Chris, the mailman, God bless him, is delivering a package, which he does more frequently in these days of online sales. Chris is great about delivering to the house. I think that he fits the unofficial motto of USPS perfectly:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
I thought that this was really a motto, but in fact it is a quote about the Persian Empire’s mail carriers, 2,500 years ago, from Herodotus’ The Persian Wars. Wikipedia, where I found this information, has an interesting article about the saying.
I never thought much about postal delivery when I was younger. It was something one simply took for granted. The mail came everyday save Sundays. When I went to France as a student in 1965, I was impressed by the French system, where a letter mailed anywhere in France was delivered the next day. On the other hand, the phone system, also managed by the Postes Télégraphes et Téléphones ( PTT), was antiquated. By the nineteen-eighties the French had MiniTel, an electronic messaging system tied to the phone, and had leapfrogged anything in the U.S. Alas, the internet sounded the death knoll for Minitel, and has largely replaced letter writing throughout the world. As a volunteer, I sent hundreds of aérogrammes, the single-sheet airmail letters used in France and Morocco. Airmail was still expensive then, and aérogrammes were relatively cheap. The aérogrammes were small, so one wrote as tiny a script as one could manage, and often on every part of the sheet. When done, you folded it up, and mailed it. No stamp was needed.
When Chris does not have to deliver a package, however, I must walk down my driveway to retrieve the mail from the box on the highway.
After recent rains, the road has been littered with the bodies of the earthworms that have fled their flooded burrows, only to perish on the asphalt. This is just one of the hazards of being an earthworm, and, though I am careful not to step on them, I am not troubled much by their inescapable plight. If I see one withering, I will stop to help it, but most drown before my help arrives.
What is troubling is the double line of dead ash trees, victim of one of the ambassadors of globalization, the Asian Emerald Ash Borer. This pest, thought to have been introduced from China in packing crates, bores into the ash trees, eats the cambium, and kills the trees by girdling them. The European Ash and its relatives have evolved protection against the pest. The American Ash, on the other hand, has none and is doomed to virtual extinction shortly. Not only is the ash commercially valuable, it constitutes an important percentage of the trees in native American forests, perhaps as high as 50% in some areas.
My trees are mature, 50 to 80 feet tall. Removing them will cost me plenty of money, money that I really could spend better elsewhere, but money is not behind my complaint. The trees, tall and graceful, made up a de facto allée. Nothing can replace them in my lifetime. Just as no one can ever replace their lost friends.
The ash die-off brings to mind Covid-19, now traveling across the landscape on human carriers. The virus will not bring extinction, but it may be a harbinger of things to come. The next virus, and another will surely appear, may be much deadlier. In the twenty-first century, humans have created the perfect place to breed these tiny enemies: the vast, poverty-stricken slums of the world, and the perfect means to spread them, a global air network. Governments have been advised for years that there would be pandemics. Few have prepared.
Each day more local cases appear, and each day those cases appear closer and closer. My wife and I follow the pandemic’s progress on multiple news services, but the BBC, and the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, seem to provide the most news, and certainly the best global perspective.
The daily progress of the virus makes me think of the recently deceased, great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, a star in the early Ingmar Bergman movie, The Seventh Seal. Returning home from the Crusades, he is trying to to outrun the plague when he is accosted by Death. Trying to outwit Death, the knight engages him in a game of chess, but Death cheats—and Death, as we all know, cannot himself be cheated. For the knight, it was like a crooked coin toss—heads I win, tails you lose, but he accomplishes some good just the same. In our case, it is just a case of staying indoors. Travel, even local travel, means exposure. But if the virus cannot find a host, it dies. When more than half of the population has immunity, the virus will slowly die out.
I had little contact with death as I grew up. The first deaths that I can remember are those of my grandparents, and those memories are hazy and incomplete. The first wake I attended was for my grandfather, Francesco. Still a teen, I was shocked at the levity of some of my relatives who attended. Since then, my views have evolved, and now I feel closer to Georges Brassens’ portrayal of Death, than to Bergman’s.
Brassens, in an early song, portrays death as a streetwalker, assuring Oncle Archibald that her embrace is not so bad:
“Si tu te couches dans mes bras
Alors la vie te semblera
Tu y seras hors de portée
Des chiens, des loups, des hommes et des
And the song concludes by repeating the opening stanza:
Ô vous, les arracheurs de dents
Tous les cafards, les charlatans
Comptez plus sur oncle Archibald
Pour payer les violons du bal
A vos fêtes
In short, Uncle Archibald won’t be spending his money at the dentist’s anymore, nor paying for more dubious services. He will be forever safe from dogs, wolves, men, and imbeciles. Now that is a comforting thought for me, though I do like dogs and will miss them.
Not long in the decade after my grandfather died, I left for Morocco, where death was ever present. The health care system was still underdeveloped, and the poor had limited access to it.
Peace Corps volunteers, young and partly selected for their health, seldom became seriously ill, though a couple of my close friends proved to be the exceptions. A few volunteers have died in Morocco, but always due to accidents. The roads were often dangerous, and the gas hot water heaters that some volunteers used sometimes produced lethal quantities of carbon monoxide. More than one volunteer was tragically asphyxiated taking a shower.
By way of contrast, the Moroccans we knew were usually not well off. I saw the director of the primary school where I worked die of a heart attack. He might have survived had he had access to bypass surgery or more modern therapies such as stents. Khadija, who kept house for me, had a sick baby with her one day. I offered money to take the baby to the doctor, but Khadija turned it down. The baby would not get better, she said, and, in any case, was just a girl. Another fellow, a CT worker who had a minor medical complaint, went for treatment at the local public clinic. The nurse forgot to ask if he was allergic to penicillin, and he forgot to let the nurse know. He died almost instantly of shock. Moroccans care about the people whom they love just as much as anyone elsewhere in the world, but were sometimes fatalistic. Everything, after all, was in the hands of God. If they were young and innocent, or if they were good Muslims, heaven awaited them.
Death by murder was rare. The only murder I can recall in Sefrou was that of the son of a prominent Soussi shopkeeper, killed with an ax as part of a robbery. The police quickly apprehended the culprits. Sefrou was then a small place, and little took place without the police knowing about or finding out quickly.
By custom and religion, Muslims bury their dead immediately, and cemeteries are often plain affairs. Headstones are minimal. In fact, cemeteries often provide a place for repose for the living. Groups of women often picnic in them, escaping from the crowded medina, where privacy is nonexistent, and kids play in them. There was no common open space in a traditional city, apart from the streets and mosques.
I never felt insecure anywhere, and though the big cities were much rougher places than Sefrou, I was not afraid to venture out late. I walked to the end of the long breakwater at the mouth of the Bou Regreg in Rabat several different times at night, to listen to the surf or take some fresh air.
For volunteers who became seriously ill, there was the base hospital at the U.S. Naval base at Kenitra. One volunteer and friend, Marc Miller, contracted meningitis and was treated there.
Gaylord Barr and myself visited him shortly after he awoke from a coma. Ironically, in 1971, Gaylord, returning from Tunisia by train, fell ill with typhoid, and, not responding to treatment, was evacuated to the then U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón, just outside of Madrid, where he spent two months recovering.
These cases were exceptional in that both volunteers might have died. Volunteers got good care from the Peace Corps doctor, and seldom suffered any illness beyond the curative properties of their personal Peace Corps medical kit or the local pharmacy if they lived in a larger city.
As I write this, my wife and I sit in self-imposed quarantine, as Covid-19 quickly spreads throughout the States and nearby Canada. The virus comes through the same process of global trade and travel that brought the ash borer. I had to teach the concept of globalization to high school students in the 1990s. Today that seems quaint.
Today my thoughts are not of safety for my wife and me. We are well insulated from the virus as long as we stay home. Rather I am concerned for my elderly local relatives, in nursing facilities or at home with illnesses. They are sitting ducks so to speak.
They are trapped like the hundreds of millions of poor and displaced people around the world. As an American, I am ashamed to enumerate the varieties of confinement of these populations, since U.S. foreign policy plays a direct role in it. There are the refugee camps of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. There is Gaza. There are those trapped in areas with never-ending warfare, such as Yemen and Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are migrant holding centers all along the U.S. border with Mexico. There are huge, insalubrious shantytowns surrounding every metropolis in the developing world. There are vast regions beset by drought, poverty, and violence such as the countries of the Sahel. And to make everything worse, these people live in countries without the resources to help them. It is horrible enough to see the mounting toll in Europe, in places that I love and have relatives and friends, where the governments are competent, and where the medical systems are excellent and have some resources to fight Covid-19. Its progress around the world will take a horrendous toll on the weakest and the most innocent.
I hesitate for a moment, but I cannot help but quote the well-known passage in John Donne’s Meditation No. 17, from Devotions upon Divergent Occasions. Few writers have ever said it better:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
The coronavirus should remind us that we all are part of the family of man. I wish all my readers and those close to them the best of health in these dangerous times. May God protect you all.