During her daily walks, Sammy Weaver has found connection with birds, bats and lichen. Here, she considers how Covid-19 allows for friendship and kinship with those who are ‘more-than-human’.
Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love
At the start of the first lockdown, in the warm spring of 2020, with traffic calmed, I became aware of the same high-pitched tune playing over and over. I’d wake up every morning at around 4am to a succession of trills and churrs, which sounded like the dawn was being stitched together with liquid thread. One morning, I followed the sound to a bulb-sized bird in a shrub nearby, perched on a tiny branch and singing into the whole sleepy town: ‘wren’. I heard it more and more, ‘wren wren wren’. The wren is one of the UK’s smallest birds, yet it has a loud song, made by the complex organ of the syrinx in its windpipe. The syrinx is much more efficient than the human larynx at producing sound from air flowing out of the lungs. It is designed like a miniature musical box with a resonating chamber, and an intricate series of membranes and muscles that push and pull the air into song. The syrinx is forked like a double flute so that two different melodies can be played at once. After hearing the wren over and over, in the gaps between branches, I noticed my mood lift. The song zipped into my ear and triggered electrical signals to my brain, making me more content. The outside world internalised. Here was a creature, completely oblivious to the Covid-19 pandemic within the human population, singing and singing. There was I, a human-creature, utterly different to the wren, yet in awe of it and infected by its song.
And then, with spring and the sun’s slow incline, came the bats. Every evening I would see them diving and somersaulting mid-air above the canal. Listening to them through a bat detector made me realise how differently they perceive the world to me. At high speed they can detect echoes from the surface of the water so that they don’t fly into it. They can pinpoint a moth clattering up the sky to the moon. I wrote about the bats every day, learning to love a creature so utterly different to myself, yet so similar in its need to survive and keep going. The bats and their echolocation calls infected my writing, making my words echo off each other, and contaminating my human-syntax with bat-like fluidity and rapid turns.
These are just some of the examples of new and unlikely more-than-human friendships that show worrying signs of what Donna Haraway describes as that ‘developmental infection called love’. Haraway is an ecofeminist scholar whose work explores the close entanglement of humans with more-than-humans, such as pigeons, dogs and microorganisms. With Haraway goggles on, the world is made up of messy, knotted relationships between human and more-than-human. She describes kin as a ‘wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate’. She proposes that making kin is the making of a person, but that person need not necessarily be a human or an individual. With Haraway as my human-person ally, I consider how Covid-19 has allowed for friendship and kinship to be found beyond the human realm. Covid-19 has been defined by human isolation, with the majority of us locked within our homes for much of the year. Yet, on these short, daily walks I have found meaningful connection with other critters beyond the human realm.
Although the pandemic has us witnessing the deepening of friendship across the human-nonhuman divide, the pandemic is also characterized by the treatment and perception of animals as foe. Scaly, long-snouted and prehistoric looking, the pangolin was one of the first-accused nonhuman culprits said to have caused the Covid-19 pandemic. With its name coming from the Malay word pengguling, meaning ‘one who rolls up’, this nocturnal ant-guzzler is one of Chinese medicine’s most sought-after animal, and their meat is considered a delicacy in southeast Asia. No amount of rolling up into a defensive ball has stopped the illicit trade of the pangolin into Chinese markets. Pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked animals, and consequently, are endangered.
In these contexts, pangolins, bats, and mink are the anti-human nonhuman animals that are consistently dehumanised and consumed as medicine, vector, commodity, food or luxury hat. What if we consider these animals as nonhuman persons with which friendship might be found? Or have I gone completely batty (poor bats)?
On a walk near Castle Bolton in Wensleydale, I came across the minty-green cups of a lichen sprawling up the trunk of a tree in a small stand. I looked and looked beyond my looking. Each small concave recess pulsing a tinge of amber. The lobes and scales like a reptile’s skin, and translating the mist and sun into its many selves. Lichen is a symbiotic association between a fungus and a photosynthesising partner called a photobiont, such as algae or cyanobacteria. They work together to survive as friends do, a mutual relationship in which the algae produce sugars for the fungus, and the fungus gives protection to the photobiont. The fungus also lifts the photobiont up towards the light source, giving it an advantage over lower lying sites. This is very similar to the symbiotic relationship between a tiny animal called a polyp and algae in the formation of coral. Haraway’s idea of sympoeisis calls for humans to remember and celebrate the fact that we are biologically and creatively made with more-than-humans.
What does mutual trust mean when speaking of friendship across the species divide? What is lichen trust? Might it be that to not destroy our nonhuman friends’ habitats is a question of trust? The question with all of these newly found friendships is to what extent is it reciprocated? Does the lichen take me to be a strange friend? And does it matter? If we are to rethink our relationship to nonhuman others in this age of environmental destruction and mass extinction, it matters. It matters that we remember our intimate reliance on nonhumans. The objectification of animals, plants and humans themselves (by their fellow humans) allows for subsequent abuses to those ‘objects’ to be rendered as more excusable than if that ‘object’ were considered wholly a person, human or nonhuman. If I define infection as an intimate and intrusive influence on another, then surely humans can be defined as infections in this age of the Anthropocene defined up human-induced climate change. With all our potential for infecting others, and being infected, might love be the vector with which we can live well together? As one spiky nonhuman virus has taken up the role of foe, may other more-than-humans take up the role of friends.
About Sammy Weaver
Sammy Weaver has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a BSc in Anthropology from UCL. She won The Moth’s Nature Writing competition 2020. Her poems have been published in The Moth, The Island Review and The Irish Times. She lives on a narrowboat in West Yorkshire. You can contact and follow Sammy on Twitter @SammyWeaverPoem
This essay was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented on television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until the end of February 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.