The scarification of COVID-19
Last year, I wrote a number of stories about world reversals or pachakuti, as I have come to call them after working in the Central Andes. In the Andean way of thinking, a pachakuti is a person, place or an event that brings about the destruction of the current world order and the creation of a new one. Almost a year ago, my stories focused on how life-changing events transformed my little world. I did not expect that very soon after the entire whole would be turned upside down. Now, a new world is emerging from a dark and liminal time. Like many, I incurred losses during the upheaval and I was shell-shocked for a time. As I learned in the past, when your world is turned upside down, one of the best things you can do is become silent and deeply listen to Mother Nature, for she is our best ally and most faithful guide. So, when I found myself asking, ‘what do I do now?’ I sat in silence and observed her. In this story, I share what she revealed through the Australian landscape, and in particular, the gum tree. May these messages be a salve for you during this deeply unsettling time.
Bleeding losses and bloody trees
In mid February, as China continued to impose lockdown in Wuhan and just before the first COVID-19 death was recorded in California, I was walking down one of my favourite side streets in Adelaide. Along the edges of the street are a row of gigantic spotted gum trees. Their spots form as their layered bark, brown, reddish-pink and grey in colour, flakes away unevenly. I often stop to study their tall and round bodies and map out the contours of their spots. As I did that day, I became alarmed. Their lower limbs demonstrated large gaping wounds as if they had been flagged; they were weeping a dark blood-like substance, a resin called ‘kino’.
When a gum bleeds, it is because it has been injured. Like humans, its bark is delicate and at times, thin. This process often starts when an animal scratches it, or an insect has bored into its flesh. Other eucalyptus trees are highly sensitive and begin to bleed after reacting to chemical sprays or animal urine.
I looked around, searching for the culprit. Had the tree been injured by a lorikeet, or a galah? Where is the rotten scoundrel now? I wondered. I did not find a clear sign of the bugger.
The tree’s kino is like its very own betadine. This topical antiseptic protects it from further infection. To produce this special resin, a tree needs access to a good supply of water. Thus, during drought, you are less likely to see one bleed.
I continued my walk disturbed and uneasy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had received a warning; it will be important to have on hand salves and ointments for grazes and wounds inflicted to the body, mind and spirit.
A short time later, COVID-19 marked me, inflicting wounds. In a blink of an eye, I lost several income streams and became confined and isolated from my partner and my family, who live in other Australian states. I would be the first to say that my wounds were not as deep as those inflicted on others. Nonetheless, I was shell-shocked.
The scabby wounds of COVID-19
After almost three months of quarantine, I went to visit my giant tree friends. We were noticeably different.
I stood alongside the first tree and I caressed its pinkish-grey spotted skin affectionately. It is good to see you, my friend, I thought. I felt a slight tremor; it was as if the tree had let out a little sigh. I imagined that this was the tree’s reply. Good to see you too.
I inspected its long limbs, and much to my happiness, discovered that the tree’s large wounds were no longer bleeding; instead, they were scabby, just like a two-week old grazed knee. The edges of the wound were pulled in and a tissue-lined growth had formed over where it used to ooze resin. I smiled. This is good, I thought.
Looking within, I began to scan my own body. Were my wounds also healing? I pondered. Yes, they are slowly. I could see early signs. I had accepted my financial losses, sought and received help, and had used my time in quarantine to review the direction of my career and business. Confinement had also given me unexpected gifts, such as time with my family, albeit virtually. Small but rather significant events had taken place. My siblings and I were virtually in the same room for the first time in almost 10 years. We chatted and laughed. This was a small miracle. Just over a fifteen years ago, our lives were shattered by the sudden death of our mother. This marking was so deep; for a time we could not speak to each other without spitting bloodied words of anger, pain and sadness. Meanwhile, I ventured into the imagined worlds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as my nieces and nephews read to me the adventures of ‘Peter Rabbit’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘A Little Princess.’
As I looked at my tree friends, I realised that the isolation phase was finally ending and a new world was emerging, but the wounds still needed time to heal — and they will scar.
Scarification of Mother Nature and her children
How do we truly come to terms with the changes brought forth by COVID-19? While the trees were demonstrating their powerful and miraculous healing process, I wanted to also view modern events through a more human lens so that I could work out how to move forward along my best path in life. So, I searched for guidance from my country’s traditional custodians, reading about their ancient culture. A potential pathway of understanding opened as I read about the Australian Aboriginal scarification rite.
Throughout time, scarification has formed an integral part of transitional rites in many parts of the world. In some Australian Aboriginal tribes and communities in the past, the body of a person was carved, inscribed with marks using implements, such as stone knives, at important conjectures of their life. Once the mark was made, significant care was taken to ensure that it healed and to also make the scars stand out. At times, this care involved the application of earth and powders.
This rite was sacred and the marks were highly symbolic. As Bob Burruwal, from Rembarrnga, Arnhem land, explained,
‘Scarring is like a language inscribed on the body, where each deliberately placed scar tells a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow or grief.’
To further understand the significance of marking, one needs to consider what it meant to bear unmarked skin, also referred to as ‘clear skin’. When a person was without blemish or scar, this was a visible sign that they were incapable of carrying out tasks within their community. As a result, they could not trade, marry or sing songs in ceremony. They were, therefore, liminal or outsiders — not entirely human, as I think of it.
The land also told stories through its scars; it was marked by the hand of people and these were called ‘tribal marks’, as Yidumduma Bill Harnie from the Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation of the Northern Territory, tells us.
Underpinning this ancient rite, I believe are a constellation of deep and wise understandings about what is it truly means to be human. Life commands that our spiritual, emotional and physical skins be marked. We all experience pain and suffering, loss and grief at some point. These moments shape us as people. It is how we relate to these events that determines later how we view ourselves and our place in the world.
COVID-19 as a scarification rite
Now, I have come to view the pandemic of COVID-19 as part of an ancient but rare transitional rite. Transitional rites, like birth, marriage and death, mark our becoming as people and as communities. During such liminal times, individuals and communities transform; they shed social and cultural identities and take on new ones as they pass each stage of the process (Van Gennep 1960). Pandemics are infrequent in human history but their legacy is far reaching. As scientists have more recently discovered, from the time we evolved from chimpanzees, viruses served as catalysts for our evolution (see Enard et al. 2016, for example). The pandemic may not have been something we chosen or wanted, but it has come offering a rare opportunity.
COVID-19 has pierced our flesh, some of us more deeply than others. Now, while sieving through the debris and tending wounds, I think we need to ask ourselves an important question: how will we choose to observe the healing process? Will we dig at ours wounds and allow them to bleed profusely again? Or do we will surrender to process completely? And what does it look like if observed fully?
Our own physical bodies, like those of my tree giants, map out broadly the stages of healing. The first stage consists of the oozing of our anger and fear, grief and pain like blood. Then, as our own wounds begin to draw inwards, from our bodies will seep out the clear puss of old stories formed from old traumas and beliefs. This is the cleansing. During this stage, journalling and making art have helped me tremendously.
Then, as the puss clears, our skin starts to heal. In the past several weeks, as I began to accept the nature of my current reality, I have found myself itching to begin new projects and try new things. This is perhaps a sign that the tissue of a new understanding is forming around my wounds.
As we move towards the advance stages of healing, this is where we become aware of the magical and rejuvenating properties of awe and wonder, which are powders naturally applied by life. I don’t know what those beautiful moments look for you. I become aware of wonder’s magic when I touch my scabby wounds and scars of the past and remember the events that led to their creation, and yet at the same time, can identify what I learned from them. I feel grateful for the lessons. Then, an invisible wind rushes through me; I feel alive and whole.
With time, our scars will form. Then, just like the traditional custodians and elders of my country teach, so too will the outline of our stories. With time, the scar will fade. For some, they will be darker, perhaps unsightly, but they will carry the story nevertheless. The great question is this: what kind of story will you choose to tell? Will it be one of tragedy from which you do not recover? Or one of resilience?
Don’t answer me right now, just allow yourself to heal.
Enard, D. L. Cai, C. Gwennap, D. A. Petrov. 2016. “Viruses are a dominant driver of protein adaptation in mammals.” eLife, 2016; 5 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.12469
Van Gennep, A.1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.