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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Author: Kate Schapira

Kate Schapira is the author of six books of poetry, most recently FILL: A Collection, a collaboration with Erika Howsare (Trembling Pillow Press). She lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and periodically offers Climate Anxiety Counseling. She also uses Twitter: @kateschapira

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