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.)

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Brandon O’Brien Interview: “Papa Bois and the Boy”

brandon-obrienRead “Papa Bois and the Boy” In Reckoning 1.

Michael: I’d never heard of Papa Bois until I read “Papa Bois and the Boy”. Now I know a little, but only in the abstract. How did you find out about him? I imagine the poem must be engaging with the myth, and with what the myth means to the people, in ways I’m not getting. Can you tell me a little about how you thought about that?

Brandon: Well, to open, ‘finding out’ about Papa Bois, in Trinidad, is the equivalent of finding out that water is wet, I’d say. I’m a Trini writer, and that means that folklore is always in the air—they’re the tools that people associate most swiftly with Caribbean fantasy. I grew up knowing about Papa Bois, the father of the forest, in the way that I guess we all grow up with Sleeping Beauty.

Myth gives people the kind of language they need to communicate the things they value, and part of why I love Papa Bois is because he stands for the reverence of nature that we always worry we’d lose. That’s what I wanted to tap into, especially as it relates to now—to how industrialization is a threat to it, a shadow cast over nature. I’m surely not the only Trinidadian, or even the only Caribbean person, who’s had this thought, but in a world where the ‘first-world status’ of a nation is measured in the height of its skyscrapers, coming from an island that yearns for that kind of ‘first-world’ love and leverages its oil economy for just a drop of that status—it was as if Papa Bois called me personally and insisted I write it. Or, hell, it was as if Papa Bois wrote it and told me to pass it on.

Michael: The poem tells a story about the encroachment of civilization on nature, and about fleeing that encroachment. It’s a classic trope of ecological literature, and something I think it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about for anyone who grows up with access to nature. I wanted to ask what your own experience of that was like. Did you lose some nature that was precious to you? Would you tell me about it?

Brandon: This is an interesting question, to me, because I feel like ‘losing some nature that was precious to me’ means so many different things that aren’t very close to me, but I think about a lot. As in, I think about nature a lot, but I can’t think of any one thing that stands out. It wasn’t seeing my favourite reserve be torn apart or something like that—it was thinking about all of the various ways that our relationship with globalization has led us to make poor environmental decisions. And I’ll admit that those decisions always affect other people moreso than they do me. In Trinidad, we’ve destroyed prime agricultural land for houses, we’ve removed wetlands in order to construct a stretch of highway. And I’m not saying those infrastructural decisions aren’t valid ones to make, but the relative ease with which we make them at the expense of nature—and more often at the expense of people whose lives depend on it—is still baffling. And then they inevitably bite us, and we stare down the widening maw of food insecurity, for instance, and we wonder what went wrong.

Michael: Finally, I have been itching to ask you about Fiyah, the new (or should I say revived?) magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. You’re the poetry editor. How has that role been for you so far? Have you done anything like this before? What has editing taught you about your own aesthetic for poetry? Is it informing your writing at all?

issue-3-cover-smallBrandon: O, FIYAH has been lovely! Issue Three, ‘Sundown Towns’, has some amazing poetry in it, and I love everything we’ve looked at so far. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see great work pass before your eyes in a flurry, and an even lovelier one to let them know you’re going to give them the space to tell a story they care about, to give them a platform to share themselves like that. Because this is a new experience for me. I’m pretty sure I must’ve told the rest of the FIYAH team at least once how anxiety-inducing it is to have this kind of position over a work, to essentially decide if it deserves to be a part of your platform, to be seen. One of the things I’m glad to learn from this, from the business end, is that when an editor really cares about bringing new voices to the speculative fiction space, and you bring them really damn good work but it just isn’t what they want, it hurts them to tell you no almost as much as it hurts you to hear it. But when they tell you yes? Man… again, I’m really in love with the poetry in this issue!

On the aesthetic side, I’m discovering a lot. For one thing, seeing a bunch of poems set against each other every few weeks does wonders for undoing the kind of Poetry Dos and Don’ts we keep being told. Things I’ve heard people say are always uncool, or too old or cliché, or too difficult for speculative poetry, are always showing up in the poetry slush pile, and even if they don’t catch me, they still prove well enough that those things are still engaging and worth reading.

And that’s at least made me more confident about my own work. About being willing to test the boundaries of my own work.  I don’t see nearly as much experimental work as I’d love to, but I have seen swaths of poems that don’t shy away from being interesting with things people usually throw away as trite. I can only hope that seeing the poetry that comes out in the magazine in the coming issues will challenge and inspire others as much as it does me.

Michael: How do you feel the work the magazine has featured so far has done at representing the spirit of the original Fire!, and Fiyah‘s statement of purpose? Are you seeing submissions written to that purpose?

Brandon: Definitely. I think our goal to èpater le bourgeois has been undoubtedly achieved since day one. I can speak for everything that comes to us, and for the poetry slush in particular, when I say we’re always brimming with work that I think is doing what FIYAH has to do to follow in FIRE!!‘s spirit—work that rebels against both the narratives black people have been fed in narrative media in general and the history of the speculative fiction canon in particular. We have a secondary goal—to give writers the confidence in their own work to keep getting hungry, to keep working and submitting as many places as possible – and of course I feel it’s too early to gauge, but seeing how hungry readers are for FIYAH, I have faith. We’re giving the black community worldwide a space to tell their own stories in their own voices, through the lens of speculative fiction, and we’ve seen some very radical things come out of that process. Things that challenge all of the gatekeepers’ assumptions about the genre, and put blackness in a far more nuanced light. I want to do more of that. I want people to keep seeing more of that.

Michael: Are you having to do much outreach, encouraging authors to submit who might not have done much submitting before? I understand many writers of color feel an active disinterest from white-dominated publishing that deters them from even seeking publication for their work. Did you experience that at all submitting your own work? Are you doing anything specific to overcome it at Fiyah? Do you feel you are contributing to change the circumstances that were outlined in that Fireside #BlackSpecFic report?

Brandon: I’d say… a little less than before. Again, I can speak definitively for speculative poetry, which from my vantage point is such a small community already; take the black community within it, and we cut it even closer. Then we’re talking about a distrust of the publishing ecosystem, a distrust that is literally older than I am, and I can’t blame anyone for that, I think. If someone looks at the genre, even at people deliberately reaching out to them, and goes, ‘no, I don’t think the genre is for me, because I’ve had these experiences’, I don’t think I can criticize them for that. It was part of my own experience, for a time, for sure.

But we’ve also been lucky that people, especially after the #BlackSpecFic report, have been eager to see the landscape change. People are rooting for us, because we’re making it a little easier for new black voices to make their way into the genre and have their work noticed. So they’re sharing us with their friends, they’re promoting us on social media, because they have faith in us. And we’re working hard to earn that faith, and to reach out to people in their small pockets who may have something but haven’t been sending it out, because we really do want to see it.

Michael: Sorry for the barrage of questions about this—it’s all stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot for Reckoning, if from a different angle. Fiyah looks beautiful, it’s doing what it’s doing forcefully and with grace, and it’s something the field and the world badly need. So I can’t help looking to you all for inspiration.

Brandon: You can’t see this make me blush, but it’s making me blush! I similarly think Reckoning is sorely needed—giving people an avenue to use speculative fiction as a lens to view the literal world in, and our impact upon it, and how we can be better stewards of it. The genre has been having such good luck lately, with so many people wanting to ensure that it becomes more diverse, more inclusive, more radical, more conscious, more critical. As a fan, as a writer, and now as an editor, this makes me so happy. I’m glad both of our spaces can be such inspirations to each other, and I can’t wait to see what it inspires other people to make.

Michael: Thank you for being a part of that inspiration. And thank you very much for talking to me!

Brandon: Thank you! For the opportunity to talk to you, and for sharing my work in Reckoning!

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Eel of the Lake

J.R. McConvey

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

“Our water!”

OUR WATER!”

“Our life!”

“OUR LIFE!”

Neon poster boards glowed pink and yellow in the late August sun, like opalescent scales rippling on a monster made of myriad bodies. Each sign bore a slogan, praise for the lake or a condemnation of the corporate befouler, Lennox-Mills; and the protestors shook the signs in unison, so they fluttered in time with the chanting. Drums pounded. The smell of burning sage filled the air. The day was warm and good for anger.

Mizay did her best to get some oomph into her voice—OUR water, our LIFE!—but found herself holding back from full volume, so she could listen to how Taslin chanted. There was such authority in it, as though her friend were chopping thick logs with her words. Taslin had tattoos that Mizay loved: a pair of iguanas on her tanned calves; a dragon with a spear in its talons on her bicep; an octopus crawling up her back, one of its tentacles tracing the line of raised, red tissue that ran down her left shoulder. Tas was a warrior, for real. If Mizay was honest with herself, Tas and her passion for these things was the real reason she’d come to the demonstration—that, and a day outside in the head-clearing breeze off the lake.

Not that she wasn’t angry, too. The facts were shocking: fifteen per cent of the islands gone in the last two years. Since they’d stabilized the bluffs and built out the new pier in the port lands to put up the casino, the natural currents that carried sediment and gave the islands their shape had been reduced to a slow trickle of sand. Mizay knew most of the facts from Tas. But it had been her mother who’d first told her about the problem, and all the others it was creating—the islands eroding, the north shore crowded with plastics washed up in the altered current, ducks and plovers caught in the tangled knots and strands, toxic algae blooms smothering the inlets.

Mizay fingered the leather pouch on her neck and stared at the clouds gliding across the blueness above. Our people’s land, her mother had said.

Your people, she thought.

“Hey, you okay?” Taslin poked her in the arm. “Gotta keep up the chant, or the man will think you quit.”

“I won’t quit.”

“I know.” Taslin looked at her and lowered her electric green sign. Her thin lips were raisin dark, and a few strands of her blue hair lifted and fell with the wind. Against the mosaic of neon, it looked like a halo of water around her pale skin.

“You wanna take a break? Get a bite, a cold drink, maybe?”

“Yeah,” Mizay said, letting go of the leather pouch. She wasn’t at all hungry. “I do.”

“Cardboard.”

Taslin chewed forcefully, a grimace on her face, and pointed to the water. “They throw the plastic in the lake, and use the cardboard to make pizza.” She tossed the remains of a gnawed-on slice onto her greasy tray. Mizay resisted the urge to pick it up and nibble on it. She was already too aware of her sweat-slick weight leaning against the fiberglass snack table, so different from Taslin’s lithe, dry body.

“You’re quieter than I expected,” said Tas.

Mizay laughed. “You calling me loud?”

“That’s a compliment.”

“From you, yeah. I guess it is. You were shouting pretty good back there.”

“They don’t hear otherwise,” Tas said, sucking sauce off her finger. She sighed. “They don’t hear anyway.”

“It’s still early,” Mizay said, though it wasn’t true. The sun was leaning west; the waves lapped away at the cluttered beach across the main path, licking away sand, trading it for crushed water bottles and faded silicon bracelets. For months, Mizay had felt a sense of things tipping, some shift in the energy of the city. The weather swung wildly, from sulky heat to heaving storms to cool, clouded days. People on the street got enraged at random. Nothing was consistent. Except Taslin.

“It’s late and you know it,” said Tas. “And you know I know you, Mizay Taylor.” She took a sip of soda water and raised her eyebrows, eyes goofy and wide, then looked away again. “Thanks for coming today. It means a lot to me.”

They’d known each other for five years, since Mizay had moved downtown from her childhood home in Ajax. Taslin had been one of four housemates sharing the crowded apartment above the store in Regent Park. They’d hit it off over a shared love of old school hip-hop and monster movies, The Toxic Avenger series and The Host, especially. Tas moved out to live with a doomed boyfriend soon after Mizay arrived, but they’d kept in touch and gotten close over the years. When Mizay’s father died, Tas had been there to guide her through the delirium, the sadness and hatred and guilt and relief; and Mizay had seen Tas burn through dozens of men, and was the person Tas had called on the night the worst of them ran a hunting knife along the curve of her shoulder blade after one too many pills. She’d had Taslin’s blood in her hair and her eyes, as she clutched her friend’s hand in the hospital bed while the nurse put forty stitches in her. Tas had refused any anaesthetic, spent the procedure staring into Mizay’s eyes, saying fuckerfuckerfuckerfucker, over and over again.

Mizay looked out at the lake, the haze gathering on the blue horizon. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and put it on Taslin’s. Right away, she realized how sweaty it was.

Tas let it sit for a second, then drew her hand back and smiled.

“Need to hold hands, lovey? I thought we were being civilly disobedient.” She looked back toward the protest and shook her head. “I’m all for moments, Miz, but I can’t help thinking about why we’re here, you know? These islands. The lake . . .” She shook her head. “Whatever it’s whispering to you right now, Miss Mizay, the assholes at Lennox-Mills can’t hear it, even though it’s screaming it at them. Because of them. We have to make the message louder.” She sat back, hoisting her neon sign with its blunt war cry, LENNOX-FUCKING-KILLS. She looked up at the sky.

“It makes me fucking crazy, you know?”

Mizay smiled, but she felt a bloom of heat in her face. She was an amateur, distracted, and afraid her falseness was showing on her cheek like a mole. She couldn’t commit to causes like Taslin. It was all too slippery, too hard to hold onto.

Tas got up and saluted her.

“Permission to visit the head, captain,” she said. “Be right back. Watch this for me, kay?” She let the sign fall on the table and strutted away. Mizay watched her go, all pumping thighs and chunky leather boots. She felt a tickling in her spine, and thought again about her mother, her father—prayers and smoke, both of them, in different ways. Her father of devout Irish stock. Her mother, Ojibwe, steeped in the brutality of the residential schools.

Our people, Mizay.

With her mother, now, it was always stories from the past. Wordsmoke. Everything was some elliptical tale, relayed in the slow, deep voice that had only slowed and deepened since Mizay’s father died. Wanda Taylor, née Littleshell, had enough stories to last a dozen lifetimes; Mizay called her twice a week to receive them. She was bored by her mother, but loved her.

With her father it was something else. Even now.

Mizay stood up, grabbed Tas’s sign and walked toward the shore, noting clusters of willow and wild strawberry huddling close to the water past the strip of beach. Overhead, gulls curved in the sky, shrieking in hunger or warning. A few sailboats dotted the horizon, far out. Mizay closed her eyes, savoured the kiss of the wind on her face, the smells of seaweed, wet muskrat and dry stone. She imagined herself out in the water, swimming with the current, moving like a torpedo, smashing into the concrete pier and sending the casino toppling to the bottom of the lake. This was her home—this island. This city. She was her people. Her, and Taslin.

“Can you put your filth away, please?”

She opened her eyes, disoriented by the dazzle of the sun on the sand. Swooning, she turned, searching for the source of the sharp, angry voice. She saw a man, white, white sneakers and white socks, red polo shirt and tan shorts, standing beside her, scowling.

“There are kids here, in case you didn’t notice.”

His long, white finger pointed at Taslin’s sign. Behind him, a young boy, maybe six, looked at Mizay with terrified eyes.

“You think you’re making a point? It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry?” Mizay looked down at Tas’s sign. She took in beauty of it, the bravery, black magic marker scrawled in Taslin’s curly hand on the humming green.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.” She followed the man’s eyes as they traveled up and down her body, lingering over her middle. Mizay sucked in her gut out of instinct, to make herself smaller.

The man turned to go with his son. Mizay looked around for Tas. After a few steps the man glanced back at her, hesitating for a suspended moment before intensifying his scowl.

“Goddamn Indian bitch,” he said, the words pitched like sharp stones.

Not your people.

Mizay wanted to shout, lash out at him. Say fuck you and your people. Fuck you and your world, your plastic and your piers, your terrible manners. Fuck you and your old, stupid ways.

Instead, she stood mute, burning, then folded the sign in her hands and fled, walking quickly away from the man, who had turned around to follow his son along the beach, and had probably already forgotten she existed.

She looked around. The man was right: there were kids everywhere, running, kicking balls, eating ice cream. The protest was only a few hundred metres away, but in leaving its safe space, she and Tas had walked into a different world, a world in which innocent children ran among people who did not welcome her here, and could become them. Natives, Mizay, her father said. Indians, Mizay, her mother said, waggling a status card at her.

Flight instinct flooded her like piping steam, spiked into her belly, made her clench up and hunch and stumble forward, unthinking. She walked, ran, blind, going until she was away from the promenade. The words in her head slapped like a lash: Indian bitch, Indian bitch. It was the normalcy of it, the plainness of the man, that got to her. That, and his son, blond with blue eyes that watched and absorbed. Mizay walked, ran, slithered, seeking damp ground, seeking space.

When she finally stopped, she was on a part of the path overhung with the canopies of tall ash, maple and oak. Greenness surrounded her. The buzzing of the crowds and the faint chanting of the protest were swept over by the wind whushing through high branches, and the rattling of brittle leaves lower down, spackling the path in shadows.

She stood, shaking, huffing breaths, not crying. She was not what her father said, not what her mother said; though she was exactly these, both.

Mizay had no idea how long she’d been standing there when the woman rounded the corner and came toward her, walking with intent. Mizay felt the air pulse, like wind pushed by a great flapping wing. The woman wore a denim jacket and high boots and had hair tied back in a long braid. She wore a satchel on her shoulder and held a smartphone in her right hand.

“You look lost,” she said to Mizay.

Mizay felt a foaming in her belly. She stared at her dark, speckled wrists. She thought of her mother, of the yellowed suds gathering in the stilled bays around the island. She looked up and to her right and saw the high concrete tower spearing above the treetops, marking where the city skyline pushed against the edge of the harbour. She thought about her father, who had also looked so normal, who had been respected and admired among his friends and colleagues.

“No,” Mizay said. “I’m home.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I think . . .” Mizay trailed off. Why should she the one to feel shame? She tested it in her mind: he devalued me. Something inside her said she should be used to the slurs, and the thought filled her with rage and despair.

“I’m Cora,” the woman said. Her eyes were deep, black. Mizay thought how they smiled and howled at once.

“Mizay,” said Mizay. The next part like a confession: “Taylor”.

Cora cocked her head and smiled. “That’s an interesting name,” she said. “Do you know what it means?”

Mizay knew what it meant to be Taylor. Then, other times, she didn’t know—couldn’t process being Taylor, because it was part of her, and that in itself was something she couldn’t understand. She’d never liked the first name her mother had chosen, never cared to know what it meant. It was enough, to know it was an Ojibwe word, one of the only concessions her father had ever made to her mother’s ancestry, one he’d always resented.

She shook her head, no.

Cora turned around and surveyed the trees.

“Your mother knows what your name means,” she said. Mizay twitched. Cora walked to the side of the path and rubbed a bit of tufted grass between her fingers. Suddenly Mizay heard the water, lapping, sighing, just past the trees and down the rocky beach to her left. The leaves became more distinct. The sun burnished the clouds a dusky gold. The woman turned and stared right into Mizay’s eyes, which were still puffy and red. “But I think you should ask the grandmothers and grandfathers.”

Mizay blinked. “They don’t talk to me,” she said.

The woman smiled. “They’re just waiting for the right time.” She took a slow step toward Mizay and slid a reed behind her ear, where it tickled like a fuzzy caterpillar. “They don’t judge anyone.”

Mizay swallowed. Her throat was dry. She thought about Tas, about her fiery, mad heart, and her gut wobbled. Tas would be looking for her. Worried. Maybe frantic. How long had she been gone for? She tried to remember what she’d done with Taslin’s sign, and couldn’t. Suddenly she panicked.

“I have to get back,” she said to the woman.

“I think so,” the woman said. “But wait a minute.” Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a steel water bottle, unscrewed the lid and offered it to Mizay. Mizay reached out and took it. She tipped it back into her mouth, feeling the cool water course down through her body, and handed the bottle back to Cora.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome. One more thing.” In a single motion, Cora leaned in and wrapped her arm around Mizay, held out her phone, and snapped a selfie against the backdrop of lush green, the lake peeking through the gaps in the leaves. Mizay saw herself on the tiny rectangular screen, and realized she was trembling.

“Why do you want a picture of me?” she asked.

“Because,” Cora said. “You’re beautiful.” Head down, tapping her phone and humming, she walked back the way she’d come, disappearing around the corner.

Mizay stood, unable to move. She needed to find Taslin . . . but she was afraid. Her hand on Taslin’s hand: she hadn’t even known it was happening . . . even though all she’d wanted, all day, was to take her finger and trace the shape of the octopus down the smooth, scarred blade of Tas’s back.

That man and his child: they were just excuses to run.

The woman had asked Mizay her what her name meant, but Mizay was certain she knew the answer. Ojibwe, Mizay. On instinct, drawn by a current that calmed her breath and gave her lightness, Mizay went after her.

Rounding the path, she came to a clearing, where a stone beach sloped down to a full, wide view of the lake across the curve of the islands’ south shore. Halfway to the tip, a gap funneled inward, the water carving a rill between the clustered trees. In the distance, over on the eastern mainland, the casino was a tiny grey box on the jutting pier, studded with electric lights that blazed in the waning sun, baiting the dusk and the early moon. Cora was gone.

Mizay felt a flexing, an undulance, shoot through her back and down her legs.

Our water.

It breached right in front of her, some thirty metres out. A curving loop of silver, slick and shimmering, muscled and lithe, huge as a subway train, exploding above the polished surface of the lake. Mizay gaped at it, the coils of its snakelike body, its ribbony fin, the feline cast of its head, droplets of foam splashing up as it plunged back into the heaving blue, throwing up plumes of water. As it went under, she felt its presence as a bulging in the sky, a slithering of the sand beneath her feet, a deep rumbling in the wind.

And she knew, in her heart, that what she saw was real. More than that, she knew it was no blasphemy born of pollutants, no scream from the crying lake . . . but a gift, telling how the past would become the future. How destruction and healing would always exist, side by side, in cycles.

She knew that this was the lake returning.

Mizay breathed in, filled with the sun’s warmth, the murmuring sounds of the city and the echoing ripples on the water radiating out from where the eel had surfaced. She heard her mother’s voice. She heard others, too. She would speak with them all, soon.

But first, she would go and find Taslin, and tell her, something new is happening.

Read an interview with J.R. McConvey about “Eel of the Lake”.

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Diego Reymondez Interview: “Wine and Wisteria”

Read “Wine and Wistera” in Reckoning 1.

diego-reymondezMichael: When we were first talking about “Wine and Wisteria”, you told me you tend to write in English, but you acknowledged some Spanish influence on the structure of your writing “creeping in” (which made me happy, in the context of a story about taking care of old grapevines). I love your prose–the informal, oral style is one of the things that drew me to “Wine and Wisteria” in the first place. So I wanted to ask you a bit more about that. I can read Spanish–slowly–and I’ve done enough of that to have maybe a tiny sense of what you meant about finding Spanish “too pretty”. But I’ve read vast swathes more in translation, and I’ve always been interested in what it means to love the sentence structure of a piece of prose that’s translated, without getting to see exactly in what way or to what degree the translator chose to mimic the rhythm of the original. I’ve done a little bit of translating, so I know how that works–for me, the dangerous tendency is to mimic too closely. I also am terribly prone to long sentences in my own writing, which is something I think Spanish lends itself to.

Can you tell me more about how your bilingual experience in Spanish and English influences the way you write, what you write?

Diego: I wish I could. I’ve been wondering what that relationship might be for years. Before I left for Spain my only real reservation for not going was that my English might suffer. Who might I have been or how might I be writing now if I never left the states? I’m not really sure.
What I can say definitively is that I’m two different people depending on the language I speak. And the longer I spend in this country the more that Spanish part of me becomes the real me. I’m becoming less sarcastic, more whimsical, more open and direct. If that’s to do with the language, or the culture or the feedback between the two creating reality, I’m not sure.

There’s an odd lag when I switch languages. If I’ve been talking English with visitors, switching back to a place where I can speak proper Spanish takes me half a day. My accent comes out and it’s harder for me to express myself. I suppose talking Spanish all day and then switching to English at night to write had to affect Wine and Wisteria.

Michael: Do you consciously draw influence from English writers, Spanish writers?

Diego: I think I’m a sponge. I don’t actively draw influences, but whatever I’m reading at the time has always seeped in to what I’m writing. These past few years though, after having to leave my library back in America, and relying on my brother’s, I’ve concentrated on non-fiction in both languages. Especially anthropology, permaculture, ecology, and biology. I think that might have a bit to do with how “Wine and Wisteria” came out so conversational. I might have been escaping from so much structure.

Michael: One of the things you do besides writing is permaculture–in your bio, you’re a forest astronaut, a bosquenauta, which I love. I’ve been trying at this on my own very small piece of land in Southeast Michigan for about six years: food forests take a long time, I gather, but I’ve got apple and cherry trees, strawberries, native onions, comfrey, edible ferns, stinging nettle etc etc in a great disorganized jumble I mean to slowly try to unify into some kind of self-supporting system. I gather from our earlier discussion and your Facebook group that you’re doing this in Spain.

Can you tell me what a food forests look like in the climate where you’re working, and how people interact with it?

Diego: The nice thing about forest gardening, you can have all those disconnected plants and if you leave for five years and come back they would probably all have connected themselves. Found their own self-supporting system. Maybe a wild borage would find its way in, or you’d lose some plants to the shade of new tree growth (although everything you mentioned grows fine in the shade.) You learn to trust that nature knows what it’s doing, to think a bit less, and take Obi-wan’s advice to heart and “stretch out with your feelings.”

Forest gardens here look almost any way you want. Even though we’re basically at the same latitude as New York, we’re protected by the warm air from the gulf of Mexico that crosses the Atlantic just for us. So, on the coast, it almost never freezes and you can have almost any temperate tree growing along with tropical avocados, sapote and bananas. There are even stories that people tell like conspiracy theories about old ladies with mangos and ice-cream bean. “You know what I heard…”

It’s about 15-25 degrees year round, (60-80 degrees in Yankee parlance) which lends itself to ideal tree growth in almost every season, and when you team that with particularly fast growing trees and bushes like alders, elderberries, willows and scotch broom, you can create three dimensional forests pretty quickly while the more edible varieties of trees which take longer to mature grow in the shade.

We’re having a lot of fun these days tying the principles of permaculture and forest gardening into more cultural settings. Some of our projects are simply about production, or personal use, but the more entertaining ones are for therapeutic centers who’d like to have their practice molded into the forest, masseuses who’d like to set their tables up outside, edible forest clearings with stages. The possibilities go on.

Michael: Have you been doing it long enough to see a forest garden approach maturity? How does that work?

My forest is still young (entering its 4th year) so you don’t get a proper feeling of being in the woods at every moment, but there are times when you can catch a glimpse. Last year, for example, when it rained for the first time after months of drought, I could start to feel the soil revive. The microorganisms came out of their comas, and there was an indescribable buzz in the air. Then that feeling mixed up with the dissipated echo of bird songs off the young trees. It was the first time I felt like I was in a forest here.

Michael: Finally, I want to ask you about the generational conflict that to me is at the heart of “Wine and Wisteria”. This to me is one of the hardest challenges in trying to change humanity’s relationship with the earth from something destructive and toxic back to something nurturing and mutually beneficial: influencing the people we love to see things the way we do. And also maybe the most crucial. You show us a moment of frustration and one way to get through that frustration. That’s beautiful, and I really appreciate it. I think it’s something we all need. Can I ask if you were drawing from personal experience? Has that strategy helped you in the long term? Do your parents get what you’re doing with permaculture? Do they approve of it? Or, to take the lesson of the Lavandeira another way, do you think it’s enough, in the long run, for the younger generation to find ways to cope with their loved ones’ misunderstanding and move forward without them?

Diego: My parents are beginning to understand. They think they’re more understanding than they are, but I do appreciate their process.
Almost everyone I’m meeting is kind of going through the same process.

1. They head back to their family land.

Almost everyone in Galicia has access to a little piece of land, because by some strange miracle banks never figured out how to buy everything up so there’s almost as many hectares as owners. And at the same time the entire nation’s been in an economic depression since 2008.
So people are realizing, “Hey, I might not have a job, and I might have been lied to about my education landing me a job, but I do have this small piece of land that I can plant, grow and maintain myself on. And as they start they realize it’s not the hard work they were told farm work has to be. It’s actually kind of fun, satisfying and even fulfilling. Individually, they’re fulfilled.

2. Family dispute about the land.

Parents who hadn’t thought about their land in years see their kids working it and inevitably an argument starts. “What are you doing there?” “But that’s not how you’re supposed to plant things.” “That’s not how my grandpa did things.”

3. Doubt

More than anything else, they’re met with misunderstanding, doubt, and flat out refusal from a generation of parents too accustomed to comfort to submit themselves to the discomfort of understanding something new. Even a bucket for food scraps to add on to the compost next to the trash becomes the Iliad. Where on one side are the zealots of reusable bags living at the expense of others, and on the other are the people who are too comfortable to notice they’re living at the expense of others.

4. Years long reconciliation

Everyone’s flawed and nobody’s living well, but we’re all trying. All we can do for the time is have the courage to move beyond our lack of foresight, deal with our emotions like adults, and do it without the support of certain people.
Solutions won’t come from fighting the people we love. If I’m right, they’ll learn on their own time how to change. When I’m wrong, I’ll learn. The fight of our lives can’t be between generations. It needs to be directed into soothing the future. And that involves accepting that some people won’t change at a pace Earth needs, moving past them, and putting energy into helping people who do.

Michael: Thank you, this has been fascinating!

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Papa Bois and the Boy

Brandon O’Brien

I startled you the first time.

You spilled bougainvilleas deep violet

from your lap, bursting all around

us. The whole forest was staring

 

at me, waiting to see what came next.

You ran before I could finish

calling your name.

I sympathized, you know.

 

The iron devils had already

moved in, their teeth marking your trees,

splitting rocks with their toes

in search of something more golden-black

 

than freshwater clear.

I looked like a devil’s-heart, no?

And how could I see you?

But fear makes special senses,

 

desperation is its own sight.

You never stopped me laying

my head in your heaven— “but

that is what it here for,” you

 

say. “For rest.”

You’re a charming

king of a more dazzling domain.

I’m as afraid of the outside as you;

 

look at us, you a god with horns,

me a man who ran and tore the city’s dress off me.

The mimosa pudica closes her doors

with each tremor of modernity drawing close.

 

You bring mockingbirds to our dinner

tables soon, dare to kiss a boy so

future-scented, tell me I don’t

need to apologize. “The city does

 

forget easy. The woods can’t.”

I want to live as long as you do,

hand over hand, be a pleasant memory,

‘til the city steps on the very last green.

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When No One’s Left

Lora Rivera

“David.” I roll his name around in my mouth like it is a prayer. David Malouf. He laughs when I use his family name. It means nothing now. But I like it. I like how when I use it, I remember.

In some ways, it would be easier to forget. And then, we’d be back at the beginning of time, just the two of us, as if none of it had happened. Just bodies. No past, no future.

David Malouf. David, my David.

I stand from where I’ve been stooping along the riverbank, gathering wild onions.

We do think about it. I do. Here, holding the weight of the onion heads against my belly, tucked inside my makeshift shirt, pulled up apron-like. I, who never wanted to be married, never cared for children, who could think only of the next track meet or of prom coming up and who scoffed at the idea of college—no one with our kind of money would bother. I, now craving the swell of life inside me, foreign and mysterious, and yet so bound to my genetic coding it’s all I can do to fight the primeval urge that wills to devour me.

It’s there in his eyes, too.

I roll my shoulders to relieve the gelled pinch that sits at the base of my neck. The muscles loosen easily, perfectly. It’s been thirty-eight months (although David swears thirty-nine and has stubbornly fasted accordingly) since we left the capsule, and still I remember the break in my clavicle, the blast of pain deep in my bursting eardrums as the world incinerated itself—when the first of the bombs hit. I remember the bullet in my thigh, how the exploded metal screamed under my skin. I shouldn’t have been alive to take her spot. It was supposed to be her, not me, in the capsule beside David, slumbering through the centuries.

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But she didn’t make it. Her skull cracked open when the earth quaked and she fell. I can still see it, the gore spilled out . . . .

We’ve seen no birds, and so no eggs. We wouldn’t be able to stomach it, cracking them open.

For a long time, we made no decision. We didn’t touch. Even accidentally. There was too much grief.

But survival is a cruel and unfoilable taskmaster.

I look over the small field at him, the one we found several months ago rife with edible tubers. We will have to move soon, because they are mostly gone. Winter is coming again. We will need better shelter. David is turned toward the setting sun. He always knows where west is, day or night. Once, early on and in a rage, I told him his God was gone with his Mecca and why bother? His face became a shadow that took a long time to clear.

His back is covered in what is left of his uniform, now stitched with plant matter to reinforce it. He is strong and tall. Perfect, just like me. We had a half millennium in the amniotic bath to be transformed, re-generated, made into exactly two people robust enough—given vastly elongated lifespans—to reclaim our planet.

We swore we would.

But the people we swore to—the people to whom we paid money and blood—are gone now. It is only me and David. And this broken species of ours should never again have dominion over the earth, now that it’s free. We do not deserve this second chance. I’ve told him this. He agrees.

He turns and looks my way, looks down at the bulge of onions.

It is in his eyes.

Where is the goddamn pill when you need it?

I want to go to him. Drop the onions in a heap and wash our bodies in the river and fuck under the hot, indifferent sun. But—David Malouf, we swore to each other. We wouldn’t. We won’t. We are the last, and we will make the right choice. Now, after so many wrongs, after so much failing.

“Is it life, what we have?” he asked once in his right-to-left kind of way that I’d grown to love. He took my hand, and his touch electrocuted my skin, his fingers like the first rays of sunlight on a dewcold morning. “In childbirth, you would not be weak or die. You are stronger, no? The bath made you this?”

Yes. My body is strong. It isn’t the lack of hospitals I fear, not the absence of cervical blocks or local anesthesia.

But I pulled away, glared at him. We’d discussed this, what I’d have to do.

I won’t die. But when I let our baby die, or if I kill it myself?”

He shuddered, nodded. Shook his head. “No, no.”

“We can’t.”

“No.”

We did not touch again.

But as the months turn, we are both falling.

Now, he stands across the field, and I wonder what he will say if someday after we fall there is more blood between my thighs than the months before. He notices things. He will ask, and I will tell him. We talked about it, true, we agreed, true, but talk is not real. Blood is real. Death is real. It is my body, not his, and so my burden, my responsibility. Will he hate me? Will he understand?

I must be strong.

After all the world has been through and now abandoned—

I do not feel strong.

David approaches. My hands tighten, and then something lets go. The onions tumble. Their scent makes my eyes water, so that he comes to me in a field of molten green and liquid sky.

I don’t know who moves first, but our hands reach out and close the space between us. Blood surges. Ours is the only human touch on the face of the planet.

It is the only thing that matters in the whole world.

What is the right choice anymore? When no one is left?

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Giselle Leeb Interviews Christopher Brown

tropic-of-kansas-cover-435x655Michael: Since Giselle Leeb and Christopher Brown happen to have appeared together in both my editorial efforts in the world thus far, and since they seem to me to share a certain radical sense of humor and outlook on the world, I figured there must be something significant to be learned by all parties in introducing them. 

Read Christopher Brown’s essay, “The Rule of Capture” here, and Giselle’s story “Wholphinia” here. You can find their previous work in LCRW 33.

Giselle: “There is no such thing as an empty lot,” is the first sentence of ‘The Rule of Capture’. You mention that “more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” What sort of environment do you think will exist in the future? Will it be like the fascinating urban wildernesses you describe?

Christopher: I imagine the near-term future will resemble the urban woodlands where I live, as humans further expand their territorial occupation of the planet and wild animals must learn to adapt to Anthropocene environments, flee, or die. I am no scientist, but over the course of my lifetime, I have seen many species become more prevalent in the urbanized U.S. Raptors, coyotes and foxes have all become prevalent in cities. Urban raccoons and opossums are evolving faster than their country cousins, solving the food-sourcing challenges of our complex environment—like how to open a trash bin secured with bungee cords. And vultures seem to really thrive on all the death we create—cruising over the interstate highways for roadkill, lording over the degraded fields from perches atop cell phone towers.

While the experience of wild predators inside the urban fold is wondrous and uncanny, it is also immensely sad, in its implicit reminder of all that has been overtaken by our sprawl. If we can work harder in our landscape design to think about sharing habitat, I think we can mitigate the damage we cause, and maximize the everyday wonder around us. But I fear the long-term future is one in which nature will have checked human hubris and overdevelopment—which may be a better future for those who survive.

Giselle: You write about a realtor who can only see animals as property, a vision limited by his self-definition of what it means to be a human being. What sort of self-concept would people need to develop to improve the way they interact with the environment and animals?

Christopher: I think it’s more a question of getting past the contemporary obsession with the self, and seeking unmediated connection with the environment in which one lives. But that’s a hard thing to find—it takes a kind of tuning of the senses, and patient exploration. And even when you experience it, it is usually only just for a passing moment. Letting our landscapes go wild, as we have done with our feral roof, is a great way to heighten the everyday experience of sharing the world with other species. That aids an intuitive empathy, one science is catching up with as it comes to better understand animal intelligence and the social networks of plants.

Giselle: “A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which…more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” There’s an urgency to this. How can the fox’s point of view be taken into account and how does this relate to human stewardship of the natural world?

Christopher: We are a long way from a world in which animals have authentic rights. In the U.S., at least, we are going in the other direction at the moment, with the extractivist philosophy triumphant. The American identity is so tied up with the notion of eternal frontier abundance that we are all plunderers to some degree—though the idea of the commons was far more prevalent in our early history than most appreciate. Even the noble notion of “human stewardship” starts from a proprietary premise. No wonder so much of contemporary conservationism is an expression of property rights—as governments, non-profits, and the super-rich purchase huge parcels of land to protect them from exploitation. I read recently that media mogul Ted Turner is the biggest landowner in the U.S.—perhaps refuge in nature is the ultimate luxury good on an overcrowded planet.

My forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas deals with these themes—in part by envisioning a kind of green insurrection. That’s a fantasy, of course, though real-world movements like the Standing Rock protests show the potential of civil disobedience in service of ecology. In the end, I expect the only really effective motive force will be the need to survive, as the future scarcity created by our own consumption catches up with the present.

Giselle: Your non-fiction has a fascinating way of going from the immediate to the general and then looping back through history and ideas to the particular, with a wry and insightful humour. Near the beginning of ‘The Rule of Capture’ you say, “if this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that,” and the ending includes a fantastical element. How do you find writing non-fiction compares to writing fiction in the way that you tell a story?

Christopher: Well, I find that the trick is to violate the boundary between the two. Putatively factual prose is more interesting infused with the lyric intuition of fiction, and imaginative literature is more compelling when powered by observed truth. These pieces I have written for Michael DeLuca’s Reckoning and LCRW 33 try to obliterate the boundary completely. Exploring that territory is a lot of fun.

Giselle: How has your relationship with the environment changed over your life?

Christopher: As children we are trained to objectify nature. We learn the names of animals, we experience them as toys and as pets and screen images, we see them in zoos, or as objects of backyard experiments. We come to understand nature as something other than the place where we live. Over the course of my life I have tried to break that mediated alienation, with some success. I have always gravitated toward wild remnants hidden in the fabric of the city— empty lots, rights of way along roads and railroad tracks, bits of forest not yet tamed as park—practicing a kind of eco-psychogeography. “Sous les pavés, le fôret,” you might say. When you do that daily over the course of years, you sometimes experience the natural world around you without names or taxonomies, almost without active thought, and there I think lies the path to the everyday transcendent, where you momentarily and authentically feel your connection to all the wild around you, and see that the environment in which we live is our true home.

Michael: Thank you very much, Giselle and Christopher. This was fascinating.

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The End of Occidentalism

Robin Wyatt Dunn

Not man in a metal hat aboard a floating city, not carpetbagger walking jauntily from the train. All colonies begin, after all, in the mind: longing for that hub, the warm fire of London, Paris, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Jerusalem. Only there can the gravity of this life achieve its divinity; there, past the horizon, wisdom is won on streets of gold.

Next to this mental promise is always and forever the sword, the mighty brittle sword, cutting straight to the native’s throat.

You who long for the pure identity, for the aboriginal truth, for the phantom heart we left behind when we accepted the alphabet or the railroad, you who know that language conquers all including dream, you who have sunk under the meniscus of Reason into the midnight shadow of what anxious scholars call the subaltern, which only means servant, but no less scary for being quotidian, you bold believers in revolution, remember:

skull_green_scenebreak

My father showed me his Social Security Card. A small rectangle of time-worn paper printed with dark and light blue ink, with a simple string of nine numbers typed across the middle below his name. Paper.

“Boy,” he had told me, “this card meant I was part of the eternal vigil for the General Welfare intended by our Founding Fathers, as they wrote in the Preamble to our Constitution.”

It was another vigil that took my father away, the hunt for talkative men, opinionated men who spoke about what they thought.

Our Holy Office is eight hundred miles to the east, the Route 66 Building in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My father is interred there in an unmarked grave. Our corporate charter is unusual in that we do not lay claim to particular territories; we build and maintain roads, and as such subcontract with a variety of governments.

Even so, movement is discouraged. The roads are seldom used. Taxation provides Our Holy Office with the majority of its income.

I am a customs agent. I supervise the scanning of many of the shipments that pass this way, here outside Elk City, Oklahoma. Elk City, a city founded by railroad men, for railroad men.

It is such a slow slip into the river of time, is it not, the tight and eternal bonds of blood between nation and merchant-tyrant, the business of both Americas, O Coolidge, is business, the business of your short-statured smile, of your diesel appetite, of your divine love.

Oklahoma did not fight long for the Constitution. Religion and jobs were easy replacements for the people of Elk City; after all, it was how they had been raised.

skull_green_scenebreak

Not man in metal hat or traveler with carpet bag, no more, the colony extends within, always and forever within, seeking markets in our soul and trading posts in the medulla. The logic of trade is tragic in its immensity, having no innate moral valence: it is like the physics of asteroid fields, marking transits of orbit to orbit, collision to collision. The only end is movement; wheat, fetuses, gold or slaves. Movement, forever on the move, old son, old daughter of my eye.

skull_green_scenebreak

“Run!”

She is under the train and the jackboots are scanning her from above but I don’t think they have X-rays for some ridiculous reason, probably a copyright dispute. Remote monitored but not directly controlled; they hover at one hundred feet as I crouch under a lip in the railroad embankment, my daughter only 25 meters away, under the old steel train, attaching her mapping pod.

Maps are treasure for us. Reliable data.

I have my rifle but it would be slow suicide to fire on the drones; I am not wearing my ID. In this, again, I am unusual man: to facilitate my movements I have been only partially biometrically scanned. Though I have not visited the neighboring corporations, being only imperfectly databased is an advantage when it comes to such official travel: you can still talk fast and make impressions before executive summaries are sent to buyers’ hands.

I close my eyes and wait for the hum to diminish: a statistical forty seconds elapse between stimulus and response for this model drone. I can hear my daughter’s breathing.

Brother, this is my testimony to you. Do you remember that old flag? Have you seen it? Do you remember the state birds and trees? For my father it was mockingbird and pecan. What was it for your father? I wish I could sing with you some old song we both might know.

The hum is fading away, fading west.

“Rebecca!” I hiss.“Strap it on already.”

“I’ve got it,” she whispers back. And we are running back home, running, running in our night.

skull_green_scenebreak

Every night I see the debates on the inter-county screens: the thousand comparative sufferings that are the legacy of a complicated continent. I know my father felt as I do, old unreconstructed Marxist that he was, that this obsession ultimately slowed revolution, slowed the mobilization of angry populations to war.

Our Holy Corporate Office does not care what color my skin is except insofar as its melanin concentration marks a biometric datapoint. My native language is interesting demographically but not politically. No, no, it is my access that counts in the end, a number on the screen, a codeword coded down into a variety of linked mountaintops, satellites, and nuclear submarines, an invite list for oligarchy. Which house, which train, which river and which orbital flight belongs to me and mine? None for me, brother, and none for you either.

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The Chattanooga Choo-Choo will leave Elk City at 23:00 hours tomorrow night: the mapping pod will record its route and transmit this data in a final burst when it reaches the Pacific, some two days later. By then I hope to be in Texas.

“Jamila isn’t coming,” Rebecca says, watching me, watching the sky.

“We can still trust her,” I say.

“What will they do if they catch us?” my daughter asks.

“They won’t.”

“But what if they do?”

“They won’t.”

Texas, my father’s state, is already almost mythical to me. Original and aboriginal.

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I told my daughter we were lighting out for the territory. The territory, child, always and forever thirsty, which is what a territory is by root: a thirsty patch of ground. I who thirst for the ways of my ancestors am lost, and lost again, because I no longer know what it means to be a man.

I am not a tree or a bird, I am not a national or a tribalist. I believe only in the community of Man, and yes, our manifest destiny of the stars. Is an absence of boundaries a boundary? It is what Che Guevara longed for, that old madman.

I watch my daughter walk ahead of me and admire her strong legs: we will make it to New Mexico on foot, I know it.

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The Rule of Capture

Christopher Brown

1.

There is no such thing as an empty lot.

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2.

I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.

It is curious how we can identify so many animals that we have never seen. We are taught to do it as children. Especially the animals dangerous enough to eat us, or wily enough to live at the edges of our encampments and steal our food.

The realtor did not see the fox, and I did not call it to his attention. If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that.

We entered the lot through my back gate, and then walked through the tall grass toward the old roadbed that once led to the ferry across the river. That’s where I saw the fox. It ran right down one of the tracks of the human path, then into the dense brush of cactus, scrub trees and mustang vine grown up around the drainage pipe that empties behind the construction supply warehouse. I suspect the den is back in there, and have seen trailsign, but have never found the hole.

Most of us are better at the taxonomy of human variants than the naming of animals, even though we have no zoos to show us the former in simulated habitats, unless you count television. The realtor was typical of his breed, an affluent white guy in his twenties, tall and business casual, looking lost the minute he stepped out of his polished black SUV and tried to interpret the spot where the road ended at a run-down chainlink gate overgrown with uninvited vines, like Boromir pondering the hidden door to Khazad-dûm.

As with most realtors, this one was kind of a hunter, but not the kind with eyes trained to see movement in woods. He was hunting for human value locked up in undeveloped land, a percentage of which value he could capture as numbers on paper by finding someone who would “improve” the land. The lot was ten acres of woods above and along the river, land that had once been owned by the ferry company as its north landing, and then been a place where men would dredge river rock to make concrete to pave the city.

Capital abhors unimproved land, especially when it is in the fastest growing city in America. And capital does not see wild animals. They do not appear on its register, unless they have been captured and turned into property. And that is probably why realtors cannot see wild animals, even in Texas, where all the realtors who are real Texans are also real hunters, the kind that have nice guns and coolers full of very cold beer.

Realtors are how capital captures the wild instincts of human hunters and uses them to eliminate wildness from the world, by partitioning every spot of earth and sometimes the air above it, overlaying the surface of the entire planet with a grid that allocates dominion among the naked apes. A system which has very little to say about the things capital does not register, like all the other living beings with whom the land and air and water is shared.

 

3.

The first case you read if you go to law school is about a fox running from a real estate investor across an empty lot.

The exact date is hard to find, but around 1805 (the year the ensuing lawsuit was finally adjudicated) a rich dude in the Hamptons named Lodowick Post, on horseback and aided by hounds, pursued a fox across “waste and uninhabited land” (aka the commons, which was more plentiful in the early days of this country)—only to be stymied when, just as Post was about to strike, another local named Jesse Pierson killed the animal first. Post sued, asserting that by initiating the chase he acquired ownership of the animal. The trial court agreed, but the New York Supreme Court reversed1, citing ancient precedents to find that “occupancy” is essential to turn a wild animal into your personal property—and that occupancy can only be achieved through kill or capture, or mortally wounding the animal such that it will inevitably come under your control.

This case is used as a laboratory for hypothetical theorizing about property rights, and learning to think about the natural world in the way lawyers do, as a realm overlaid with infinitely divisible chains of human right. Rarely does anyone ask about the rights of the fox, and if they do, there’s a good chance they will get publicly shamed by the professor.

The fresh social contract under which Pierson and Post and their fellow citizens of the brand new United States lived derived its notions of property from the English philosopher John Locke, who theorized the justification for individual ownership of things found in nature by an invented counterfactual, the imaginary “state of nature” in which no prior property rights or other forms of “occupancy” exist. If you own your own body, said Locke, you own your own labor. And when you apply your labor to nature, by carving a piece of wood, or capturing and skinning a fox, you obtain ownership of the object because your labor is now embodied within it.

The rule of capture comes in very handy for people who make their fortunes off the things we find in the ground.

A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which, as the World Wildlife Fund recently reported, more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.2

4.

On Highway 81 in north central Oklahoma, which travels the path of the old Chisholm Trail, there is a town called Bison. The only bison you will see there is a faded painting on the side of the old grain elevator.

Images of buffalo are all over the human landscape of the Great Plains. You can buy them on ball caps and refrigerator magnets in the service areas of the Kansas Turnpike, much of which follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail. In the Visitors Center they have brochures for places where there are actual living buffalo. Like petting zoos, without the petting, you imagine.

The ecology of the continent is there in the country you drive through. Sometimes you can perceive it through your windshield, in place names and long view topographies. There are remnants, real remnants, but they are not easy to find.

North of Bison, Oklahoma, southwest of the Wichita Vortex, near a town called Jet, one of the forks of the Arkansas River flows through an exposed plain of salt. You can see it on your computer map right now, the Great Salt Plains, where there is a national wildlife refuge and a state park. In the time of the free ranging buffalo this was an oasis for all manner of migratory wildlife, a place where the megafauna would gather from far away and the humans would come to hunt them. It still is a sanctuary for the waterfowl, who flock there in huge numbers. When you leave the refuge and head south through Jet, you realize where the town got its name, from the United States Air Force landing strip along the lake, and you understand why there are all those warning signs around the salt flats.

Boom.

You see it in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the scenic overlook where they let you take pictures of the very scary-looking old federal prison that looms beyond the main road. That riverfront northwest of Kansas City is a military outpost, strategically placed as a launching point for expeditions into the Missouri River basin all the way to the edge of the Rockies. As you drive south from there along the edge of the plains, you pass through other forts, and while the Indians are largely gone and subjugated, you see how the whole landscape is a captive. You see it in the brutalist grain elevators that tattoo themselves with the memory of the animals they displaced, in the grid of mechanized land uses traced on the road map, in the oil derricks pumping by the road, in the microwave transmission towers, even in the giant wind farms that now grace the flats along the interstate. The yeoman farmer that is the lodestone of American identity is a rapist who cut the trees and plowed the prairie to plant grain to feed livestock to feed white people so they can repeat the process. The Air Force bases of Kansas and Oklahoma, at the heart of the American continent, are the grandsons of the cavalry forts that were there before soldiers learned how to fly, taking the exercise of dominion into the sky. We have applied our labor to the rich wilderness we found across the water, and made it into a cyborg.

5.

A real estate broker, a fox, and a manitou walk into a bar.

6.

“Dogs are hereby declared to be personal property,” says Oregon law. There are caveats, and limits. Oregon law also declares it a crime to own, possess, keep, breed, train, buy, sell or offer to sell a fighting dog, to keep an exotic animal without a permit, to use a dog in the commission of a crime, or to carry a dog on certain parts of a vehicle operated on a highway without specified protective measures. Most importantly, it makes it a crime to cruelly kill or injure, or fail to provide minimum care for, an animal in your custody and control. On that basis the Oregon Supreme Court recently concluded that dogs are not mere property, but “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear” that may not be treated in all the ways humans are free to treat other forms of property, even if they may be treated in ways humans may not treat other humans.3

The Chippewa people of the Great Lakes, or so we are told by the Europeans who first encountered them, believed the bounty of their environment came from the union of man and dog. The story was told that woman, who was the first human being, had a nocturnal dream that she was sleeping with a handsome youth, who in reality was her pet dog transformed. Then one day a giant appeared, shaped the land into lakes and rivers and mountains, then grabbed the dog, ripped it to pieces, and cast its guts into the waters to make the fish and dispersed its flesh over the land to make the animals.4

The Chippewa, Ojibwe and Cree lived by an ecology grounded in a kind of contract—a relationship between the people and the animals that surrounded them based on duties of mutual obligation and courtesy. When the Algonquinian populations were ravaged by European disease that may have taken as much as ninety percent of their population, disease the indigenous healers could not combat, some Indians took it to be a conspiracy of the animals against them, and undertook a war of retaliation, aiding the Europeans in the harvest of most of the fur-bearing animals of the North Woods to clothe urban Europeans.5

Our cosmology may articulate similar obligations on our part in its notions of stewardship, but only trace echoes of those notions appear in our jurisprudence and political economy, which know only rights of possession and consumption grounded in the valorization of the human self and its physical expressions, countermanded only by such duties as our worst behavior compels the law to encode. Imagine if the opposite were true—that we were governed by obligations to protect the natural world in the way our contemporary religious traditions tell us is our duty, and that our rights to take from nature were confined by their concordance with ecological balance.

That is a dream, even sillier than a dream about the original woman making love to a dog disguised as a hot boy.

7.

That is why, every winter, we sacrifice a realtor to a remnant of the American woods. It would be an overstatement to call the supplicant a volunteer. Baited by the carefully dressed lure of a gorgeous woodland acreage in the heart of the city waiting to be sold to a corporate developer, he (it is always a he) comes to enslave the land to industrial capital. But this quest is closer to the search for the existential heart of the land than you might imagine.

Coyote_6-11-15_day_cropped

The ceremony takes place in a riverine grove of cottonwood, hackberry and mustang vine. The realtor is stripped and secured with flotsam cabling to the throne of the Texas Druid king, a wooden yard chair deposited in this spot by a Halloween flood some years ago. Adorned with a crown of chile pequin harvested nearby, gagged with the green brain fruit of the Bois d’Arc tree, the broker is “dressed” in a suit of honey made by a colony of Africanized bees in a half-buried truck tire. As night comes, a song is improvised on instruments made from the things the city leaves in the woods, a song of summoning and loss.

They say that many of the animals of the American woods only became nocturnal when the European trappers arrived. This is easy to believe, even if it is not true. Ask a beaver.

Sometimes the realtor manages to eat his way through the gag, and you can hear his cries echo along river corridor. But even then, language seems to be lost, as man becomes mere food and finds the involuntary path to authentic oneness with the woods.

The remains that cannot be eaten are mostly taken by the wet earth of the floodplain, eventually devoured by the bugs who provide food for the armadillos that forage the subsurface at night. Once in a while a bone is found in daylight by a human wanderer, but they rarely know what it is.


1 Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805)

2 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk

3 Oregon v. Newcomb, 359 Or 756 (2016).

4 See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978), pp. 69-70.

5 Ibid.

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Wine and Wisteria

Diego Reymondez

“I try to put myself in people. See them, at least. I think it helps. Even though I can’t remember her, I see vines of wisteria and grape, and when they get mixed in with the few other things I know about her, I get a pretty clear picture of my grandma.

“I imagine that last little pat on the ground when she finished planting them. How she straightened up, supported her back at her hips and made this stern face. She was always stern-faced, I think. Yeah. Maybe she looks kind of upset. She can’t relax and watch it grow even for a minute.

“You should probably know that the main word my aunts use to describe her is, ‘Trabajadora. Muy, pero que muy, trabajadora.’ Which means—‘A hard worker. But a very, very hard worker.’ Except I think I’ve got emotional memories that urge me to disagree. When I was two, and she spent that year with me in Yonkers, I understood in my own way that she was a loving woman who regretted never quite learning how to express it.

“So. She was upset that she couldn’t take that minute to appreciate what she’d planted, which was, more than anything, shade for me all these forty years later. What she did instead was breathe her relief that she’d finished another thing and move on. I can’t see her as a hard worker. I see a victim of the setting sun.

“Then there’s the moment before that. Where she had to step out, feel the sun, look up, and decide that there needed to be something. It was a chain of thought that could have arrived at any vine on Earth. Or tree. And she went with two: the pretty one they planted in the city, and the one she drank daily with lunch.

“You haven’t seen it yet, but if you walk two or three minutes that way, we’ve got about an acre of grape. The same land she overwhelmed herself for a quarter of her life to save and buy. And I genuinely can’t process why. I know the thinking was that if they had more wine, they could sell more, but they only needed to sell more to make enough to buy more land. If your surplus is always tied up in savings, then isn’t that effectively the same as not having surplus?

“I’m overwhelmed when I consider the dissonance in how she felt about adding probably an extra twenty percent to her work load, with no extra time to do it in, and no extra cash. “And making wine is hard. It was weeks of walking up and down hill, pruning, years of weeding by hand until they bought the tractor, and even the tractor wouldn’t go directly under the vines, so she still had to do it by hand.

Then there’s upkeep on the barrels. You take them out in summer, wash them, one by one, that’s two days by itself. Then you have to seal them up and roll and maneuver them back inside. Then there’s the harvest. Which is thousands of individual . . . things of grapes. In Spanish they’re called racimos. I never needed to learn that word in English, so I don’t know it. Although now that I think about it, it’s probably something simple, like bunches. Or . . . groups?

“Anyway, so the grapes won’t spoil, you have to physically make the wine. That’s another, like, two days of actual nonstop hard work right after the harvest. You’ve got to lift and dump all the buckets into the lagar, which is the place where we start the fermenting. Then you step on them, press them, move them into open barrels to ferment more. Then, the next week, you’ve got to move those thousands of liters into closed barrels so they can finish fermenting. And not long after, you have to prune, and you get the point.

“And this is something they’d do even if they didn’t sell a drop. Mostly so everyone could have their daily glass or two of wine with lunch.

“Now it’s me taking care of the vines. And it just seems she could have done less and lived just as well. I mean, I make a bit less than she did. But I do way less. Like, if you weed under grapes you have a basic misunderstanding of how roots work. It’s work without purpose. I give the vines their scattered week of my time each year, and it’s already too much. I’d really just rather let the vines grow wild and occasionally reach up some long stick and knock them down to watch my ducks run up, mwap mwap mwap mwap mwap, lean over, and scarf them down. Then they just start dancing. It’s fantastic. They do this thing where one of them trills and shakes their butt feathers, and circles their neck, and always stops when their head’s far out from their body. Then they all start dancing. And—if you ever get a chance, look up Muscovy duck dance on youtube. It’s fun. They enjoy the sugar way more than I do a daily cup of wine.

“But the wisteria I like. You know, it blooms for that week or two, or whatever, but I look forward to it. You see them, and you know winter won’t stifle growth anymore. You can start to really plant out the nursery.

“Thanks for letting me vent, by the way. I try to have these conversations with my parents, and they just tune it out. They want something else out of me. I gave them a similar kind of rant once. About the wine and the wisteria. I didn’t have it this well thought out, but.

“Every time they visit I end up, like—we end up battling. I just end up trying to prove, with shouting, that they have to enjoy losing time. Or they’ll get locked into that same rundown their parents had. Where they spend their lives stressed out because they work so much, but need to work to be able to buy all the things they need. And I tell them they need to need less, but I’m trying to educate my parents. I’ve got the dynamic backwards.

“We could argue all day. They have each other to reinforce their position. So, inevitably, I have to be the one to step away and accept I won’t change them, knowing they tell each other the same thing about me. And that’s not something I’m very good at.

“After we argue, sometimes, I climb up to the attic where I can concentrate, and I stare at nothing. And before each surge of anger rises, I remind myself that in their hearts they’re just doing right by their culture.

“Out of hundreds of stories the Celts and pagans had, only the santa compaña, the magic cauldron and the lavandeira survive. The santa compaña lets us be afraid of the dark. The magic cauldron became the Holy Grail. And for the lavandeira, well, there’s even a little bird flitting about keeping its namesake.

“And it goes like this.

“When most people tell it, lavandeiras are spirits who died in childbirth, or had a child die without baptism. If you go out past a riverbank when the moon’s full, you might find her. The lavandeira will be dressed all in black, washing sheets with blood that won’t scrub out. She’ll plead for help. ‘Help. Please. Please. Can you wash it out, friend?’

“At this point, now, you have two options.

“You can just keep on walking. Just, ignore her completely. Just—‘Doo-doo-da-doo—there’s nothing going on.’

“Or you can help her clean the blood out of her sheets.

“Obviously, you know, if you walk by as if nothing’s happening, nothing terrible happens to you. So the moral goes that if you see some terrible, terrible thing, it’s best to walk on.

“But if you choose to help, it divides into two more options. When you wring out the sheets, if you wring the same way as the Lavandeira, you die. Right there. Dead. If you wring the sheets the opposite way, you survive, but with bad luck for the rest of your life.

“And something about not ignoring the terrible soothes me. I head in, look at the terrible, and wring different. But the myth must be true, ‘cause it’s unbelievable how many of my conversations become arguments. I must be unlucky.

“By the end of the night, I can climb downstairs composed. With a little help from a myth, I know that the same way that they ignore the terrible, all I have to do is take note and then change things. I can accept that they’ll work hard to make sure there’s enough to drink, but that there needs to be enough to drink because they work hard.”

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