Years ago, in a dark noisy pub, the man I was talking to reached over and put his fingertips to my cheeks. He was saying something about intimacy and the many ways of it. We’d met a few weeks earlier. He was kind and smart and we’d been laughing a lot together. His touch was light and gentle. Just ten fingertips. They transmitted so much.
I will not touch my face. I will not touch my face.
At first, my boyfriend—not the man from the pub—was almost too lackadaisical. He said, If you don’t do it all—wear gloves, wear a mask, hand-sanitize—it’s not worth doing anything. I said, Why not just go into the store and lick all the counters and the cash register, then? For a day, he went around pretending to lick every surface. We laughed.
That laughter feels now like a song from a nineteenth-century phonograph.
Before introducing me, my host asked the middle schoolers what they knew about ecology.
This was in late February, a few days after the CDC reported that COVID-19 would likely become a pandemic. I was invited to the school in Patagonia, Arizona, to share a recent project: I’d created a stencil image of a Gila topminnow, an endangered guppy-like fish native to the Sonoran Desert, and spray-painted it on a bike path along a river in Tucson. The river is fed by treated wastewater, which in recent years has become cleaner, thanks to improvements at the treatment plant. Several species of fish have returned to the water, including the native Gila topminnow, which had been gone for seventy years.
“In what ways are you connected to nature?” my host asked. The consensus: in every way.
We went outside and spray-painted the topminnow on the school sidewalks. The kids were creative with the paint, mixing greens and blues. They wore masks to avoid inhaling the fumes. The spray cans went from hand to hand. The hands went to faces to take the masks on and off. The masks were then passed on to the next class.
At this point it seemed unlikely that the novel coronavirus had reached Patagonia, Arizona.
One late-June afternoon almost a decade ago, I lay down on the floor next to my beloved 15-year-old dog and listened to her struggling breath. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to push through another Tucson summer. I tucked one arm underneath her and rested another on her back. You can go now, I whispered. It’s okay, go on, girl. And she did.
I waited a year before considering another dog. When summer came, I began volunteering at the local animal shelter once a week, taking dogs out of their smelly kennels to walk them around a nearby manmade lake before the daytime sun melted us.
Some of the dogs were quarantined, sick with doggie colds and kennel cough, a coronavirus. These dogs appeared in photos on the shelter’s Facebook page, available for adoption. In his photo, Edward Bear sat docile, ears plastered back. A Border Collie, it seemed, this one white with a few black spots and blue eyes like glacial ice.
I went to the sick bay to visit him, and he leaned into the metal gate, pressing into my hand.
When he was well enough, I took him for a walk around the lake. He was joyful, but nervous. In the visitation area, he cowered, staying low to the ground, crawling from chair to bench, trying to hide underneath. It turned out he did not like to be touched.
Your whole face is a tiny forest, a microhabitat. Your eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks—a home for face mites. Teeny, tiny eight-legged arthropods, relatives of spiders and ticks. Their long worm-like bodies wriggle in and out of your hair follicles, eating sebum, the oils that collect there. Demodex folliculorum. And deeper down, in your sebaceous glands, Demodex brevis.
We’re not born with these. They’re transmitted to us by our mothers or fathers or caregivers. We pass them along via towels and sheets or get them from dogs, who also have them. Every region has its own species.
My friend in the bar that night, when he reached for my face then touched his own, maybe got some of my Demodex mites.
All of us touching our faces, touching habitats, dislodging species.
Edward Bear was neutered the day I took him from the shelter, which meant he had to wear a cone for the first week at home. Beyond dog-shame, this was problematic because he had not yet been bathed. He couldn’t see my hand approaching, but he flinched every time I got to the matted mess of his hind quarters.
A friend who knows a lot about dogs said, Have him sit next to you while you’re watching a movie or something, then nonchalantly put your hand on his rump.
When I tried this, Edward Bear got up, walked away.
Haphephobia, chiraptophobia, aphenphosmphobia, thixophobia. There are a lot of ways to say “the fear of being touched.”
My friend Greg and I sometimes pretend to be non-human animals. We are dancers, and we do this mostly through movement and mostly on behalf of species in the Sonoran Desert, where we live.
Haven’t you ever pretended to be a cat or a dog? A penguin? A chipmunk? Okay, a chicken.
Greg is nearing sixty, and he’s petite and lithe and moves like water. The way he talks about the human skeleton expands my brain. He shows me a picture of three “arms”—bat, bird, human. “Look,” he says, “we all have shoulders, forearms, ‘hands.’”
As jaguar, Greg padded through a mesquite forest on all fours. As mule deer, I darted across a stream bed on imaginary hoofs. We were becoming animals as a way to pay reverence. A videographer filmed these moments and we made a moving field guide of sorts, in resistance to a copper mine that would steal habitat and feeding grounds, endangering entire populations.
Two aerial dancers became the lesser long-nosed bats that feed exclusively on nectar from agave and saguaro cactus flowers. They hung upside down, wrapped in silk fabric, their bodies moving, prodding, settling like bats at roost. Someone became a desert tortoise, and someone else a Chiricahua leopard frog. We spent long Sundays in those mountains, hoping perhaps to glimpse one of those animals, but never expecting to.
Human bodies are beautiful and limited. Often, I felt big and clunky. One way to find grace and flight, I discovered, is to empathize with just one part of the body. Another way is to stay longer.
One Sunday, two other dancers and I crawled up onto large rocks and curled our bodies into tight balls—flesh and limb into talus snail foot and shell. Talus snails are tiny, dime-sized. I tucked my chin to my elbow, curved my spine, held on tightly to one knee. The wind came and titled the grasses, tossed my hair. I kept still until I understood something about “slow” and “home.”
For a performance years later, we made masks out of rice paper and buckram, a material that milliners use to make hats. Friends who understand 3D design helped me with snouts. My mom Mod-Podged rice paper onto the deer face. I found mesquite twigs in the yard and fashioned them into antlers.
The performance began when all of the animals—cactus wren, white-winged dove, jackrabbit, coyote, deer, bobcat, owl, javelina, horned toad lizard—appeared before an audience, like intermediaries between human and desert creatures. The animals made sounds. The animals stood on two legs.
After the performance, we started recycling these masks over and over, inviting other humans to become animals at rallies for science and climate justice.
I am usually the deer.
When the cone came off, I discovered that Edward Bear had ears. Large triangles, black spots on white, full and alert. They’d been plastered back behind the cone, behind his unease.
I signed us up for a six-week class for shy dogs and every Saturday drove twenty minutes north to the trainer’s house. Her yard was a double dirt lot, strewn with dog toys and a homemade agility course. There were scrap-wood seesaws, monster truck tires, a dried-up kiddie pool.
The trainer had long, thinning gray hair. She sat on a lawn chair, a bag full of treats smelling of fake meat in her lap. Edward Bear sniffed them out and stood next to her, as if he was not scared of a thing.
Try to get him to go through the course, she said. The goal is to build his confidence. We want him to feel good about himself.
I led him to a monster tire. He wanted nothing of it.
After a few tries—and fails—on the equipment, she called us back over. Can’t overdo it, she said, or he’ll get more afraid. She showed me how to give him treats and coax him toward me so I could touch him. Since he associates treats with goodness, she said, he’ll see that touching can also be good.
Was he abused?
Maybe he just wasn’t handled, she said, then told me about a healing modality developed by a horse trainer, a way of touching animals to activate the function of the cells, to stimulate calm.
The trainer modeled the method, moving her thumb and first two fingers in small circles up and down Edward Bear’s body. Bear yawned. Eventually his mouth dropped open, his eyes squinted. See? It calms them down, she said.
When I tried it, he pulled away.
Gentle, the trainer said. Little by little.
All the things we as humans get from nature, or healthy ecosystems, are called “ecosystem services.” Forests, oceans, deserts. It’s about the getting. Rather, the taking.
When a virus that infects animals starts infecting humans it’s called a “spillover event.” Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), HIV, all came from spillover events.
In March, when New York City becomes the epicenter of the outbreak, a Missouri man—not my boyfriend—actually goes into a grocery store and licks everything. He is charged with domestic terrorism.
Last September, we unpacked the animal masks and traveled from Tucson across the border into Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico. We drove along the international line until we found the newest sections of Trump’s border wall. We put on the masks and tried to imagine what it would be like to come upon a thirty-foot-high barrier separating us from our migratory routes.
On the other side of the wall is a natural spring, the only one for many miles in this stretch of the desert. The wall means we cannot touch it.
Once, after snorkeling off the Big Island of Hawaii, I got out of the water to find a man pacing back and forth on the shore, shouting out to the horizon. “Stop it! Stop it, people! Don’t follow the dolphins. Leave them alone! They are sleeping.”
Out past the reef a handful of snorkel tubes poked up from the surface. Below the people were bodies moving. Dolphins, in twos and threes and fours. I knew because I too had swum out past the place where all I could see through my mask was blue, blue, blue, where I’d treaded water and watched the dolphins. They dove deep down then swam up to the surface. One shot out of the water, just ten feet from me, and spun in the air. I held my breath.
Later, I read about spinner dolphins. Mostly nocturnal, they use daytime hours for rest, saving up their energy to feed at night. Interrupting spinner dolphins’ sleep, then, can cost them their lives.
I hadn’t dived down toward the dolphins like some of the other snorkelers, but still, I had been part of that human blob of curiosity and bravado, breathing from tubes, saying, If I can swim, I can see. If I can see, maybe I can touch.
My animal experiments lead me to the French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. They write about “becoming-animal,” which they describe as an in-between or fugue state.
To become-animal is to move from a solid sense of identity to something that is moving and shifting, a deterritorialization. Becoming-animal, Deleuze and Guattari write, un-humans the human. It is something “the animal proposes to the human by indicating ways-out or means of escape that the human would never have thought of by himself.”
I start to want to wear the deer mask all the time.
In early March, before the government blocks flights to and from Europe, before the NBA cancels its games, before Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson test positive, I’m sitting on a patio near the mountains just north of Tucson with two dozen artists and cultural workers. We are listening to a herpetologist explain the wide diversity of life here. Saguaros to oaks to ponderosas. Gila monsters to jackrabbits to bobcats. For this, we can thank the distant Gulf of California, which brings the seasonal rains and moisture to these biomes.
The herpetologist has brought some animals—a snake in a bag, a Gila monster in a box—and after his talk, he pulls them out, one by one.
I know this scientist to be a kind and conscientious person, and I have always been an advocate for hands-on learning. But suddenly it all feels strange. The Gila monster can bite down with clamp-like jaws and inject venom. The herpetologist clutches the reptile by the cheeks, holds it up.
You can touch it if you like, he says.
I will not touch the Gila monster. I will not touch the Gila monster.
The trainer said, Let’s try swaddling him.
She showed me how to wrap an ace bandage around Edward Bear’s chest, and another around his hind quarters.
Tell him to sit, she said. I held up a treat, and he sat immediately.
Try the course now, she said.
I led Bear to the monster truck tires and he stepped into and out of each one. I led him to a seesaw of sorts—a piece of fraying plywood on a basketball sliced in half. He stepped on to the plywood, all four paws. We moved to a tunnel made of sun-faded parachute material. He went right in and trotted through to the other side.
Before quarantine, Greg and I offered a movement workshop called Field Guide to Becoming-Animal. Ten people signed up.
Try homologous movement. That means you move both hands at the same time, then both feet. Think frog or rabbit. Ten people hopped around the room. Ten people laughed.
Try homolateral. Same arm and leg, or legs of the same side. Giraffes walk like this and some lizards. Humans, before we crawl.
This is one way to get closer to wild animals without touching them. Without destroying or capturing. Without spillover.
We spent the final session of the workshop outside exploring microhabitats, flocking across the lawn of the park. Greg told us that Barbara Mettler, a dancer who worked with large groups in improvisation, would take dancers outside to move with their environment. At first, everyone would explore their surroundings, playing, moving. But often, after a while, they would get still.
We notice where we are, and we stop.
I taught Edward Bear to stay, to lie down, to go to his place. I also taught him one other special trick, which he still knows. I hold out my hand, palm flat, to the right side of my body and say, “Touch.” He touches his nose to my right hand then gets a treat from my left hand. I hold out my left hand. “Touch,” I say. And he does.
Is this consensual? I don’t know. This is domestication.
By late March, in Arizona, the virus still feels like a distant storm. In New York and New Orleans, it pours, and people are drowning.
My work colleagues keep appearing on my computer screen. I don’t know that I have ever faced them this way, looked at them so closely while they drink their coffee, while they speak, while they think, while they cry.
In an interview from 2018 that I find online, Tiffany Fields of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami says she thinks our smartphones and iPads have deprived us of touch.
In the interview, Fields also says you can improve your health with massage, which stimulates the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve with branches that touch the rest of our bodies. Increased stimulation in the vagus system decreases cortisol and increases serotonin, which can lift your mood, soothe your pain.
You can practice self-massage, Fields says, through yoga or rolling around on the floor. Even walking is a form of massage.
If the virus comes and begins to swallow my lungs, who will lie down with me and whisper to me, tell me I can go?
Is a virus also an animal, doing what it must to survive?
After Edward Bear had been with me for nine months, I saw, on Facebook, a photo of “Spot,” a terrier-heeler mix, slated to be put down at the end of the day because he had a doggie cold and there was no more room in sick bay. Can anyone foster? I wasn’t looking for another dog. But put down? For a cold?
I drove to the shelter and brought Edward Bear along so he and Spot could meet. Spot played nonchalantly with a toy and seemed calm and not all that interested in Edward Bear. I saw no harm in the idea. We brought Spot home. I gave him Chinese herbs for the kennel cough and within two days he was chipper. His lethargy gave way to mischief. He ate my car beeper key chain. He pulled Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth from the bookshelf and chewed it. One day I came home to white fluff by the front door. I followed the fluff through the living room and kitchen to the bedroom where my down comforter had erupted, feathers everywhere.
Spot was very affectionate, the kind of dog who leaned in for more pets. I tried to get him adopted. Maybe a neighbor would want him? I put photos of him on Facebook. Wow, he’s cute! someone wrote. Keep him! someone else wrote.
I renamed him Lalo. From Lalo, Edward Bear learned to lift his leg to pee. From Lalo, Edward Bear learned to bark at other dogs.
Lalo jumps on the bed to cuddle. Lalo rolls over on his back for belly pets. He comes to me unsolicited, pushing his head into my thigh. Pet me. Pet me more. Bear watches this cautiously.
Whose victory is it when this dog uncurls his body to show his belly? Whose victory is it when I can pet that belly, without growl?
The Gila monster was scaly and smooth, cool to my fingertips. Had it not been for the scientist, it would have wriggled away, or maybe clamped its jaw down on my hand.
Dog, cat, horse, rat, ox, camel, monkey, hawk. The only animals that tolerate or invite human touch are those that are taught to.
The rest need not a human thing.