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April 18, 2020
Walking in Kennedy Park two days ago, nature couldn’t seem to make up her mind. Throughout the day the sun came out and went back in again, but nonetheless we headed to the woods with Lily. And then last night she laid down inches of wet snow, which continues to fall as I write — so much for spring.
Walking in the woods these days is like a promissory note: The days are longer, sometimes even warmer, but the ground is brown underfoot and the trees are bare.
We see some signs of spring: trillium pushing pleated leaves from the ground; mosses growing beards of lime green fuzz; and deep in the woods, ramps are abundant.
Yet these days, it might as well be winter, as though nature just can’t make up her mind. It’s no longer winter by the calendar, but it certainly doesn’t look like spring.
We, too, are between one thing and another, sheltering in our homes. Children are both in and out of school. People with jobs are both at home and at work, not quite fully at either. Those without jobs are hopefully between jobs, but maybe not. Those who feel well are poised between health and illness, thinly protected within the walls of our homes, and behind our masks and gloves.
Our settled lives are in suspension, superimposed over a suspension of settled seasons as the snow squalls and the sun flickers.
Recently from a friend, I found a term that captures this fraught, transitional moment: liminality.
First introduced in 1909 by French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, liminality refers to the state of transition between one phase of life and the next.* We tend to think of the word “liminal” as referring to a threshold, as in “subliminal,” but in anthropology, Gennep used it to describe the state of existence between a ritual that ends one phase of life and the subsequent ritual that begins another. That time between the ending of one thing and the beginning of another is one of fluidity, uncertainty, nostalgia for the old and a search for a new normal, with a set of rules that can be learned and understood.
This is the state we find ourselves in now: a liminal state, where, in the absence of certainty in our present and future lives, we look for what we can count on for stability outside of ourselves. That can be family, or faith or art, and, for many of us, nature. In many ways, nature provides that stability. The ramps are up at just about the same time as last year. The red-winged blackbirds have returned and the goldfinches are showing their bright yellow feathers. Last week, the frogs came out in full cacophony. Hallelujah.
Sometimes, though, nature doesn’t cooperate with our needs and desires, throwing us not only snow in April, but also tornadoes and pandemics, reminding us of both her power and our responsibility.
We do not have a ritual to carry us to the other side. Rather, we require a plan based on knowledge, and a line of accountability for its execution. Profoundly in this time, there are urgent questions about who carries responsibility for protective actions and the explanations that underlie them. Just as we don’t have COVID-19 testing for infection or immunity so that we can discern individual or community risk, we have conflicts over whether localities, states or the federal government are going to provide the necessary tools and guidance to extricate ourselves from the pandemic and restore a sense of security.
The ambiguity of the seasons feels connected to anxiety about our survival as we search for a path to a new stability. We can hope that as nature opens her arms to spring, we can move forward in a way that attends both to nature’s needs and to our own health, safety and normalcy.
*van Gennep, Arnold. “The Rites of Passage,” English edition, translated by Gabrielle L. Caffee and Monika B. Vizedom, University of Chicago Press, 1961