The United States of America’s reaction to COVID-19 demonstrates that we as a nation were not only unprepared for a crisis of this nature and scale, but we also prioritize the health and wellness of certain groups of people above others. The systemic racism built into the very roots of our nation has grown and blossomed into a society that idolizes the rich, famous, and powerful while demonizing the poor and powerless, a group that (not coincidentally) encompasses a large portion of the racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities in the United States. U.S. citizens who gather in a park on the Upper West Side despite social distancing mandates receive masks from policemen patrolling nearby, while U.S. citizens in Harlem are locked out of parks and avoid stepping outside for fear of the police brutality they might face.
This disparity is nothing new for us, and yet it took the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others to open the nation’s eyes to the undeniable atrocities committed against Black people and other marginalized communities every single day. Despite the steady progress of the Black Lives Matter movement, our overall national situation only worsens as we continue to unabashedly grasp for the highest rung on the capitalistic ladder upon which our society sits, kicking and pushing each other off in an effort to reach the mythical summit that promises success and happiness. Not only does such perpetual greediness feed our systemic issues and slowly rot our society from the inside out, but it also jeopardizes our survival as a species and prioritizes money and so-called success over the health and wellness of our planet and our people. To address this pandemic effectively and morally, we must shift to a society in which we propel one another forward by emphasizing the interest of the collective over the interest of the singular, using nature and humanist environmentalism as examples from which we can learn to grow together and ultimately heal.
In writing the poem, “Mother Nature Knows Best,” I sought to highlight nature’s harmonic beauty by contrasting it with the discord that plagues our society: an uneasiness that has been uncovered and exacerbated by our response to the current pandemic crisis. I describe the effortless beauty of my surroundings as I run down a nature trail: “chipmunks dance and branches sway/ River gurgling while children play/ The clouds fly low in mottled gray/ And the sun shines shyly at the dusk of day” (lines 16-19). However, among the harmony, chaos lurks. Fear fed by the looming threat of the pandemic sullies the otherwise peaceful day as children play with masked faces, worried parents hover nearby, and a “6-foot distance [is] kept between each and every passerby” (line 24). In the tenth and eleventh stanzas, I transition from describing the tangible impact of the pandemic and dive into the more invisible repercussions—such as unemployment and skewed healthcare—that have taken a toll on the welfare of many U.S. citizens.
While “it’s easiest to blame her,” meaning nature, the true culprit is how we as a nation have responded to the challenge of living in the age of COVID-19. We “claim the virus as our killer/ but our own response is tainted/ though we place it on a pillar,” suggesting that our leaders and many of us citizens are content to ignore our failures in how we have reacted to this catastrophe (lines 40-42). We are content to place the blame on anyone and anything but ourselves, demonizing Asian and Asian-American communities and attributing our precarious situation to the carelessness of others, the ruthlessness of a killer virus, and nature’s harsh brutality. In doing so, we relieve ourselves of responsibility and leave fate in the hands of nature—or so we say. In reality, we leave fate in the hands of privilege, for those atop the pillar hold the strings from inside their mansions and observe from afar as fellow humans scramble in the distance, desperate for help that could be so easily given but is more often hoarded. Ravenous greed is no new phenomenon, and its repercussions manifest in countless ways outside our response to this pandemic. COVID-19 has saturated the media and exposed the United States’ shortcomings, and yet the country’s disregard for underprivileged communities has been the norm for a long time. The hardships of the brutalized Black community, the demonized Asian community, and so many more stand in stark contrast to the world we like to believe we live in. We have a tendency to deny the ugly truth and instead focus on the easy-to-swallow facade of a harmonious society, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Although the future seems grim, the final stanza of the poem provides a glimmer of hope by circling back to the beginning and echoing the title, “Mother Nature Knows Best.” The sentiment of this final stanza that “prosperity can persevere” and that nature displays this truth better than anything stems from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insightful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. A distinguished Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, Kimmerer is also the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The Center aims to draw on both indigenous and scientific knowledge to create programs that support a more sustainable world; Kimmerer reflects this mission in her writing. Her chapter, “The Three Sisters,” shines a light on the wisdom that nature offers if one simply takes the time to observe and understand. She poetically outlines the symbiotic relationships among beans, pumpkins, and corn, highlighting the importance of unity and emphasizing how working “together . . . [is] greater than alone.” Kimmerer actively learns from the plants and how they “feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live.” The three sisters do more than symbolize; they teach, leading by example by providing us a glimpse of the potential harmony that might be achieved when selfishness and greed exit the equation. The beans, pumpkins, and corn share sunlight, soil, and resources, and they serve as foundations and support for one another, simultaneously giving, taking, and flourishing. On the other hand, in our capitalistic society, one thrives by taking as much as one can get for oneself and hoarding it. These days, people lucky enough to catch a ray of sunshine use it to grow tall and broad above the rest, blocking sunlight, stealing the first sweet raindrops and suffocating those below with their thirsty roots.
William Cronon, a well-renowned environmental historian, also engages with the intersection between human culture and nature in many of his works. Cronon’s “Summary of Ten Theses toward a Humanist Environmentalism” points out that protecting nature “is fundamentally about changing culture,” and in order to protect nature, “we must honor human values and human cultures.” Cronon highlights this delicate balance, emphasizing that we must heal our culture before we can heal the planet. While “humanist environmentalism strives to protect nature absolutely,” it also stands for “equally important values, which include responsible use, social justice, democracy, fairness, tolerance, community, generosity, forgiveness of the other and ourselves, love, humane living.” Addressing the systemic racism and prejudice built into the United States’ political system is the first step in healing the deep divisions within our society that have been so exacerbated by the pandemic.
Thankfully, we can find solace in the fact that there are many thoughtful people in the world trying to change the tide and nudge society in a healthier direction. Cronon and Kimmerer’s writings serve as one example of such humanitarian efforts, while leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and citizens working to increase awareness and funnel resources into important welfare programs provide real-time examples. To heal the world, we must first address our own societal issues, and to address our issues, we must look beyond ourselves for guidance. Nature has prospered since the beginning of time, and it will continue to prosper beyond the existence of humanity. We look to successful business people as examples of how to climb the corporate ladder; we look to professional athletes as examples of how to persevere in the face of physical and mental adversity; we look to teachers and loved ones as examples of how to live healthy and informed lives. If we all desire to live in a world in which everyone prospers and lives healthy, happy, fulfilling lives, then why not look to nature, whose delicate balance of life and death has stood the test of time and proven not only bountiful but prosperous and everlasting? We are constantly tested, facing challenges and overcoming them even in the most unprecedented of circumstances. COVID-19 is putting us to the test once again, exposing and widening our cracks, threatening to break us as our weak foundation crumbles. It is time to “embrace the new beginnings” and “start afresh” by rebuilding a modern foundation built upon mutual cultural respect, empathetic humanity, and the values that we observe within nature (lines 82–83). At the end of the day, Mother Nature truly does know best.