COVID has pushed us to spend more time in nature this spring, and IU's Patrick Kindig asks if this in turn will lead us to renew our commitment to caring for the earth
When I first read T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” I, like many casual readers, didn’t understand it. Take the poem’s opening lines: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” How, I wondered, could April be cruel? What was so awful about spring? Why did Eliot see blooming lilacs not as a symbol of hope or rebirth but as a figure for nature’s ability to hurt us?
Returning to the poem in the midst of a pandemic, I think I understand these lines better. After all, this past April was certainly cruel. There are no lilac bushes in my apartment complex, but my partner and I watched the tulips bloom (then the pear trees, then the crabapples, then the dogwoods) while stuck in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. We couldn’t go to the grocery store without feeling anxiety or regret, a strange nostalgia for the days when we could linger in the snack aisle at Kroger. In fact, it seemed downright inhumane that, while we were compulsively checking our phones for the latest update on COVID-19, the tulips were doing what they always did: they grew.
Something surprising, however, came out of this April for us: for the first time in a long time, we noticed the tulips. We noticed the smell of the pear trees and the crabapple blossoms. We built a birdfeeder, learned to identify mockingbirds by their call. We moved our morning runs outside, traded the gym treadmill for a bike path bordered with wildflowers. If we wanted to leave the apartment, we couldn’t go to a restaurant or a café; we had to go for a walk. We were, like many others, forced back into a relationship with nature.
April may have been cruel, then, but I’m inclined to see this cruelty as the cruelty of tough love. Even if quarantine has been boring and uncomfortable, this boredom and discomfort have led my partner and I to renew our commitment to the natural world, both for our own sake and for the sake of nature itself. For, as a slew of recent news articles have pointed out, humans aren’t the only ones who have benefited from our return to nature: if the natural world has offered us a respite from the fears and anxieties of the pandemic, so, too, has the pandemic seemed to offer the natural world a respite from humanity. With fewer people commuting to work, air pollution has decreased. While there may not be dolphins in the canals of Venice, the world’s waterways have grown cleaner and clearer. Though we may be turning to nature right now out of boredom and anxiety, it seems to me that we’ve been given the opportunity to recalibrate how we interact with the natural world even after the pandemic ends, to lay the foundations for a more sustainable future.
Eliot, writing in 1922, was primarily concerned with the devastation wrought by World War I. His words, however, ring true today: spring has been truly awful this year. But, as we have already begun to see across the state, the country, and the world, from the cruelty of quarantine can come compassion—for each other, for ourselves, and for the natural world itself. Eliot concludes “The Waste Land” by asking, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” The answer right now, I think, is yes: faced with the uncertainty of a post-pandemic future, it’s time we reexamined how to respect, appreciate, and care for the land.
Patrick Kindig currently teaches in the English Department at Indiana University, where he earned his Ph.D. in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature (2019). He also holds an M.A. in English (IU 2015) and an M.F.A. in poetry (IU 2017), and his work has received support from the Indiana University Department of English, the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences, and the National Society of Arts and Letters. Patrick is the author of the chapbook all the catholic gods (Seven Kitchens Press 2019) and the micro-chapbook Dry Spell (PorkbellyPress 2016); his scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in Textual Practice and Arizona Quarterly, and his poems have appeared in The Journal, Washington Square Review, Shenandoah, Columbia Poetry Review, and other journals. He is currently collaborating with the classical saxophonist Derek Granger on The Quarantine Variations, an Instagram-based creative project that combines Patrick’s words with Derek’s music.