Laneway rat

Last month there was a dead rat in a laneway near our house. Well – to be precise, there was the outer layer of a dead rat. It was a shell of its former self: on its back, leathery belly to the sky, ventral surface stripped of fur. It was three-dimensional yet hollowed out, innards gone. An empty rat. A small hole could be seen where its viscera had been removed. I empathised with this departed rodent. I knew how it felt to be hollow, a shell of my former self with all the comforting, comfortable coverings stripped away: surge capacity depleted, all out of energy, mental clarity gone.

During the long lockdown of 2020, I walked that laneway often. It was the first stretch of a carefully transcribed route along a broader network of bumpy bluestone. Hemmed in by high wooden fences and rusting iron, its earthy bleakness matched the situation and my state of mind. All was grim and grey, even though the sun rose every day. My rational self knew I was (probably) safe: more than safe, I was privileged. I had a well-paid job that I could do from home – hey, I had a home, plus a lovely family with whom to share it. But the anxiety and uncertainty of pandemic life ate away at my inner self, took away so much that I hadn’t even realised was there.

The landscape of fear

There’s a concept in ecology known as the landscape of fear, which can be described thus: fear of unseen danger, such as the possibility of a lurking predator, changes the way animals behave. They avoid places where predation risk is high, or visibility is poor; they are more vigilant; extra watchful, they spend less time foraging for food; many demonstrate a physiological stress response. In the age of COVID-19, we are all living in a landscape of fear. The enemy is out there, but we can’t see it, or smell it, or feel it on our skin. The virus could be anywhere – in our workplaces, our favourite café, in the very air we breathe. Nowhere feels safe.

The enemy is out there, but we can’t see it, or smell it, or feel it on our skin.

I’ve spent 25 years living in my own personal landscape of fear. This stems from a time when I was brought low by another zoonotic disease: scrub typhus, caught from the bite of a mite in the rainforests of Queensland. My fear of catching another disease is logical, if excessive. It has changed my behaviour in significant ways. I’ve turned down opportunities to travel to exotic destinations because my fear of catching African tick typhus or malaria has outweighed my desire to see elephants or sloths in the wild. During lockdown, my dreams were vivid and disturbing: I’d be thrust into a crowded space, surrounded by people who weren’t wearing masks. I couldn’t escape from them. I couldn’t escape from the fear; it was with me day and night.

Fear of tropical diseases has prevented me from seeking out sloths in the wild

Life after lockdown

Now lockdown is over, the good folk of Melbourne can walk as far as we like for as long as we like. The luxury! Many of us are re-embracing city life: food in restaurants, footy at the ground and even in-person festivals. Others remain cautious. It’s only now, with the perspective of time, that I can name the hollowness inside me. Perhaps it’s like that old adage about losing weight after pregnancy: it took you nine months to put it all on, it will take at least that long to lose it again (unless you’re a sleek celebrity with a modest baby bump and a squadron of personal trainers, of course). Maybe a year’s worth of inner emptying takes time – plus peace, solidity, predictability – to reverse. We’re not there yet.