01 June, 2021
A year on, nothing has changed. Or perhaps everything. The students are back and the campus is bustling. Where avian and amphibian calls used to compete with insectile noise, now they are all drowned out by human sounds and voices. Only at dawn or in the dead of night can I still sense some of the poignancy of those long-gone early months of the pandemic when the world (or at least my corner of it) seemed to have stopped. But it never did, only shifted its weight. Now that the phrase ‘back to normal’ evokes anything from hope to fear to shrugs, what we need is to keep returning to those moments when we first recognised that – for good and ill – things could be different. Even if we were wrong. All the more so, in truth.
It’s the bull frogs that seem to have inherited the place, their calls echoing through the empty spaces. Or perhaps termites, seasonally swarming as usual, and surviving in larger numbers now that most of the lights are off. But certainly not mosquitos, withering where they used to flourish on the warm blood of large-brained bipeds.
The bipeds are gone.
Most of them, that is. I’m still here. So are several other instructors and lecturers who live in a residence building at the edge of the campus. And maintenance workers who keep the entire complex functioning now that it has lost its purpose. But the 99 percent of humans who used to be here are nowhere to be seen.
And yet they haven’t really left.
It’s early and fresh and I go out for a jog. The air smells of flowers – and murky waters of the canal that intersects the campus. Sinewy tree trunks emanate animal-like vigour. Visible and invisible birds loudly claim territory, competing for the soundscape with cicadas.
There’s concrete beneath my feet. And asphalt. And paving stones made of whatever aggregate could be utilised. Underneath all these convenient surfaces there’s compacted earth that no longer breathes.
The campus is not even 20 years old. Until then, the island cleaving the waters of the Pearl River on its final stretch through Guangzhou towards the South China Sea was a rural area of villages and farmland lost amid lush hills and wetlands where egrets and cranes waded. Then the construction crews came. Tens of thousands of university students followed. And now here I am.
Until SARS-CoV-2 shut it down, the place had been bustling with young people from all over the country. Year on year, thousands more were enrolled, new buildings constructed, remaining wetlands drained. There was no stopping it.
Until it stopped.
I stop in my tracks, trying to catch my breath. Unable for months to go on my usual weekend hiking trips outside the city – teachers need to stay put for the public good – and in front of the computer most of the time, I regress. Waiting, I look up at the silent buildings towering above me, where students used to live and learn.
‘University’ was never supposed to be a physical location. The clue is in the name: universitas magistrorum et scholarium can be roughly translated as a community of teachers and students. But its physical representation furnished in glass and steel has become one of the symbols of development and progress. And now all the energy, material, and waste needed to build these immobile giants turn out to have been unnecessary.
Humans may have left, but their footprint hasn’t.
I walk back to my apartment. Temperature and humidity go up fast, and I have a class to teach. On the other side of my computer screen there are students whom I haven’t seen in person for months and others whom I’ve never met. Perhaps never will. Hundreds and thousands of kilometres away and apart, we all converge on the virtual space of an online class for a time specified in a schedule set in a different era to discuss literary works and cultural achievements from a different age. With the buildings outside my window abandoned, the universitas is not a fetishized location anymore. It has been forced to become a community again.
Shouldn’t more things be like that from now on. Couldn’t we reduce our dependence on physical space. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we did. Pandemic or not.
These questions come on their own, tantalising, disingenuous.
The class is over. For now. To be continued. This is the new normal, it seems. Quiet, easy, and frictionless, save for occasional network problems. Lulling us into thinking that to make this virtual community possible, no energy, material, or waste is necessary.
But – out of sight, and more conveniently so than before – it’s all there.
Originally published on June 1, 2020 by the Dark Mountain Project
Dawid Juraszek is the author of Medea and Other Poems of the Anthropocene (Kelsay Books 2020). A bilingual writer and educator based in China, he is working on a PhD project in cognitive ecocriticism at Maastricht University. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in multiple venues in Poland, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and Ireland.