A beautiful thing has happened amid the pandemic: a couple of zoo pandas had sex. At Ocean Park, a Hong Kong amusement park featuring roller coasters and captive animals, zookeepers have been trying to get Ying Ying and Le Le to mate for 10 years. Last week, in an enclosure tastefully appointed with smooth boulders and bamboo fronds, they finally consummated their relationship.
The video footage of the act plays like an outtake from a gross-out comedy from the early 2000s, and watching it has made me the happiest I’ve been in weeks. I’m thrilled for Le Le and Ying Ying. Not just because mating in captivity is such a lift for their species, or because nobody else seems to be hooking up right now, but because of the implication of their timing. Ocean Park has been closed to visitors for more than two months. Maybe all these pandas needed to get together was for us to go away.
These stories suggest that the coronavirus has had a healing effect on Earth’s nonhuman affairs, and humans are loving this idea. Images of clear waters and frolicking critters have proved alluring enough to override ecological reality. A set of viral photographs showing swans “returning” to the canals of Venice was actually taken in nearby Burano, where swans are regularly spotted.
Another popular narrative, that a troop of elephants in the Chinese province of Yunnan took advantage of the quarantine by getting drunk on corn wine and passing out in a tea garden, was invented. (The photos first appeared on a Chinese news site last summer, in a story about elephant conservation efforts.) Stuck inside, we are eager to see what we’re missing, but we’re also freed to construct a version of the outside world through our collective imaginations, spinning real environmental shifts into a real-life Jumanji board.
These fantasies are not about humans living in harmony with the natural world. The people who have decamped from cities to live in the countryside, cultivating sourdough starters and leading their broods on nature walks, are eyed with suspicion. The nature images that have captured our imaginations rest on total human exile. It is not a pastoral vision; it’s a post-apocalyptic one. A Los Angeles Times article on Yosemite without visitors described the landscape as an imagined future “where the artifacts of civilization remain, with fewer humans in the mix.”
At a time when human life is at great risk, it’s a little disquieting that some of us are finding comfort by reveling in our own obsolescence. The natural revival fantasy has even been used as a deranged peg for marketing efforts, which are always looking for an optimistic hook. “I hope we can improve your week by showing you how Covid-19 is saving our planet,” a PR agent wrote in a recent email, before pitching a suite of sustainability-themed beauty brands.
There is a tantalizingly dark escape in getting a glimpse of nature that we cannot otherwise see, because we’re always out there ruining the view. These fantasies tiptoe to the edge of eco-fascism, an ideology shared by the El Paso mass murderer and the “Avengers” arch-villain Thanos, which promotes the elimination of human life under the pretense of saving the environment.
A meme skewering the viral nature images pokes at the extremist rhetoric that’s gone mainstream: The caption “the Earth is healing, we are the virus” is paired with an image of a Microsoft screen saver or a Lisa Frank illustration of Technicolor dolphins splashing in a pastel sea.
Most of the people sharing photos of domineering goats and marauding boars are not expressing a latent death wish. The appeal of the coronavirus nature genre is, in part, its subtle massaging of the human ego. It feeds the fantasy that centuries of environmental abuse can be reversed by an abbreviated period of sacrifice. With a few weeks’ supply of shelf-stable foods and unhinged Netflix docuseries, we can save the planet.
Even as the natural world appears to thrive in humanity’s absence, we are busy recentering ourselves in the story. When I see images of loved-up pandas and supposedly intoxicated elephants, I am not exactly celebrating my own retreat from nature. I have found myself instead identifying with the animals themselves. I bask vicariously in their freedoms. When Le Le and Ying Ying had sex, I felt a strange surge of pride. I felt that by doing nothing, I had accomplished something. I had made the world a better place, if only in my imagination.