GHENT, N.Y. — The rising sun wakes me up these days. That’s on sunny days, of course, and many of them haven’t been sunny lately.
It’s probably half an hour past sunrise, because the star must first surmount a ridge filled with tall pines and maples in front of our house. The sound of birds starting to queue at the feeders is another clue that the day is beginning.
Telling time by the sun is a newly acquired pandemic-related talent. It’s among the subtle distinctions in light and nature that not just farmers and other full-time residents, but now even urban refugees like me, can observe as we mark the first, and hopefully last, anniversary of the pandemic. It’s one of the small blessings, though perhaps not too small, for city folk who have been fortunate enough to socially distance in nature.
But, a decision is coming. Will we return home, or have the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley become home? Will the sun still awaken me upstate 12 months from now, or will I have returned to Manhattan, where natural light is in short supply? That’s not just because the sun has to squeeze between a phalanx of tall buildings to reach me in the morning, but also because our apartment house, like many others, and for no good reason as far as I can tell, has suffered a second epidemic, one with no vaccine in sight.
New York City Local Law 11 requires buildings to be inspected every five years, and some landlords find it easier to leave their scaffolding up, blocking out the sun as well as ambient light in general.
Once we’ve been vaccinated and reached something approaching herd immunity, how many of us who have been lucky enough to work remotely, or don’t have the imperatives of children attending schools in the city, or are retired, will go back to urban living full time? That includes weekenders who have discovered the grace of not having to pack up the family and pets and navigate the bumper-to-bumper Friday night exodus from New York or Boston and then undertake the odyssey in reverse Sunday evenings.
I suppose the larger question is: Has the pandemic changed us irrevocably, and if so, do those changes include having become wedded to nature — to trees, and light, and the changing seasons — in ways that would make it heartbreaking to leave?
I don’t yet know the answer to that question.
In the same way that the country bestows benefits that are not duplicable in the city, an urban environment has attractions that nature can’t match. We’re all social animals, but some of us are more social that others. As much as I enjoy wildlife I’m prejudiced toward humans. I still find them more interesting than woodchucks, and the people-watching, even amid a pandemic, is better on Broadway than it is out my back door in Columbia County.
Another question is how fast New York City will rebound or whether it’s mortally wounded. The contagion of empty storefronts doesn’t offer much cause for optimism, but the demise of bricks-and-mortar stores had begun well before a novel virus started spreading in Wuhan.
I’ll admit to a certain nostalgia. Having grown up in the city and reached a certain age, I’m the proud owner of an institutional memory. When I walk through the city, I’m trailed by ghosts, but they’ve been friendly ghosts. These days, they sometimes feel like ghouls.
But, don’t bet against a great city. Those who have, in the past, have come up losers. The metropolis exists for a reason. It’s the apotheosis of practicality as well as ambition, of trivial needs and grandiloquent dreams that requires the lifeblood of connection.
My hope is that New York comes back better, any resemblance to Joe Biden’s campaign theme purely coincidental. It could take a hint, however, from some European capitals such as Paris and Rome. They manage to balance work and play, productivity and leisure, grit and beauty.
New York’s pandemic sidewalk dining should become permanent, at least during cooperating seasons. Avenues should give the benefit of the doubt to pedestrians, not cars and trucks. Gardens should grow in places once reserved for garbage.
OK, so I’m getting a little carried away. But, even if it returns to its old self, how much urban energy do you really need if you’re an inessential worker who can commute remotely and have the option of raising your children amid nature? Also, home has various connotations, and one of them is where your friends are.
To quote the immortal words of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”: “And our friends are all aboard. Many more of them live next door.” Many of our friends are here now, and more seem to be arriving every month. The justification for returning to the city seems to grow weaker by the day.