Archive for April, 2020

Walking the Coronacene

April 19, 2020 1 comment

My daily Government-permitted walk takes me out of the village and onto a chalk ridge. In road verges en route I glimpse some of the detritus of the modern world. Objects that could one day make stratigraphic horizons — the sudden appearance of plastic-derived chemicals, for example — for archaeologists studying the modern era; and perhaps even for geologists studying an incipient Anthropocene.


Until recently, such deposits have been dominated by things such as Greggs sandwich wrappers, discarded energy-drink bottles, and containers from petrol station bakeries: I read this as the detritus of delivery drivers with no time to stop and eat. A very early C21 type of litter.

But in the last few weeks these have been replaced by something very specific and new: the discarded disposable glove.


These will become a testament to an extraordinary specific historical horizon, for almost all will date to the months after the Covid-19 lockdown of late March 2020.


In spite of the occasional roadside mess, these walks can be rather bucolic. There is no traffic noise. The weather is good. Wildlife has gained a new confidence. There are other people around — I pass several people on every walk, whereas before the lockdown I barely met a soul. It is easy to forget that we are in the grip of an emergency of unprecedented depth and strangeness.


Until, that is, I look up into the skies. We are on a major air corridor between north America and northern Europe (I once saw my village from a Chicago-Heathrow flight) and at any one time there should be half a dozen or more high-altitude vapour trails up above. Now I am lucky if there is a single one.

But I have noticed one solitary flight, which in good weather becomes a fragile linear sunset every evening at about 8.30: normally a peak time for incoming flights. It is moving in itself to just see a single trail in the sky. I then wonder who on Earth is on that plane — and Flighttracker suggests it is carrying post, not people.


All of a sudden I am goose-pimplingly aware that this peace and quiet is not normal. It embraces not just my Wiltshire village, or even my country, but much of the globe.

This, too, will be traceable in future, as a sudden dip in carbon deposits, a calm-before-the-storm of an inbound Carbon-fuelled apocalypse.

There is one other thing I’ve witnessed on these walks that cannot leave an archaeological trace: because it is a noise. Like most English villages, mine is normally almost silent: except for drop-off and pick-up times at the primary school, people drive off to work and drive home from work; occasional tractors make their way from one field to another; but on a normal day one rarely sees another human being in the street.

Now it is common to pass a dozen faces, all friendly, even keen to talk, while also keeping a respectful and regulation distance. Even more remarkably, every Thursday at 8pm something extraordinary happens: something noisy, demonstrative, and communal, and thus utterly unexpected.

The first time I heard this I was on my evening walk ands unaware it was going to happen. Quite suddenly the hills resounded to the sound of cheering, of pots and pans being bashed, of whistles being blown through open windows and doors. An outpouring of gratitude to those who are keeping our shops stocked and our sick alive; the hidden army on whom we all depend, and will probably suffer disproportionately as a result. It turns out those disposable gloves could be a life and death issue.


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