Kate Schapira Interview: Climate Anxieties

kate-schapiraMichael: Kate Schapira’s Climate Anxiety Project is a fascinating creative experiment in which she sets up a counseling booth (in the style of Lucy from Peanuts) in a city square, invites people worried about the future of humanity to come and talk to her about it, records the results, and finds creative ways to respond. Her “Three Alternate Histories” in Reckoning 1 are just the tip of the iceberg.

I love your blog; I am so impressed and inspired by the Climate Anxiety Project, and I’m very glad to find out you’ll be doing new sessions in 2017. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me a bit about it.
I wanted to ask your impression of the reaction to it. I know the project has had quite a bit of press already. I wonder if you’ve seen any kind of momentum building from that. For Reckoning, I’m very interested in fostering community, of encouraging people to think together. Have you seen anything like that as a result of your project? Have you made any friends at it?

Kate: That thing of encouraging people to think together, of enacting community with each other, is something that the booth proper doesn’t always lend itself to very well, because everyone’s talking with me but it’s pretty one-at-a-time, they’re not necessarily ever talking to each other. Sometimes one person will jump in on a conversation that another person, someone they don’t know, is having with me, but I don’t know if any ongoing relationships ever come out of that. And I don’t collect data—contact information, stuff like that—because I think that would change the dynamic a lot. I have made a couple of friends, and there are people who are sort of regulars—people who aren’t necessarily coming back for more sessions, but who will come talk and catch me up on their lives when no one else is talking with me, and if I see them around we’ll say hi.

But one of the things that’s come out of the booth conversations is how isolated people feel, and how unable they feel to act together. One way I’m trying to respond to that is with this series of weekly neighborhood gatherings called Interdependence Days that I and a few other people started this summer. We share stories and food, we learn skills or make things together, we let each other know of more opportunities for neighborly actions and then sometimes we do them together—for example, somebody came and talked to us about a city ordinance to increase police accountability and transparency, and then one other person from the group and I went doorknocking about it. But we also do things like draw, or do reflective exercises, or make something together—we’re trying to practice ways of being with other people that differ from the ways our world most easily makes available to us.

About five people living in other places have at different times expressed some interest in operating a Climate Anxiety Counseling booth of their own, but so far as I know that hasn’t moved beyond interest. I would be beyond thrilled to help someone create a version of this that works for them and their city or town—I would bend over backwards to do this—so people who think they might like to try it should get in touch with me.

And I guess the last thing thing is about the alternate histories, like the ones you’re running here: while they’re obviously not literal instructions–they don’t taken nearly enough into account–they are suggestions. I wish people would try to follow them and see what happens, and I invite anyone and everyone to do so.

Michael: Can you share with me something you’ve learned in the course of listening to and addressing people’s anxieties? Do you think you’ve gotten better at it over time?

Kate: I’ve definitely gotten better at it over time, and the specific things I’ve gotten better at are listening and asking questions rather than volunteering information or making suggestions. This means that more of the conversation comes from the person who’s talking to me, and they have more opportunities to consider and understand their own thoughts, and I have more of an opportunity to be responsive to what they’re actually thinking and feeling, so that the conversation is really between the two of us and not a conversation I’m having with myself. This is key for people who are trying to work together to make something happen—both in the “what should we try to make happen” part and the “how should we do it” part. I’ve absolutely used this practice outside of the booth to do things with other people and it’s made both the process and the outcome better.

I’m not trying to get people not to be anxious, so the “addressing” part of it is really just about recognizing and being responsive, and maybe thinking through the “what do you do when this happens” of it a little more, and I think I’ve gotten better at all of those things. I do sometimes make recommendations, and I think those recommendations are less, “Go do this, it’ll be okay!” and more like, “Try doing this and see how it feels to do, and what you learn from doing it.”

I think the other thing I’ve learned is how real and true interdependence is, and how fake independence is. And from that, I’ve gotten better at talking about the flow between the human and the nonhuman, to kind of pierce the mental wall between “a person” and “the environment”—to be able to not just tell people that they’re connected to and interdependent with all these systems of life but to lead them to see and feel it.

Michael: Does doing this make you feel better about where we as a planet are going? Has it changed your expectations at all about what’s to come?

Kate: Not at all. Everything I see, both firsthand and reported–not just predictions for the future, but observations about the present–says that we are in the middle of a hard time that’s going to get harder, more painful and full of loss and grief, falling unevenly according to who’s already suffering or exploited. I don’t feel better about anything, ever, anymore, except in little tiny patches.

But those tiny patches matter to me and I want to nourish them, and I thin one of them does have to do with the way that people behave toward each other: the listening I spoke about a second ago, the ability to then align with what each other wants and needs, and the ability to imagine, together, something different than what’s happening. How we behave in this bad time—who we align ourselves with and what we try to do together, what we see as our responsibility toward each other, what we try to protect each other from and enable each other to do—is in the realm of things that we can help, that we’re not helpless about. And that “each other” includes humans and other beings as well.

Michael: Have you gotten many negative reactions, like the one I see someone has posted on your blog’s about page? How do you deal with those?

Kate: Not that many–it seems like people who think I’m stupid or wrong mostly don’t get into it. There was a little rash of that kind of response this summer, I think because a climate-change-trivializing blog found my page and linked to it, and some of the comments on that blog’s post—not mine—were rude in a personal way as well as disparaging the project, commenting about my appearance and stuff like that, but incredibly mild compared to what some people say to women online.

You probably saw that I didn’t respond to the comment on the Climate Anxiety Counseling About page, just put it up and left it there. Someone tried to have a Twitter fight with me about it too, and I just kept it factual and low-key and like, “You’re mistaken.”

Someone else wrote me this very long and concerned email, and I kind of treated it like a booth session: I said a little bit about where I was coming from, but mostly I tried to ask questions about where they were coming from, why they wanted me not to be worried, what they thought was an appropriate response. I don’t think I moved them at all, though.

When people have come up to the booth saying that climate change isn’t real or that it’s pointless or stupid to worry about it, sometimes I’ve reacted in a way I feel okay about, where I feel like we connected as people, and sometimes I’ve reacted in a way that I don’t feel good about, where I let irritation or impatience show in a way that didn’t let either of us learn anything. Anger is important and useful, but it’s better if you wield it on purpose.

I’ve included links to those posts from this summer in the list below, as well as a couple of reflective notes that people might like to see, and an explanation of the alternate history stories.

Thanks so much for putting Reckoning together—it’s amazing.

Michael: Thank you!

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Three Alternate Histories

from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth

Kate Schapira

Reckoning 1

Ownership

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/12/16

Heat, dryness, really sick people, kind of barren landscapes. A lot of—as I’m listing things off it looks a little bit like what’s happening right now, in terms of economic and cultural devastation. A lot more complete separation of folks with resources and folks without resources, a lot more violence and globalization from below—people joining forces, people finding commonness where they couldn’t before because they thought they were in competition.

That part sounds—not exactly hopeful, but like something that you would like to see.

 

Yeah, that is.

So what’s the fear part?

 

Starvation? . . . but when you go to identify it, it’s different than what you think. I like to think of the world as an ecological system. Basically the fear is that turned on its head and nothing being able to sustain anything else. I don’t even know how to file that, where to put that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/28/16

I’ve been down here 10 years working with the homeless. Last year they had a sign that said there was no smoking in the park, so then of course people came and smoked out here, but now people are smoking in the park again. . . . I’d like to see people down here motivated to clean up the park.

What do you think might motivate people?

 

I think people need to take ownership of it.

But what makes you take ownership of something? Like, do you own your house, what makes you feel like the owner of your house?

 

I think you have to tap into what people can do instead of what they can’t do.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 6/18/16

The story of competition is only one story.

D hangs laundry in his backyard, bees rocking and rummaging in the rhododendron pollen. He has a backyard, at the moment, that he can say “his” about. If he’s honest, it belongs also to the bees, to the rhododendron, to the grass; to the native trees that the rhododendron and grass replaced, to the Native people that his ancestors displaced, to the slaves that cleared the land of trees the first time; to the bugs that thread through the grass and the worms and grubs that tunnel through the dirt; to the microfauna in their guts and the fungal hyphae laced around them. All those whose speech is in their operation. The living and the dead. There’s enough backyard for all of them, if he does it right.

Until now, the other meaning of ownership has trumped this shared meaning in his mind: the getting of what you pay for, the holding of what you have. The recognition that he is always taking part takes him apart.

He does a few things. He and his neighbors on the one side work together on a pass-through through his yard between theirs and the street, breaking up the concrete of his driveway into pavingstones with moss between them, leaving half the fence to slow down noise and building the rest of its boards into a trellis. When he waters the plants or digs in compost, he treats it like an offering; when he poisons the carpenter ants that are gnawing down his house, he holds a funeral for them. When his neighbor on the other side comes out running from his other neighbor, her girlfriend, he sits with her on the porch and helps her make a plan about what to do next. Later he says to the girlfriend, “If you want to hit her, come talk to me instead. Whatever it takes for you to not hit her. Don’t do it again.”

“Or what?”

“What do you mean, or what? Don’t do it.”

The girlfriends break up and move away, taking advantage of the northward convoys. D doesn’t know what they do, what happens to them. Other people move in, turn the house next door into what turns out to be one of the first free clinics and build out a giant trellis to let the ivy and grapevine make it a superstructure of shade, stabilize its temperature in the increasingly sharp spells of dry heat and downpour. D chats with the people waiting to pick up their doses of hormones and makes tea for the people dying of cancer to wash down their painkillers—iced tea would probably be better, but he needs to repair the connection between the refrigerator and the solar cell. If the next storm doesn’t rip this house away, if food poisoning or accident doesn’t nab him on one of his work trips out into the countryside, he’ll probably die here, too. He belongs here, and so do the plants that scaffold or strangle each other, the tiny animal deaths that feed into insect and fungal life, the remnants of the dead, the visiting birds (ever fewer), the relations among all of these.

Many years later, on that same spot, a circle of people sit in a dry and ragged landscape, a stretch of dust punctuated by tree stumps and a few ragged foundations, in whose shelter the weeds grow and they can sleep. They are tired and dying, looking for the end of the wasteland. They pass an old thermos around. Each of them takes about half a sip. In the morning three of them are dead. The others form a circle, pass an old thermos around, each taking about half a sip. Then they keep walking, the slightly stronger ones bolstering the slightly weaker.

It doesn’t have to last forever, whatever it is, for you to be tender to it, for you to share with it; you won’t last forever, either.

Environmental Hazards

Routine releases means emissions in normal operation, emissions that might happen daily or more rarely, and they’re frequently regulated by permits . . . In accidental releases, planning is very important.

—Barbara Morin, Providence Department of Health

We’re always planning. We’re looking at every event.

—Michael Borg, Providence Emergency Management Agency

The next day, the hazmat teams descended on the Port of Providence, because they were responsible for reducing harm from hazardous materials. They were just doing their jobs when they gave the Univar and Motiva facilities and the staff at the Enterprise propane and National Grid liquid natural gas tanks a timeline and a protocol for distributing or neutralizing their fossil fuel and chemical holdings. The people working there were glad to cooperate, knowing that every day of dismantlement increased the chances of survival for a third-grader or an old man on oxygen or a school of fish, and knowing that as they did this work, their livelihoods were assured in the neighborhood.

There’s no good way to put natural gas or coal back in the ground—not every process is reversible, not every wound can be healed. A council of South Providence residents doled out the natural gas and propane to the rest of the city household by household, rationing it for heat and cooking, knowing that there would be no more when it was gone. They built big, ramshackle structures out of scrap metal and wood from dismantled houses across the train tracks, and colored them with chalk and festooned them with fabric to make sure the drivers could see them from far away.

The people of South Providence made room for the people who’d worked in the Port, and learned from them and the hazmat teams how to work with the chemicals without harm. Sometimes they were able to reduce them to inert compounds, or suspend them in substances that would neutralize them. Sometimes the best they could do was parcel them out into smaller quantities, to be stored above water. Filtration, solution, transformation. Prevention: better than cure. The people who’d worked in the Port, and the hazmat teams, learned from the people of South Providence other sets of skills: arguing, running repairs, improvisation, rapid calculation, code-switching, field medicine. They all breathed more easily.

The next hundred-year storm hit before the tanks were fully emptied. A lot of fish and seabirds died, too many to count, and two humans trapped in a car, and an entire long row of windbreaking saplings that the people of South Providence, old and new, had planted a couple of years before. They succumbed to the chemical-infused saltwater; they stood like thin gravestones.

It could have been worse, it could have been better. The rest of the city’s people took the people of South Providence into their houses elsewhere and took turns cleaning and airing the flooded buildings, breaking down the ones that were too badly damaged or too far into the floodplain to make sense saving; they took it in shifts so that no one had to have too much exposure to the poisonous debris. They noted and charted the lie of the land, where the water wanted to go. They thickened and lined the walls of their homes with torn fabric, scavenged wood, leftover office paper, dry grass; they cooked on tiny solar stoves outdoors in summer and saved their gas and wood for winter.

The people who were young during that storm were almost old when the next one hit, and things went very differently. All the tanks were long empty of poison; some were reefs for the shellfish that were just starting to come back. Long sections of train track ran quietly under the water, coated in algae that had evolved to digest the tar and creosote that soaked the railroad ties. People’s weather senses were better now, and with the help of predictive technology, they knew when to leave and let the water rush through what was left, if that was where it wanted to go. The city’s high points had food stores and hospitals; the city’s low points were thick with marsh grass shading into waterweed, and tiny crabs, and sand fleas, and lugworms, hunkering down to wait out a cleaner tide.

The Ocean State

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/8/15

I saw a thing in the paper about how a sea level rise of 3 feet is going to destroy the marshes and salt ponds, down in South County, that are breeding grounds for lots of fish and birds—plovers and stuff like that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/15/15

The city—pollution. Buildings, cars, power plants. People just like to litter, it’s just fun to them. Like when I was younger and I did litter, I felt bad about it. Like why would you do that.

What do you think would make people change that, those habits?

 

More influence. More influences. Maybe through music—I’m a musician, reggae, hip-hop, percussion. Inspirational vibes and dancing. If it’s there, more broadcasting of it, something in there for children—the inspiration needs to be there. Rhode Island is very depressing, people hate it. It’s depressing, it’s boring, there’s nothing to do. All it really is, is an ocean, which, sure, if you have money.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 9/8/15

The next day, I’m going to ask you to imagine, C listened to D and D listened to C. They saw that each other had said these things; they knew this much, at least, of what each other wanted.

The people living near the edge of the water broke their houses down to make room for some of the water—to make paths for it, to build rising bridges and floating marshes. D’s music gave shape to their work; he toured from site to site, and so did other musicians and bands (not everyone loves reggae, or early-’90s rock, or bachata). Back in the cities and inland towns, some couples in houses too big for them moved in with friends, opening their houses to people from the edge of the water, or people from over the water. Some, to preserve their ability to be alone, repaired houses that had stood empty. There was time to do all of this, time grouped and divided by music and silence.

Twenty-nine years later, the ocean is where music is, at certain times of day: a parade winding like a slow current, a circle pulsing around a performer like the devouring mouth of a starfish, a skein of song nourishing a difficult task. You take care of it because it takes care of you, or you take care of it because it’s where the music is, where the bus-boats fueled by algae stop to drop off people from the city, where the far-traveling boats still dock or rest from time to time. It’s on the platforms that sink and hover with the tide and that everyone works together to draw in or anchor when the storms get bad.

At other times of day, the music drops. It doesn’t stop completely—air doesn’t, water doesn’t—but it ebbs to make room for terns and osprey to fish, sandpipers to stab for worms, the ears to recover their quiet. Some people learn the music, or the silence, because of the animals. Some people learn the changes of tide, the bugs, the tiny hungers, because of the silence, or the music.

Sometimes, the music turns somber. There are no more plovers. There are no more moon snails. Your home, your home, the place that you loved, the place where you learned to love, is no more, has become something else—you will never see it again, never. It will never again surround you, as this music does, as these people and other creatures do—known to you only so far, so much—as this air does, as this water does.

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Johannes Punkt Interviews Marissa Lingen

marissa-lingen Michael: I asked Johannes Punkt (whose story “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” is in Reckoning 1 and goes live on the site next month) to interview Marissa Lingen about “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” because he’s from Sweden and I thought he might have interesting things to ask her, and because I’m trying to do everything I can to foster cross-pollination between Reckoning authors, artists, readers and yes, editors.

Johannes: I love how you write nature as something incredibly personal. Who do you write like, do you think, on your best days? Who would you like to write like?

Marissa: I want to write like my best self. I am inspired by so many other writers, but I have a hard time saying, “I want to write like Jane Yolen” or “I want to write like John M. Ford” or “I want to write like Octavia Butler.” I want to talk about relationship and society the way Octavia did, I want to have the interplay of ideas Mike had in his work, I want Jane’s range in talking to all sorts of audiences. I try to learn from everything I like, to see what makes it go. But at the end of the day, I can only write like me. If I’m lucky and work very hard, I can write like the best me.

Marissa: I’ve been reading more personal essayists lately as well as writing this piece–usually I write fiction. So I can say more particularly that I am inspired by Elizabeth Dodd and by Karen Babine, in this form, and I’m always looking for more inspiration.

Johannes: Since you wrote about wilderness—what is your favourite wilderness in writing?

Marissa: Since you’re Swedish there’s some chance you’ll actually know what I mean when I answer this! My first wilderness in writing was the robber’s woods in Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daugher, and I think that that writing about being a little girl in the forest, sometimes with her little boy friend, imprinted itself and the forest on my heart when that was me too. All the others since then have been paler echoes—some of them wonderful, but none as vivid as that first literary wilderness.

Johannes: Reading your piece, I couldn’t help but think about it and about how notions of private/public property shape the landscape and, in turn, those who grow up there. Have you and your Swedish cousins talked about Allemansrätten [A Swedish law that means that even if you own land, you can’t stop people from going there/temporarily sleeping there, &c. That’s the gist of it. In English it’s called “freedom to roam.”]?

Marissa: Yes! They had us out to their country house when we were visiting last year, and it came up then, because we walked out on the road but came back through a field and some woods that were adjacent. I had read about what a large percentage of Swedes go berry-picking or mushroom-picking—an even larger percentage of Finns, I think, under the same type of law—and it totally makes sense compared to here, where people mostly don’t do that. My best friend does urban foraging, but she always asks very carefully. She goes to the door and knocks and says something like, hi, I see your mulberry bushes are full of fruit going to the birds, would you mind if I picked some. And then she makes jam. And of course I don’t want random strangers wandering in and eating my tomatoes, but having a common understanding sounds appealing indeed.

Johannes: Related to the previous question: You write about wildness and wilderness, like a stewardship of nature almost. How do you feel about ownership of land, tamed, half-tamed, or not? (Is it something that elicits emotion?) obviously you wrote that the waterfall was “[y]ours” but the two feel like very different kinds of ownership, no?

Marissa: They’re very different indeed. My feelings about land ownership get complicated. We own a house on a third of an acre here, with woods in the back. When we moved in, the woods were part of a long strip of forested land that crossed ten or twelve people’s private property in going down to the city park. It wasn’t a large woods, but it was nice. Now several of our neighbors have chosen to cut and landscape that, which changes the feel of the whole. And of course that’s their prerogative, but it makes me gloomy.

The kind of possessiveness that I feel about Minnehaha Falls is an entirely non-exclusive possessiveness. It’s mine, it’s ours—and I want that “ours” to be as large as possible. I want all the people who live around here and even visitors to feel that they have some relationship with the Falls, some responsibility to see that it’s cared for. I think under our current system having it be a public park is the best way to do that, but if it can be a public park that makes people feel that they are part of the public, even better. I fear that too often “the government owns it” ends up feeling like “no one owns it, no one takes any responsibility,” when it should be a collective feeling of *everyone’s* responsibility. Ownership should feel more like “I need to take care of this [possibly with some other people]” than like “I can do whatever I like with this and no one can stop me.”

Johannes: Your piece discusses adjusting to disability. I got mine relatively early; I can hardly remember what it’s like to be “normal.” You seem to ground yourself with those memories and patterns; what do you do when the world is too xenoformed, too alien to adjust to? If it ever is.

Marissa: Oh, it is sometimes. Yes. There is a level of vertigo that results in dreams of being on a malfunctioning space station with the gravity going haywire, because that’s how completely disoriented my body is about up and down, and that’s the metaphor set my science fiction writer brain has to process those sensations when I’m unconscious. So my brain is literally saying: this is beyond our planetary reference frame, this is an alien environment.

What do I do practically: well, there is a practice my best friend refers to as “Marissa is brachiating again”: that is, going from branch to branch like a monkey. Only I am doing it in the house: getting around without falling over by reaching for the next thing to steady myself on, going from touching a wall to a chair to a countertop. That’s one of my best coping mechanisms in my small, immediate world. In the larger one–my assistance needs and coping vary a lot depending on how bad a day it is. Sometimes my cane is enough. Sometimes I need to take a friend’s arm. Sometimes the only thing that will work is patience, waiting for a day when the world and I are better lined up.

Johannes: And, lastly, it’s a new year and stuff. What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Marissa: I have Maria Dahvana Headley’s Aerie at the top of my stack of Christmas books. I loved Magonia, and I’m looking forward to Aerie very much. Last year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and I’m now going through the rest of Solnit’s work a little at a time. I also read my first Gerald Vizenor novel, Treaty Shirts, which I loved, so I’m reading the rest of his stuff a little at a time too. And of course there are new things coming out that I’m eager for—Thoraiya Dyer’s debut looks pretty great, and our mutual editor has been talking up Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, so I’m excited for that.

 

Read “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” in Reckoning 1.

Johannes Punkt writes with an accent. Previously published in Minor Literature[s], Pamphlets for the Apocalypse, among others. Studies translation at Lund University, Sweden. Email: johannespunkt@gmail.com.

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How Far Are We From Minneapolis?

Marissa Lingen

Reckoning 1

My Swedish cousins were very confused by the walk through the woods down to the Mississippi River. “How far are we from Minneapolis?” they kept asking. And we would repeat: we’re in Minneapolis. This is part of Minneapolis. We’re in Minneapolis right now. They gazed at us in frustration, unsure what part of their excellent English was not getting through. “But how far? How far to get to Minneapolis?”

The urban park land that stretches from just upstream of Minnehaha Falls down to the Mississippi is mitigated, human-focused land. It’s not wilderness by any reasonable definition. And yet the small wilds, the contained wilds, have their place—not to substitute for larger conservation efforts, but to preserve specific landforms. And more, to set aside green space not as a thing that city dwellers visit, but as a thing that we live with intimately.

The park navigates the space between human and wild expertly. At the top of the Falls, there are lawns, even small cultivated gardens. There are statues and plaques. Picnic tables and a bandshell and even a little restaurant that’s open in the warm months. And there is the destination on the official tourist checklist: the Falls themselves. The statue just upstream ties them in explicitly with Longfellow’s poem (though it would otherwise have nothing to do with the area—Longfellow’s Gitchee-Gumee—Kitchi Gammi, Lake Superior—is three hours north). All of that is the farthest thing from wild. But if you take the stairs to the bottom of the falls, a trail leads along Minnehaha Creek, to a wide, grassy meadow with no amenities, except that it’s fun to run around in. Follow it a little more, into the trees, and before you know it you’re alone, you and the bunnies and the squirrels, heading down to the Mississippi.

Close to the Falls, the WPA stabilized the streambeds against erosion back in the 1930s. Those walls have been rebuilt and expanded into a pool area slightly downstream. When I was eight, we took my great-grandmother there on a picnic, and she told us about how she would take the streetcar and walk to get down from Nordeast Minneapolis, where she grew up, for Sunday School picnics beside Minnehaha Creek. Our family was so poor then that Great-Grandma couldn’t afford the white dress she needed to participate in her high school graduation. But they could still enjoy the park, even before its WPA improvements. When we brought her back, she was so shaky she needed my dad’s arm, but she could get there. She couldn’t go up to the Boundary Waters into the wild woods. But this, with shaky steps, with help, she could do.

I didn’t know how soon that lesson would apply to my own life.

Further along, the main signs of human habitation are a stretch of boardwalk where the trail tends to get mucky in the spring, and a bridge and bench at the confluence with the Mississippi. And, of course, the trail itself. The other people you meet here are quieter than the people at the top of the Falls. There are conversational hikers, friendly hikers, but the kids’ birthday parties, the raucous laughter, are left back in the entirely human environment of picnic tables. Between that and the half-wild environment of hiking trails, there is space and the sound of water. It is a very short walk.

Sometimes you need the walk to be short.

“But we have seen her in the woods,” One of my Swedish cousins said, when I was diagnosed with a major balance disorder. More than anything else, that spoke to the frustrations I was feeling. They thought of me as sure-footed, swift and eager to show them my favorite natural surroundings. I thought of myself that way.

I spent a lot of the first year inside. I did the things I absolutely had to do, but when even the most level paved ground pitches and yaws under your feet, it’s hard to add unnecessary tasks to your day. One of the hardest things about disability—especially as you make the transition from hoping it will be temporary to realizing it won’t—is figuring out how to keep the parts that are most important from who you were before.

I couldn’t make a trip to real wilderness. I couldn’t reach the sorts of sprawling forests needed to make life possible for countless species including our own. But even on a bad day, like my great-grandmother, I could take someone’s arm and get to the bridge over the falls. I could inhale the smell of iron-rich Minnesota soil in the water, almost like blood in my nose and mouth. On a better day I could make it down the stairs into the woods. I could take deep lungfuls of the quiet green smell. I wasn’t very far away from people. But I could be away from people, in one of the places I have always belonged.

The Falls park let me be the person my cousins had seen in the woods and find the limits of how I could be that person based on how I was feeling that day, not defaulting to the worst-case scenario like I’d have to on a long trip. And that gave me strength to keep going while we were figuring out an imperfect solution that would allow me “real” hiking trips later—on good days, in good months. The Falls park didn’t demand my best days. It was there for me every day.

Once I was back on my feet, I took a friend’s kids to the park around the Falls, and the thirteen-year-old wanted to know what we were doing there. “Is it the tallest waterfall?” she asked dubiously. “The most volume of water?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “and it’s ours.”

Certainly there are things that make the Falls unique—geological, historical. I love The Laughing, Leaping Water, a blog about the history of Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Park. But what I love about the Falls are the things that make it beautiful, the things that make it ours. If we let our experiences of the natural world be reduced to a tourist checklist, we miss what’s important about them. We miss the details.

You can experience the Falls, the walk down to the Mississippi or the nearby Minneapolis lake parks on a single visit. Coming back over and over, you learn to understand them. How high is the water? Is that typical for the season? What does it mean for the months to come? What does the water smell like? Did it smell like that the last time the leaves and the grass smelled like this? What does the combination tell me? Is there a lot of garlic mustard around the path down to the river, a little, buckthorn instead? How are we doing with removing those invasives? How far does the ice extend this year down the path into the sunny section? When do the Falls freeze? When do they melt?

You can smell the air, look for invasive plants, admire the swirling currents in the water as it passes, on your first visit. You should! They’re great! But they’re even better in context. This place has so much to teach us.

When you stand at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek with the Mississippi River, having walked the length down from the Falls, you’re watching the lifeblood of the center of North America. It’s all part of the same gigantic system.

Maybe the Indigo Girls told you that “the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” Amy and Emily wouldn’t lie to you about something like that. It’s true, and Minnesotans are supposed to make a pilgrimage to that unassuming spot. But a pilgrimage takes time. The headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca are four hours north of Minneapolis. Great for a weekend trip, no good at all for every day. You can’t make a pilgrimage like that for just a minute on your way home from work. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t flee to the smell of freshwater and trees if it takes four hours to get there. When I heard that my beloved aunt’s surgery had not been effective, that she would have to live with a debilitating condition for the rest of her life, I did all the things I needed to do, updating other relatives, running errands, holding her hand while she cried. And on the way home, I went back to the Falls.

My Swedish cousins love to hike, and to walk in parks and gardens near them in Stockholm. But for them, the two never meet. Parks and gardens are planted, cared-for, manicured. Beautiful. But not a bit wild. There’s no gradient of setting from the managed to the natural. There are grand monuments, mighty rivers and beautiful natural forests, but nothing like this semi-wild park in the middle of Minneapolis.

The grand and the mighty are worth experiencing. But bucket list tourism doesn’t give a sense of rhythm and scale, and it can’t work its way into a city dweller’s daily life. The things that make Minnehaha Falls Park less wild make it accessible. People who don’t have a car for a four-hour drive or the money to rent one can get off the lightrail very near the Falls. People who can’t hike to the confluence—like my great-grandmother, like me some days—can still walk or wheel to the top of the Falls and take the water in, take notice, take stock of what’s the same and what’s different. Someone’s bicycle abandoned in the rocks at the head of the Falls, a mitten frozen in the ice dams. Leaves upon leaves upon leaves. And they can come back tomorrow, next week, the end of the season: has the bicycle gotten pulled out? Is the ice thawing around the mitten? Are we done with leaf season? On a day you’ve gotten bad news, if you live in a city, you may want to go hide in the woods. You know it doesn’t actually work like that. Your life is still there. But this mitigated, urban wilderness gives me a piece of those woods to flee to, to breathe in, to make myself part of.

Pristine, no. But beautiful, and ours.

Read Johannes Punkt’s interview with Marissa here.

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Erin Hoffman Interview: “Transition”

erin-hoffmanMichael: My brilliant friend Erin Hoffman has ideas spilling out her ears and plates spinning from here to the next century. To celebrate the occasion of publishing her poem, “Transition”, in Reckoning 1, I managed to corner her to ask how she might envision a community forming around Reckoning not just to foster new ideas and beautiful art on the subject of environmental justice, but to be some actual change in the world. Here’s just a bit of what she sent me.

Erin: I love the magazine itself and the fact that it exists. We pan-seared some mushrooms in honor of the Reckoning launch, local chanterelles and oysters. Maybe that should be your launch event—have people cook local flora dinners and message you pics.

Michael: I love this idea!

Erin: What I think would be really cool is if the readers and writers for the magazine could become some kind of genuine community that could share information on what can actually be done, re the activism side of the magazine. I feel like it’s beneficial to me to even just keep hearing about your work in permaculture . . . keeps me thinking about these things.

Michael: (Makes note to ramble about permaculture here at some point. We’ll get to that. We’ll get to all of it.)

Erin: I have this idea about trying to promote backyard farming here in Palo Alto. We have a vegetable garden and because of the idiosyncrasies of where the sun is it happens to be in our front yard. Results in a lot of commentary from neighbors, which is surprising to me because these gardens are not uncommon—we have the most active garden in our cul de sac, and probably only 1 in 15 houses has one that we can see. Anyway . . . their interest was interesting to me, and I thought it would be interesting to try to make growing food more accessible. I was inspired by this segment of the TED radio hour on giving (there was also a whole “the food we eat” show that was great). What I’m messing with is this idea of just telling people to grow one thing . . . and then keeping a community map of gardens where people can share vegetables. So I might decide I’m just going to specialize in asparagus, so I’ll build a planter and just fill it with asparagus and people can come and take it. I might put out recipes in a box alongside the planter. The funny thing about this is that I don’t even think it’s easier to grow one thing than twelve things, but I think people don’t know that. They think growing food is hard. If they had a community purpose around it I wonder if a lot more of them might do it, and then it might also result in actually talking to your neighbors, which would be a nice thing around here.

Anyway, that’s a wild digression. But I do wish I had a community to talk about these ideas with, and it seems like Reckoning might be that place, if it were a place. OH MAN I COULD SET UP A MUD. ReckoningMUD? 😉

Michael: (Laughing.) I am not promising a MUD . . . but a community? I really want something like that. The magazine showcases only one facet of the brilliance and unique thinking of all these authors and artists. That one facet makes me want to see more. It makes me wonder what they could do and make and change if they came together.

Read “Transition” in Reckoning 1.

 

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