The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: Dolphins in Venice by Des Fitzgerald

Dolphins in Venice

In the middle of March 2020, about two weeks after most people in Italy went into lockdown to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, a series of images depicting the gradual reappearance of various non-human animal lifeforms in Italy’s urban centres went viral on Twitter. “Here’s an unexpected side effect of the pandemic,” wrote one user on March 16th (this tweet had 282,000 retweets at the time of writing): “the water’s [sic.] flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever. The fish are visible, the swans returned.” Another (5,000 retweets) went: “Boars in the middle of my hometown, dolphins in the port of Cagliari… Nature is reclaiming its spaces during quarantine in Italy.” Or a third (12,000 retweets): “nature just hit the reset button on us.” Like everyone else, suspicious at first, I clicked and watched the now-iconic video of a small grey dolphin swimming up an admittedly urban-looking quayside. Could it be true? More animal fantasy followed, and the dolphins and swans of Venice were joined by the drunk elephants of Yunnan. People’s feeds became filled with images of a pinkish herd, first walking in a village, and then apparently sleeping peacefully in a field. “While humans carry out social distancing,” explained a tweet – 102,000 retweets – “a group of 14 elephants broke into a village in Yunnan province, looking for corn and other food. They ended up drinking 30kg of corn wine and got so drunk that they fell asleep in a nearby tea garden” <crying with laughter emoji>.

Alas, much of this was, as we are now obliged to call it, fake news. On March 20th, National Geographic convincingly debunked several of these stories, pointing out that swans, in fact, appear in this part of Venice regularly; that the dolphins are actually in the port of Sardinia (to which they are not strange); and that while admittedly we don’t exactly know what the story is with the drunk elephants, still elephants are not totally unknown in the villages of Yunnan province, pandemic or otherwise. News outlets that had leapt on the original “animals return to abandoned cities” story dutifully reported this update. The American news website, The Hill, reported that, while the images had represented “a small sign of hope as [Italy’s] death toll rose above 2,500 on March 17,” nonetheless “they were more wishful thinking than reality.” The Guardian, however, was more persistent: while accepting that many “optimistic posts” on social media “turned out to be fake,” the journalist Maanvi Singh nonetheless pointed out that “as the coronavirus crisis changes the rhythms of urban life, there are [still] some early signs that animals… are feeling emboldened to explore.” Singh went on: “In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations.  Raccoons were spotted on the beach in an emptied San Felipe, Panama [while] turkeys have made a strong showing in Oakland, California.” In contrast to many others, nonetheless, Singh was careful to point out that none of this was in fact as unusual or as science-fictiony as it appeared. As the urban wildlife researcher, Seth Mangle, puts it in Singh’s article: “If anything, these times may serve as a reminder that animals have always lived in our area… We may not think of our cities as a part of nature, but they are.”

We know from some decades of writing in urban geography and environmental history (I am thinking especially of the work of the historian, Dorceta Taylor, or the geographer Bruce Braun) that the break between the city and the country – idea that the city is a place that is exclusive of, even hostile to, the animal and vegetal forms that are traditionally marked with wildness – is not only wrong, but ideologically fraught. Such a division often rests on, as William Cronon put it in his canonical history of, Nature’s Metropolis, “the symbolic conventions of the Dark City” – that is, a nineteenth-century vision of the industrial and post-industrial city as hostile to all that is good and wholesome in clean, natural living. But there is more going on here, I think, than simple naivety about the relationship between nature and the city. At least, there is, to me, something more troubling about a generalised willingness to take the pandemic in such a cheerful, even gleeful, post-human spirit. What relationship between nature and the city is in play when people take a vision of urban life in the absence of humans as tentatively good news, as “optimistic” – even as an act of “wishful thinking”? What and whose wishes are even contained within such a thought? What can we say about a fantasy that is held together by the figure of a white swan (of all animals!) gliding back to Venice (of all cities!) now that the polluting humans and their machines are driven from the streets?

There is a long tradition of taking urban desolation and reclamation as a symbolic resource for pestilence. In Daniel Defoe’s relentlessly grim account of the 1665 London plague pandemic, the narrator, H.F., regales the reader with what today we would recognise as a kind of ruin porn, describing how “the great streets within the city, such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places [given that] neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening.” But A Journal of the Plague Year is also very self-consciously a book about a city. Defoe consistently foregrounds the plague as not only a visitation on London, being specifically threaded through its arterial web of parishes and liberties; he also shows us a moment, as panicked Londoners are pushed back from sanctuary in the surrounding villages and hamlets, where the cuts and ties between the city and its hinterland come into active negotiation: “there was no stirring out into the country,” he writes about the worst months of the pandemic, “nobody would suffer a stranger to come near them… several that wandered into the country on Surrey side were found starved to death in the woods and commons, that country being more open and more woody than any other part so near London.”

It is in these early modern knots of urban development, of increasing environmental degradation to serve the growing metropolis, of extractive economic relations between city and country, of dead bodies lying in half-settled woods on the edges of towns – it is in all of this, I think, that the Venetian dolphins, the Yunnanese elephants, real or otherwise, begin to make a certain kind of sense. At least, it has been striking how, even in more serious discourse, the COVID-19 pandemic has been filtered through longstanding anxieties about the environment – whether climate change is seen as implicated in the cause and spread of the virus (Scientific American reports that warming temperatures can alter both the geography and the timing of a pandemic) or whether the virus is seen as a kind of accidental solution to, or even held to be curative of, the ravages of the Anthropocene (multiple news outlets, for example, have reported on improved air quality in cities that are suddenly cleared of human activity). Still others see the virus as a moment of decisive crisis for the environmental movement as it progresses on multiple fronts: “the possibility is opening up,” writes the largely urban campaign group, Extinction Rebellion, launching its coronavirus campaign, “to make the necessary and urgent changes to respond to the intersecting global crises – financial, health, climate and ecological – creating a world where life can thrive.”

Yet the problem remains of the precise forms of life that are indeed going to thrive, both in the wake of the virus and the political turmoil – its form currently unknown – that will surely follow. And it strikes me as naïve to imagine that justice (I am thinking not least of reports from Italy, where in some places scarce ventilators are said to be rationed according to age) is likely to be at the centre of such thriving. “We’re the virus” went another comment about improving air and water in virus-stricken cities, retweeted almost eighty thousand times: “coronavirus is earth’s vaccine.” No doubt the intention is otherwise. But it is hard to conjure a more disturbing image at a moment when our cities have become completely desolate places – shops shuttered, police on guard, the streets palpably devoid of human life. I have recently been reading Anna Bramwell’s brilliant and idiosyncratic history, Ecology in the 20th Century, which is more than thirty years old now. In the book, Bramwell sets out, in great and troubling detail, the political mutability of the ecological movement: the relationship between ecological and political thought may have begun, she reminds us, “as a progressive, science-based anti-democratic movement” in the nineteenth century. And yet it remains immutably the case that “the Nazis were –she quotes the environmental historian Donald Worster – ‘the first radical environmentalists in charge of a state.’”

It is with this political history in mind that I find myself quite repelled by happy talk of dolphins, of breathable air, of grazing deer, of clear rivers, even as we are reminded that London is the “epicentre” of the UK COVID-19 outbreak, even as our morning screens are filled with images of people packed into tubes, to the happy condemnation of internet moralisers cocooned in provincial retreats all over the country. It is increasingly clear that, for many such people, not all of them good, few of them moved by the claims of justice, COVID-19 is indeed a moment for thinking hard thoughts about the city in relation to the natural environment. It is a moment – as multiple people have already warned us– for unapologetic eco-fascists to think the unthinkable about the general industry of urban human settlement as such, and about many of the people who make their lives in those settlements. Why would we be surprised then, just as our city centres are emptied by a novel zoonotic virus, of all things, that so many have become so fixated on non-humans finally re-taking these once-alien territories? Why would we be surprised, as the economic crisis worsens, and the supermarket delivery slots disappear, and the police are given newer and harder powers, that a moral story we know all too well, the story of blunt animal revenge on the city, has become ever louder, ever bolder, ever more sure of itself?

Des Fitzgerald is a social scientist at the University of Exeter. His first book, on the future of the city, will be published by Faber.