Baby Health in Winter
Porcupines like to live alone, but in winter they sometimes hole up in long-snouted little gangs inside hollow trees and logs, in cavities made by cracks in boulders, beneath piles of brush, or under your front porch, as sneaky as thieves. A gang of porcupines is called, magnificently, a prickle. They hardly ever venture out. Inside, in the damp and ratty dark, fallen-out quills carpet the floor. In spring, female porcupines raise their babies in those dens. A baby porcupine is called a porcupette. There isn’t a word for a porcupine den, but I humbly propose calling it a quiver, except when it’s a nursery; then it’s a pokey.
The animal kingdom is a densely settled city-state of hives, burrows, lairs, nests, webs, caves, pits, and dens. Lodgings come in all sizes and for every length of stay, no security deposit required, from a grotty single bed for the night to fancy permanent quarters for a colony. Quivers are, generally, a mess. Porcupines are rodents, an order of mammals that are, as a rule, unkempt. The celebrated insouciance of the honey badger, a weasel, is nothing to the equanimity of the porcupine. Porcupines are fully armed, near-blind, and imperturbable. They leave their scat outside their front door, piling up. They don’t care who sniffs them out. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont used to offer bounties to hunters, fifty cents a snout, forty cents for a pair of ears, twenty-five cents for every pair of feet. But since that practice ended, decades ago, porcupines have had few predators, aside from the sort of dog that’s too dunderheaded to know any better, which, I confess, forlornly, describes every cur of my acquaintance. Porcupines, in their dens, aren’t really hiding; they’re just staying snug, in homes they haven’t so much built as come by, like squatters, or Goldilocks, or Airbnbers, lovers of the great indoors.
In the encyclopedia of animal accommodations, the most admirable architect is the beaver. Beavers build lodges out of sticks and mud, complete with ventilation and underground entrances. Domesticated animals live in houses built by people (etymologically, that’s what it means to be domesticated), from cow barns to pigpens. One reason some people don’t eat meat is that on big farms animals are forced to spend so much time crowded together indoors. Factory-farmed chickens, raised in giant sheds stacked with thousands of cages—ten to a cage the size of a file drawer—don’t even have room to spread their wings, and most spend every last, miserable moment of their lives inside. That only started in the nineteen-fifties, and, recently, lots of people have been going back to raising their own chickens. Since the quarantine, there has been a rush on chicks and back-yard coops. (Enthusiasts who have never met a hen are well advised to read Betty MacDonald’s 1945 memoir, “The Egg and I,” in which she recounts, “By the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.”) A D.I.Y. coop consists of a roof, a roost, and nesting boxes. Translucent roofing is recommended, the idea, apparently, being that if chickens can see the sky they’ll forget that they’re indoors. Chickens like to roost inside at night, but among the many reasons for letting them out during the day is that otherwise they might peck one another to death. That’s what it means to be cooped up. The Italians call free-range chickens polli ruspanti. A wandering chicken is a happy chicken. People are no longer ruspante. We build lean-tos and huts and shanties and houses and motels and condominiums and apartment buildings. Lately, we’ve been stuck in them, like a prickle in a quiver, chickens in a coop, bears in a den, waiting out our desolate hibernation.
Even before the quarantine, Americans and Europeans spent about ninety per cent of their time indoors, as Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber report, in “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity” (Harvard). Homes, cars, prisons, schools, buses, factories, trains, airplanes, offices, museums, hospitals, stores, restaurants: how much of your life have you spent indoors, not counting the quarantine? Multiply your age by 0.9. If you’re forty, you’ve spent thirty-six of your years indoors. About a third of that is time spent sleeping, but still. Most humans who live in the United States and Europe spend more time indoors than some species of whale spend underwater. It may be that the minutes you spent walking to and from the subway on a Tuesday in January tallied up to fewer minutes than a whale spent on the surface, filling its lungs, that same day.
This trend won’t reverse itself after the pandemic ends. “Unlike the outdoor world, the indoor world is expanding,” the journalist Emily Anthes reports, in “The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). “Over the next forty years, the United Nations estimates, the total amount of indoor square footage will roughly double worldwide.” Nevertheless, the indoors is the poor stepchild of the outdoors, at least in terms of environmental activism and regulation. Staying indoors, long before our present woes, was not always and not even very often a choice, including for schoolchildren, prisoners, factory and office workers, and hospital patients. Entire cities sometimes shut down. In 2018, China issued “stay indoors” warnings for seventy-nine cities, owing to air pollution. And from Los Angeles to Shanghai air quality has sometimes been so bad that the elderly are advised to stay inside, and, at schools, recess is cancelled. But how much better is it behind closed doors? For all the attention paid to outdoor pollution, Allen and Macomber point out, most people experience outdoor pollution while they’re inside—it seeps in—and yet the indoor environment, which produces its own toxins, is subject to very few rules.
Allen teaches at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Macomber teaches at Harvard Business School. Lately, they’ve been preparing reports and providing advice on whether and how to safely reopen schools. “Healthy Buildings” advises businesses about how to make their buildings more salubrious, on the back of the investor-directed argument that healthier buildings make for more productive employees and more profitable companies. One report from Allen’s lab, “The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building,” advocates close control over air quality, dust and pests, lighting and views, moisture, noise, safety and security, thermal health, ventilation, and water quality. Allen and Macomber want to establish national standards, and they make a series of precise and persuasive recommendations for everything from insulation and window shades to water filters and vacuum cleaners.
Given that most pollution is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and that climate change is a major force in driving people indoors (where they still get sick from the burning of fossil fuels outdoors), Allen and Macomber also extoll the green-building movement. One study they cite shows that in six countries within the span of twenty years, green buildings, compared with their non-green counterparts, averted fifty-four thousand respiratory symptoms, twenty-one thousand lost days of work, sixteen thousand lost days of school, eleven thousand asthma exacerbations, up to four hundred and five premature deaths, and two hundred and fifty-six hospital admissions, a savings that amounted to “$4 billion in health and climate co-benefits, on top of the $6.7 billion in energy savings, for a total benefit of $10.7 billion.” (Better ventilation uses more energy, but they insist that this is offset by the energy savings of green-building practices.) Still, “Healthy Buildings” also offers a vision of the future that many readers will find disturbing:
Optimizing indoor conditions is going to require a future of hyperpersonalization and hyperlocalization of thermal conditions to create zones of “personalized indoor health” that satisfy the unique preference of each person. This is already starting to happen. Some buildings have systems where each workstation has controls for its own temperature and airflow, and systems that disaggregate ventilation from temperature control. The future of personalized indoor health is not far off.
That future is here! Anthes tells us that “Comfy, a California-based company, makes an HVAC-linked mobile app that allows office workers to tinker with the temperature of their own workspaces.” One can see the benefits, but this sounds like something out of “WALL–E.” It’s also hard not to hear holier-than-thou Henry David Thoreau preaching from across the duck-blind stillness of Walden Pond:
It costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and I am willing that they should look in. . . . A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
It is hard living with masks and scarcely ever touching anyone. But, reading these books, you begin to see how methods of separation are likely to proliferate, in the form of products and practices being sold not to stop a pandemic but to sell panic, for profit. Is it too late to avoid a world where only the poor go outdoors while the rich live in zones of personalized indoor health, each with its own temperature and moisture controls, earbuds and light visors and HEPA filters, its own customized light-diffusing curtains and dust-catching doormat? Will there be no room left by the postpandemic threshold for a cheap, recycled rubber, one-size-fits-all WELCOME mat?
Having a roof over your head is one thing: a home is a human right. Living almost entirely indoors is something else. The Great Confinement varies by place and by wealth, and, historically, it’s new. “Over several millennia, humans have evolved from an outdoor species into an indoor one,” Allen and Macomber write. Citing E. O. Wilson, they explain, “We evolved in the African savannah’s wide-open expanses, intimate with nature and seeking protection under tree canopies,” and so “our genetic hardwiring, built over millennia, still craves that connection to nature.” To satisfy this craving, photographs of redwoods adorn hospital waiting rooms; you can pop into the Grand Canyon via Zoom. I used to think these dodges were better than nothing, but I’ve changed my mind. Zoom is usually not better than nothing.
Velux, a Danish company, calls the twenty-first-century human being the Indoor Generation, and ascribes a plague of depression and disease to the stuffiness and dampness and mold and darkness of living indoors. (The company sells skylights, the kind of thing you’re supposed to put in chicken coops to stop your chickens from going stir-crazy.) Its Web site features a spooky, M. Night Shyamalan-style video of a pale and sickly little girl explaining, “It all started the day we left nature behind.” We feathered our nests, with espresso machines and flat-screen televisions and Spotify. “Our homes became places you would never want to leave,” the girl says, the shadows under her eyes grown darker. “But we had closed ourselves in, to a point where nothing could get out.” We started getting sick. Itchy, cough-y, sleepless. “Many of us even started to feel sad.” And that was in the beforetime.
Benjamin Franklin, who was forever advising his friends to crack their windows open, would have agreed. “It has been a great Mistake, the Sleeping in Rooms exactly clos’d and in Beds surrounded by Curtains,” he wrote to a lady friend. At the time, this went against the advice of much medical thought and many books of learning, some dating to the plague years of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For the many who believed disease to be caused by miasmas, the best solution was to keep “bad air” out. Even Franklin had succumbed to the prejudice that he called “Aerophobia,” “and clos’d with extreme Care every Crevice in the Rooms I inhabited,” he recalled. But “experience has convinced me of my Error,” he explained. Shutting up the sick made sense in order to keep them from infecting other people, but shutting them up from the outdoors often only made them sicker.
During and after the yellow-fever epidemics of the seventeen-nineties (five thousand people died in Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, in 1793 alone), doctors and scientists, observing the patterns of diseases in cities, began studying the relationship between housing density and epidemics, with many subscribing to a contagion theory of disease. Cities installed public water and sanitation systems, and also designed parks, to encourage people to spend more time outdoors, in fresh air and sunlight. Living indoors itself became a sign of disease. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” published in 1839, is an indictment of medieval architecture. The narrator, on arriving at Usher’s house, notices that “dark draperies hung upon the walls,” and that it was impossible even to open the windows: “The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within.” In a vault inside that building, Usher seals his sickly sister in a coffin, unaware that she is still alive.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, American cities like Denver and Phoenix and rural resorts in states like Montana boasted that they offered, along with fresh air and sunlight, relief from such diseases as asthma, hay fever, and tuberculosis, as the historian Sara Jensen Carr explains in “The Topography of Wellness,” a dissertation that will be published as a book next year. Informed by the British Garden City movement, which urged the setting aside of green space, cities across the country planted trees. A promotional tract for Santa Barbara, published in 1878, promised a change from the consumptive conditions in cities: “The absence of sunlight is a frightful cause of the prevalence of the disease. The streets are so narrow and the houses so high that sunlight seldom reaches the sitting rooms. The schoolhouses are so situated that children can scarcely ever see the sun.” In much the same spirit, Victorian-era builders added “sleeping porches” to the backs of houses (sleeping outdoors was thought to prevent tuberculosis), and hospitals, schools, and asylums were built on rural estates, where inmates might be encouraged, or required, to grow their own food, at places like Vermont’s Brattleboro Retreat.
Much of the reform of hospitals came at the direction of Florence Nightingale, who argued that “to shut up your patients tight in artificially warmed air is to bake them in a slow oven.” She also advocated windows, for the sake of light. But, Anthes reports, these reforms didn’t last: “As germ theory and the concept of antisepsis gained ground, hospitals sealed themselves off from the natural world, relying on antibiotics and chemical disinfection, rather than sunlight and fresh air, to reduce the spread of disease.”
Carr states the nature of this reversal more baldly. Where “miasma was an affliction of the public realm and consequently encouraged an era of social ethics and responsibility,” the advent of germ theory “suddenly shifted the burden of health from the external to the internal, and more implicitly, from the state to the individual.” In the age of the microbe and the antiseptic, “health became the burden of the individual, associated with personal exposure and responsibility.” Instead of addressing the urban pollution caused by automobiles, architects built skyscrapers set back from the smell of the street. Le Corbusier, in “The Radiant City” (1933), advocated replacing the actual (i.e., pestilential) street with streetlike features inside buildings—corridors and hallways and elevators—and treating inhabitants with doses of light and air. Postwar white flight and concern about urban “blight” led to suburban sprawl. Later, New Urbanists celebrated cities for their “walkability.” More recently, architects have been engaged in “active design,” trying to encourage, for instance, the use of stairs, by making stairwells wider and more brightly lit, and piping music into them, while making elevators slower.
If “industry” was the watchword of building design in the nineteenth century, and “efficiency” the watchword in much of the twentieth, “wellness” has been the watchword of the twenty-first century. Wellness is a swindle. Many of the architectural experiments chronicled and the building-design reforms advocated in “The Great Indoors” and “Healthy Buildings” advance an anti-universal, hyper-individualized medical model, in which architecture is seen as therapeutic, building by building and person by person. Allen and Macomber date the origin of their field to the nineteen-eighties, when people began talking about “sick building syndrome,” defined in the dictionary as “a set of symptoms (such as headache, fatigue, and eye irritation) typically affecting workers in modern airtight office buildings that is believed to be caused by indoor pollutants (such as formaldehyde fumes or microorganisms).” Anthes, who describes herself as “unapologetically indoorsy,” embraces the possibility of building design as a cure-all: “The promise of improving our health and extending our life spans, even just a little, without ever leaving the house? Well, I found that idea irresistible.” She visits schools and apartment buildings specially designed to address aging, obesity, and depression. She gamely reports on smart offices and smart homes and floating cities and proposed villages on the moon and the new field of “indoor ecology” (the study of subjects like the mites to be found in your pillow). “The more I read about the world of indoor microbes, the more I found myself obsessing over my own invisible roommates. I contemplated fungi as I cooked, bacteria as I bathed,” she writes. “I began to feel like a stranger in my own home, humbled by how little I knew about what was happening under my roof.” The recommendations of that research? “Open a window. Get a dog.”
Building design is also increasingly driven by personal data, collected and held as a commodity, and used to improve business performance and productivity. Ethical objections to this type of data collection, suspended during the pandemic, are unlikely to recover their strength when it’s over, which means that, if you ever go back to the office, you may be monitored in ways you used to consider a violation of your rights. Anthes profiles an analytics company called Humanyze, which “makes software and hardware that enables companies to analyze their employees’ digital and in-person interactions.” Among its products is the “sociometric badge,” which is worn on a lanyard around your neck, and can detect conversations between two co-workers. The badge “contains a microphone, an accelerometer, and Bluetooth and infrared sensors, which can track the badge-wearer’s location as well as the direction that he or she is facing,” she writes. “When two badge-wearers are in close proximity, facing each other and engaged in an alternating pattern of speaking, they’re probably having a chat.” Humanyze uses the data gathered on its badges to produce reports for its clients. It has suggested, for instance, that people who sit near one another in an office are more likely to have face-to-face conversations than those who sit at a distance from one another, and made recommendations for the division of departments between floors and the size of lunch tables. More recently, the company’s president has been writing about how working remotely has reminded many of us of the importance of all those casual office interactions that we took for granted, and now sorely miss. A sociometric badge sounds terrible to me. But a lunch table sounds so good.
Anthes also recounts the work of Daniel Davis, “WeWork’s slight and stylish director of research,” who uses his company’s data to fix office problems. A Washington, D.C., WeWork featured a “funky, bright yellow wallpaper” that elicited a lot of negative comments, perhaps even from readers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman whose husband, a physician, hopes to make her well but instead drives her insane by locking her in a yellow-papered room. (“The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”) Anthes reports: “Armed with that Feedback, WeWork can switch out or paint over that wallpaper and make a note not to use it again.” (Currently, WeWork appears to be on the verge of bankruptcy.) The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” peels it all off with her bare hands.
Are better-designed buildings the solution to all that ails the Indoor Generation? The wellness model is not without its critics, who include Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, the curators of a 2011 exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal, and the editors of an accompanying book of essays, called “Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture.” “An ever increasing number of urban, environmental and architectural problems are treated as medical, and remedies are sought for increasingly specific solutions,” Borasi and Zardini write. “Tailoring requirements to particular groups of ill, or presumably ill individuals leads to conflicting, contradictory solutions, and finally to even greater segregation of various demographic groups.” Fighting disease is a public-health crusade; leading a healthier life is, very often, a private one. Or, rather, it was. It isn’t anymore.
A pandemic upends everything, including the relationship between the private and the public, the rich and the poor, the city and the country, and the outdoors and the indoors. The coronavirus acts like a miasma and a germ, all at once. It’s in the air, it’s on surfaces, it’s inside us. There is nothing so wild as a virus and yet no creature so relentless in its search for a home, no matter how unwelcoming the host. Meanwhile, living indoors all the time is driving people crazy, staring at the wallpaper, peering out windows, craving nature, and one another, whimpering and howling inside.
No one knows for certain where the COVID-19 virus came from, but one murky, unconfirmed theory has it that a pangolin, dragged from its den, caught in a snare, or tracked by a dog, contracted the virus from a live bat, a winged mammal that sleeps, upside down, in places where even the days are dark: chimneys, caverns, crevices in rocks. A colony of bats is sometimes called a camp, as if they’d pitched tents. Pangolins are anteaters, nocturnal and reclusive; scaly, long-snouted, near-blind, and solitary, they are not altogether unlike porcupines. Their scales protect them from stings and bites, and when a lion or a tiger comes near they curl up into a ball, like a prickly burr. Females give birth in dens; pangolin babies cling to their mothers’ tails with their sharp-clawed, five-toed paws, much the way a koala joey clutches its mother’s shoulders. Before China shut down the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan Province, in January, a wildlife section there sold live porcupines, beavers, snakes, badgers, and, possibly, pangolins. Maybe a pangolin, or some other wild animal, contracted the virus from a bat in that market, where peddlers stacked all sorts of animals in cages, cramped, wretched, filthy, desperate, in stall after stall, as if they had built a little city, half outdoors, half indoors, a mayhem. ♦
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