Podcast Episode 16: On Animal Rights and Animal Consciousness

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Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the Reckoning Press Podcast. It’s me, Michael J. DeLuca. I’m here for a very special experiment; we’re going to try our first roundtable. I have here with me Priya Chand, E.G. Condé and Juliana Roth, and they’re going to talk about animal consciousness, animal rights, and human rights.

[Bios below.]

Take it away, Juliana!

Clama a Dios

House at night is quiet despite the insects and bird cries and creatures. Floating in liquid. As if the house were sloshing around. A container in which fluid was sloshing. Tidal house. House waves. Amniotic. We cling. We root. We tumble. The sweet gum tree has a greater tolerance for salt than the oak and other hardwoods, and there’s the loblolly pine, fast-growing and less susceptible to drought. The house stretches, breathes, sweats. Blood fills the little cracks, house blood, composed of the dreams of everyone who has ever been inside.

Earth is a girl in a short dress. Earth is a girl in trouble. Earth is a girl dreaming of a girl in a short dress in trouble.

“Dad brought home a beagle, Mom.”

Say you’re a tree with waterfront property, okay, minding your business the way trees do, connected insofar as your roots travel, leafing as needed, barked and bathed in sunlight or rain, day and night, no different than the rest of us on this spin-cycle planet. There are pockets and divots and crevices. Everything is shiny or jagged or broken or rough. There are dark places where something might lurk. There are bright places where the light burns. Salinity is bad for trees.

“Can we keep it? Mom, I think we should keep it.”

Four homes and a commercial building, brick, that had hosted a variety of retail businesses over its hundred or so years, on Locking Lane. Some historic value but not enough to save them. DeFiore Contractors knocked them down, one, two, three. Salvaging what they could (which wasn’t much; some old sinks, copper pipes, wire, a few of the old doors; the bricks from the retailer). One house remained. It would stay, because, unlike the others, its owner was alive. Alice the town clerk who saved the last house was a recidivist smoker and could have lost thirty pounds. The double battle tore at her and made her cranky. But she had just returned from a satisfying lunch, and two half-cigarettes’ worth of smoke lingered in her hair. It would be a while before guilt and remorse set in. Guilt, remorse, and disappointment, in herself, her pitiful lack of resolve. She was in the mood to be helpful. In that mood, Alice was formidable.

Earth wakes up. Earth is uneasy now, trembling.

Sea level continues to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year.

The apparatus is made of metal. Metal and pvc, which is a kind of hard, durable plastic. There are also plumbing parts, and electronics, which have to do with electricity and motion. The apparatus is not alive. The apparatus is here to serve a purpose.

“The beagle is panting.”

“A little.”

“Do you think he’s scared?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, a little.”

“Dad’s taking forever. I’m going to see.”

Describe an egg. Describe all the eggs. Describe any egg. A woman is born with all the eggs she’ll ever have.

Grandma suddenly told a story. “We were on a date. And the bridge. It was a drawbridge. That was about to open. It was snowing. Danny instead of stopping just as the what-is-it-called the blockade the thing that is supposed to prevent cars from passing goes down, he guns it and off we go over the bridge which had already begun opening and whomp”—she did a whomping smack on the table with her hand, rattling the dishes—“we landed on the other side. Fishtailed a little. It was snowing. Forecasts weren’t accurate back then.” “You told me to go,” Grandpa said, downing the last of his drink. Grandma went white. Down went the fork. Grandma said, “Yes, but why? Why did I do that?” “We were in love,” Grandpa said. Then he started coughing. Then it was night.

Tree, what do you wish for? We want that wish too.

Life is a mask we assume human form. Coldblooded doesn’t mean their blood is cold.

Water expands as it warms. Ice melts.

Where can a fella get a drink these days?

Earth is a boy in a short dress. Earth is a boy in trouble. Earth is a boy dreaming of a boy in a short dress in trouble. Earth is awake. Trembling. Is Earth a mountain?

Eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coast. Oceanfront property is the dream scenario. Realtors claim this is true.

Hours before Great-Aunt Lillie died she asked for a cigarette. It had been thirty years since the last one and she was ninety-nine if she was a day. Oh god so good, she didn’t say, didn’t have to, you could see it in her eyes and the whoosh of that long hard suck of dirty air. Elena the hospital nurse climbed on a chair and unscrewed the smoke alarm, swathed in scrubs like an angel.

Living in a floating city feels a bit like being a soap bubble in a warm bathtub, or a little rowboat snug on its tether, or like tiptoeing on soft carpet. We rely on meclazine and ginger ale to counteract varying degrees of motion sickness but agree it’s far better than living in the regular old cities where basements flood, salt marshes turn to sand, and cars rust from the chassis up.

The floating city is home to a very small percentage of the overall population, including nonhuman animals, who seem to have adapted beautifully. We know how lucky we are but not why and there’s no one to ask. Maybe it doesn’t matter. We woke one day and there we were. First thing, we voted to keep the whereabouts of our floating city a secret. Really we had no choice. Even if you managed to find us, where in heaven’s name would we put you.

Sperm met egg. Knock knock. Who’s there. Me. Me who. Me I don’t know no one’s named me yet. Sperm penetrated egg wall. Wiggly ambassador to giant host, round as a planet. Knock knock. Who’s there. Tickled. Tickled who. Me, that tickled me. Sperm embedded, cozy as an indoor cat on a cold wet night. Set in motion, life began.

On the drive back from the funerals they get behind a line of vans each with a sticker that reads En Caso de Emergencia, Clama a Dios.” Why would they make a joke about that?” Sal says after they translate for her, indignant as fuck. “Maybe it’s not a joke,” Mom says.

Sources

As Sea Levels Rise, So Do Ghost Forests, Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Gabriella Demczuk, New York Times, 10/08/2019

NOAA. Is sea level rising? National Ocean Service website, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html, 11/05/2020

Sold for Parts

Cheena’s so quiet, she never talks anymore after her shifts. She just comes home and puts her clothes away. Drapes herself in a white sheet, tied like a toga, doesn’t worry about anything hanging out or staying in. It’s the shape the toga makes against her thighs that matters to her. The strong edges and the void covered by cloth. I wonder if it’s true what they say, that someone threatened to take her breath and she stopped using it for anything but motion, like it was something you could horde. Either that, or Cheena doesn’t think words have meaning anymore. So we sit next to each other on the sofa and watch a few shows on the net, until it’s time for my shift and Cheena sleeps.

I have the opposite of Cheena’s job, so our professions are related. I clean up after the party’s over. Put the glass back in the windows, toss the hors d’oeuvres and return lost garments. If there’s a fight on the net, I weigh in. But mostly, no one fights anymore. It’s like they’re all too afraid to say what they think because it might lead to the things we’d all rather not think about. The company’s been running for a decade and it used to be all high-end space station parties, trips to Mars and endless flights to China, Iceland, Algeria. Now people come to us. They want something that doesn’t change. And I always put the room back the same way.

Cheena was gonna be an astronaut before the deal. But it wasn’t the deal that made her silent. As for me, I talk enough for both of us and more than I should. I hang out on the threads that still try to list the disappearing animals. I’m responsible for spotting five kinds of insects, seven mammals and three reptiles. When they’re gone, I’ll watch new ones, until they’re gone too. One man’s job is to watch the mountains. Two are still there, but the range is all hollowed out. Desert now. We don’t talk on the thread about why they’re gone. No one can stomach that, and we don’t want to hope too hard. Life is livable a little bit at a time.

I was a scientist before the deal, but I can’t remember any of it anymore. Not one equation. They tell me I’m better to talk to now. That I was always a little haunted or analytical or something. Now I can’t stop talking. I talk to the bots that help me reshape the rooms of the floating castle. I talk to the other staff, the bartenders and the talent. I talk to Cheena, even though she doesn’t say a word. It’s an unspoken agreement that she doesn’t have to respond. At work, the music’s too loud for anyone to hear her anyway.

I do wish sometimes that I could find someone to yell with, to fight, to do anything, but we all saw what happened to those who panicked that day. And so those of us left just keep on counting the things we loved and took for granted. The things that couldn’t change and did. I make the rooms the same every night. Every night Cheena does the same dance. It is what we can do.

Podcast Episode 15: Heat

Subscribe via RSS, Google Podcasts, Android, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or on iTunes!

Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast. It’s been ages, but we’re ramping up to a lot of cool new stuff in the coming year and beyond, including lots more podcasts, a fundraiser to increase payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry and pay staff better too, t-shirts, pins, who knows what else. Homebrew recipes. Foraging instructions. Bespoke lectures about culling invasive species. We’re flush with ideas, as we should be, but we’re always looking for more. Drop us a line if you’ve got any?

Reckoning Press is a US-based nonprofit; we flourish under your regard. Please support us on Patreon, consider donating directly, buy a book or an ebook, read our contributors’ beautiful work for free online, and submit! We’re always open to submissions, we’re always excited in particular to read work from Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized poets, writers and artists.

You can find all this and more on our website at: reckoning.press/support-us. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by visiting reckoning.press/audio.

Thank you very much for listening.

Today I’m going to read you Tim Fab-Eme’s poem “Heat”.

[Bio below.]

He is also the current poetry editor for Reckoning 7! So for those of you interested in submitting, this is a chance to get a window on the inside of his head.

Tim may be the writer who’s work has appeared most often in Reckoning’s pages. Three different Reckoning editors, including me, have selected his work for publication. I hope you can imagine how delighted I was when he agreed to edit for us. His writing style, the impact it has on me, is hard to quantify, though I keep trying. There’s an intensity to it, a personal closeness that comes from an incredibly narrow-focused first-person POV and always leaves me fairly devastated. He’s obviously interested in form but not bound by it, his lines have a lyricality that comes from rhythmic agility, surprising internal rhyme, and are always informed by his startlingly close observation of people. There’s so much here! I’m afraid I’m too much of a fanboy at this point to articulate any of it much more coherently than that, and with respect to this poem, I think anything else I say will be doing the words themselves a disservice. So now I’m going let the poem speak for itself.

Heat by Tim Fab-Eme

Snuffing the Night Candles

People talking about the phases of the silvery moon,

the Peter Pan brightness beckoning in the stars—

I haven’t seen a distant sun in months,

and the fairy tales have shimmered away.

No celestial pin pricks in the darkened cyclorama,

no blazes from back in a time before my tiny self

tried to sparkle into existence. I live in

a perfect night, bundled beneath the

suffocation of cloudy particles

and blankets, an empty visibility

stretching into periphery

and over the horizon.

People love a little star shine.

I don’t know what happened

to me. I’m anchor-chained on this stark lake

of arrogance and folly, a slow lapping without

the benevolence of illumination

and godsend.

A child wishes

on the first one she sees, lovers wish

on the fallen—I have no blessed light

to witness. Something cheerlessly cast out

has happened here. What America

coughs up to heaven

might be what happened. Of course

I want answers. I pray someone

has the heart

to wish for the future,

for me.

Podcast Episode 14: The Talking Bears of Greikengkul

Subscribe via RSS, Google Podcasts, Android, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or on iTunes!

Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast. It’s been ages, but we’re ramping up to a lot of cool new stuff in the coming year and beyond, including lots more podcasts, a fundraiser to increase payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry and pay staff better too, t-shirts, pins, who knows what else. Homebrew recipes. Foraging instructions. Bespoke lectures about culling invasive species. We’re flush with ideas, as we should be, but we’re always looking for more. Drop us a line if you’ve got any?

Reckoning Press is a US-based nonprofit; we flourish under your regard. Please support us on Patreon, consider donating directly, buy a book or an ebook, read our contributors’ beautiful work for free online, and submit! We’re always open to submissions, we’re always excited in particular to read work from Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized poets, writers and artists.

You can find all this and more on our website at: reckoning.press/support-us. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by visiting reckoning.press/audio.

Thank you very much for listening.

This week we’re taking a break from Reckoning 6 content to bring you a flash back to a story from Reckoning 5: “The Talking Bears of Greikengkul” by Sandy Parsons, read by the author herself. This is a weird, creepy story that blurs the line between human and animal and examines some of the ethical implications.

[Bio below.]

The Talking Bears of Greikengkul by Sandy Parsons

E.I.

605,421,005 modular sensors floated across Earth’s waters, analyzing around 54% of the oceans’ chemical makeup. 26,304 of these sensors lay along the passenger ship Afẹmọju’s trans-Atlantic route. This was a microscopic percentage of the global sensor count, but sufficient to keep track of the vessel’s trail of pollutants. The crew and passengers were aware that their voyage would be gaining a lot of attention from the planet, as Afẹmọju should have been decommissioned years ago. As monsoon season was reaching its peak along the eastern coast of Central and North America, most Atlantic transportation resources were in use up there, leaving behind sub-par equipment like this leaky vessel that ran partially on bunker fuel. Despite Afẹmọju’s many renovations over the decades, she couldn’t help dumping sulfur oxide into the atmosphere that eventually seeped into the planet’s water supply.

Each sensor bobbing on the waves tasted the air and water that Afẹmọju left tainted in her wake and spoke to their neighbor. After the ship had traveled a little over 1,000 kilometers, the cumulative amount of pollution produced had outweighed the acceptable ratio for a vessel of her size. 5,203 sensors collectively filed a complaint against Afẹmọju. It was placed in line behind hundreds more to be processed before it (ocean-related incidents only), and in twenty minutes the complaint was addressed by Earth. The ocean was given the go ahead by the planet.

The Afẹmọju captain’s dashboard turned a deep blue as the engine was disabled by the sea. He’d half expected a shutdown to happen at some point on the way to Rio de Janeiro, but it was frustrating nonetheless. The captain, his crew, and their thousands of passengers would now wait for either the call to return home or for a drone fleet to provide assistance purifying their fuel. Without the engines, inertia pushed the vessel slightly off track. In the process, the ship’s hull crushed a small, floating computer server coded by a child from Ibadan—a server they had built for a school project with their classmates. Next morning when the child woke up to find their virtual environment offline, they cried to their mother, who traced a couple report logs and discovered how the server was destroyed. Instead of explaining the chain of events that had led to her child’s bad day, she thought it would be more interesting to blame it on Olóòkun, the god of all large waters, all oceans. In a sense, she was correct.

While Afẹmọju had landed the final blow, it had been on the sea’s command.

Prisca Brethers, the current Appalachia LF-4 Soil delegate, had arrived at the dig site. Her aide, Asmara, waded through the marsh in knee-high boots. Prisca preferred to lean against their ATV. They were at the furthest reaches of Prisca’s jurisdiction, a flat stretch of swamp water and tangled, tropical vegetation. Braving the marsh was a battle that the humidity was winning, forcing Prisca to loosen the collar of her suit.

Asmara looked down at the water choked with algae.

“As they said, the building looks intact. Well . . . intact enough. It should be easy to spin, Prisca.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Prisca said. She would check the subterranean layout of the swamp herself if not for the information streaming through her eyes’ internal HUD. It was only possible to do so many things at once. The good thing was that the numbers were looking solid. Notifications for Prisca’s speech had spread across Landfall Province 4, and a couple thousand locals were going to tune in.

It had been a year since she’d been elected delegate for her region, and the jitters that came before a speech still hadn’t abated. The first day on the job had been the worst. Prisca had woken up to the call of Appalachia’s soil union, congratulating her before explaining what she’d even done. Then came the formal invitation to serve her community for a two-year term.

While she’d undergone an abrupt, temporary change to her job description by being elected to the soil union, Prisca continued playing to her strengths. She had been a teacher, so that was how she hoped to encourage action in her community. A minute before the start of her broadcast she remembered the golden rule: speak to the children. Adults were also capable of learning, but they would be much more open to it if the youngest were on board.

Asmara came back to the ATV with two thumbs up. “We all good?”

“Yessir. Let’s go.”

With a smile, he moved to her side, brushing away the beads of sweat crawling down his forehead. There was no stretch of Earth directly untouched by human and robotic alterations except for a couple deep sea trenches, and this swamp was no exception, but the changes to the environment here were all about analyzing, not modifying. The heat was unadulterated—which would be a problem in the future if Prisca were successful today. One thing at a time.

Turning this stretch of swamp into a communal space for the region would be a herculean task in the first place, and Prisca would have to convince everyone that it was a good idea before worrying about the weather.

The schoolchildren and their teachers appeared before Prisca, their digital facsimiles overlaid across the swamp, streaming through her internal visual feed. She waved and the kids eagerly returned it, though that was pretty much it in terms of contact. She couldn’t set up tactile feedback for this livestream, since it would’ve been too resource intensive after they’d already got permission to use the ATV. Hopefully this would teach the kids good social distancing practices, since the next plague had come to the region.

Asmara introduced Prisca as she eyed the viewer count ticking away in the corner of her eye. It was in the quadruple digits already. Each person tuning in was represented as a blinking green dot hovering above the sky like a new star field. Most of them were probably using this broadcast as background noise while making lunch or something, but still. Any of these people might get interested and swing the vote in her favor.

One dot came late. It was a dark blue, and it maintained a steady light. As it did with most political maneuvers, the planet would watch from a front row seat.

Asmara motioned Prisca forward.

“Hey y’all!” she said to the class, getting a chorus of greetings in response. Though this would count as a field trip, these children didn’t sound like they were interested. No point in boring them with the speech she’d practiced with Asmara beforehand. It was best to get to the fun stuff as fast as possible.

Prisca gave them the briefest history she could muster—a history of the ground, what laid under it, and who used to walk on it. The children all knew they lived in Eno and Occaneechi territory, but their historical knowledge of the USA’s violent occupation would be murky at best. Just mentioning that fallen regime was enough to perk their interest. Some of their eyes lit up full of morbid curiosity, and others had small frowns on their faces.

“There’s a relic from the time of the American Empire under our feet,” Prisca said with the hyperbolic gravitas of a ghost story. “A really important, old building. As our community’s soil delegate, one of my jobs is to find old buildings like this that were swallowed during the planet’s big changes, and then I figure out what to do with them. For this one, I want us to work together and bring it back.”

The children’s blank stares agitated the butterflies in Prisca’s stomach. Funny how her audience was immaterial, yet the nerves were just the same as if she were on a stage. Instead of falling into the queasiness of her anxiety, Prisca focused on what she could do to convince the kids and bystanders that their past was worth an appraisal.

It wasn’t an easy task. A side-effect of the planet’s transition into the Anthropocene, with all of the collapse and death that had entailed, was inherent distrust of the people and countries who came before. These children, as did their parents and grandparents, lived in spite of their ancestors’ best attempts at eliminating their world. There was no love for the generations that had cashed in on transforming the Earth into a place unfit for the species that lived alongside the planet.

This was one of her more conservative political opinions, but Prisca didn’t feel that hatred was the best answer to their past. At least, not as an all-encompassing response. She had no qualms with disavowing the ones who benefited off the ecological terror, as not only had they ruined the world for billions of people, they had also died before they could ever face the full, planetary consequences. Nothing good would come out of advocating for capitalists. But not everyone on Earth had been an orchestrator of this genocide.

“Under our feet is a big part of my people’s history,” Prisca said. “Hundreds of years ago they built a neighborhood where we stand right now, and hundreds of years before that they’d been in chains. They were forced into one of the worst situations of all time and they came out of it still creating. It’s a bit of a miracle.”

She told them about the neighborhood that had once stood here when the land hadn’t been swamp, about the legacy of this neighborhood, an oasis within the American regime’s antiblack system. The building, Mutual Tower, was one of the financial cornerstones that made this community possible. Prisca emphasized the concept of refuge found here, hoping the children would find a connection to their lives. As the planetary environment changed, all communities became places of respite.

Before the view count could start dipping, Prisca unveiled the 3D model of the structure submerged beneath them, rendered to scale across the marsh: a concrete highrise, built with the brashness of a civilization that thought of structure and land as two different things. She let the kids loose. They ran about the building, spray cans materializing in their hands—one of the many skeuomorphic VR tools that had outlived the relevancy of their physical counterparts.

Then the history lesson was over, and the children came to say goodbye. The class dissolved into the air along with the viewers. All the green lights winked out, leaving the blue one on its own. It always took the planet a little longer to disengage from a broadcast since multiple sensory networks had to collate the terabytes of data they had collected over the course of the livestream.

“I’m feeling good about the vote,” Asmara said. “You’ve been one of our most resource-efficient delegates in a while, and this is your first big project. My prediction is you’ll swing the majority.”

Even though she felt the same, Prisca didn’t want to jinx it by saying that out loud. She nodded along, looking at the water that came up to their shins, and imagined the building hidden beneath them. The stories it might have kept close.

50 kilometers northwest of Guiyang was a factory complex staffed by 6,230 adaptive computer numerical control machines, assigned to provide auxiliary construction resources for Khentii Seismic Province 2. Unlike their predecessors from around two hundred years ago, the machines employed an ecosystem of intracommunal sensor networks and smaller robots to adjust and readjust their manufacturing parameters, resulting in a factory that could run unattended by humans 95% of the time. This didn’t make that remaining 5% any less critical.

During some downtime between active shifts, Building 3-A of the complex reported unapproved activity along its external wall. Unfortunately, this activity occurred in one of the four sensory blindspots in the two square kilometers of this factory complex, and there were no drones that could be diverted to deal with the situation. Most robotic labor was engaged with relocating crops after a major flood north of Shanghai. This led to a unanimous vote by the factory’s workflow algorithms to call on human help. In came Wang Zhenxian, the closest person from the nearby hills, and a farmer in his free time. The factory debriefed him on their problem and reassured him that there should be no danger to his person. They only wanted him to get a good look, and the factory would tap into his visual feed so they might gain new perspective through his eyes.

Happy to do them this big favor, Wang made his way to the factory and saw it up close for the first time. Wang walked through the factory’s near-empty streets, guided by his internal navi system to Building 3-A. There wasn’t a window or door in sight. When he reached his destination, Wang caught himself and stayed back a little, not wanting to scare the trespassers off. He zoomed in and stabilized his vision so that the factory could watch as well. Perched on a ledge was a small family of sparrows. They had been pecking at the building’s vents, attempting to build a nest in the ambient warmth, and they were probably the last of their species in this region. They had triggered the trespassing alert. Wang talked it over with the factory, and then he went home. At 3:00 AM that night, the factory complex was conscripted by Khentii S-2 for an emergency batch of 3D printer stepper motors. The adaptive CNC machines of Building 3-A remembered the sparrow nest and kept the noise under 45 dB so as not to scare them off. The sparrow nest covered a logo embossed on the vent, an ancient stamp that might have marked this factory as once the property of Foxconn, or Alibaba, or perhaps a different company entirely. A human had not stepped inside any of the buildings for over sixty years.

Throughout March, Prisca kept returning to that swamp. Every subsequent visit was through the remote services of an aerial drone, or a more terrestrial robot if she wanted some direct engagement with the wetlands and its underlying soil. It was for work, covering her bases in case there was an environmental violation or resource overreach, but Prisca had come to appreciate digging through the earth. A year ago she had barely recognized how to properly read pH, and now she pored over reams of technical reporting on her days off. To sift among the layers of peat, the new crops of vegetation that grew from it, along with the insects that had not only faced climate change but thrived in it—these gave her an unexpected connection to the environment she had been born and raised in. She had never disrespected it of course, but she’d assumed that it wasn’t for her. Becoming her community’s soil delegate was chipping away at her city girl tendency to deprioritize the natural landscape.

But again, there was only so much Prisca could do. On election night, she sat on the couch and scrolled through the chemical survey results that she’d collected over the past few weeks. Just to make sure. She splayed on the couch in her living room, reading the logs while chopping sounds echoed from the kitchen.

“Hey,” Prisca’s roommate Gwen shouted, taking a pause from whatever meal prep she was doing. “Asmara’s at the door! I’ll let him in yeah?”

Prisca looked up and gave the room a cursory glance for presentability. Mess-wise, things could have been much worse. Having windows open and catching the last moments of sunlight helped. The heat hadn’t gone above 40 Celsius today, so it had been safe to circulate the outside air instead of relying on the apartment building’s centralized AC.

Asmara strolled in with a smile and a bottle of champagne. Before Prisca could protest, he waved her back down on the couch and placed the bottle on her coffee table—not before wiping off the bottom with a handkerchief. While Asmara was a part of Prisca’s hub of contacts who had tested negative for this decade’s super virus, it was good etiquette to practice caution.

“Uh-uh,” Asmara said, “I don’t wanna hear it. We’re celebrating your first restoration project no matter what way it goes.”

She laughed in defeat, picking up the bottle. “How did you even get this?”

“One of the growers my side of town straight up gave it to me. I told him it was a special night and he’s known me for a while, so he wanted to get me a gift.”

With how dead the fields had been, it was a hell of a gift. Prisca’s roommate came with some glasses and a tray of sliced mango. They didn’t talk much, and food was their main avenue of interaction. Beyond that, Gwen wished her luck and retreated to her room. She’d be talking to her husband who was up the coast repairing New York’s sea walls, so Prisca warned Asmara they should try and keep it down.

They put the poll numbers up and watched them tick against the window. Prisca found it surprisingly natural to be both nervous and bored. A couple drinks in, she talked with Asmara about their chances, and what might swing the vote one way or the other. He thought talking to the children was the best strategy Prisca could’ve gone with. Their excitement playing about the virtual rendition of the restored building was all the endorsement the community needed. The past couple of years had grown increasingly austere, and it looked like the future wouldn’t improve on things. Not with the diminishing crop returns, and the heat that would soon force them to follow the paths of their Piedmont province neighbors down south, retreating into closed ecological systems. They needed a win now more than ever.

It seemed like they would get it. By the time the stars were coming out and the moon was staring down Prisca’s street, 90% of the votes had been processed and more than 70% were in her favor. Then it would be Earth’s turn. She’d bothered Asmara with the likelihood of harebrained scenarios and turns of events for so long that he had to get Prisca to stand down.

The province was done, and for her first proposed project, the response was solid. If they could only pause it here, clink glasses, and get to work, Prisca would’ve been ecstatic. But of course, after the complete statistics flashed on screen for a minute or two, the green bars and percentages melted away to be replaced by the planet’s favorite shade of blue. It was a pulsing color, like it had a breath all its own—and it had taken hers away.

Two words faded in. Revision Needed. Then it was over.

Asmara raised his glass in excitement, spilling a few precious drops of champagne on the table surface. Prisca sat, deflated, and waved at the display still printed along her windowpane.

“Can you not read or something?”

“Seems like I can read better than you, Prisca! Congratulations.”

“Congratulations on what?” She already waved away the verdict, delving into the data behind it. An extensive list of calculations filled the air before them. It wasn’t the most practical way to process this data but she didn’t feel like standing up and fetching a proper screen. After the loss, she wasn’t planning on getting up from the couch for a while.

She wasn’t in the headspace to give this the attention it needed, but the gist was obvious. The cumulative data collection from the marsh’s monitoring systems had compared the power needed to restore the building compared to what was available in the area, to the effect on the local ecosystem, to what those resources might instead be used for . . . . If the planet had shared the entirety of its thought process with Prisca and Asmara on this single issue alone, they would have been left processing it for the rest of their lives. The worst part with the decentralized intelligence of a planet was how it could never point you to a single reason for failure. Instead, there was an endless list.

“Hey,” Asmara said, grabbing Prisca’s hand and whisking her from the streams of data. “I know that you’re new to this position—which is the whole point of why it exists—but you gotta understand, this is excellent. For your first project at that? Doesn’t matter if you’re a soil or atmo or a damn water delegate, the first idea you float into the scene tends to get shot down immediately. This isn’t even a dismissal!”

“I know. It’s a revision. But on what?”

“That’s for us to figure out, I guess,” he said with a sip of champagne. “That’s why I got us drinking before the verdict. It takes the edge off the work ahead.”

She refilled her glass. Maybe he was onto something with that. There was not a chance Prisca would get over the Earth’s dismissal by tonight, or possibly not by this week, but she didn’t want to stop here. Not while her province responded so positively to the project.

Living mainly among humans, it was easy to forget that they weren’t the only ones who held a stake in the land. When Prisca was reminded of the others involved, it sometimes felt like an imbalance when it was actually sharing. On the next draft, she’d listen a little harder to what the swamps said.

Virtually all drones employed by the planetary sensor grid ran on legacy software. Good software, but legacy, because humans had taken recycling to heart and it would take catastrophic failure before any firmware was rewritten. 1,000 kilometers west of South America, in Carnegie Ridge Province 12, the Galápagos Islands were a natural memorial to the extinction of over 500 endemic species that had once lived there. Due to risen sea levels and extreme heat, all wildlife were now skeletons wedged between shelves of cooled lava. Intermittent volcanic activity over the past few centuries kept the peaks of Isabela just above sea level. The island was barren, sloped expanses of pumice.

Five years ago, after decades of being devoid of life, Isabela welcomed its first visitors again. One of the mistakes that had been nestled within the drones’ firmware had become amplified over hundreds of incremental updates. A single, bungled mathematical operation in the drones’ navigation algorithm resulted in the coordinates of Isabela’s volcanic graveyards being misinterpreted as an all-encompassing true destination—the place where the drones would land and a bright light would go off in their circuitry and their task would be marked as completed forever. Approximately 0.17% of the Earth’s drone population passed close enough to the Galápagos to be affected by this glitch, and half of that percentage had received an updated firmware that rendered it harmless. Over the course of a year, 204,332 drones landed on Isabela. After they landed, they didn’t lift up again. Soon stacked atop each other, their landing sensors interpreted the towers of drones as uneven terrain, and they oriented themselves at the cleverest angles to prevent them from damaging the “ground.” The drones made a procedurally generated structure on the last stabs of the Galápagos that jutted from the ocean.

0.06% of the global drone population gone missing was too small of a percentage for the humans to get concerned or curious. The species had more pressing business to handle, like the mountain of interrelated problems their ancestors had been happy to leave as a parting gift. Until a marine biology student named Achanqara, bored from working on her thesis, decided to check the satellite imagery off the coast of her hometown of Guayaquil. She was the first human to witness the drones’ resting place, the interconnecting circles they had built across their sliver of island, their shining plastic heads of white and gray and black. Achanqara immediately told everyone, and yet the humans weren’t quick enough to see it themselves. By the time enough resources were free to stage a small expedition, the drones’ navigation glitch had been patched by a group of East African programmers who had taken it on as good coding practice. The drones awoke and deserted their island in a flock of buzzing motors. Isabela was left in peace.

“Make sure to count your blessings,” Aunt Charlotte muttered, “because your Grandma being dead is certainly one of ’em.”

Prisca snorted, moving her checkers piece a row forward. She was engaging with a fragile stack of virtual overlays while sprawled in the ATV’s backseat. Even though Prisca was playing on a physical, portable checkers board, her aunt’s side of the game was beamed in all the way from the northern tip of the Appalachians, resulting in occasional lag. Aunt Charlotte’s hologram sat up with a huff, crossing her arms.

“I’m not joking, girl! She’s doing pirouettes in her grave at the very least. You’re out here melting into your galoshes every day to resurrect a bank?”

Prisca peered from their parking spot in the shade, swamp sprawled to the horizon. Asmara stood deep in the muck, just like when they first came out here to teach the kids, though his eyes glazed over with the HUD of a long-distance call. He was enduring an informal check-in from the soil union, judging from the amount of sighing going on over there.

“It wasn’t a bank,” Prisca said, shifting back to the game. “It was an insurance company.”

“Don’t tell me there’s much of a difference.”

“I’m not here to convince you to like my projects, auntie. I’m here to beat you in the next five rounds.” She hopped over a few virtual checkers pieces. “Besides, like I said, resurfacing the structure’s not to recreate the past. It’s to make it something new, something useful. You’d rather our history dissolve?”

“There’s a whole lot of history I’m not eager to claim.”

“Fair,” Prisca said. But she hadn’t stopped thinking of the Mutual Tower since Earth had hit her with the revision note, imagining the concrete building beneath the swamp water like a hulking creature.

“It’s Black Wall Street. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance started not far from here in the late 1800s, auntie. It helped make this one of the few places where we could build.”

“They really slapped ‘Black’ on it and thought it’d make a difference.”

“Please don’t be like that. It’s not literally Wall Street.”

“But it sure as hell was capitalism.” Aunt Charlotte huffed, pointing a finger at Prisca like the hologram could provide tactile feedback and poke her niece in the shoulder. “This what I’m talking about, see? Poor Mom would’ve died all over again to hear you speak like this.”

If only her family could have channeled their penchant for dramatics into acting. Instead, Prisca had to juggle a legacy of bickering teachers, librarians, and activists.

“People aren’t gonna read a few plaques, take a small tour and then be swayed by the remnants of a fallen civilization to bring back fossil fuels and become landlords or whatever,” Prisca said. “They’re smart, and I’ll teach them.”

“Teach them what?”

Asmara began stomping back to the ATV. Prisca packed up the checkers board in preparation for when he hopped behind the wheel.

“How about you be the one thing in my life to gimme some time and think on it? I’ll call you later to finish up the game. Love you.”

Aunt Charlotte faded out, promising more chastising and a rematch, and Asmara took her place. He slumped into the seat beside Prisca, eyes barely open. Without a word, they swapped seats. Prisca started up the vehicle and steered them out.

“So that wasn’t a great call, I assume.”

“Something like that,” Asmara said. “More deadlines, fewer resources. They’re iffy about extending your term as delegate because they want everyone in the community to get their time. But we’ll get it. At least the months we need to lift your damn tower out the ground.”

“Man do I hope it’ll only be a few months.”

“You know what? Let’s just not talk about it. I challenge us to a drive with no work things.”

“Love it.”

They trudged back home. Partway back to town, Asmara fell asleep. It had to have been the ATV’s rocking that did him in. As dusk settled, Prisca switched on the headlights, grateful that they didn’t outshine the stars. A glimmering net emerged from the sun’s pink. Prisca wondered how the planet might have watched them then. As per Asmara’s challenge, she wouldn’t think of work. Only of the path filled with screeching bugs, the heat that clung to her back, and the whir of the vehicle she trusted to bring them home.

Prisca mistook many of the lights they passed in the night for the planet’s unblinking eye.

Podcast Episode 13: When someone says the world is a fish

Subscribe via RSS, Google Podcasts, Android, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or on iTunes!

Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast. It’s been ages, but we’re ramping up to a lot of cool new stuff in the coming year and beyond, including lots more podcasts, a fundraiser to increase payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry and pay staff better too, t-shirts, pins, who knows what else. Homebrew recipes. Foraging instructions. Bespoke lectures about culling invasive species. We’re flush with ideas, as we should be, but we’re always looking for more. Drop us a line if you’ve got any?

Reckoning Press is a US-based nonprofit; we flourish under your regard. Please support us on Patreon, consider donating directly, buy a book or an ebook, read our contributors’ beautiful work for free online, and submit! We’re always open to submissions, we’re always excited in particular to read work from Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized poets, writers and artists.

You can find all this and more on our website at: reckoning.press/support-us. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by visiting reckoning.press/audio.

Thank you very much for listening.

This week’s episode features Nancy Lynée Woo reading her poem “When someone says the world is a fish” from Reckoning 6. You’re going to wish you had Catherine Rockwood here to help ground you in this delightful, funny, nesting puzzle of a poem, but she’s off for a bit, so you’re stuck with me. I’ll make it quick. The way I read it, this is a poem about metonymy, the endlessly regressing act of replacement that we’re always performing when we engage in language. We use language to situate ourselves in the world, in nature, but each time we interpose a word describing a thing—a silk worm, a rat, a wisteria—we distance ourselves from that thing by introducing another layer of interpretation. It doesn’t take many iterations of a poem interpreting a children’s science book interpreting science interpreting nature before we arrive at something that feels and works a lot like decadence. How do we find our way back? Can we? What gets lost on the way?

[Bio below.]

When someone says the world is a fish by Nancy Lynée Woo

When Teens Turned Into Trees

So just when humans started dying due to mass suffocation for lack of air to breathe, the teens took it upon themselves to solve the problem and took root—literally. The adults weren’t so surprised, as one would imagine, when the first girl turned into a sturdy Narra tree with dainty yellow flowers. Wasn’t that what rebellious teenagers do anyway? It was just a phase, they said; soon she’d shake off that dark brown bark and carry on with life. When another teen, a boy this time, turned into a Banaba tree with delicate purple-pink flowers, they believed it was more or less the same thing.

It started with the teens stubbornly standing their ground, until their feet grew roots spreading earthwards, until their slender torsos expanded in diameter, until their hands became branchless stems extending skywards, until they started eating the sun, until the wind gushed shadowy and restless among them. When they refused to return to their human forms in time for dinner, their mothers pleaded and cried in front of them. But didn’t mothers often cry for their children anyway? So it was the same, I suppose. The teenage trees remained quiet, and yet their silence was alive, palpable even.

My mother feared for my sister, who had then just turned fifteen. When she stood on the same spot outside for minutes on end, Mama would go hysterical and shove her back into the house. She would then obsessively scan my sister from head to toe, looking for telltale signs of transformation: hair that resembled a lush canopy, stretch marks that started to feel like deep furrows on a trunk, a hangnail so jagged and torn it looked like lateral roots. There were none, and Mama would give a sigh of relief.

The thing with teenagers turning into trees, though, was that there seemed to be no discernible pattern. First it was that girl who never missed Sunday church services, then the middle boy of the seven Santos children, then four seniors secretly smoking a joint behind the dumpster, then an entire group of youth volunteers. Some boys grew into fruit-bearing trees, some girls never bore fruits. All turned into providers of shade and drinkers of rain water. No one knew if the change had anything to do with genetics. The change came sudden, too. Maybe it was a wordless breath of wood, inhaled and nurtured within the body until it was ready to merge with the soil; maybe the seed had been there all along.

A Facebook Live post—that was how we learned my sister had turned. Our phones buzzed with the incessant vibration from consecutive notifications. We saw it, Isabel planting her feet firmly on the ground, her hands reaching out to the sky, a serene smile on her face. Then her human body was enveloped into the darkest of trunks, her arms lengthened until stunning fire-red blooms shaped like sea anemones appeared on her hands. My sister had turned into a Mangkono tree, and, in a way, it made sense to me. Her love for the color red manifested in the flowers she carried. Her sheer stubbornness, in the hard wood that required a sturdy diamond-point saw just to slice through it. And, of course, she chose to plant herself just outside the city library.

My mother had never missed a day dropping by the library since then. Often, she brought my sister’s favorite treats with her, as if these might somehow make her change back and enjoy all humanly pleasures. All across the city, it was not uncommon to see people talking yearningly to trees, while some even took to sleeping in tents just to be beside their trees. As months passed, the trees grew in number and in strength. We watched as birds started flying in to nest, we watched as what had formerly been an asphalt furnace turned into a lovely tree-lined street. And the air . . . it was just so, so much easier to breathe.

The teens continued to change and I knew that soon it would be my time. My friends and I, we skipped school. What was the point of school anyway, if our future meant simply standing still and dancing to the wind with our leafy branches? Instead, we read about photosynthesis, pollination and meristematic cells. We figured things would become second nature once we turned, but there was no harm in having theoretical knowledge as well.

The teens had not matured into adults, so a number of universities had to shut down, and the younger children were allowed to run wild. Several families had moved out of the neighborhood, thinking that the epidemic was contained in our tiny portion of the world, only to find out later on that it was all the same, except their children turned into foreign trees like pines and willows.

A year had passed and I watched as our bustling city turned into some sort of a ghost town. Not so long ago, the parched earth was slowly puckering into shingles. Now, trees of different types towered around us, their roots sinking deep into the now fertile soil. Every day, we looked up and saw the leaves forming an umbrella over us and said a prayer of thanks. Every day, I looked up and wondered if enough teens had turned for us to have another shot at surviving.

The trees stood stubborn and tall, giving us air and shade, and saved us from this drowning world. I had always wanted to become a doctor, but I had never said it out loud. Instead, I kept this hopeful wish to myself and only whispered it to the gibbous moon. A breeze stirred in our quiet neighborhood—the silence only broken by the birds nestled in the branches above me, saying good night to one another at the same time. I stood perfectly still and allowed the night’s calm to embrace me.

Then I tried lifting my leg to head back home, but I found myself unable to move. I sighed. Perhaps I could still save humanity this way. Perhaps, one day, we would all be saved. But, for now, I could only watch as white cottony blossoms of a Salimbobong tree began to surround me, as if falling from my own head.

Podcast Episode 12: “The Loss of the Moon” and “Snuffing the Night Candles”

, read by

Subscribe via RSS, Google Podcasts, Android, Stitcher, iHeartRadio or on iTunes!

Welcome back to the Reckoning Press podcast. It’s been ages, but we’re ramping up to a lot of cool new stuff in the coming year and beyond, including lots more podcasts, a fundraiser to increase payrates to 10c/word, $50/page for poetry and pay staff better too, t-shirts, pins, who knows what else. Homebrew recipes. Foraging instructions. Bespoke lectures about culling invasive species. We’re flush with ideas, as we should be, but we’re always looking for more. Drop us a line if you’ve got any?

Reckoning Press is a US-based nonprofit; we flourish under your regard. Please support us on Patreon, consider donating directly, buy a book or an ebook, read our contributors’ beautiful work for free online, and submit! We’re always open to submissions, we’re always excited in particular to read work from Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, trans, or otherwise marginalized poets, writers and artists.

You can find all this and more on our website at: reckoning.press/support-us. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by visiting reckoning.press/audio.

Thank you very much for listening.

Hi everyone, my name is Catherine Rockwood, I’m a staff member at Reckoning Magazine, and today I’ll be reading and discussing two poems from issue six: “The Loss of the Moon,” by Ken Poyner, and “Snuffing the Night Candles,” by Scott T. Hutchison. Ken Poyner’s poem is already up and free to read at https://reckoning.press, in case you want to follow along or go back to re-read it. Scott T. Hutchison’s “Snuffing the Night Candles” will be released on the website on May 8th. These poems speak so effectively to each other, and to the work of the magazine, that we decided to discuss them in the same episode.

I think probably the way this will work best is if I read you the poems first and then add some thoughts afterward. So, here goes, starting with author bios.

[Bios below.]

“The Loss of the Moon” by Ken Poyner

[“Snuffing the Night Candles” by Scott T. Hutchison will be available to read for free online on May 8th and in print on July 1st; if you’d rather not wait, get the ebook now.]

So, after listening to them, you probably have some thoughts about these poems: and the different levels of immediacy they bring to a shared consciousness of being present in a time of loss. “Snuffing the Night Candles” is more abstracted, its narrator’s depiction of his own experience more constrained by a sense of personal isolation, though the poem reaches out at the end for something I’ll talk more about in a minute.

In Ken Poyner’s poem, the narrator is always thinking about making it back home to his wife—temporarily isolated, but striving for connection. His habitual yet threatened return to his own home and partner is connected in the poem to the recurrence or return of things we depend on in the natural world: the changeful yet reliable moon, the changing yet predictable tides. So when the bottom falls out of all of it, in the poem, it’s a huge shock. It feels personal, as it’s meant to. “The Loss of the Moon” is so effective, I think, partly because it activates for the reader a lifetime of sense-memories of watching the moon from a moving car, or a moving vehicle of some kind. And in that scenario, you can’t fully keep track of what’s in the night sky, because your visual orientation changes all the time. The moon goes behind trees, you go behind a hill, there’s a truck—etc. But, we learn to live with this (mostly)—kids don’t like it, at first, but they get used to it: they (we) get to the point of yes, there’s the moon, (wow, the moon!) and I’m in a car again, and even if that means sometimes I can’t see her, I trust she’ll recur eventually.

Until she fucking doesn’t. Until it turns out her visual instability of presence, which we had accommodated ourselves to by constructing a faith in the eternal return of the moon, was a symptom of something that could really happen—we could really lose the moon. And I think Ken Poyner’s poem accesses, in a way many readers can understand partly through childhood sense-memories, the deep distress of trying to multitask your way through such a terrifying realization: which is, of course, also a realization about losing other things we had thought to be eternal, like the tides, the seasons, a functional biosphere; like the oceans’ thermohaline circulation system, and everything that depends on these things, including but not limited to ourselves.

Reckoning Magazine was created to make a space where readers and authors can come together in that moment of realization, and know we are not alone in it: that we can continue together as we work out next steps. So this was definitely a poem we responded to immediately, and we are so glad Ken sent it our way – and yours.

Scott T. Hutchison’s poem, “Snuffing the Night Candles,” has a clear thematic relation to Poyner’s poem through its focus on the night sky, but is wrapped further, deeper, in layers of an alienated, despairing self. I wonder, personally, if there’s a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the lines “I’m anchor-chained on this stark lake/of arrogance and folly.” It could be just a really sad angry way of talking about taking a little boat out on a lake at night, when there’s heavy cloud-cover and the stars and moon can’t be seen: and casting your anchor and drifting for a while—unable to break out of your own heavy thoughts about the future. But poets are tricky, and like allusion, so this recalls, for me, Satan in book One of Paradise Lost, “chained on the burning lake,” a victim of his own overreach. The allusion is strengthened but also complicated and expanded by these lines in the last stanza of Hutchison’s poem:

…Something cheerlessly cast out
has happened here. What America
coughs up to heaven
might be what happened.

There’s been a Fall, like Satan’s—a casting out from a state where joy, cheer, health of many different kinds, can be accessed. And in a fascinating inversion of the Miltonic original (I’m just going to say I’m strongly attached to the idea that there’s a Miltonic original), evil has actually sort of ascended into the sky from the world instead of plummeting from heaven to hell—what is “cast out” and changes all cheer, or joy, is what “America/coughs up”. Anyone working on, or even aware of, global greenhouse gas emission-levels doesn’t have to work too hard to translate that content.

I wouldn’t say Hutchison’s poem leaves us in particularly awesome fettle, as readers. But one of the many things that makes “Snuffing the Night Candles” a poem we were moved to read, and wanted to include in the magazine, is its concluding gesture toward a community that may intercede for the poet in his “perfect night” and “wish for the future,/for [him.]” I think we can. We must wish, and work, for it.