in, though it had start­ed to form when I left, with all the pro­to­cols adhered to. I scanned the shelves, and every­thing appeared to be well-stocked, and even toi­let paper, cleansers, eggs, and canned goods were plen­ti­ful. The selec­tion of pro­duce was excel­lent. There was no evi­dence of price-goug­ing, but some items had lim­its-per-cus­tomer, and there were none of the usu­al “loss-leader” sale prices. If this nor­mal­cy can be sus­tained, I know not, but in any case my per­son­al stock­pile is suf­fi­cient for months, and I am only shop­ping for fresh items.

I’m able to keep my finances on an even keel, since my income is not depen­dent on leav­ing the apart­ment, and I have a small cush­ion in the bank to deal with any tem­po­rary short­fall. I’ve nev­er eat­en so well! Since the best way to relieve the inevitable cramps from sit­ting at the com­put­er is to get up and pre­pare a meal, and I no longer have the temp­ta­tion to run out and get three slices of piz­za or indulge in oth­er unhealthy whims, I am steadi­ly improv­ing my cook­ing skills. My neigh­bours tell me they are also doing this (except for the one who is a pro­fes­sion­al chef). I have fresh herbs grow­ing on the win­dowsill. I’m going to be using a lot of basil. If you plant basil it will just leap out of the soil and over­whelm every­thing, like the Blob in the 1958 Steve McQueen movie, while every oth­er herb has a tough Dar­win­ian strug­gle. My only regret is that I didn’t stock enough car­away seed, so my goulash and my borscht will no longer have the taste I pre­fer. But with all that basil, my Ital­ian dish­es will shine.

At the moment, I’m lis­ten­ing to Otmar Mácha’s Dou­ble Con­cer­to for Vio­lin, Piano and Orches­tra ― a some­what melo­dra­mat­ic piece. The cats are snooz­ing. After writ­ing the next few sen­tences, and post­ing them, I’ll curl up with the cats and read The Jour­nal of Nicholas Cress­well, 1774–1777. Am I trou­bled or incon­ve­nienced by the lock­down or social dis­tanc­ing? It’s a laugh­able idea. When Olive Fredrickson’s hus­band drowned in a lake, and her three chil­dren were near­ing star­va­tion, she walked forty miles in a bliz­zard to reach the clos­est neigh­bour in order to get food for them, and remarked that the expe­ri­ence left her with lit­tle love for wolves. There were as yet no phones or radios in her part of the world. There was no inter­net.

I have an apart­ment full of tech­nol­o­gy that, in my child­hood, I would have con­sid­ered a fan­tas­tic sci­ence fic­tion dream. The speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per sec­ond. My aver­age down­load speed is 28 Mbps. My friends are not far away in time, though some are pret­ty far in space. And I have very, very good friends.

Comments are closed.