Chance encounters in the bush get Allan Ramsay thinking about how we’re all going to negotiate the way ahead once the lockdown ends.

Apparently, the human ability to walk corresponds with brain development. So, a baby elephant shrew is up and ambulating from day one whereas it takes homo sapiens a year to learn the skill to the same standard.

Not many people know that, but I was thinking of it on my daily up-and-down walk around the bush-clad tracks here in the Pelorus Sound. Maybe walking faster, harder and longer might make me, if not more intelligent, then a little sharper than I was pre-lockdown. It’s safe to say the jury is still out on that one.

I usually don’t see anyone else on the four-hour ramble – always a good thing and now, in these virus times, even better. When chance does put another human in the same space and time, at the narrowest gauge of the track, the result is always a little dance of concern as we both ask ourselves, “What are we gonna do now?” Or, more likely, “What are we supposed to do now?”

It always plays out the same way – one of us stands as far to one side as safety permits (the downhill side is often on a cliff edge), we face away and the other walks smartly past before we both breathe out and hurry guiltily on.

Let’s face it, it’d be just stupid-ridiculous to get infected here, in this particular place of air and space and light, by something so associated with cities, crowds and constant contact.

So contrary to all previous bush walking etiquette, we don’t hang about to chat anymore. A brief “hi” and we’re both gone in a cloud of question marks about each other. Questions about where the other person has been, how often they’ve washed their hands and, more to the point, who they’ve been with.

It’s only a brief exchange but it feels like a moment that all of us – individuals, households, businesses, towns, cities and nations – are sharing as we make our way through Level 3 of pandemic protection and the years ahead.

We don’t know what we’re going to do, how exactly we’re going to do it or what is really around the corner. But we don’t have any choice other than to blunder on.

Coming out of Level 4, people seem to be coping well and behaving in reassuringly normal ways. Some look like they’ve emerged from nothing more than a stint of extra bad weather that took out the bridge across the creek and inconvenienced them for a while – like it does every now and then round here, virus or not.

And that will be the problem. They’re probably thinking “business as usual” when really it’s not. Not anymore. Business as usual is where we were. It’s what enabled a virus to jump species – not for the first time. It’s what put us in lockdown in the first place. And that’s going to be part of the trouble with the new post-virus normal – none of us has been there before, we don’t know what to do, and so we’re going to be tempted to fall back on old, reassuring habits.

The American writer Roy Scranton wrote recently in Emergence magazine about how Covid-19 and that other ecological Armageddon, climate change, are laying bare what we don’t know. We like to think we can predict what’s ahead of us, but history shows us we never have. Four thousand words later he concludes that our only choice is to embrace our ignorance and make the leap.

“All we have is compassion, patience, and the recognition that every possible human future begins with the end of what came before,” he concludes. Roy is also the author of the snappily and cheerily titled book “Learning to die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the end of a Civilisation”, so I’m thinking that conclusion is actually quite upbeat for him.

Closer to home, the former science advisor to prime ministers Sir Peter Gluckman agreed. There will be a lot of “uncertain, very scared, frustrated and angry people” about, he said in a Guardian interview. But, he added, there was also a lot of cohesion, goodwill and empathy around with which to tackle the damage done to the national psyche.

Compassion, patience, acceptance, cohesion, goodwill and empathy – the list is far from complete. But if we’re serious about making “a new normal”, a “new business as usual”, just walking on by cannot be our first option anymore.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Allan Ramsay recently returned from a long exile in London where he worked for several newspapers. He is self-isolating near Havelock.

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