Emily Houk Interview: “Plague Winter”

emily-houkRead “Plague Winter” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: The more of these interviews I do, the more clearly I perceive common threads that recur through many of the pieces in Reckoning 1. It seems they ought to be telling me something–about myself, about all of us writing and thinking along these lines. “Plague Winter” touches on so many of these threads I don’t know where to begin.

Okay: invasive species. I got to talk to Travis MacDonald a little about their history, their progression, the line between invasive and naturalized and native and how it blurs over time. But in “Plague Winter” you come at all that from the other side, from the individual, the personal. Robin cares about the hemlocks in a way I understand at a visceral level. It doesn’t matter to her that those hemlocks aren’t so very old in the age of the world, that they came in only after the Northeast was deforested by a different plague of invasives of which we’re reminded by Robin’s grandmother who comes from the Mohawk and grew up isolated and displaced. And it maybe doesn’t matter to Robin that the beetles designed to defeat the adelgid that’s killing the hemlocks may bring about some other plague yet unforeseen. It’s irrational, but that’s how people work, and the natural world changes because of it–so drastically as to be unrecognizable in just a few generations. I love the way you layer all this. It’s subtle. I don’t know if you’re for setting those beetles free or not, and–as I said talking to Aozora Brockman last week–I don’t really know if it’s fair to ask. Do I have to let the work stand on its own? Do I have to come to my own conclusion?

I’ll tell you my answer: I’d set the beetles free. I think. I suppose it would be hard to say until the moment came. And I suspect I’d have given a different answer a few months ago. I’m feeling rather radicalized of late.

How about you?

Emily: I wanted “Plague Winter” to raise questions without necessarily providing answers. Because that’s real life, right? Stumbling around, trying to find answers. Like you say, the lines between native and naturalized and invasive can be blurry. I wanted the story to illuminate that blurriness, to provoke readers to consider what belonging is. Which parts of “nature” do we feel belong?

When I first started drafting this story, which was actually several years ago, I was more on the fence about my own beetle-release philosophy than I am now. Coming back to the story, I found I came down much more on the side of beetle release. Partly this has come from hanging out with scientists and learning more about biological control, which has changed dramatically since the disastrous early attempts, when invasive species were introduced and threw entire ecosystems into chaos. While I don’t trust human schemes and strategies to be infallible, biocontrol efforts go through a lot more testing now. There’s an attitude of caution around them. And then there’s the fact that hemlocks are widespread, and losing them would have devastating consequences for plants, animals, and humans. So yeah: Release the beetles.

“Plague Winter” reads like science fiction, but the story is actually historical. Based on the progress of the adelgid and the use of biocontrol to manage it, the story takes place in 2009. That’s the year that the predatory beetle Laricobius nigrinus was introduced as a biocontrol for the hemlock wooly adelgid in upstate New York, where “Plague Winter” is set. So while the story feels speculative, it’s actually fictionalizing a real moment in the past. The idea of using predatory beetles to manage the adelgid seems like this weird, out-there idea, when in fact it’s been happening for almost a decade. Ripe for a story!

Michael: Then there’s the question of what to do, as an individual, how each of us makes that judgment call, where our personal effort and emotional investment will do the most good. Most of us aren’t given the chance to steal beetles and set them free, even if we wanted to. A question I asked a lot of your fellow-contributors for awhile and got away from, and maybe should get back to: do you think writing fiction about it does any good? Does it make you feel better, at least?

Emily: These are some rough times for the planet and us who live on it. For myself, it’s been a matter of figuring out how to stay active and engaged without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down entirely. When I say “stay active and engaged” I mean a variety of things. There are traditional ideas of calling senators, sending postcards, going to a protest or rally or local meeting. Then there’s contacting corporations to urge them to join Business Backs Low-Carbon USA and follow the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s supporting my local library, donating household items to refugee resettlement efforts, turning the compost, working in the garden. Sharing skills with people in my community. And then there’s writing a story.

Does writing fiction make me feel better? Maybe a little. I feel better because it gives me an opportunity to explore the realities we face. It is important to deal in realities, now and then, and fiction is a great tool for doing that. This is the world we have. It may not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. To deny what’s happening would be a disservice to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Do I think writing fiction does any good? Reading fiction does me good, and it always has. So I hope that the things I write will have some sort of positive impact, even if, in this case, it’s just to encourage readers to notice and appreciate hemlock trees a little more. Telling stories is important. Language is important. We have to tell our stories. There is a strength in doing so.

Speaking of language and stories, in “Plague Winter,” we’ve got Eddie, who was kidnapped and forced to live at a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language and follow the traditions of her Mohawk family and community. That was a real, calculated effort by the U.S. government to destroy the native population of the country. There were boarding schools like that all over North America. It’s a horrifying part of our history, and it’s important to acknowledge what was done to those kids. This didn’t happen all that long ago. Many of those schools existed into the 60s and 70s. As you mention, another invasive was behind that act of aggression. Again, facing the world we have. Not the one we’d choose.

Michael: Aside from plague beetles, aside from fiction, where do you choose to focus your efforts? I feel privileged to already know some of the answer to this, but would you please indulge me and tell me a little something more about the ways you’ve found to resist the metaphorical and literal plagues of this world?

Emily: When I was in college I studied human ecology and environmental design. I used to say that I went to school to study the end of the world. That was over a decade ago. I stumbled onto that path sort of accidentally, but once I was on it I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to learn about. I ended up working at a transfer station for awhile. Nothing like waste disposal to make you think about how things could be done differently!

I live with a whole bunch of artists and writers and musicians. That in itself feels like a bit of rebellion. Lately I’ve been focusing on how I can be of use to my community. In the last year I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine-making and wilderness first aid. I’m thinking of taking a chainsaw skills class. With the current global instability, I feel compelled to acquire as many useful skills as I can.

I try to fight despair by thinking creatively. I run Ninepin Press with my partner. We’re a very small press that creates literary objects in unusual shapes. We recently published a collection of poems by Travis Smith based on forgotten constellations. At a certain point in the 1920s, a group of astronomers got together and had a meeting where they decided which constellations would be recognized as “official.” So a bunch of constellations got the axe, like The Hot Air Balloon, The Printing Press, and The Sundial. Most people don’t know they ever existed. I wouldn’t have known, either, but for Travis’s poems in Zodiac B. While our work as writers and publishers might seem tangential or even unrelated to the way we think about the environment, that work can give us an opportunity to illuminate and question the stories we tell ourselves about our environment. To see the world in unexpected ways.

Michael: Finally—I want to ask about the feeling of marginalization, of operating way out at the periphery of a society, that I get from Robin’s position in the world. She’s scrabbling for a living, and to do what she can for her brother and grandmother, and to do what she can for the hemlocks, with minimal support. She operates brilliantly under the radar, on a shoestring, and I admire her for that. Can you tell me how you came to that aspect of her character? I’m curious if it was…an interpretation of ye archetypal heroism…or whether this is an interpretation in fiction how you, Emily Houk, operate in the world, or something in between? Or something else entirely.

Emily: I love the way you describe Robin’s situation. I knew from the moment I started writing that Robin was going to be a community college student. I went to community college myself, and it was an important part of my development as a human. It was so much less insular than a four year school. Everyone had jobs. Many of us had a bunch of different weird jobs. There was a lot of scrabbling. My classmates were anywhere from sixteen to eighty years old. Everyone was just trying to get their work done, to do what they needed to do. Some were caring for elders, others had kids. Some had stable places to live and others didn’t. Robin was someone I could have known back then.

I think Robin is a fun subversion of the idea of a hero. I mean, she doesn’t have much going for her. But that’s what makes her great. Looking back on the first draft, I think I gave her the name Robin so that I would feel her story more personally (Robin was what my parents were planning to name me before I was born). I’ve always lived kind of marginally. I grew up in a fairly remote area surrounded by hemlock forest. When I was a kid we grew a lot of our own food. I didn’t go to school until I went to college, and I didn’t attend college until I was in my twenties. But my parents weren’t much like Robin’s. They aren’t hermits, and they’ve been very present in my life. Like Robin, I tend to find myself in care-taking roles. But beyond that, I don’t know how similar she is to me. She’s more stoic than I am. Laconic. More like my own grandmother.

In some ways I see Robin as a cowboy in a western, or some sort of rogue knight in Arthurian legend. The system isn’t out to get her because it has anything against her; the system doesn’t even know she exists. And yet she finds a way to fight it, to get what she wants out of it.

Though Robin is scrambling to support herself, in some ways her story is one of wish fulfillment. Because she succeeds, at least temporarily. Eldercare in our society is so troubled and dehumanizing. This young woman was able to eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on enough couches to get her grandmother a place to live. I guess it’s weird to go for such a small, brutal sort of wish fulfillment, but I’ve watched people I love get older and I wish there was a more humanizing structure in which that could happen. (My one remaining grandparent, my grandmother Justine, will turn one hundred next month.)

I didn’t know I was writing a story about grief until I finished it. I have to fall sideways into these things.

I think that if Robin were around to look at 2017 and give me advice, she would say this: Do what you can to avoid despair. Despair immobilizes. And right now the world needs us to be our best and brightest selves.

Michael: Thank you very much! This interview has in fact done a bit to help me hold away despair.

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Plague Winter

Emily Houk

The year the plague doctor came to town, winter came early and held on into spring.

Up on the mountain this described almost every winter, yet somehow this year was worse. The road to the house was impassable and had been since the beginning of October. Robin’s parents were glad for the isolation, but for her and Bret it meant long snowmobile rides if they wanted to get home. Bret got his own place, near the garage where he worked. Robin was at the community college, and spent many nights sleeping on couches, or sometimes in her grandmother’s hospital room, to avoid the long commute.

The plague was a plague of trees. Hemlocks made up most of the tree cover in the mountains, and pretty much everywhere else, too. The conifers grew faster than the hardwoods, and had become easily dominant, but that was before Robin was alive. That was before her parents were alive, even. Robin had driven far enough south to see the creeping progress of the woolly adelgid, row after row of sickened or dead trees skirting the highway. The creatures sucked the moisture out of the hemlocks. Robin looked at their dry, dead branches and couldn’t help imagining the rest of the state as the wasteland it would be without them. The vision made her feel sick, and that was as good a reason as any to take forest ecology classes.

She went to talks in Albany and New Paltz. She learned about forest succession, in an effort to imagine what would come next. Every swamp full of dead snags made her angry, and she turned the radio up loud when she drove by them.

The plague doctor was an entomologist who came to work at the school. He was breeding predatory beetles that he hoped would eat the woolly adelgid. He had a hawkish nose that made Robin think of the venetian masks worn by plague doctors in the seventeenth century. She’d done an arts elective in high school on mask theater, and the image of those masks had stuck with her, until it stuck to Dr. Elvers.

Good, Robin had thought as they shook hands. Maybe now I can stop thinking about them.

Robin ended up volunteering in the lab. It was dead winter by then, and on her way to school she stopped to gather clippings of infested hemlock. The plague doctor’s beetles laid eggs on them, in the woolly substance the adelgids swaddled themselves in. When the beetles hatched, they’d eat the adelgid eggs. At the lab Robin put the hemlock twigs into jars, placing several mature beetles onto each clipping, the exact sex and number of which depended on the instructions Elvers left for her. She counted larvae, watched the older beetles crawl around their enclosures, noted what they ate. She monitored their progress, though beetle progress was hard to define.

“You stick it out,” said Eddie, Robin’s grandmother. “Eventually they’re gonna have to start paying you.”

And it was true. Elvers did hire Robin as a lab assistant, which meant she might really have to go through with her plan.

 

Visiting hours were supposed to be limited, but everyone at the hospital knew Robin, and they let her sleep on the couch in the waiting room while they chased infections around her grandmother’s body. In the morning Robin and Eddie drank coffee together, hot from the vending machine.

“You’ve got to do something useful. I don’t so much care what,” Eddie kept telling Robin and Bret. She had just turned ninety-six. She’d been telling them that for two years, now, since she first got sick.

Bret was a mechanic. It was very, very useful.

 

Up on the mountain, their parents’ house was surrounded by hemlocks. It was on the shack end of what could be called a house, so the trees themselves felt like an outer layer of walls. Winter was another world up there. It was a fairy tale world. Each time Robin saw a fox, she expected it to speak to her. But winter is best when you’ve got no place to go. Robin’s parents had no place to go, but she had school, and work, and so she had to come down out of the enchanted wood for the winter. Even on days when she took the snowmobile up there, it was like she was viewing it all at a distance. The drab reality of a long winter in the civilized world had taken over.

Eddie shook her head. “Don’t be so dramatic. You live where you live, you work where you work. It is what it is.” But her voice was bitter. Eddie had been taken from her parents when she was six years old. They were Mohawk, living up on the Canadian border, and Eddie had been taken as far west as you could get and still be in New York. She was placed in a boarding school, one of those places where they sent kids to make them assimilate. Eddie didn’t speak of it much, but Robin knew that she had tried to run away several times, and eventually she succeeded.

Eddie always wanted to run away from the hospital, too. “When the weather warms up, I’ll spring you,” Robin told her. And so they both waited.

 

That wasn’t the only thing she was planning. During November and December, Robin thought endlessly about her heist. She knew about biocontrol schemes gone horribly wrong—she’d seen that episode of The Simpsons where invasive bullfrogs devour all the food crops—but it was becoming hard to care. She considered how she could carry out her plan in one fell swoop and then vanish, but there was no vanishing in a small town, and some crimes are best committed as aggregates.

Most mornings, she filled a rubber hot water bottle and nestled it into a heap of wool sweaters on the tiny back seat of her truck. A couple of evenings a week, she was the one to close up the lab. She doubted they actually used the security cameras, but in case they did, she stood with her back to the lens as she did her final check, and herded a beetle or two into the little wire cage she kept in her metal lunch box. The lunch box hid the cage until she could make it to the car, and bury it in the warm sweater pile. The cage was a very fine mesh.

It was a difficult scheme to pull off with no place to live. She had to keep the accumulating beetles at Bret’s house. He gave her a lower shelf in his room. She took care of them, just like the ones in the lab.

Beetle fatalities were not uncommon. She marked the disappeared down along with the dead. If Dr. Elvers noticed, he didn’t say anything.

In January, he sent her over to Cornell to pick up some new stock. She saw dead trees everywhere now, dried out monuments to a lost landscape. The truck was making a new clicking sound. She didn’t like it, and she longed for the fairy tale woods. The radio was broken, so the trip passed in long silence.

The university science building was large, much bigger than the little one she was used to. The wind bit at her as she ran for the door. A woman named Kate showed her around the lab, and gave her a big box of beetles. Robin settled the box on the seat beside her and cranked up the heat. Despite her paid work as a beetle chauffeur, she didn’t feel too useful these days. The sky was darkening when she remembered she’d made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She pulled over and ate it, staring into the dead snags like they might tell her something. I could let them go, she thought. I could let them go right now, and see what happens.

It was a nice thought, but it was too late for these trees. The beetles would just starve. Not very useful.

A police car cruised by her, slowing as it passed. Her bones felt heavy all of a sudden, like molten metal had replaced her marrow. She got back on her way. Like you do.

 

Along with new beetles, the new year brought a new doctor covering the overnight shift, one who didn’t like Robin sleeping over at the hospital. She spent a couple nights at Bret’s house on the couch, but he had two roommates and she hated to bother them. “Why don’t you get a place of your own?” Bret asked. “Just a room couldn’t set you back too much.”

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants to rent out a closet.”

He gave a her a stony look. “Why don’t you pick up a little extra work? Something that pays better than training bugs. You never have any money, ever.”

“I’m not training them. I’m breeding them. And I have another job. It’s unpaid, but someone’s gotta do it.”

It might’ve been cruel to bring Eddie into it like that, but it had the desired effect of stopping Bret from proceeding with that particular line of questioning. Instead he shoved his permanently grease-stained hands into his pockets. Bret wasn’t any better at expressing guilt or gratitude than he was at expressing any other emotion. She wondered if that was how she came across, too. Their father called them Irish Twins. He reveled in being a lapsed Catholic.

“I’ll ask around at school,” she said, just so Bret couldn’t accuse her of being stubborn.

And Robin tried. She stood in front of those big bulletin boards, blinking, writing down impossible-seeming sums in her notebook. Reading descriptions of rooms for rent gave her a panicked feeling. If she was going to drop that much cash, it had better be on a place where Eddie could live, too.

For now, it was easier to wait out the custodial staff and sleep at the lab, in the lounge or the office.

 

That was where the plague doctor found her.

Robin was not one to oversleep. She sat up fast, startled awake by the light, still half caught in dreams. Elvers was looking down at her, at the sleeping bag and pillow, the thermos and backpack beside her. The little mesh cage, empty. He hesitated a moment, then set his briefcase down on the desk. “Bad storm last night.”

Robin wanted to clamber out of the sleeping bag, but doing so would look more awkward than she could bear.

“I don’t blame you for not braving the roads,” he said, pointedly, and turned on the computer.

“You’re early.” The sky was still dark. Robin drew her knees up to her chin, pressing her back against the wall.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve mapped out the release.”

“Of the beetles?”

He nodded, glasses lit up blue. “It’s hard to believe the time is almost here.”

Robin sat there on the floor, feeling stung. She’d had it all planned out. Everything took so long where bureaucracy was involved. She’d been ready to jump ahead, go vigilante with her stolen beetles.

And now it was time.

Elvers looked at the small cage and then at Robin. He turned to the screen. “We’re structuring the release in a very specific way, so that we’ll be able to test the results. Success rates could vary a lot, based on how many beetles we release and where we deploy them.”

Robin sat frozen, her mind whirling. I’m going to lose my job, she thought. I’m going to lose my paycheck.

“I’ve been working towards this for years,” Elvers said. “Maybe too long.”

Robin wriggled from the sleeping bag. “You had to start somewhere.” She hoped she sounded sympathetic, rather than terrified.

“Speaking of which,” he tapped a few keys emphatically. “You grew up around here, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you’ll recognize the recommended areas for release.” He leaned aside so she could see the screen, but he still didn’t look at her. “I’ve scheduled extra staff to assist me. We should be all set to move forward.”

Extra staff. Robin was willing to bet she wasn’t included in that group. She felt like she was standing on quicksand, the world sliding out from under her. She forced herself to speak. “So you’ve got enough help?”

Elvers hesitated, then looked at the wire cage where it lay on the carpet. “Unless you’d like to add a site.”

Robin was behind him in an instant. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

“Great,” he said. “I’ll make us some coffee.”

Robin was already running her eyes over the familiar swaths of forest, marked out with a grid.

“We’re starting slow,” Elvers told her. “Cautious.”

“Sure,” Robin said, still focused on the screen.

He cleared his throat. “I’ve secured another year of funding for the assistant position, if you want to keep it.”

She paused and looked up at him, fingers hovering over the keys. “Good. I mean, thanks.” Her limbs felt heavy with relief.

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Hey,” said Robin at last. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It’s a relatively small population. It shouldn’t be a threat.”

“I’m not asking what happens if they do too well. What happens if they don’t kill the adelgid?”

Elvers sat back, the wheels of his chair squeaking. “Then we try again with another species of beetle.”

What if it’s too late? Robin wanted to shout at him. But there was no point. For all they knew, it was already too late, and too late was all they had left.

 

Bret was right about one thing: Robin never had any money, ever. That was because she was saving it for a shabby little ground floor apartment with two bedrooms and a small porch. She didn’t know how long she could afford it for. She hoped it would be long enough.

Eddie didn’t say anything as they unpacked her small suitcase. She just kept shaking her head. “All that time,” she said. “You coulda warned me you had a plan.”

“I told you I was gonna spring you when the weather warmed up. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me.”

Eddie grunted—a pleased sort of grunt—and went out on the porch. She put her gnarled hands on the railing, looking out at the street. “Nice out here,” she said.

Robin followed her, leaning in the doorway. “The screens will keep the mosquitos off in the summer.”

Eddie waved a hand. “That’s a perk for you, then. They never bite me. They’re too busy biting you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Let’s get some chairs out here. Comfortable ones.”

A breeze blew through the porch, warm but with the edge of chill that meant the snow was melting.

“Hey,” Robin said. “How about we go do something useful?”

 

The road was rutted and muddy, but passable. The snow was only a thin crust now, the ground bare around the trunks of trees. The driveway was a mess of mud and snow, so they went on foot up to the fairy tale house, Bret helping Eddie through the worst spots, Robin carefully carrying the box of beetles. Instead of taking the stairs, she walked right by the house and around the back.

“Hey,” said Bret. “Did you come here to see them, or what?”

“We’ve got business to do first,” Robin called over her shoulder. “You coming?”

“Let’s go, then.” Eddie tugged him forward.

Robin had thought she might get her parents in on it, too, but now that they were here, it felt kind of like a private thing. She didn’t want to have to explain. Her parents, hermits that they were, knew all about private things.

She went a little way into the forest, until she reached a giant hemlock, the biggest she’d ever known. Bret’s face lit up when he saw it. They’d spent a lot of time under these branches when they were growing up.

“Well?” Eddie said. “Let’s not waste another moment.”

“OK, then.” Robin inspected a smaller tree, studying the underside of the needles. She set the box down at the base of the trunk and opened it carefully.

“You sure this is a legit thing to do?” Bret asked.

“I hope so,” Robin said. She drew a numbered length of trail marking ribbon from her back pocket and tied it around one of the branches.

“What if it doesn’t work?” Bret asked.

“Then they try another species of beetle,” said Eddie, who knew more of the story.

“But what if beetles don’t work at all?”

“Then the hemlocks die,” Robin said. “And things change.”

Bret looked unnerved.

“Mom!” They heard their mother, calling to Eddie through the trees. Eddie turned and started back towards the house, a spring in her step.

They watched her go.

Bret bumped Robin’s shoulder with his. “I don’t want things to change.”

“I know.” Robin sat down on the damp, needle-covered ground, leaning back against the giant hemlock. After a moment Bret joined her. They gazed up through the branches into the patches of sky, one more time.

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