Cae Hawksmoor Interview: “Civitas Sylvatica”

cae-hawksmoorRead “Civitas Sylvatica” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: This story I feel like has gotten exponentially more topical in the time since I first read it. We’re shown two people caring about each other and doggedly pursuing the advancement of knowledge while the world turns to ashes around them. Thank you for showing me that. It turns out I needed it.

I want to ask how you’re managing with that. Brexit starts today, as I’m writing these questions, and Trump has just rolled back what progress Obama made on climate change. For months I’ve been telling myself to keep making my small, positive contributions to the world despite so much of the rest of it falling apart before my eyes. It doesn’t get any easier. Have you managed to do the same? Are there any small, positive things you’ve been doing for the world you’d like to share?

Cae: Not to start off too heavy, but I guess I’ve always felt the world was ending. It just took me a while to work out how. Growing up through the tail end of the Cold War, I remember doodling mushroom clouds in the margins of my schoolwork when I should have been paying attention in class. After that, and despite the continued and calm reassurances of my rational mind, in the long dark when I couldn’t sleep I obsessed over the supposed 2012 apocalypse. It was just this feeling that’s always followed me around: the lingering suspicion that I’m watching something end.

It took me a long time to make sense of it. To see that civilisations rise and fall. I’m not talking about the showy and fiery apocalypse we see in Hollywood movies, social structures just quietly go on following their own patterns of growth and decay. And, despite our increasingly frantic insistence that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, ours is no different. As far as our own society goes, we are living through the last days of the Western Roman Empire.

I don’t even feel like I have to argue that point much any more, there’s a whole shopping list of evidence that it’s happening. From the increasingly unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change, the worst mass extinctions since three-quarters of the living things on Earth died at the end of the Cretaceous, there are famines, war, refugees, the rise of fascism and xenophobia as representatives by alt-right political parties all around the world, and the prolonged economic collapse. At this point you can basically take your pick. Every day for the past few months especially, I feel like we’ve woken up in the morning, looked at the headlines, and felt our world grow a little smaller and darker.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I wrote this story. When I feel like everything is collapsing around me, it helps to think about our society in terms of the natural world, where things grow and die and decay and tip the balance back into life again. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, if not a meaning. A kind of comfort in the wider context.

In practical terms, I guess that I’ve been working on spending less time inside my head and more time living out in the actual physical world. Trading some of the chaotic (and often unrelentingly bleak) drone of news reports and social media for walking, volunteering, meeting up with other people. Helping them out as best I can. I think our society spends a lot of time convincing us to exist only in our own heads, in a fog of persistent anxiety where we are easily controlled and even easier to sell things. Being more in my body, and with what is actually physically around me, is the only medicine I’ve ever found for that.

Michael: “Civitas Sylvatica” plays with scale. The tree of civilization grows and flourishes and contaminates the earth around it and destroys itself, beautifully, against a backdrop of Atiador’s own civilization destroying itself. And at the end, I think Atiador encourages Kestlie to use the seeds he sends her to start the whole process again–though that’s open to interpretation. I fear I may be in the minority of SF readers in that I love a good metafiction. I like writing that encourages the reader to look up at the author, or to look back upon themselves from the perspective of the text. And I feel that, in playing with scale, “Civitas Sylvatica” is encouraging me to do that. Did you think this way at all as you were writing? Atiador mentions a Great Architect–I am too easily tempted think of that as you, Cae Hawksmoor, great gardener in the sky. And I wonder, if I went downward in scale, down into the tree of civilization Atiador has planted, if I’d find sentient beings planting their own gardeners and taking Atiador’s name in vain.

Cae: I can’t speak as to metafiction, but I definitely think that one of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction lies in portraying other worlds in such a way that we learn more about our own. Ursula LeGuin is the master of that, although I also feel as though I have to mention the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica–with its drum beat of the Cold War and the post 9/11 world always rumbling underneath the surface.

My favourite speculative fiction is always this sort of double image: the shadow of our own thoughts, structures, and systems of power overlaying a world that’s utterly alien and fantastical. It encourages us to look at the familiar with new eyes, through the use of symbol and metaphor. This story was definitely an attempt to go and play in that sandbox.

If you looked very closely at the branches of the civitas sylvatica, I’m not sure you’d see little people there, but I’m betting you’d find something that was undeniably alive. Something building, gardening, re-shaping their world to the very extent of their strength and abilities. And, just like Atiador and the Great Architect he worships, telling themselves it was godly.

Michael: Do you garden? Would you plant Civitas sylvatica, knowing it might kill everything else in your garden? Is it beautiful enough, fruitful enough, to justify the ruin it causes?

Cae: I think I’d probably describe myself as a mostly frustrated gardener. Plants fascinate me with their endless cycles and change. And there are so many wonderful reasons to learn to garden! To be a little bit closer to the skin of the world and learn how to produce a little of what you take from it.

Yet, despite all of this, all I can say is that my adventures in growing things have taught me a lot about weeds, a lot about surrendering control, and a lot about admitting defeat. I’m pretty certain, at least, that the caterpillars and blackbirds that currently reside in the tangled wilderness behind my house are much happier without my interfering.

And trust me, if I can’t grow a potato, then you really don’t want me trying my hand at the tree of civilisation! No, I’ll just continue to sow weeds around the edges for the caterpillars to hide in, and let the tree of civilisation do what it does, I think.

Michael: Can you tell me how you thought about the World Tree myth in writing this story? Were there any specific instances of that myth you were referencing in particular? I feel like there ought to be epic trees that play home to civilizations popping up in fantasy all the time, yet in some ways it seems a neglected trope. Thank you for contributing a little to its rebirth.

Cae: Trees are incredible creatures. They’re both like us, and not like us. A lot of the smaller trees are roughly the same height as a person and have about the same lifespan. And all the time we’re finding out new impossible things about them–how they communicate through root networks and support the weakest and sickest members of their colony. They’re just like us, except they’re also like a lung turned inside out that sheds its skin in winter, right?

They’re a gateway between the known and the unknown, but we also see something of ourselves in them. And we can recognise things about ourselves from our relationship to them. At the moment, a lot of what that relationship tells us isn’t good. I’m not just talking about clear-cutting and the worldwide destruction of our forests in favour of plantations that are basically factory farms for trees, although that’s part of it. Our relationship with individual trees can be just as telling.

As I write this, I’m not long back from a walking trip to Sherwood Forest where we went to see the Major Oak–a thousand-year-old behemoth that has the somewhat dubious honour of being “Britain’s Favourite Tree”. This becomes rather more amusing and ironic when you realise it looks like an old sock that most of the elastic has gone out of. The whole tree is strung together with cables and held up by girders to stop it from falling apart. It’s covered with lead plates to keep out the rain, all the trees around it have been cut down, and the ground’s stripped bare to help us desperately pump more nutrients into its ancient roots.

It’s a tree that’s had its day, and is dying. It only continues to live because we have put it on life support. I guess it seems fitting that it’s tied up with all the Union-flag-waving, God-Save-the-Queen-singing imperialist nostalgia-and-delusion that unfortunately makes up so much of modern ‘Britishness’. Hell, it’s even called ‘the Major Oak’. If I wrote this stuff down, you’d say I was being too heavy-handed.

To its credit, it’s worth saying that the Major Oak itself is still happily making acorns while its entire superstructure collapses like a half-burned candle, isolated from the rest of its colony over its last few days and years of its life.

Maybe a tree is exactly the right size to contain a whole civilisation after all.

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Kill or Be Killed

Aozora Brockman

On hands and knees between two rows of dry

potato plants, I sweated far from the rest.

Otōsan had dug the ground for me with two

great sweeps of the tractor, up and back, so that

the roots of all came loose at once and made

simple the task to fill my red pail heaping.

No rain for weeks made cracks appear that sliced

the soil into great slabs, heavy as rock,

and those I moved—teeth grinding slow to keep

from thinking of the rays of sun that lit my back

ablaze and how my fingertips felt ripped

open each time I dug at the coarse soil,

in search of smoothness. But when I lifted that mound

of earth, I saw a swarm of black and beady ants

who, caught off guard, looked up at light in fear.

Some ants with creamy eggs clenched in their mouths

burrowed back down into the dark for safety,

and still a few brave souls rushed up my arms

to bite: kill or be killed. I could not help but smash

them dead—to stop the pinching pain perhaps,

but more so because my mind forgot to care.

I watched one crumple off my forearm,

and there where it fell, on an overturned clump,

a crusty cocoon shone silver and large—

asleep, curled like the moon. It was as big

as a tomato worm, which is why I thought

Otōsan would want it gone before it could

lay eggs. So taking its body between thumb and

forefinger, I squeezed and saw milky liquid

spurt out. And then I sat, eyes wide and hand drenched

in the sticky white blood, chilled by the hot air.

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Travis MacDonald Interview: Concrete Jungle

travis-macdonaldCheck out the four pieces from Travis MacDonald’s Concrete Jungle that appeared in Reckoning 1.

While the project as a whole has not yet been gathered in one place, other pieces can be found in a number of online and print journals:

Michael: What gave you the inspiration for Concrete Jungle—what has been your personal experience with invasive species?

Travis: The very first inspiration for this project came while I was studying at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Soon after moving to Boulder, a transplant from the east coast, I was struck by the silver leaved trees that seemed to grow along the banks of every river and stream. They seemed to define the high-plains landscape in a distinct and majestic way. I soon discovered that these Russian Olives were not exactly welcome and had been categorized as an invasive species. One which consistently drained an already taxed water table and resisted all attempts at eradication.

That encounter sent me to the Colorado invasive species list. What I discovered was a richly textured list of colloquial folk names that seemed to contain a vast and varied web of historical threads and associations. Each non-latinate name hinted at a story whose origins could be tracked and followed back through hundreds of years of metaphor, oration and migration. They carried contexts and connotations long since lost to, or blurred by, the landscapes where they now found themselves.

They seemed to echo and trace the human (and perhaps more specifically, American) experience in a unique and subtle way. Which is to say, for me personally, they made me more acutely aware of my own role as an invasive species.

Michael: Where I am in Southeast Michigan, my local state and county parks are at the front lines of battle with a couple of “noxious weeds”: garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and the common reed, Phragmites australis. I’ve participated a bit—I harvest garlic mustard in the spring and eat it. But I’m aware that there’s another kind of battle ongoing about what species get classified as invasive, what resources are devoted to eradicating them, whether those resources would be better spent elsewhere. Where do you fall in that debate?

Travis: That’s a good question. And one I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the past few years. On the one hand, I believe that the preservation of our planet’s biodiversity is one of the most important battles being fought today. So, in that light, I applaud efforts to save native species whose survival is threatened by the influx of others that evolved outside of a given regional biome.

On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that there is no fitting this particular cat back into the proverbial bag. These efforts are an example of treating the symptoms rather than the disease… it’s a losing proposition in the long run. Because if we continue down this path, we can only hope to hold back the inevitable tide set in motion by the actions of our ancestors.

Of course, when we speak of “the resources devoted” to this fight, in my opinion any amount of money earmarked for invasives is much better spent than the offensively ridiculous sums we Americans invest in our nation’s military budget or, say, the privatized prison economy.

Michael: I’ve recently become enamored of the Dutch concept of “next nature”—the notion that since human beings are a product of nature, the unexpected patterns produced by complex human systems themselves constitute an extension of nature….

Travis: I must admit, I’m not familiar with the term “next nature” but I tend to mostly agree with the underlying idea you outline here. However, I would hesitate to categorize the European model of colonial expansion in the name of civilization and progress (and all its accompanying side effects) as “natural.” In fact, if we take a closer look at our own evolutionary backstory, I’m pretty sure we’d have a hard case for it even being characteristically “human.”

That said, I’m of the mind that mankind’s recent (evolutionarily/geologically speaking) intervention has accelerated the organic processes of natural selection beyond our planet’s current speed of counterbalance. Our intervention in those processes now, no matter how well intentioned, seems ultimately futile. The idea that we can somehow hope to preserve a vaguely defined “ideal” state of nature or turn back the clock to before we meddled in the affairs of carefully balanced bioregions developed over millennia, seems like typical human hubris to me. The only way is forward from here. What that next nature looks like depends in no small part on our action (or inaction) today.

Michael: I love how the complexity of the ways people interact with plants is embedded in the words of Concrete Jungle: it’s not just about the way plants and people move, but about the way names and identities evolve with movement. You call it “procedural word art”—a term with which I was not hitherto familiar. Can you talk a little about the theory behind it, the process of meaning-making involved in turning data into art? Did you come to it from natural language poetry, or from visual art, or both? Do you consider your work a product of the digital age, of the proliferation of machine language?

Travis: Thanks! That complexity of identity and interaction was at the heart of my interest in (and inspiration for) this project. More than just state borders, ultimately, that’s the motion I hoped to map with each curation.

I have a longstanding love for both ecopoetics and Language poetry, both conceptual and contemporary visual art, so I suppose I brought a little bit of all those influences to this particular project. The “concrete” in Concrete Jungle, of course, is a nod to the concrete poetry movement that was so effective in combining the visual and textual into a single movement and which eventually gave rise to some of the amazing VisPo being done in the world today by folks like Nico Vassilakis, mIEKAL aND, bpNichol and many others.

I tend to use the term “procedural” as a way of describing my work as a whole and setting it apart from the more well-established borders of “conceptual” poetry and art. Don’t get me wrong: despite some recent (and not entirely wrong) assertions that conceptualism is a colonialistic practice at its core, I have a great deal of appreciation for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and others….

However, for my own part, I’m interested in the places where appropriation goes beyond simply re-contextualizing and ventures into the reconfiguration and intentional manipulation of language, creating new forms and patterns. Language is the only material of artistic expression equally available to all and, as such, should be treated as an unlimited resource. Simply by speaking or writing, are imposing a process upon language. We are bringing our own contexts and experiences to its arrangement every time we set out to communicate. Making those processes and procedures more apparent as a means (and not just the method) of communication is one of my primary pursuits as a writer.

The processes that fall within the boundaries of proceduralism can be digital and mechanical (my own personal tendency) as well as natural, organic and ritualistic (as in the work of CAConrad, for instance). However, I should note that while it’s my own personal belief that there are a number of writers working in the procedural realm (Christian Bok, Michael Leong, CAConrad… to name a very few) I’m not sure any of them would necessarily agree with my categorization.

Michael: Thank you very much!

Travis: Thank you for sharing this work with your readers!

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Civitas Sylvatica

Cae Hawksmoor

Atiador,

I hope you read this. I know we did not part well. Prexim says that your lungs are bad enough to confine you to the arboretum. I hope you’re not climbing the walls like a penned animal. I suspect it is a vain hope, but it’s my hope all the same.

Is it true that you finally managed to get one of the lacrimosia to take? You devil. I’d give my right arm to know how you managed to pull that one off. I’d give my left to see it bloom.

The Constantine heartlands are like walking on a red sand moon. Whatever arguments the historians make about how their empire collapsed, one thing is obvious: it took almost every living thing from this place with it. Farmed the topsoil until it fell apart, Prexim says. That was before the drought came.

I suppose you’re old enough that I should ask you what happened here, shouldn’t I? Ha! The ochre sand gets into everything, and the sun is unrelenting. I wish that you were here to see it.

I’ve spent the last week in the ruin of a city. Its name is long lost to the sand, along with everything else. I did my duty and collected samples of every living thing that I could find, but I don’t think anyone will succeed in using them to green this blasted wasteland. Not even the sneering botanists from the university at Helixstead. If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s that some things in this world are beyond the repair of everything but time.

Perhaps the same is true of us.

I hope the seeds that I have sent survive the journey. I know that you will not be able to resist the temptation to grow the tree of civilisation. Who could?

I found them in a crack in the floor of a temple, half-smothered in sand and the same colour as the stone. If it wasn’t for that horrible tome of Vexesin’s that you made me read as an impressionable young woman, I would never have recognised them. Now, at least, I am glad to have read it. It made me realise that these seeds belong with you. Another impossible tree to add to your collection. If anyone has a chance of coaxing it to life, it’s you.

I hope they will make your convalescence easier to bear. I imagine that you’ll be back out in the field before I ever leave this wasteland.

Maybe the next time that we meet it will be with more fondness, less regret.

K.

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Kestlie,

Good of you to write, after everything.

Wish I could say that I was healing. After five centuries, my body does not recover as it once did. I am old down deep into my bones now. Held together by stubbornness and rage. Perhaps that is why we parted as we did.

I remember when this arboretum was just another of Prince Arexis’ drunken dreams four centuries ago. He sent for me one bright spring morning before the sun was even crowning, and told me in a wild frenzy that he planned to rebuild the gardens here. I helped to bring this place into the world, and watched Arexis grow old and die while I went on. There is no reason in it. No sense.

After that, I did what I could. Collected every seed and specimen from any shore where I could find a ship to take me. I taught a hundred rash and ignorant children how to tend to them. I made this place a glory, the likes of which have not been seen since the mist gardens of Elarin. And now I am a prisoner here. An old man puttering with his plants while Arexis’ descendants posture and crow like children playing at war. Perhaps the civitas sylvatica is fitting punishment for that. An ancient folly for an ancient fool.

Do not return here, Kes.

Atiador.

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Atiador’s Journal

Can finally breathe well enough to make a thorough investigation of the seeds that Kes sent. Highly unusual. Each perhaps the size of a thumbnail and perfectly spherical. The colour of pale sand, cracked through with filaments of red ochre. To the untrained eye, they indeed appear to be nothing more than small polished stones. Like sunblush marble.

I find myself driven by the same foolishness as every botanist before me. The seeds of civilisation—how enticing! Vexesin spent his full five hundred years of life trying to coax the civitas sylvatica into being. He failed, as all others have failed. The tree of civilisation does what it will, and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Like longevity, there is no rhyme or reason to it. Some of us simply go on living long after those around us fade and die. Still, perhaps the attempt will divert me.

No telling which growth medium will provide the best environment. Kes did not report much of the original condition of the soil in the Constantine heartlands, but I suspect that even if she had it would do me little good.

If Vexesin is to be believed, civitas sylvatica grows according to its own unfathomable pattern.

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Only two of the twelve have sprouted, both in a mix of sand and loam. It was more a combustion than a germination: a disordered chaos of sprouts growing in all directions, as fragile as old glass. Each shoot no thicker than a hair, although some have begun to knit themselves into more substantial shapes.

Under the highest levels of magnification, there is evidence along the earliest branches of spirals woven through and around one another, like primitive carvings in stone or paint on the wall of a cave.

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Lacrimosia finally came into flower this morning. Like a pale statue weeping. I stood for hours in the quiet before the day, breathing in her salt and stale perfume. It reminds me of one my grandmother used to wear.

When I finally dragged myself away, I found one of the two civitas sylvatica was dead. Suspect it is only a matter of time before I must find something new to distract me.

Many of the botanists and gardeners here are leaving. Fleeing the capital for their homes out in the country. Afeared of the draft. All talk on the wireless is of war. I tire of it. Who is to tend these gardens while our princes strut and play at leading armies? I cannot even kneel long enough to pull the weeds around the lacrimosia.

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Day by day, the civitas sylvatica begins to alter its growth pattern—no longer a wild disarray of hair-like shoots, but an intricate and almost geometric knotwork of darker branches. Fascinating.

One would expect the weakest hair-like shoots to die back until only the strongest remain, but that does not seem to be the case. Rather, they knit themselves together in a pattern that is only discernible by microscope.

But there? What wonders! What secrets are contained within the individual structure of its cells, even now while it is still sapling growth, such a fragile thing, so at the whims of its environment. I have been most cautious. If it dies, I will likely never see another. It seems tolerant to all but the driest of conditions, and in fact does not respond well to watering even when it is necessary. But it grows readily enough when fertilised with blood and bone meal.

I have not yet begun to hope that it will live.

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Atiador,

I heard this morning that they have called the draft. Even isolated as we are out here, the news shocked us. Most of the day passed in silence.

Hazir says that the king has lost his mind. I find it difficult to argue. It seems whatever happens now, there will be war.

Are your lungs healed? If you can travel, book passage as far as Constantine. I will meet you at whichever port you can reach at such short notice. The Empire is no longer a place for men and women of learning. Let me show you what we have achieved out here instead. I still do not believe that we can green this wasteland, but perhaps, with time, we may yet help it heal.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

It has been two weeks since I saw so much as a groundsman, although that insufferable nurse continues to hound my every step with his fretting and his fuss. Perhaps I will not have to suffer him much longer. Even club-footed, I’m certain that the army will find some use for him. I am blessed that they have not yet discovered how old botanists can assist in fighting useless wars. Grass grows up between the paving slabs from the great glasshouse where I spend my afternoons all the way down to the arboretum.

I wish someone was here to see the civitas sylvatica. This morning, I finally brought it out of the potting house and planted it beside the lacrimosia. Perhaps it will bring some comfort to her weeping. The earth around her roots is caked with salt, and sometimes, in the haze of sunlight when I hover between sleeping and waking, I dream that I can hear her. Her sighs and falling tears like spring rain. Such a beautiful illusion. She no more has feelings of her own than the pulp of grass between the paving slabs. So it is with the civitas sylvatica. And yet . . . .

Through the eyepiece of my microscope, it becomes clear that the cells possess incredible potential for rapid change. Only yesterday afternoon, I nodded off for not more than two hours and found that the whole tree had shifted shape again. According to my recordings, the branches can grow by as much as an inch per hour and move as much as three. Day by day, the knotwork of its compound branches straightens and stretches into something like an archway. Like a fine architectural dome.

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I am certain now that the branches of the civitas sylvatica are marked with something quite like writing. If it is not language, then it is at least an imitation of it. Oh, would that the damned politikers and panderers were not so blinded by ambition! In any year but this one, the arboretum would be filled with men and women of science from dawn to dusk, all come to study this most incredible expression of creative force. I would have linguists to record the words that appear on its branches and plumb the murky depths of its syntax. Perhaps, between us, we could even uncover a little of whatever is being communicated.

Instead, today even that damnable nurse has not come. So I must stumble up and down the overgrown paths of the arboretum unaided. I feel wretched and miserable every time I have to eat or wash or perform one of the otherwise basic functions of human life. No matter what I do, I cannot seem to get enough air into my body. I gasp and I wheeze while around me, everything slowly reverts to wilderness.

I cannot save the annuals and perennials in the glasshouse, cannot pluck the weeds from the salt earth around the lacrimosia. But I can lay beneath the stately arches of civitas sylvatica and dream.

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Today, I woke saturated by multicoloured light—red and blue and green, the sun tinted by the leaves of the civitas sylvatica, as fine as any stained glass. The colours formed strange patterns on the ground all around me, tessellating into the strangest shapes and forms.

Keslie says that I should leave this place. Abandon the tree and flee whatever is going on down in the city. But how can I? Up here, in this abandoned arboretum, the civitas sylvatica will live. It will live, and there will be no one here to see it.

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Atiador,

I suppose your stubbornness must keep you from writing. Or rather I should say that I hope it’s so. I cannot get word from the Imperial Society of anyone still at the arboretum, and I cannot stand the thought that something ill has befallen you.

They say the war is going well, and all the broadcasts on the wireless talk about our latest victories, but I do not think that anyone believes them. I heard Hazir say this morning that deserters from the imperial army have made it as far as the northern shore of Constantine, and I’d trust a man that I have worked with these past two years long before I’d trust the voices on the wireless. If deserters have made it so far, how must the war be going?

The expedition here goes well enough, but my heart is no longer in it.

Tell me to come back, old friend, and I will come. Tell me anything. I worry for you, Atiador. I worry for us all.

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The tree is moulting again. A pity. A part of me had hoped that it would retain its lofty arches, its unfathomable writing, and its stained glass leaves forever. The last few days that I have slept beneath it, I have even thought I smelled the rich musk of incense coiling slowly upwards through the air.

But today the wild growth has come again, the panic of tiny shoots and stalks. It is not quite as it was before. There is no longer any randomness in its growth. It seems to be following a pattern as precise and intricate as a spider’s web. Every strand has its purpose and its place. It happens so quickly that I can almost see it grow before my eyes: thin filaments of light trailing between the branches.

The central trunk has grown increasingly straight, fluted like an ancient column, but the dull grey of old steel. It is difficult to see it clearly through the nest of glass fibres.

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Last night I stayed out long into the dark, too weak and too stubborn to move from my place. Not long after the sun drained out of the summer sky, the most miraculous event occurred: the civitas sylvatica came alive with a thousand tiny lights. Blue and white beads like drops of water ran along the filaments of its branches, chasing each other through the dark. Kes would be the first to say that I am an iron-hearted old man, but I am not too proud to say that I wept at the sight of those lights.

I seem now to exist in a state halfway between this world and the next. I cannot rest. Every time that I lie down I wake as though I’m suffocating and spend forever gasping at the air. Tonight, I will stay awake instead, and watch the civitas sylvatica blazing with pluses of light like the beating of a heart.

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Just before dawn, I was jolted from half-slumber by the sound of something screaming very far away. Like a fox come out of the wood, but mechanical, man-made. I left my blankets soaked in last night’s dew and walked as far as the outer terrace to look down into the city. All looks peaceful, but changed. It’s been so long since I made it out of the arboretum, it took me some time to realise that I could see nothing moving in the valley below.

The shrieking stopped not long after. I rather think it must have been sirens. I could not find out from the wireless. There is nothing on any frequency. Perhaps they are afraid that the enemy will overhear.

I cannot help but keep glancing at the sky. I am afraid of seeing the enemy’s ponderous zeppelins trawling through the thin haze of sliver cloud. But they have not yet come, and I have not heard the sirens again.

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I believe the civitas sylvatica is reaching maturity. It has begun to grow some kind of canopy, the leaves black and flexible as rubber, spreading out like a dish against the sky and blocking out the light for everything unfortunate enough to be below.

The lacrimosia stands in shadow now, poor creature. And what the canopy of the civitas sylvatica does to the light, its roots do to the earth. The soil all around is so dry that it catches in the lightest breeze. Drifts of it collect like fine sand at the edges of the weed-choked paths.

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Many of the plants beneath the civitas sylvatica are dying. Some are already dead. It does not seem to matter how much water I bring it. I could empty an entire river into the earth and the water would simply sink down into the void of its roots. The lacrimosia is so dry that she is almost hollow, and when the wind blows through her it keens—not so much like a voice, more like the high hum of a shipyard in a storm. I do not think she will last much longer.

And yet the civitas sylvatica is so glorious that I cannot bring myself to hate it. I am bewitched and bewildered. Cannot help but wonder what I did to help bring this thing into the world when so many others have failed.

Skeletal branches grow from the black dish of its canopy. They change the feeling of the air somehow, as though they are generating a magnetic field. At night, the light pulsing through the glass web seems to lens and haze around the edges of this field, rippling like the aurora. It seems to be some kind of transmission of energy. Of information? Could this be how it reproduces? It seems impossible, and yet, even this wonder must surely fulfill the most basic principles of life?

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Smoke rises from the city this morning, pale and translucent as mist gathering in a river valley. I stood and watched it from the tangle of briar and starflower that covers much of the terrace now.

I still cannot see anything or anyone moving down there.

It has been so long since I saw another living soul.

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Oh, but I am a fool! I have been spending so much time on the terrace, watching the city, that I have neglected to tend the civitas sylvatica.

It has undergone some terrible collapse in my absence. The great glass webbed dome, with its filaments of electric light, has dissolved into a chaos of broken pieces, like the floor of a pin factory. I gathered a few for further inspection, but have so far been unable to discern the cause of its deterioration. The filaments are grey and brittle. Already, they break down into fine silica and drift on the pathways with what is left of the topsoil.

The lacrimosia is dead. Everything growing within two hundred feet of the civitas sylvatica is dead. Its leathery black canopy is still intact, but pores have opened on the undersides of the leaves, and ash falls like spores on everything below. This, too, I have sampled, so that some poor soul may analyse it if this blasted war is ever over. One thing is certain: the ash is poison to everything it touches. Everything that is not already dead.

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I can hardly bear to watch the ash fall any more—killing everything without care or discrimination, but killing the tree itself first of all.

The trunk is dying. What little is left of the sapwood still strains upwards, slowly peeling away from the void where the heartwood should be. I feel that selfsame void inside of me, some hungry wound that will never be healed. For all my daydreams about the transfer of information, there is no sign of fruit or seed.

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The sirens sounded again last night, and with them the most terrible rumbling. I don’t remember when I slept last. I sat in the arboretum and watched flickers of blood-coloured fire against the low night cloud. Then, late this morning, people finally came. How much have I wanted to see them, to see another living soul? But today they came at last, and I hid myself away.

They came by the glut, by the furlong, until I thought that the whole city must be emptied. Their heads hung as though their backs were broken. They did not stop to look at the gardens, just kept trudging south. Who knows what they expect to find on the other side of the hills. Only, perhaps, something better than what they’ve left behind.

I wish that I had never begun with the civitas sylvatica. Wish that I had gone to Kes when she asked, when I still had the chance.

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Great Architect, Atiador, they say the capital has fallen. I cannot get the story straight from anyone. Whether it was the enemy, or if it was burned out by our own. I think the king is dead. No one has heard from the palace in months.

The last broadcast said that the great library at the Imperial Society is gone. Burned or looted. All of those books! It’s more than I can bear.

I cannot stay in this blasted desert any more. How can I do anything for this wasteland? How can I can stand by while my home becomes the same?

K.

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Atiador’s Journal

The civitas sylvatica has begun its final starvation. A dark red fluid, like yew sap, oozes from the cracks and pools in the feather-dry dust, staining the grey to black.

I have retired to my rooms in the groundskeeper’s cottage. More refugees came up the road today, walking south, as though they were ghosts of themselves. Perhaps I have died and have come to the land of the dead.

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It must have ignited at some point over the night. The ash was warm underfoot this morning, thin coils of smoke rising from its rotten core.

Rain falls on the remains of my great folly. When I came here, I was assured of a quick recovery. I do not think I will be leaving.

When they find this . . . Kes, when you find me: burn my body. Scatter my ashes with the ashes of the civitas sylvatica. With the hollow and whistling shell of my poor lacrimosia.

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Kes,

What a mystery this world is. Unfolding in some pattern that we cannot fathom, but only brush up against in dreams.

I had resigned myself to die a miserable old man, mad and alone in his grief. We become so invested in the stories that we tell ourselves, we forget the world has other plans.

The winter passed, and the days drew out into the pink spun-sugar sunsets of the early spring. The rains fell forever, washing the world clean and leaving the first east winds to blow it dry. Spring must always humble us, teach us that we are children fumbling with things beyond our understanding.

I shuffle down to the arboretum and start shovelling away the wet poison ash that drifted two hundred feet around. There was not a fragment larger than a grain of sand, save for the dozen small beads that you’ll doubtless find with this letter. Beautiful, aren’t they? Like fine gold writing on the deepest lapis.

If you are reading this, I am gone. I do not think it will be long now. Leave the shell of this miserable country. Go where growing things can thrive again. And take these lapis beads with you.

I am sure that you know what to do with them.

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Aozora Brockman Interviews Chloe N. Clark

chloe-clarkMichael: Continuing in my campaign to foster creative cross-pollination among contributors to Reckoning 1, I asked Aozora Brockman, whose poem “Kill or Be Killed” is forthcoming on the site in a few weeks, to interview Chloe N. Clark about her poem “Sidelong Catastrophe”.

Aozora: I love that your poem “Sidelong Catastrophe” surprises us in the opening line (“I’m not sure who the sky is / when it’s not the sky”) by giving the sky a dual identity—at once a “who” (human-like) and an “it” (object-like). In the poem, the perceived boundary between human beings and nature are blurred: a river was once a beautiful woman, and clouds show human-like emotion when they “weep the ghosts / of rivers for days on end”. What, to you, is the boundary between humans and nature? And what can a poem that blurs these boundaries open up?

Chloe: This is such a great question but I’m not sure I have a cohesive/at all well-thought out answer for it. I’ve always been fascinated by boundaries and the blur between them (my love of fairy tales is probably to blame with all their liminal spaces between boundaries). I also think the boundary between humans and nature is a liminal one, or at least a shifting one. I grew up closer to nature than many, because of where (and how) I lived as a child. So to me nature has always been something I exist in, not against or beside, and thus the boundary is something non-existent. However, obviously, this changes—I think in cities, there’s probably a much more defined sense of the boundaries. But maybe that, even, is false—since the natural world still interacts with all landscapes (something that we’ll likely notice more and more as climate change increases the disruption of what we think of as the norm of weather and natural cycles).

I think poetry is always about blurring boundaries. A poem itself is a liminal space—existing between the writer’s intent and the readers’ interpretations. So maybe a poem is the best way to shake us from the boundaries we imagine are there.

One of the coolest aspects of the MFA program I graduated from—Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing & Environment—is that it kind of forces you to constantly be thinking about this in your writing.

Aozora: There is a tension between power and powerlessness in your poem. At one moment you are dreaming of the possibility of solving all of the problems of the world (“sometimes I imagine / that we can solve everything” ) but, a couple lines later, are wholly without hope, drawing “scenes / of decay because that is what / we know”. As humans we know that we have great power over nature—after all, we are the ones that have systematically destroyed our environment. But at the same time, it feels impossible to halt the poisoning of soil, water and air. We are, at once, extremely powerful and extremely powerless—and your poem lays bare this contradiction and tension. As a poet (and a person), when do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless?

Chloe: I’ve always felt the most powerful, day-to-day, when I’m focused in on something. I cook and bake, so that’s a meditative act but it’s also one where you can feel powerful because you have this mastery over what you’re doing—especially once you became more and more skilled at it. That’s an exquisite feeling. When I’ve felt powerful in writing is when I hit that sweet spot between the last few lines and the ending, when you can see the writing coming together and everything feels like that stomach-jumping feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too fast but you know you’re still safe.

I think there’s so many situations when I feel powerless as a person (which maybe is why I write). It’s that moment when someone you love is hurt and you can’t do anything, or when you’re walking alone at night and the darkness seems a little too shadow-filled, or when you watch the news and the world is so filled with horror. It’s easy to feel powerless.

As a poet, the only time I ever feel powerless is in the poems I haven’t yet written—the ones about emotions that I haven’t figured out or events that are still too close to see right to put into language.

Aozora: What do you think is the role of a poet writing about the environment and natural world? What impassions you to write? And how can we change the world through poetry?

Chloe: I don’t know, to be honest. I think that writing purposefully about the environment and natural world is good, but when people set out to do so—it often feels like just that: something they made themselves do. I’m far more interested in writing that can’t help but be filled with these things. Where it bleeds into every line. So the role might be as witness, more than voice.

Chloe: The things that impassion me are so wide that it’s almost weird to think about: I write because I can’t not (I think I’m stealing that from somewhere, but it’s true). I’ve always been fascinated by stories themselves and I think of poetry that way—as a story, just told in slightly different terms than fiction.

I want to say we can change the world. But often I think I agree more with something Wilfred Owen wrote back during WWI: All the poet can do today is warn. Sometimes warning is the most we can do. But, I hope we can also offer some bit of hope: if only because someone else is noticing the same things as you, or finds beauty in the same place as you, or makes a joke that makes you laugh. I think that can be a lot.

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Sidelong Catastrophe

Chloe Clark

I’m not sure who the sky is

when it’s not the sky

 

but I think I know this river

was once a beautiful woman

 

viewed from above all bodies

of water look like someone

 

you once loved and the color

of the trees only matters

 

when there are trees at all

and sometimes I imagine

 

that we can solve everything

design cities that fit into

 

the Earth instead of making

the Earth fit into them

 

but mostly we sit at drawing

boards and paint scenes

 

of decay because that is what

we know and sometimes I think

 

I can see the sky but

it might just be a person

 

and I’ll miss the sun most

when the clouds weep the ghosts

 

of rivers for days on end

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from Concrete Jungle

Travis Macdonald

New Jersey

new-jersey

New Hampshire

new-hampshire

Wisconsin

wisconsin

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”

daniella-levy

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

reckoning-1-cover

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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