A Poison Pandemic

Posted on
May 28, 2020

By Stuart Dopp, Library Board of Directors

Today I watched a squirrel scale my Serviceberry tree, inch out on a flimsy branch and nibble. Eureka. He raced back down, ran to get his friend, and together they performed the daring aerial routine, rewarded by a few nascent berries.

Nature builds sharing into our DNA, it appears. Even the most cynical of us needs to be part of other people’s lives by giving at least a bit of our selves. During a pandemic, however, sharing is not a good thing.

While practicing “social distancing” at home, I have carefully observed the tiny ants that invade our home each spring in exactly the same little spot. With the death of innocents on my conscience, I set out a trap with an apparently irresistible poison liquid inside. The idea is that each visitor will take a bit of the poison back to the nest to give to his fellows. I have seen individual ants excitedly passing part of the treat on to fellow ants they meet along the path. It is selfless sharing with deadly results.

This, is, of course, the way the Coronavirus multiplies although no-one intentionally seeks it out. It is from the handshake, the object we’ve given to a friend, the close-up breath, or a hug that we are most likely to share this virus. It is truly the generous kiss of death. And so we practice separation, wear face masks, endure loneliness so that we don’t pass on the poison.

The ancient King Mithridates VI protected himself from possible treachery by ingesting small amounts of poison each day to arm himself against enemies bearing fatal food or wine. Poet A.E. Houseman’s “Terrence, this is stupid stuff”employs this bit of history to argue that we build up resilience to devastating events by “training for ill.” My former students dove into this poem mostly because it mentions beer, but I hope that coping with those times when life isn’t smooth has indeed prepared them for today, for this unseen poison. It robs us of close contact, an essential element of our humanity, and yet people rise above it with kindness. Sharing is different now, with caring heroes in our midst and everyday acts of distancing the new evidence of our innate generosity as well as of our new-found endurance.