At my house we were doing coronavirus before it was cool, or so I like to say. I’ve been working from home for the past five years and haven’t seen any of my colleagues in the flesh since last September. My wife has been homeschooling our children, teenagers now, for most of their lives. It’s not that we’re untouched by the change, but this would be harder if we hadn’t been “social distancing” already, and if we didn’t have and enjoy each other’s company.
We took the canoe out last weekend, before the strict “stay-at-home” order came down from Oregon’s governor and the state parks were closed. It’s a sixteen-footer and we cram all four of us into it, plus gear and the dog. We launched into the Columbia River just east of Portland and paddled through the early spring currents to an uninhabited island midstream. McGuire Island is a mile long, thick with budding cottonwoods but sandy at the margins, its shore speckled with the bleaching shells of a million freshwater clams.
I sat on the beach and smoked a pipe of tobacco (a rare treat). I spotted a river otter fifty yards out and saw the year’s first osprey pass overhead. My daughter tracked critters through the shrubs with a big hunting knife strapped to her belt. We hiked together along the north side of the island for a while and I let her take a puff from my pipe, remarking that she was regular Tomboy Sawyer now. Downstream of us a half mile in the distance was the tip of Government Island, also uninhabited. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery had camped there one night in the fall of 1805.
Just now I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about Meriwether Lewis and the expedition up the Missouri and over the Rockies to the Pacific. Ambrose is too enthusiastic for my taste, geeking out on the details and overdosing on exclamation points, but the book makes good reading when you’re cooped up indoors. I hadn’t realized before how close a relationship Lewis had with Thomas Jefferson, who was like an adopted father to the younger man. On our family tour of the East Coast two years ago, I recall seeing at Monticello a mounted rack of elk antlers that had come back to Jefferson from Lewis and Clark.
Ambrose relishes the traditional image of the Corps of Discovery passing through pristine wilderness and meeting untouched peoples, but there’s another tale behind it that’s not without some relevance today. The tribes Lewis and Clark met were living through an epidemic of smallpox, which had already been introduced by contact with Europeans (America seems to have given Europe syphilis in return). In the high plains the Corps passed through Mandan villages of the dead with lodges full of skeletons. A generation after their passage down the lower Columbia, nearly all the Chinook would be dead.
The history of European relations with the natives of North America is awful, but during the expedition of 1803-’06 both sides seem to have been eager to know one another better, to form ties of friendship and trade, to eat together and share stories. The threat of smallpox then was greater than the threat of coronavirus is today but we’re learning again that sometimes the price of togetherness is suffering. In the long run it’s a price we’ll pay because there’s suffering in isolation, too, and even the most unsocial must finally acknowledge we can’t do without each other for long.