from Concrete Jungle

Travis Macdonald

New Jersey

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New Hampshire

new-hampshire

Wisconsin

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Montana

montana

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

Read an Interview with Travis MacDonald about “Concrete Jungle”.

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Daniella Levy Interview: “The Olive Harvest”

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Read “The Olive Harvest” in Reckoning 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s definitely a metaphor in there somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael: Thank you again!

Daniella: Thank you!

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The Olive Harvest

Daniella Levy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is not what happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blythe Woolston Interview: “Agapostemon”

blythe-woolstonRead “Agapostemon” in Reckoning 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s that anthropocentrism that scrapes me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Agapostemon

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Blythe Woolston

She is green in the sunlight

standing at the brink of her little home

little because she is little.

We are an odd direction life took

because life takes all odd directions

the little ground-dwelling bees,

they carried pollen when plum trees and apples

bloomed early,

a direction odd to honeybees and bumblebees.

I have a chickadee in my plum tree;

plums by the grace

of the ground-dwelling bees:

those solitary little green sisters

who live with one another

in their tiny tunnels,

but aren’t of one mind.

They are independent thinkers,

the ground-dwelling bees.

I guess that’s why they could read the weather

and rise up to meet the plum blossoms early.

Later, all the bees gathered

in the herbs and roses—

all the bees

even honeybees

who had probably arrived by truck.

I have sympathy for those bees.

the honey bees;

they do hard work

and get paid lesser sugar.

I have sympathy for them

making a middle passage

chained in the dark,

hidden from the stars

and the the angle of the sun.

Do you remember that wreck of the bees

somewhere on the Interstate highways?

The horrific loss of life

hives spilled open

like a rural schoolbus wreck

or when the logging truck hit a herd of ponies.

The acceptable losses

escaping through the nets

left behind like ghosts

drowning in the traffic currents.

Read an interview with Blythe Woolston.

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James Treat Interview: Four Found Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael: Thank you very much!

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

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

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

Michael:

Johannes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you very much!

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Johannes:

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take it too personally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Michael:

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

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

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

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

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The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss

Reckoning 1

Johannes Punkt

The first time your worlds crossed paths you felt your fate short-circuiting. It had been a whetstone-dull day, and you had stopped counting the dull days. They bled into each other; you never knew when to make a hatchmark on the wall. But the air was thick with meaningless perfume-smog and you stopped to examine something on the ground.

A bumblebee without its wings. Every twenty seconds its machinery whirred but it was immobile as a whole. It must have been missing legs too, or maybe it did not have legs in the first place. There was a lovely gilded spiral painted on it, and a serial number on its side, and here is when you felt it. You thought: poor little thing, some sadist child caught you, huh? What did he do with your wings? And your next thought was that at least it was a machine and not a real animal. You found one of the wings at the same crime scene and you pocketed that for some reason obscure to you. As for the bumblebee itself, you held it in your cupped hand. It was exquisite.

And it took you a long time to realize that this was not a dull, blunt day anymore. It was not joy that you felt in the intermittent buzzing in your hand; you always imagined it would be joy that brought you out. The relief of a dead friend sending a new text message, one that began with “Sorry.” The safe reciprocity of some perfect stranger smiling at you from his train window as he left the platform. The vicarious oblivious bliss that you sometimes felt watching kids play in the park, like a memory you didn’t have to remember because it was right there. But there were children playing some bastardisation of football thirty metres behind you when you knelt to pick the bumblebee up and you hardly noticed them.

Oh, Tilda.

You found a local workshop and looked inside. The mechanics in the barnlike building were sat at their long desks welding and soldering and not looking up. They had all rolled up their shirtsleeves and some of them wore long, thick gloves so only their elbows were naked. The manager came up to you after a spell and asked how he could help you, and you presented him with the bee as if he would know what to do with it.

“I came to return it,” you added.

He told you it was not created there and you would be better off just wearing it as jewellery or throwing it in the trash. Later, you would thread a gold chain through its body. You asked how one knows where to go. There was a registry, he told you, at the registrar’s.

It was an easy building to find, because all bumbling bees created in the city must first migrate there in order to be approved so that they show they’re capable of flight and pathing and so that the creator will get paid, before the bees can go do their real work; this he told you with a magician’s flourish of his hands and the bee he had been holding on to took leisurely flight out from the barn, down along the canal following some simple scented path planted a decade ago in colours that are lost to us now, crossing the road a few times far above eye level where you almost lost it, and then in through a small hole in an unassuming building with a little golden government plaque on the outside.

Inside, all you saw of your guide was a glimpse of red as it zipped into another opening. Far up on the wall. But with a vine or two creeping out of it, almost come-hithering. Above the borehole-cum-crevice, wiring ran to the right, leading your eyes to a massive painting, a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the Nimbley Legislation restrictions. It depicted a scene from The Android and the Primadonna, the android sat at his easel with his brain encased in glass atop his head, the mirror in front of him displaying the brain with parts missing, a blueprint taking shape on his canvas with all his best guesses about what those pieces might look like. A painting opposite, above a waiting-bench, showed a Chinese man up an orange tree. He was perched like he had done this all his life, and his alchemist’s belt held different potions in coloured flasks and pouches, and in his hand he held a pipette, and he must have been fertilising the flowers. The sky was abstract; the man was almost a photograph except for the seven fingers on each hand.

You took a number and eventually someone came to see you. They confirmed your suspicion that the bee still had two months of warranty left, so to speak. Three times they asked you why, before they told you the address of the workshop, Margot Hanel’s Path 41b in the northern quarter. “But the woman who works there is weird and you’re better off—”

“Making jewellery out of it. Yeah yeah. Thank you.”

You passed another red blur on your way out. In the workshop you had been to, they had all simply dipped their creations in inkpots, let them dry off, and then set them flying. The one you carried in your hand was painted with some form of elegant fool’s gold.

And on your way to your first encounter you went out of your way to pass the old placeholder statue in the square a few blocks from where you grew up. The one without a title, which the locals call Disgrace. You looked at it for the first time in years, and this was life returning to you, and maybe you would have stopped it if you had suspected what was going on. There is a mat of spikes, hostile architecture, which was put up as a temporary measure to “dissuade pest birds” while the sculptor completed the statue on an extended deadline. Dirty doves and pigeons white as untrodden snow had soon learnt to walk between the needly spines, and now they roosted there instead of any marble or bronze. On days when it hasn’t rained for a while the sides are painted white with droppings. When the locals say disgrace, they smile.

You had missed life. You did not know this.

Her workshop was a little shed. There was a lazy wisp of smoke making its way out of the open door, originating in a container on her desk: a coffee cup of grey water, housing a soldering iron, and its cable continued the snaking motions of the smoke down to somewhere under the desk, where electricity conducted itself underground until it was untraceable in the grid. Her gloves were on the floor next to her feet. In front of her was a tool that looked like a gyroscope, or a three-dimensional spiderweb. A bumblebee splayed open in exploded view was caught there.

The spider must have seen you in the curved reflection of her safety visor, because she did not look up. Just held her hand out in expectation. “Could you hand me the steel pincers? Mind the iron.”

Tilda, already you were in love. Something about the ionized air, the perpetual and artificial spring, the accident of neurons, the disposition of yours to love when you can, the grace of the bumblebee-maker. Something. You did what you were told.

She did not tell you thanks. You, in turn, did not mind.

“I came to give back something of yours,” you explained to her indifference.

She twisted some minuscule mechanism in the bumblebee’s loose heart.

You went on, “It’s a bee and you made it. I thought perhaps you would like it back. It is broken. My name is Tilda, by the way.”

And she turned a little crank that made the spiderweb coil up like every steel thread in it was the same yarn. You could have sworn the circuits closed, though, going around the ball. The constructed bee became whole. “Let me see.”

And you handed her the little machine.

She turned it over in her hand. It had stopped buzzing by this point. “Yes, it’s broken.” She placed the wingless thing in your hand again. The next task on the table was to brush the coat of the new bee ever so gently with tar from the cup. The brush she used was fine and seemed to melt and get shorter with every stroke. You held the broken bee in your hand and your heart hurt but, Tilda, your heart hurt. Brief thoughts of train tracks warped by the summer heat, which must have looked like a seismogram from far above. A memory you couldn’t place. You could feel your own heart like hesitant wheels rolling over jointed tracks.

She placed the finished bee on a tray along with several others. Took a small break to tell you her name—”Clover, like the plant”—and then she handed you a visor and darkened the sky with her blowtorch, working on the chassis for the next bumblebee. When you took off your visor it was dark outside. She had made the sun set, then. You took it off because she did, and the both of you went outside with the tray. Put it down on a tree-stub in the garden. The paint had not yet dried on the most recent mechanical bee but it was a wonderful green white mandala thing with twelve little legs that rattled against the baking tray. They all had different features, like she refused to make the same thing twice: the springs and the sprockets and the very shape and the number of thimblebaskets and wings and the dimensions of the wings and the way they folded and whether they folded at all. Presumably the mechanisms inside were different too, with different ways to identify blossoms and pick paths to travel. And there was the paint.

“This one’s not painted,” you said, pointing to a grey number in the middle of the tray. There were maybe thirty of them all in all and this one shone grey where the others were adorned with patterns in one or two colours from her array of indigo blue, ivory white, pale green, rosehip red, and royal purple. You didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation. You did not understand it and you wanted to learn. In the silence that followed there was nothing to soften the edges of the sudden gash in the air. But maybe she could see the old colours.

“It’s painted with glue,” she corrected.

You were once taught that nature abhors a vacuum. If you stay silent, people rush to fill the void you make.

Some people’s chests are airlocks, though.

You asked the question. ”Why?”

”It’s a chemical, magnetic thing.” She spoke, she speaks, in bursts of indicative air like a valve spinning open. “When the nectar touches it, it sticks. That’s how yours is gilded.”

In the daylight her skin looked like yours but in the spectrum cast from the orange torches that hung from the eaves like lanterns she was gilded. But she wasn’t yours.

“They run on wind. The bumblebees, like windmills. Mine do. We’re never going to run out of wind.”

”Is that unusual, the windpower? Sometimes I see them at night, they’re around the lampposts, I think they have UV panels on their wings. I think the bumblebees I see have that.”

”There’s no computer in mine. They’re all mechanical. It runs on cycles, though. It’s like clockwork but it’s not clockwork like that. That’s why yours is. . . .” She stopped talking, and took the little thing from your hand, touching your palm with her fingers in the process. You hadn’t realized you had been cradling it.

She threw it in the air and caught it: it was ticking again. In a room you visited once there was an electric light that buzzed and ticked. It could never stay lit for long; the shock of shining brightly knocked it into silence again. Then the hum would begin. Like cicadas, someone said. Or like bees. People bragged about the insects they knew the names and sounds of. And with a metallic tick likened to a chirrup, your bumblebee proved it was alive.

”This is better,” Clover said, and you couldn’t tell if it was as if she was sure you loved the clockwork like she did, or if she was trying to impress you. If she was trying to impress you, you decided, she would be looking at your face when she showed you whatever she would show you. But you couldn’t look at her face, because you needed to experience what it was. And she grabbed the tray by one end and flung the little things up in the air, and they took flight in stutters and stalls but none of them touched the ground. They were the moment before the rain hits, a coruscation, and then they were gone.

Your own bee buzzed with longing in your palm. You had not seen her face when she would have looked at yours, if she had.

skull_green_scenebreak

You went back three days later. There was life in you, which you fought for two whole days. But the hydrology of your heart was stubborn.

You built concrete walls to keep yourself alive, someone had said. He had tried to save you once, while holding your shoulders so you couldn’t leave or really look away. He had told you there was a difference between living and being alive. He had probably got this from some movie. He was a lover; you never meant to have lovers, though there is love in you to give. It takes the smallest hint of UV light as proof of concept.

As a kid you used to throw exotic fruit seeds—from the ghost mandarine—into the tarmac when the men and women in hard hats tilled the black earth and laid the roads down. You had been given those seeds to eat, a profligate luxury.

Something was sprouting from your heart, Tilda, like you had swallowed seeds years ago. She told you about scents that day. It was not like you were asking questions, and it was not like she was teaching you, nor was it like you were having a conversation. It was like she was translating on the spot from some other language that only she spoke, sunlight. You drank it up.

“So, this is actually better than the ones with circuitboards?”

“Better?” She chewed on her tongue a little and you wanted to distract her. You wanted to have her not troubled.

“How are your bumblebees able to smell?”

There was an old watchmaker who died. When he was alive, he was the last of his kind. They called him the great turtle—although with the quickness Clover spoke with you could not figure out who they were, if there really were none more like him. He had a slow, mechanical mind like an orrery. And it was falling apart. But there was genius there, and seven years before he was gone completely he started developing a technology that no-one else had thought of. He couldn’t possibly have accomplished what he accomplished with an unruined, pristine mind. When you asked her what the technology was called she had to stop and think.

In the pause, you said, “Destroy the instrument to make the music,” and your new friend did not understand. She had put down the tool she was using, a magnetic cone of some sort. You smiled wanly, “It’s from a poem.”

“I don’t make the music,” she said. “And it has no real name. It’s just technology. Technique.”

The watchmaker could not finish his thoughts anymore, and started writing “Fermat,” “Ferm,” or simply “F” in the blank spaces of his blueprints. Some of the holes in his plans were filled with failed attempts to write the dead mathematician’s name in his florid, wilting handwriting. Like someone had lovingly transcribed the results of resting their hands on a keyboard. Like the sound of a fuse burning.

As his brain folded in on itself, the schematics became less and less accessible. They lost convention, becoming recipes and fragments and eggs of ideas.

It was the consensus of people who came after the watchmaker that the things in gestation on his paper could never be carried to term, and it was impossible to tell what the results were even meant to be: a machine-made facsimile could not be produced.

One of the gadgets he’d written up, just one of them, made sense to Clover.

A reverse butterfly mechanism: drum up a hurricane to flap a little insect’s wings, when your tools could never be small enough reach those hinges directly. She had improved on the mechanism. Extrapolated from it. She showed you how it worked but the point was that you couldn’t see the last of the dominoes falling. You end up with a mechanical system that can smell flowers.

“Essentially, you weigh the molecules.”

skull_green_scenebreak

You found out that her last name was Aguinaldo. Which accounted for her copper-pollen skin and the quickness in her speech, like she was still in Spanish gears. You found out more but you shouldn’t have searched for information about her, Tilda. You believe you shouldn’t know more than what someone wants to tell you about themselves.

“My full name is Matilda Barrow,” you blurted out. You were getting used to the tiny weight around your neck now, which sometimes buzzed for a heartbeat. ”I just say Tilda because otherwise it always sounds like people are calling me theirs, and I don’t like that. I don’t even like it when people say ’my friend’ or things in that same. . . semantic area. Now you know this about my name.”

Clover Aguinaldo remained enthralled by the sparks and the spiderweb in front of her.

You had brought dinner. You had asked the day before if you were allowed to do so and she had agreed, not indicating that she would like it. Not indicating that she would not like it. She had written AGRADCR on a post-it-note on her desk before you arrived, which was just under eye level when she sat. The note had just been existing there, arching upward a little. And after the meal she had taken the note, looked at it, looked at you, thanked you, smiled, crumpled it up, thrown the note away. Returned to the bumblebee. This one was an eight-winger. It could fly with only two of them, but it was important that they fall off in pairs.

She took a deep breath like you do when you’re about to say something you have prepared. And her visor fogged up when she talked. “Could I have the tool that looks like a stripy wrench that has been hollowed out?” Holding out her gloved hand. “It’s in the drawer by your left knee.”

A strategy of talking around what you wanted to say so she would eventually ask what you were getting at might have been unwise here, Tilda. Your lips along the edge of a drinking glass. You found the tool and handed it to her. You wisened up.

Maybe the weight around your neck would grow back its wings if you told her unambiguously.

“Do you know why I come here? No, that was too general, sorry.”

Maybe there was something in your voice that made her cotton on. Maybe that was wishful thinking. But she put the wrench down on the desk, turned her visor to the side and looked at you without filters.

You put yours to the side.

“You seem to come by for different reasons. One day you came to show me you had hung the bumblebee you found around your neck like a collar. Amulet. Necklace. Today you wanted to bring me food. It was good food. I like crushed peanuts. Once you wanted to ask about the Nimbley Legislation and if that was why I do not use electronics.”

“Right. Those are all true. The deeper reason is I like you.”

Beat. “Thank you.”

“Do you know how I like you?” You shook your head at yourself. “I mean, have you figured it out?”

“It’s a riddle,” she said, then she titled her head like she had asked a question.

“It’s not. It’s just—I want to kiss you. I just want to kiss you.”

“Okay.”

You gripped your amulet to stop it buzzing, but of course it wasn’t at all. “Okay as in you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do understand the meaning of your words. You may kiss me.”

You did.

You were aware love makes you do foolish things.

But you thought it was the generic, impersonal, indefinite you; not you specifically, personally, definitely. You pulled back when she didn’t kiss back, just sat there like a statue with soft but cracked lips that tasted like tofu and crushed peanuts.

She smiled for a heartbreak. “Have you got it out of your system now? Did that make you happy?”

How operative was the word just, Tilda. You shook your head slowly with a “No, it didn’t.” Of course.

She makes the bumblebees, Tilda, that little kids follow across a soccerfield, distracted from the game, because there is a trail of clovers riverring through the field there. Little kids are made without empathy for machines, Tilda. And she makes her machines without a sense of self-preservation.

“Do you want me to go now?”

It was a yes-or-no question, and you know she has trouble with those.

“Perhaps that would be for the best.” It sounded like she was quoting something.

“Can I come back in two days?”

She sat stock still but her eyes followed some invisible insect back and forth. Closed her eyes in concentration. You still had the kiss on your lips; you had been greedy.

“No because I will be elsewhere. Technically you can come back here but I will have locked the shed and I keep the only key and it might rain. You would get soaked waiting for me. And hungry, probably.”

“Oh, I thought you were always here. I. . . shouldn’t have assumed that. Can I ask—I mean, what is it you will be doing?”

“It’s the referendum. You may leave now, please.”

You did.

skull_green_scenebreak

It was the three thousand and seven hundred eighty-first day of spring and you were staring at your ceiling. Or, the point where your ceiling became walls. Your hands interdigitated, resting on your chest, you were performing your best approximation of a corpse. If a brain was rotting and someone zapped it with electricity, would that electricity running through the dilapidating pathways in the brain count as a thought or not? What was with your heart?

How could you possibly go on like this?

At some point your eyes migrated toward a screen and you read about tamefires. You are not a voracious reader, but you used to go days without eating and other times you ate because there were things in front of you to eat entirely unrelated to hunger. There were things in front of you to read; the screen bumped the paragraph up a few notches when it noticed you reaching the end of the line. And repeat.

How flowers bloomed themselves to extinction like goldfish bursting; how some of them, after a few consecutive springs, went dormant for a prime number of years only to bloom again, peeking out from under the dirt to see if the coast was clear; how certain councils were starting fires to reset this clock, to let the crops grow right and avoid a famine. Resetting this clock itself was a ticking timebomb; fire was never tame, not even in a hearth. Everybody knew this. At the end of the article, your screen glitched for a few seconds before resizing to show you the attached image, an orange-tinted close-up of a woman planting lengths of rope like fuses in rows in a field of dirt.

It was the day before the referendum. It was a big one, because it was ten years ago it last took place in San Ginebra. Strawpolls indicated a landslide yes majority, which was why they held it here at all. But rumours brewed. Subterfuge. An underground union. People circling the wrong answer like lanternlights, hoping to draw the monster out from the dark, then teething down as one on a no. Politics.

Last time they called you up they had been asking irrelevant things, hiding their target in layers of lifestyle and opinion. And then a simple question wrapped in hypotheticals, which you boiled down to: should we prolong spring another period, yes or no?

Oh, there would be consequences. In fact, maybe you had already ruined everything. Said the wrong thing. Kissed her. Kissed her. Kissed her.

Okay, there was no-one in your home but you.

You wavered like air over asphalt. Tried to strip the metaphor from your words, but ended up tonguetied. Speechless. Told yourself: this was not a build-up period. Not a progression from friendship to love.

You were in love from the start, and though it has brought you joy that is not its purpose.

What’s more, the joy you felt in the moments before rain hit the ground might have been full of desire but they were good moments regardless. You do not have the right to make them bad memories, now. You have the right to hurt, you always do.

You always do. At least on the days that are not dull.

You had solid ground underneath your feet, which meant you weren’t falling in love.

There was no story, as such. There was nothing failed. No foreplay, nothing thwarted.

Your love was not contingent on a promise of more. Your love was anchored around your throat, threaded through with a needle and a gold chain. It was not with joy that you had pierced its hull, but with metal, like the thing itself. You already knew how you possibly could go on: there is life in a beating heart.

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Four Found Poems

Reckoning 1

James Treat

These found poems are drawn from interviews with elderly citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation recorded in 1937-38 as part of the Indian-Pioneer History Project sponsored by the federal Works Progress Administration and archived at the Oklahoma Historical Society and the University of Oklahoma.

 

Older and Very Sour

1

 

the creek indians had

many different delicious dishes

made from corn one of which is

osafke

 

it is not intoxicating

as some white people believe

 

very few know how to make osafke

the old indian women are

especially learned in making it

it must be made right

or it will not taste good

 

vce cvlvtwe is the indian name

of the corn from which

osafke or safke is made

the corn is used when it

has dried after it has ripened

it is shelled by hand

 

the corn is put in the

mortar keco while wet

then the

pounder kecvpe is taken up

by hand about the middle and

the pounding begins

 

2

 

the corn is then placed in a woven

birch skin basket with small spaced holes

which separates the flakes and dust

from the corn

the corn grits are then emptied into

a kettle of hot water

when the water reaches the boiling point

one half cup of a lye solution is added

to taste and soften the safke it is then

boiled from three to four hours

 

safke is placed in an earthen jar and

kept about four or five days until it sours

 

safke is used as a drink and as a food

the indians raised white corn

which they called safke corn

when the corn matures it is

about twelve to fourteen inches long

 

3

 

safke corn is a flint corn hard

and smooth

 

the proportions are

three buckets of water in washpot

one gallon of grits

and one cup of lye

 

most people dont like it when

it gets sour i think its better

when its two or three days old

 

4

 

i liked safke when it was

first made and sweet

and i liked it when it was

older and very sour

nobody will like the

sour safke when he first

tastes it you have to

get used to it

 

5

 

i have heard a story about an old woman and how she

made the first safke a drink which is a great

favorite of the indians

 

there was once a young man who lived with his old

grandmother the young man would often go off into

the woods on hunting trips and be gone all day

 

every time he left he came home to find that the

grandmother had prepared the safke the young man

began to ponder over this because there was no corn

around the place

 

he finally decided to stay near the place and find

out what the old grandmother did

 

 

the old grandmother said since you have found out

the secret now you take me to the old corn crib and

lock me up in it close all the openings and

cracks after four days you look in and look at

what there is

 

that is why some people say that the corn is an old

woman and it was best not to provoke it

 

all old ladies are easily provoked and are cranky

 

if you do not care for the corn you will lose it

 

 

Jefferson Berryhill, b. 1909

Sarah Fife, b. 1861

Martha Scott Tiger, b. 1890

William Baker, b. 1868

Robert Thompson, b. 1888

 

 

The Power of Medicine

the indians have always had faith

and been the strongest believers in

the power of medicine men and their

powers when using the medicine for

personal or tribal protection in

illness

 

it was the older leaders and

medicine men who were noted and

gifted for their power of preparing

the strong and effective medicine

that would enable any of the indians

to escape any harm

 

any group of indians out hunting or

on travels were never without their

tribal medicine man it was the

medicine man who knew of the best

ways of saving his people and he was

much respected by his people

 

the white meal hompetv hvtkē was the source and

basis of the secret power

the white meal consisted of special foods taken by

the prophets

medicine men

and other leaders

it was made up of mostly corn the pounded corn

meal made into bread pounded corn prepared as a drink

of which the indians are very fond and one or two

articles of food

all this had no seasoning

 

the greatest enemy to the indians was in the use of

salt

fat

flour

sugar

or anything else sweet

 

although the indians had never used these things

they began to realize how very necessary they

were to them and how the added flavor made

many of their meals very delicious

 

the power of medicine

was not so effective

from that time on

 

 

Wilburn Hill, b. ca. 1909

 

 

Lives of the Fish

first of all

the fish killing is a bit out of the picture

for the indians of today due to the fact that

the occasion has been outlawed by the white men

 

during the days of fish killing

the streams were full of

various kinds and sizes of fishes

and the indian killed only

that which he needed

 

the thing that figures mostly in

the indian fish killing is a weed

called the devils shoestring

the root of this weed is

very bitter

it is this nature of the weed

that causes the fish to rise

to the surface of the water

 

digging the strings is about the

hardest part of the whole affair

it takes brain and muscle

to be able to get your quota

 

if it is a flowing stream then

the medicine is scattered into

the water in one place

if the kill should be in

water that is stationary then

the medicine must be scattered or

applied all over

 

before any of the participants

or anyone in the group

looked into the chosen water

a ceremonial was in order

the one with the power of

medicine paints a color on

the cheeks of everybody

 

it was a splendid reputation

to be called a good shot with

the bow and arrows

it was an honor to kill the

biggest fish during the occasion

it took skill to be able to

look for and find an arrow that

has been lost in the water

one must know how to shoot

the fish

 

thus ends the story of fish killing

the longing in the hearts of the old indians

who watch the modern day oil wells and salt water

become a menace to the lives of the fish

continue to ache

and they wish to know just why

an honest mans hunt for the fish for his use

to strengthen his body that he may live longer

is more detrimental than to kill a fish without

thinking at all

indian killed that which he needed

oil men kill because they must have heaven

on earth with the money that he accumulates

 

 

Jefferson Berryhill, b. 1909

 

 

The Deep Fork Bottoms

it might have been back along in

eighteen eighty and up around in

the eighteen nineties

that there was a great demand for

walnut and pecan wood

i think it was some foreign

country germany it was that

was buying great quantities of

this wood to manufacture it into

gun stocks

 

many walnut and pecan trees were

cut down in the deep fork bottoms

as there were more of that kind of

trees there than anywhere else

the trees were sawed down and

cut up first and the stump was

later uprooted and trimmed off

because it was said that the stump

part made the best kind of gun

stock

then it was loaded and hauled

to eufaula where it shipped off on

the katy railroad

 

i think that the timber that was

shipped to the foreign country

was received back in bullets

during the world war

 

 

Toney Carolina, b. 1875

Read an interview with James Treat here.

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Goldie Locks Interview: “2222”

goldie-locksRead Goldie Locks’s story “2222” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: You live in Moscow. What’s your experience of nature like? My only knowledge of Moscow is through Russian literature in translation. Are there public parks? Do you visit them? Can you walk down to the Volga in winter and watch your fellow city-dwellers ice skating in winter? Please disabuse me of my romantic illusions.

Goldie: Nature is the best part of Moscow, especially in spring. There are many public parks and recreational forests in the city. Most of them are pretty commercialized, unfortunately, but one can find a pretty old tree away from eating joints and bike sharing stations to come sit on its roots.

Yes, I love visiting public parks, as well as strolling along downtown boulevards.

There is a river in Moscow, but it shares the city’s name. It is way smaller than Volga and mostly dirty. Swimming is allowed only where it enters the city. Nevertheless, it is inhabited by fish, ducks and seagulls throughout its full length. There are some water plants there as well.

I never saw anyone skating on Moscow river. Public skating rinks are quite common in the city. They are safer and easier to maintain than “wild” rinks that can be built on a river. Some (probably most) of the public rinks are free.

Michael: Did you grow up in Moscow, in the city, or did you move there later in life? What has been your experience of rural life, if any?

Goldie: I was born in Moscow, but very soon after that my mother moved in with her mother and sister who lived in a small town, Khotkovo, about 40 miles from the capital. It used to be fairly rural when I was small. I learned to swim in a tiny river floating across a huge meadow rimmed by a forest. When our family dog was a puppy, we once took him mushrooming in the forest and carried him back home in a basket — because no mushrooms met our eyes, and little Sharik was too tired to walk. On a smaller meadow on the other side of my house there was a lonely swing I loved very much. A dairy-woman lived on our street — and she was not the only cow owner in the town.

But as an adolescent and a young adult I witnessed derurification of my small motherland (this is how we Russians call places where we were born or came to know this world). The meadow I used to fly over on my favorite swing was turned into a car park. The other one was partly overbuilt with summer homes. High-rise blocks or brick cottages replaced most wooden houses. Currently there are no cows that I know of. A road to Moscow was built, and city-bound cars became a menace of the town.

Michael: What does it mean to you to write feminist, lesbian fiction, in a language that is not your native tongue, in a place that actively discourages that kind of thought or action? Writing a story like “2222”, do you feel like you’re taking an ideological stand? Are you participating in a resistance? What does resistance look like to you, where you live?

Goldie: “2222” is literally the first piece of fiction I ever wrote outside a teaching situation, and I was quite amazed by the fact that it turned out to be so feminist and politically charged. But, I believe, it was quite natural, because I grew up in an all-female environment (I cannot say family, because it was a more complex phenomenon) which made me a grassroots feminist. The fact that women are strong and able to cope on their own was never a revelation for me, but always a reality.

It was important for me to write about lesbians because I saw it as a way to cope with a certain sad episode of my love life, and this would not have worked lest I was sincere. I needed to express my unrequited love and say a warm goodbye to it. Also, I believe that the world needs more Russian-made books about Russian LGBT. We have to be represented worldwide, because in the times of ascendant bigotry and wall-building, LGBT people of various nations are grassroots (I do love this word — too bad it is untranslatable into Russian) liaisons keeping the world together.

I wrote the story in Russian initially and showed it to a few people online. Thankfully, it is possible and more or less safe to share such texts in Russia so long as you keep a low profile (that is gravely important). My readers praised the story, and I decided it is worth an attempt to publish it. But I suspected it was unpublishable in Russia (probably I was wrong), therefore I decided to translate it into English. While I was at it, I changed many aspects of the piece. Sometimes I think about translating it back into Russian — not for publishing, sadly, but just for showing it to my friends who are not good at English.

Yes, I believe, I was taking an ideological stand when I was writing “2222” and especially submitting it for publication, albeit under a pen-name. I realize that should the story become famous (which is unlikely), it could cause me some trouble. What makes me so brave is the feeling that my voice is too quiet to be heard in high places.

I think I am participating in a resistance — at least, I made a statement of resistance for myself and my friends. I am quite an outsider, though, therefore there is not much I can tell about resistance as a sociological phenomenon.

Michael: I read a fair amount of radical feminist journalism, as it exists here in the US. This month’s BUST Magazine, for example, features an interview with Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot means a lot to radical feminism in the US, it seems to me. They are icons of defiant, fearless activism. We look to them, especially now, in the era of Trump, as role models. What does Pussy Riot mean to you? Are they accomplishing anything, are they accomplishing any real change, or are they just drawing attention to themselves?

Goldie: Ironically, when Pussy Riot held their punk prayer in the CCS, I was an orthodox Christian. For 4 years, I unconsciously used this disguise to hide my lesbianism from myself. I was not interested in politics and never realized the danger posed by Putin. Therefore, I was not too pleased by Pussy Riot’s action. But I certainly was appalled by their lawsuit and sentence. This disgrace made me start to pay more attention to things outside my nuclear family. If it worked for many people, Pussy Riot definitely made things at least start to change — but, sadly, at too great a price.

I cannot say Pussy Riot are icons for me — for aesthetic reasons. I never kept an eye on them. I even heard that the group does not exist anymore. But of course, I admit that they are (or were) doing important things. As for the attention part, I cannot comment on this, because I am not acquainted with any of the Pussy Rioters personally.

Michael: Who are your literary influences? “2222” reminds me of Chekhov, a bit, in that it relies heavily on dialogue and shows obvious empathy for all its characters; it believes in the humanity of its characters. It also reminds me of Tennessee Williams, for some of the same reasons, and for the subtle way it approaches taboo topics. What do you want readers to take away from the story?

Goldie: Thanks a lot for comparing me to Chekhov. I was fascinated by him as a child, and read almost everything he wrote. He still is one of my favorite writers, although I realized with much dismay that he was a misogynist and a homophobe. When I was writing the erotic scenes of “2222” I was keeping in mind Chekhov’s story “Volodya”, where a boy’s first sexual encounter is described so subtly that I realized the meaning of the scene only when I grew up. Unfortunately, I have not read Tennessee Williams.

My other influences are, of course, George Orwell with 1984 (hence the title of my story), Aldous Huxley with Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin with We. I even had an ambition to write a novel, of which “2222” short story would be the first chapter, but I am not feeling up to such a big challenge. Actually, I wished to give this novel a happy ending. I even started reading books about revolution.

Michael: What kind of a risk are you taking in writing a story like this?

Goldie: Well, it is tempting to put on a solemn face and write about people sent to GULAG for lesser offenses. But GULAG was a long time ago, and the current situation in Russia is not so dire. However, civil activists are arrested and sent to prison. So, there was, probably, no risk in writing the story, but really vocal publicizing of it in Russia could have some ramifications. They depend on the extent of the publicity.

Michael: You’ve lived with the reality of a repressive, conservative regime. Do you have any advice for those of us in the US who are facing a new, dangerous reality of political suppression?

Goldie: I am in no position to give advice. I can only plead: Please don’t stop! Don’t stop your protests. Don’t stop listening to minorities—they are naturally the first ones to feel the screws tightening. Do not stop paying attention even if everything starts to look fine. Strongmen are as sly as power-thirsty. And please try to understand what encouraged Trump voters to choose him over Clinton. What injustices made them see their advocate in such an unlikely person? What can be done for them without turning the USA into a dystopia?

Michael: Will you please write more fiction in English?

Goldie: I will try, definitely.

Michael: Thank you! I really appreciate your talking so candidly. I’m going to go get out my Chekhov and read “Volodya”.

And I promise not to stop paying attention and speaking out.

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