The forest preserve district wants me to cut down trees. With a saw in one hand and loppers in the other, I oblige.
As a child I got my destructive tendencies out in videogames and martial arts. Beating all of my friends at Street Fighter—and gloating about it—was fine. Plucking flowers was not. Even the ubiquitous dandelions like tiny weak suns in the lawn grass were meant to be seen, and only pulled once transmogrified to puffball form, wanting dispersal.
At the beginning of May this year, I ripped those vivid yellow heads off every single dandelion in my parents’ yard, and then when more had bloomed the next day I did it again.
After I’d dumped the pile of them into the trash, I went to the little patch of trees across the street. The grass here was sparse, a bloom of mushrooms welled from the drying mud. I squatted down and took a minute to admire a single violet plant. Heart shaped leaves framed purple flowers. The flowers are easily recognized even when they aren’t purple. The white ones are indigo-streaked to lead in the pollinators, but my favorite, for the irony and more, are the yellow violets. They are bright, though nestled close to the ground, and not as shiny as the five-petaled swamp buttercups that, as their name suggests, thrive alongside Illinois’ transient and permanent wetlands.
All these native plants and more—the mayapples, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, woodland phlox; and those are only the current season’s more common flowers—evolved to thrive in specific conditions. Varying degrees of sunlight and wetness will even introduce variations within a species. The most vivid specimen of spring beauties I have ever seen, with shocking pink anthers that would put Barbie to shame, was about a minute after my sneaker filled with muddy water because of snowmelt on the unpaved trail. But I’ve also seen them growing in flocks in the grass, out in full sun, the characteristic pink lines on their petals faded to a more solemn hue.
But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.
Garlic mustard pops up in the spring, leaves somewhat reminiscent of violets’, with little clusters of four-petaled white flowers. The roots smell like garlic, which is how it got the name, and it generates chemicals that kill its neighbors. When I see it, I rip it out—it’s not as persistent as dandelion. My family finds this very annoying when we’re out walking, but how can I squander the privilege of this knowledge, this access to the woodlands?
Before I found the local forest preserve, I joined whatever volunteer opportunities in habitat restoration came my way. Some of these included local youth. They came from various backgrounds, but the important thing was they were interested in the program, even when their destructive tendencies were less delicate than mine.
One year we were supposed to take a group of middle schoolers to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood, which had its nature overwritten in concrete and scraggly grass. Of course, a group of middle schoolers and a few adults can’t dig all the holes needed for oak saplings. So the plan was—if I remember correctly—for the community service workers to dig the holes, leaving the saplings with their root balls for the kids to plop in and cover with dirt. Satisfying, right?
When we got there, there had been a mix up. The holes were not dug and there were only a few saplings.
Unable to do anything, the leader improvised a plan: cleanup. We would walk around picking up trash. Dime bags the kids didn’t understand (and we didn’t explain), thankfully—that time—no condom wrappers, and the litter of any place, even those where everyone has a reusable tote bag. Organic bars come in the same metallic wraps as their cheaper cousins.
We came to a tree, a slim thing caged by its surroundings, spreading thin leaves despite the mound of cigarette butts around it.
I’ll never forget the look on the kids’ faces. Why would people make such a mess, right there? It was a learning opportunity, to see the bar across the street and recall the order banning indoors smoking. Unintended consequences. Easily changed by being mindful of one’s own behavior. They cared, and I hope still care. I hope that when they are adults out on field trips, they don’t have to try to hide, at the end of an otherwise excellent kayak up our manmade lagoons, surrounded by squawking birds and shy turtles and the sinuous movement of water gliders, in the middle of the clear summer sky a blot of a cormorant dangling from a tree by the fishing line stuck in its throat.
My pathetic diversion didn’t work, because these were curious kids with functioning eyes and senses attuned after a solid hour looking for animals. But it didn’t stop them from continuing to participate in learning about and restoring nature. Not everything we do outside has to be a conquest.
Buckthorn, like garlic mustard, is allelopathic. It releases chemicals that kill its neighbors. There was one morning where, I swear, the second the last virulent orange trunk hit the earth, the frogs struck up their song, sunlight warming the newly cleared space. Thankfully buckthorn doesn’t grow amid standing water, but it had been close to the edge.
While it’s incredibly satisfying to yell “Timber!” as the creaking turns into a crash, the buckthorn isn’t actually dead. The thing about invasives is they’re not immigrants or foreigners, they are colonists. Killing their competitors is only the first step: they have to be able to grow and reproduce, too. As long as its roots are alive, buckthorn has the opportunity to send up whippy shoots en masse. When these have the opportunity to grow, they create a whole tangle that’s hard to cut down, tangled trunks and branches, and of course the thorns they’re named after.
The only solution is to destroy even the roots, by painting a herbicide onto the trunks that will leach through.
You may have heard of this one.
It’s called glyphosate.
When it’s not damaging farm workers and bees, glyphosate is saving habitats by killing off the invasives that destroy our habitats, the rare plants and animals which adapted to their niches over the course of millennia, only to be derailed by a succession of introductions both intentional and otherwise.
Paying extra for organic produce, living in a place with enough volunteers and staff to maintain the woods that release crisp, fresh air from their rich green leaves, the carpet of moss and grass and flowers underfoot attracting birds that sit up in the branches and trill away, with no consideration for an amateur photographer—it is easy to not understand why things like glyphosate still exist, are still used.
But until there is another solution, our options are limited. We cannot go back in time to save that biodiversity before it ever became threatened, before the pale furl of a blue flag iris beneath its stiff proud leaves became a rare event. We must move forward.
Until there are better options, I will be in the forest, sawing down trees and pulling weeds, with the other regular volunteers and student groups that still, in the middle of a million other assaults on nature, take the time to try and heal this piece.
maybe ground is meant to ripple
and sag like skin showing
her age. the wisdom
of roots aching to surface
maybe we’re meant to stumble
and break blades made for vain
manicuring to steep amazement
in unpredictable growth
you downed nana cottonwood onto
teenaged limbs, too young
to hold weighted life, a shock
of white, stripped bark and sodden
leaves. the birds stand on it all, ever
resilient, flexible. these will be new
nests. there is no pride here, only
adjustment, as there always is
when the flightless impose
their ground on the sky
We had to close up another building that day—bolt the doors shut, board over the windows, stop up the chimney and all the vents with concrete. Hank Parker came stumbling out of his house, gasping and cussing, dragging his two oldest kids by the arm while his wife huddled on the sidewalk with the three-year-old. As soon as Hank got clear, he was shaking the two kids, Lisa and Mikey, and giving them a dressing down like only a man who’s devastated and angry and shocked and ashamed all at once can manage.
Thin sunlight shone down on the Parkers’ neat one-story house, glinting off the clean-polished windows and making the butter-yellow siding look all warm and inviting. It showed off the perfectly cleaned and swept expanse of concrete that was the front yard, stretching flat and greyish white all around the house to where it butted up against the older sidewalk with its grainier surface and patched cracks. It was a shame to have to abandon such a nice place, but the Parkers should’ve known to keep watch on their kids.
I mixed fresh concrete in a barrow to one side, giving polite pretense to ignoring the verbal thunderstorm going on just a dozen steps away. From the shouting I gathered that Mikey’d been collecting leaves and flowers, pressing them into books—for a school project he said, like we didn’t all know that for a lie so awkward it was embarrassing. And Lisa’d been raising some tadpoles in a jar of water. Where she’d found them I’d like to know; leaves and flowers were scarce enough in these times, much less wild creatures.
The wet concrete went scush, scush back and forth in the barrow. I scooped up a bucket of it and started up a ladder another member of the containment crew had set up for me. I was the youngest member of the team, at thirty-eight, and the hardest labor fell to me. It was the proper way to order things, even if my muscles ached for days after, each time we had to do this.
It was always the kids. Victor and I never wanted children enough to go through the hassle of a surrogate or even adoption—and having watched the play of civilized life dwindling as we all hung on as well as we could, I was just as happy to never have had that responsibility.
Keeping the kids in line—that was the trick of it.
The bam-bam-bam of hammers added percussion to the howling, snarling, whining symphony at the foot of the yard when Ynez and Chris and Peter arrived with the old, reclaimed plywood sheets and nails for the windows, and got to their task. We were running low on plywood; in another year at most, we’d have to talk about completely dismantling some of the sealed buildings for materials.
I was pouring the sixth bucket of concrete down the chimney when the shouting near the sidewalk peaked to a crescendo before cutting off, as though someone had flipped a switch on one of the stereos only those of us over twenty could remember. I looked down at the Parkers and saw that Lisa was shaking her hand at her father, her ponytail bobbing in rhythm.
“It’s food!” she shouted into the aghast silence. “It’s good, it’s fresh, it’s wonderful! It’s right there to take and I don’t see why we can’t—”
Her mother silenced her with a hard slap across the face, then another slap at her hands sent four round, brown nuts bouncing tic-tic-tic-tic down onto the concrete.
I’d like to say I almost fell off my ladder, because it gives a dramatic beat to the story, but that’d be a lie. I stood there, my bucket dangling from one hand and the other hand locked around the top rung, because I’m not stupid.
I was shocked, though. I watched the nuts—hazelnuts, I think they were, although it was hard to tell from this far away—scattered across the yard, their dark, earthy brown like dirty stains on the clean cement.
Hazelnuts were from before. My mom had always bought five pounds of mixed nuts, raw in their shells, every year at Christmas. She’d kept the big bowl on the coffee table full, with nut crackers stuck into the mass and another bowl to one side for shells. We’d sit around, the adults on the couch and kids crosslegged or kneeling on the floor, talking about whatever, or listening to Christmas music, or watching TV with the sound cranked up so we could hear the dialogue around the sound of cracking shells.
Hazelnuts had always been my favorite.
I hadn’t had one in years, and the packages of powdered hazelnut creamer we still found sometimes weren’t the same. Victor made cookies or muffins sometimes, if the foragers came back with unspoiled flour or some kind of mix. The hazelnut powder in cookies or muffins almost reminded me of hazelnuts, more than the baked goods we could make without eggs or leavening reminded me of cookies or muffins, actually.
Real hazelnuts, though? They were dangerous.
Hank was shaking Lisa, with Mikey hanging off one of his arms. Nobody stepped in. Lisa was twelve, more than old enough to know better. Now the concrete yard would have to be scrubbed every day for a while, watched for any hint of cracks. We could lose the whole neighborhood if the wild breached the pavement.
I looked away, climbed up to the roof and poured my bucket of concrete into the chimney.
All the Parkers were screaming by then, their voices bouncing and clashing off the concrete ground, the metal siding, the glass windows, the plastered rock walls that ran all up and down the neighborhood. The discordant clash broke the orderly peace of the place, an aural mess outside to match the physical mess in their house. Their former house; the neighborhood association would have to find another place for them. Sunnyvale had always had mild weather; rain wasn’t likely, so with some clean bedding, they could sleep outside for a few nights. Maybe not comfortable, but it wouldn’t cause them any harm. It’d be a good lesson for the whole family, I thought. Give them a sharp experience of what an uncontrolled environment was like.
The crew and I finished our jobs some time after the dinner hour. Abe Koker was designated cook for the containment crew, in charge of making sure we got fed no matter how late we worked. The red plastic cooler sat open in one corner of his kitchen. It needed restocking; a glance told me there was only enough in it for one more meal, or maybe two if Abe stretched it.
He handed me a plate of spicy pickles stirred up with some spam crumbles and reconstituted raisins, a hunk of dense flatbread to dunk in the liquid laid across one side. I went back out front and settled on a blue plastic yard bench to eat. I’d never liked pickles before, but they kept well if they’d been made and sealed properly, and most of the vegetables we had were pickled, scooped out of dust-coated jars.
Victor came in before I finished my dinner. He sat down on the bench next to me and leaned against my shoulder.
“Damndest thing,” he said.
“Yeah.” I took another bite of pickled cauliflower and chewed. The fiery burn of the dried chile Abe added to most of the food he cooked covered whatever taste of spoilage might be hiding around the edges. Anyone who didn’t have a cast-iron stomach had died long since; those of us left could tough out food that would’ve closed a restaurant down when I was a teenager.
“We should’ve had kids.”
That stopped me in mid-chew.
“No one’s said anything, but people look, you know. Carl Tulliver was chatting to me about how lonely his sister Claire has been since her husband passed. They lost all three of their kids, and he says Claire wants a baby.”
I swallowed and said, “Plenty of men to give her one. Ricky Mendez has been living away from Eleanor for almost eight months now. Doesn’t look like they’re going to patch it up. Carl should toss Claire at Ricky, see what happens.”
“It’s not about specifics,” Victor said, a note of impatience in his voice. “When it started, we all had other things to think about. Once things settled, we thought we had a handle on it. But it’s been twenty years, nearly, and we’re losing kids. Most people were ignoring it—you don’t want to talk about something that hurt so many families—but you can’t pretend it away anymore.”
I huffed and took another bite of my pickles.
Of course I’d noticed. But we were together and I didn’t feel like bringing a woman into it.
“We wouldn’t have to actually be fathers,” Victor said, like he’d pulled the thought out of my mind. “Just . . . you know, donate sperm. If you’re really against actually having a kid. But we should contribute.”
I swallowed and gave Victor a side glance. “It won’t help.”
“No, likely not,” he admitted. “But it’s not about actually fixing the problem. It’s about living in the neighborhood, contributing. We shouldn’t shirk this, or be miserly about it.”
I knew Victor well enough to know he’d sunk his teeth into this. I avoided weeks of quiet arguments by saying, “Fine. You want to be a sperm donor, I don’t mind.”
He leaned over and bumped my shoulder again. “We need to fit in, be accepted,” he said. I knew he was right, but I hated disruption. Our world was built around clean, orderly routine. Anything different made me wince, as viscerally as a sour note.
I finished eating, then Victor and I walked over to the school for band practice.
Seventeen of us in the neighborhood had played instruments before, and managed to keep them working and maintained through the upheaval. We didn’t have enough power for the constant electronic entertainment I’d wallowed in as a kid, even when we could find a music player. If we wanted music, we had to make it the old fashioned way. I didn’t really mind. I’d been a band geek all through school, but finding a group of adults to play with was tough unless you wanted to commit to a city orchestra, or Have A Band and hustle for gigs. There never seemed to be enough time for that back when I was a newbie electrical engineer with a busy life ahead of me.
Fourteen of us made it to the band room that evening. Bodies warmed the room a little, and it’d heat up more when the audience arrived. The matted carpet was a dirty grey-tan under our feet, but it was clean; we scrubbed it with detergent and brooms every other week. The folding metal chairs fought back against our butts, it seemed, but standing was worse. The candle smoke perfumed the air with a hodge-podge of paraffin and ancient perfume—vanilla and rose and jasmine and pine and pumpkin. Candles lasted if you didn’t burn them, and folks were usually sparing of them. Everyone brought candles on band night, though.
We had a great session. We messed around at first, practicing and trading riffs, trying new things. After the first hour, other people filtered in, to stand or sit around the periphery and listen. We moved into playing actual songs then, and went through a couple of sets, with a water break in the middle.
Music lets me focus on something else. It’s something that’s real, but not. You can’t see it or touch it, it’s just vibrations in the air. If you do it right, its effect is way beyond what “vibrations in the air” should be, but there you go. You can follow it into its own world. It’s transformative, and evocative. You can work it the way you’d ration your water, or you can play with it the way we used to mess with video games—vitally important and completely irrelevant, both, depending on what you put into it and what you wanted to take from it.
I needed to play that night. By the light of the hoarded candle ends, I threw myself into my trumpet and let myself just have fun. Victor could jam with his flute, and the two of us swirled around each other, teasing and challenging and practically having aural sex right there in the air above everyone. The other band members followed along and the fun multiplied. The clapping and tapping and singing of the people in our audience took it to another exponent, and we all rocked, defying the wild with our celebration of perfectly timed and ordered notes vibrating through the air.
Afterward, Victor and I volunteered to clean up. Everyone else left while we took our time cleaning our instruments and putting them away. Victor used a long-handled broom to scrub a few smudges of soot that candle smoke had left on the white ceiling. I polished a window that’d had three people sitting on its sill for two hours, making the glass shine clear.
We didn’t hurry. I’ll admit we paused here and there for some making out, because we might’ve been approaching middle age but we weren’t dead.
By the time we left, most folks in the neighborhood were in bed. There wasn’t much you could do in the dark—talking, singing and sex were pretty much it. So when I heard a light, rhythmic crunching over in the dark where the fence was, on the far side of the school playground, I put a hand on Victor’s arm.
Crunch-crunch-crunch, barely audible footsteps in the gravel, low but clear in the crisp night air.
I exchanged a look with Victor and we swerved in the direction of the playground fence, walking as lightly as we could. I steered us toward the deepest darkness; it wasn’t a direct line to the source of the sounds, but I was pretty sure I knew what was out there, and I didn’t want to have to break into an all-out run any sooner than I had to.
We followed whoever it was, timing our footsteps to match theirs, away from the school and between a pair of houses that’d been abandoned years ago, all the paved ground between the buildings open—we’d scavenged every backyard fence within a dozen miles years ago.
We crossed a street, passed through yards of dirty pavement that no one had tended in weeks. One patio was a mass of cracks and fissures, with twisted rows of plants growing through, like crazy hedges a finger-length tall. The houses themselves were sealed with plywood and bolts and concrete, holding off the invasion of the wild, but we didn’t have enough people to keep every bit of it clean and orderly, and this far away from the neighborhood there were cracks in our defenses.
I felt prickling fear run up and down my back as we walked through the living chaos. Anything could be there in the lightless spaces under the eaves and beside the chimney, or the deep shadows between houses where even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate.
Across pitted asphalt and badly patched cement, following the footsteps. The nearest inhabited houses were blocks away now, and every minute or so I heard a shred of voice blow past on the wind. I couldn’t distinguish words, nor recognize the voices, but I knew who was ahead of us.
Victor and I had longer legs, and eventually we could see the moving shadows ahead of us—a taller figure with a ponytail, a shorter figure carrying a long stick. In the twists and turns between buildings, I saw that both shapes had the humpbacked silhouette that meant backpacks.
Running away seemed like an extreme reaction for the Parker kids. Their parents had been mad, sure, but how did two kids expect to be able to su
vive on their own?
Dumb question—they were kids. Ten- and twelve-year-olds might be a lot more capable now than when I was that age, out of necessity, but they were still kids, which meant they didn’t think things through. Didn’t have all the info, didn’t have the judgement, and were likely to just assume things would work out the way they wanted.
The wind brought shreds of stressed voices back to us, along with a quickened patter of sneakers on concrete. I expected them to swerve off the street and duck between houses again, try to lose us, but they just tore straight down the block, heading in the direction of the old mall.
We might have longer legs, but Victor and I were a lot older, and kids’ve always had energy to spare. Their small shapes grew closer at first, gaining detail in the moonlight, but half a minute later they were gaining again, and I could hear Victor gasping for breath next to me.
I pushed on, not willing to lose two more kids for the neighborhood.
The street we ran down spread wide enough for six cars, and up ahead I saw an intersection like a city plaza. The asphalt river ran between islands of concrete, mountains of stucco and steel and siding rising up, square-edged, on either side. There was an older shopping center—a few short blocks of city streets lined with shops—just this side of the larger and slightly newer mall. Rustic and twisty, designed to make it seem bigger than it was, Lisa and Mikey likely thought they could lose us there. They might be right.
The bigger shadow, Lisa, put on some extra speed and dragged her brother into the shopping center. They vanished around a corner; Victor and I got there as fast as we could, but there was no one in sight when we rounded it.
“Keep looking,” I hissed, trying to be quiet while panting hard. “We’ve got to find them.” I waved him on down the main drag while I took the first turn to the right, between what’d been a drug store and a shoe store.
I remembered working with the containment team, sealing up the shops right behind the foragers who were hauling everything out, everything that might conceivably be useful some day.
The decorative wooden pillars that held up the clay tile roof extending out to the edge of the sidewalk from the rows of stores had been engulfed in ivy. Without regular maintenance, wood cracks and weathers. We’d torn it all off when we sealed the structures, but ivy is fierce and voracious, and without constant battle it’ll always regroup and surge forward into any territory it can claim. The ivy on the shop walls, under the awning, got little sun; straggly and thin, it left only a bare garrison to hold its captured walls. I stayed in the street, well away from the wild greenery, but that just meant I could see where it covered the pillars and the roof, dark and thick, mounds of the stuff.
I felt my skin crawl just being near it. Any greenery was creepy, but ivy? It was made to strangle, and it could have anything lurking in it, hidden by the leaves. Bugs? Even wild animals? What were the kids thinking, choosing such a place to hide?
Maybe they thought we wouldn’t follow them?
I was creeped out, yes, but it made me that much more determined to find the kids and get them away.
I stopped and listened. I heard Victor calling. That’d just let Lisa and Mikey know where he was so they could avoid him. Once he was done with his shouting, though, I heard the pet-pet-pet sound of running sneakers on asphalt coming from the south, in the direction of the mall.
That made no sense. The older shopping center was infested with the wild, but kids at that in-between age were often less wary than they should be. I’d expected them to try to lose us here and then dash off to one of the surrounding neighborhoods, either east or west. The mall, though, was surrounded by open expanses of asphalt. Its old parking lots were easily patched, so nothing grew there. They provided no cover. I rushed on south, expecting to see Lisa and Mikey as soon as I got clear of the shopping center.
Sure enough, they were just dashing around the leftmost corner of an old anchor store, dark shadows against the dirty beige stucco, stark in the moonlight.
Footsteps pounded behind me and a glance over my shoulder showed that Victor had figured out where the action was. He was still a block and a half behind, though; the night air carried sound so well I’d hoped he was closer.
I rounded the corner, pivoting with one hand on a lamppost that creaked and left my palm gritty. There, Lisa and Mikey hunched near where the store entrance used to be.
I thought they’d given up—run out of juice, maybe—and I slowed to a fast walk, sucking oxygen in heaving gasps. Then I heard a sharp creak and Lisa vanished. I squinted into the darkness, trying to see whether she’d just moved into a deeper shadow, or maybe crouched down behind her brother, but I couldn’t see any sign of her. Then Mikey ducked down and he was gone too.
Inside. They’d gone inside.
I shouted for Victor and ran up to where the kids had disappeared. The whole side of the building was dark, but when I got within arm’s reach I could see that the plywood nailed over the wide doorway had been pried up. The very bottom looked like it hadn’t been nailed at all, and when I tugged on the lower corner, it pulled a few inches away from the wall. There still wasn’t enough clearance for me to get through; the kids would’ve barely fit.
I started pulling hard, and heard more nails loosening and the wood giving way—crack, crack, crack.
Victor came pounding up, gasping for breath. “What—whadyou—doing?!”
“The kids went inside. We have to get them out. Help me.”
“Crazy!” Victor huffed, but he got his hands on the edge of the plywood and yanked with me.
It was probably less than half a minute before the board gave a final snap and hinged outward, leaving a gaping hole.
Light streamed out. The air that puffed out of the gap was humid and slightly warm. The floor just inside rose up higher than the threshold of the old door, thick with dirt and loam, leaves and twigs, and in the light that seemed to be glowing softly from every direction at once in there, I could see little things with lots of legs moving around, over the twigs and under the leaves.
I could feel adrenaline pumping through my veins and sweat dampening the back of my neck. This was wild, the wild inside, the wild we fought to keep out of our houses with constant maintenance, watchful vigilance, scraping away every blade of grass and sprout and leaf. This . . . this was lost.
I swallowed hard and crawled inside, scrambling to my feet as soon as I could, hopefully before any of the crawling bug-things got on me.
Inside, I looked around and almost lost my balance.
The door was still behind me—I looked around and checked and saw Victor’s head poking in—but it was just a hole in what looked like a cliff face. The ground I was standing on sloped sharply down starting just a step or two away from the hole. Huge trees and dense bushes grew all around, softening the slope and whatever gouges and gaps there might be in the . . . well, the cliff face.
In front of me the land was gashed by a narrow canyon, running farther than I could see right and left. It was only about a hundred or so feet across, but there was no way over, no bridge, nothing at all that looked constructed. Everything I could see was leaves and fronds and blossoms and grass. A bird went swooping out of an overhanging tree and down into the canyon where it vanished beyond the lip. Something with grey fur skittered up the trunk of a tree farther on.
“Do you see the kids?” asked Victor, his voice hushed. “Any sign?”
Right, the kids. I looked down, figuring I could pick up their tracks with the ground all soft. Sure enough, there were two sets of impressions. They weren’t sharp like on dusty concrete, but a long, ovalish depression in the leaf litter that repeated alternately right, left, right. The tracks headed off to the left, around an outcropping that bulged out from the cliff where the door was, then vanished. I took a couple of steps, following the tracks, moving slow and deliberate. The outcrop was patchy with feathered lichens and the occasional tuft of velvet moss. A grey bulge suddenly scuttled away—it was a lizard, but I’d thought it was a piece of the rock, and when it moved I jumped.
Bright green birds with scarlet heads launched themselves up off the rock over my head and dove down at me, the whole flock of them. I hollered in fright and ducked down with my arms curled over my head. From my crouching position I could see a fuzzy worm of some kind crawling up my pants leg with a sickening, undulating sort of movement. I dashed it off with my hand, then scrubbed my hand on the fabric of my pants.
A snake appeared, dangling from a branch, its forked tongue quavering at me, like it was tasting the air, trying to taste me. A shivering wave of terror gripped me and I turned and fled back to the door.
Shoving Victor aside, I crawled through, back out to the clean world where nothing wanted to crawl on my body.
“What is it? What’d you see?” Victor was back on his feet, poised to either run or grapple something.
“It’s lost,” I said, shoving the plywood back into place over the door. It wouldn’t be enough, of course. “It’s completely wild. We need to seal it, and not just plywood.”
“But the kids—?”
“They’re lost,” I said. I felt like I had a rock in my throat, or that snake, something slithering down and down and down into my belly so I couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I leaned against the broken plywood sheet and tried to catch my breath, slow my slamming heart. “I’ll stay. Go get the team—wood, bolts, concrete, everything. We need to seal this tonight.”
Victor nodded, his face all grim, down-turned angles. He gave me a hard hug, then trotted off.
I stood there with my back against the door. I hoped the kids would come out, that Lisa or Mikey or both would come to their senses and come home with us. I hoped, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. It never did. Still, I waited there, hands spread to feel for knocking, listening for voices, footsteps. I waited and listened until Victor came back with the others, and we started pouring concrete.
The compost, under-turned and full of fresh scraps, should have attracted all manner of bugs and buzzers. The tree hanging overhead should be bowing down with orb weavers, feasting on the to-and-fro flitting parade. The bushes should be moving, rustling, going bump in the night as our insectivore friends come out to play.
There should be corpses. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and nothing lives forever. There should be bits, unglamorous chunks, remnants of private, unseen disputes as the hierarchy of predator and prey is reinforced. A feather, a tuft, a tail. There should be beetles and millipedes and worms, seething and swarming, biting and gnawing, beginning the process of making dirt from flesh.
It’s amazing what you see when you pay attention. Keep your head up, they say, as if the world below isn’t stuffed to the brim with detail. In the great documentary of life, all the trailer snapshots might be happening in the trees and tall grass, but the meat-and-bones production work happens beneath our feet. The detail work, the foundations—the catering.
As a kid in the ‘Lucky Country’ of Australia, that was all I did: look down. Oh, sure, I looked up sometimes—birds and possums and spiderwebs all demand at least a little attention—but down below, things crawled. Spiders and hoppers scattered from leaf litter, careening off to safety from clumsy hands. The damp spaces under school demountables practically hoarded slugs, snails, frogs, and enough slime and gunk to definitively ruin a school uniform. Multicoloured ants swarmed the playground boundaries. The yellow-arsed ones taste like honey—honest! Go on, give it a try!
The trail up past my local golf course held so many lizards I ran out of memory on my tiny brick cellphone capturing them all in an afternoon. Christmas beetles invaded the damn living room every single summer, no matter what.
And always, always, there was the possibility of the unfiltered joy of a fistfull of dirt and the unearthing of something small, wriggling, and absolutely unsanitary.
I’ve lived just north of Sydney pretty much my entire life. I never moved away, and I never stopped digging. I think everything else might have moved, though.
When I dig into the ground now, I find more plastic debris than worms. Hell, I don’t find any worms at all. We’ve got a few crawlers like the ever-dependable pillbug, but not much else. The joy I find in dirt is very much filtered.
I’m not really supposed to dig, of course—the strata and homeowners associations don’t want to disrupt the neat, even, conformist rectangles of yellow-brown dying vegetation. I dig, though, keeping all the plastic I find in an unmarked bag in my tool cupboard. Couldn’t really tell you why I keep it. The worry, maybe, that if I throw it all out it’ll just end up in someone else’s dirt.
We have rules and expectations, and they must be stuck to. No leaf litter. Dead grass, wilting in the summer heat as the dirt dries and roots burn, unshaded and unnourished by its blades cropped too short, far too short. No “untidy” native lawn, no “weeds”, and absolutely no food crops. These are the rules and expectations. A system, designed from the ground up to sabotage itself across months and years.
Council-managed strips wilt, full of water-hungry non-natives. Succulents, everyone’s favourite low-maintenance plant, creep like an invasive carpet, providing no shelter at all, barely holding the dry and cracking dirt in place. I plant what I can in places I’m not allowed, but I can’t always plant food. We have a whole website and mail-in service that tells you whether your soil, the damn ground beneath your feet, is too contaminated with metals to safely grow food in. This is normal, of course. The kids play and the jacaranda trees bloom, and I wonder what little joys they simply never see.
I bite my tongue and keep my head down, keep looking. There’s definitely evidence of death. Corpses, the byproducts of a suburbia red in bloody cats and cars. Lying by the side of the road, deposited by feline indifference or automobile impacts, the possums, bats, and rats come to rest. Always whole, sometimes flat. They don’t rot or get eaten; just mummify, slowly, in the beating sun. Ignored by pedestrians. I make a point of taking them away and burying them. Feeding the soil. Sometimes, there are flies and maggots. Sometimes.
Our local council cares, though. Cares about the environment! About the animals! These pests might hurt our cats, so we poison them, bait them, trap them. Gas them. Hunt them down and ferret them out. A petition saved a den of people-shy foxes from being gassed, but for every indignant act of suburban outrage, there are dozens of systematic plagues against nature.
Suburbia. So damn sterile you grow to miss the cockroaches—yeah, even the ones as long as your thumb. The ones that fly. Can hardly believe it, but I miss them.
I used to dream of escaping up north to tropical Queensland, but when I visit there are always fewer clouds and more bones, more cane toads and dust. Farmers north and west don’t seem to be doing much better—parched by the drought, then flooded by storms that the dead ground can’t absorb. We shrug. Our supermarkets raise their prices to help farmers, but somewhere along the line forget to pass on the money. Everyone shrugs.
It goes without saying that our reefs are bleached and dying. That’s not news anymore. We know this. We’ve accepted it. Internalised it. We don’t even shrug.
I used to look with hope to the mountains and the coast, surely untouched by the creeping rot of suburban sprawl; no coddled cat vanguard, no lead in the soil, no strata rules. I looked to the same mountains and coast whose rivers are now clogged with algae and dead fish. The same mountains and coast that have burned, cloaking Sydney in hazy orange, hungrily devouring millions of acres of bushland in a single sweep. Thousands of homes, dozens of people. We shrug.
It’s been more than a month, and not a single day goes by without the smell of smoke hanging thick in the air. Ash drifts from the sky. The sun rises and sets a vile, neon red, so shrouded by smoke that it’s dull enough to look directly at, dull enough to be mistaken for the moon. Mood lighting, if I’ve ever seen it.
“Oh, it’s all theoretical. It doesn’t affect us! I’ll believe it when I see it,” they say, as the sky fills with smoke and the earth shrivels dry. “We have to think about jobs and growth. We’re a nation of innovators,” they say, as our livelihoods crumble and we repeat our mistakes over and over and over and—
I don’t understand how we’re not all furious. Look down. Look down, you fuckers. Look down, beneath your feet, under your fingernails, at the debris in your lungs, and into the silent night. Dig your hands into the dust, watch as it slips through your fingers—any damn metaphor it takes to get you to realise this country is dying around us.
Please. Look down.
These recollections were written on Gadigal land; land we have sorely mistreated. The Gadigal peoples are one of 29 clans that comprise the Eora Nation—traditional custodians of land we now call Sydney. Their sovereignty was never ceded.
Aside from water, aside from sailing, killings
and results of counting steps,
in pursuit of danger as well as familiarity
of gestures shielded from view by dayandang trees.
The season’s too cold for leaping
to conclusions on whether constellations are drifting farther
away from us. Doomsday cultists are coming out of the woodwork
these days, crowing about supposed signs
of the Second Coming. Do we now synchronize
our positions, are the children’s hearts
getting healthier, are the horses
trotting faster than before? Suppose I imagine
birds, will that conjure birds?
If I visualize paradise,
will that render visible the wind’s unseen machinery,
will that produce names for all kinds
of wounds to make plain the level of damage wrought
to the environment, to explain the water rise
going beyond the expected limits
assuming we can still consider as limits
the coiled ropes and upright pickets of my unease?
Bukod sa tubig, bukod sa paglalayag, mga pagpatay
at mga resulta ng pagbibilang ng hakbang,
pagsunod sa kapahamakan gayundin ang pagkilala
sa mga galaw na itinatago ng mga dayandang.
Malamig ang panahon para sa paglukso
sa mga konklusyon kung dumidistansiya
ba ang mga konstelasyon. Parang nauuso
na naman ang pagmimiron sa mga signos
ng pagbabalik ng Panginoon. Sabay-sabay
na naman ba ang pagposisyon, naglulusugan
ba ang mga puso ng mga bata, bumibilis
ba ang mga kabayo? Kung mag-iisip ba ako
ng mga ibon, lalabas ba ang mga ibon?
Kung mag-iisip ba ako ng kaluwalhatian,
lalabas ba ang mga mekanismo ng hangin,
papangalanan ba ang lahat ng klase
ng sugat upang ipaliwanag ang mga pinsala
sa paligid, upang linawin ang paglampas
ng tubig sa mga naitakdang hangganan
kung hangganan bang maituturing
ang mga lubid at tulos ng aking ligalig?
A harried wind has come
bearing in his arms
on my door,
head hanging low,
hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind
pleads to be let in.
But I do not want him
in. I quickly shut my windows, and
stuff all the nooks and crannies.
I even cotton up my ears,
because I know.
Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind
has come to say?
He’s come to say the world is in utter disarray.
And, that I am weak and powerless. That I
can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing
but watch the horror unfold.
Perhaps I was being prescient when I wrote this poem before the world changed. I don’t know. All I know is that there is an odd stillness in my heart now. And the face of that woman selling green papayas is haunting me.
That Sunday evening seems like a distant dream today. We left the city of Hyderabad a few Sundays ago, and are still settling down in our own home, even as I write this piece. The shadow of the virus dims our sun. The numbers have climbed up so high, India now practically leads the global pandemic. Covid 19 has swept out from the cities into the hinterlands, where basic healthcare is negligent, forget Covid care. The virus has even entered our tiny community of seventy-two homes. An eerie silence wheels around the children’s play area. And that mainstay of Indian homes, the daily help, is missing. The sharp edges of people have softened since the early days of Covid. Neighbours are no longer discriminatory towards those in quarantine. Our face masks have created a fraternity which wasn’t there before. There is little difference between our lives in Hyderabad and Chennai. Except that here, in lieu of a large balcony, I have a terrace I can run up to, and stand beneath a vast rolling sky. It provides a respite from the walls. In Hyderabad, we needed to rush out of our homes just to get some fresh air.
That Sunday was no different. My husband and I drove towards Hyderabad’s older parts, where people live cheek by jowl, and the shops are open-to-the-sky carts and wooden platforms. Hyderabad’s historical monuments, the Golkonda fort, Kutab Shahi tombs and further down, the Charminar and Falak Nama Palace, are located there. I wanted to see them as we drove past. So, we went, armed with face masks, hand sanitisers, a large bottle of water, and a shopping bag, in case we found something to buy!
We cruised around, safe inside our mobile egg (that is what Arvind Adiga called cars in his Booker award winning book ‘The White Tiger’). The evening sky had turned into a violet velvet cape, pinned up by the brightest Jupiter of the year. The narrow roads were chock-a-block with people. It was in fact a scene straight out of a village fair, a mela. There were men selling shocking pink cotton candy on sticks, balloons, cheap plastic toys, spicy crispy fried snacks in newspaper cones, corn on the cobs roasting on charcoal stoves on trolleys. People sat with their wares laid out on plastic sheets on the dirt tracks beside the narrow road. Second-hand clothes, rubber footwear, folding umbrellas, fruits and vegetables.
Nobody seemed to care about safety. Most of them did not have masks on. They were obviously not practising social distancing, but were laughing, talking, backslapping and hugging each other with abandon. Some women and children crowded around a handpump, gossiping or playing as they waited their turn to draw water. The scene was a far cry from the other India of glass and concrete towers, air-conditioned homes and malls, and all the necessities and luxuries available in all developed countries. A world we too are privy to.
If anything, Covid 19 has outlined the thousand-headed social divide in India with thick black indelible lines. The have-nots out-number the haves by far despite the strides India has made in the past decade. Online classes are a privilege the majority of Indian school children cannot afford. What the world knows about India is always a few notches off the mark, whether it is the good, the bad or the ugly. This subject is so complex and convoluted that it cannot be explained away in a few lines or even chapters! But if I were to draw a quick sketch, I’d say that those who are subjugated and deprived in India face it from so many angles that they have no fear left. They leave it all to fate. In their world, they have only each other. This was the spirit I observed all around me from behind my rolled-up car window, as we negotiated our way past the human throngs, stray goats and cows, and unruly traffic. And, we also saw the papayas!
“Want to pick up a few?” said my husband in all seriousness.
The woman selling the fruit understood from long experience that she had a potential customer. Her body shifted, almost imperceptibly. I knew if I gestured, she would bring a few over for me to choose.
Raw-green papayas are nutritious and delicious. Their most famous avatar may be the Thai salad, but their buttery texture when boiled and mashed makes them a great substitute for mashed potatoes with roast pork or beef. A pat of butter, salt and pepper is all you need. Bengalis, like us, love them grated and steamed with whole aromatic spices like bay leaves, green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, and topped with shredded coconut and clarified butter. My mouth watered. It had been a while since we had eaten them. Even from a distance, and in the fading light, I could tell how fresh these were. Glossy jade green, with their cut stems still oozing the milky sap.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” I said, even as my fingers itched to touch them. “I mean, nobody’s following any safety rules here.”
My husband swerved just then, taking most of the car out of the road and onto the dirt track. A gleaming Range Rover Autobiography muscled its way forward. A man in his late thirties or early forties was at the wheel. He barely noticed our much smaller vehicle. Irritated, I looked away. At that instant the eyes of the woman with the perfect green papayas met mine. She smiled with compassion at this privileged woman, fearful of the poor and angry at the uber rich. Her eyes seemed to fling questions at me: Would I recoil if my hands involuntarily touched hers? Would I rush home to disinfect myself?
We drove back home without the coveted papayas. Some weeks later we relocated. The young men from the packers and movers kept their masks on in our presence. But took them off blithely during their lunch break. To them we were delicate creatures, not of robust flesh and blood like themselves. Yet we are all brethren under the Indian sky. And, if the little poem I wrote was prescient, my sentiments were wrong. One can always do something, no matter how insignificant. That small something may be a thought in the mind or a feeling, but it is still a shift towards change.
Gratitude for what we have. Frugal and mindful living. Respect for this world and all in it. And outrage at what we have knowingly and unknowingly done. These may sound like platitudes mouthed by a woman living a sheltered life, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
So, here we are
at the end.
We have pulled down the sails to make patches for the ocean, come
we will patch those patches with paisley scraps,
with blue and white checks like
Dorothy’s dress, we will save scraps of paper
to cover half-written books; come we will grab
one last plank from the ship to patch
somewhere out past the epilogue. Come,
there is so much farther to go.
Let go of the ship’s rope ladder, and we’ll talk
about walking lightly on the world. Not
that we shouldn’t have built the ship or made
the voyage, that the less anyone
could feel your wake, the better; not
some correspondence between the weight
of each step and the storm befalling us—but follow, step light,
if only because the raft is so easily tipped.
Step light down to the raft:
apply your whole self to the push and pull,
to the tumbling forward, the pause, and we will hop
from salvaging to salvaging.
Here at the end
you will feel you are doing nothing, and
you won’t: when you think
about the space between
water droplets, a shortness of breath
will lodge in your chest the pain of knowing
there is so much to salvage, a folding
like reaching to tuck even the voyage
back into the pattern.
If you have no hope, you’ve come
to the right place to be hopeful
without it. And if you’re worried
this is escape, I will assure
you: there is no escape.
We will drift
in the mess of an oceanic canal flush with pink
rhinestones from prom dates
that never happened and as we go
we will sew up the waves. When the raft sinks,
plug your nose, look up, and hold your breath
a little longer than comfortable. Your heartbeat
will pulse diamond in the water around you.
Take just enough with you
to swim back to the world.
So here at the end this song
is for drifting, this song
is for knowing your drifting goes somewhere, this song
is for pulling with all your might
against dead air. Out here,
you will have so much desire you will forget
how to have desires,
but that’s okay, because this
is the end of the world
and we don’t have new things.
And I don’t mean to say
this couldn’t be a love story.
Only that we’ll have to salvage
from the love stories already written, here
at the end of the world.
Winter comes (in Provence, it looks much the same as summer from a distance, only crisp and windier), and with it the end of a long, harrowing year. A year of sorrow, for the families of a million and a half. A year of change, some say, though change may be less eagerly anticipated than a return to normal. An opportunity to take a break, for a lucky few, to think, to watch, to wonder. To realise that, no matter how sheltered, no one is safe from the brutal consequences of environmental destruction.
As I asked short story authors to share their sense of wonder with us, to stop and look at the world and report on the beauties they glimpsed there, I had no idea how relevant that question would be, a year later. Yet as the virus came to us out of destroyed forests and ravaged species, the question of the cost of sheltered lifestyles is more pressing than ever. How can we protect our environment if we are hardly ever reminded that it exists? Living in the heart of cities, it is far too easy to forget that there is such a thing as nature, messy, scary and uncontrollable, when trees around us are slashed into submission every year, weeds plucked out of pavements and birds driven out with spikes and hoses. Nature is no longer a fact of life, but a rumour, a holiday experience. Our lives have adjusted around its absence.
There are reports that as covid numbers soar, sales of scented candles drop, as customers report on their disappointing lack of smell. Whether it is true or not, the realisation gives one pause: we live in a world where it is plausible to imagine that thousands of people would fail to realise that they’ve lost one of their senses, so little do they use it in their lives. It is equally disturbing to hear the phrase ‘augmented reality’ used, without irony, to refer to games that restrict reality to pixels on a palm-sized screen. The enormity of the loss, when the reality itself of the world we live in, its weight, its sensorial presence, has faded away from our lives should no longer be allowed to go unnoticed.
But it would be far too easy to answer with nostalgia. There is no utopian past to go back to; we are the direct result of the centuries that preceded us, where nature was an enemy, a poison, an endless source of fear. We did not descend from a golden age. But maybe we can make it come true.
So let’s make it happen. Let’s head towards a world where the ground under our feet crawls with life, and we don’t call it vermin. A world where glyphosate is only allowed to keep existing to rectify past mistakes, where trees grow free and rivers run clean, where the people who live off untamed forests and tundras no longer have to fight for dignity and peace, where the beasts that terrify us are left alone rather than slaughtered, when we turn the mistakes of our past into something that can thrive again.
This is a time of waiting, of stillness, but only if we accept it so.
When winter descends on Provence, the north wind sometimes turns the sky into the purest, brightest shade of blue. Such stillness can only come from the deepest turmoil, air twirling above in mighty currents, even though we cannot see it. Only when we look down to the ground do we notice the trees swaying. Only when we pause at last to look at what stands right in front of us do we realise that movement is in the nature of the world, and it only takes a strong will to steer it where we want it to go.
The present is clay, sitting cool and wet in the palm of your hand. Squash it, twist it, mold it. Shape it into something beautiful.
The call for submissions for Reckoning 5’s poetry started as a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook I lost years ago. It was Toronto labour rights activist and scholar Dr. Winnie Ng’s answer to a 2013 panel question on what she’d tell young organizers: that we can organize from rage, but where it was possible, you could go the long haul if you organized from joy. I lost the notebook, so I’m not going to get that quote right.
Living in a busy urban downtown sharpens your vision for the natural world living alongside and around you. You start relationships: with the raccoon that topples over your compost bin to eat tomato scraps; with the ash tree whose lowest leaves are low enough to, on the days you wear high heels to work, brush the top of your head like a benediction. You learn to truly value that ecosystem threaded through the cracks, and realize that busy spaces are full of half-visible mitzvot. You can think nobody is and then your vision sharpens to those little signs, and you realize: somebody is. That public native species garden didn’t grow itself, and those squirrels aren’t fat and happy on their own account. Someone planted chestnut trees. Someone is, just outside your frame of reference, doing the work.
Our call for poetry was about those intimacies: the seed waiting in your pocket, cupped handfuls of gorgeous things in motion, little gods. What work you were doing, and why you did it. Maybe we could all sharpen our vision, together.
We had no idea what was coming.
In Toronto, I have spent this pandemic year uneasily hibernating as part of a high-risk household. I stepped outside in May and the trees were leafing outward; the next time, in mid-June, the flowers were already going to fruit. It has been hard to know whose precautions to trust, where the future was leading.
Meanwhile, submissions poured in from every continent except Antarctica, and built a paper spine to keep my head up as the case counts fluctuated. Every week this year, I’ve spent a few hours reading poetry and essays about those little flecks of possibility: vivid, loving descriptions of the ground as wrinkled wise skin; laughing lines about coral; how far you can travel on patched-up sails; “we breathe and breathe and / breathe”. Ambivalent, pragmatic, realistic, joyous, fierce, those carefully nurtured loves started to feel like sonar, describing the shape of a world latticed with somebody is. Everything was most-beautiful. Webbed between chat servers, databases, and international video calls scheduled delicately to link three time zones—systems that felt like they should be so tenuous—what’s emerged is so solidly real.
Doing this project in a disrupted, unsettled year meant no matter what I could find to fear, somebody is. The process of putting this volume together gave us the proof. I can close my eyes and see a constellation: hundreds of people who believe in the limitless potential of being for something fiercely enough to write about it during a global pandemic.
That’s what I hope this offers you: a volume that holds the proof, that shakes with the force of that jotted-down note seven years ago, organize from joy. Even though the notebook got soaked until it was unreadable, was lost in a move, and I had to dig through old websites and event listings to find the conference and rediscover Dr. Ng’s name to properly credit her for the impact, I remembered the important part all the way through: If I love things and work from that love, my strength will not fail me.
So, here we are—not all of us, and not in equal circumstances: on our balconies, in wide-open spaces, in overcrowded housing with a half-dozen people we love, doing the work with our hands, doing the work with our mouths, holding ourselves or other people together, failing for today to do it, following instinct, following best practice, fumbling, planting, advocating, pushing back, pushing forward. Tending tiny miracles until they split the pavement.