A Kinder and More Caring Future?

Brian Francis Slattery

I’m on the side of the road with Bun Lai, the chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, and he’s telling me how to eat knotweed, an invasive species. It’s a chilly day turning into a warm day, and around town, it being May, there’s talk about whether the weather is acting like May or not.

We still have our seasons here in southern Connecticut. Winter is cold and wet, and spring is warmer and wet. Summer is hot and dry, and fall is cooler and dry. But in the past fifteen years, we’ve had stretches of summer during the winter, and stretches of winter in the spring and fall, and stretches of spring all summer. We’ve had two hundred-year hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, within a couple years of each other. The seasons don’t cooperate like they used to, and people talk about how weird that is, but also that maybe we can start talking about how weird is the new normal. And then there are the people annoyed by the phrase the new normal, because the whole idea is that there isn’t going to be a normal anymore.

“You know climate change is coming,” Lai says. “What are you going to do about it?”

This is the same man who, earlier that morning, answered his door by telling me I was there on the wrong day, that I had to come back next week. But this time he isn’t kidding.

By running his kitchen on the concerns of adventurous eating, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, Bun Lai has become one of New Haven’s culinary treasures. He jokes that he’s probably lost more customers just from people looking at the menu than any other restaurant he can think of, but the truth is that the creativity he pours into the food at Miya’s has won him far more fans than he’s lost. Miya’s is pretty much always crowded. There are people who drop $89 for a full tour of the menu and people who squeak in after 10 o’clock for the late-night specials, $6 for a plate of sushi or a hefty bowl of ramen. They come because at Miya’s you can eat things you can’t eat anywhere else. There’s a sushi roll called Tyger Tyger that combines yellowfin tuna, goat cheese, apricots, avocado, pickled radish, and berbere spices. Another involves albacore tuna, avocado, asparagus, pickled radish, cayenne pepper, roasted sesame, and anise. The roll itself is crispy wild salmon skin. A third called Bone Thugs-N-Broccoli has salmon bones—yes, bones—and broccoli stems. If the idea of taking out a couple invasive specimens appeals to you, then you can eat knotweed pickled in kimchee and fried in garbanzo-bean batter, or sushi with Asian shore crab, or carp sashimi topped with citrus tamari sauce, green onions, and roasted black soldier fly larvae. He calls feral pig “one of the top ten most destructive species in America, and delicious.” It’s thanks to Lai that I’ve eaten raw venison—a response to deer overpopulation—and sauce distilled from the parts of the fish that he can’t use in sushi. It’s because of him that I now eat some of the plants that grow in my yard that people consider weeds, like dandelion greens, wild onions and garlic mustard, and they are all very tasty.

Why does Lai make food like this? Here’s how he puts it in the menu:

 

In the year 2150, people will be eating in a way that is healthier not only for their bodies but also for our whole planet. People will be eating fewer animals, since they will have learned that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat; they will hunt and farm animals in a way that is more humane. At Miya’s, you will experience a kinder and more caring future, where sushi has evolved to become a way of eating that honors and celebrates all life on Earth.

 

Not far away, in another part of the menu, is a section of sushi for dogs. The heading for this part of the menu is Doggy Style. This is important. Lai’s looking toward the future, wringing his flavors from ideas about scarcity and sustainability. He pays attention to where his food comes from. Some of it he forages himself, from the shoreline, from the woods, from the pasture near his house. He figures out how to use what he gathers to make things that are delicious in unusual ways. And he does it with a keen sense of humor.

There’s a message in that. As I write this, Houston and the west coast of Florida are still figuring out how bad the damage is from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The news outlets are using words like “hell” and “uninhabitable” to describe the devastation wrought in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria has destroyed Puerto Rico. There are people studying how water shortages are fueling wars in Africa and the Middle East, people using the phrase “climate change refugees” to talk about the displacement of millions of people over the next few decades from Bangladesh alone.

We can stand on the coastline and brace ourselves. We can wring our hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work, chasing one calamity after the other and helping everyone we can. Lai’s food suggests still another path. It suggests that once we have a chance to breathe, maybe we can start looking further ahead. If we’re creative and adaptable, the story of dealing with climate change doesn’t have to be just a litany of tragedies. It can be a story of ingenuity, of accepting change, of grieving, understanding and moving on. Maybe even with a sense of humor.

But Miya’s is just a proof of concept. As Lai himself has said, we can’t feed millions of climate change refugees on $89 sushi platters, or even $6 bowls of ramen. Can the ideas driving Lai’s food be scaled up? Can we change the way we eat and save ourselves? What might that future look like?

The Milford Laboratory, which is part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, is nestled in a cove just down the coast of the Long Island Sound from New Haven. It got its start in 1919 with a single researcher, and was the first lab to figure out how to grow oysters in captivity. The facility now has a staff of 32, counting scientists, technicians, administrators, and maintenance, and it continues to do research, learning more about how to cultivate fish and shellfish for food.

I got the idea to bug Gary Wikfors, the chief of the lab’s aquaculture sustainability branch and its lab director, about Miya’s and its vision for the future because of an idle comment he dropped on social media about how Miya’s does “everything right” from a sustainability perspective, and because I happen to know him socially as a musician. He plays multiple instruments with great skill, and has been ascending the steep learning curve associated with playing a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. The name translates to “key harp”, and it’s pretty much, as the name implies, a horde of strings that you play using rows of keys and a short bow. Once you get good at it, the tone it produces, like a viola’s eerie cousin, is worth it. But it’s as hard as it sounds to learn, and it tells you a lot about Wikfors that after years of mastering other instruments, the nyckelharpa still calls to him, and he has answered.

Wikfors told me early in my visit to the lab that Lai had visited five times, peppering him with questions about aquaculture. “He wanted to be convinced that this is a sustainable approach,” Wikfors said.

Wikfors also practices fika—the Swedish coffee break, which in the lab means making coffee in one of the sinks and gathering his colleagues around. Surrounded by scientists from all over the world, I was about to ask them, to put it bluntly, whether we could save everyone on the planet by feeding them carp sashimi.

I braced myself to be shut down. It occurred to me that I should have done a lot more homework, that I should have brought a scientist with me to ask better questions. I was expecting them to tell me that Lai’s ideas might be a great idea for a cutting-edge restaurant, but they were simply not practical at a large scale.

Was large-scale aquaculture, enough to feed millions of people, possible? What might we grow? And how might we make that sustainable? Rather than pointing out the problems as insurmountable, the staff of Milford Labs brimmed with solutions. Wikfors explained that creating sustainable aquaculture was about changing tastes as well as developing technology. A lot of Americans in particular have a taste for the predators near the top of the food chain. From a sustainability perspective, that was a little crazy, because predators use way more resources than their prey. “We don’t eat a Bengal tiger, but we do eat haddock, which is the equivalent,” Wikfors said. On the other hand, “we can be very proud of shellfish, because they’re vegetarians.”

Here the scientists all began talking at once. We didn’t need to keep eating shrimp from Asia; we could eat things that grow much closer to home. And we could each a much wider assortment of animals. In Asia, plenty of people eat jellyfish (which eat plankton) and sea cucumbers (which are bottom feeders). Introducing them to the United States might just be a matter of presentation (which made me think of Bun Lai). Same went for fish that people catch all the time and don’t normally think to eat, like sea robins, another bottom feeder. The tail might make for good eating; one could imagine the meat being very tender. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived near the shore would have eaten slipper shell, a type of sea snail. “Out of necessity comes diversity,” said microbiologist Barry Smith. We hadn’t even touched on aquatic plants.

Moreover, as Wikfors explained, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam already “are doing aquaculture on scales many, many times larger that we do it, so it’s in our future, especially as we move offshore.” Later in the day Wikfors would show me what that meant. An offshore shellfish farm from the surface might not look much more like rows of buoys floating on open water. But below the surface would float lines coated with shellfish, growing and ready to be harvested, enough to feed much more than one restaurant’s eager customers. Reaching that future would involve some changes in how we use the ocean, tipping the balance away from recreation and toward farming. A tough sell, but not impossible. Korea, Wikfors said, was “miles ahead of us in terms of zoning.” He told me about standing on a peninsula and seeing farms stretching out to both sides of him, all in active production. “The amount of food that comes out of a small country is astounding because they prioritize it,” he said. And because all those farms were offshore, you could still go to the beach.

My brain swam with ideas. “You all sound a lot more optimistic than I expected,” I told them.

“Do we have any choice?” Wikfors said.

Hurricane Irene was technically a tropical storm by the time it hit New Haven in 2011, but it was enough. Steph and Leo—my wife and son—and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York that weekend. We were glad to be out of harm’s way, and I was glad to be visiting my parents, which I hadn’t done enough of, even before my dad had his cardiac arrest.

Then Steph, who’s a pediatrician, was told she had to be back in town for the storm. We didn’t want to go back. Steph resisted the order but was overruled. So we cut our trip short, packed our things, and headed out, threading through the Catskills, listening to the news on the radio when we got good reception.

Crossing the Hudson River on the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, we saw a wall of clouds to the south and east, the first fingers of the storm. The thought occurred to me that if the storm moved in fast enough, we could come home to find a tree through our house. It was all too easy to imagine, the trunk of a giant old oak splitting our home in half, the branches tangling in the shattered rafters, shingles sprinkled like confetti. I thought of sifting through the wreckage. I knew there was no way to really prepare myself for that kind of thing. But then I shot a glance around the car. Steph in the passenger seat. My son Leo in the back. We had a few days of clothes. We had our wallets, our phones. I even had a couple instruments with me, because I’d played a gig in my hometown with an old friend, and I’d played for my family.

I’m all right, I thought. I have what I need. I convinced myself that I meant it.

The news told us all to stay inside, so we did. At first Irene was just a rainstorm, then an intense rainstorm. Then the wind picked up. It only reached 50 miles an hour. Like I said, it was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but it was enough. The first blast of wind came at night, and the sounds of tree limbs breaking woke me up. I ran to the window and saw that one of the big, old oak trees in a neighbor’s yard was now a different shape, a triangular crown, missing its other half. For several hours of a warm fall day, I watched as the young trees we’d planted in our yard a few years ago, which were already about as tall as the house, bent over until their tops were parallel with the ground. The power flickered out and came back on. I sat on the porch and watched the much older trees thrash around, moaning and howling, moving much more than I thought big trees like that could move.

When the storm passed and the sun came out, we walked around the neighborhood. There were tree limbs down everywhere, power lines down, a couple houses cut in half. Much of the greater New Haven area lost power. The coastal parts of town flooded. For a little while, parts of Morris Cove, a neighborhood that juts out into the Sound, were cut off from the mainland. A couple houses were dragged into the water. Several months later, they hadn’t been rebuilt.

I don’t know why we still had power. Most of the neighborhood didn’t. Which meant that in the evening around dinnertime, our friends in the neighborhood congregated at our place with all the food they had that was going to go bad, and it was our job to try to figure out how to use it. Everyone was ready to celebrate. Everyone was really hungry. I was chopping vegetables as fast as I could, but knew dinner was an hour away. To cut the edge off our appetites, I pulled eggplant cutlets I’d made a couple days ago out of the refrigerator and made them into little stacks of five. I chopped up tomatoes, basil, and garlic someone had brought, sprinkled them with cheese someone else had brought, and stuck them in the toaster oven for a couple minutes. I threw them on the kitchen table and told everyone to have a snack, and then turned back to making dinner. Mmmm, I heard behind me. Mmmm, this is delicious. I turned around. The eggplant was gone.

“You have to make this again sometime,” Steph said.

We do now, a couple times every summer. We call it Eggplant Irene. I don’t even remember what else I made that day. But we eat it and we talk about the storm. Leo, who has now been through Irene and Sandy and remembers the town mostly without power for a week twice, people coming to our house to store food, to charge their phones, to use the shower, thinks of these 100-year storms as merely unusual. And I try to hold on to that small revelation in the car crossing the Hudson River, that as long as I have my family and a couple changes of clothes, and maybe a musical instrument, I really do have everything I need.

To me, Irene was the future calling. I look at the model projections of rising seas—or, for that matter, big storm surges—and mentally redraw the map. Sometimes the future looks a little like the past. The train station used to be on the coast before a huge swath of land was created in the 1940s and 1950s, filling in part of the mouth of the harbor to build the intersection of I-91 and I-95. If the Big One hit the city, the station could be on the coast again.

But some parts of the future imagine a whole new coastline. The islands off the coast now could be underwater. Morris Cove could become a new set of islands. Parts of Fair Haven, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, could be submerged. The marsh of the Quinnipiac River could become open water. Fingers of ocean could reach into the city as far as a couple miles.

There’s a park in Fair Haven on a spur of land that’s like the uvula in the mouth of New Haven Harbor. The Quinnipiac River and the Mill River, which have been weaving their way for miles through the giant swamp known as Connecticut, come together at last. To the right are the tall buildings in New Haven’s downtown, and to the left, a cluster of white petroleum storage tanks. The Q Bridge that carries I-95 along the shore arcs over the water and leaps into the tangle of overpasses that make up the junction with I-91 and the exits to the city. On evenings with good weather there are soccer and basketball games on the fields and courts, and the road along the side is lined with food trucks selling tortas, older men playing dominoes in the slanting light, families in plastic lawn chairs with tinny radios tuned to reggaeton.

Ever since Irene, I go to that park and imagine the hurricane coming in and all the land around me flooding. The abandoned power station becomes a lighthouse. The oil tanks spring leaks. If the wind and waves are strong enough, maybe they manage to take out a piece of I-95. It sounds dramatic, but it wouldn’t have to be much of a piece to sever the connection. To cut off New York from Boston. To suddenly make New Haven harder to get to, harder to leave. All the food we get would have to come from the farms to the north of the city, or from the ocean to the south of it. But maybe it can.

Let’s say the biggest storm anyone’s ever seen knifes up from the south and cuts a path of destruction across Long Island before smashing into the harbor. The bridge that took a generation to build wobbles on its pylons and collapses into the water. The remains look like the ends of bones that have been snapped in half. The wind turbine set up near the bridge is twisted until it looks like a propeller from an airplane crash. The roads in and out of town are washed out, strewn with trees. And the coast is a whole new shape. There’s no arguing with it, no way to put everything back the way it was. We can only adapt.

Now fast forward six months, a year, three years. Say we decide that rebuilding the highway is too costly. Fast forward another twenty years. Say we decide to move farther inland. Say we decide to take things a little slower. We don’t look as far afield for things to eat. We cherish tomatoes and strawberries in the summer and then can and freeze them once the power’s back on, and we eat root vegetables in the winter, that and the meat from the fat animals we slaughter. And we start eating more from the sea—not more in volume, but variety, whatever we happen to find. We figure out what we can eat, and then figure out how to make it taste delicious. We pull flavor from unlikely places—from weeds, from fungus, from animal parts we used to throw away—and then it just becomes the way we make food. And maybe in the summer, we go back to the park, now in a boat because the park is under water. We jump in up to our waists and have a water fight. We make stupid jokes about crabs, because, come on, crabs. Then we we pluck sea robins and weeds from the shallows and turn them into soup that we spice with dried chiles. So many people died in the storm, but we survived, and we celebrate that. It was a catastrophe, but we’re still here.

We can’t leave town because the roads are blocked and the power keeps going out. So we visit each other. We build fires inside in the winter and pack the house with people to stay warm. In the summer it’s too hot to be inside, so we all go out. We go downtown where the streets are lined with candles and lights hooked up to generators, and there are parties along the curb. The musicians in town—that’s me—throw together bands that play on the sidewalk with battery-powered amplifiers, and we eat the ice cream before it melts, drink the beer before it gets warm. It takes longer to get home because it’s hard to see where we’re going. But we get there, and sleep in a star-strewn darkness we can’t imagine when the streetlights are on.

In a very small way, it’s already happening. It already has happened.

Between New Haven and Milford Labs, there’s a state park called Silver Sands. It was created in 1955 after Hurricane Diane killed 184 people across eight states from North Carolina through Connecticut. In Milford, the storm destroyed 75 houses along the coast. Instead of rebuilding, in the end the state acquired more than 300 parcels of land, and in 1960 it opened as a park. The original idea was to fill in the marsh between the dunes and the mainland. The idea now is to leave the marsh and the dunes be.

I went to Silver Sands with my parents, Steph, and Leo on Independence Day weekend. We drove down the skinny beach roads to the long line of houses packed along the coast, some of them up on stilts, the ocean on one side, the marsh on the other. We parked the car and ate at a little Greek joint, then walked to the end of the road where the houses stopped and the park began. The lifeguard was off duty, but it was a hot evening and the beach was still crowded. A family under a pop-up tent spoke in soft Spanish and cooked on a little portable grill perched on a wooden picnic table. Another family lounged with a tinny radio playing reggae. Three young men were practicing basketball passes on the beach. It was high tide and the land bridge to Charles Island, where they say the pirate Captain Kidd might have buried treasure before he was caught and executed, was underwater, but people were still walking out on it, thigh-deep with fishing rods. A man in bicycle shorts prodded a dead horseshoe crab, a shirtless surfer walked on the rocks, and kids scrambled out along the jetty. A mother and daughter in matching red, white, and blue flag-print dresses were getting their picture taken at the edge of the marsh.

We walked along the boardwalk in our street clothes, over the grass and the water still coming in, where girls looked for shells in the sand. The sun was turning the air orange, and a thousand voices called to each other across the sound of the surf. It had been over six months since my dad had survived his a sudden cardiac arrest, and you never would have known it happened. My mom asked Steph, Leo, and me to stop for a picture, and my son climbed up my side and pretended he was about to bite me. If this was what living with the change could look like, then maybe we didn’t need to be so afraid after all. The ocean that flooded us could feed us, too.

 
 

‘You Are From the U.S.’

Yukyan Lam

I kneel on the ground, a knife in both hands, its sharpened blade pointed at the center of the earth. I thrust the weight of my body against the wooden handle until my palms hurt—still, the serrated edge penetrates no more than a centimeter. The sun, high overhead and unsympathetic, beats down on my scalp. I breathe, re-adjust my grip, and heave into the knife again.

Another centimeter.

A man in a button-down shirt and a patterned blue lungi watches me from a couple feet away. He has also knelt down, perhaps to signal encouragement.

Centimeter by centimeter, I continue, forcing the soil knife deeper until its blade nearly disappears into the earth. I push and tug, scooping out as much dirt as I can, and deposit the hard-earned crumbles into a large plastic bucket. I stand up, slowly because my legs are cramped, and find another spot a few feet away.

And then I do it all over again. Ten times in total, leaving ten pockets dimpling the plot of land. I stand up, wipe off the blade with a dirt-speckled rag, and insert the knife back into its leather sheath.

I now have the soil that I need from this village, a place called Motbati, located on the southwest coast of Bangladesh. It is a riverine landscape, with streams and channels carving through the delta, seeping into its nooks and crannies. It is the height of dry season, and the purpose of my visit is to investigate the encroachment of saltwater, flowing inland from the ocean into farmland and sources of freshwater.

I’ve explained to the man, who is the community’s elected leader, that I will take some of the soil back with me to Dhaka. There, I will mix it with deionized water and then measure the salt content of the concoction. As I bag a sample of soil, several beads of sweat trickle off my face and drip into the container. Upon contact, they immediately meld and vanish into the dirt. Damn it, I think aloud. For a second, I wonder if I’ve now messed up the sample. I decide that it is probably all right and toss the container into my pack. It is much too hot to be wearing a scarf, but the orna is an integral part of the three-piece salwar kameez, typically worn by Bangladeshi women. Given my foreign appearance, I have been employing all the devices that I can to look a little less out of place.

I squint against the sun and survey the area. I tear off a piece of masking tape, label the sample, and jot down a few notes. The logbook’s pages and string binding are falling apart, from being crammed into a jute bag next to assorted fieldwork supplies. I scribble, “Weather: Last rained 3 months ago, currently sunny and dry. 80s.” And then, “Soil sample taken from open area on eastern side of village, plot is scorched & barren. Woman in sari brings goat to forage, but no grass here. Plot surrounded by 2-ft deep ponds with saltwater shrimp (bagda). Crop looking burnt in fields nearby (wheat?). Fields have fertilizers applied (chemical). Ground very hard, powdery, almost white.”

Sample collection complete, the logbook goes back into the bag, sandwiched again amongst the voice recorders, headlamps, handheld GPS, digital camera, extra AAA batteries, and backup battery pack. Now, I follow the community leader back toward the western, greener side of the village. We walk away from the saltwater ponds, toward the refuge of slender trees that provide a few fragments of shade.

We are a long way from Dhaka, and my itinerary includes several other communities scattered across the southwest coast. Even so, I am fairly certain that salinity testing will confirm what I can already see: that saltwater seeping in from the Bay of Bengal is destroying the fertility of this cracked corner of the Ganges river delta. Agriculture is nearly impossible, worth a farmer’s toil only because livelihood options are so few and human labor so cheap in this region of the world.

The locals I’ve met with say that, yes, the land has always been saline to some extent, but the problem is getting worse. They mention three reasons: commercial saltwater shrimp farming, diversion of the Ganges river upstream, and sea level rise. Some are resigned, many are indignant, but nearly everyone points out that—far from being a purely “environmental” phenomenon—it is inequality, its effects manifested in multiple spheres and compounded, which aggravates the salinity crisis and determines who suffers most.

Within this area, one villager has the resources to take advantage of the intruding saltwater by creating a shrimp pond, which is likely to exacerbate the infiltration. A poorer neighbor has been forced to give up on farming here. He may have to travel north to find work as a migrant farmer. Or, if he stays in this area, he may resort to wage labor for the pond owner—stocking shrimp, weeding algae, guarding the ponds at night. In either scenario, he will make less than a couple dollars a day.

Within this floodplain, India, which borders Bangladesh on nearly all sides, is the more powerful country. It has built a dam that diverts the flow of the Ganges river away to generate hydroelectricity, leaving hundreds of Bangladeshi communities downstream without freshwater or legal recourse. According to the communities, water is withheld when it is most needed. It flows freely when the land is already saturated by the rainy season monsoons.

On this climate-disrupted planet, those in the developed world are unleashing inordinate volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fueling sea level rise and extreme weather events, like the region’s tropical cyclones. Inhabitants of the Global South, meanwhile, are sacrificing their self-sufficiency to produce saltwater shrimp—ironically, for international export and consumption by the Global North.

Adding to the irony, I have flown in from the United States, to conduct research to fulfill the requirements of a doctorate degree in public health. These days, I am often wondering whether the good derived from the work will offset the carbon footprint of my air travel. When I confess this to my classmates, they take it as a joke. They laugh, but I know I am navigating tenuous terrain, between solidarity and hypocrisy.

The locals know, too, that it is a dubious position. At one of the first communities I visit, a dozen men and women have gathered in a dirt courtyard to meet with me. They have been waiting for two hours, my delay caused by an unexpected rainstorm and the challenge of traveling by motorized rickshaw on unpaved roads. “Well, you are from the US,” they begin. Adolescents and children are hovering nearby; there aren’t enough bamboo mats for everyone to sit. All eyes are examining us—my interpreter, a polite, articulate young woman from the local university, and me. “Your country is the most responsible,” one man continues, invoking the words jalvayu parivartan, Bangla for ‘climate change.’ Many in the group recognize the term, and shake their heads in emphasis. The man then asks if I agree with the statement. More importantly, he adds, what is being done about it, and what am I doing about it?

It is a challenge. Persia, my interpreter, translates it. Her soft tone fails to mask the man’s frustration.

I meet the man’s gaze and reply in English that I am in complete agreement. I am hoping that Persia’s translation and my demeanor can convey, at least in some small part, my sincerity.

Then I muster an explanation about the American political system, about how the current situation makes it difficult to enact policies to reduce carbon emissions. I am hoping this time that the response somehow sounds less equivocal in Bangla. It is 2014, and I am oblivious to how badly circumstances will deteriorate three years later. We are all oblivious, but from where my hosts are sitting, the situation looks serious already.

Finally, I speak about the purpose of the research. I describe how, although this is only a small study funded by one university, it may help bring the community’s situation to light and make it known to a wider audience. The findings might influence, if not politicians, then donors and agencies that decide how to prioritize money spent on the needs of the developing world. Although I mean every sentence of what I say, I have mixed feelings about offering these lines. They are written into the research consent forms; they already sound too rehearsed. I am painfully aware that I have come empty-handed, equipped only with suppositions and hypotheses.

Yet, if the questions are a test, I have passed. It has little to do with the adequacy of my answers. I am allowed to continue my work because, at the end of the day, there is still a need here. Merited or not, I, like any other foreign presence, represent some chance of a difference for the inhabitants of this region, a fact that is both motivating and unsettling.

For the weeks and months thereafter, as I collect water and soil samples and interview communities along the southwest coast, I am repeatedly interrogated about the United States—its place in world politics, its role in the climate crisis. To my initial surprise, most villagers are willing to put aside their work and earnings for the day simply to share their experiences and insights. It is a generosity hardly deserved by a US-based researcher flying in 9,000 miles on a carbon-spewing jet plane. I mention this to a local collaborator back in Dhaka, and he grins and says, “See! Didn’t I say that Bangladeshis are the most hospitable people and they would help you?”

I can’t help but smile back and agree with him. Still, the work is far from done. There are often things lost in translation, but the parting message given by one elderly woman as I set out from her village replays clearly in my mind: “Do your research,” she instructs me, “but make it useful.”

 
 
 

From Paris, With Rage

George F.

“Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was ‘as bad as’ Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.”

Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State

 

Cops with eyes like sharks and faces like the underside of a boot are waiting for us as we get off the bus from London—the state of emergency manifest as a column of cyborg gendarmerie toting an arsenal of machineguns, tasers, handcuffs and kevlar armour. They stare. We stare back—predator and prey eyeing each other before the chase commences. We slip past them unmolested, disappearing into the suffocating warmth of the Metro. I am glad to be travelling with a trio of giggly matronly types. They are three womyn from EcoDharma, attendees of the first theatre of the oppressed workshop I gave there two months before: Oak—a bright-eyed leprechaun with fiery red hair and ruddy cheeks, her chuckling demeanour masking deep sensitivity and a scarred heart; Z. a shaven-headed elfin with a smile like a new moon, currently living in an intentional community in the south of Spain; Susannah—long, viridian tresses and a crackling voice, visiting out of Bristol, and at the biggest protest she’s been to in her seventy years.

“Ha. You’re like the virgin, the crone and the mother.”

“I’m no mother.”

“I’m no virgin.”

“And who you calling a crone?”

They laugh, a harmony like a deer bursting through dry twigs to crash into a babbling brook, echoing unnatural against the tiles of the Metro. They haven’t stopped talking the whole trip over from London.

The benches of the Parisian boulevards are lined with huddled forms in sleeping bags, their possessions arranged neatly around them like genteel barricades. It’s warm down here, even peaceful once the trains stop running.

Still, I am relieved we have the promise of a roof, of a bed and shelter.

We march, and arrive at L’Annexe only to discover everyone has already moved on to a cabaret night at another squat. We troupe over there, a long walk through dark city streets.

Two bullet holes in a window with an unhappy smiley face painted below them form macabre eyes to the frown. I am reminded of Budapest, where my guide pointed them out in the walls of the buildings from the revolutionary days.

“God,” says Oak. “Is this where the shooting was?”

“One of the places,” says Z.

We cast our eyes over the layers of floral tribute laid out before La Belle Equipe. Hundreds of bouquets, handwritten messages, candles, roses, lilies, tulips, some faded and shrivelled already, others freshly dropped, laying piled on the ground, stacked before the closed doors of the restaurant.

Z. is chattering. I catch only the second half of it: “–there was also the have-nots, the economic underclass who attended no cabarets, whose labor built the Tower. There was even a gang of illegalist anarchist bankrobbers around at that time in France—the Bonnot Gang—who stole from banks calling it expropriating from the rich. They were the first people to use motorcars to getaway. The police had to chase them on foot or on bicycles. They started after the leader was fired by his boss–”

“You have to ask—would they have started robbing banks if there had been work for them?”

“God, I wonder,” asks Oak. “I wonder how many waiters, plongeurs and busboys died in the shooting?”

“Is it better that the rich die than the poor?” asks Z.

“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed,” says Susannah.

oneslutriot. Strong & Stable, 2017. Pens on paper.

L’Annexe is impressive: a tall, four-floor warehouse complex, scrubbed clean and polished, carpeted and furnished. It reminds me of all the best social centres from London, though it will only be short-lived. A crew who thought they were about to be evicted had remained in their old home and volunteered the space to host the arts-activism programme during the COP21 Climate Conference.

I drift through the kitchen area, where hot soup and salad is being prepared by members of the Anti-Cop Kitchen Collective, through a partition of plastic sheeting, past a serious sounding meeting on food rights and conscious cafés in South America. There is bustle and business everywhere, the place a hive of activity.

“So hello, this is the legal briefing. Thanks for attending. Now as you are going to be part of the de-escalation team, you will be at high risk of violence and arrest as you will be stood directly between the police lines and the main protest. It’s important that you memorise the names of some solicitors who are sympathetic to the cause, as the police will think you intended to be arrested if you write the names or the numbers down on your body. They will not call the number on the flyer.

“At the refugee march people attended and were then later identified and arrested by the police at other events. This is because of the state of emergency; 58 people were arrested, yet only two received warnings for attending a forbidden demo. Maximum sentence for this is 1 year imprisoned.

“At the Climate march there was a mass act of civil disobedience that resulted in a kettle, tear gas and baton charges and 317 random arrests.

“You don’t have to carry your ID. You can give your name and a date of birth, and that counts as identifying yourself, but you may want to decide whether you wish to comply with the police state. If they don’t believe you, you want to prepare that someone has access to your passport. You could be asked to leave France for one year.

“If you are attending the march, you need to plan as if you will get arrested. If you are taking a gas mask, it is classed as a defensive weapon. You should be careful taking anything that could be deemed a projectile. Don’t take any drugs, knives, guns or whatever, and if you are arrested, try to hide your phone inside your pants, as the police here don’t check as thoroughly as other places. There’s already been examples of people uploading video messages from inside the jail. If you’re caught, call the number and tell them which police station you are in.”

“So what have the police said about the march?”

“It changes every day. Under the state of emergency it’s illegal for more than two people with a political message to gather, which is why people are heading to the convergence point in pairs. Any attendance at a political protest is an act of civil disobedience. They have permitted the human chain and tolerated writing ‘climate justice’ with people’s bodies. The protest with the thousands of empty pairs of shoes was beautifully done, but the red lines action is still civil disobedience. The state of emergency means more stop and search and raids on many of the squats and convergence centres across Paris. L’Annexe was raided just last week by a hundred stormtroopers and is under constant armed surveillance. We are half expecting another raid before Saturday. The legal team for the protests have been put under house arrest, but nothing more.

“If you are arrested, you need to use the buddy system. Make sure you are clear who your buddy is, and do not lose them. If they go to the toilet, you go with them. With your buddy you organise into an affinity group, making sure you are always with people who are watching, but not at risk. They should always know who is there, what happened, and where, and afterwards these are the guys who greet you outside the police station with champagne.

“Now, please can you raise your hands, wrists together. If you bend your hands down, when they put the handcuffs on you they will be looser than if you just keep your hands like this. Believe me, if you are cuffed for a long time, this will make a big difference. Remember to hide your phone in your pants and when you can, smuggle it out and text people to let them know what’s happened to you. The process at the station is that they will fingerprint you, photo you, and frisk you, but not very thoroughly. Often at this point it’s easy to ‘accidentally’ smudge the fingerprints, or mess up the photo somehow, or generally play around with them to delay a bit more. They will keep you for 4 hours to check ID, then up to 24 hours to investigate you.

“When you are to be released, you don’t have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. They may pressure you, but there are people already regretting signing something they did not really understand, and it’s making more problems for them now. Even when you receive your possessions back, you do not have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. The police may put something else in with your stuff and cause you a lot of problems. Some people we know unwittingly signed a conditional discharge, and if they had held out, they wouldn’t have had to sign anything.

“They normally tell you it’s a piece of paper describing your time in custody, but the translators there are very much on the police’s side. If they do anything illegal during your time in custody, you can appeal afterwards, but if you sign, it makes it much, much harder.

“If you have no access to a lawyer or interpreter, try to keep mental notes on what the police do, or do not do, and make physical notes immediately afterwards. If the police decide they are going to investigate a crime, they will give you access to a solicitor within 4 hours.

“Now, when being interviewed, it’s a bit different from in the UK. In France it is not ‘no comment’, but ‘I have nothing to declare’. Repeat after me.”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”

“Again.”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE.”

“Again!”

“I HAVE NOTHING TO DECLARE!”

“Now let me describe my ideal arrest. I’m in for 24 hours, so I can rest, I am with my friends. I have done the handcuff trick so I am ‘comfortable’ and have my phone hidden in my pants. I’ve told them I have nothing to declare and have managed to smudge my fingerprints and ruin the photo. I sign nothing! After 24 hours I am released with my friends and greeted by champagne and chocolate and beer.

“Now, afterwards, I have to deal with trauma. Arrests can be and are often violent. I need to make sure that I have money for the Metro, a map. The police could release me somewhere far away where I’ve never been before. Have you got a safe, warm place to go back to? A major thing after release is not to pressure people, give them time. At some point they will want to speak.

“Make sure you take the time to read all the legal info, educate yourself as much as possible.

“So overall, gatherings are prohibited. You can get a maximum fine of 75,000 euros or 6 months in prison, but so far all that has been issued is a warning. They have the power to ban people from certain areas, or force certain groups to dissolve.

“Let’s talk about medical preparation. Tear gas. First of all, it’s a projectile weapon. If you get hit by a canister it can seriously hurt. It can kill. Secondly, the gas burns on the skin, the eyes, but it won’t kill you. It’s like intensely concentrated onions, but it won’t kill you, so don’t panic. You can limit its effect with a scarf soaked in vinegar or lemon juice. Make sure you have baby wipes. Now if tear gas is blowing in the wind, walk upwind of it, sideways. Unless of course the police are there. There’s some great footage from the 29th if any of you are into riot porn.

“If it gets on to your skin, it can cause some problems. Don’t wear any make-up, and wear glasses, not contact lenses, as they can melt into the eye. If it’s CS gas you may not even see it, as it’s invisible. Now can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve been tear-gassed? Ok, thank you.

“Now, if I see someone has been gassed, what do I do? Ok, calm down, calm down, it’s ok. It’s Eve here. Kneel down, turn your head on one side. And now I squirt water in from one side. Now, from the other. Good. If you do it from the top down it can burn the body. Tell them the effects won’t last more than half an hour.

“Pepper spray is a short range weapon. If it gets on the clothes, remove them. When you go home, don’t have a hot shower, wipe it off and use cold water.”

“It helps to have clean skin.”

“One day I might.”

“I once saw someone in tear gas stand with their eyes screwed shut and not move. Just before it hit, they took a huge deep breath, hyperventilated, and waited until it subsided, sipping air with their eyes closed.”

“Swimming goggles can also help. One of the hardest things is the impulse to get away. We ended up fumbling around with our buddies.

“Ok, now if the police charge, one more thing is to cover your head and neck with your hands. If you want to keep your hands up, make sure you do so in fists not fingers are the batons will smash them to pieces . . . .

“Ok, let’s review the solicitor names . . . .”

“The struggle is the tension between holding on and letting go.”

We are in the large space downstairs at l’Annexe. Word of the workshop has spread. I count sixty people lined up against one wall. An expectant, almost religious silence has descended. Even towards the other half of the space, beyond the plastic curtains I can see people tip-toeing past as they continue to prepare the next meal from the Anti-Cop Kitchen.

I swallow and breathe deep down into my stomach in short, controlled bursts.

This is a totally spontaneous, open exercise. I have never done it with so many people.

“The ritual. We are going to perform a ritual together. When I say begin, you are invited to enter into the space and perform your part of the ritual. The ritual will be over when it is over. There will be no set time-limit. When we collectively feel it has come to a close, it will be over. The world needs healing. We need healing. So this shall be a ritual of healing.”

There is a long, open moment, and for that moment my heart leaps into my throat and my stomach clenches and my mind whirls and my tongue goes dry.

“Begin.”

At first in silence, people begin to move, entering into the space, prostrating themselves on the floor, or beginning to walk in slow circles. At first, the efforts are individual, chaotic, fragmented invitations, but then the machine mind takes over, and people begin to connect and feel what is happening around them, to move together cohesively. No one speaks. No one explains or directs or orders. People sense and feel how to work together to create this ritual space spontaneously, without pre-planning, without leaders or followers, people coming together autonomously to create something bigger than their individual selves.

A bald-head monk in saffron robes is moving in slow, serene circles around the outside, chanting low and calm. Others join him, breaking from smaller circles within to follow. A second circle, closer in, is faster and lighter, people skipping and singing in high clear voices, whirling their arms and zigzagging high and low like swallows on the evening breeze. At the centre, dead centre, a woman kneels, head to the crowd, piercing the chanting and song with a high-pitched, keening wail.

Others gather to her, and the lamentations sear through the room, high, screeching releases of treble agony, soaring above the mid-level melodies and the deep, bass chanting.

The room is electrified. I feel every nerve on my body tingle. A hallucinogenic harmony swamps the space. Time dissipates and I have visions of the entire solar system, the Spiral Arm of the galaxy, whirling in cosmic union in this room in Paris. Electron people whirl around atoms of raw emotion in human form. My head swims with the mix of chanting, wailing and shattering whoops.

And then the movement begins to slow, person by person, sections of the mandala settling to rest, contemplative and still. Frequency by frequency, silence is restored. A stillness settles over the group, part by part, until everything is frozen and there is only the deafening emptiness of sixty people breathing together.

My voice rumbles as if in a cavern.

“The ritual is now at an end. You may remain in this space if you wish, or you may leave. If you need people, reach out to those around you. Take care of yourself. Thank you.”

Trancelike and wild-eyed, people drift from the mandala, and it crumbles apart as people silently and slowly return to themselves. Ambient noise of the kitchen, the street, the world returns.

“Fooking hell,” says Oak. “That were a bit intense, want it?”

I’ve been invited to sit in with Rooty, Eve and M. who gave the legal briefing earlier in the day. We gather upstairs in one of the open workspaces. People drift through. Looking round the three womyn, it seems like they have been barely sleeping for weeks. They have all been here more than a month, organising and participating, working ceaselessly to coordinate the many different groups involved in the protest. It seems they have a job for me.

“So we’ve been tasked with this de-escalation. . . . We are now de-escalation angels. But is it even really possible?”

“We’ve been in almost constant contact with the police, and with the Secretary of State. They are terrified that tomorrow will turn into a riot. I mean, is this going to work?”

“Well, as I see it, the de-escalation crew’s role is to help create a joyous atmosphere. We’ll be public game playing, some stewarding I guess, and generally trying to help turn tense situations around and have fun. If the tear gas goes off we’ve obviously already failed.”

“So the Rebel Clown Army will be there. They will be on the front line next to the police, then you guys, and then the main march. Also, the climate angels will be coming, have you seen them? Oh they are just amazing, with these huge, feathered wings. Just beautiful. There’s a great video online of a wing smacking a cop in the face—purely by accident of course. There’s going to be foghorns announcing the beginning of the march, the moment when people lay the flowers down, and then two minutes silence.”

“At the end of the two minutes silence the brass band will kick off, and the party starts.”

“So we’re really going for a funeral ritual. A funeral for the environment, for the failure of the governments to do anything meaningful, and then a big party atmosphere.”

“I can’t wait for Saturday night when it’s all over. I am going to do some serious dancing.”

“Straight out of the cells and on to the dance floor, ha ha.”

“It’s been a long two weeks.”

“We’ve all earned it.”

“Oh, the workshops today just helped so much. So much relief, just to remember that all of this is just made up. Invented.”

“It’s so easy to get sucked into all the bullshit, but that’s really all it is.”

“We can tell you now what the route is going to be–”

“But that might all change–”

“Again. We’re on to like Plan X.”

“It’s been a constant clusterfuck. Any other changes—and there will be I’m sure—and we will inform everyone through text. Make sure people get their numbers down for the tree.”

“But as of tonight the convergence will be at the Arc de Triomphe.”

“And from there march to the Eiffel Tower.”

“So the police, the government, are all terrified of anything happening to the Arc de Triomphe. Any vandalism. As much as a bottle thrown at it. They will charge.”

“They will charge. I mean you couldn’t have a bigger symbol of nationalism, militarism, of France itself.”

“They have elections in Paris this weekend and they’re terrified of a riot. They say if there’s a riot, the Right will win in the elections.”

“It’ll ruin the Left’s reputation.”

“By the way, what do you think? Should we buy plant pots for tomorrow?”

“Plant pots?”

“Yes. For the tear gas. It’s the best way to contain it apparently. You just pop a plant pot over the top.”

“Errr. . . . Better to have them and not need them I suppose.”

Suddenly Z. arrives, tears in her eyes, but laughing at the same time.

“I just found out my boyfriend slept with someone else.”

“That’s not funny. Why are you laughing?”

“Oh no, are you ok?”

“Yeah, I know. Just now. I mean, it’s annoying. It’s a shock. I mean, he was the one who didn’t want a polyamorous relationship. He said he was really drunk, and that he hadn’t been drunk like that in over a year.”

“That’s really no excuse.”

“Oh love, come here.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you. It’s going to work out.”

“Thanks, guys. Sorry. Let’s get back to the meeting.”

“So the coalition has agreed that we will not cross the police lines. If we do, they will charge and shut the whole thing down. If anything is thrown, a single thing, they will charge. We’ve gotten all the different groups to agree to the non-violence policy. It’s been a massive job.”

“One of the clowns knows the black bloc crew and he’s meeting with them tonight to ask them not to attend this march.”

“Black bloc here is a bit different than from in the UK. In the UK, they tend to turn up, join in a march, get a bit rowdy, and that’s it.”

“The guy said here ‘they take it seriously.’”

“Whatever that means. Anyway, so hopefully they won’t be there. They can do their own thing, somewhere else, all power to them, but not here.”

“It’s all going to be super-fluffy.”

“We hope. After the 29th the last thing we need is another load of arrests and tear gas.”

“The police are going to do everything they can to avoid that.”

“Maybe tomorrow we could schedule sometime for you to talk directly to the de-escalation bloc. A few of them were a bit shocked by the legal briefing. I think it all got a bit real for them, talking about tear gas and smashed hands and jail.”

“It’s all really unlikely, but of course, everyone should be as prepared as possible for what could happen.”

“One woman has permanently affixed contact lenses. She’s terrified they are going to melt into her eyes! But tomorrow, yes, we’ll organise the group more directly and get everyone to assess where they are comfortable being on the day.”

“God, I’m just so tired. . . .”

“Don’t worry, we are nearly there now.”

We set about our plan, preparing to hit the streets the next day as a human buffer, part of a layer cake of defense between 20,000 protesters, the Rebel Clown Army, and the delightful French riot police.

We speed-date people in pairs to find their buddy. They circle through a number of potential dates, discussing their willingness to be near The Front, as it is known. They discuss fears, hopes, expectations, before swirling on.

I partner with a smiling young bearded Worcestershire boy named Jake—another volunteer from EcoDharma.

“Every buddy pair, get with the buddy pair next to you, so you are a four. This is your brick. Stay close to your brick as much as possible. You are two pairs of buddies, looking after each other. If one half gets arrested, the other can report it. Get their numbers now.”

I sidle over to Oak as the group begins to disperse. She is smiling excitedly, and has buddied with Z., who also grins expectantly. My buddy Jake gathers too. This is our brick. We do a group hug, linking our arms around one another.

“So,” I say. “Ready for a riot?”

oneslutriot. Anti everything, 2017. Pens on paper.

An iceberg from Greenland has been dragged to Paris by boat, where it now sits outside the Pantheon in more than a dozen gleaming shards of diamond, decaying infinitesimally and inexorably before our eyes. We walk, humbled, mesmerised, touching each one solemnly, the icy water chilling our fingertips, anointing our foreheads with it. I wonder how many thousands of years these droplets of water had been trapped in the ice, how many lives had passed between now and the last time it existed as a liquid, how many moments had been strung in between. The scale of it is overwhelming. At the head of our procession, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes with a gentle American English accent provides some reassurance in his quiet confidence, a timely reminder of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, allowing some philosophical perspective on the tragedy of ecocide.

I have already linked up with Jake; the other buddies and bricks arrive in discreet pairs, having been told to spread out to avoid arousing suspicion. There is Rooty and her wife Loupe, Susannah and the monk, Eve, Z. and Oak. Everywhere are the bright flashes of red we have been asked to wear as part of the red-lines protest.

Freedom, freedom, freedom. . . . Freedom on my mind.

The song spreads, voices raised in the simple refrain, voices harmonising, male and female and other, high and low.

It feels faintly ridiculous, all this hippie trash, but it helps people relax.

Eventually, in that strange group-mind telepathy, silence descends, broken by the ululating cries of a wedding taking place in the church opposite. We return the cry joyously, releasing more tension, more stress, up into the clear Parisian sky.

A tall man in a dog-collar and white suit, his hair a silvery bouffant crown of steel wool, steps from the circle to address us in a strong, mercurial tone.

“Brothers and sisters can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“Earth-a-llujah!”

“Amen, brothers and sisters. My name is the Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m from New York City, and for many years now, myself and members of the congregation of the Choir of Stop Shopping have been travelling around, meeting with like-minded individuals, and preaching the Gospel of Stop Shopping. We are wild, anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth-loving urban activists who have worked with communities all over the world defending community, life and imagination.

“It’s an honour to be here in Paris, and to have attended the workshop yesterday and seen such powerful moments of healing, of people coming together, to nurture each other, to heal one another. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“EARTH-A-LLUJAH!”

“This week we’ve seen some dancing in the streets. In particular, the dance with police is heart-breaking and revealing. It is a gift to all of us out here who will carry on the Earth’s work, the job of tornado-ing in the plazas. The mind-leap that the politicians and police make—that any gathering in public space resembles the Other and must be called Extreme—this doesn’t seem like France, but I am naive.

“My lazy thinking has it that I myself would never be this way, but we all fall back into fear, don’t we? We are the predator species, and we forget that we are made of the Earth. We are mammals made of soil and ocean-water, a column of water up on our hind legs.

“That is what we are on both sides of the conflict. But one side has a club and no face. The other, you, you bring your vulnerable body as close to the action as you dare. You show your flesh to the public air and receive the bruise. You show a smile, you are hopping in place, and then running back to slow down a friend’s arrest. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”

“EARTH-A-LLUJAH!”

“When we protest we make a storm in the street that the Earth’s horizon watches with interest. The Earth is our leader and our teacher. We know that the Earth will win. She will heat up but she will survive the extinction that sweeps across her eco-systems. We know that the men in body-armor will join us ultimately as we fall to the ground like leaves in the autumn. At some point the cops too will feel the Earth in their bodies—that is what will persuade them not to work for nationalism descended from old wars.

“The Earth fills us up and sends us into the fight with instructions in its singing molecules. She gives us power beyond policies, ego or courage.

“When we watch you on the streets we feel a strange kind of gratitude—your bodies are like letters arranging in words against the page of the ground. You give us our new instructions!

“Now I don’t have my choir here with me, but two sisters here have volunteered to lead us in a song, Sisters, if you could?”

Two of the sisters step forward.

“This is a song we heard at the conference a lot, a lot of the young activists were singing it during some of the actions, like the Louvre oil action, and I think it’s great that we pick up the voices of others. It goes like this. . . :

 

People gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this crisis round.

Hear the voice of my great-grand-daughter, singing Climate Justice Now.

 

We sing between the icebergs and below the Pantheon, and I remember that this is completely illegal, no more than two people are allowed to gather for a ‘political purpose’ under the State of Emergency. As our merry troupe of fluffy rainbow-hippies sings I can’t help but think what utter nonsense that is. I imagine clouds of tear gas pop-pop-popping as canisters fly. I imagine us all crushed and fleeing beneath a charge of black-clad robocops.

I am sat on a bridge overlooking the lazy snake of the Seine as it swirls below me, the free curry and rice given away by garishly dressed hippies from huge steel pots sitting like foam on the water of a sewage outlet in my stomach. My mouth is dry, parched, and all around me herds of strange animals drift and wander: people carrying signs that read ‘system change not climate change’, a pod of merpeople, their hair sea-green with plastic seaweed, a knot of chic students wearing keffiyahs and aviators, a single clown with white face and a red nose holding a balloon in the shape of a heart.

Below me, the brass band is lounging, a mob of twenty people in pink shirts and scarves, lounging in the baking sun, their brass instruments sparkling next to them like the weapons of ornamental soldiers. They have been parping and blasting for the last few hours, the strains of Bella Ciao still ringing in my ears from the assembly in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Ahead, the Eiffel Tower rises, a monumental spear of iron matrices shooting into a cerulean sky. The walkways around it are a sea of waving flags and banners, people choking every spot of land with colour and movement, swirling in and around each other. Currently on the bridge, a number of people have chosen to sit down and symbolically block the path, urged on by a manic young man with a megaphone. For now, the police are observing casually, seemingly counting under their breath before intervening. I have no energy left, and drift off towards the Tower to find the others.

Jake falls in beside me, a gentle, calming presence, passing me a bottle of water.

“So. What do you think?”

I cast my mind back as we walk. The police had been waiting for us at the Arc de Triomphe. I had been searched by a cop with a face like dogshit. He had found nothing, though he made me remove my leather gloves with studs on them that I had worn against the chill.

Once out of the Metro, we had seen that we were walking into a kettle designed to collect us. At the far end of the boulevard, still a hundred metres before the Arc, a row of grey battle-buses with lines of armoured cops like legionnaires in front of them, blocking our way. At the opposite end, before the roundabout, a second line had drawn up to prevent us leaving. The side roads were still open, left for us to try to disperse, but it was like walking into a cage.

And thousands of people did walk in. We had assembled, orderly and polite, a sea of red and flags of all nations, colours, banners, people blowing whistles and chanting and cheering: “We are nature defending itself!” The sounds of indigenous pan-pipes interwove with the stamping chants of woad-painted earth-defenders clutching home-made shields emblazoned with sigils of trees, hawks and turtles, a pod of people dressed as deep-sea divers, swimming down the street in slow-motion.

At the police line, the dozen or so rebel clowns were already in position, mocking the stance of the cops with their own military pomp. We had lined up behind them, becoming the second buffer line. Whereas the clowns faced the cops, we faced inwards to the sea of people.

The foghorns blasted, and for two minutes, the thousands of people had fallen silent.

I thought about the lake of dead fish I had seen in India where the water had become too acidic from pesticides. I thought about those thousands of glassy eyed fish washing up on to the shore, and the peoples from the village gathering to stare incredulously and hopelessly at them.

Then the brass band had fired up, and a great, ragged cheer gone up from the crowds. The march had begun.

Except the cops had blocked both ways, and there had been no real way for the march to go. They had left open one exit, leading to the left out of the boulevard, and we stood between the clowns and the crowd as thousands of people marched towards us, and as cheerfully as possible we directed them to the left, to squeeze in twos and threes through this narrow gap and continue on their way towards the Eiffel Tower.

It had not felt great, but we stuck to our plan and stayed happy and felt the tension disperse as more and more people fed through the gap. The banners had to be folded up to pass. The Climate Angels, tall, exquisite creatures painted in silver and gold, with huge, ornate, feathery wings of pearl and lapis lazuli, had to edge carefully between the last cop and the wall of the building to get through.

“That boulevard,” I was saying to Jake as we walked back down the bridge towards the Tower. “It was chosen so that nobody would see anything.”

We gather up Oak and Z., looking elated but exhausted.

“Well, at least no broken bones, no tear gas!” says Oak. We smile.

Soon we are through the crowds, and directly under the Eiffel Tower, looking upwards at its skeletal innards like tiny teenagers looking up some massive madam’s metal skirts. It is dizzying, and we sit down on some benches, feeling deflated.

A woman half-hidden in a scarf, but with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, drifts lazily past me and hands me a piece of paper. On it is typed:

 

We are all angry now. As destroyers of the death-reality, we must act. The time for peaceful subjugated protest and failed A to B marches is over. They have made criminals of us all. We call on all those who are willing to gather and express their rage in defence of the Earth. Let us take back the streets and defy the State of Emergency.

Meet at Belleville Metro 1900hrs.

 

I smile.

“Now this looks more like it.”

We get out of the Metro one stop early, wary of walking into a trap, and stroll down to Belleville in high spirits. Our brick swaps beers and rolls cigarettes, skipping through the crowds out shopping or leaving work, approaching Belleville with watchful eyes.

We lean on the bars of the Metro, watching and waiting. A sparkling tingle of anticipation hangs in the air, not a gendarme in sight for the first time in a long time. The streets hum with the quiet business of a winter’s evening in the banlieue, Chinese supermarkets bustling next door to Turkish shops, well-heeled Parisians shuffling between them smoking Gauloise, old men with chic moustaches and young ladies their hair covered with headscarves.

We wait and watch.

Then, we hear them.

Coming up from the underground, the boom-boom-clack of bass and snare, followed by the sharp rattle and a blast of whistle, growing louder and stronger, emerging from the Metro entrance out into the streets to be greeted with ragged cheers and an appreciative laugh of release. It is the samba band from Rhythms of Resistance, thirty-plus strong, decked in pinks and floral tributes, emerging into the evening air.

Boom boom clak! Ba-boom-ba-boom clak-clak!

Bodies crowd around them, maybe two hundred strong, faces from the march and strangers too, some already masked and punching the air, the cries of “Anti-capitalista!” stronger and fiercer than ever, ringing through the streets in time to the band. Soon they have taken the road, and traffic must wait, backing up bemused and patient behind them. Our brick nods to each other, and we step into the road, becoming part of the mass, and them becomes us.

Boom-clack ba-boom-ba-boom clak!

We turn, as one, down a side-street, following the samba band and whoever might be at the head of this march. On the pavements we see older persons, shopkeepers, people with bags of cheese and baguettes, clutching a child’s hand whilst raising a supportive fist to salute us. People are smiling, happy to see the wild and the free marching in defiance of fear and oppression. All the while the cries ring from the buildings, my throat hoarse: “Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista!”

Boom-clak! Ba-boom-boom-clak!

The moment is long, the energy increases, so do the number of masks, the feeling of imminent explosion. I am reminded of the Fuck Parades in London, of the Long Week in Rigaerstrasse, the anti-ISA protests in Kuala Lumpur, the liminal moments when parties evolve into riots. The lessons of the legal warning occasionally ring in my memory, but more than anything, I savour this sensation of wild liberation.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Clak-clak-clak!

Blue lights strobe the darkening sky with ultramarine. The urgency of the march picks up, confused commands and bursts of running down the streets. Blue lights ahead, and blue lights behind—the kettle is closing in. We find an alleyway to the right, and soon two hundred people are streaming down it, people dragging their drums along and dumping over bins and trollies into the streets behind them. Someone falls, tripping another over them as they crash to the ground, others stopping to pull them up and encourage them onwards. Energy is bordering on panic now.

We emerge breathless on the far side, next to the canal. Dozens of people are still filtering through behind us and it seems that we have evaded capture—for the moment.

We spot the blue lights assembling at the road bridge, two hundred metres up from us. People are calling to hurry—“Allez! Allez!”—and we move instinctively away from the lights.

Ahead, there is a narrow footbridge over the canal, and beyond that yet more police cars. The noose is closing.

People begin to run, seeing the opportunity to escape slipping away. The bridge rattles and clatters as people pound over it. In the rush, I lose the others. I stop on the far side of the canal looking for them. People race past.

The sting of pepper spray on the wind hits me, searing my nostrils and eyes. The police have trapped perhaps fifty people on the opposite side of the canal—just where we were. Even from twenty meters away it is a raw and spicy wind. I am already moving, heart pounding in my chest, attempting innocence and anonymity, suddenly alone and vulnerable, unsure of who or what is awaiting on this side, or what will happen to those trapped behind.

I begin walking, pulling my mask off, heading up the canal where there seems to be space between the police. People sit eating baguettes and drinking wine on benches, watching the spectacle of a mass of black-clad people trapped between two lines of stormtroopers. I am calling my brick, hearing garbled messages from them. They have got across.

Later that evening, we are outside la Generale—the huge warehouse space the local squatters keep on lock-and-key for when they need a performance space. Inside is rammed to the rafters with smiling, laughing, leaping, euphoric crowds of people, leaping and stomping as the famous brass band from the march hammers through a borderline violent version of Bella Ciao. Every song they have played, every refrain, for the last hour, and even in the pauses between, the cry can be heard like a war chant:

Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist a-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist!

We are drunk and exhausted, our eyes still stinging from the pepper spray, greeting survivors from the kettle on the canal as they drift back, grinning with giddy relief.

“They kept us there maybe an hour. I had a backpack full of equipment. I had to throw it into the canal. But still, after one hour, they let us all go. No arrests.”

“I guess they know it’s over.”

“For now.”

We are drinking cans of Maximator—11% strength beer that sizzles like gasoline in our stomachs and fires up our exhilarated chatter.

“So we did it. Somehow we did it. 60 people on the streets ready to stand between the cops and 20,000 protesters like some kind of weird human condom.”

“It could have been so different. I’m bloody relieved that nothing happened,” Oak is saying. “That talk they gave us about raising our hands up with our fingers bent so the truncheons didn’t break them. I was, like, God, what have we gotten into?”

“Yeah. I guess it was all fine. But was it enough? I mean, I have friends at home who would be horrified to know I was part of a ‘de-escalation team’. They are the guys who believe that non-violence protects the state, and that if we really wanted change, we have to fight for it on the streets.”

“But if you have a riot, you won’t have all these families and this creative atmosphere.”

“Maybe it would have been different, but also they would have just demonised the whole thing as being about ‘leftwing extremists hijacking the peaceful march’. The same old narrative. My biggest worry is how complicit we have become in working with the cops, the politicians, the whole status quo.”

“It’ll all ripple out, George. It’ll all ripple out somehow.”

We smile, then laugh a little more as the brass band chunters inside and the anti-capitalists a-ha! away. Through the windows, I can see faces beaming with delirious exhaustion, dancing away with stomping feet and fists pumping the air, and I am relieved it isn’t all broken heads and handcuffs and eyes red raw from tear gas. I suck at the Maximator, retch at how flat it is, and suddenly feel my legs wobble.

“Shall we?”

We round up our little crew for la Petite Maison and head off into the Parisian night. Flashing blue lights illuminate the boulevards, casting sapphire shadows against the tall trees and art deco facades of the buildings.

As we pass the orange-and-yellow frontage of a McDonald’s, Oak suddenly squeals and runs ahead, laughing but flustered.

“There was a guy! There was a guy wanking in the McDonald’s!”

I can’t help but look, and there indeed sat at the little shelf-bar in the window are two kettle-faced men, leering at us as we pass. One has his tracksuit pants open, and is pulling with frenzied focus at an unimpressive lump of meat under the tabletop. He is staring straight out, and for a moment I wonder if he is looking at us, or his own reflection.

I smile at him, hawk a huge ball of phlegm out of my throat, and spit it at the window. It splatters satisfyingly right at his eye level and slides down, a green nugget of sap and gristle. He pauses, looking shocked, and I flip him a rigid middle finger, before darting off down the street after the others.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the lackeys of capitalism,” I sneer. “They’re all fucking perverts.”

oneslutriot. Bank of No Money, Depford, London, 2016. Spray paint and acrylic, 100% stolen or recycled materials.

 
 
 

A Ghost Can Only Take

Justin Howe

It starts with me in a frozen parking lot in Detroit “on vacation”. I’m scanning my phone, looking at my friend’s facebook pictures from his vacation in Thailand. “Here’s me at the beach. Here’s me riding an elephant.” The barrage of social media sunshine gets under my skin. In retaliation I share a picture of a snowdrift at the edge of the iced over lot, its surface crust gray from car exhaust.

“Wish you were here.”

Weeks later back home with my wife in South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the RoK) the jetlag kicks in and I’m wide awake at 4AM. It’s still January and dark as pitch outside. I bundle up against the cold and take to walking so I can watch the sunrise. I settle on a route alongside the river, a winding sand path between the raised bike trail and the river’s water. I snap a picture with my phone each day, a way to document my passage. No one need notice. No one need care. But I was here. I saw this.

When the jetlag stops I keep the habit, a daily ritual to celebrate the mundane.

It’s a four bridges walk. Bridge one takes you to the steel mill. The mill dominates the city’s skyline, and most mornings looms large in the gray dawn like some architectural nightmare out of a Piranesi etching got it on with a Bladerunner backdrop. A skyline of neon-lit chimney-stacks, spewing smoke and flame at all hours. I often refer to Pohang as lovely Pittsburgh-by-the-sea. I’ve come to love this place.

The mill’s the lifeblood of the city and has been since the sixties. Some point to the mill as the industry that kick-started the RoK’s economy in the decades after the war. You could argue that there’s literal blood in its foundation. Not only from work-related injuries, which allow for a range of prosthetic limb shops in town ranging from the upscale to the downmarket, but also the fact that part of the mill’s seed money came from grants funded by the USA, payment for Korean troops used during the Vietnam War.

A bit more history with a caveat: everything I’m about to tell you comes from hearsay and Wikipedia.

An old map shows Pohang as all marshlands and islands at the mouth of the Hyeongsang River. During the Silla Dynasty, the ancient Korean kingdom that traded with Persia and Rome, Pohang’s the port for the Silla capital down the road in Gyeongju. But when Silla fell, the centers of power drifted west and north, and the city declined into neglect.

Old pictures from the end of the 19th century show a decrepit fishing village with a convent hospital where the steel mill would eventually be built. Then during the Japanese occupation the town staggered into the 20th century. Whether it did so collaborating or dragging forward a powder keg of resentment remains a hotly contested subject to this day.

Late in the 1950s, during the Korean War, the frontline wove its way through the city. One high school in town still commemorates the battle fought on school grounds. Another battle fought just outside the city involved child soldiers. Their slaughter will go on to generate a ghost story that persists to this day.

Stone markers near the river show the limits of the Busan Perimeter and the Walker Line. Often when I cross the park I’ll wonder whether I’m walking atop a mass grave.

After the war the city is rebuilt, and the steel mill gets founded. Pohang becomes a hub for conservatism and gains a reputation as a gangster town. In the 1980s, a decade of social unrest in the RoK as the democracy movement emerges, a lot of the forces used to quell the movement came from this region. More unpleasant history no one wants to talk about. Just like no one ever discusses the prospect of another shooting war with North Korea, despite the fact that the industrial infrastructure and nearby munitions plants (that play “Give Peace a Chance” during their lunch breaks) mean the town’s definitely a target. But so’s everywhere else in the RoK. You learn to deal with that, whether by exercise, substance abuse, religion, or screaming your anxieties into a hole in a bridge pylon like I do.

It’s possible to find odd pockets of nature on the mill’s margins. Wetlands running along the verges, cherry trees blossoming in the gaps between railroad tracks and factories, tucked-away gardens, and even a farm or two surrounded by rice fields.

Now as the 21st century dawns, the city’s attempting to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly tech center. One with a giant, fire-and-smoke-spewing factory sitting across the river. The bike trails are nice, the countryside beautiful. Sorry about all that thyroid cancer.

As strange as it is encountering the city’s human history, it’s stranger still when I insert myself into nature’s pre-existing cycle. I have to shake off the prejudice that my first encounter with the river was with its correct state, that since I began paying attention in the winter, winter is the river’s correct state, all other seasons intruders. That requires some metacognition, some acceptance, some convincing.

As I go out more and more and see the landscape change I start getting caught up in its patterns of growth and decay, winter’s barrenness giving way to green vibrancy. Ducks sass about. Pigeons browse the dirt. And the cranes think murderous thoughts in their needle-slender heads. Crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats all make their appearances along with snails, mantises, and crickets as long as my index finger. I’m no naturalist. No truffle-grubbing mushroom hunter who approaches a hike in the woods like a trip to an outdoor buffet. (Don’t get me wrong, some of my dearest friends are truffle-grubbing mushroom hunters.) Early on I’ll think about downloading an app to identify flowers and plants. But if you wait long enough such urges pass. At first I referred to most every flower I saw by color.

“The yellows looked really nice today.”

Fun fact though: your average South Korean child knows the names of the trees and flowers local to them better than their USAian counterparts. After walking the river’s path for over a year now and posting my pictures, I’ll be taught what flowers I’m seeing. Cosmos. Morning glories. Roses of Sharon.

Bridges two and three are right beside each other and mark my walk’s halfway point. One’s a traffic bridge, the other for trains. Just beyond them are two small islands covered in tall grass and home to ducks and cranes for much of the year. This part of the walk gets lonesome and empty. Beyond the bridges the grass grows tall year round. It’s always whispering at you. The support pillars of the train bridge have washed-down vegetation strewn all across their platforms.

I’ve come to start thinking of these as the Suicide Bridges. There are ghosts here.

More hearsay, less the Wikipedia kind, and more what gets passed around the table in the “exotic” foreigner bar late in October. The story goes like this:

Back in September 2016 a woman abandoned by her husband walked with her two kids here to the traffic bridge and jumped. She survived. Her children didn’t. Later an incoming English teacher will get shown an empty apartment for rent, and by a series of strange happenings, flickering lights, strange smells, learn it belonged to that family.

When I heard this story I asked my wife whether we should light a candle under the bridge, you know, for the souls of those two kids. She vehemently forbade me from doing so, because as she put it, “ghosts can’t give, they can only take”.

Those two small islands past the bridge where the cranes and ducks make their nests: I’ve come to associate them with the dead kids.

Despite the ghosts this bit is my favorite. By now the factory rumble has dimmed, and there’s less traffic here because it’s away from any neighborhood. It’s the part where all the elements converge: the wind across the tall grass, the fires above the mill, the water flowing past, and the earth beneath my feet.

Predawn, it’s an obvious spot for ghosts to gather. The quiet here is tangible. And quiet is key to a decent morning walk. At this hour I am distinctly preverbal. At best I can muster a Blutoesque subvocalized monologue. Nothing ruins an early morning walk like a chatty companion. People should be trained to silence themselves at the sight of an arched eyebrow. I’ve largely chosen this whole route because I can walk it without seeing another soul much of the way.

The English language needs a word like shortcut, but instead of it being for the route that saves you the most time, this word would be applied to the route that avoids the most people.

And the people I do see walking at 6AM?

We just nod at each other, conspiratorial.

Late in the year, the chest-high grass will make screens around the walking path. Old men and women (mostly women) will veer off the path to harvest the grass-stalks for some purpose I can’t fathom. They’ll be a common sight, covered head to toe in veiled pastel bonnets and tracksuits. They’ll bound up the embankment and browse amid the tall grass, plucking herbs and leafy greens. On the opposite side of the embankment, they’ll have dug gardens on the edges of parking lots.

All those plants I see old men and women harvesting: I have no clue what those are. Mugwort? Hemlock? Marijuana? Could be anything.

I’ve begun to suspect a low-grade feud between the city and these elderly harvesters. A day or two after seeing them amid the grass stalks, a work crew will appear to mow it all down, only to have it all sprout up again next year, a civic-minded cycle.

The best time of year to walk is between October and March. That’s when the least people are out and that asshole the sun is still beneath the horizon at 7AM. Holidays are a different matter. I like the holidays that get people outdoors to pay homage to either celestial orb.

The morning of the solar New Year, the embankment will be crowded with people greeting the year’s first sunrise. Two months later they’ll be back again to greet the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. On rare occasions I’ll spy some mudang shaman conducting a ritual. They’ll be chanting over a fruit-laden altar or waving around bundles of dried herbs near the river’s edge, beating a drum or clashing cymbals. It’ll be done from the back of a truck or beside the open boot of a car, covert and secret.

What cycle are they tied into?

Bridge four is my turning point. It separates some parkland attached to the sewage treatment plant and a new high-story apartment complex. Further upriver the wildflowers grow thick and the river wends its way between hills. On the opposite banks of the river are small neighborhoods far-removed from any development, each of them technically part of the city but resembling country villages.

My current job has me working up here, teaching English to corporate executives. One day we’ll get into a long conversation about mountains and rivers. One of the executives will say living near rivers is dangerous. I’ll dig, trying to get him to speak more but also wanting to get at what he’s saying.

Is he talking about the risk of flooding?

No, he’s referencing some superstition about how rivers affect your mind. He mentions recent suicides in the nearby apartment complex. I think of other superstitions, all those ghosts and supernatural beings that crop up where civilization meets water.

At some point over the past year I’ll be in another town. My wife will tell me it’s where courtiers used to change their horses when riding to the capital. As part of my daily routine walking to and from work I’ll take a picture of a tree. Post that online. #Oldtree. Amateur phonecam photographer run amok, trolling the extraordinary with the mundane. Back in Pohang people will tell me how they started to care about that tree. They’ll admit to the intensest feelings for it. But the tree’s not special. Or it is, but so is everything else if you take the time to look at it.

The trail continues on, but most days I don’t. I head back, the sun up by now and directly ahead of me behind the factory, the sky hinting at the weather to come. The wind picks up, making the grass whisper around me. I know I’m going in reverse, but really it’s only a change in perspective.

All told my walk’s only about 5 kilometers give or take.

 

Editor’s Note: On Having a Kid in the Climate Apocalypse

Michael J. DeLuca

My son is three months old. He has no idea what the world is, what it has become. I can say anything in front of him. I can curse, I can cry. He’s happy or he’s sad, there’s no cause and effect. I can read to him from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that spends hundreds of pages drawing an analogy between a child growing up and an invasive tree species flourishing in a sidewalk crack, a book full of compassion for the poor hated by the rich, casual about the hatred it portrays for people of other cultures. He doesn’t understand a word.

Every day I take him on a tour of what I jokingly call “the estate”, our sixth of an acre in Detroit’s distant north suburban sprawl, barren when I moved here, now abundant with ripening apples, cherries, strawberries, saskatoonberries, raspberries. He can’t eat them; he doesn’t understand what they’re for, but I figure he can interact with the flowers. I break off a stem of bleeding heart and shove it in his fist. He hovers in my arms over the Siberian roses like a pudgy bee, breathing in bewildered gasps. His eyes crinkle; he cringes from the sun. I stand him barefoot in the grass on his flabby, undeveloped knees, and he cries.

 

My wife and I tried for three years to conceive. We exhausted the usual method, then experimented with folk remedies, natural medicine. We talked ourselves up to a course of fertility drugs, then another and another. She had to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, and it devastated her, and me. We recovered. We kept going. Finally, we resorted to in-vitro fertilization. It would have been prohibitively expensive if we weren’t both well-educated people from educated families. You only get to do IVF if you have privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The trans-vaginal ultrasound, that procedure conservative legislators in the US want women to undergo seemingly as a form of torture before they’re permitted to choose an abortion: she had so many of those I lost count. I had to stab her in the hip with a three-inch needle every day for months, switching hips every other day to give the bruising a chance to go down. It was fucking hard. She cried a lot. I drank a lot. I got impotent for a while. And I ran over and over in my head all the arguments I could come up with why we didn’t have to do this, why we should anyway. Depending where we were in the cycle, I had to be able to convince myself it was okay if it didn’t work, and also, simultaneously, that it was worth all this pain if it did.

For a moment, right at the end, it looked like it wouldn’t. We went from seven fertilized, viable eggs down to one. And I saw an end to it. If it failed, we could stop. With that last egg, she got pregnant. My reaction could not be characterized as joy or relief, though everyone seemed to want that from me. I felt like I’d been clenching every muscle expecting to be punched in the stomach for eighteen months only to be told the punch isn’t coming. I didn’t want their congratulations. I was exhausted, bewildered, and we had nine months to go. I kept right on expecting the worst. I don’t think it was the same for my wife. She’d been the one getting stabbed, probed, but she’d been able to invest in this positive outcome like I couldn’t. Maybe she had to.

As it turned out, those nine months were easy. The kid grew, turned, came into the world and took a breath. We told ourselves it was karma, payback for the pain.

In the meantime, Lord Farquad got elected, took office, and started dismantling everything good or hopeful he could get his hands on. What woefully insufficient protections were in place against rapacious, fatally short-sighted exploitation of the natural world in pursuit of profit fell away like scales. Willfully oblivious selfishness—not those notions of freedom and equality beaten into my head since I was a child—begins more and more to seem as if it’s always been the default.

Into this world, I have brought a son. I no longer have the luxury of playing devil’s advocate. I have to be good for him. I have to make the world good for him, even such as it is. So I have little choice but to attempt to rewrite this story, his story, as a story of redemption. Maybe that makes me an unreliable narrator. Maybe you want to take this with a grain of salt, dear reader. Too fucking bad. That option is no longer on the table.

 

It occurs to me having a child might make a decent trial run for living through an apocalypse. If I can adapt to this, I can adapt to anything.

I know he can adapt to anything, because he survived being born.

“Your life is going to change,” my brother-in-law said, after I delayed too long admitting to my family that the IVF had worked. He was already a father. I resented him for the platitude. This was what I’d been dreading—having to perform that joyful anticipation I had been told to feel but could not. I had no idea what he was saying.

I understand it now. Becoming a father has uprooted me from everything I know, forced me to find all new places to grab hold of the same landscape, the same people, the same life. I am no longer my own. He gets the best of my emotional, intellectual and financial resources. Which is not to say he’s my whole life; I have managed to accomplish a few other things since he was born. I made a heart and a peace sign out of lights and coat hangers and hung them in our windows. I called my congresspeople every three days to complain. I supported the people I love and the causes I care about. I listened uneasily, unconvinced, to all those arguments for how much more important protest writing and art had become, and struggled on with the incorporation documents for my nonprofit literary magazine. Reckoning 2, which you’re reading right now, is officially sanctioned by the IRS to do good through art and not pay taxes on it. The irony is not lost on me. I have, somehow, through sleep-deprivation and tears, written this. (This much of it, at least. You’ll know if I finish.)

I’m doing it for him.

Maybe that will come across as a platitude. You, childless progressive activist, perhaps newly radicalized, attending rallies and protests, calling your congresspeople every three days, casting about for what more you can do: maybe you’ll see me as a lost cause for the cause. Everything I do is for this adorable little blob. If I didn’t have him, I could be investing the resources I intend for his future in supporting Indigenous activists, Black Lives Matter, legal counsel for immigrants. You would be absolutely right.

But you’d be failing to grasp the revolution in perspective this little blob’s presence has wrought. In my revisionist history, this is the bottom line, the reason we kept going in spite of all the pain and counterarguments: helping a new person into the world and then helping them come to terms with that world teaches us a part of what it is that can’t be learned any other way. I didn’t know what that knowledge would amount to. But I knew it existed. I see it in my parents, my grandparents, in every parent of every child I’ve met. I knew there was only one way to get it. For that, I was willing to expend all this emotional labor, all these resources. Maybe that makes me selfish—even as I am learning to be more selfless than I’ve ever been? Maybe I’m taking unfair advantage of the privilege I was born with. He wouldn’t exist without it. But I can’t grudge him that. Not anymore. He gives me hope I won’t have to.

 

Let me tell you how I expect my son’s life to go, in this horrible new world, in spite of it.

He’ll grow up with his feet in the dirt, in the garden, in the woods. He’ll track dirt all over the house. He’ll eat dirt. He’ll eat as much food as I can manage to make my meager sixth of an acre produce, and more. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about how to grow food.

He’ll get sick, he’ll get well. Maybe he’ll be allergic to the world, because of everything his parents were exposed to before he was born. Or maybe his body will adapt to the new toxins, the changes, the pollen, the invasives.

He’ll get to know cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, sparrows, robins. He’ll meet frogs and toads, then watch them get scarcer. Maybe he’ll never meet a salamander. He’ll never see an intact, living coral reef.

He’ll visit the coasts, he’ll visit mountains, but he won’t get to know them, not like I did. But he’ll know the lakes, the woods. He’ll watch them get taken over by invasives, watch those invasives naturalize, learn to love them, to live with them. He’ll watch them get replaced by subdivisions.

He’ll know the wastelands, the ruins of industry. He’ll watch them crumble and sprout trees.

He’ll hate mosquitoes, but be fascinated by the industry of ants, bees, spiders. He’ll get ticks. I’ll spend half my life picking ticks off him. He’ll eat bugs, lots of them, and like it. Crickets taste like shellfish. Maybe he’ll never eat shellfish.

He’ll have cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and friends. He’ll never have a brother or a sister. I wish that could be different. I love my sisters and I don’t know who I’d be if not for them.

Around when he turns seven, maybe I’ll realize he’s not my son at all, but my daughter, and I’ll have to do a lot of rethinking I thought I was ready for, about what gender means, about his relationship to the world, and mine. Because try as I might to be open-minded, I’ll have been operating for a long time on the assumption that he’s got a lot of the same privilege I had. It’ll take time to adapt—and in that time, I’ll hurt him, and I’ll let him get hurt. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about pain.

He’ll meet and know and love his gay cousins, black cousins, brown cousins, his Christian grandmother, his Muslim uncle, his pseudopagan pantheist father, and he’ll take all that experience out into the world and learn more than I’ll ever know about empathy, about difference.

He’ll meet assholes, complacent, relentlessly selfish assholes terrified of change. He’ll go to school with some of them. He’ll feel ostracized and alone and I won’t be able to help him. One day he’ll realize how many assholes exist in the world. He and I will struggle together to understand how they could have gotten that way. We’ll fail.

He’ll embrace technology, but he won’t be dependent on it—not the way I was. His laundry and his transportation and his white noise machine will be solar-powered, clean. I’ve already explained to him what the internal combustion engine is, how people mow their lawns with dead dinosaurs. He doesn’t get it. I’ll keep explaining until he does. By the time he’s twenty-five, they’ll have stopped making new internal combustion engines. By then, it will be too late. By the time he’s fifteen, the earth will have warmed past the 2 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris accords. We won’t see any drastic change; it will have happened too gradually. But passing that milestone will drive home to people what they’d been able to ignore. People will be moving away from the coasts. Detroit and its water-rich, post-industrial surrounds will get populated again. Space will be at a premium. Maybe we’ll take people in: my sisters’ families, my parents, strangers immigrating from Florida or Bangladesh. They’ll become part of our family; it’ll be like having siblings, the closest he’ll get.

Or maybe fossil-fuel-based transportation infrastructure will fall apart before we can replace it, long-distance travel will become a thing of the past, and communities will get a hell of a lot tighter-knit. Maybe he’ll have to learn to farm for real, to subsist. I couldn’t—if it happened now, I’d starve. Not him. He’ll feed his family, his community. He’ll learn more than I’ll ever know about community.

He won’t solve the climate crisis. That was up to me, up to us, and we’ve pretty much failed. I’m not putting that expectation on him.

I wish I could say I wouldn’t put any expectation on him at all, but I know better. Already, three months old, he is my embodiment of hope, exactly like in all those clichés about what parents want for their children. I can’t help hoping for him everything that’s too late for me. But I don’t have to force them on him. I don’t have to blame him.

He’ll learn to live with the climate crisis the way we’re all already doing whether we know it or not. I’ll teach him everything I can; it won’t be enough. He’ll grieve for what we’ve lost, he’ll grieve for what we haven’t lost yet. Maybe he’ll blame me. He wouldn’t be wrong.

Eventually, he’ll move beyond where I’m capable of predicting anything.

Maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe he’ll take up with the assholes, reject everything I’ve tried to teach him, get rich fixing prices on cancer medicine or selling payday loans to the poor. But I can’t countenance that possibility, any more than I can countenance the possibility the oceans will acidify, kill not just the corals but the algae that produces sixty percent of the oxygen, or that Lord Farquad will build that wall.

Then again, I couldn’t countenance the possibility that Lord Farquad would be president. So maybe it is all going to shit, and there’s nothing I or my kid or anybody will be able to do. A nonprofit literary magazine isn’t going to save us, no matter how diligently, fiercely and eloquently we all think radical, community-building environmentalist thoughts. A little adorable blob isn’t going to save us no matter how many epically selfish, racist egomaniacs’ rotten hearts he melts. There certainly is a plausible scenario in which my decision to have a kid, to devote my resources and time to him instead of fighting what might be coming is the deciding factor between a future with coral reefs, ocean algae, art and free exchange of ideas, and the one where it all goes to shit. But it’s too late to care about that. In my revisionist version of the story of his incredibly short life, it was always too late. I refuse to accept a binary between his life and the continued betterment of the human race.

All that time I spent advocating the devil—he’s made me realize that was my mistake. My wife was right to commit, to overcommit, even after she miscarried, even when she was being probed with rubber gloves and (when she was lucky) warmed gel, when I was stabbing her with three-inch needles every night. I was hurting her, hurting myself, trying to have it both ways, trying to make it something it could never be. She was strong and I was weak. I see that now only because he exists, only because he has revolutionized my understanding of what having a child means.

Maybe this revelation isn’t for everyone. Maybe not everyone needs it. Maybe, to people who aren’t white, aren’t straight, aren’t privileged children of educated families, some of this is so painfully obvious I’ve spent this essay embarrassing myself. I needed it. I needed to write it. I needed my assumptions undermined and broken up and reassembled around someone who wasn’t me.

I came very, very close to never getting that. There were so many opportunities for me to turn aside. In the course of writing this, through insomniac moments at two a.m. feedings, all those diapers I changed while he screamed, he’s made me realize the reason I didn’t. All revisionism aside, it wasn’t any anticipation of ungleaned wisdom. I persisted through all that pain because it was what she wanted. I’m better, wiser, better prepared for this incredibly uncertain, ominous future because she believed in it more than I could. If it hadn’t worked, I never would have known.

 

He has blue eyes, for now. They’ll get darker. For now, I can sing to him “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as I struggle futilely to lull him to sleep while he squirms and digs sharp baby fingernails into my neck. I can look forward to learning what my blue-eyed son has to teach me when he’s seen everything I haven’t. Hard as those lessons might be.

In Hambach Forst

George F.

Eyelids stuttering like a caught-out politician’s, I take long moments to breathe on the mattress in the guest room, remembering the advice that it takes as long to wake up as it takes you to wake up. The sun is blazing through the high windows, hitting the bitter graffiti we scrawled on the mezzanine in drunken rebelliousness: ‘Whilst you plenum, we crack buildings’. Mierda is already gone, no doubt down in the yard putting the finishing touches to the mural. Grizzly sits in the corner of the room, looking at me patiently, awaiting my next move.

It has been two weeks here in Rigaerstrasse, feeling the creeping comforts and stasis of the place sapping our vigour. Today is the day we leave for Hambach Forst. Battling the lethargy of relaxation, I gather our booty from Italy, the zines and patches from the street-markets of Berlin, the empty bottles for recycling, retie the length of rope around the flapping sole of my boot, and check the scrawled notes on how to escape the fuck out of Berlin.

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We were sat at the Rasthof Michendorf, halfway through the wine, on the brink of giving up for the night and setting up the tent, when we got picked up.

“Look, that one has Magdeburg plates. That’s halfway there. Ask them.”

Mierda takes a swig of red and skips over to await the two tan-skinned males as they emerge from the service station.

“Hello, excuse me, are you going to Magdeburg?”

“Ja.”

“Can we come with you?”

“There are two of you?”

I sit sheepishly, trying to mask the large rucksacks and Grizzly, who I am telepathically willing not to start barking at them.

“Yes.”

“And you have a dog?”

“Yes.”

Ah, shit. These guys are dark-skinned, black-haired, their accents suggesting an origin in the Muslim sphere. Dogs are haram. Their car is super shiny and sleek, some brand a gearhead would probably drool over. I begin to think about where to set the tent up.

The first guy catches the second as he emerges, and they make an exchange in rapid-fire Babel. I read the body language as best I can, trying to keep my mind open.

“OK. But the dog has to go in the luggage. That ok?”

“Fine! Great!” Me and Mierda chime together, grabbing the bags and hiding the wine before they can change their minds. We sling the bags in the back, and Grizzly obediently, mysteriously silently, jumps up behind them and immediately settles down, tongue lolling happily. It’s almost as if she knew. Or maybe she was as glad as we were to leave Berlin.

We leap in the back, dropping into plush leather upholstery. It smells like a rental car—new, synthetic, false. In front is a galaxy of gnomic buttons and devices, a screen showing GPS coordinates, everything illuminated in space-age neon blue. The passenger in the front has his seat almost horizontal, so me and Mierda squeeze into one half of the back seat next to each other.

The driver guns the engine, and we flee the service station like a gazelle bolting from a predator, tearing out into the autobahn night. The leather-upholstered seats heat up at the click of a button. Euro-techno blasts from the surround sound speakers. As the acceleration increases and the G-force kicks in, we both scramble surreptitiously for our seatbelts as we realise this driver intends to max out the capabilities of his souped-up car on the limitless potential of the autobahn.

As he drives, he smokes sickly smelling skunk in a pipe and talks over his shoulder at us. All the while, the needle creeps upwards.

100 kph.

“So you always travel like this? You have job? You have home? I live Berlin, but my family all live in the West. In Cologne.”

110 kph.

“Really? You are going to Cologne? That’s actually where we are going.”

“Oh really?”

He talks to his passenger in rapid-fire language that we can’t understand. We exchange hopeful glances.

“OK. So we take to you Cologne. No problem. This is my brother. We from Afghanistan. We come after war start there. Very bad. Very bad. Much trouble. Much violence.”

120 kph.

“I make money delivering cars. Make little money. Make little survive. You come Germany, I sure you see very nice life. People nice. Life nice. Everything easy. Very good. For me, very hard. For my brother, very hard. For my family, very hard. Can be very difficult.”

135 kph.

“In Afghanistan, you buy 1 kilo of heroin, 5000 Euros. Bring back to Europe. Sell 100,000 easily. Make good money. Make good life. Never work again.”

150 kph.

“You want to smoke?”

170 kph.

“You believe in Allah? SCHIESSE!”

Actually he shouts something else, but I didn’t catch it. The car swerves violently, sliding dramatically to the right. As quick as a flash, he restabilises it and pulls it back to the left.

“Did you see that? Did you see? Es war ein Hirsch, mit großen Geweihe, die wir fast traf es . . . . What you say in English? With . . . with? With these.”

He actually takes both hands off the wheel and holds them to his head to demonstrate antlers. At this point his brother intervenes, saying something in sleepy but firm syllables.

“OK, he say I stop talking and concentrate on driving now.”

We race on through the night in silence, me and Mierda secretly sipping the wine, then drifting off to sleep as the seats warm our thighs and the lights of the autobahn hypnotically flash by at one hundred miles per hour. We crack the window to smoke and the jetstream screams through the cabin as if we were on an airplane. As my eyelids droop I idly wonder whether Grizzly is asleep in the back on the top of several kilos of heroin from Afghanistan.

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They drop us off, unceremoniously, outside a tram-stop before dawn, awkwardly watching as we drag our bags and dog out the back. They notice that the boot is covered in dog hair. We look appropriately apologetic, then they are off, racing away to their families or their drug deal or to try and run over more deer. We jump the tram, looking out the window until we spot a bottle shop with a nearby park.

Sipping cold beer, we wander through a park of gelded trees, filled with dozens upon dozens of rabbits that hop, skip and nibble the pruned grass, calm and peaceful and undisturbed by our presence. Grizzly pulls on the lead, straining at them with interest, and the sky begins to turn blue above us. Bottle collectors lurk in the bushes, giving their location away by the clink of glass.

As it gets light, we pass out on the sleeping bags, dozing a few hours. We are surprised when we awake to find the rabbits and bottlers have all transformed into youth. Cologne is a major university town, and on a summer’s day such as this these fresh-faced and clean-looking young folks descend upon the parks to barbecue, throw frisbees and leave behind empty beer bottles for the refugees to pick up.

They grow rowdier as it gets sunny, and not wanting to sleep another day there, we troop back down to the tram stop and jump the rest of the way to the Hauptbanhof. Nearly there, we spot a gang of inspectors at one of the stops and leap off to safety. Meandering through the streets, we are soon beneath the spires of the Dom.

We are waiting on the platform for the train when we are approached by a young woman dressed in black, wearing a patch of a pair of cogs with a spanner dropping between them.

“You go to the occupation?”

We smile and nod. We have found our guide.

We jump the train together, watching each other’s backs, chatting all the way to the woods.

“Several of the villages around here are ghost towns now. Just shells, left up for show, awaiting the bulldozers. Old buildings, beautiful, being torn down by diggers. Same with the solar panels everywhere, the wind-farms, the hundreds of thousands of euros poured into recycling schemes and schools talks. All of it propaganda.”

“Green-washing, we call it.”

“It’s a total cover-up. RWE just want to present a clean face to the world whilst raping it. You have to go see the Hole. It’s unbelievable. I cannot even describe it. It’s like Mordor.”

She appears physically pained as she talks about, losing herself for a moment looking out the window.

“I just went to the police station to see about our comrade who was arrested today. Ah, don’t worry. The people at the camp will tell you all about it.”

We pass her the wine, and we drink, sharing logistics of our various living arrangements.

“And who is this? I don’t like to say pet.”

“Grizzly. Our companion.”

She ruffles Grizzly’s fur affectionately. Grizzly seems pleased, parking herself beneath the seats of the train.

“Do you ever have any trouble jumping the train?”

“Not if there is three or four of us. They normally don’t think it’s worth the trouble.”

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It is a long walk through the pitch-blackness of the countryside—I doubt we could’ve found it without Grasshalm. When we arrive, a dreadlocked man named Graeme gives us a breathless update.

“Ah so you’re here for the festival? Good, good. Well, we’re all a bit tired today, as we had an eviction. The tower. Remy’s Tower, it’s called, was raided by the police. One guy got arrested; he’s at the station now. He threw a bucket of shit at the cops. One of them twisted his neck apparently so it’s assault. All a bit of a palaver. It was the last living barricade and all. Fourteen hours it took them. They took him because he had ‘no social obligations’ in Germany, and was ‘likely to stay away from trial.’ We have to rebuild the barricades tomorrow, but the tower has gone. Such a shame. So you’re staying a bit are you? Well, you’re welcome to camp in the forest, be aware that it’s illegal, or you can put your stuff down in the meadow if you like.”

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As I sit and shit in the little compost toilet hut, a hazel dormouse peeks out from a pallet dumped next to the sawdust bag. Its cute little eyes peer at me with curious innocence. I look out into the forest, the sounds of birds singing and the branches of tall, elegant trees rustling, and I realise that I know the names of almost nothing. The forest is comprised of pines, yew, oak. I have spotted dockleafs and clover, nettles and brambles, but to the vast majority of its diversity I am ignorant. I guess most people are nowadays, the herblore and arboreal knowledge that would have been natural for our ancestors is now forgotten. The contents of the vast fields around the encampment are more easily recognisable: endless monocultural rows of potato, cauliflower, waving stands of maize, uniform, relentless, armies of doubtless genetically mutated aliens. Whole fields of hybrid triffids, ready to take over the world once everyone has gone blind from staring at some mysterious meteor.

Fifteen and more centuries ago, Germany was covered in mixed forest like this, home to a weald society of hunters, foragers, gatherers and natural farmers. The forest abounded with deer, squirrel, pigeon, fowl, not to mention a host of challengers to the dominance of man—wolves, bears, boar—real life monsters of the time. Perhaps that’s where so much of the modern day hatred of nature comes from—that for so long it was seen as a killer and enemy. The natives would have been expert herbalists, naming and knowing hundreds and more of plants for their medicinal and healing qualities. Now this weird vagabond camp sits on a meadow on the edge of the last patch of 12,000-year-old forest, and the lack of connection is apparent. In four years it will all be gone—the hazel dormouse and the history, the centuries-old yew and oak, the brief moments of liberty on the fringe of oblivion.

 

Dumping a handful of sawdust down the hole, I pull up my shorts and tuck my leggings into the top of my socks. This is tick country, which means Lyme disease. We had already pulled a number of the purple-grey sacs out of Grizzly’s knotted fur and were keen to avoid becoming a meal ourselves.

I stroll back through the forest, manoeuvering around the barricades of branches and logs that have been constructed across the pathways. One has been decorated with a large red ‘A’, and a roadsign woven into its mesh has been spray-painted with slogans, ‘E.L.F’ and ‘Hambach Bleibt!’. The soil of the truck-paths is solid, compacted, grossly different in consistency to the spongey, yielding layers of leaf-litter and humus of the forest proper. It even smells different—wafts of organic, living matter erupting from each step, like the breath of the trees. I walk back through Oaktown, gazing up at the precipitously positioned treehouses, twenty metres above in the boughs of the trees. A man in a harness is setting up the ropes to clamber above and spend the day in peaceful meditation with his tree. He waves cheerfully to me as I pass, hopping over a trio of tractor tyres laden with rubble. I jump again soon as I land, narrowly avoiding crushing a miniature dance-hall of dung beetles rolling their treasures around.

The forest ends abruptly at the meadow occupation, marked by a man in an elf hat sat in a tree playing a mandolin and singing softly: “I want to be/for-ever punk/I want to be/for-ever punk . . .”. I pass through the freegan kitchen, into the low hut of the kitchen proper. A few people talk softly in German, preparing tofu and brotchen from the packed metal containers. They have a full wheelie bin of soya-products, donated by supporters and shipped from Cologne. In the meadow, a small fire burns by the dining tables, and beyond, the narrow strip between two fields of wheat is littered with caravans, roundhouses of timber, and towards the airstrip, a number of straw-bale houses and hobbit-huts, partially sunk into the ground.

It looks like a crew of nomadic space-pirates were marooned here upon the shaw and spent their time trying to organise without their captain. The dozen or so constructions are idiosyncratic, an eco-refugee camp of wattle walls, pallet structures, insulation a hybrid of plastic functionality and ecological innovation. Red and black antifascist flags fly from makeshift poles alongside ragged rainbow strings of Tibetan prayer flags. Hand-painted tarps are everywhere: ‘Ohne Mampf, keinen Kampf’ by the kitchen, ‘Refugees Welcome’ by the tool shed. The walls of the kitchen bear various signs of instruction to wash hands, close lids because of rats, no meat, no smoking, and in-between, the scraps of calendars and rotas and propaganda blur to become an anti-authoritarian collage. Dreamcatchers spin in the breeze next to mobiles of pinecones and wool. Wicker baskets and waterjugs are piled by the toolshed, next to a plastic dog with its face smashed off and boxes and boxes of weirdly wonderful, perhaps one day useful, stuff.

 

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Behind fences of wood lashed together with rope, people are growing miniature gardens of herbs, sage, lemon balm, mint and parsley. I run my hands over the delicate leaves, feeling the differences, smelling deeply of each one as I pass. Beside one hobbit house, its roof layered with clods of turf and straw, tall stacks of sunflower are in regal bloom, their innards already filling with seed. In another, shared between the solar-powered ‘technology caravan’ and someone’s private van, a cacophony of broccoli are beginning to delicately emerge, beans hang bountiful stacks of pods from their runners, pumpkins are swelling, nasturtiums flirt with the bees with their spicy flowers of vermillion, orange and yellow. The gardens are marked out with old jam jars and glass bottles, rows of gleaming white, green and brown surrounding the lush stands of intermingled plants. A row of solar-panels gleams futuristically, surrounded by terracotta pots of cacti and salads. The infoshop is decorated with old vinyl records, a gasmask with a pair of antlers sprouting from it, the simple slogan ‘COAL KILLS’ next to a stuffed pheasant staring arrogantly back at me from the walls. A small boy with cornflower blue eyes and hair so blond it looks white in the sunlight plays with a plastic truck in the sandpit. I watch him for a while as he moves dirt around, wondering if the men driving the big diggers over on the other side of the highway had once been the same. Just kids playing in the sand.

Brightly coloured murals and slogans mark the passage of a multitude of defiant artists. Mierda has been working on the outside of the library/freeshop structure—the outlines emerge of a naked woman swinging down from a tree to smash the face of a man wielding a chainsaw. Strolling further along, I spot her atop the tower at the entrance to the meadow. She is unwinding a huge red and black flag from its pole, the wind catching it and flicking it out against the blue sky. I realise with a smile that it is a German flag with the gold torn from the bottom—a symbolic removal of wealth, to leave behind the black of anarchy and the blood of the people. She turns and waves cheerily to me from her viewpoint as a cropduster soars into the sky from the airstrip behind her.

 

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We gather in the open-sided forum hut. The sun is setting over the fields of monoculture outside. Grizzly slips in and lies down expectantly, the little pup Hanuc bothering her experimentally. The projector screen lights up the faces of a dozen or so smiling, patient people who chat and smoke whilst awaiting the speaker to begin.

“Thank you all for coming. I will try to talk about the occupation here, first giving some background on the situation then detailing some of the various actions and resistance over the last three years.

“The remaining Hambach forest—originally part of a 6000 hectare old-growth forest—is ecologically unique in Europe. For more than 30 years the energy corporation RWE has been cutting it down. Today, less than 500 hectare remain. All of it is to be cut down to make space for the mine in the years to come—at least these are the plans of RWE and the government.

“All this because underneath the forest the one finds the so called ‘brown gold’. Lignite has been exploited in the Rhineland between Aachen and Cologne for more than hundred years. In 1970 a large-scale lignite extraction project was approved. This project included three huge open cast pits, the extension of existing as well as the construction of new coal power plants, and the development of the necessary infrastructure.

“We have been in occupation of the forest since April 2012, when the last action of a klimacamp held in the area was to occupy the forest. The klimacamps in the Rhineland were inspired by the UK’s climate camps, which seem to be much more developed than here in Germany. Or at least they used to be, I don’t know how they are now. Of the 4 major coal mine areas in Deutschland, the one here is the largest, covering 80 square kilometres and being half a kilometre deep at its lowest point. RWE have been pumping out water for years, lowering the water table, and endangering the forest. They have been buying up land and villages for decades, building on a project that was started by Hitler and the Nazis before the war, discontinued for several decades afterwards, and then resumed in the 70s by RWE. They have been buying the houses of all the villages in the area, on the condition that those who sell do not discuss how much they are paid with each other. This allows RWE to negotiate individually rather than collectively, separating the villagers and ensuring a stronger position for them. They are building new villages in the area to rehouse people, but they all look like they are from Super Mario. Many historic beautiful buildings are being destroyed, and the locals being bought off with schools-for-land programmes.

“RWE spends a huge amount of money on security to protect their mining operation, as well as investing hundreds of thousands in surveillance of the occupation and propaganda in the villages to turn the locals against us. You’ve probably seen all the solar panels and wind farms, as well as the new autobahn to route traffic past Buir without allowing anyone to see what they are doing. RWE also subsidise a lot of the farmers around here, creating an image of abundance and ideal countryside life, whilst behind the screen of trees they are destroying this area.

“2012 was their first eviction attempt. We had dug a tunnel, 6 metres deep, which I have a model of here. You can see there are three levels, with a fire door locked on the first level. They had to chop through this with an axe. Then there is a descent to a smaller tunnel, and then another level, to an even smaller tunnel and a store-room where we stayed. There was food and water here, and a few buckets for piss and shit.

“This tunnel held out for three days, during which time jeeps and vans owned by the police and security drove over the top. You could feel the ground shaking. It didn’t feel very safe. All the time above people were blasting the Tetris theme tune through speakers. The tunnel held out for 3 days.

“600 police turned up for the eviction. The photos don’t really do it justice. After we were evicted from there, a local farmer allowed us to move into the meadow occupation, and we have been here since then, despite the security and the police harassing us, arresting him and threatening him, he still allows us to stay here as it is his land. RWE work very hard to convince the villagers that we are evil, that we are drug addicts and thieves and whatever. But many of them are now realising what they have lost by believing RWE. Many support us more and more for the occupation. Now they are trying to evict us and demolish the buildings here as we do not have zoning permission. It is relentless.

“Hambachforst and the Burgewald—the ‘guaranteed forests’—don’t really exist anymore. They certainly aren’t guaranteed. They used to cover this entire area on the map, and consisted of mixed forest of pines, beech, oaks. Trees that don’t normally grow together have found harmony here over 12,000 years. The forest is home to a number of endangered species, including the hazel dormouse, which you may have seen running around in the kitchens, the middle-spotted woodpecker and Bechstein’s bat. Also at night we can walk through the forest and see a number of fluorescent mushrooms. It’s really quite beautiful.

“So this is a picture of the Monkeytown occupation. There were four tree-houses, at a height of 18 to 25 metres from the ground. The treehouses are really quite cosy, quite safe, and people would live in them almost constantly, waiting for something to happen. Here you can see a big net connecting a number of trees, the idea being that if they cut one tree or one rope, then the people in the net will be harmed. There is not a lot to do, mainly waiting, a lot of time with nothing happening, and then suddenly the eviction comes. The tree you live in becomes your friend, you spend time with it every day. It lasted for 7 months, in which time there were 30 barricade removals, kitchen removals. Of course eviction day is rebuilding day. But even using the dead wood from the forest is a problem, as the forest relies on the dead wood to be healthy.

“After 7 months, the security and police arrived to evict Monkeytown. The people in the trees locked on, climbed into the nets, used rope links. The eviction took from 8am till 10pm. The police came with cherry-pickers for those in the trees. All you can hear from up there is screaming, the sound of machinery, chainsaws. You can’t see anything. All of Monkeytown was clear-cut that winter. Here’s a photo of a 400 year old beech being cut down. Here’s another one of a 200 year oak.

“So we still organise direct actions against the Hole, encouraging people to do what they feel comfortable with. Here’s a photo of people sabotaging one of the diggers. Here’s an orchestra that came, playing in front of one of the diggers. Here’s people chaining themselves to the railway. This was one of the first actions, and even though it only lasted a few hours, as they cut through the locks very quickly, it still delayed the shipments of coal and cost RWE thousands of Euros. Here are some of us up on the tower of the digger.

“So even with all this, it is estimated that the total clearance of Hambachforst will be complete within four years.

“Maybe I can show you some videos before the battery runs out, and then you can ask questions if anybody has any. Here you can see one of the raids by security. One guy actually threatens to kill us if we damage his machines. You wouldn’t believe it if we didn’t have footage of it. These people. I don’t understand them. They laugh and make jokes whilst the trees come down. They don’t seem human sometimes.”

He grows visibly emotional as he talks, lapsing into a moment of silence. The pressure must be unbearable. I feel like a tourist.

Someone asks a question, but the only one I have in my mind is, “what hope do you have?”

But it is an impossible question to ask. He has to have hope, all these people here have to have hope of some kind, but it seems utterly hopeless. What they are up against is so huge and relentless and faceless and unstoppable, and somehow so many people support it, buy into it, surrender their humanity in order to see it continue. They sign it off as their job, the only option, and those who are against it as some kind of crazy crusties and miscreants. Yet surely anyone could see how invaluable this place is, and how lignite is just fucking evil. This was the frontline of the war against ecocide, against the madness of capitalist logic, for the salvation of the planet, and it did not look like they were winning.

 

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“How do you know if someone’s a vegan? They’ll fucking tell you.

“Did you ever hear of a guy called Barry Horne?

“He was from Northampton—where I’m from—though I never met him, of course. Went to an ALF meeting at 35 years old and pow—that was it. Became vegetarian, started sabbing hunts around Cambridge. Went to Florida to free a dolphin that was held in captivity in a tiny pond, on its own. Dolphins are extremely social animals. A cell of them spent nights sneaking in, getting to know it, before finally jumping in with a giant dolphin stretcher. Only realised then that there was no way they could lift a 650-pound dolphin out of the park. They got nicked on the way back to the car by local coppers. . . . Couldn’t explain why they had that stretcher.

“Still, they kept campaigning, leafleting, protesting, raising money. Eventually raised 120,000 pounds and bought him off the zoo. Released him after some rehabilitation, and within days he’d joined a pod. Imagine that—taking a dolphin from captivity all the way through to seeing it leaping through the water with all its mates.

“He didn’t stop there. He ended up in prison, possession of explosives. Sentenced to 3 years. He only got more hardcore inside. Listen to this— ‘The animals continue to die and the torture goes on in greater and greater measure. People’s answer to this? More vegeburgers, more Special Brew and more apathy. There is no longer any Animal Liberation Movement. That died long ago. All that is left is a very few activists who care, who understand and who act . . . ’. If you don’t act then you condone. If you don’t fight then you don’t win. And if you don’t win then you are responsible for the death and suffering that will go on and on.”

“Soon as he got out, he went on the warpath. Firebombs, all over the country, a one-man cell targeting the cosmetics industry, Boots, the high-street face of GlaxoSmithKline, in Bristol, the Isle of Wight, all over. He got caught. He knew he would, but for him it was a war. 18 years. 18 fucking years for arson against property, nobody injured. They called him a terrorist. He used to be a bin-man. Whilst inside he did four hunger strikes—35 days, 46 days, 68 days—no food. Whilst on-strike, the Animal Rights Militia—the ones who did not support non-violence—went out to war in his name. They dug tunnels outside Huntingdon Life Sciences to prevent eviction; they raided guinea pig farms, rabbit farms, mink farms; they blockaded Dover and drove a car into Parliament Square, slashing its tyres and d-locking to the steering wheel. 400 people marched on a primate holding facility near Brighton. It was a fucking insurrection.

“Here’s another good one: ‘the fight is not for us, not for our personal wants and needs. It is for every animal that has ever suffered and died in the vivisection labs, and for every animal that will suffer and die in those same labs unless we end this evil business now. The souls of the tortured dead cry out for justice, the cry of the living is for freedom. We can create that justice and we can deliver that freedom. The animals have no one but us. We will not fail them.’

“He died fighting. His last hunger strike he lasted 15 days, before his liver shut-down. The media vilified him. Sipping sweet tea to survive was turned into ‘a feast’. They mocked him because he terrified them, because he was relentless, because he was ethically above them all. He was a fucking hero.

“So eat your meat and laugh at the vegans. And go fuck yourself whilst you’re at it.”

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Through the remnant of forest, past the ramshackle barricades, already being rebuilt by a lone woodsman, likely to be stripped within a day, and over the road. Clambering over the pile of sand dumped to block the access to the abandoned highway. We linger there on the dual carriageway, looking at the weeds peeking through the asphalt, staring at the dead signs, forever blank above the empty roadways. Abandoned by civilisation, it is for a moment as if humanity had disappeared from the face of the planet, and Mierda and I and Grizzly and a few darting starlings all that remain behind. As we head further into the west, the signs of the civilised return. We dodge a roving security car by ducking down behind a copse of reeds and tall grass that has erupted between the metal barriers. We follow a dump-truck as it cruises over a bridge above the highway. Soon, the ground around us becomes stripped of trees, then of bushes, and finally only grasses and tangled brush struggle to survive amidst acres of crushed and flattened dirt. Our boots slip and slide through sand. Not even soil. Just dead, compacted dirt, with clumps of dying grass, stunted seedlings and scrawny thistles meekly squirming between the hillocks. Even here, nature battles on, but on the horizon, behind piles of disrupted and destroyed earth, the ground suddenly drops away, revealing the cavernous scar of the Hole, and no sign of growth remains.

Its scale is hard to put into words. It is Dune—desert planet—you could expect to see giant worms bursting from the ground and hordes of fremen charging across it. A train line runs in perfect parallel to the cliff drop we stand on, slicing across the barren soil unbroken. Not a hundred metres away from us is the monstrous bagger machine. Its size is gargantuan, alien, a mechanical monster hundreds of feet high, the great rotating disk like ten JCBs strapped into a circle, relentlessly scooping the cliffside, pulling away tons of sand and subsoil 24 hours a day, groaning and murmuring like a slaving demon in the depths of hell. Lights gleam on its scaffold tower, and the tiny figure operating it looks like an ant on the side of some vast steel scarecrow. It looks like the gateway to Hades, like the surface of the moon, like a bomb went off and evaporated all forms of life for 80 square kilometres around it.

Across a barren plain of dead soil, between us and the distant hills, is a void, a lacuna of absent earth like a meteor crater blasted into the ground. One day, once the lignite is stripped from the earth, they will fill the crater with water and sail boats on top of it—the final insult of turning a rape victim into a playground for the rich. In the distance, the funnels of power plants choke the dusk sky with plumes of smoke. Above us, the moon burns as a flaming diamond amidst clouds streaked in violet, aquamarine, cerise and vermillion. I wonder how much of the spectacle of colours of the iridiscent sunset is caused by the pollutants they are releasing. On the far side, wind towers jut from the tops of hills, a paltry token of green energy next to the ravages around us.

“One day this will swallow the rest of the forest, right up to where the meadow occupation is.”

“It looks like one day it will swallow the whole world.”

In silence, we turn around and head back to the forest to drink ourselves into oblivion around the campfire. In the darkness, we fuck against a tree, and for a moment it feels like I am having sex with nature herself, one last desperate union before we are forced apart again.

(All photos © oneslutriot.)