The Benevolent Virus
Covid, the bear, and their relationship with the natural world
I’m inside my writing shed, reading a truly fascinating book and wondering about the violence of nature.
The In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin is a personal account of the French anthropologist’s brutal and near deadly encounter with a bear in the deep Siberian forest, high in the mountains, an encounter that disfigures her face and turns her inside out, physically and mentally. It’s devastating, it’s raw, it’s frightening, but it’s also strangely enlightening.
Martin is mutilated, overtaken by pain. She endures numerous operations, some at the hands of Russian doctors who haven’t left antiquated Soviet-era medicine behind. She is traumatized over and over. But through it all, she is able to understand. Martin believes that the attack had been waiting for her all her life, and in the end helped her discover, as the book’s back cover description suggests, “what it means to become.” Martin believes that she and the bear are not separate entities, not enemies, but rather are one, singular and dual beings on Earth, living as they must, each a separate element of the natural world yet linked because there is no other way to be in nature.
I’m about three-quarters of the way through this short but powerful book, and somewhere around page 80, I stop. I look up from the text and out the window. There’s a barren old tree in the corner of the property. Two cardinals flitter around the branches. A squirrel skitters along the brown fallen leaves, searching for whatever it must before the hard winter comes down on the world. Nature is balancing before me. The work of survival, of existence, of staying alive. Everything before me, even the microbes I cannot see, are doing what nature delivers them to do. They are working alone, but also in the great context of each other. Nature’s way, some have called it. It is much like what Martin writes about in her book.
She considers in the early part of her story why the bear did not kill her, why it clawed at her, clamped its jaw on hers, and then walked away. Why didn’t it finish her off? The indigenous people of the region where Martin had been working believed the bear never intended to kill her, instead, they said it was marking her. It was being a bear, not a killer. It was trying to protect its young and to survive, and to forge a strange yet natural relationship with Martin.
I lean forward in my chair and watch a black bird on the fence. It is then that it comes to me.
The virus is the bear.
In In the Eye of the Wild, Martin writes, how there was “… a time when the bear and I, my hands in its fur and its teeth on my skin, forge a mutual initiation, a negotiation over which world we are to inhabit.” Later she writes, “We live in a world in which we all observe each other, listen to each other; we remember, give to, and take from one another.”
This is our relationship with Covid. Covid the bear. It is taking from us, giving to us. It, like the bear and all in the world I see today outside my window, is only trying to survive, morphing to find a path beyond vaccinations, beyond its hand-fight with humans, like the bear with the anthropologist. Covid is marking us.
In the tech world, I am told there is something referred to as a benevolent virus, it’s a computer virus that instead of infecting to destroy, the virus is systematically released to fix problems in software or computer networks, not wreck them. There is a lot of debate about the so-called benevolent virus and whether it is ultimately a good thing, if it is ethical to produce a virus that in some cases, despite its benevolence, cannot necessarily be controlled. Still, I think again for a moment about the world of tech. Is it not unlike nature, each network, each piece of software working to survive, to do its best work in the world?
I’m not suggesting that Covid is a benevolent virus in medical terms, but isn’t it true that it, like all living things, is simply trying to survive? If the virus was of a higher life intelligence, like the bear, wouldn’t it be possible—much like Martin suggests in her book—that it is not trying to kill us, to finish us off, but is only battling to keep itself alive. Like a benevolent virus, it is trying to do good, if only for itself, but in the end, like the bear, it is clawing at us, infecting us.
I keep reading, and near the end of Martin’s book on page 102, she writes, “… there is an implicit, unspoken law specific to the predators seeking and evading each other…their territories collide, their worlds turn upside down, their usual paths are altered, and their connections become everlasting.”
Covid is part of the natural world. Like the bear, it has collided with us. Our paths forever altered. Maybe understanding this in the context of nature will help us cope. Maybe thinking of Covid as the bear will lead to understanding. In the Native American cultures, and almost every culture in the world, the bear symbolizes a power that invites us to embrace our spirit. In the time of Covid we might benefit from a little bit of what the bear can give us
I am a few pages from the end of the book now, and I want to keep reading, to discover if Martin’s terror and endurance leads to true self-transformation, if she can find some peace in her collision with the bear. But something tells me to stop. At least for now. Martin needed much time and contemplation to find her way back from the bear. We need that too, I need that, the time and contemplation to find our way back from where Covid has taken us.
Photo: Rasmus Svinding