Michael: You pack a lot of significance into 250 words. One of the ways “Insanitary” gets to me is as a depiction of personal nature lost. I’ve experienced something like this as a kid and as an adult: I fell in love with a beautiful piece of nature, it shaped me, and then it was taken away from me. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but the woods I grew up in are gone. I suspect this is a common experience for people who go on to care about the natural world and want to protect it.
Would you tell me about your inspiration for “Insanitary”? Were there some Singing Caves in your past that got a TM put on them?
Danika: First off, thank you. I’ve become quite the fan of flash fiction. It’s the space between poetry and prose for me. I love when writers craft work that says what it needs to in the least amount of words. I like when writers make us think between the lines.
So many places in the natural world have been lost to us, and they will never come back. It’s an ongoing heartbreak for me, the loss of the natural world combined with touristication. And it’s either speeding up or I’m noticing it more or both. Just the other day I came across an entire building where a forested city block had been about six months before. I was so disoriented I thought I was on the wrong street. It was the last plot of “nature” in this particular neighbourhood, and my first thought was, “Where did all the wildlife go?”
This story was partially inspired by a location on the Big Island of Hawaii where the volcano’s geothermal heat creates a warm pond (inside human-made lava rock walls). When I first visited it many years ago it was a lovely little tucked away spot for locals. Now there’s a paved lot and tour buses stop by. One time a busload of tourists stood above us bathers on the rock wall taking pictures, the pond a 10-minute stop on their tour. I thought, “Why are you here and what’s the point?”
What’s the point of this sacred spot being a check mark on a tour bus schedule? How can you really understand this place without bathing in Pele’s waters, meditating as you float in the sun soaking up the vibe? I started wondering when someone would start charging to get in, or how much longer we’d be allowed to float around before someone deemed it too unsanitary to do so? That led to wondering about all the other places in the world we had stolen from both nature and natives. I wondered about my own footprint, about why I thought I had any more right to be there than anyone else?
I now live on the Sunshine Coast of British Colombia, where people used to move so they could live among the trees. BC’s old growth forests are some of the most amazing in the world, and the majority of them on the south coast have been lost. The Sunshine Coast is quickly becoming a suburb of Vancouver, people buying property, razing it of all trees, and selling the wood. There’s a gigantic earth scar on the hillside one can see as one commutes on the ferry. Each new empty patch of earth makes my heart break. Next door to where I was last renting, a few acres were gone in a matter of days. I caught a deer standing at the edge of it, its former path gone, cement and wood skeleton in its place. The deer looked shell-shocked.
Honestly, I’ve sometimes had the thought that humans don’t even deserve to be here.
Michael: How did you learn from that experience? Are there places in nature now that you consider private and personal and the same way as the ones you’ve lost?
Danika: I don’t know how I’ve learned… I suppose I’ve learned how to be sad and angry all the time and still live in this world. I wish I were a billionaire so that I could use my money to protect the land and support organizations protecting the land. I struggle so much with the idea of “owning” land in the first place, yet my family just bought an acre. There was this thought that if we buy this we can protect it, because if we don’t someone else might and take everything down. There are old growth trees on it (in a neighbourhood of old growth trees), and I feel like I’m preserving something by leaving everything be.
Michael: I’d also like to ask what you think about the other side of that–about when the co-opting of nature corresponds to making it more available. Marissa Lingen’s Reckoning 1 essay, “How Far Are We from Minneapolis?” is about the value of public nature. For some people, if you don’t put down a boardwalk in the Singing Caves they’ll never get to experience it. But of course, there’s a cost. (It’s almost painful for me to resist bringing up the Tragedy of the Commons, but I think that kettle of fish may be a little beyond the scope.) I remember going to Yellowstone, and finding that the awe and the uncanny in my experience of natural wonders like Old Faithful came just as much from the surrounding weirdness of the human accommodations: 1950s era tourist lodges, paved walkways among treacherous hot springs, vast parking lots, trash cans elaborately secured against bears. Yet without all that, a lot of people wouldn’t get to see these things. Do you think it’s possible to be as personally invested in nature, to be motivated to defend it as fiercely, based on that kind of encounter as opposed to the intensely individual, unmitigated kind of experience “Insanitary” exemplifies for us in soaking up cave songs through the soles of your bare feet? How can we strike a balance between those two, and how can we continue to do that as there get to be more and more of us and less and less of untouched nature? Is it even possible?
Danika: I, too, have been to Yellowstone and Yosemite and struggle with the same thoughts you have. The last time I ventured to Yosemite I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could it was so overrun with tourists and RVs. And I know I have no right to be there any more than anyone else does, so how can I complain?
I used to live in Colorado and loved hiking in the Rockies. Once after hiking to the top of one of the 14,000 ft peaks I was describing it to my grandmother and she said they should build a road to the top so that everyone could see it. I immediately thought, NO! I believe there are places on the earth humans should never see, never have access too. We can’t put our fingerprints and footprints on everything.
You’re asking all the questions I’ve asked myself and ones I unfortunately don’t have the answers to. I do believe creating places where current and future generations can enjoy and witness nature is important. I do believe it’s a balance. But how do we decide how much space we take up and which spaces we should develop in this way? And once we start developing them for accessibility, have we taken something essential away? I don’t know that it’s truly possible to be as personally invested, to be, as you put it, “motivated to defend it as fiercely” based on boardwalk parks and paved paths to waterfalls. When a family returns home from a road trip to Yellowstone with their moose photos and geyser keychains, do they suddenly become environmental activists? Or do they get reabsorbed by technology and comforts, caught up in the capitalist cycle, that defense of the natural world gets pushed to the back of mind? Do they even see their own connection to it at all?
Michael: What does this story look like when we run out of singing caves? Like one of those imagined future dystopias we read about or see on film?
Danika: At the rate of our populating and developing the earth, more and more singing caves will either get touristicated or destroyed. I think a lot about what I’ve missed that’s already gone. I think a lot about the cyborg generation, who only gets to view such things in virtual settings without any experience of feeling it through their feet and into their bones. I think that kind of connection is vital to our “spiritual” survival, the part, ironically, that makes us humane.