Ruminations From A Narrowboat
Updated: May 11
In this extraordinary time, all levels of human society are forced to consider their relationships and responsibilities to bodies. one’s own as well as others. Our physical presence and health is under threat. Suddenly, the physically healthy need to remember that in relationship to each other and the physical world, we are more than our feelings, thoughts, desires and needs.
My partner and I have moved to our narrowboat so we can make use of our younger, potentially healthier bodies, to shop and check on our so called 'vulnerable' family and friends, whilst still seeing my partner’s children. It turns out this, for us, is the opposite of isolation. We have retreated into nature.
I visit my parents’ garden (luckily with a back gate onto the street), to drop off supplies and medication and power my laptop, so I can continue working on the boat. I’m unable to hug my parents, but can at least see them and be in their physical presence at a distance. I also cannot stroke my cat. She doesn't understand, of course, and protests by sitting under the car so I can’t leave.
We know now, whether consciously or not, that we are being asked directly by this virus to consider responsibility. What will I personally, and we collectively, give up, change and navigate differently? Alongside responsibility, we must consider care. How can I care? Who and what do I care for? How am I careful?
At this moment, I am sitting in a remote clearing in the trees, surrounded by ash, crabapple and blackberry bushes. Hidden from the human world. We have exited our boat, moored on the River Lea for the duration. It’s beautiful on the boat, surrounded by Tottenham marshes, the trees along the river sprouting fresh green leaves, the coots nesting and making babies, the moorhens gently exploring as they chuckle to themselves. The ducks swimming gracefully past and the noisy geese. This is not isolation. Humans speed past on the towpath, jogging, cycling, exercising for Covid-19. One every five seconds (I counted this morning).
We have discovered this grove of nettles, fern, blossom, yellow butterflies and massive pillow-like bees, where only the police helicopter on party-watch might find us. We hope they’ll let us be in this heavenly spot. The birds are full of song, the air heavy with chirping, whistling and buzzing. Thank heaven for the saving of our loud harmonious Spring time, even in one of the biggest cities in the world (probably more here than in many rural places damaged by pesticides from industrial farms).
Of course, the road is still heavy with traffic, humans making their vibrations and noise. Much less than ever though, and it is possible to tune it out. This is a sacred place to us. A place of refuge, of beauty, of hope of life, of being in the world.
Should we be denying each other moments such as this in order to take responsibility for the virus?
We and our fellow boaters are impoverished in many ways and have fewer home comforts and material goods. Many of us don't have access to electricity on demand, running water, broadband - things that have become human rights. But are we truly impoverished when we can be here now?
Just next to the clearing we found a discarded tent where someone had been living in the woods. This is true poverty and isolation. Many boaters are on the edge of homelessness, some boats have been scraped together, holes plugged with rags and rotten wood, no windows. Many don't have running water or toilets. There is only one public toilet and shower left on this stretch of the River Lea, in this time where a virus can survive on most surfaces and kill you. Many of these vulnerable people, also health workers and carers who can't afford a home in London and live on boats, are literally endangering their lives for lack of toilet or shower. Yes, this is poverty.
But here in a lockdown, there is also a freedom that most landlubbers don't have.
I have just been for a wee in the small area of woodland next to us, under the blossoms in the ferns. Thinking about research into mycelleum and hyphae, I'm aware that the oestrogen in my urine (and the progesterone from the medication that keeps me functioning) and possibly traces of this new virus – the human waste of me – will impact on the plants and soil below. I wonder what labour and endeavour will take place below me to heal, revitalise, protect from this intrusion and pollutant.
My concern is that our mass human progress, our great economic, scientific, technological modernity – that has brought us control over disease, ageing, deep, desperate poverty; reduced wars and violence; increased education, social mobility, travel, culture and connectedness in the 20th century - has removed us from pissing under a blossom tree in a woodland on a sunny, warm Spring day. In a quiet grove filled with bird song, bees and butterflies. This removal is our downfall. It mutates us, and the viruses with which we share the world. Our planetary health is failing. We are in a feedback loop of loneliness, longing and destruction. No amount of economic growth can help if we don't step into the woods and get away from the never ending idea of progress.
We need to recognise that time outdoors is a moment to reflect on abundance, responsibility, care and home. Home as the place we are in, and the planet we are part of. No agenda means this hour outdoors we have under lockdown should not be utilitarian. It should be full of care, reflection and responsibility.
Do not just run and cycle (particularly on a tow path where boaters live). Take a moment to face the sun, to face home, the Earth, to sit or stand under a tree. Breathe, smell, listen. Take care, wonder.
Love this place. Make a memory, a wish, a promise. Think about the future we want and not fear. Consider what you need. Lost and gained. Protected or lost. Care for that which is abundant, the dedication and work of nurses and doctors, the fleeting beauty of butterflies, the enveloping joy of bird song.
Rachel Jacobs, Ph.D.