Grieving Season

I take my father’s ghost and a crochet bird nest with me. The air is clean and clear, my body is empty, and no-one mentions the war.
It is January. The nest is a half-built tiny home for a tiny injured thing. The left-over yarn I’m using is messy as life, cobbled together. An emergency measure.

 

We already know which cities will go dry. Which will be flooded.

I tuck the nest, with hook and yarn, into a (reused) paper bag.

And somewhere there is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

In March, we are sent to our homes, while we still have them.

We’ve already forgotten islands. We’ve already forgotten fire.

I fold my father’s ghost and slip it between my ribs. I wear my grandmother’s thin Irish skin as a mask and learn how to breathe. Nothing is wasted. My liver came down from my Grandfather.

We are sent to our homes.

On the TV the rich men take turns.

And somewhere is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

I have forgotten the unfinished birds’ nest by August, until I find it on a side table. It is made of left-over strings of yarn in every colour and it is the ugliest thing I’ve ever created. I remember when I sat watching the world on fire. All I could do was twist and hook with great seriousness.

On the TV the men don’t mention tiny birds and their vaporised homes.

The people are dying (heart disease, cancer).

The people are dying (suicide, hunger, mosquito).

The people are dying (virus unknown).

“People really die and no longer one by one,” Sigmund Freud said (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

On the TV the men come and go but there’s never time to grieve.

Fire season is nearly here again.

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

I am 11 years old, sitting under a tree next to the river. A migraine peels apart my brain. My grandma’s cool hand on my face.

“Just let the pain in, don’t resist,” she says. “Relax. The pain comes from resisting.”

I relax my mind. The seagulls wheel.

The tree holds us in its shade.

 

Here’s the pain I let in: I have stopped thinking about the baby bird. (I think of it as a baby but it could just be very, very small). I’m slow at crochet and not very good with babies either, having never had one wanted one, having never seen the need.

But now the world is full of endings and somewhere an animal is the last of its kind.
My Grandma’s cool hand on my skin.

The world is full of endings and I am the daughter of a daughter.

I will never have a daughter.

And somewhere, an animal is the last of its kind.

 

There are no ultimatums with ghosts.

My dad is a ghost who, when living, would enter the country in secret, so he could surprise us after school. Thirty years before every kid in the country saw the animal corpses. Thirty years before we started baking bread with fervour, stuck at home, safe at home, neither, never. He leans in, all paper, and reminds me that it was him. That he told them where to dig for the oil and the gas.

Here, on Noongar country, I was born, he was born, his dad was born, and before that, the boat, the English towns, the Irish fields. The sky is clear, there is no emergency for white folks, until there is.

And somewhere there’s an animal. The last of its kind.

Dropping its bones for the future (what future?) to name.

 

I tuck his ghost back between my ribs, I take him with me to the protest march. But my voice is stuck, there are feathers and guilt in my throat.

On the TV, the rich men come and go.

Fire season is nearly here again.

“People really die, and no longer one by one,” Dr Freud said. “It is no longer an accident.” (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

The Noongar calendar has six seasons, because December is different to February, but they all burn just the same these days.

The ghost of my dad folds up small. A beginning, an ending, an origami weight of never growing old.

It’s eleven seconds to midnight. The rich men wear suits and wave showbusiness hands.
Now is not the time.

Now is not time.

Now is not.

I thought there’d be more shouting, at the end.

And somewhere, there is an animal.

The last of its kind.

 

—January – September, 2020

Works cited

Victoriano, Filipe, Aaron Walker and Carl Good Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought, Discourse 25, (2003): 211–230. Sourced at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389671.

In Isolation

In isolation, I thought maybe nature was the answer. No other humans, just the organic Earth and everything else that lived on it. If we were the lice, then all those other plants and animals were what? The too-tiny-to-see worms inhabiting our eyelashes? All the microorganisms living on our bodies, unnoticed until something goes wrong and the benign skin bacteria begins to rot the blood?

The metaphor got away from me. It’s useless anyway. Language is for communicating with other humans. The world doesn’t care what we call it.

And so I took long walks at midnight. Sometimes I heard frogs. Sometimes crickets. Sometimes birds whose bodies were fooled by the glow of the city that never died. Sometimes someone else walking the sidewalks, face also masked. Everything went quiet when I passed, ghosting like a dream I couldn’t shake.

In my fourplex, the sounds of my housemates were distant. Practicing drums. Loud and laugh-salted phone conversations. The thud and groans of home exercise or masturbation. There was no passing each other in the front entry. No hellos. The cars drove themselves out in the morning and parked themselves at night. Packages delivered on the front steps walked their way inside.

I was lucky to have this luxury of isolation. I had savings. A job I could do online. When I went to the grocery store, I eyed everyone with suspicion, and they suspected me right back. This would bring us closer, I remember an op-ed claiming. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. People are more compassionate with the suffering they can’t see.

A shaky claim, but I’d bought into it.

But in the grocery store and the post office where other people were unavoidable, all I saw were the eyes and the upper part of the face, eyebrows angled down, foreheads wrinkled in annoyance and fear. Do you know the way an ear moves when a person frowns so deeply their face collapses in on itself? Or how the throat visibly tightens if you’re straining to hold back a scream?

I practiced in the mirror, eliminating all the telltale signs visible around the mask. It is so much safer to be a blank slate, reflecting nothing. With all the masks, how can we know who to hold accountable? By the time the mask is off, it’s too late.

Months passed. The world evolved. Civilization adjusted. Every online meeting I attended, I blanked my camera. My cat became a great conversationalist. Television windowed a world that was and would never be again.

Oh, not even that is the truth, I can tell you now. There was an alternate universe in old photographs, one which never even existed. Or if it existed, it was always an illusion with as much solidity as a soap bubble. The illusion popped and our eyes are stinging and we can choose to keep our eyes closed or wash them out and look around us with a new, pained vision.

I say we because it’s easier than saying I.

Here’s the truth.

We are each in a tiny spaceship, a bubble just large enough for us and the supplies to survive. An attic efficiency in space. Bed. Kitchen. Exercise machine. Entertainment box. Each ship can survive indefinitely, which is good, because each of us is traveling through space for an indefinite time. Like dandelion seeds, we have been blown from Earth and shot out into the vastness of the empty black.

Food and water are effectively infinite. Air, too. Everything is recycled. Nano-machines ever carefully clear the air of the dust made by our flaking skin and shed hair. Something something relativism makes it so we age virtually not at all. And communication between us is equally magical and instantaneous. There are explanations for why it all works, but the science doesn’t matter. Whether we understand how and why we are here, here is where we are. In an enclosed space, each of us alone.

Hello? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, press the red flashing button.

One day we’ll travel beyond the Sun’s encompassing light and it’ll shrink to be just another star. Already, all the planets are invisible except by computer projection. I know your voice is out there. So just press the button to open the link.

All we have is each other.

 

—September 9, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus 2

One thing that’s been blooming in this coronavirus crisis is dreams. Near the beginning of lockdown, a friend told me hers: the landscape outside her house was destroyed. But it was replaced by a green cactus with kangaroo-bear hybrids lolloping round it. It seemed to symbolise devastation and enforced change, but something new and tougher was growing from it.

My latest story involves a prison, and a tremendous sense of longing for and guilt about what we’ve lost through our destruction of the environment. Oddly, we’d succeeded in displacing ourselves. As I’ve had more time to listen to the birds singing above the traffic, and to observe a chopped-down tree continuously sending out new shoots in the back garden, I’ve been cheered by nature’s astonishing tenacity, and saddened at how, if we don’t get our arses into gear, we won’t be a part of it. Already, we barely belong.

What has also crept into my writing is paying more attention to all of the senses, but especially touch. Currently single, not touching people feels like a dismemberment of something crucial: connection through the body. I’ve written quite a few stories about apes and this strange absence makes me think about how they touch each other continuously, and how the warmth of another body bypasses the mind and hooks into the sense of belonging necessary to all human beings.

I’ve been wracking my brains about how this sense of belonging can help overcome the enormity of the climate crisis facing us. People’s actions during the covid crisis are a giant crucible, reflecting how we’ve acted in the past and showing how we could do things differently in the future.

There are no goals for me in writing fiction, only open-endedness: feeling my way, seeing what comes up, and following it. It’s the opposite of the control and dehumanisation inherent in the late-capitalist view of what a human should be like.

Writing constantly surprises me with the answers I find, without trying to, answers that seem to come from the sum of my experience with other human beings, which is why I think of writing as a communal act.

So, who knows how writing fiction can help change the world. Some submission calls ask you to imagine a positive future. That has its place. But writing about the sadness of the world could just as easily change something. The reader’s absorption of the writing is as mysterious as the process of creation. How to put a value on such a subtle, but real, thing? Which is why it’s so hard to fund the arts in our hyper-capitalist society.

But don’t you always remember that thing you read years ago, that you’ve never forgotten, that in fact changed your life?

Whatever happens, I know I’m going to keep on with this odd activity called writing, that is all about exploring and possibilities, without pressure. The crisis has affirmed this for me.

 

—August 26, 2020

Escaping in a little boy’s play.

It’s been some cold four months. Even though our heaviest rainfalls happen between March and July, and are always chaperoned by intense heat, these months have been cold ones. Somehow, the months had the biting loneliness and endlessness one only gets on cold nights. Living, for those of us that haven’t died, has been like lying in a large bed in December with no coverings, in a room with large open windows. Alone. Wondering when morning will come, if morning will come.

What I have done the most in these days and months has been watch. I watched because in watching you’re persons removed, you’re apart from the pains and the confusion. I watched my four year old nephew who got so little time to watch cartoons when we all soaked our eyes in Al jazeera resort to staging plays with his pairs of slippers, and cups, and sticks. I watched as people who once had full lives, who went to the gym and planned diets they knew they’d not stick to and holidays they could never afford became reduced to numbers and cases. When I went out to buy vegetables from the small market at a junction not so far from my house, I watched faces that knew so little of what was happening in the world outside their front doors and stalls forced to close up shop early or close altogether and go hungry without explanations or provisions… Watching was a lot of comfort but at the same time a lot of pain.

While counting the cold days from March to July, and watching, I wrote poetry. I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to bide time as my cousin did when he opened a Tiktok account to follow trends of short videos. I wrote poems because that was the only way I could stay sane. I wrote poems because I needed to stop talking to myself and I couldn’t stop talking to myself knowing that people who once had full lives, beautiful lives, sad lives, all kinds of lives were now nothing but numbers and cases.

The poems, all twenty of them, were imagined lives and significant others of the cases and numbers. Some recovered and went home others died and others faced agony within white walls and under bright lights and the stench of disinfectants, not knowing if they will live to go home or not. I hoped that these imaginary lives would add some warmth to the coldness of numbers.

When I wasn’t watching the news, wishing I could give those cold words and numbers the broadcasters called out a hug, I was watching my nephew, all William in his Globe, casting Romeo and Juliet, and having them live happily ever after. Thinking back now, I marvel at the escapism his plays offered him and I; creativity rescued me from the chill of numbers.

 

—July 30, 2020

It’s a Dark Time and I Try to Be a Light

I’ve been interviewing artists of various kinds in New Haven since March about their response to the pandemic, and I’ve been telling people throughout that my job as a journalist has often been a real help, because I’m telling the stories of people who are adapting, people who are still working on things, who are sort of doing OK. I’ve also noticed that it seems sometimes like they’re talking to each other, like they seem to be on the same page. What’s below is constructed from quotes from 22 different people.

 

This virus is a horrifying gift—a life-and-death gift—for us to examine our priorities for how we want to be in this world. The system was set up for us to work too much and forget as much as possible. This has made us aware, if we didn’t already know, of how on a wire our lives were.

 

It’s not necessary for us to be stressed for the sake of productivity. If everyone just had $1,000 a month coming in from a value-added tax, people might be able to stay indoors and not have to risk their lives to get groceries. How robust a system can capitalism be if it needs to be bailed out by socialism every 10 years? If we didn’t spend $90 billion on a bomb the size of Rhode Island, we could have a test kit in everybody’s mailbox.

 

We are not going to go back as a society to the way it was before. People won’t want to go back. We have to find out how to have the space to access that part of our brains and hearts, to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We got to lock arms and get through it together. What better way to uplift people’s spirits than to do what we love to do? It’s a dark time and I try to be a light.

 

I find a lot of solace in history as time goes on, because you see the patterns. This has happened, and people had to figure it out, and yet we’re still here. Things continued. This is all just sort of a trial run—working out the kinks for what you have to do with climate change—anyway.

 

The danger isn’t running out of stories; it’s not telling them. I didn’t have the time before to finish records, but now I do. Creatives always say that: We need more time. Now we have the time. We are understanding what a moment in time is. We can sit on a bench and think: light and leaves do that? Bathrooms are the cleanest they’ve ever been. They could be this clean all the time. People have a lot of time to work on stuff. Maybe we’ll all learn how to farm and cook.

 

I’m not afraid of dying, We’re all going to leave here; it’s just how we go. I truly have a deep, deep trust that there is a lot going on that we don’t understand, or can’t wrap our heads around. I think my whole childhood and young adult life got me to this point. We have one life on this earth. I’m in my 50s. I want to eat every good thing in every day. I have all this wood laying around—a lot of random, found objects. I have a bag of paints and glues. I got some papier-mache. So I’ll come up with something.

 

The future: We live there, it’s weird. Hey—what are you going to do? Part of being an artist is getting in touch with your humanity. It’s being vulnerable. We’re all facing an existential threat. Connecting with people—it’s why people keep showing up when it’s so imperfect. This is the thing that reminds us of what it means to be human. That’s what we want to capture when we get the chance, on the other side, when we’re face to face. Even if we’re six feet apart.

 

What do we see through the window? There was a nice day, and people were out and walking their dogs as if they had never been outside before. It is remarkable how good people are being to each other. Go outside and the spring is happening. The swamp maple is covered with little red furry blossoms. The iris is poking out from the ground. The daffodils are blooming like mad. Those are things that happen every year. This is not about the chaos. This is just Earth doing its thing. Every year it comes to life.

 

Don’t give up. Work on you. Do some self-reflection, because once this thing lifts, we got to hit the ground running. We got work to do. There are forces in the unseen that can help us if we’re open to them. There are ways of working that allow for repair to happen. Now more than ever, we have to reach out, figuring out ways of supporting each other. We have to reach out to something bigger than us. It’s the new growth after a forest fire. Make new things. We’re going into a new world. We need new songs.

 

—July 8, 2020

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Dear editor,

I am submitting the personal ad below as a letter to the editor in order to save money for any possible coronavirus-related financial hardship I may encounter. Thank you in advance for waiving, in the spirit of the times, the normal fee for classifieds.

 

CNM seeks CNW

 

Coronavirus-negative man seeks coronavirus-negative woman for social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, hospitalization, possible long-term relationship. Let’s avoid each other from the start! Especially interested in meeting compulsive handwashers and/or professional epidemiologists. Please, no asymptomatic super-spreaders. Attractive elbows a definite plus, though physical intimacy will be very limited for an unspecified period, subject to the dictates of government officials. Interested parties should transmit their astrological and vital signs to the CDC and await further instruction.

 

(s)James Treat

Silver City

 

—Originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press, March 17, 2020

Living in a Metaphor

I worked on my manuscript, yesterday, for the first time in weeks. I feel creatively, existentially frail; it is hard to think through in the same way I have always assumed that fish find the ocean hard to think through. Immersed in the conditions of your own existence, it’s hard to find perspective. The challenge is to learn to see better.

My country, ostensibly a global power, has the highest death rate in Europe. Our leaders never quite invited the public to join in street parties on VE Day, but they sure did switch up their messaging on the subject just in time for Little Englanders everywhere to mass in the streets, in misguided celebration of our glorious, defanged history. Blitz spirit, and all that; keep calm and carry on. I am not immersed because I am alone in my studio flat, shuttling between my desk and my bed, forcing myself through sit-ups on the carpet. I have exactly one window onto the world, and it looks directly onto a garden to which I have no access. The metaphors write themselves, and yet, sitting down to express them, I’m bereft.

I am trying to forgive myself for being unmoored to such an extent. To a point, the pace of the world has slowed to a degree where this is feasible. But I have it on good authority (from the people who pay my wages) that my work still needs to get done. Ultimately, whatever ‘new normal’ we’ve reached has one thing in common with the way we lived before: it’s okay to not be okay, until such time as it interferes with someone else’s bottom line. I am acutely conscious of how inconvenient I am as I struggle to do what needs to be done — professionally first, and then domestically, and (finally, as always) creatively.

Do I think the world will change? I feel just as precarious, just as thinly-stretched as I did before the virus went worldwide. If anything, the national mood here in England has become more jingoistic and hateful, not less. I don’t have a great deal of faith.

But maybe I’m just too deep in the paint. I’ve watched my friends organise protests, build networks of mutual aid, create art that speaks to the possibilities they believe in. My small-c conservative parents have started to question the authority of the police. Immersion in one’s own solitude and exhaustion is still immersion; I can’t discount the possibility that the stagnation I feel is less than half of the story.

I want to believe it’s a story I will write one day. I want to believe that I’ll learn to see it clearly enough to tell it as it deserves to be told. I may not have confidence that the world at large will discover a better, braver way to be, in the grip of the kind of collective trauma that will shape us all in time — but I do believe that we will survive, and that when we tell the stories of how we survived, there will be a point. Call it cautious optimism. It’s about the best I can do.

 

—June 26, 2020

Solarpunk Cities: Notes for a Manifesto

Solarpunk activism is an organic blend of traditional practices and high-tech in service of social and environmental justice.

The solarpunk cities we imagine are centers of collective action, governance and sharing of resources rather than of individualistic consumption. They are places where individual sufficiency is ensured and public abundance is available to all. We want to show how present cities can be made sustainable through improvement of existing good practices, restoration of beneficial old ones and introduction of new, sustainable technologies.

How to build a solarpunk city is a problem of design, so even though solarpunk is a highly aesthetic movement, according to the principles of good design, form and function should be interdependent.

The functions of a solarpunk city as we see it should be:

  1. Exploiting the synergy of having people with different backgrounds and skills living together, fostering communication and the circulation of ideas and goods through the urban network.

    The interconnected networks of cities should enable the coalescence of communities to pool resources and stimulate cooperation.

    We imagine blocks of flats sharing communal ovens for bread and ceramic, tool sheds and workspaces for the repair and upcycling of furniture, electronics or other household goods, fibercraft and tailoring equipment for repairing or refurbishing clothes and other fiber goods, as well as gardening equipment and facilities for composting waste and collecting water. We imagine tool libraries in neighbourhood centres.

    We imagine well-funded public libraries organizing study groups for children and adults to improve educational outcomes, language classes to increase the inclusion of new arrivals and broaden the horizons of other residents, book clubs and writing or fibercraft groups to help people make friends and strengthen their social networks.

    We imagine neighbourhood cinemas using the courtyards of blocks of flats to showcase local and global productions.

    We imagine neighbourhood or municipal centres being funded and equipped to enable the citizens to engage in artistic pursuits, allowing people from all backgrounds to participate in the production of culture.

    Additionally, since cities concentrate people, they are perfect sites to implement circular modes of production. The coffee grounds from the local roastery where old-timers congregate for a glass of white and to watch the football match could become compost for the hyperlocal farm producing vegetables for the neighbours, or material for the local laboratory which makes eco-inks or cosmetics. The leftover bread from the bakery could turn into beer at the local brewery. Waste plastics could become raw material for the 3D printing workshop making assistive gadgets for disabled neighbours, and so on.

  2. Implementing granular governance (at the level of block, neighbourhood, municipium, city, etc . . . ) and shared, inclusive decision-making at all levels.

    The nested structure of cities lends itself to creating a sort of fractal network of democratic entities which work together, coordinating with each other on issues of larger relevance and independently on others of more local import.

    Each level would operate through public consultations, focus/working groups and periodic assemblies to take decisions for the benefit of the local community and feed input on policies from sub-constituencies towards the higher levels of decision-making, in order to capture and coordinate the needs of the citizens to prevent duplication and increase the effectiveness of local efforts.

    Neighbourhoods would feed into municipia/boroughs, which would feed into cities, which would feed into regional networks and so on, ensuring representation of local issues at all levels.

  3. Making use of interstitial spaces and “non-places” to create social, cultural and environmental value, and to generate resources such as power and food.

    Thanks to the capitalistic mode of production, privileging private enterprise, cities are rife with “non-places”, intended as places of passage, which do not belong to the citizens. Other spaces remain empty or underutilized because they are overlooked or thought of as useless.

    Solarpunk cities as we imagine them would exist in a post-capitalist, post-growth economy, and would reabsorb non-places, giving them a new meaning within the urban fabric. No space would be “wasted” in a solarpunk city.

    Spaces dedicated to advertisement billboards could be reused for energetic and cultural purposes through the installation of solar artworks. Likewise, large glass surfaces could be turned into solar “stained glass” windows made of perovskites or solar concentrators.

    Figure 1: Integrated food production in the urban environment: a proposal for the retrofitting of offices buildings in South Street, Reading, with glasshouses on the roof to spread the production of food throughout the urban fabric. The William Morris-inspired motif is painted on thermally efficient hemp fiber plaster with a special paint that can “eat” air pollution coming from the nearby ring road.

    Urban farms (Fig. 1) powered by collected rainwater and food waste would occupy not just rooftops and yards, but also basements and tunnels to grow mushrooms, or even vegetables, thanks to optic fibers bringing sunlight to the subsoil or low-power LED banks driven by PV installations.

    Figure 2: Integrated, distributed production of energy through community projects: the reconstruction of the Reading Abbey Mill would become a new community property shared among the citizens.

    A variety of renewable sources of energy would be built into environmentally retrofitted housing and commercial spaces. Mini- and micro- wind and hydroelectric power plants would be dotted around the urban fabric (Fig.2).

    Old commercial centres could be turned into community centres or incubators for small artisan workshops and local producers (Fig.3).

    Self-reliance would be implemented at every level in food and energy production. This would also help in dealing with adverse weather events and other natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.

  4. Eliminating food deserts and making quality food accessible through self- and community production and fair agreements with rural areas in the city’s vicinity.

    Solarpunk cities blur the distinction between urban and rural environments. The integration of food production into the daily life of solarpunk cities would increase the amount of hyperlocal, sustainable, quality food available to citizens and communities across all income brackets and demographics.

    Figure 3: Energetic retrofitting of existing buildings: the Heelas shopping center in central Reading, UK. We have imagined it with solar panels on the roof: they can be either the rigid or flexible models. The iris fresco on the walls is inspired by a William Morris pattern and is manufactured with insulating cork paint over a layer of hemp plaster.

    Aquaponic farms, insect farms and communal chicken, pigeon and fowl coops would allow local production of sustainable, quality protein for the citizens.

    Solarpunk cities would also have a thriving community of food-producing artisans such as bakers, confectioners, brewers, distillers and producers of conserves of various kinds. Local markets, farmers markets and bulk shops for dry goods or liquids (complete with bring your own bottle/refill schemes/bottle deposit schemes) would allow the citizens to acquire local goods without unnecessary processing or packaging.

    Communal production of other goods (e.g. communities establishing a rota among neighbours to make bread/soap/beer/etc in batches for the whole block), predicated on the existence of communal facilities, would be encouraged and facilitated by the increase in free time guaranteed by a universal basic income paired with a reduction in working hours.

    In order to ensure that the reduced environmental footprint of the city is not offset by increased exploitation of rural areas, solarpunk cities would establish protocols of co-operation with their hinterland and with other cities in the regional network, ensuring that production of goods for their use follows strict ethical and environmental guidelines and that routes of distribution are planned sensibly, using decentralized networks that rely on low-carbon, public transport wherever possible.

  5. Establishing public transport as central and accessible to everybody, regardless of physical abilities or medical conditions.

    We imagine that cargo trams/buses/suburban rail trains would be used for the transport of goods.

    For personal vehicles, solarpunk cities would move from an ownership model to a usership model, implementing sharing schemes for electric cars and electric bikes as well as handbikes, mobility scooters or power attachments for wheelchairs. Cargo bike rental schemes integrated with the public transport network would facilitate shopping and other high-load activities.

    These schemes would be integrated in a metropolitan public transport subscription, which would be free for the lowest income brackets and costed based on income for everybody else, ensuring a fair allocation of resources.

    All these measures would result in reduced pollution and noise levels, which in turn would bring significant improvements to health outcomes, especially among the lowest income brackets and marginalized groups.

  6. Providing adequate, energetically efficient homes to every citizen.

    Solarpunk cities would drastically cut down on their heating/cooling carbon footprint and on fuel poverty by investing in environmental retrofitting of old buildings (Fig.3), starting with social housing. New housing would be built to an exacting passive-or-better environmental standard and to equally stringent earthquake safety standards. Social housing would be distributed throughout the city, without segregating low-income families in the least appealing areas.

    Self-builds or community builds would be encouraged by implementing easy-to-understand building codes based on communal standards and structured choices, as explained for example in Making Massive Small Change by Kelvin Campbell, allowing for diversification in look, feel, and use while adhering to agreed-upon standards which include the space for green areas, services and transportation.

    Cities would contain sprawl and limit land consumption by building up density through town blocks with proper services and shops, communal areas and public transport connections, not formless suburbia. They would expand into brownfield areas, such as former industrial or commercial complexes, and would leave greenfield and rural areas intact.

  7. Improving the urban environment in terms of extension of green spaces and biodiversity.

    Just as they blur the distinction between urban and rural, solarpunk cities would also blur the distinction between urban and wilderness.

    The reduced reliance on cars would allow unnecessarily paved areas, such as parking lots, to be depaved. Riverbanks and urban parks and other green areas would be rewilded using native species, making sure to accommodate urban wildlife and pollinators.

    Trees would be used to mitigate heat island effect, improve the quality of urban soils and reduce the amount of runoff making it into the sewage system, and can be selected among food-bearing species (walnuts, chestnuts, beeches and fruit trees) to provide an additional food source for the community.

    Reforestation projects are already underway in several large cities (for example Milano in Italy has a project to plant 3,200,000 new urban trees by 2030), but solarpunk cities wouldn’t stop at lining avenues with trees. They would also integrate trees into the architecture. Buildings like the Bosco Verticale in Milano or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt wouldn’t be exceptions, but pioneers of a whole new brand of architecture.

    We imagine a city where every park and garden and condo block can become a food forest.

  8. Providing effective healthcare to the citizens, taking into account that many disabilities are such only because society does not accommodate certain needs.

Solarpunk cities would be built on the basis of public health and social care for all, regardless of income or health status.

A network of medical centres spread through neighbourhoods would provide basic and community care, while hospitals well connected with the public transport network would provide emergency and specialist care.

Additionally, progress in sensor and communications technology would allow the widespread use of telemedicine, especially to monitor people with chronic conditions that might need urgent medical intervention at short notice. This would enable these patients to spend less time in hospitals and healthcare centers and live less stressful lives, while ensuring quality care.

Solarpunk medicine should also be about prevention and vaccination, and would benefit from reduced length or abolition of patents, so that life-saving drugs are available at affordable prices or for free through the public health service.

The biotechnological revolution has made the production of therapeutic molecules affordable and feasible even for small-scale biohackers. We can imagine therefore that the production of many medicines will be done on a local scale, commensurate with the necessities of the community.

Paired with a revival of herbal/traditional medicine in the cases where this is effective, with a wide availability of mental healthcare and with a capillary diffusion of health education and income support to healthy lifestyles, these measures would result in a healthier, happier citizenship.

Solarpunk cities would also provide social care to their citizens, in the form of services to the very young, very old or vulnerable and also in the form of enhanced support and community networks.

Solarpunk cities are intergenerational and would re-create the support present in old clan or extended family structures without the resulting social pressures, including the elderly in community life and valuing their input and experience. We imagine younger neighbours helping the elders in labour-intensive tasks or in moving, and elder neighbours looking after the children of the younger ones and perhaps passing down traditions and recipes. We imagine periodic communal meals and gatherings, forming stable communities in every corner of the city and eradicating the current loneliness epidemic.

 

While unified in the struggle to respond to these universal needs, Solarpunk cities would be a product of the communities that live in them rather than of top-down master plans. They would retain and adapt their historic buildings, rather than tearing everything down and building it anew.

The form of the solarpunk city would follow local traditions, uses and aesthetic and the input of the community, serve the needs of its citizens and adopt constructive techniques and technological adaptations that depend on the local climate, vegetation and fauna.

Solarpunk Nairobi would by necessity be different from Solarpunk Oslo, and even cities in the same country, like Milano, in the middle of a well-watered plain, and Matera, perched on a rocky, arid plateau, would follow different transition trajectories and come up with different solutions to deal with their local needs.

We feel that this inbuilt plurality and divergence of expression is a very positive feature. We say no to a top-down “universal” solarpunk style with cookie-cutter glass-and steel skyscrapers plonked in the middle of an idealized, cookie-cutter rural environment; “international solarpunk” or “top-down solarpunk” are imperialist oxymorons.

Education is key to building a true solarpunk community, to political and social engagement and to making informed choices. Education should build a social consciousness and give each citizen the ability to engage in continuous education throughout their life and to adapt to technological changes in the workplace.

Solarpunk education would be free, public and inclusive, not only of different perspectives though decolonisation and intersectionality, but also of different learning styles and cognitive preferences, and should aim to develop the talents of each individual, valuing and nurturing academic skills and creative or craft talents equally. We also imagine a school system rooted in the urban tissue, with special classes taking place in different parts of the neighbourhood, taking advantage of local expertise and traditions, valuing the contributions of the older residents.

Higher learning (colleges and universities) should likewise be free, or affordable and costed based on family income.

Since state-funded research has been the basis of the major technological transformations from the end of WWII until today, in a Solarpunk future, academic research would be adequately funded in order to develop the technologies and protocols which would help us move away from dependence on fossil fuels and on the growth spiral and reduce our environmental footprint.

Traditional knowledge and skills, however, would be equally important. Solarpunk futures would value both.

Finally, Solarpunk futures would run on a different economic model from the one currently in vogue. Solarpunk economics would not be concerned with growth and profit, but rather with balancing production output with social and environmental constraints and with redistributing wealth to create social justice.

Solarpunk cities are not just an idea; they are being built right now by a million different hands, across the world, most of whom haven’t even heard of solarpunk.

From community architecture projects to participatory budgeting efforts, from the Transition Towns Network to the Food not Lawns project, from surplus food redistribution to tool libraries and second-hand swaps, from city-wide macro to building-size micro, more and more people are realizing that cities could and should be better, not places where people exist as atomized, isolated individuals who eat, sleep, work, repeat, but communities of people who live together, struggle together, and create new culture and ideas together.

Solarpunk cities are coming, and the solarpunk community can speed the process by making such cities imaginable, desirable, almost tangible, by prototyping them in fiction and art, and, most importantly, by lending its narrative and artistic instruments to the citizens so that they can play with the idea and optimize it to their needs.

As Commando Jugendstil we have started along this road with a sustainability project financed by Fondazione Punto.Sud, Fondazione Cariplo and Fondazione per il Sud, with co-funding from the European Union and delivered in collaboration with social enterprise Coop A.ME.LIN.C ONLUS and a network of local partners in the area of Milano.

Our project “Milano Cartoline da un Futuro Possibile” aims to help citizens of selected neighbourhoods in Milano redesign their surroundings to improve living standards, social inclusion and cohesion and to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, connecting local conflicts in the management of the commons and local issues with wider processes.

A series of (in)formative sessions, focus groups and workshops, delivered in collaboration with local schools, will allow citizens to take an active role in a collective, democratic process to redesign the local environment.

Citizens will be encouraged not only to find practical short- and medium-term solutions to increase the sustainability and livability of the neighbourhood, but also to make use of narrative and artistic tools to illustrate their vision of a post-transition neighbourhood, identifying long-term projects to realize it.

The chief outputs of the project will be local ecological transition plans for 2020-2030 and an interactive IT tool that collects useful information of the present and local visions for the future, increasing awareness of local sustainability solutions.

This might seem a small step, but little by little solarpunk cities will become reality, and we will be there when it happens.

Further Reading and Inspiration

  • Kelvin Campbell, Making Massive Small Change, Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want, Chelsea Green Publishing, London, 2018
  • Energy Task Force, No Heat No Rent: An Urban Solar & Energy Conservation Manual, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Energy Task Force, Windmill Power for City People: A Documentation of the First Urban Wind Energy System, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni, Creative Communities, Edizioni POLI.design, Milano 2007
  • Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008
  • Paul Auerbach, Socialist Optimism: An Alternative Political Economy for the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2016
  • Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Transition Books, Dartington, 2008

Looking Out, Looking In

These days, I am unable to hold on to my days. They are like runaway horses. And the reins are no longer in my control. Strange now, when my life is even more cloistered. I withdrew from the rambunctious world outside when my children grew old enough to be independent. So I could write.

These days I rarely leave my 18th floor apartment. Not even to walk on the lawns and parks of our gated community, a microcosm, self-sufficient and barricaded against the rough and tumble of the world outside. Covid 19 may be my official reason. But I know better. I don’t belong. I can’t relate to problems arising from dealing with housework and office, because of the absence of an entourage of help—cook, nanny, char-woman or maid, chauffeur and elderly care help for those who have senior citizens living with them. The hysteria that arises because their expensive cars—BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Jaguars etc. etc.—need to run or else the batteries will die. And the excitement of queuing up, re-usable shopping bags and masks in place, for the various food trucks selling mangoes and other fruits, chicken and mutton and even varieties of Indian desserts. Because well-off Indians need their shopping fix, and if it is only food for sale, well then so be it.

I am a crow living among birds of paradise.

The world has stopped travelling. But Indians have not. They are travelling hundreds of miles, by the hundreds. These are the migrant workers, those nameless, faceless, union-less men and women and sometimes even children, who work for long hours for disgraceful remuneration, and who are now bereft of even that meagre earning.

This is the other face of India. A face that has wiped out my self-centered sorrows at losing my quiet days of uninterrupted routine, because my spouse is working from home, and he naturally gets priority—that is how we were raised, to put ourselves last, and I am a feminist only in theory. That is not the entire truth, though. I have also stopped writing because it suddenly seems like a frivolous activity. But I can’t stop writing in my head. As I cook and clean and repeat the chores again and again, the writing continues and disappears, because the words are never ‘put down.’ I have to look at my cell phone to determine my days. I cannot tell a Sunday from a Monday any more.

Be thankful, be thankful, we tell each other, and our children when we video chat with them.

Sixteen workers were cut up like butcher’s meat beneath the wheels of a goods train during the early hours of the night of the flower moon. They were walking home from one end of India to another, thinking they were taking a straight and safe path, because trains were not running during the lockdown. They didn’t know about goods trains. Another day, a young man, traveling on the roof of a bus, after shelling out what would have been a fortune for him, collapsed and died in his friend’s arms. The day temperatures often rise to 42 degrees Celsius and more. He was not Covid positive. He died of dehydration. There are so many tragic stories being played out. The media catches the dramatic ones and housebound ghouls lap them up.

What should I be thankful for? For myself and my family? We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of our self-centeredness. Life is less complicated. Or would have been if my mind was differently configured.

Looking down from my balcony, at the street dogs chasing each other and the occasional car, the delivery trucks and Swiggy bikes, I watch workers without any kind of protective gear laying underground cables and repairing roads. Across the road, and beyond the boundaries of a posh villa community opposite our own, cranes turn slowly over a high-rise complex, gradually adding to its height.

The ministers say they are helping the economy and also providing jobs for the migrant workers, encouraging them to stay back in the cities. The government has announced financial aid and safe transport for the migrants who are returning home, because they feel it is better to die there among their families than in the cities. The exodus continues. Aided or unaided. Even as the government prepares to lift lockdown and ‘normal life’ begins to trickle back.

There are other tragedies happening, non Corovid ones. These are putting their weight against Corovid’s devastation. Cyclone Amphan flattened homes and livelihoods in my home state, Bengal. Swarms of locusts have eaten acres and acres of standing crops in Rajasthan and neighboring states. And they are still feasting as I write.

The gloom and doom are lighter in places though. Good Samaritans, ordinary citizens, and even news reporters interviewing the migrants are stepping in to give what help they can. Even if it means only slippers for their feet and bottles of water. These people are not necessarily the rich. Many are financially needy themselves. Then there are our pharmaceutical companies who are going all out to produce vaccines and medicines. I didn’t know before this pandemic that India produces around 70% of the world’s vaccines.

My heart remains restless. Suddenly writing to be published seems a frivolous desire. Mending a hole in a T-shirt seems a superior activity. Nevertheless, a week or so ago, I made a conscious effort to sit down at my computer and write, random paragraphs. Those exercises have helped. I am somewhat relieved, because I had written nothing the whole of April.

Sometimes the writing is automatic. As if a creature from my innermost depths has risen to express herself. And it is possibly she who has put this thought to me: what does it matter if nobody ever reads me? If my fiction, poetry, essays etc. never get to see the light of day? How does my writing change anything in the world, anyway? There are thousands of unread books. If I were to choose between one and the other, what would I rather be, the reader or the writer?

My reading life has returned, quietly but firmly. As a child, adolescent, and then as a single adult I used to devour books every day. I felt insecure if I didn’t have a book in my bag, even when I went grocery shopping for my mom. Juggling office and children changed all of that. I read to my children when they were small, but had stopped reading for myself. My spouse isn’t an avid book reader; he would choose television over a book. None of our acquaintances, personal friends and relatives are. None of them write either, but they have strong opinions about books and writers and the artistic world in general. For many years my reading had been reduced to a trickle, as I tried to straddle my inner and my exterior worlds. A handful of books in a year, instead of the three or four I used to consume in a week. For the past few weeks, I have not sat with my spouse to watch a movie or even the news. I’ve been reading in between my chores and before going to bed.

I feel I have begun a new journey, albeit a private one. I will not stop writing. But I am now conscious that it is the act of writing that brings me happiness, not seeing it in print. Material success or the lack of it is, well, immaterial. This does not mean I won’t send out work anymore. I will, but there is neither hurry nor anxiety now.

The world has changed. I see it as molting into something new, and perhaps terrifying, but definitely different. We don’t know who will survive and who won’t, who will be able to adapt and who won’t. As for me, my place in the world may be less than a dust-mote, but let it be a happy mote of dust. Because that is humanity’s triumph against strangeness, against adversity, against calamity. Because humanity knows how to rise again and again. And I am part of it, tiny, insignificant, but a part nevertheless. Stay blessed.

 

—May 27, 2020

One Month

1,000,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted in a statistical model published March 13th that assumed no social distancing measures.

 

154. Number of minutes on March 15th that I spent reading news media on my iPhone.

 

0. Number of states with “stay at home” orders on March 16th.

 

On March 17th I woke up at 2 a.m. I checked our bank account balances and mortgage. I estimated our average monthly budget. I calculated a budget for us without my husband’s in-come. I calculated a budget for us without my income. I filled a notepad with numbers.

 

349,000,000,000. Number of dollars the US government allocated on March 27th to a Forgivable Loan Program for small businesses.

 

100,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted by U.S. officials on March 31st as a “best case scenario.”

 

6. Distance measured in feet to maintain between yourself and any non-household member.

 

On March 29th I woke up at 4 a.m. I read The New York Times. The Guardian. FiveThirtyEight. My local newspaper. The Washington Post. Vox.
I needed more. More facts. More graphs and charts. More ways to control the uncontrollable.

 

6,650,000. Number of Americans who filed a new claim for unemployment benefits during the fourth week of March.

 

5. Number of times I used hand sanitizer during a trip to the grocery store on April 3rd.

 

55. Number of diagnosed Covid-19 cases in my county as of April 3rd.

 

On April 4th I woke up at 2 a.m. to read the news. I read for hours. And hours.

 

6. Number of minutes within a timekeeping increment for my law firm.

 

70. Number of professional increments I need each day within a schedule that has become po-rous, overlapping math tutorials and skinned knees with PowerPoint slides and client consulta-tions.

 

13. Number of increments I spent on April 7th attending to my professional obligations.

 

17. Number of increments I spent on April 7th walking through the woods with my children.

 

During the night of April 8th I slept 9 hours and 40 minutes. I woke tired and slow. After breakfast I put the milk in the pantry instead of the fridge. I stared at my computer screen.

 

12,621. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 8th.

 

21,919. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 13th.

 

28,280. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 16th.

 

I dream of a corps of poets, deployed to every news conference, stepping forward to the microphones. Come to save us from a world turned inside out. Giving us words to crawl beneath the facts. Words to hold our souls. Words to take root in the places where our stories live. Because those who habitually see the world inside out may be the only ones who can restore our equilibrium in the present moment.