Life as Plague: Thoughts on Camus and Ebola

the plagueAbout six weeks ago, I was looking around for some books to take with me on a long flight to Boston, and chose as one of them The Plague by Albert Camus. Though Camus has long been one of my favorite authors, undoubtedly the Ebola crisis had more than a little to do with my choice. (Later I learned that NPR book critic Michael Schwab had previously recommended the book  as “this week’s must read,” describing it as a way to find “meaning in the midst of Ebola.”)

The novel was written in 1947, and tells the story of how the city of Oran, Algeria, was overtaken by a severe outbreak of Bubonic Plague, with thousands of people dying miserably, much like what is happening today in West Africa. Admittedly, it is a difficult read, especially since you find yourself rereading the author’s brilliantly crafted sentences, pregnant with multiple meanings. The city of Oran was actually devastated by the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by an outbreak of cholera in 1849, which wiped out much of the population. The book can also be viewed as an allegory of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, since Camus was very much a part of that resistance. Relentlessly, the plague rages on, month by month, as a team of doctors and medical volunteers fight to stop the spread of the deadly disease. All seems hopeless, but rather than despair, the medical team plugs on valiantly. I was touched by how Camus lovingly illuminates the inner life and humanity of each character, investing each one with an essential dignity. I think this is what I found most moving about the novel. In the words of the narrator and main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Camus reminds us that life itself can be seen as a kind of plague. No matter how well we plan or predict, there is always an irrational side to the universe—be it an epidemic, war, or killer asteroid—that may strike without warning, bringing us suffering and exile from homes and loved ones. Like death, such upsets will eventually find each one of us, no matter how secure we think we are in our gated communities, bomb shelters, and fenced-in countries. Our task as human beings is to carry on and help each other survive, and not give in to fear and despair.

As we watch and listen to the endless news reports of the Ebola scourge, we must resist both the numbness of media overdose and our all too human tendency toward irrational fear. Lately I find myself becoming increasingly disgusted by the calls of some of my fellow humans calling for drastic and counterproductive measures such as cancelling all airline flights to and from West Africa or closing our borders even further. In such times, rather than dwelling on the negative qualities of our species, I try to focus instead on the many brave men and women who this very moment are working to stop this horrible disease, and to commiserate with the many unfortunate victims of my human family. And I remember a line from the last page of The Plague: “…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Approaching Wilderness Now Available in Print Format

For those who prefer reading print over digital books, I’ve now issued a print edition of my little book “Approaching Wilderness.” https://www.createspace/5031223                                                                                                             Approaching Wilderness (print cover)                                                                                                                                                           

The War on Packrats

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

How did it come to this? I never intended for it go  this far. And now, with the war turning badly, I fear  the worst.

When we first moved into our little cabin in the hills, there was no hint of the troubles ahead. Yes, there were a few skirmishes with the local javelina and rabbit tribes, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. Then we started noticing stuff: mysterious droppings and urine spots on the patio; piles of twigs and cones under every shrub and boulder; and inexplicable chew marks on the siding of our cabin.

As I recall, it was when I discovered that one of our car’s front headlamps was out that things turned ominous. When I brought the car in for repair, I was in for a double shock. The mechanic informed me that the wires to the headlamp had been neatly severed, most likely by a packrat, which was apparently in the process of building a nest there. Then he handed me a bill for $200.

I tried my best to take this philosophically, but when it happened again I knew the tiny gauntlet had been thrown down. When later I discovered a ziggurat-sized packrat nest behind our cabin, I knew there was no turning back. I must stand and fight.

You wouldn’t think a creature with such a cute name—we even apply it to certain humans who can’t throw anything away—could be so much trouble. OK, so technically they’re rats—wood rats, to be exact—but unlike those nasty Norway rats which live in sewers, subways, and other dark places, these guys just live out in the woods and deserts. They have long hairy tails and big ears, and the way they look at you with those dark liquid eyes you’d swear they belong in a Disney movie. Hard working little critters, they build huge nests that can be occupied for a thousand years or more by generations of rats. Scientists just love these nests, by the way, because in addition to their tasteful furnishings of cans, glass, cartridge cases, jewelry and assorted objets d’art, they also contain gobs of plant debris and pollen that can provide clues of past changes in plant communities. Nature writers wax eloquently about how packrats have adapted to survival in the harsh desert environment, investing them with a certain charm and cachet.

But don’t be fooled. They are ruthless and will stop at nothing. They will invade your castle. They will construct nests within your car and rip out your wiring and upholstery. They will chew up your siding and steal anything not nailed down. And they will leave behind them a trail of urine, feces, kissing bugs, and even Bubonic Plague.

Normally I’m a peaceful guy, but this was war. It was either them or me.

Over the next few years, as I experimented with various lethal devices, I became expert at trapping them. Considering the number of hours I now devote to this task, it has grown from a mere hobby to a sacred mission. I am fully convinced that, if not for my efforts, this seething rodent swarm would quickly overrun my neighborhood and the world.

I have lost track of the number of rats I have killed. I started notching them on the wall in the kitchen until my wife put a stop to it. Having destroyed every hint of a nest on our five acres, I diligently patrol our property each week on search and destroy missions. At the first hint of telltale droppings or nest building, I set out new traps. Like fur trappers of old, every morning I go out and inspect my trap lines. I must be ever vigilant, for I know they are out there planning their next attack.

Lately there have been some new developments. Despite my best efforts, I have been discovering nests such as I have never seen before. Unlike the previous ones, these are more sturdy structures, complete with tile or asphalt roofs, little wooden doors, and reinforced walls. Whenever I manage to demolish one, I find paneling, insulation, and other undeniable signs of remodeling, as well as scraps of diagrams, metal and plastic scattered about, as if they were constructing some device.

Then, one day, as I performed my usual patrol, I saw it. It was right next to my favorite rock outcrop—a place where I often go to sit. About five feet long, it seems to be made of some sort of hard black plastic, with a little tray in the middle. Call me mad, but I swear it looks just like a huge trap…baited with brie cheese and a bottle of chardonnay.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses October 2014



The word burst upon our lexicon with
all the subtlety of a Playboy centerfold.
In a snap our clever devices provide
puerile portraits of our daily antics.
Yet only the technology has changed.

Ever since we first scrawled images
on the social walls of caves—
here I am stalking my prey
have we thrust our portraits
into the popular ether.

Whether it be the self-mocking
image of a Van Gogh or Picasso
looking back at us from the canvas or a
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,
it is all of the same mold.

We don’t need a new word.
It is the same game of fame.
But now all that will remain
of us as we pose triumphantly
in front of the Eiffel Tower
while cuddling our crotches are
shifting images lost in the cloud.

First published in BLACK HEART MAGAZINE,                                                                September 2014, Quarterly Issue #1.14