I am 11 years old at Radnor elementary school, huddled on my knees and elbows underneath my wooden desk. The sound of the air raid drill is far more disturbing than the one for the fire drill. Even though my arms are enfolding my head, I can peek around and see the other students ducking and covering just as I am. My father, who works on civil defense for the National Academy of Sciences has shown me movies of houses blown away by the ferocious winds of a nuclear explosion. I’ve seen the firestorms and the mushroom cloud in all its unworldly and catastrophic beauty. These images are seared into my psyche, a brand, a tattoo I can never erase.
At home my parents’ eyes search into the TV screen pleading for Walter Cronkite to offer some kind of solace, but there is none. Warships encircle and seal off the island of Cuba. Satellite pictures show installations of missiles bristling with nuclear bombs. Just as some young black men today are sure that they will never live past 18 because the system is stacked against them, I was sure that my world, my family, my country, would never survive because of nuclear holocaust. Even so, my mother stocked the shelves of our pitiful fallout shelter underneath the stairs with cans of Campbell’s soup — cream of mushroom, blackbean, tomato. I could hear my parents talking about what would happen if my father got the call, the call telling him to jump into his Volkswagen bug and drive to some secluded Maryland mountain, leaving part of his family behind. My oldest siblings are in college or out in the world already, but my younger sister and I are at home, scared to the bone as if irradiated with fear.
Now we are in the middle of a global pandemic. I think about all the 11-year-olds in my community sequestered at home, missing their buddies at school, fumbling through a patchwork of improvised assignments delivered through the mail or online. What does the future look like for them? What kind of fallout shelter could protect them from this virus, a sticky glob that apparently can live on surfaces for an unknown amount of time, that cleverly transmits itself from one host to another, a smart virus that doesn’t kill its host too quickly, a virus which has put a halt to human activity and anthropogenic climate change far more effectively than any law or speech or picture of a starving polar bear. What will the world look like once the virus has rampaged through Mexico, India, Africa, South America, the Navajo reservation, the Brazilian rain forest, places that aren’t so much worried about a shortage of masks or ventilators because their problems are far more fundamental: plumbing, sanitation, food, water, basic health services. It is these shortages that will fast-track the virus’s conquest of humanity.
I think about all my incarcerated students who are all-too-familiar with mandatory shelter in place, but whose cramped conditions will make the virus’s spread a romp in the park. Ironically, the novel I have assigned many of them and that they are writing about concerns a global pandemic. Written in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II and the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Earth Abides is one of the first post-apocalyptic novels. Rather than describing the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, it describes how a small group of survivors find each other and attempt to create a new civilization from the embers of the last one after a plague wipes out most of humanity. In the novel, the characters painfully learn that there is no “returning to normal.” There is no government to inject feeble stimulus packages, too little, too late. There are no posturing politicians spewing empty promises. There is only a crumbling infrastructure, the detritus of a century of unsustainable production and technology to glean from until even that, after many years, is gone. The great libraries stand empty and dusty. The power plants have long ago ceased to run. The information and skills the survivors need are far more rudimentary and Earth-based than a book or a socket and a cord. What they need now is the ability to dig a well, plant a garden and put food by. What secures their future is the ability to re-envision a flexible sapling, a braided length of cordage, a sharpened stone or an old coin pounded into a triangular shape and tied on to a straight grained and polished shaft of wood.
Whatever the future holds, this beautiful, miraculous, and scarred brown-green-blue planet will survive even if humanity does not. I have no doubt that Earth will abide.