Words sticky as sweets, gluing to the page. Sentences drip down the paper, line by line, slow as molasses. I’m studying for an Environmental Studies degree and loving it but writing an essay ten days into lockdown is like trying to swim in quicksand – I’m sinking faster than I can think. Worry fogs my mind, pollution of a very different sort to the ones I’ve been reading about but just as toxic. Fear for my daughter, who has asthma and lives in London. Fear for my parents, both in mid-80’s and healthy but obviously susceptible to a virus that could carry them off overnight it seems. And an overwhelming sense of dislocation as I watch the death numbers grow and grow: this is not a world I recognise and the suddenness of how this illness has overcome us all shocks me, a tsunami of disease relentlessly passing through our ranks.
While writing is difficult, reading is easier so I relax into that, knowing that extensions and substitutions are there if I just can’t do the work. I diligently master new vocabulary – terms like carbon sink, albedo and treeline – words that don’t now seem to have much of a place in this new world we have unknowingly fashioned for ourselves. Every so often a word comes up that makes me pause to take a panicked breath. Anthropocene, zoonosis, habitat loss, extinction. Then I come back to the books, like coming back to the breath in meditation, easing into the pages. I’m lulled by maps and graphs and photographs of eco-cities, some too fantastical to seem real and others that look like something out of a child’s doll’s house, all squares and bright colours. I think back over the topics I’ve studied in U116 and consider the irony of studying a module entitled ‘Environment: journeys through a changing world’ whilst living through perhaps the greatest collective shock that my country has suffered since the second world war. Or is that too dramatic? It feels a bit overdone, as I write this listening to the blackbirds singing the evening in and the sounds of my son downstairs arguing with his friends online (Xbox is no friend to the student trying to study in peace). But this quiet killer that has come quickly amongst us can’t be understated and as we move out of lockdown I’m frightened again by how this disease might come back because it never really went away. We just shielded ourselves from it but it’s still there, waiting beyond the doors and the handwash and the masks.
But still there are moments of joy and I fervently hope they will increase. I’m learning about the resilience of cities and towns, how they need to get up and go on in the face of disaster and potential threats and every day I’m faced with examples of just how resilient people, and the places they are rooted in, can be. After the first mainshock, my daughter’s city is rising from quiet flames to slowly regroup and regain its strength. She sees and I see, in my quiet and relatively untouched part of south-west England, the kindnesses of neighbours who have never spoken but now are linked to us by these microscopic parasites which have become almost our whole world. Strangers reaching out across fear to comfort, protect and save. Clapping as defiance, a brave attempt to regain some semblance of normal life, to try to hold onto our old conditions of living even as we feel them slipping away.
I breathe in deep and slow and think about what I’ve understood about the world since starting this module in October. Yes, I’ve learned about the devastation that humans have wreaked on our own ecosystems and the destruction we’ve brought to species of all kinds, including our own. I’ve recognised that while I’m definitely not a climate optimist, I’m not exactly a climate pessimist either. My studies have taught me that despite great challenges, disasters and misadventures this planet has an inbuilt resilience that enables it to bounce back, to replenish and renew, to flourish in the midst of tragedy and to grow even as its earth scorches. If U116 has taught me anything it’s that life goes on. It seems trite to think it, cheesy even to type it, but over the millennia that this planet has sustained life that seems to me like its abiding lesson. In the age of Covid-19 this is what I’m desperately holding on to, as the bruise-black clouds roll in over the Cornish coast and I go back to my last assignment. It’s been a journey that has taken me from the Arctic to China, from Lake Victoria to the Amazon basin, from the Nile Delta to right outside my front door and from environmental degradation to resilience and hope. While studying during a viral pandemic is not how I’d anticipated starting my OU degree, the aptness of my course and the lessons that I’ve learned from it have taught me more than I would ever have thought about the strength of places and the people they hold within them, of the fragility of ecosystems but also the ability to survive and thrive in the face of unprecedented conditions. I hope my next module teaches me as much.
I wrote this as an entry into a competition run by the Open University about studying during Covid-19 lockdown.