A Kinder and More Caring Future?

Brian Francis Slattery

I’m on the side of the road with Bun Lai, the chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, and he’s telling me how to eat knotweed, an invasive species. It’s a chilly day turning into a warm day, and around town, it being May, there’s talk about whether the weather is acting like May or not.

We still have our seasons here in southern Connecticut. Winter is cold and wet, and spring is warmer and wet. Summer is hot and dry, and fall is cooler and dry. But in the past fifteen years, we’ve had stretches of summer during the winter, and stretches of winter in the spring and fall, and stretches of spring all summer. We’ve had two hundred-year hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, within a couple years of each other. The seasons don’t cooperate like they used to, and people talk about how weird that is, but also that maybe we can start talking about how weird is the new normal. And then there are the people annoyed by the phrase the new normal, because the whole idea is that there isn’t going to be a normal anymore.

“You know climate change is coming,” Lai says. “What are you going to do about it?”

This is the same man who, earlier that morning, answered his door by telling me I was there on the wrong day, that I had to come back next week. But this time he isn’t kidding.

By running his kitchen on the concerns of adventurous eating, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, Bun Lai has become one of New Haven’s culinary treasures. He jokes that he’s probably lost more customers just from people looking at the menu than any other restaurant he can think of, but the truth is that the creativity he pours into the food at Miya’s has won him far more fans than he’s lost. Miya’s is pretty much always crowded. There are people who drop $89 for a full tour of the menu and people who squeak in after 10 o’clock for the late-night specials, $6 for a plate of sushi or a hefty bowl of ramen. They come because at Miya’s you can eat things you can’t eat anywhere else. There’s a sushi roll called Tyger Tyger that combines yellowfin tuna, goat cheese, apricots, avocado, pickled radish, and berbere spices. Another involves albacore tuna, avocado, asparagus, pickled radish, cayenne pepper, roasted sesame, and anise. The roll itself is crispy wild salmon skin. A third called Bone Thugs-N-Broccoli has salmon bones—yes, bones—and broccoli stems. If the idea of taking out a couple invasive specimens appeals to you, then you can eat knotweed pickled in kimchee and fried in garbanzo-bean batter, or sushi with Asian shore crab, or carp sashimi topped with citrus tamari sauce, green onions, and roasted black soldier fly larvae. He calls feral pig “one of the top ten most destructive species in America, and delicious.” It’s thanks to Lai that I’ve eaten raw venison—a response to deer overpopulation—and sauce distilled from the parts of the fish that he can’t use in sushi. It’s because of him that I now eat some of the plants that grow in my yard that people consider weeds, like dandelion greens, wild onions and garlic mustard, and they are all very tasty.

Why does Lai make food like this? Here’s how he puts it in the menu:

 

In the year 2150, people will be eating in a way that is healthier not only for their bodies but also for our whole planet. People will be eating fewer animals, since they will have learned that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat; they will hunt and farm animals in a way that is more humane. At Miya’s, you will experience a kinder and more caring future, where sushi has evolved to become a way of eating that honors and celebrates all life on Earth.

 

Not far away, in another part of the menu, is a section of sushi for dogs. The heading for this part of the menu is Doggy Style. This is important. Lai’s looking toward the future, wringing his flavors from ideas about scarcity and sustainability. He pays attention to where his food comes from. Some of it he forages himself, from the shoreline, from the woods, from the pasture near his house. He figures out how to use what he gathers to make things that are delicious in unusual ways. And he does it with a keen sense of humor.

There’s a message in that. As I write this, Houston and the west coast of Florida are still figuring out how bad the damage is from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The news outlets are using words like “hell” and “uninhabitable” to describe the devastation wrought in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria has destroyed Puerto Rico. There are people studying how water shortages are fueling wars in Africa and the Middle East, people using the phrase “climate change refugees” to talk about the displacement of millions of people over the next few decades from Bangladesh alone.

We can stand on the coastline and brace ourselves. We can wring our hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work, chasing one calamity after the other and helping everyone we can. Lai’s food suggests still another path. It suggests that once we have a chance to breathe, maybe we can start looking further ahead. If we’re creative and adaptable, the story of dealing with climate change doesn’t have to be just a litany of tragedies. It can be a story of ingenuity, of accepting change, of grieving, understanding and moving on. Maybe even with a sense of humor.

But Miya’s is just a proof of concept. As Lai himself has said, we can’t feed millions of climate change refugees on $89 sushi platters, or even $6 bowls of ramen. Can the ideas driving Lai’s food be scaled up? Can we change the way we eat and save ourselves? What might that future look like?

The Milford Laboratory, which is part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, is nestled in a cove just down the coast of the Long Island Sound from New Haven. It got its start in 1919 with a single researcher, and was the first lab to figure out how to grow oysters in captivity. The facility now has a staff of 32, counting scientists, technicians, administrators, and maintenance, and it continues to do research, learning more about how to cultivate fish and shellfish for food.

I got the idea to bug Gary Wikfors, the chief of the lab’s aquaculture sustainability branch and its lab director, about Miya’s and its vision for the future because of an idle comment he dropped on social media about how Miya’s does “everything right” from a sustainability perspective, and because I happen to know him socially as a musician. He plays multiple instruments with great skill, and has been ascending the steep learning curve associated with playing a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. The name translates to “key harp”, and it’s pretty much, as the name implies, a horde of strings that you play using rows of keys and a short bow. Once you get good at it, the tone it produces, like a viola’s eerie cousin, is worth it. But it’s as hard as it sounds to learn, and it tells you a lot about Wikfors that after years of mastering other instruments, the nyckelharpa still calls to him, and he has answered.

Wikfors told me early in my visit to the lab that Lai had visited five times, peppering him with questions about aquaculture. “He wanted to be convinced that this is a sustainable approach,” Wikfors said.

Wikfors also practices fika—the Swedish coffee break, which in the lab means making coffee in one of the sinks and gathering his colleagues around. Surrounded by scientists from all over the world, I was about to ask them, to put it bluntly, whether we could save everyone on the planet by feeding them carp sashimi.

I braced myself to be shut down. It occurred to me that I should have done a lot more homework, that I should have brought a scientist with me to ask better questions. I was expecting them to tell me that Lai’s ideas might be a great idea for a cutting-edge restaurant, but they were simply not practical at a large scale.

Was large-scale aquaculture, enough to feed millions of people, possible? What might we grow? And how might we make that sustainable? Rather than pointing out the problems as insurmountable, the staff of Milford Labs brimmed with solutions. Wikfors explained that creating sustainable aquaculture was about changing tastes as well as developing technology. A lot of Americans in particular have a taste for the predators near the top of the food chain. From a sustainability perspective, that was a little crazy, because predators use way more resources than their prey. “We don’t eat a Bengal tiger, but we do eat haddock, which is the equivalent,” Wikfors said. On the other hand, “we can be very proud of shellfish, because they’re vegetarians.”

Here the scientists all began talking at once. We didn’t need to keep eating shrimp from Asia; we could eat things that grow much closer to home. And we could each a much wider assortment of animals. In Asia, plenty of people eat jellyfish (which eat plankton) and sea cucumbers (which are bottom feeders). Introducing them to the United States might just be a matter of presentation (which made me think of Bun Lai). Same went for fish that people catch all the time and don’t normally think to eat, like sea robins, another bottom feeder. The tail might make for good eating; one could imagine the meat being very tender. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived near the shore would have eaten slipper shell, a type of sea snail. “Out of necessity comes diversity,” said microbiologist Barry Smith. We hadn’t even touched on aquatic plants.

Moreover, as Wikfors explained, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam already “are doing aquaculture on scales many, many times larger that we do it, so it’s in our future, especially as we move offshore.” Later in the day Wikfors would show me what that meant. An offshore shellfish farm from the surface might not look much more like rows of buoys floating on open water. But below the surface would float lines coated with shellfish, growing and ready to be harvested, enough to feed much more than one restaurant’s eager customers. Reaching that future would involve some changes in how we use the ocean, tipping the balance away from recreation and toward farming. A tough sell, but not impossible. Korea, Wikfors said, was “miles ahead of us in terms of zoning.” He told me about standing on a peninsula and seeing farms stretching out to both sides of him, all in active production. “The amount of food that comes out of a small country is astounding because they prioritize it,” he said. And because all those farms were offshore, you could still go to the beach.

My brain swam with ideas. “You all sound a lot more optimistic than I expected,” I told them.

“Do we have any choice?” Wikfors said.

Hurricane Irene was technically a tropical storm by the time it hit New Haven in 2011, but it was enough. Steph and Leo—my wife and son—and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York that weekend. We were glad to be out of harm’s way, and I was glad to be visiting my parents, which I hadn’t done enough of, even before my dad had his cardiac arrest.

Then Steph, who’s a pediatrician, was told she had to be back in town for the storm. We didn’t want to go back. Steph resisted the order but was overruled. So we cut our trip short, packed our things, and headed out, threading through the Catskills, listening to the news on the radio when we got good reception.

Crossing the Hudson River on the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, we saw a wall of clouds to the south and east, the first fingers of the storm. The thought occurred to me that if the storm moved in fast enough, we could come home to find a tree through our house. It was all too easy to imagine, the trunk of a giant old oak splitting our home in half, the branches tangling in the shattered rafters, shingles sprinkled like confetti. I thought of sifting through the wreckage. I knew there was no way to really prepare myself for that kind of thing. But then I shot a glance around the car. Steph in the passenger seat. My son Leo in the back. We had a few days of clothes. We had our wallets, our phones. I even had a couple instruments with me, because I’d played a gig in my hometown with an old friend, and I’d played for my family.

I’m all right, I thought. I have what I need. I convinced myself that I meant it.

The news told us all to stay inside, so we did. At first Irene was just a rainstorm, then an intense rainstorm. Then the wind picked up. It only reached 50 miles an hour. Like I said, it was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but it was enough. The first blast of wind came at night, and the sounds of tree limbs breaking woke me up. I ran to the window and saw that one of the big, old oak trees in a neighbor’s yard was now a different shape, a triangular crown, missing its other half. For several hours of a warm fall day, I watched as the young trees we’d planted in our yard a few years ago, which were already about as tall as the house, bent over until their tops were parallel with the ground. The power flickered out and came back on. I sat on the porch and watched the much older trees thrash around, moaning and howling, moving much more than I thought big trees like that could move.

When the storm passed and the sun came out, we walked around the neighborhood. There were tree limbs down everywhere, power lines down, a couple houses cut in half. Much of the greater New Haven area lost power. The coastal parts of town flooded. For a little while, parts of Morris Cove, a neighborhood that juts out into the Sound, were cut off from the mainland. A couple houses were dragged into the water. Several months later, they hadn’t been rebuilt.

I don’t know why we still had power. Most of the neighborhood didn’t. Which meant that in the evening around dinnertime, our friends in the neighborhood congregated at our place with all the food they had that was going to go bad, and it was our job to try to figure out how to use it. Everyone was ready to celebrate. Everyone was really hungry. I was chopping vegetables as fast as I could, but knew dinner was an hour away. To cut the edge off our appetites, I pulled eggplant cutlets I’d made a couple days ago out of the refrigerator and made them into little stacks of five. I chopped up tomatoes, basil, and garlic someone had brought, sprinkled them with cheese someone else had brought, and stuck them in the toaster oven for a couple minutes. I threw them on the kitchen table and told everyone to have a snack, and then turned back to making dinner. Mmmm, I heard behind me. Mmmm, this is delicious. I turned around. The eggplant was gone.

“You have to make this again sometime,” Steph said.

We do now, a couple times every summer. We call it Eggplant Irene. I don’t even remember what else I made that day. But we eat it and we talk about the storm. Leo, who has now been through Irene and Sandy and remembers the town mostly without power for a week twice, people coming to our house to store food, to charge their phones, to use the shower, thinks of these 100-year storms as merely unusual. And I try to hold on to that small revelation in the car crossing the Hudson River, that as long as I have my family and a couple changes of clothes, and maybe a musical instrument, I really do have everything I need.

To me, Irene was the future calling. I look at the model projections of rising seas—or, for that matter, big storm surges—and mentally redraw the map. Sometimes the future looks a little like the past. The train station used to be on the coast before a huge swath of land was created in the 1940s and 1950s, filling in part of the mouth of the harbor to build the intersection of I-91 and I-95. If the Big One hit the city, the station could be on the coast again.

But some parts of the future imagine a whole new coastline. The islands off the coast now could be underwater. Morris Cove could become a new set of islands. Parts of Fair Haven, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, could be submerged. The marsh of the Quinnipiac River could become open water. Fingers of ocean could reach into the city as far as a couple miles.

There’s a park in Fair Haven on a spur of land that’s like the uvula in the mouth of New Haven Harbor. The Quinnipiac River and the Mill River, which have been weaving their way for miles through the giant swamp known as Connecticut, come together at last. To the right are the tall buildings in New Haven’s downtown, and to the left, a cluster of white petroleum storage tanks. The Q Bridge that carries I-95 along the shore arcs over the water and leaps into the tangle of overpasses that make up the junction with I-91 and the exits to the city. On evenings with good weather there are soccer and basketball games on the fields and courts, and the road along the side is lined with food trucks selling tortas, older men playing dominoes in the slanting light, families in plastic lawn chairs with tinny radios tuned to reggaeton.

Ever since Irene, I go to that park and imagine the hurricane coming in and all the land around me flooding. The abandoned power station becomes a lighthouse. The oil tanks spring leaks. If the wind and waves are strong enough, maybe they manage to take out a piece of I-95. It sounds dramatic, but it wouldn’t have to be much of a piece to sever the connection. To cut off New York from Boston. To suddenly make New Haven harder to get to, harder to leave. All the food we get would have to come from the farms to the north of the city, or from the ocean to the south of it. But maybe it can.

Let’s say the biggest storm anyone’s ever seen knifes up from the south and cuts a path of destruction across Long Island before smashing into the harbor. The bridge that took a generation to build wobbles on its pylons and collapses into the water. The remains look like the ends of bones that have been snapped in half. The wind turbine set up near the bridge is twisted until it looks like a propeller from an airplane crash. The roads in and out of town are washed out, strewn with trees. And the coast is a whole new shape. There’s no arguing with it, no way to put everything back the way it was. We can only adapt.

Now fast forward six months, a year, three years. Say we decide that rebuilding the highway is too costly. Fast forward another twenty years. Say we decide to move farther inland. Say we decide to take things a little slower. We don’t look as far afield for things to eat. We cherish tomatoes and strawberries in the summer and then can and freeze them once the power’s back on, and we eat root vegetables in the winter, that and the meat from the fat animals we slaughter. And we start eating more from the sea—not more in volume, but variety, whatever we happen to find. We figure out what we can eat, and then figure out how to make it taste delicious. We pull flavor from unlikely places—from weeds, from fungus, from animal parts we used to throw away—and then it just becomes the way we make food. And maybe in the summer, we go back to the park, now in a boat because the park is under water. We jump in up to our waists and have a water fight. We make stupid jokes about crabs, because, come on, crabs. Then we we pluck sea robins and weeds from the shallows and turn them into soup that we spice with dried chiles. So many people died in the storm, but we survived, and we celebrate that. It was a catastrophe, but we’re still here.

We can’t leave town because the roads are blocked and the power keeps going out. So we visit each other. We build fires inside in the winter and pack the house with people to stay warm. In the summer it’s too hot to be inside, so we all go out. We go downtown where the streets are lined with candles and lights hooked up to generators, and there are parties along the curb. The musicians in town—that’s me—throw together bands that play on the sidewalk with battery-powered amplifiers, and we eat the ice cream before it melts, drink the beer before it gets warm. It takes longer to get home because it’s hard to see where we’re going. But we get there, and sleep in a star-strewn darkness we can’t imagine when the streetlights are on.

In a very small way, it’s already happening. It already has happened.

Between New Haven and Milford Labs, there’s a state park called Silver Sands. It was created in 1955 after Hurricane Diane killed 184 people across eight states from North Carolina through Connecticut. In Milford, the storm destroyed 75 houses along the coast. Instead of rebuilding, in the end the state acquired more than 300 parcels of land, and in 1960 it opened as a park. The original idea was to fill in the marsh between the dunes and the mainland. The idea now is to leave the marsh and the dunes be.

I went to Silver Sands with my parents, Steph, and Leo on Independence Day weekend. We drove down the skinny beach roads to the long line of houses packed along the coast, some of them up on stilts, the ocean on one side, the marsh on the other. We parked the car and ate at a little Greek joint, then walked to the end of the road where the houses stopped and the park began. The lifeguard was off duty, but it was a hot evening and the beach was still crowded. A family under a pop-up tent spoke in soft Spanish and cooked on a little portable grill perched on a wooden picnic table. Another family lounged with a tinny radio playing reggae. Three young men were practicing basketball passes on the beach. It was high tide and the land bridge to Charles Island, where they say the pirate Captain Kidd might have buried treasure before he was caught and executed, was underwater, but people were still walking out on it, thigh-deep with fishing rods. A man in bicycle shorts prodded a dead horseshoe crab, a shirtless surfer walked on the rocks, and kids scrambled out along the jetty. A mother and daughter in matching red, white, and blue flag-print dresses were getting their picture taken at the edge of the marsh.

We walked along the boardwalk in our street clothes, over the grass and the water still coming in, where girls looked for shells in the sand. The sun was turning the air orange, and a thousand voices called to each other across the sound of the surf. It had been over six months since my dad had survived his a sudden cardiac arrest, and you never would have known it happened. My mom asked Steph, Leo, and me to stop for a picture, and my son climbed up my side and pretended he was about to bite me. If this was what living with the change could look like, then maybe we didn’t need to be so afraid after all. The ocean that flooded us could feed us, too.

 
 

Emily Houk Interview: “Plague Winter”

emily-houkRead “Plague Winter” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: The more of these interviews I do, the more clearly I perceive common threads that recur through many of the pieces in Reckoning 1. It seems they ought to be telling me something–about myself, about all of us writing and thinking along these lines. “Plague Winter” touches on so many of these threads I don’t know where to begin.

Okay: invasive species. I got to talk to Travis MacDonald a little about their history, their progression, the line between invasive and naturalized and native and how it blurs over time. But in “Plague Winter” you come at all that from the other side, from the individual, the personal. Robin cares about the hemlocks in a way I understand at a visceral level. It doesn’t matter to her that those hemlocks aren’t so very old in the age of the world, that they came in only after the Northeast was deforested by a different plague of invasives of which we’re reminded by Robin’s grandmother who comes from the Mohawk and grew up isolated and displaced. And it maybe doesn’t matter to Robin that the beetles designed to defeat the adelgid that’s killing the hemlocks may bring about some other plague yet unforeseen. It’s irrational, but that’s how people work, and the natural world changes because of it–so drastically as to be unrecognizable in just a few generations. I love the way you layer all this. It’s subtle. I don’t know if you’re for setting those beetles free or not, and–as I said talking to Aozora Brockman last week–I don’t really know if it’s fair to ask. Do I have to let the work stand on its own? Do I have to come to my own conclusion?

I’ll tell you my answer: I’d set the beetles free. I think. I suppose it would be hard to say until the moment came. And I suspect I’d have given a different answer a few months ago. I’m feeling rather radicalized of late.

How about you?

Emily: I wanted “Plague Winter” to raise questions without necessarily providing answers. Because that’s real life, right? Stumbling around, trying to find answers. Like you say, the lines between native and naturalized and invasive can be blurry. I wanted the story to illuminate that blurriness, to provoke readers to consider what belonging is. Which parts of “nature” do we feel belong?

When I first started drafting this story, which was actually several years ago, I was more on the fence about my own beetle-release philosophy than I am now. Coming back to the story, I found I came down much more on the side of beetle release. Partly this has come from hanging out with scientists and learning more about biological control, which has changed dramatically since the disastrous early attempts, when invasive species were introduced and threw entire ecosystems into chaos. While I don’t trust human schemes and strategies to be infallible, biocontrol efforts go through a lot more testing now. There’s an attitude of caution around them. And then there’s the fact that hemlocks are widespread, and losing them would have devastating consequences for plants, animals, and humans. So yeah: Release the beetles.

“Plague Winter” reads like science fiction, but the story is actually historical. Based on the progress of the adelgid and the use of biocontrol to manage it, the story takes place in 2009. That’s the year that the predatory beetle Laricobius nigrinus was introduced as a biocontrol for the hemlock wooly adelgid in upstate New York, where “Plague Winter” is set. So while the story feels speculative, it’s actually fictionalizing a real moment in the past. The idea of using predatory beetles to manage the adelgid seems like this weird, out-there idea, when in fact it’s been happening for almost a decade. Ripe for a story!

Michael: Then there’s the question of what to do, as an individual, how each of us makes that judgment call, where our personal effort and emotional investment will do the most good. Most of us aren’t given the chance to steal beetles and set them free, even if we wanted to. A question I asked a lot of your fellow-contributors for awhile and got away from, and maybe should get back to: do you think writing fiction about it does any good? Does it make you feel better, at least?

Emily: These are some rough times for the planet and us who live on it. For myself, it’s been a matter of figuring out how to stay active and engaged without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down entirely. When I say “stay active and engaged” I mean a variety of things. There are traditional ideas of calling senators, sending postcards, going to a protest or rally or local meeting. Then there’s contacting corporations to urge them to join Business Backs Low-Carbon USA and follow the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s supporting my local library, donating household items to refugee resettlement efforts, turning the compost, working in the garden. Sharing skills with people in my community. And then there’s writing a story.

Does writing fiction make me feel better? Maybe a little. I feel better because it gives me an opportunity to explore the realities we face. It is important to deal in realities, now and then, and fiction is a great tool for doing that. This is the world we have. It may not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. To deny what’s happening would be a disservice to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Do I think writing fiction does any good? Reading fiction does me good, and it always has. So I hope that the things I write will have some sort of positive impact, even if, in this case, it’s just to encourage readers to notice and appreciate hemlock trees a little more. Telling stories is important. Language is important. We have to tell our stories. There is a strength in doing so.

Speaking of language and stories, in “Plague Winter,” we’ve got Eddie, who was kidnapped and forced to live at a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language and follow the traditions of her Mohawk family and community. That was a real, calculated effort by the U.S. government to destroy the native population of the country. There were boarding schools like that all over North America. It’s a horrifying part of our history, and it’s important to acknowledge what was done to those kids. This didn’t happen all that long ago. Many of those schools existed into the 60s and 70s. As you mention, another invasive was behind that act of aggression. Again, facing the world we have. Not the one we’d choose.

Michael: Aside from plague beetles, aside from fiction, where do you choose to focus your efforts? I feel privileged to already know some of the answer to this, but would you please indulge me and tell me a little something more about the ways you’ve found to resist the metaphorical and literal plagues of this world?

Emily: When I was in college I studied human ecology and environmental design. I used to say that I went to school to study the end of the world. That was over a decade ago. I stumbled onto that path sort of accidentally, but once I was on it I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to learn about. I ended up working at a transfer station for awhile. Nothing like waste disposal to make you think about how things could be done differently!

I live with a whole bunch of artists and writers and musicians. That in itself feels like a bit of rebellion. Lately I’ve been focusing on how I can be of use to my community. In the last year I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine-making and wilderness first aid. I’m thinking of taking a chainsaw skills class. With the current global instability, I feel compelled to acquire as many useful skills as I can.

I try to fight despair by thinking creatively. I run Ninepin Press with my partner. We’re a very small press that creates literary objects in unusual shapes. We recently published a collection of poems by Travis Smith based on forgotten constellations. At a certain point in the 1920s, a group of astronomers got together and had a meeting where they decided which constellations would be recognized as “official.” So a bunch of constellations got the axe, like The Hot Air Balloon, The Printing Press, and The Sundial. Most people don’t know they ever existed. I wouldn’t have known, either, but for Travis’s poems in Zodiac B. While our work as writers and publishers might seem tangential or even unrelated to the way we think about the environment, that work can give us an opportunity to illuminate and question the stories we tell ourselves about our environment. To see the world in unexpected ways.

Michael: Finally—I want to ask about the feeling of marginalization, of operating way out at the periphery of a society, that I get from Robin’s position in the world. She’s scrabbling for a living, and to do what she can for her brother and grandmother, and to do what she can for the hemlocks, with minimal support. She operates brilliantly under the radar, on a shoestring, and I admire her for that. Can you tell me how you came to that aspect of her character? I’m curious if it was…an interpretation of ye archetypal heroism…or whether this is an interpretation in fiction how you, Emily Houk, operate in the world, or something in between? Or something else entirely.

Emily: I love the way you describe Robin’s situation. I knew from the moment I started writing that Robin was going to be a community college student. I went to community college myself, and it was an important part of my development as a human. It was so much less insular than a four year school. Everyone had jobs. Many of us had a bunch of different weird jobs. There was a lot of scrabbling. My classmates were anywhere from sixteen to eighty years old. Everyone was just trying to get their work done, to do what they needed to do. Some were caring for elders, others had kids. Some had stable places to live and others didn’t. Robin was someone I could have known back then.

I think Robin is a fun subversion of the idea of a hero. I mean, she doesn’t have much going for her. But that’s what makes her great. Looking back on the first draft, I think I gave her the name Robin so that I would feel her story more personally (Robin was what my parents were planning to name me before I was born). I’ve always lived kind of marginally. I grew up in a fairly remote area surrounded by hemlock forest. When I was a kid we grew a lot of our own food. I didn’t go to school until I went to college, and I didn’t attend college until I was in my twenties. But my parents weren’t much like Robin’s. They aren’t hermits, and they’ve been very present in my life. Like Robin, I tend to find myself in care-taking roles. But beyond that, I don’t know how similar she is to me. She’s more stoic than I am. Laconic. More like my own grandmother.

In some ways I see Robin as a cowboy in a western, or some sort of rogue knight in Arthurian legend. The system isn’t out to get her because it has anything against her; the system doesn’t even know she exists. And yet she finds a way to fight it, to get what she wants out of it.

Though Robin is scrambling to support herself, in some ways her story is one of wish fulfillment. Because she succeeds, at least temporarily. Eldercare in our society is so troubled and dehumanizing. This young woman was able to eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on enough couches to get her grandmother a place to live. I guess it’s weird to go for such a small, brutal sort of wish fulfillment, but I’ve watched people I love get older and I wish there was a more humanizing structure in which that could happen. (My one remaining grandparent, my grandmother Justine, will turn one hundred next month.)

I didn’t know I was writing a story about grief until I finished it. I have to fall sideways into these things.

I think that if Robin were around to look at 2017 and give me advice, she would say this: Do what you can to avoid despair. Despair immobilizes. And right now the world needs us to be our best and brightest selves.

Michael: Thank you very much! This interview has in fact done a bit to help me hold away despair.

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!