Numbers too Big to Fathom

burnt forest PCT near Crater Lake Oregon

Nearly 7.5 million people are grieving in the US as we’ve reached 500,000 Covid deaths in the USA. These are big numbers. Numbers too big to fathom. We can relate to numbers we have experienced. We’re at a loss when the numbers are outside our experiential number world.

Walking Number Worlds
My 4-year-old grandson looked at me with enormous eyes as I read the Grandma Gatewood’s picture book about her trek on the Appalachian trail. We discussed how long the trail was, and how much I had hiked on the PCT. He said: “that’s like a hundred miles?” Now that he can count to twenty by single digits, and by tens to one hundred, the number 100 is the limit of his number world. 
My 8-year- old granddaughter thought she couldn’t take another step, so tired she was after a day on the slopes. To help her tackle the half-mile walk from the ski-lift to our condo on her exhausted legs, I asked if she thought she could walk ten steps. “Oh, easy,” she said. Ten was a small number in her world; so, yes, she could. How about 100 steps? She started walking and counting by tens and reached the condo in no time. 
Numbers have meaning relative to our experience. When I tell people I’m going for a 300 mile hike on the trail, averaging 15 miles a day, eyes glaze over and people can’t relate unless they’ve walked 10 or 15 miles in a day themselves. For some, the number just means the hike is outside their reach; for others, the hike challenges them and makes them wonder if they can do it themselves.

300 mile post on the PCT in Southern California

Numbers and Meaning
I’ve seen the Covid death number steadily climb in the last months and have had an intellectual knowing that the totals are awful. I don’t know anyone I’m close to, who has died.
A half million deaths in a year because of a contagious disease is making me pause. When I do the math, it means one death for every 662 people. When I consider that equation, I know that deaths in the Iraq war for Iraqis is much higher, one death for every 250 people. In Iraq, a generation of men of fighting age has been decimated. In the US, 80% of the Covid deaths were among the 65-and-over age group.
We cannot attribute value to these numbers unless we’ve lived them. Is losing a generation of young man who could have built society, worse than losing an aging section of the population? I don’t know. I imagine that physicians and health care workers have a more feeling reaction to the numbers than I do. They’ve been on the battlefield and seen people die, one after another.

Loss isn’t a Number
Losing someone close to you is painful. The age of the person who dies doesn’t change the pain and grief. We can tell ourselves that the young man died for his country, for freedom, a noble death. We can tell ourselves that losing a loved one who’s approaching the end of their life, is part of living and dying. The pain of loss doesn’t change because of what we tell ourselves. We can connect each person who dies to someone else, often a family group. Families are grieving. For each person who died of Covid, I guess at least 5-7 people are grieving. The nation – and the world – is grieving. 

PCT/JMT toward Forester pass in California

Bigness in Nature
My experience with the ‘bigness’ of things is in nature. When I walk 3 days through burned forest, my heart aches. Walking a week through green conifers, connects my heart with tree life. I meet the sky and the vastness of the universe when I climb above tree level; my mind expands and my heart experiences transcendence. In a year of living with Covid, I have hugged 6 people. Not having body warmth and breath near me, has created a heart that is still; alone in its experience. 

What It Means
In a world of ‘too much’ – too many choices, products, stress, people – we’ve had to do without – without family, travel, jobs, eating out, or toilet paper – and we’re experiencing loss. I value periods of living ‘without’. I hike the long trail to experience just that. It opens me up to life in fresh ways; I experience life with new meaning. Considering these big Covid numbers lets me relate the number to things I know. I’ve walked for days in forest of the Pacific Northwest. 500,000 Trees in Oregon make a forest of 1200-1300 acres. If you walk 2-3 miles per hour, it will take you 65 hours, or 8 (eight-hour) hiking days, to cross a forest with a half million trees in Oregon. Think of a forest of dead people and walking 8 days to experience losing them. These are numbers the people on the battlefields of the Civil War experienced!

Finding the Equation
We cannot experience what we cannot grasp. Doing the math brings this loss closer to me. When I walk in the forest this summer, I will relate my hiking days to the Covid deaths that have occurred. I may then grasp what this pandemic means. You, the reader, must find your own equation for the loss this nation is experiencing. Only if we experience and live the loss, will we build empathy and make decisions that will mitigate a repeat. 

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