The Surroundings in Which an Animal or Plant Lives or Operates

by Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney

April feels crueler than usual this year.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Four and a half billion years ago, the planet’s birthday happened, but in what month we’ll never know.

Three days ago marked the 10th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. How long until the next despoilment?

Earth is the solid footing formed of soil. Earth is the sphere of mortal life, as distinguished from the spheres of spirits.

Inaccurate to claim that “humans are the real virus.” But fair to say some of us are the scum of the earth.

In March, a false tweet about dolphins returning to the formerly squalid canals of Venice got 40,000 likes. “Nature just hit the reset button on us,” typed some guy.

Nice try, but humans constitute and are constituted by nature. Animals all, we do not stand apart. There is no away, there is no outside.

The virus is as thin as one-thousandth the width of an eyelash. A human eyelash, we mean, relating everything always to us.

My friend Sarah’s mom sent her a lamb cake over Easter. “I thought it would be made of ground up lamb,” she emailed me. “Really, it’s a very cute lamb-shaped vanilla cake with coconut frosting.”

The prospect of killing animals ought to be more disgusting.

In his essay “Bad News,” John Berger wrote, “COMPASSION need not be written with capital letters. It simply involves a recognition of losses which are not, at the first degree, one’s own.”

On a walk last week, we saw a bird smushed on the asphalt in the crosswalk. Looked it up in the Cornell ornithology app. A hermit thrush. Whose fault the window? Whose fault the crash?

I don’t know if people who’ve never seen them can comprehend how great the Great Lakes are. Tapestries of sky and beach. Lake Michigan thrashing the sand, a Midwestern Ocean.

When Saint Jerome was living out in the boondocks, he tamed the King of Beasts by pulling a thorn from its paw. Every medieval rendering—fleshy hand upon feline claw— reveals tenderness, as well as the fact that the painter had probably never seen a real lion.

Until not too many centuries ago, people still believed in the existence of unicorns: white, horse-like, tameable by a virgin. Marco Polo claimed this image was all wrong. Actual unicorns were black and ill-tempered, enormous and ugly. (What he’d seen turned out to have been a rhinoceros.)

A fall to earth. A massive earthquake. What on earth is going to happen next?

Bernard-Henri Lévy tweeted that the coronavirus was not a black swan but a gray rhinoceros. The difference, he said: “The second was predictable, announced, but, like the ostriches we put our heads in the sand and we didn’t want to listen.” Ostriches don’t really behave that way, but point taken.

Despicable, that concept we call “the apocalypse”—too neat, too total. At best, the end of the world gives us a lick and a promise. Like us, it’s an animal that likes to play with its food.

Last updated February 23, 2023