Civitas Sylvatica

Cae Hawksmoor

Atiador,

I hope you read this. I know we did not part well. Prexim says that your lungs are bad enough to confine you to the arboretum. I hope you’re not climbing the walls like a penned animal. I suspect it is a vain hope, but it’s my hope all the same.

Is it true that you finally managed to get one of the lacrimosia to take? You devil. I’d give my right arm to know how you managed to pull that one off. I’d give my left to see it bloom.

The Constantine heartlands are like walking on a red sand moon. Whatever arguments the historians make about how their empire collapsed, one thing is obvious: it took almost every living thing from this place with it. Farmed the topsoil until it fell apart, Prexim says. That was before the drought came.

I suppose you’re old enough that I should ask you what happened here, shouldn’t I? Ha! The ochre sand gets into everything, and the sun is unrelenting. I wish that you were here to see it.

I’ve spent the last week in the ruin of a city. Its name is long lost to the sand, along with everything else. I did my duty and collected samples of every living thing that I could find, but I don’t think anyone will succeed in using them to green this blasted wasteland. Not even the sneering botanists from the university at Helixstead. If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s that some things in this world are beyond the repair of everything but time.

Perhaps the same is true of us.

I hope the seeds that I have sent survive the journey. I know that you will not be able to resist the temptation to grow the tree of civilisation. Who could?

I found them in a crack in the floor of a temple, half-smothered in sand and the same colour as the stone. If it wasn’t for that horrible tome of Vexesin’s that you made me read as an impressionable young woman, I would never have recognised them. Now, at least, I am glad to have read it. It made me realise that these seeds belong with you. Another impossible tree to add to your collection. If anyone has a chance of coaxing it to life, it’s you.

I hope they will make your convalescence easier to bear. I imagine that you’ll be back out in the field before I ever leave this wasteland.

Maybe the next time that we meet it will be with more fondness, less regret.

K.

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Kestlie,

Good of you to write, after everything.

Wish I could say that I was healing. After five centuries, my body does not recover as it once did. I am old down deep into my bones now. Held together by stubbornness and rage. Perhaps that is why we parted as we did.

I remember when this arboretum was just another of Prince Arexis’ drunken dreams four centuries ago. He sent for me one bright spring morning before the sun was even crowning, and told me in a wild frenzy that he planned to rebuild the gardens here. I helped to bring this place into the world, and watched Arexis grow old and die while I went on. There is no reason in it. No sense.

After that, I did what I could. Collected every seed and specimen from any shore where I could find a ship to take me. I taught a hundred rash and ignorant children how to tend to them. I made this place a glory, the likes of which have not been seen since the mist gardens of Elarin. And now I am a prisoner here. An old man puttering with his plants while Arexis’ descendants posture and crow like children playing at war. Perhaps the civitas sylvatica is fitting punishment for that. An ancient folly for an ancient fool.

Do not return here, Kes.

Atiador.

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Atiador’s Journal

Can finally breathe well enough to make a thorough investigation of the seeds that Kes sent. Highly unusual. Each perhaps the size of a thumbnail and perfectly spherical. The colour of pale sand, cracked through with filaments of red ochre. To the untrained eye, they indeed appear to be nothing more than small polished stones. Like sunblush marble.

I find myself driven by the same foolishness as every botanist before me. The seeds of civilisation—how enticing! Vexesin spent his full five hundred years of life trying to coax the civitas sylvatica into being. He failed, as all others have failed. The tree of civilisation does what it will, and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Like longevity, there is no rhyme or reason to it. Some of us simply go on living long after those around us fade and die. Still, perhaps the attempt will divert me.

No telling which growth medium will provide the best environment. Kes did not report much of the original condition of the soil in the Constantine heartlands, but I suspect that even if she had it would do me little good.

If Vexesin is to be believed, civitas sylvatica grows according to its own unfathomable pattern.

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Only two of the twelve have sprouted, both in a mix of sand and loam. It was more a combustion than a germination: a disordered chaos of sprouts growing in all directions, as fragile as old glass. Each shoot no thicker than a hair, although some have begun to knit themselves into more substantial shapes.

Under the highest levels of magnification, there is evidence along the earliest branches of spirals woven through and around one another, like primitive carvings in stone or paint on the wall of a cave.

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Lacrimosia finally came into flower this morning. Like a pale statue weeping. I stood for hours in the quiet before the day, breathing in her salt and stale perfume. It reminds me of one my grandmother used to wear.

When I finally dragged myself away, I found one of the two civitas sylvatica was dead. Suspect it is only a matter of time before I must find something new to distract me.

Many of the botanists and gardeners here are leaving. Fleeing the capital for their homes out in the country. Afeared of the draft. All talk on the wireless is of war. I tire of it. Who is to tend these gardens while our princes strut and play at leading armies? I cannot even kneel long enough to pull the weeds around the lacrimosia.

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Day by day, the civitas sylvatica begins to alter its growth pattern—no longer a wild disarray of hair-like shoots, but an intricate and almost geometric knotwork of darker branches. Fascinating.

One would expect the weakest hair-like shoots to die back until only the strongest remain, but that does not seem to be the case. Rather, they knit themselves together in a pattern that is only discernible by microscope.

But there? What wonders! What secrets are contained within the individual structure of its cells, even now while it is still sapling growth, such a fragile thing, so at the whims of its environment. I have been most cautious. If it dies, I will likely never see another. It seems tolerant to all but the driest of conditions, and in fact does not respond well to watering even when it is necessary. But it grows readily enough when fertilised with blood and bone meal.

I have not yet begun to hope that it will live.

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Atiador,

I heard this morning that they have called the draft. Even isolated as we are out here, the news shocked us. Most of the day passed in silence.

Hazir says that the king has lost his mind. I find it difficult to argue. It seems whatever happens now, there will be war.

Are your lungs healed? If you can travel, book passage as far as Constantine. I will meet you at whichever port you can reach at such short notice. The Empire is no longer a place for men and women of learning. Let me show you what we have achieved out here instead. I still do not believe that we can green this wasteland, but perhaps, with time, we may yet help it heal.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

It has been two weeks since I saw so much as a groundsman, although that insufferable nurse continues to hound my every step with his fretting and his fuss. Perhaps I will not have to suffer him much longer. Even club-footed, I’m certain that the army will find some use for him. I am blessed that they have not yet discovered how old botanists can assist in fighting useless wars. Grass grows up between the paving slabs from the great glasshouse where I spend my afternoons all the way down to the arboretum.

I wish someone was here to see the civitas sylvatica. This morning, I finally brought it out of the potting house and planted it beside the lacrimosia. Perhaps it will bring some comfort to her weeping. The earth around her roots is caked with salt, and sometimes, in the haze of sunlight when I hover between sleeping and waking, I dream that I can hear her. Her sighs and falling tears like spring rain. Such a beautiful illusion. She no more has feelings of her own than the pulp of grass between the paving slabs. So it is with the civitas sylvatica. And yet . . . .

Through the eyepiece of my microscope, it becomes clear that the cells possess incredible potential for rapid change. Only yesterday afternoon, I nodded off for not more than two hours and found that the whole tree had shifted shape again. According to my recordings, the branches can grow by as much as an inch per hour and move as much as three. Day by day, the knotwork of its compound branches straightens and stretches into something like an archway. Like a fine architectural dome.

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I am certain now that the branches of the civitas sylvatica are marked with something quite like writing. If it is not language, then it is at least an imitation of it. Oh, would that the damned politikers and panderers were not so blinded by ambition! In any year but this one, the arboretum would be filled with men and women of science from dawn to dusk, all come to study this most incredible expression of creative force. I would have linguists to record the words that appear on its branches and plumb the murky depths of its syntax. Perhaps, between us, we could even uncover a little of whatever is being communicated.

Instead, today even that damnable nurse has not come. So I must stumble up and down the overgrown paths of the arboretum unaided. I feel wretched and miserable every time I have to eat or wash or perform one of the otherwise basic functions of human life. No matter what I do, I cannot seem to get enough air into my body. I gasp and I wheeze while around me, everything slowly reverts to wilderness.

I cannot save the annuals and perennials in the glasshouse, cannot pluck the weeds from the salt earth around the lacrimosia. But I can lay beneath the stately arches of civitas sylvatica and dream.

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Today, I woke saturated by multicoloured light—red and blue and green, the sun tinted by the leaves of the civitas sylvatica, as fine as any stained glass. The colours formed strange patterns on the ground all around me, tessellating into the strangest shapes and forms.

Keslie says that I should leave this place. Abandon the tree and flee whatever is going on down in the city. But how can I? Up here, in this abandoned arboretum, the civitas sylvatica will live. It will live, and there will be no one here to see it.

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Atiador,

I suppose your stubbornness must keep you from writing. Or rather I should say that I hope it’s so. I cannot get word from the Imperial Society of anyone still at the arboretum, and I cannot stand the thought that something ill has befallen you.

They say the war is going well, and all the broadcasts on the wireless talk about our latest victories, but I do not think that anyone believes them. I heard Hazir say this morning that deserters from the imperial army have made it as far as the northern shore of Constantine, and I’d trust a man that I have worked with these past two years long before I’d trust the voices on the wireless. If deserters have made it so far, how must the war be going?

The expedition here goes well enough, but my heart is no longer in it.

Tell me to come back, old friend, and I will come. Tell me anything. I worry for you, Atiador. I worry for us all.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The tree is moulting again. A pity. A part of me had hoped that it would retain its lofty arches, its unfathomable writing, and its stained glass leaves forever. The last few days that I have slept beneath it, I have even thought I smelled the rich musk of incense coiling slowly upwards through the air.

But today the wild growth has come again, the panic of tiny shoots and stalks. It is not quite as it was before. There is no longer any randomness in its growth. It seems to be following a pattern as precise and intricate as a spider’s web. Every strand has its purpose and its place. It happens so quickly that I can almost see it grow before my eyes: thin filaments of light trailing between the branches.

The central trunk has grown increasingly straight, fluted like an ancient column, but the dull grey of old steel. It is difficult to see it clearly through the nest of glass fibres.

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Last night I stayed out long into the dark, too weak and too stubborn to move from my place. Not long after the sun drained out of the summer sky, the most miraculous event occurred: the civitas sylvatica came alive with a thousand tiny lights. Blue and white beads like drops of water ran along the filaments of its branches, chasing each other through the dark. Kes would be the first to say that I am an iron-hearted old man, but I am not too proud to say that I wept at the sight of those lights.

I seem now to exist in a state halfway between this world and the next. I cannot rest. Every time that I lie down I wake as though I’m suffocating and spend forever gasping at the air. Tonight, I will stay awake instead, and watch the civitas sylvatica blazing with pluses of light like the beating of a heart.

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Just before dawn, I was jolted from half-slumber by the sound of something screaming very far away. Like a fox come out of the wood, but mechanical, man-made. I left my blankets soaked in last night’s dew and walked as far as the outer terrace to look down into the city. All looks peaceful, but changed. It’s been so long since I made it out of the arboretum, it took me some time to realise that I could see nothing moving in the valley below.

The shrieking stopped not long after. I rather think it must have been sirens. I could not find out from the wireless. There is nothing on any frequency. Perhaps they are afraid that the enemy will overhear.

I cannot help but keep glancing at the sky. I am afraid of seeing the enemy’s ponderous zeppelins trawling through the thin haze of sliver cloud. But they have not yet come, and I have not heard the sirens again.

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I believe the civitas sylvatica is reaching maturity. It has begun to grow some kind of canopy, the leaves black and flexible as rubber, spreading out like a dish against the sky and blocking out the light for everything unfortunate enough to be below.

The lacrimosia stands in shadow now, poor creature. And what the canopy of the civitas sylvatica does to the light, its roots do to the earth. The soil all around is so dry that it catches in the lightest breeze. Drifts of it collect like fine sand at the edges of the weed-choked paths.

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Many of the plants beneath the civitas sylvatica are dying. Some are already dead. It does not seem to matter how much water I bring it. I could empty an entire river into the earth and the water would simply sink down into the void of its roots. The lacrimosia is so dry that she is almost hollow, and when the wind blows through her it keens—not so much like a voice, more like the high hum of a shipyard in a storm. I do not think she will last much longer.

And yet the civitas sylvatica is so glorious that I cannot bring myself to hate it. I am bewitched and bewildered. Cannot help but wonder what I did to help bring this thing into the world when so many others have failed.

Skeletal branches grow from the black dish of its canopy. They change the feeling of the air somehow, as though they are generating a magnetic field. At night, the light pulsing through the glass web seems to lens and haze around the edges of this field, rippling like the aurora. It seems to be some kind of transmission of energy. Of information? Could this be how it reproduces? It seems impossible, and yet, even this wonder must surely fulfill the most basic principles of life?

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Smoke rises from the city this morning, pale and translucent as mist gathering in a river valley. I stood and watched it from the tangle of briar and starflower that covers much of the terrace now.

I still cannot see anything or anyone moving down there.

It has been so long since I saw another living soul.

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Oh, but I am a fool! I have been spending so much time on the terrace, watching the city, that I have neglected to tend the civitas sylvatica.

It has undergone some terrible collapse in my absence. The great glass webbed dome, with its filaments of electric light, has dissolved into a chaos of broken pieces, like the floor of a pin factory. I gathered a few for further inspection, but have so far been unable to discern the cause of its deterioration. The filaments are grey and brittle. Already, they break down into fine silica and drift on the pathways with what is left of the topsoil.

The lacrimosia is dead. Everything growing within two hundred feet of the civitas sylvatica is dead. Its leathery black canopy is still intact, but pores have opened on the undersides of the leaves, and ash falls like spores on everything below. This, too, I have sampled, so that some poor soul may analyse it if this blasted war is ever over. One thing is certain: the ash is poison to everything it touches. Everything that is not already dead.

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I can hardly bear to watch the ash fall any more—killing everything without care or discrimination, but killing the tree itself first of all.

The trunk is dying. What little is left of the sapwood still strains upwards, slowly peeling away from the void where the heartwood should be. I feel that selfsame void inside of me, some hungry wound that will never be healed. For all my daydreams about the transfer of information, there is no sign of fruit or seed.

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The sirens sounded again last night, and with them the most terrible rumbling. I don’t remember when I slept last. I sat in the arboretum and watched flickers of blood-coloured fire against the low night cloud. Then, late this morning, people finally came. How much have I wanted to see them, to see another living soul? But today they came at last, and I hid myself away.

They came by the glut, by the furlong, until I thought that the whole city must be emptied. Their heads hung as though their backs were broken. They did not stop to look at the gardens, just kept trudging south. Who knows what they expect to find on the other side of the hills. Only, perhaps, something better than what they’ve left behind.

I wish that I had never begun with the civitas sylvatica. Wish that I had gone to Kes when she asked, when I still had the chance.

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Great Architect, Atiador, they say the capital has fallen. I cannot get the story straight from anyone. Whether it was the enemy, or if it was burned out by our own. I think the king is dead. No one has heard from the palace in months.

The last broadcast said that the great library at the Imperial Society is gone. Burned or looted. All of those books! It’s more than I can bear.

I cannot stay in this blasted desert any more. How can I do anything for this wasteland? How can I can stand by while my home becomes the same?

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The civitas sylvatica has begun its final starvation. A dark red fluid, like yew sap, oozes from the cracks and pools in the feather-dry dust, staining the grey to black.

I have retired to my rooms in the groundskeeper’s cottage. More refugees came up the road today, walking south, as though they were ghosts of themselves. Perhaps I have died and have come to the land of the dead.

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It must have ignited at some point over the night. The ash was warm underfoot this morning, thin coils of smoke rising from its rotten core.

Rain falls on the remains of my great folly. When I came here, I was assured of a quick recovery. I do not think I will be leaving.

When they find this . . . Kes, when you find me: burn my body. Scatter my ashes with the ashes of the civitas sylvatica. With the hollow and whistling shell of my poor lacrimosia.

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Kes,

What a mystery this world is. Unfolding in some pattern that we cannot fathom, but only brush up against in dreams.

I had resigned myself to die a miserable old man, mad and alone in his grief. We become so invested in the stories that we tell ourselves, we forget the world has other plans.

The winter passed, and the days drew out into the pink spun-sugar sunsets of the early spring. The rains fell forever, washing the world clean and leaving the first east winds to blow it dry. Spring must always humble us, teach us that we are children fumbling with things beyond our understanding.

I shuffle down to the arboretum and start shovelling away the wet poison ash that drifted two hundred feet around. There was not a fragment larger than a grain of sand, save for the dozen small beads that you’ll doubtless find with this letter. Beautiful, aren’t they? Like fine gold writing on the deepest lapis.

If you are reading this, I am gone. I do not think it will be long now. Leave the shell of this miserable country. Go where growing things can thrive again. And take these lapis beads with you.

I am sure that you know what to do with them.

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Aozora Brockman Interviews Chloe N. Clark

chloe-clarkMichael: Continuing in my campaign to foster creative cross-pollination among contributors to Reckoning 1, I asked Aozora Brockman, whose poem “Kill or Be Killed” is forthcoming on the site in a few weeks, to interview Chloe N. Clark about her poem “Sidelong Catastrophe”.

Aozora: I love that your poem “Sidelong Catastrophe” surprises us in the opening line (“I’m not sure who the sky is / when it’s not the sky”) by giving the sky a dual identity—at once a “who” (human-like) and an “it” (object-like). In the poem, the perceived boundary between human beings and nature are blurred: a river was once a beautiful woman, and clouds show human-like emotion when they “weep the ghosts / of rivers for days on end”. What, to you, is the boundary between humans and nature? And what can a poem that blurs these boundaries open up?

Chloe: This is such a great question but I’m not sure I have a cohesive/at all well-thought out answer for it. I’ve always been fascinated by boundaries and the blur between them (my love of fairy tales is probably to blame with all their liminal spaces between boundaries). I also think the boundary between humans and nature is a liminal one, or at least a shifting one. I grew up closer to nature than many, because of where (and how) I lived as a child. So to me nature has always been something I exist in, not against or beside, and thus the boundary is something non-existent. However, obviously, this changes—I think in cities, there’s probably a much more defined sense of the boundaries. But maybe that, even, is false—since the natural world still interacts with all landscapes (something that we’ll likely notice more and more as climate change increases the disruption of what we think of as the norm of weather and natural cycles).

I think poetry is always about blurring boundaries. A poem itself is a liminal space—existing between the writer’s intent and the readers’ interpretations. So maybe a poem is the best way to shake us from the boundaries we imagine are there.

One of the coolest aspects of the MFA program I graduated from—Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing & Environment—is that it kind of forces you to constantly be thinking about this in your writing.

Aozora: There is a tension between power and powerlessness in your poem. At one moment you are dreaming of the possibility of solving all of the problems of the world (“sometimes I imagine / that we can solve everything” ) but, a couple lines later, are wholly without hope, drawing “scenes / of decay because that is what / we know”. As humans we know that we have great power over nature—after all, we are the ones that have systematically destroyed our environment. But at the same time, it feels impossible to halt the poisoning of soil, water and air. We are, at once, extremely powerful and extremely powerless—and your poem lays bare this contradiction and tension. As a poet (and a person), when do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless?

Chloe: I’ve always felt the most powerful, day-to-day, when I’m focused in on something. I cook and bake, so that’s a meditative act but it’s also one where you can feel powerful because you have this mastery over what you’re doing—especially once you became more and more skilled at it. That’s an exquisite feeling. When I’ve felt powerful in writing is when I hit that sweet spot between the last few lines and the ending, when you can see the writing coming together and everything feels like that stomach-jumping feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too fast but you know you’re still safe.

I think there’s so many situations when I feel powerless as a person (which maybe is why I write). It’s that moment when someone you love is hurt and you can’t do anything, or when you’re walking alone at night and the darkness seems a little too shadow-filled, or when you watch the news and the world is so filled with horror. It’s easy to feel powerless.

As a poet, the only time I ever feel powerless is in the poems I haven’t yet written—the ones about emotions that I haven’t figured out or events that are still too close to see right to put into language.

Aozora: What do you think is the role of a poet writing about the environment and natural world? What impassions you to write? And how can we change the world through poetry?

Chloe: I don’t know, to be honest. I think that writing purposefully about the environment and natural world is good, but when people set out to do so—it often feels like just that: something they made themselves do. I’m far more interested in writing that can’t help but be filled with these things. Where it bleeds into every line. So the role might be as witness, more than voice.

Chloe: The things that impassion me are so wide that it’s almost weird to think about: I write because I can’t not (I think I’m stealing that from somewhere, but it’s true). I’ve always been fascinated by stories themselves and I think of poetry that way—as a story, just told in slightly different terms than fiction.

I want to say we can change the world. But often I think I agree more with something Wilfred Owen wrote back during WWI: All the poet can do today is warn. Sometimes warning is the most we can do. But, I hope we can also offer some bit of hope: if only because someone else is noticing the same things as you, or finds beauty in the same place as you, or makes a joke that makes you laugh. I think that can be a lot.

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Sidelong Catastrophe

Chloe Clark

I’m not sure who the sky is

when it’s not the sky

 

but I think I know this river

was once a beautiful woman

 

viewed from above all bodies

of water look like someone

 

you once loved and the color

of the trees only matters

 

when there are trees at all

and sometimes I imagine

 

that we can solve everything

design cities that fit into

 

the Earth instead of making

the Earth fit into them

 

but mostly we sit at drawing

boards and paint scenes

 

of decay because that is what

we know and sometimes I think

 

I can see the sky but

it might just be a person

 

and I’ll miss the sun most

when the clouds weep the ghosts

 

of rivers for days on end

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from Concrete Jungle

Travis Macdonald

New Jersey

new-jersey

New Hampshire

new-hampshire

Wisconsin

wisconsin

Montana

montana

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Over the course of a couple of years, I have managed to catalogue the most commonly listed invasive species for all 50 states using the USDA National Agricultural Library as my primary source. The difference in font size is directly dependent on the number of invasive plant species categorized as such by each state agency and, of course, the geographical shape and area of the given territory. The only significant variation in that pattern arises due to the fact that many variant plant species differentiated by their Latinate names in fact share a folk or colloquial name.

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Daniella Levy Interview: “The Olive Harvest”

daniella-levy

Read “The Olive Harvest” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this story with me, and for giving me the chance to pepper you with questions about it.

It seems to me it takes a lot of aplomb to tell a story with this level of clarity and directness. I love a parable, I love a folktale, but it’s not easy to tell a new one in a way that feels fresh.

Daniella: Thank you! I didn’t really know that that’s what I was doing at the time!

Michael: I want to ask what sources you were drawing from. I think immediately of Genesis 1:26, where God grants us dominion over all the earth, that phrase so hotly contested between capitalists and conservationists. But I come from an American Catholic background, and I feel like my grasp of the religious lore is very limited. Are there other references you’re making I’m not getting? What about more recent influences on your style and voice?

Daniella: Yes, this story actually draws on quite a number of sources.

The most recent one, the one that really influenced the rhythm and cadence of the story, is a famous folktale of unknown origin, about a pair of brothers who work on a field together and split the portions evenly at the end of every workday. Each brother is concerned that his brother needs more than he does, so in the middle of the night, each of them takes from his own portion and transfers it to the other’s. Every morning they are both mystified as to how the piles are even again. This goes on day after day, until one night, their paths meet in the field, and they understand what has been happening, and they embrace and weep together. Jewish legend teaches that the Holy Temple was built on the spot where those two brothers embraced.

Obviously, there is reference to the story of the Noah and the Ark in chapter 8 of Genesis. It’s a story about a global disaster brought about by human cruelty, and the image of the dove with the olive branch, signaling to Noah that the Flood is receding and that they will soon come upon dry land, has become a universal symbol of peace.

“Between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal” is a direct reference to a mysterious ceremony mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) and the book of Joshua (chapter 8). It took place just after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, on these two mountains, which rise up around the Biblical city of Shekhem, known now as Nablus in Arabic–a hotly contested area in our times.

The purpose of the ceremony was to demonstrate that if the Israelites followed God’s word and carried out His commandments, they would inherit the land and prosper, but if they ignored His commandments, they would experience famine and hardship, and may eventually be expelled from the land. “I call upon the heaven and the earth today as witnesses: I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every time I read those words I get a tingle down my spine.

Finally, there is a less obvious, but more fundamental reference to Deuteronomy 20:19. At the end of a chapter about the rules of waging holy war, a rather peculiar, out-of-place commandment pops up. God forbids the Israelites to destroy trees that bear fruit in the process of laying siege upon an enemy city. “For you may eat from it,” He explains. “Is a tree of the field a man, to go into siege before you?”

In Jewish tradition, we believe that the Torah (the Jewish Bible) is centered around the experiences and actions of man. That is its focus. But I see this passage as a little peek into God’s relationship with the rest of His creation. “You go ahead and wage your wars and cleanse the world of human evil as necessary,” He seems to be saying. “Just… leave My trees out of it, okay?”

Michael: I confess, the first time I read “The Olive Harvest”, I hesitated–did I want to open the enormous can of worms that is Middle East Politics, even approaching it from the eminently apolitical position of an olive tree? But I get the sense you’re depicting what may be for you a far more immediate reality.

Daniella: Man, I hear you. Thank you for having the courage to take it on. A few years ago I would never have imagined myself writing fiction about Middle East politics. It’s so very polarizing and emotionally charged, and especially living where I do, the stakes are so high.

But when I started focusing my energies on short fiction, I found that I couldn’t resist.

I think most people don’t realize how much totally normal contact Israeli settlers and Palestinians have with each other on a daily basis. People from the neighboring village come here to do construction or farming work every day. People from here take their cars over there for repairs and washes. Israeli contractors buy construction materials from Bethlehem and Hebron. There is a lot of small-scale commercial cooperation. We drive on the same main roads, shop at the same supermarket at the Gush Etzion Junction. The bizarre paradox of this mundane, day-to-day co-existence alongside the very real violence and injustice is our crazy Middle Eastern reality. It just lends itself to fiction.

I have two other stories on this topic being published soon:Shattered Glass in Newfound, and Scarf Sisters in arc-25 (the literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English). The former is about an Israeli settler who gets in a car crash with a Palestinian, and the latter is about an Israeli settler and a Palestinian woman who bond over their identical headscarves at that supermarket. Both of these situations are things that could totally happen to me. (Though I certainly hope the first one won’t!)

Michael: What does environmentalism look like from where you are in the world?

Daniella: Well, the climatic and political conditions of Israel make it very difficult to ignore the environment. It’s a tiny, politically isolated country, more than half desert, with precious little in the way of natural resources. This forces us to be creative with the resources we have. Thankfully, Jews have always been a hopeful and imaginative bunch.

Until very recently, we were entirely dependent on rainfall for our water supply and regularly experienced alarming droughts. One of the responses to that problem was the most well-known Israeli contribution to sustainable agriculture: drip irrigation. I say “until very recently” because in recent years we got some new desalination plants running along the Mediterranean that basically solved our drought problem. These also utilize Israeli innovations that make them particularly efficient and sustainable.

Israel is also a world leader in solar energy innovation. The flat-plate solar heater was perfected by an Israeli engineer in response to the oil crisis of the 1950s, and Israel was the first country in the world to use it on a large scale. Over 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy to heat water.

Thanks to our vigorous afforestation efforts in the 20th century, Israel was one of only two countries in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in trees.

The government recently legislated a tax on plastic shopping bags to discourage their use in the big supermarket chains. My local municipality (the Gush Etzion Regional Council) implemented a highly successful waste separation and recycling program a few years ago.

Don’t let me paint too rosy a picture, however. Our two major power plants still run on coal, despite the recent discovery of plentiful natural gas fields beneath the Mediterranean. When I first moved here 20 years ago, the littering culture was truly appalling. Thankfully, this has improved a lot, but there is still much work to be done.

In the Palestinian territories, a lack of functional cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities leads to some serious infrastructural issues, including open sewage. We often see and smell burning garbage in the neighboring villages.

So, there are problems, some of them highly political. But the general feeling I get is that there is motivation to improve things. Like I said, we are a hopeful people.

Michael: Have you found ways to be like the olive tree in the story, to bridge otherness and bring people together?

Daniella: I try to do so through my writing. My blog, Letters to Josep, is a collection of letters to a Catholic friend of mine in Barcelona about Judaism and life in Israel. In addition to my own letters, I invite people from all walks of life to write “guest letters” about their own cultures and religions. So far I’ve hosted letters from a Puerto-Rican-American Catholic, a Chinese-American Protestant, a Palestinian-American Orthodox Christian, a Pakistani-American Muslim, a French Jew, and an American Baha’i, to name a few!

I love to learn about people who are different than me: how they see the world, what is important to them, and what we have in common. I hope and pray that my writing helps inspire others to get curious about each other and see people who are different from them in a new light.

Michael: You mention that an olive tree takes seven years to bear fruit–is it possible to cultivate that kind of patience when there’s so much animosity in our day to day?

Daniella: You know, until you mentioned it I hadn’t even thought about the symbolism in that.

Michael: I ought to give credit where credit is due: Marissa Lingen is the one who pointed that out to me.

Daniella: I think the lack of patience we have in the Western world is a major part of the problem. We want clear-cut solutions, we want to fix things, draw lines, wrap things up in neat packages and stamp a label on them—and we want it now! Things don’t work that way around here. The trees that are native to this region, like the olive, are very slow-paced. They grow very slowly, reaching relatively unimpressive heights, but because of their slow, steady growth, their wood is very dense, strong, and fire-resistant.

It’s interesting to note that during the first afforestation efforts in the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund wanted to plant trees that would grow quickly, to bring about a quick reversal of desertification and make the land more fertile. So they planted imported pine trees of a variety that is known for growing quickly. Unfortunately, they are also known for being highly flammable.

There’s definitely a metaphor in there somewhere.

Michael: Your descriptions of the olive grove are very vivid–have you had experience with olive trees yourself, cultivating or harvesting them? Do you garden? I’d love to hear a little about what personal experience with nature motivated you to write a story like this.

Daniella: Since I was a little girl I’ve felt very connected to trees. My mom used to tease me for being a natural tree-hugger! I loved to hold my face up to the bark and breathe in the fragrance of wood and sap. As a child in Pennsylvania I favored the maple trees with their sturdy trunks and brilliant foliage. When I moved here, I fell in love with the ubiquitous olive trees, especially the gnarled, ancient ones. They tell so many stories. Though admittedly, they are harder to hug!

Sadly, I have no garden now, but I would love to have a yard with an olive tree someday.

I came up with the concept for the story when I was driving home one day, listening to the radio, and I overheard talk of some concern about possible clashes because of the olive harvest. It’s a time when people are going out into the fields to tend to the olive trees, and this increases the likelihood of flare-ups. In general, there is a lot of tension around olive trees in this area. They are planted sometimes by people who wish to claim land that does not belong to them, and then destroyed by other people who wish to negate that claim, or cause financial harm to the other side. This kind of selfish and destructive behavior is done by both Israelis and Palestinians. And I thought, how ironic is it that this universal symbol of peace has become a target in this conflict?

If there is one thing Israelis and Palestinians have in common, it is our intense and deep-rooted love for this land. If anything, we should be working together to nurture and protect it, and invest in the futures of our children. We have very real grievances against one another and many injustices to rectify. But it is a travesty to make the land pay the price for those grievances.

The tree in The Olive Harvest is not planted by an Israeli or a Palestinian; it is planted by God. This land belongs to God. And He sets before us life and death, the blessing and the curse. We must choose life.

Michael: Thank you again!

Daniella: Thank you!

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The Olive Harvest

Daniella Levy

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God planted an olive tree between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.

A dove had snatched an olive from a farmer’s cart, and dropped it in her flight over Shekhem. It landed in a quiet corner of the valley.

The seed nestled into the earth, and began its silent, invisible unfolding, sending roots into the deep, until the seedling poked above the ground, and grew into a sapling. It stretched up, blending light from above with water from below to build itself, cell by cell. Slowly, slowly, its trunk hardened, its branches spread, and in the seventh year, it began to bring forth fruit.

Years turned to decades, decades to centuries. The tree’s dense trunk gained girth and grew gnarled and knotted. Each year its branches became heavy with olives, and then gradually shed them, scattering fruit for the animals to eat and assist in the tree’s task of spreading its seed. The young shoots took root. As time went on, a modest grove had grown along the foot of the hill. The trees stood together through the sandstorms and rainfalls, the parched desert winds and the occasional dusting of snow.

One summer a young man was walking through the valley and he stumbled across the grove. He sat in the tree’s shade and ran his hands over its bark, and a few days later he was back with water and strange implements of a hard, shiny material the tree had never known before. The man’s sweat dripped down his beard and the locks of hair by his ears as he trimmed and watered. The tree could not know what he was doing, but when the man left, it felt lighter, healthier, more alive.

It could not have been a week before another young man came across the grove, from the other side of the hill. His skin was darker, and a checkered scarf was tied around his neck. He also ran his hands along the tree’s bark, and plucked a sample of its leaves. He, too, was back soon with water and implements similar to the one the other man had brought, and he began to work on the other trees in the grove.

For months, unbeknownst to one another, the men came to care for the trees. It was the day after the first rain when they finally met. The man with the beard was resting in the shade of the father tree when the other man approached. Their eyes met, and both of them froze. For a moment, neither of them moved. The man with the beard discreetly slid his hand towards a lump of hard black on his hip. But the other man said something, nodding towards the trees.

Neither the tree nor the man with the beard understood the words, but something in their tone made the man relax his grip on the lump. He stood, slowly and carefully, and said other words, different words, that neither the tree nor the man with the scarf could understand. But something in their tone made the man with the scarf smile. And soon the two men were walking through the grove together, pointing to the trees and saying more words.

They continued visiting the grove from either side of the hill. Sometimes they worked alone, but sometimes they met. And when they did, they smiled and helped each other with their work. They clapped each other on the back and laughed, and they embraced before parting.

The rainy season was beginning in earnest, and the tree’s branches were heavy, heavier than they had been in many years. The tree waited for the young men to relieve it of its burden.

But one day a group of other young men came across the grove, and began to harvest the olives. And the next day, another group came. The tree could tell that they were different; one spoke in the words of the man with the beard, and one in the words of the man with the scarf.

And when the day came that both groups arrived at the same time, the tree expected that they would greet one another and work together to reap the fruits of their labor, as the first two young men had done.

But that is not what happened.

There was shouting, and noise, and scuffling. And those sharp implements that the tree had only known to care for it and its offspring were swung, scattering bark and leaves and blood. There was fire.

And that tree, the tree planted by God hundreds of years ago between Mt. Grizim and Mt. Ebal, was hacked in half, its trunk cracked and split down the middle, its great crown of olive branches crashing to the ground.

Men in uniforms came to pull the fighting men apart. They tied some of them up and dragged them away, and the others fled to either side of the hill.

The rain fell in a great torrent, putting out the flames with a hiss of steam.

And when the rain subsided, two men made their way to the grove from either side of the hill. One with a beard, and one with a scarf. They met there in silence, and stared out over the stump of the tree they had both cared for so tenderly.

They turned to one another and fell into each other’s arms and wept.

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Blythe Woolston Interview: “Agapostemon”

blythe-woolstonRead “Agapostemon” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: A disclaimer: I have just had a kid (three days ago as I write this) and thus am just a little sleep deprived, so I have gotten a bit of help with these questions from Johannes Punkt, who wrote “The Honeybee-Maker’s Kiss”, another heavily bee-centric piece in Reckoning 1.

Johannes suggests I ask about your personal history/connection with bees and beekeeping.

Blythe: I have never kept bees. My relationship with bees is quite ordinary and haphazard. When I was little, I played with bees just like all the other children in my school. We would catch them in jam jars, show them off to one another, and then open the lids and set them free. It felt daring. We made pictures of them: black tippies, white tippies, gobs of pollen on their knees.

My most recent encounter with a bee was a few days ago. Warm and sunny, the snow sublimating, dissolving directly into the air. I was cleaning detritus from a patch of herbs. The bee appeared, a honey bee. There was nothing for it. “It’s too early,” I said, but I’m certain the bee knew that as well as I did. I don’t know what became of it. Since then it has snowed.

Ha! This is really quite dull, but I am dull. I am certainly less interesting than a wild bee.

Michael: Can you tell me a little of how you were thinking about wild and domesticated bees when you composed “Agapostemon”?

Blythe: Domestication is the exploitation of an organism’s traits for human benefit. Honey bees offer not only honey and wax production, but a colony lifestyle that makes them easier to manage. Domestication also means that humans are more aware of threats to honeybees, like colony collapse. But, at the bottom, domestication is a tiny window on the actual economy of wild Nature. It sees only those things of human interest.

It’s that anthropocentrism that scrapes me.

I see it in my own life, and I’m not proud of it.

The poem rose from a very selfish moment. I was only thinking of future plums. Last spring, the little trees by my steps burst into bloom—it seemed—too soon. Then Agapostemon appeared shiny, tiny, and green ready for the flowers when the flowers were ready for her. The synchronicity between the bee and the tree decentered me, or, at least, it reminded me that I am not the center, not the purpose, not even able to do the work of a tiny, ground-dwelling bee.

One organism often overlooked among the domesticated is H. sapiens. Over the centuries, that sad animal has become increasingly isolated from the interactions that mark its role in Nature. I think we are being paid in “lesser sugar” too.

Michael: I’ve read a fair amount about the ecology in your part of the world, and traveled there a very little. It seems to me such a touchstone for the American cultural relationship with nature. But what we tend to hear about are the megafauna, the apex predators, and the way tourism and industry and commerce interact with them—not much about the smaller but important parts of our vast interconnected ecosystem, like bees and independent thinkers. What is it like for the bees in the Yellowstone River watershed? What’s it like for you?

Blythe: Yellowstone. The park is iconic, emblematic, and worthy of respect. I think awe comes first. Nothing like a glimpse of Scarface (Grizzly No. 211) to recalibrate the world and my puny human place in it. There are so many kinds of life there: bluebirds, mosquitos, things tough enough to live in boiling springs . . . but that diversity isn’t unnatural or extraordinary, it’s natural. It’s fundamental to life.

When Yellowstone, the river, leaves the park boundaries, it’s like a streamer of life escaping. The river, the white pelicans, the bison: none of them see the imaginary line, but, when they cross it, new rules apply. Bison are slaughtered because they are presumed to be a threat to domestic cattle. Scarface died because he met a hunter; he wasn’t legal prey, but he was a bear and the guy had a rifle. And as for the river: In 2011, a 12-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled 63,000 gallons of oil—that’s just one spill, and that’s just my river, the river that sustains my life. Clean up continues.

Engineering the world to maximize our benefit may be human nature, but it isn’t sustainable. As you wrote, it neglects the vast interconnections that are essential to life. The connections, though, remain. It is possible for human thinking to bend to a new value system, one that recognizes that interconnection. The transition may be awkward. It’s a vision of the world that flicks humans off the top rung of an imaginary ladder; that can sting. But it always was an imaginary ladder, the truth is far more complex and beautiful. Agapostemon and her attendance of the plum flowers is a part of that ecological truth. Tiny, but not insignificant.

Please, Michael, keep planting things in your garden to make the world more welcoming for bees. It changes the world. Thank you.

Michael: Thank you! I definitely will—and this was fascinating, really the farthest thing from dull.

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Agapostemon

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Blythe Woolston

She is green in the sunlight

standing at the brink of her little home

little because she is little.

We are an odd direction life took

because life takes all odd directions

the little ground-dwelling bees,

they carried pollen when plum trees and apples

bloomed early,

a direction odd to honeybees and bumblebees.

I have a chickadee in my plum tree;

plums by the grace

of the ground-dwelling bees:

those solitary little green sisters

who live with one another

in their tiny tunnels,

but aren’t of one mind.

They are independent thinkers,

the ground-dwelling bees.

I guess that’s why they could read the weather

and rise up to meet the plum blossoms early.

Later, all the bees gathered

in the herbs and roses—

all the bees

even honeybees

who had probably arrived by truck.

I have sympathy for those bees.

the honey bees;

they do hard work

and get paid lesser sugar.

I have sympathy for them

making a middle passage

chained in the dark,

hidden from the stars

and the the angle of the sun.

Do you remember that wreck of the bees

somewhere on the Interstate highways?

The horrific loss of life

hives spilled open

like a rural schoolbus wreck

or when the logging truck hit a herd of ponies.

The acceptable losses

escaping through the nets

left behind like ghosts

drowning in the traffic currents.

Read an interview with Blythe Woolston.

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James Treat Interview: Four Found Poems

james-treatRead “Four Found Poems” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Your poems provide a fascinating human perspective on the ways people’s relationship with land and water has changed over time as a result of colonization. I confess they’re the first instances of the found poetry form that have really caught my imagination–of the many poems you showed me, I had to struggle to choose only four to publish. Your intercession as a poet reframes these interviews from three or four generations past for a contemporary audience, but the poems themselves I think only hint at your curatorial role. Can you tell me a little about how you see the task of translating between the interviewees’ experience and contemporary experience? What’s changed in our perception of nature in that time? Do you have any sense of the kind of audience the interviewees were addressing themselves to at the time, what they expected to hear vs. what they were told? 

James: As the introductory note mentions, these found poems are drawn from interviews with elderly citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation conducted as part of a statewide oral history project sponsored by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.  When the project ended in the summer of 1938, it had generated some 11,000 manuscripts bound in more than a hundred weighty volumes.

The collected narratives comprise a haphazard archive, and the typewritten manuscripts can be difficult to read and to search.  They have been referenced occasionally by historians and other scholars, and consulted by private individuals conducting genealogical research.  There is a single book-length publication, Nations Remembered, composed of short, anonymous excerpts arranged thematically while intermingling Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole sources.  But eighty years after its inception, the Indian-Pioneer History Collection remains a formidable and underutilized resource for the study of Oklahoma Indian life.

As an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a professional student of Muscogee history and culture, I have long been intrigued by this unique but uneven assemblage of Muscogee voices.  There is plenty of repetition and extraneous detail, but also lots of important information presented in matter-of-fact narration, and many passages that sing with vernacular English and the occasional Mvskoke-language expression.  Working through these interviews, I have pondered the possibilities for presenting this invaluable material to a wider audience.  The literary genre of found poetry offers an effective method for recovering orality from archival texts, grounding written language in the spoken word, and for performing the critical retelling that is a hallmark of indigenous oral tradition.

The Found Poetry Review describes the found poem as “the literary version of a collage.”  Working with “traditional texts like books, magazines, and newspapers” or “nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail, or court transcripts,” the writer excerpts words and phrases and arranges them “to create a new piece.”  Verbatim Found Poetry prefers simply to “extract a whole passage of text from writing that is not meant to be poetic, and add line breaks.”  I try to strike a balance between these polar approaches, judiciously excerpting and arranging passages while preserving the integrity of each narrator’s voice, and sometimes juxtaposing multiple narrators to generate a dialogue that reflects my own, contemporary interests and concerns.

Michael: I know you’ve published over a dozen poems like these in different venues. Do you have plans to continue or expand on this project? I’d love to see what it might look like if the poetic form were applied the same way to sources from different eras, from our era, or from different Native cultures in different places.

James: These four pieces are part of a book-length manuscript titled “Muscogee Nation I.T.: Found Poems,” which collects forty-eight poems arranged in a loosely chronological fashion and organized in three sections that correspond to the traditional Mvskoke seasonal cycle:  Meskē (Summer), Rvfo (Winter), and Tasahcē (Spring).  There is also an epilogue with several poems offering critical commentary on the various bureaucratic forms used to document the Indian-Pioneer History Project.

The central theme of this book is Muscogee human ecology and how it has changed over time: from origins to removal, from removal to statehood, and from statehood to the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936, which can be seen as an early step toward the recovery of self-determination for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of today.

Michael: I see you’re teaching a course forthcoming at the University of Illinois in the fall titled “Ecological Criticism”—a course I would love to take. That term seems like it has the potential to cover a lot of the kinds of ideas I’d like Reckoning to address. Forgive me if this amounts to asking you to sum up an entire semester’s worth of material in a single question, but what do you think the role of the humanities and the arts is and should be in addressing environmental crisis going forward into this ominous and unpredictable future? 

James: I usually introduce the course by suggesting to students that one way to think about the academic field of “Environmental Studies” is in terms of three broad areas:  environmental science (scientific disciplines such as ecology and climatology), which tries to understand the physical world and our effect on it; environmental policy (social science disciplines such as politics and economics), which tries to understand how scientific knowledge gets translated into public policy; and the environmental humanities (disciplines such as history, literature, and religion), which try to understand the underlying beliefs and practices that determine how we fare in the other two areas.  Or course, the very term “humanities” points to the pervasive anthropocentrism in Western (and some other) worldviews.  Many environmentalist thinkers and leaders have argued that our current crisis is fundamentally a cultural problem that requires a cultural solution, and it is not very difficult to demonstrate this in just a single semester-long course.  The syllabus for “Ecological Criticism” is available online and is linked from my personal website at https://jamestreat.wordpress.com

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Johannes Punkt Interview: “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss”

johannes-punktThis interview, per Johannes’s preference, shall be in epistolary format. Note: contains some gentle spoilers.

Read “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” in Reckoning 1.

Michael:

Johannes,

Here is some rambly gushing about your story with questions wedged in between. Please don’t feel like you have to answer all of them, if there are some that hold your interest more than others.

This story does a lot of beautiful things at once, quite deftly, I think, but the thing that made me fall in love with it was what it seems to me to be saying about bees. I love that it moves past the current crisis of bee dieoffs and colony collapse disorder and replaces it with something that is human-made, functional and beautiful. I also love that it moves past the current crisis without ignoring its impact on people–not just in terms of questions about who’s going to pollinate our food, but how we’re going to grieve this loss. The bumblebee-maker is employed making beautiful things to replace the beautiful things we destroyed; what’s more, we get the emotional impact of that loss, but indirectly, transmuted, in the form of Tilda’s unrequited love.

That’s how I think of it, anyway. I’d love to know how you think of it. Am I getting it right?

How does the bee crisis look from Sweden? I’m very familiar with how it looks in the US—some of us (me, for example) are desperately seeking solutions, running around guerilla-planting native flowers in vacant lots, transforming our lawns into pollinator gardens, studying up on beekeeping, while others continue un-noticing; the media keeps referring to the dieoffs as a mystery, as if they couldn’t rattle off a litany of causes. But media in the US is isolating, particularly these days, and part of why I started Reckoning was as a way to learn new perspectives. What’s your experience of bees? What do they mean to you?

How do you find writing in the second person? I know many readers who claim to be put off by it, but I find there’s a certain vaguely dissociative, dreamlike tone for which it’s perfect. Is it a familiar mode for you, or was this an experiment?

Your prose and narrative description are beautiful, and to me, very distinctive. Are there particular authors you’d cite as influences?

I know you work in translation. Do you write in English? How do you negotiate that plurilingual space when you’re thinking about composing fiction?

I’m still a fan of Astrid Lindgren’s writing, and I do think some of her work touches on environmental justice, but I don’t know much Swedish literature otherwise. Are there authors you’d recommend? Anyone in particular you think I should solicit for Reckoning—from Sweden or anywhere else?

Thank you very much!

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Johannes:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for these questions. I don’t know how to structure this like an interview; I’m a letter-writer so I’m going to write you a letter. I think that answers one of your questions, actually—you ask how I find [myself?] writing in the second person. More than story-teller, translator and poet, I’m a letter-writer. These days I do much more of the letter-writing than any other literary endeavour. I’m at home in the second person, it’s intimate and it’s weird and it’s out of place. When you read someone else’s intimate correspondence—especially when the story seems to be, perhaps, something internal—there’s an otherworldly vulnerability to it. It feels wrong but it feels close. At least, that’s one of the responses I hope for. This feeling you get when you’re in a museum and watching through the glass cage the ink spilled by no-one you’ve heard of. An original letter by Verlaine’s wife. I don’t know if there is such a museum with that specific letter, but I recently read a letter from Tove Jansson to her mother in the ’30s, through glass, so that’s what I’m thinking about now.

I babble, I’m afraid. Does that answer the question?

I think you are right about what I’m trying to communicate with that aspect of the story, and it’s always a relief to know a communication has actually worked. Maybe the beauty isn’t the point, but we humans tend to think it is don’t we? Everyone in the story thinks so.

How do we grieve the future we’re not going to have? Is it okay to feel grief about possibilities? What about inevitabilities? The bees are still here, being shipped about in big trucks all over your continent, dying, surviving, amnesiac and medicated. They’re not all going to die, really. If enough of them die, we go with them nine point nine nine times out of ten.

We don’t seem to be so affected by the dieoffs in Sweden. A British man in a used-book store the other week told me that Swedish honeybees are exported to Britain where the Mary Celeste* still has strong wind in her sails.

Swedish bees are strong, allegedly, but I’m terrified. I’m hoarding knowledge about bees and beekeeping. I have a shelf on my bookcase of just bee-books, and my friends smile at it. In the spring and the summer, I carry a bottle of sugar-water with me to help any lethargic bumblebees I see. More often I see them dead. I might still try to give them water, though. A few weeks after I’d written the opening sentences of the story—where Tilda encounters a mechanical bumblebee that some cruel kid has apparently tortured—I found a recently-dead bumblebee and all I could hope was that it was dead before some kid mutilated it, and I felt sick. The rapid temperature shifts from global weirding are awful for these slow insects.

I take it too personally.

On influences: Ursula Le Guin is a constant lightning strike. I’d also like to mention Dessa and Hélène Cixous (the latter of which I’ve read very little from, sorry) for their powers of extending metaphors. I like to read fiction in translation, and that’s what I try to sound like. Something aptly translated but foreign in origin. I do this in Swedish too. (I used to foreignize my English accent a lot more to sound pan-European when I spoke, because it was an interesting challenge to incorporate enough of other accents to mask my own.)

Oh, one other influence worth mentioning: Karin Boye, the only dead one on this list. She’s amazing. But don’t read her in translation because I’ve never seen her aptly translated. Sorry. Her story is a tragic one, and I wanted to pay some homage to her. I always do. So I’m mentioning this because it would never get excavated from my story otherwise: Karin Boye had a girlfriend named Margot Hanel, who was widely regarded as not being good enough or smart enough for Boye. When Karin killed herself after the Second World War had started in 1941, Hanel was ghosted, turned into a ghost, and people didn’t recognize her as Karin’s girlfriend. So she killed herself, a month later; what I think of as path ’41b. I can’t do anything for Margot’s ghost, obviously, but we can remember something about her. For ourselves.

And I am so out of touch with Sweden, I’m sorry, I don’t know that I can recommend anyone. I would like to hear a Sami voice on reckoning, though.

When I started writing I wrote on the internet, which pretty naturally lead to writing mostly in English, because the potential audience is so much bigger. I still write in Swedish, but it doesn’t get published (or submitted). I’m out of touch, not so much disenfranchised as just outskirted. I don’t know where to turn that’s not someone’s lofty basement mimeograph pipe dreams or dodgy steampunk and fantasy anthologies half a step away from being vanity publishing—I have a very hard time trusting anybody’s literary project. Which brings me to you: thank you for this project. You are a conscientious editor and you are creating something trustworthy, and it means a lot to me.

Do you know about “telling the bees”? When something important happens in your life, such as a death or a marriage or a newborn, you must go to the beehives on the farm and announce it to them. So says the folklore. Do you have beehives near you?

*another name for Colony Collapse Disorder, after the famous ghost ship.

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Michael:

I had not heard of “telling the bees”. That is great. As far as I know it’s not a custom in the US, but I could easily be wrong. Maybe I’ll ask Marissa Lingen if it’s a thing she’s aware of among Scandanavian-Americans.

Where I live now in Michigan, honeybees seem to be incredibly scarce. I’m lucky if I see one or two in my garden all summer. I do see bumblebees, carpenter bees and various other occasional native bees, and every time I see one it gives me hope. And I plant for them—bee balm, native asters, echinacea, sunflowers, as well as the things I would love for them to pollinate for me—apple and cherry trees and strawberries and tomatoes and peppers. I also do a fair amount to support small local honey producers. Right now I have some four gallons of homemade mead aging in my cellar. I’d keep bees if I could, but I have yet to talk my family into it.

Which is of course part of the problem. I know people who are terrified of bees. I know people who are deathly allergic to them. Humans have always had these kind of interdependencies with other species that can harm or kill them, but the advance of civilization seems to make those interdependencies more and more remote. And we fear what we don’t know. So it’s very reassuring to hear about you caring about investing empathy in individual bees you meet in the world. Thank you for doing that, thank you for sharing it.

Thank you for sharing all of this, it has been fascinating.

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