Sweetwater, Poison

Last September, they told us not to drink the water.

Our water, from our river, the same water that’s cooled every summer thirst, washed every dish at every birthday party, rinsed the sap off every Christmas since the day I was born.

The advisory was only a precaution, the news broadcast reassured us, but the Food Lion and Harris Teeter shelves were empty in hours flat. Even the Smartwater, the Fiji, the fancy-pants expensive stuff no North Carolinian in their right mind would ever buy in bulk—every case was gone.

Up the river in Fayetteville, the DuPont team responsible for the release of the chemical driving the drinking ban was gathered in some PR war room, but downstream, we turned to sweet tea, lemonade, coffee, orange juice, every other thing in the fridge, always starting for the tap and remembering just as we began to turn it.

But of course, some people went right on drinking the water, just like some people have parties on the beach during Category 4 storms, because this is the Carolina coast and we are nothing if not accustomed to disaster.

This was before Florence, when we had enough distance from a truly bad storm to cheer on the fledgling squalls spiraling off the Gulf Coast, craving the respite from life and school they would bring. And if they ever threatened with any seriousness to arrive, it was a crude, manic, festive vacation, as we boarded up windows, spray-painting challenges or prayers on plywood, surfers racing for storm swell as the ocean churned and they howled the joy of getting waves as close to California big as our east coast shore could ever muster.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, our history is made up of pirates, hiding behind piny shoals from the law, of stubborn generals in the last bastion of the civil war, flowering azalea, cobblestones, steeples on every corner, college basketball and hurricane parties, and so some people flapped their hands, scoffed at science, and went right on drinking the water.

In the coming months, clumsy local-news reporting fed us the piece-meal story: Once upon a time, DuPont, nee Chemours, manufactured shiny new Teflon upstream in Fayetteville, and to make it extra-shiny, they used a chemical (and I swear this is the name, though I know it sounds like a comic book kryptonite) called GenX. It flowed with the rest of the sludge deemed safe into the Cape Fear River. And one day, in a series of routine tests, they found it in the drinking water. Someone saw the results and rang the alarm bells, even if they didn’t know what they were ringing them for.

The impacts of GenX on human health are unclear. It’s a new chemical, one of many PFAs beginning to be called “forever chemicals”, developed as a replacement for the blacklisted PBDEs of the 1980s. They exist in a kind of grey regulatory limbo, not yet classified as toxic or completely cleared. They’ve caused cancer in some lab rats—news that makes your stomach turn when you turn on your tap—but it hasn’t been enough for companies to forgo their profitable use.

What was clear, though, was that the bottled Fiji water my more nervous neighbors were using to brush their teeth with wasn’t going to do any good. GenX had been in our water for almost a decade already, at 130,000 parts per trillion. If it was going to hurt us, the damage was done.

So there was a great Southern shrug, and we all turned on our taps. Just like turning up the music at a hurricane party as the winds howl. What’s done is done, what’ll come will come.

Meanwhile, every agency with an acronym east of Raleigh was floundering. The bogeyman of this long-term mystery molecule was proving impossible to wrangle, harder even than the coal ash spill from a few years back in the same long-suffering river. Suddenly its presence in the water and its questionable past were splayed out on scrolling cable news bulletins night after night. There were town halls packed full of scared angry people who wanted to know what was in their water, and the harried municipal inspector fresh out of school, the underpaid chemists from the treatment plant—they all had to tell their neighbors: we don’t know.

Let me be very clear: Wilmington is not Flint, Michigan. Environmental disasters always disproportionately affect already marginalized communities, hitting hardest the people who can’t afford a case of Fiji water or people in food deserts who walk to the corner store for groceries and couldn’t carry five cases even if they could afford it. And parallels of negligence are certainly present. But GenX isn’t lead. Our children aren’t dying. And our elected officials were blindsided by its presence in our water, just like us, even if the Chemours executives were not.

This is the place I am from: where a river only this year after tireless fighting has stopped carrying a wild-card chemical downstream into the taps of everyone I know and love, where coal ash was spilled in the same waters a few years back and there was never just restitution, Where surrounding farmland is plagued by algae-choked lakes, animal refuse is dumped with abandon as factory farms go unregulated, where building codes allow brand sparkling new oceanfront construction for the revenue they will generate despite the constant sea level rise and erosion, where people stare stubbornly into the eyes of storms like Florence, which took seventeen lives and left my hometown an island, which worsen with every passing year.

This is the place I live now: where I sit in a classroom in Maine and listen as a professor talks about the sublime American wilderness, where I major in a field of study centered around the ‘environment’, in a town where farmer’s markets dot the village green and grocery stores have started charging per plastic bag.

I write these words on a scientific station off the coast of Canada on a summer arts fellowship, with hundreds of miles of ocean between me and a factory, where we count with care the eggs of even the common gull and are careful not to let even hand soap contaminate the nesting sites of sparrows, where at night the only visible sign of human industry under the stars with the milky way caressing their swirling center is the lighthouses to the south and north. I am paid two dollars an hour more than the minimum wage in my state to write poetry about storm petrels and honeybees and the fog rolling in from the sea.

And at first glance, this makes sense to me. After all, there are places like Kent Island, and places like Wilmington. There and Here.

When most people talk about the environment, they mean Kent Island and the jungles of Belize, beautiful wondrous pristine places, distant places, There.

But beer cans in estuaries and a state park with trails layered over tore-up old motorbike paths, and the muddy river under fourth of July fireworks flowing, and the creek behind the subdivision, and the GenX flowing downstream—the environment is hiding Here, too.

There is an incredible contempt in America for the middle landscape—a term environmental scholars use to describe places like Here. Not catastrophe and ruin, oil spills or garbage dumps or black-lung from coal or the radium-girl shocking headlines from old factories, but the Here—the backyard grass that needs mowing.

But the problems in our thinking are the hardest to shift, especially when the pull of the There is so deeply ingrained, and we are all forced to deal with the drudgery and carnage of the Here.

Like the officials in my home town with their alarmist call to turn off the taps or like the DuPont inspectors who said nothing all those years, it is either feast or famine with the American imagination. We invoke a love of Nature to save the redwoods, while it isn’t even a word we connect with planted petunias on overpasses or roots scrabbling up in vacant lots.

No one is paying me to write poems about the flooded cobblestones on 3rd Street after the hurricane, greasy with sunscreen and gasoline, about the retention pond my dad and I fished in, always catching turtles on accident; no one is paying me to write poems about the bare shelves of Food Lion, even the Fiji water gone.

But maybe the answer is that I will anyway. Because I am sitting in this pristine paradise with all the privilege that comes along with it, and I’m telling you: they’re the same gulls circling overhead, the same goldenrod that grows along the highway in the place I am from. At home and far afield I have the same right to clean air and water and a livable planet, regardless of how well it translates into our romantic ideals of wilderness.

The “environment” is of no use to us if it ceases to exist where it cannot fit easily into poems like “Leaves of Grass” or even “The Wasteland”. Feast or famine are not the ways to live in the world. The power of activism spurred by imagination is futile if our contempt for the middle landscape blinds us to the necessity of change.

We all live in landscapes that shapeshift, passing through blurring borders of Here and There. It can seem impossibly incongruent: the carelessness of a tossed-aside beer can on a commercial shore and the gentle fastening of a thousand-dollar tracker to the wing of a burrowing grey bird.

But I am learning to blur these lines, to unhitch my sense of beauty from an obligation to perfection. Like anyone with the privilege to experience such beauty, I must grapple with my longing to always live on Kent Island, to set these places on their pedestals. I know that my hometown’s muddy river water is not truly separate from the waters crashing on this untouched shore. It is all flowing from the same headwaters; we all live downstream.

Enclosures

By the hand of your great-uncle Zé and great-aunt Fernanda, you and your sister Amari enter the enormous bird enclosure. The cackle begins. The geese do what they do best, warn those inside and those one hundred metres around the farm that intruders have arrived. The sound is deafening. The peacocks join the chorus. You inspect the clay roost lined with straw, where the chickens lay their eggs.

“How many, Koah?”

You shrug, disappointed. There are none to collect.

 

The daily visits to the farm and to the animals offer you a type of informal schooling that no longer exists in this neighbourhood. You are the last student of this farmland, entering the pens, cages, coops to play with the animals, or running across the fields to inspect the bugs that hide under scattered implements. No other child is seen holding a ladybug on the palm of a hand, or sticking twigs into the mole’s underground tunnels, hoping to stir one out of its hide-and-seek game.

In these five months in Portugal you are becoming fluent in more than another human language to aid you in relating with different cultures. You are also learning to converse with the animals, the trees and the stones. You are listening to those who will soon be killed and eaten, and learning about the violence of the world. This is a place where the pigs hang by their hind legs, splayed at the spine like crimson books in butcher windows. At the end of our road, the suckling ones are a delicacy on a spit. The price of one euro per kilo is offensively low for a life, if there ever was a fair price for death.

 

Great-uncle Zé walks you around the little cement pond. Ducks race in laps, motored by their orange paddles, pretending it is not another typical day of mayhem. The blend of mud and fowl droppings, its squish, squish, arrests your steps. You stare at your once flashy green runners. Sighing, you carry on. The raft of ducks makes no waves until you arrive at the rectangular wooden bird house on stilts, home to the Pekin bantams. Then the ducks also quack up their own storm. You crawl and disappear inside the deep and narrow hens’ house too short even for your four years. Moments later you hold a tiny bantam egg. Your palm opens and closes, feeling the small frail shell.

The striking white feathers of the pheasant distract us from the ruthless beak that last week killed a Helmeted guinea fowl, and a peacock several times his size. The strong farm arms of your great-uncle Zé lift you to where, balanced and woven against a grapevine, baby pigeons chirp in their nest.

“We leave those babies be, Koah,” Uncle Zé tells you, as your hand stretches out to touch the nest.

Iridescent in the light, the nest shines from the blue-green peacock feathers collected to decorate it. The mother pigeon flies frenetically about the enclosure. Other pigeons fly in and out through the small gaps in the wire ceiling. These are racing pigeon refugees from the neighbour; birds no longer capable of earning their keep in medals or pride. They now seek shelter, easy food and company amid the larger family of winged ones.

 

This is the same uncle who decades ago invited me and the neighbourhood children for an afternoon of killings in the orchard. Hosts of sparrows had been pecking at the cherries, irritating him and other neighbours also at war with the hungry birds competing for their favourite fruits.

I remember wounded sparrows, wings broken by shots of the pellet gun, flapping sideways on the grass. I remember sparrows missing an eye, frozen in shock, blood trickling down the neck, the soft grey feathers in my hand staining red. I have never stopped remembering.

I stayed at a distance as the other houndlike boys raced after the fired shot and fetched the wounded creatures, who remained very still in the grass, stunned by fright, pain or by the smell of death. The boys collected the quasi-dead sparrows and strung them by the feet, twenty to a twine, a cascade of death that hung from a post as a warning to other winged creatures. Including their ineffective guardian angels.

The neighbourhood boys and your great-uncle Zé proceeded to pluck the feathers from the tiny sparrows after they had been immersed in the stockpots of boiled water. This was the boys’ initiation into a mass killing that apparently had been a pastime in your great-uncle’s childhood. He sang the praises of the delicacy to come as a reward for the hard work of the afternoon soldiers: a well-earned tomato-rice bird stew. I remained a little behind the eager boys, chopping onions. My lips were clenched.

During the extended dinner preparation, great-uncle Zé entertained the boys with tales of ambushes, exotic snake attacks and night guerrilla battles during his time in a West African war, one of the bloodiest Portuguese colonial battles. Within fourteen years, in Guinea-Bissau, ten thousand conscripted soldiers lost their lives, and one hundred thousand Africans lost theirs. Many young Portuguese men fled the country to avoid the draft. Your underage great-uncle Zé was an eager early volunteer, later returning with a ‘love’ tattoo for his regiment on his forearm.

When the dinner call arrived, I did not sit at the long table of twelve. Hearing the tiny bird-bones crunching inside the joyful mouths of the other children served as the conclusion to that story. That was the afternoon I became a non-meat eater in my mind, although it took two more decades before it became daily practice.

The goats bleat; they recognize your voice in the distance. We climb the knoll to the upper fields where they await. In heat, the buck reeks. My eyebrows rise. You do not seem to mind the gallant’s choice of perfume. The goats press their bodies to the double wire fence that cannot prevent their heads from squeezing through. They stretch their tongues to reach for the deep green collard in your hand. After an hour of back and forth snapping collard leaves from the field, you lie down on the grassy ditch next to the fence and converse with the four-legged. I cannot hear what you say. Goats stare and listen, despite the lack of collard in your hands. Once in a while, the large male or the baby bleats.

You are learning about the imprisonments that condition the free movement of beings, and how a prison also conditions the guards, who can never live far from the fences themselves. One day, you will learn that this profession is still called husbandry, a practice rooted in domesticating and controlling the lands and its non-human creatures. And one day, a little or a lot later, you may choose to have a woman companion that convention will call a ‘wife’. Then you may want to question the links, the meanings encooped in these words, in these practices, and also choose not to be husband to a wife. Or a husband to a husband.

 

While you feed the goats collard leaves, your great-aunt Fernanda arrives with a glimmer in her eye. “Come.” You giggle and follow her; you appreciate surprises. It takes all your might to control the pace of your steps and remain behind your great-aunt. In the kitchen, by the fireplace, sits a shoebox. Ti Fernanda opens it. Piu . . . piu . . . . Your eyes widen to the fluffy chick inside, born just hours ago. The bird cowers and attempts to hide in the corner of the shoebox.

“You can pick her up, Koah,” great-aunt Fernanda encourages.

You are not so sure.

“Where’s the mamma?”

“It doesn’t have a mamma.”

You do not believe her.

A dish, the size of a jar lid, has overturned inside the shoebox, scattering gritty cornmeal feed. The bird burrows under the thin layer of wood shavings cushioning the shoebox.

Your great-aunt cups her hands, lifts the chick up. The bird attempts to jump. A fall on the hard tile could break her toothpick-thin legs. Ti Fernanda passes the bird to your cupped hand. Your index finger runs over the bald and bony head no larger than your thumb, then caresses the yellow fuzz on her wing. A combination of tenderness and awkwardness, since the bird wants to walk out of your hand, and you are unsure how to handle this fragility asserting her own will.

After a time, the fast-pulsing chest suggests a stressed bird. I propose walking outside to see the goats. You stay a moment longer, kneeling by the box, watching, talking to her with the tenderness of a father loving his own offspring.

 

Another day has passed. I steer you to the goats’ fenced field and avoid walking near the kitchen. Your great-uncle Zé tells me the chick dehydrated, forgotten in front of the heater.

When you ask about the newborn chick, I mumble about it not being in the kitchen any longer. You know it is an excuse, yet you ask nothing more. There is another side to your great-aunt and -uncle that you do not yet see or understand. It is a paradoxical equation of affections. For all the incommensurable love Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé show you, there is also their unconscious side, in neglecting their farm animals. I don’t know why I believe I must wait for another time to explain best the unintended or intended cruelty of those who are close to us. The most difficult affections, you will learn, will be when love and harm intersect. Some of your deepest hurts in memory will likely come from me, since I have already provided you with your first disappointments, anger, and conflicts.

Sometimes those who love us are willing to listen, and even willing to change because of our emotional gravitational pull in their lives. You grandfather Agosto stopped caging birds after a few years of listening to my unhappiness at seeing the birds in captivity. I suggested he could also enjoy them flying about in the sky and yard. He would fall silent and stare at the caged birds. One day I arrived from Canada to find the bird enclosures not only empty, but also dismantled.

“They are never far, anyway,” he told me, pointing out a nest in the tall ornamental cedar beside us. In the ensuing quiet, the chirping of baby melros trickled down. Soon, a mother darted in with a wriggling worm on her beak.

Your grandfather smiled.

 

On arriving in Portugal, you cringed upon seeing chained dogs barking frantically from their tiny cement doghouses. “Why does Ti Zé tie them up? Why is that second dog barking so madly at me?” After a few weeks you have begun to accept their neurotic condition, and to imitate your great-uncle, who taught you to use an osier twig to strike Bolinhas, eliciting compliance for sitting and rolling on the lawn.

There is a tale of two chained dogs on your great-uncle Zé’s farm. Bolinhas, a recently acquired puppy, lives in a cement doghouse next to the raven’s now empty cage. This Labrador belongs to Ti Zé’s granddaughter, who lives in Brussels. She requested a puppy to play with twice a year on her Christmas and summer visits. Willing to please his granddaughter, Ti Zé unchains Bolinhas to run off-leash in the yard most days and feeds him store-bought dog food and treats, while the twelve-year-old mutt Caima, two chain lengths away on the other side of the link fence, looks on, and sniffs the drifting air. His bones mimic the ribcage of a disintegrating caravel. Never off his chain, Caima watches from the adjacent muddy field. Any time we bring the veggie scraps from grandmother Micas’ house to feed Ti Fernanda’s sheep, we also carry a bowl of left-over soup, chicken bones and day-old cornbread for Caima. He yaps and wags his tail. It is not every day we have leftovers.

You are learning about human incoherence, witnessing that some affections are narrow, selective, leaving the heart blind to others. It is a roulette of fortune. The ball seldom lands twice on the same lucky number. That is why, when the sun shines on us, it is essential to be grateful for privilege and not be blinded by self-absorption. In those moments, it is kind to look around, seeking those who need the warmth and have been confined to the shadows.

Ti Zé and Ti Fernanda are not conscious of the harm they inflict on animals, having been born into farming practices carried out for centuries. The absence of day-to-day moral dissent also permits unchallenged behaviour to flourish. You and I are also at the mercy of our cultural blindness, and it is our obligation to peel away such blinds to make our choices free from obvious social and cultural conditioning. You hold significant emotional influence over those around you, as they are willing to hear and please you. They want your happiness, and will expand that circle of care to others, if you so insist.

I encourage you to speak your worries about the chained dogs to Ti Zé.

You do.

He laughs.

You don’t.

Ti Zé does not know what to tell you. It is the way he has lived his life with farm animals. By domination. Punishment. Their servitude. He once shot his dog in anger for biting him when he struck the dog with a hose for having disobeyed a command. It will take another trillion raindrops to change the shape of a stone that believes its present form is all it can be. Patience is the most difficult practice for those who do not have a thousand years to live, those witnessing animals already dying every day from neglect and abuse. Patience is difficult for those of us recognizing another’s pain.

Day after day, following the slowness of the seasons, you have already grown to understand the necessary courage to make this world a better place. Yet, the one who names the injustice while standing among those benefiting from that injustice becomes vulnerable, often triggering redirected wrath.

I look forward to you growing older, even more articulate and assertive, and bringing to light the numerous, varied enclosures in my mind. I hope to be grateful, while dismantling such mental cages, to free the possible dreams still invisible to me. That day will mark the beginning of another journey, one more reciprocal, in the learning exchange between us.

 

It is our last week in the valley, and you are turning stones on a field, looking for worms, finding snails instead, which you roll on your hand to inspect.

When you attempt to separate a snail from its shell, I explain that the snail will die without it, and since it is attached, it would likely be as painful as tearing your arm from your body. You move your attention on to the glistening black slugs in collard paradise. I harvest sweet-smelling tangerines from a wooden ladder propped against the roof tiles on the herb-drying building.

I have only collected a dozen tangerines in the bag when you arrive.

“Paulo, Paulo.”

In your hand you hold a tiny snail. Its broken shell reveals a hole the size of your thumb. Your face tells me that you are upset.

“Will it die?”

“It might. A shell doesn’t grow back. Small and fragile creatures depend on our gentleness.”

You become silent, staring at the snail you have returned to the ground. It is not moving.

 

I have seen or heard the perishing stories of the animals in this farm. From territorial fowl that should not be sharing crowded enclosures to sheep without their water replenished on scorching days, from infirm ostrich, rabbits, or chickens to an ailing, gaunt mare meeting her last moment, the plethora of agonies are endless.

The animals are ornamental objects Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé dream up for their vision of a farm. The creatures become living toys to entertain grandchildren and other visitors. Your great-aunt and uncle fail to see farm animals as feeling beings who suffer and require the love, attention and care dispensed to you and your sister. Fernanda and Zé’s perennial struggle to remain within the limits of accomplishable farm tasks in a day costs these incarcerated creatures their lives. The animals cannot help themselves and will live or die at the mercy of an unreliable hand.

You do not yet know that it breaks your mother’s heart to walk into this farm, yet she does not let her sadness diminish with your joy in your interaction with the animals. This farm is a playpen for you, but an animal concentration camp for us.

Since childhood Ti Fernanda and Ti Zé have been my favourite aunt and uncle for their generosity, playfulness, spontaneity and good disposition. Despite contradictions and my ethical and moral divergence, they continue to be dear to me as they already are dear to you. It is a tense cliff edge at times. They understand where my values clash with theirs. In our complex web of human and family affections, we hold this reality: a great-aunt and -uncle who can be ignorant of the suffering they cause.

We teach you that this or any other farm’s existence is not a validation, much less an endorsement, of an animal’s natural fate. Month by month, year by year, we will teach you to see beyond the veneer of appearances, and to read between the lines, seeking the missing narratives. Ignorance can carry on for eternities, like sadness and its acceptance. How we treat those vulnerable is an elemental matter to our higher consciousness and will reflect our core being. We will be defined not only by what we choose to create, but also by what we refuse to destroy.

Today is April 25th, Revolution Day. The Portuguese celebrate deposing a fascist government that ruled the country for forty years, until 1974, the year Aunt Marina was born. I was nine years old. The image I retain most vividly replays an old woman in black scurrying along the cobblestone road shouting, “The revolution has arrived, the revolution has arrived. Olive oil is going down to cinco tostões a bottle now, five cents. Viva a Revolução!” Olive oil’s price increased every year thereafter. It is two hundred times more expensive today and no longer the cooking staple of the working people. It has been substituted in their kitchens by imported sunflower oil. Not only had the people become free that day, the market had also. The median wage has risen a mere fourteen times since that April day. More importantly, a myriad other essential gains, from education to health, have been achieved, and every citizen is free to complain now, meaning that political imprisonment or torture is no longer permitted.

This holiday afternoon we prepare to visit the cousins from your grandfather’s side of the family in the neighbouring county of Oliveira. Their semi-rural, three-house cluster holds nine people. Their extended clan across three generations of committed hobby-farmers grows most of their vegetables and fruit, animal flesh and herbs.

Every year, our cousins effusively receive you and Amari. In fine Portuguese-hospitality style, a banquet of home-baked sweet cakes and breads awaits us, including vegetarian dips and healthy options for the odd Canadians we are. They believe the non-meat inclination is a generalized Canadian trait, not our fringe family preference.

The cousins immediately take you and Amari to visit the two dozen rabbits they raise in cages. You pet them and their babies. No one tells you the rabbits are food. A dinner plate destiny for these long-eared, fuzzy creatures does not cross your mind. When I look at those rabbits, a deep stomach knot reaches back to my childhood. Every Saturday, I accompanied my father, often with my mother, to your great-grandfather Manuel da Costa’s farm in the village of Vermoim, over the Cambra hills. That is where I met these second cousins weekly, and we played in terraced fields and back woods. Several times a year I watched your grandfather Agosto kill and prepare a rabbit for the Sunday roast the following day, a special lunch to reward the long work week.

On one of those Saturday afternoons, your grandfather selected the plumpest rabbit from the wooden cage and brought the buck dangling from hind legs to the cement washing tank. The water gurgled in a continuous stream, overflowing to a channel that irrigated the cornfields down below. In the past some rabbits had squirmed and sprung, resisting what they must have smelled was their approaching end. Others dangled, resigned, or perhaps frozen in fear. Beneath the hanging pigeon house and the cooing birds, vovô Agosto would hold the rabbit upside-down. A swift hack of his hand to the rabbit’s neck was as good as an axe. The strike aimed to fracture the rabbit’s spine, to instantly kill. Two or three strikes sufficed.

The smack, smack, smack, echoed against the tender splash of water flowing from the black plastic pipe that brought cool water from the spring on the hill, several hundred metres above. The two pigeons stopped their cooing at the first strike of bone on bone.

With unease, I watched the fear in the rabbit’s eyes intensifying after the first strike, its springing legs attempting to hop away from the nightmare, yet finding no ground beneath. Your grandfather struggled to aim the next strike at the neck, now made more difficult by the wildly swinging rabbit in his grasp. He clenched his lips, not enjoying the task.

At the third strike, the rabbit became motionless. Your grandfather tied its hind legs with a cord and dangled the rabbit from the two knobs on the double door. The white, soft belly faced us. A couple of quick slices along the heel revealed muscle, allowing a hold for your grandfather’s fingers to pull off the rabbit’s fur coat in a steady, loud rip. The first tear echoed in the still air of the hot afternoon as the rabbit began to violently swing from the wall. The carpal bone strikes of the hand had only stunned the rabbit to unconsciousness. I screamed. Your grandfather turned pale.

“Stop. He is alive.”

“They’re only muscle spasms,” your grandfather tried to assuage me.

Blanch-faced, he continued ripping the fur to end everyone’s agony sooner. The rabbit stopped jerking after a few seconds, succumbing to the pain of being skinned alive, having woken up from one horror to experience another far worse.

 

You cradle your cousin’s rabbit against your chest. It kicks, wanting to hop away. The jostle frightens you. You move on to visiting the chickens and stomp in their fenced yard, attempting to catch one, cautioned not to step on their droppings. A car zooms past on the nearby road and the song that symbolizes the revolution, played today on every radio and TV, drifts away with it. “Grândola Vila Morena” always makes me think of your other great-aunt Fernanda, imprisoned and tortured while in the resistance movement, and whose mental health, after release, was never the same. I had planned for you to finally meet her on this trip, while showing you Coimbra, the city of my university years; however, she died days before we landed, having choked on her breakfast, alone in the bedroom of her old age home.

We leave the chicken coop and stroll in the vegetable garden. Your Bustelo cousins tenderly lift you off the ground to reveal the three wild nests of melros and serin finches concealed among the dense foliage of their pear and apple trees. They leave them be.

After indulging in the afternoon feast disguised as a humble snack, we all stroll along a fallow field. A ladybug lands on your chest, a butterfly on your shoulder. You hold the ladybug on your open palm until it flies away. We soon say goodbye to our relatives, carrying home armfuls of arugula, lettuce, watercress, collards, cabbage, fresh lemon balm for tea, dill and oregano herbs. This green bounty will feed us for days.

 

On our return home from Bustelo, you want to squeeze in a visit to the goats and the sheep. Hoping to drop leftovers to Caima, you are disappointed when grandmother Micas says there are none today. The sun slides down the horizon, assailed by the cutting wind from the north. We are at the end of another Revolution Day. My mention of returning to the apartment, a three-hundred-metre walk from Ti Fernanda’s farm, prompts a sudden wave of tiredness, and you cannot drag one foot in front of the other.

I attempt to motivate you.

“Tomorrow is the start of your last week in school, Koah.”

“Paulo, school is boring. We sit most of the day.”

I understand. For the first time in your life you are experiencing entrapment. It is apartment life, in winter, at the busiest intersection of this small city; it is the lack of lushly treed parks; but mostly it is the confinement to four walls in school, for five weekdays. All of this is a new way of living after playing in the spacious green spaces, forests and shores of Victoria. You want to escape walls as a bird wants to escape a cage.

You have not been conditioned to stillness, hypnotized by screens, or inured to confined living spaces. You want your day to continue in your grandparents’ yard or your great-aunt’s farm across the lane. Domestication is a word you have yet to learn, although you smell its approach. That is also why you do not sleep under a blanket. Even in your sleep, the lightest bed sheet covering you is kicked away. You want no pressure, no weight upon your dreams.

 

We stroll down to where the lane joins the larger road leading to our apartment. At the corner, in the house with many pets, the effusive parrot greets you, “Olá”. You match his high-pitched screech with a returning “Olá”. You stop, lean over the spiked railing to talk, and admire the bird scratching his grey, feathery torso with his unchained leg. He walks sideways in frenetic steps along the stick-perch, excited to see you, pleased with your attention.

We finally begin moving again and are within sight of the apartment when we hear the cry of a bird in the sky. The insistent and long song accompanies the last droplets of light.

“Spring must be near, Koah.”

That is when you begin singing:

 

A seagull flew, flew

wings of wind,

heart of the sea.

Like her, we are free,

we are free to fly

 

My heart stops. You sing it freely and lightly. Acquainting you with the sounds of Portuguese while in the womb every night, I sang you this verse. I am surprised and unsure how you have memorized the words. You do not know the political context of this song, yet. I sang you revolutionary freedom songs from ’74 to welcome you into the world. What you do not yet know is that the people of Portugal borrowed the images of free animals, such as the gull in our ocean-kissed country, to inspire them to attain their own freedom. Now that the Portuguese people are freer than they were in my childhood, it is time to extend the favour to others who are not free: the animals still incarcerated in our midst.

Nearing the apartment, on our last week in the valley, you slow down our progress by first walking backwards, then testing your balancing skills and walking on the long, thin wall of another apartment complex. You pretend to be an acrobat probing your limits. Then without warning, you jump down from the wall like the kid you are.

“We have to free the goats, papá. Once we are gone to Canada, they need to be able to get the collards on their own.”

“You are right, Koah. I’ll let Ti Zé know.”

“Please don’t forget.” You say it with your most serious face.

“I will certainly not.”

You carry on along the wall, hopping up and down, until you stop and turn to me, full of conviction.

“And the chickens too need to be freed,” you conclude, adding a determined nod.

 

It is another April, four decades after carnations plugged the barrels of machine guns, and the revolution is yet to arrive at the enclosures of those animals we have used as inspiration for action in art and song. We are the jail keepers and dictators we believed we had freed ourselves from. Perhaps the April revolution will mature alongside you and your sister, as you run through the sandy Furadouro beach and dive into the Atlantic, seeking the perfect surf. The wave will curl up, almost shy, just before unravelling its power. It will propel you far and wide. Then the seagulls, flying freely above the sailing boats, will join you, singing their song.

Wildfire, Hellfire: the Case for Siberian Globeflowers

and

I.

 

My home was on fire.

Wildfires came with vengeance in late July, engulfed the forest and turned it to cinders.

It is a place with a long memory: centenarian pines reached to the skies, mantled the mountain’s spine like a rustling shroud, deep-green, dark-green, emerald-green. In winter, they covered themselves with sparkling white, thick and noble. It was a home: for foresters, for lynxes, for bears, for me, for globeflowers. The globeflowers: they glowed like gems, little lights in the malachite of lush greenery. In bloom, they turned into a sea, mirroring the scorching copper sun.

We call Siberian globeflowers zharki. “Little fires”.

We say that taiga sings. The choir of the trees is not a hymn nor a dirge; it’s a lullaby, and with it, a memory. This is where loneliness ends. For generations of exiles and vagabonds, nomads and runaways; for me. You can go to the past and gather this memory like seashells, fragment by fragment, if you simply walk south along the Yenisei river, past Sayan Mountains, past Venuses of Mal’ta, then circling back north. There you will find their (our)—our (my)—my loneliness buried.

Now, all that is left are ashes, remnants of what once was beautiful.

According to the Aerial Forest Protection Service, on August 20, 2019, eighty-five forest fires ran amok in Russia, particularly in Siberia and the Far East.1 The largest area ablaze was Krasnoyarsk Krai, my home region; there were fifty-three centers of ignition.

Three days earlier the number was one hundred and twelve. A month before, it was one hundred and twenty-six.

At the end of July, the fires were still largely ignored, because, as the authorities put it, “There is no threat to settlements and objects of the economy, and the predicted cost of extinguishing fires exceeds the predicted damage caused by them”, even though the combusting area was approaching three million hectares.

A significant part of the burning land was in so-called ‘control zones’—remote areas deemed uninhabited. In 2015, a law was passed establishing the right of regional authorities to determine firefighting in these territories economically inexpedient. This formally legalized the practice that historically developed from regional poverty—there was no money, no fuel, no planes to land firefighters in remote territories. In Soviet times, many fires were not extinguished—there was no satellite monitoring, and no one counted them.

The regional officials refused to extinguish fires, but they were not the only ones to blame. Federal funding for forest protection is calculated based on the acreage of areas marked for conservation, excluding control zones. Expected costs in control zones, in the logic of the authorities, are always higher than the damage done. Damage is measured at the minimum value of the wood, if it were to be cut and processed for lumber (and if that process is considered economically infeasible, there is no damage). The region must either spend its own funds to put out fires in control zones or do nothing.

 

My home was on fire, and they said fire cost nothing.

 

So the governors are officially entitled to refuse to extinguish wildfires if it’s not economically profitable. The head of the Federal Forestry Agency explained it this way: “See for yourself: the closest tanker plane’s base point is 500 kilometers from the fire in the taiga. It flies back and forth, dumps a small amount of water. We’ll go bankrupt using aviation for such purposes”. The Krasnoyarsk Krai governor said: It’s a common natural phenomenon which is pointless, and perhaps even harmful, to fight. “If we have a snowstorm in winter, it doesn’t occur to anyone to melt the icebergs to make the weather warmer.”

I watch the forest burn—full of horror and rage, and something sharper and more terrible: loss.

My home was on fire, and they said it was economically unprofitable to save it.

 

 

 

Siberian Wildfires

Daria Kholyavka

II.

 

The truth is: the control zones are not as deserted as they’re trying to assure us— there are settlements on their borders, roads and developed logging forests. Wildfires roared in a twenty-kilometer radius near the nine settlements in Evenkia. The closest fire to the village of Kuyumba burned five kilometers away; ashes fell on the courtyards, breathing was a struggle, and at two or three hundred meters nothing was visible.

It is impossible to estimate how many animals have died in the fire. Residents of the northern territories saw animals on the roads, driven away from the taiga, more and more. They came to settlements. For several days, a bear lived in one of the villages after running away from the burning boondocks.

 

The flaming sea of globeflowers, “little fires”, now was a hellfire circle.

Smoke overtook several neighboring territories at once. Unlike the usual sequence, when smoke goes north, that year it turned west, to the more populated parts of the country. Sunday morning, July 21, when Novosibirsk was overtaken by smog, the radio broadcasted: nothing to worry about; it is not smoke, but mist.

People were suffocating, and the first motion was to say that everything was fine.

NASA published a photo showing a smoke plume spreading over the Krasnoyarsk Krai. A significant part of Siberia and the Ural cities were under a dense, cindered veil.

The extent to which forest fires affect human health is still poorly understood, with the exception that products of combustion can settle in the lungs and contribute to the development of asthma and allergies. The air in Novosibirsk was certainly damaging: the maximum permissible concentration of suspended particles per million was exceeded by 1.5 times.2 People complained of the acrid taste of smog. There were noticeably fewer insects, since the aerosol curtain created by smoke blocked the functioning of the midge’s nervous and respiratory systems.3 The number of ambulance calls due to smoke increased by over 15%.4 Cinders can lead to an increase in mortality from chronic respiratory diseases, an increase in mortality among the elderly, and an increase in miscarriages. But it’s impossible to attach these deaths to a specific fire, and it’s impossible to get any insurance or compensation.

People were suffocating and there was no one to blame.

 

III.

 

Why did fires occur?

Officially, the fires were explained by abnormal weather: high temperature in the absence of rains, dry thunderstorms, short snow cover in winter. They talked about thirty-degree heat and lightning strikes.

But Russian WWF, on the contrary, claimed that in 95% of cases, forest fires are anthropogenic.5 From natural causes—lightning or abnormal heat—conflagrations rarely appear.

Most of the fires are man-made; they occurred mainly as a result of forest felling, because of the burning of logging residues. Often, people deliberately light fires to get rid of old, dry grass. Bonfires and cigarette butts can also contribute. It’s a small contribution, but a contribution nonetheless; one more zharok on the funeral pyre.

These small fires could definitely have been put out right away, but the local authorities refused to, leading to the large outbreaks, which turned into an unsolvable problem: all we could do was wait for the rain. The situation got out of control precisely because it was decided not to extinguish the fires while they were small. Officials tried to attribute everything to nature, because it was convenient to look for an excuse in the elements, in processes that we cannot control.

My home was on fire, and it was impossible to save it.

 

IV.

 

What for the future?

According to Greenpeace, by the beginning of August 2019, fires in Siberia reached record levels in the entire history of observation, since 2001: in acreage of burning area, burnt woodland, and the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.6 Each year, on average, three times more forest dies in fires than the forestry industry processes. Forest resources are already scarce—because of fires and because of logging—and it will only grow worse.

The unusually powerful and rapid spread of fires is connected to the environmental situation. Climate change leads to more extreme weather events: somewhere it rains for a long time, somewhere, on the contrary, severe droughts occur, leading to wildfires. In Russia, the Irkutsk region faced both in 2019: at the beginning of summer, the flood, then—savage forest fires.

Wildfires happen in nature. Each ecosystem has its disturbance regime. For pinewood, fires occur once every 50-100 years as part of normal forest dynamics. Some areas burn out, and new ecological communities hatch upon them, while protected areas remain in good condition. The pine has thick bark, and it’s quite resistant to fires. In burned areas, windthrows wrest out dead roots, exposing new soil—and plants that cannot germinate in dense underlay sprout here. On this mineralized surface, they can thrive. This process contributes to the normal functioning of large ecological systems.

When industrialized humans intervene in this system, instead of igniting once every 100 years, the forest combusts once every two or three years, and in some places even more often. And the climate imbalance means minimal foci of ignition lead to much greater consequences. A technogenic wildfire is not a fire that renews the ecosystem—but one that degrades and in places even eliminates it. Zharki will grow here no longer.

Climate change is merciless, and it prisons us all.

 

V.

 

It’s been more than a year since wildfires came. Many forests over the world experienced the same loss and sorrow and ire.

The fire came with a vengeance, not just for wood, but for us, with grief and resentment, so sharp and full of contempt.

The fires come from tradition, ignorance, insufficient funding, thoughtless legislation. From illegal logging, littering, a carefree attitude to nature. From poor communication. And most of all: from an unwillingness to see the problem as a problem until it knocks on the door with lurid fists.

The fire comes from corporations that turn the atmosphere into a greenhouse. They cut down trees, strip off their bark, flay, manufacture, grind, kiln, soak, compress, make paper and write on it about the terrible state of the forests.

The fires come from us. Because we burn logging residues, because we leave bonfires, because we throw cigarette butts, and because we refuse to extinguish what can be extinguished. All this—in conditions of heat, of drought and strong wind —grows more extreme and more dangerous.

The fire comes from officials, from the government; from the comforting thought that fighting natural phenomena is pointless (and perhaps even harmful). From our failure to consider nature as a fundamentally essential resource, rather than as something that can be priced and sold.

Taiga, somehow, forgave us so much. It forgave us Gulags, and katorga, and Decembrists, and hidden bones, and taking and taking and taking and never taking enough. I wonder if it forgives being neglected.

We say that taiga sings. The choir of the trees is not a hymn nor a dirge; it’s a lullaby, and with it, a memory.

Now my home is on fire; we cannot redeem it.

Notes

1. https://aviales.ru/popup.aspx?news=5549 (English machine translation)

2. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4032981 (English machine translation)

3. https://ngs.ru/text/summer/2019/07/26/66174625/ (English machine translation)

4. https://ecfor.ru/publication/lesnoj-pozhar-sibir-ekonomika/ (English machine translation)

5. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4046333#id1776662 (English machine translation)

6. https://greenpeace.ru/blogs/2019/08/05/lesnye-pozhary-v-sibiri-jeto-klimaticheskij-krizis/ (English machine translation)

What We Have At the End of the World

In a way, hope is a failure of imagination. In a way, it is a flourishing.

It is a failure because I cannot imagine the end. The world goes on, and on and on, even when we wish it would stop.

I know how bad it is. The emission levels, the microplastics, the pipelines, the species gone, the rogue genes introduced, the coral dying, the water rising. The infrastructure still damaged in Puerto Rico when I visit my great-uncle, the droughts and floods within the same week that destroy the soil of my mother’s farm in Illinois, a tornado in a Minnesotan December as I leave another message on my senator’s voicemail. I know.

But the end? That I cannot comprehend. There is a well of despair so deep I could fall forever, there is a grief so all-consuming it warps the edges of dimensions, melts reality like plastic trash on a campfire. Who could wrap their mind around that loss?

I am only human. I can only hold one emotion for so long.

In a way, hope is a flourishing of imagination. Because when we reject the surrender of the end, we must imagine going on in new ways. And there is no limit to the paths the authors have chosen in answering this submission call for complexity, complicity, and hope.

Always hope.

We become trees, exhaling oxygen and digging our roots into eroding shores; we become islands, and rise up. We endow the soil itself with artificial intelligence and willingly place our fate in its hands. We speak with fungi, and we speak with our family, and all of the conversations are hard and necessary. We grapple with a monstrous, enduring capitalism, and reach out for each other as it tries to trap us within ourselves. Even when we are no longer on the planet, there are echoes of us and our actions in the relationships of the lives, natural and mechanical, we leave behind. We become ghosts but it never stops mattering that we were here, that we did what we could.

We go on and on and on. Together.

It is not utopia. But it is what we can have, these careful negotiations, communications, challenges, and sharing. We have relationships. New, complicated, frustrating, rewarding. Alive.

Relationships are what we have at the end of the world. The world is ending right now.

Hello. Nice to meet you. Please sit down. Are you warm? I have made my mother’s herbal tea. I have made soup from a local butcher and a CSA. I have made cookies from lard and wheat flour and sugar whose history is drenched in blood; they sparkle in the light. Please eat. It’s cold outside, for now. Tell me what you imagine.

The world is also beginning.

On Making Peace With Time When Time Has Lost All Meaning

I have resisted writing a Pandemic [insert “poem/story/essay/play/song”] just as I have resisted writing a BLM [____], or a #MeToo [____]. Those borders, those things that can be designated and specificated have given me pause as far as I can remember.

In part it comes from perpetual rage: I want to write about all the worldwide historical injustices faced by Black women, about all the times powerful structures have failed marginalized people during globalized socioeconomic collapses. I want to write about all the moments when being alive on this planet felt like boarding an unsound ship.

When one lives in a tottering world, within a body and an identity frequently threatened, between multiple cultures that blurry the notion of belonging, and in an age that often disappoints in mundane, comical ways, the refusal to moor oneself to a place, any place, can be (ironically) grounding. Liberating, at the very least; because when everything feels terrible, as it too frequently does, it comes heavy. Immobilizing.

 

I have resisted, because surely, I tell myself, we are more than the random era into which we have been tossed together. The stories we tell are universal (the cyclical nature of History being some proof of this), similar accounts and heartaches reverberating simultaneously in every curious pocket of the world. How else to explain how the same folktale can pop up across unrelated cultures? How a same chord progression can transcend centuries and completely different instruments?

I imagine there’s vanity in there too: if I don’t point out when this particular story emerged in me, then perhaps in a thousand years, someone can consider it as a free and formless thing. Perhaps this story can live forever.

 

When pondering the Poetry and Nonfiction call for submissions for Reckoning 6, then, I deferred to that old determination: do not say pandemic-inspired, do not say 2020 racial injustice protests, or climate change school strike. Nothing, in short, that would contract the scope to this here Moment. If we received those pieces, all the better, because of course I wanted them: but mostly, I hoped for those everyday experiences that transcended the greedy enclosures of Time. The seething meditations, the exhaustion exhalations, those rooted anguishes that come barreling down each person’s generational road.

 

These Major Historical Events: they seemingly confine suffering + its company (faith, grief, clarity, disillusionment) to the dates that anchor them, as if that is where they generally start. Reflexively, the eye starts to look forward, for that other part, the end date, that indicates where it generally tapers off. It becomes a shorthand. There is an immediate accounting neither for those subtleties, nor for the enormity of every moment when something similarly calamitous—albeit quieter—has occurred.

These Major Historical Events: too often seen as catalysts, relegated to cause and effect, too seldom seen as uncoverers of what has always been there. We talk of colonization and the Civil Rights Movement and environmental racism as if the date of their coining effectively gave them more concrete life; as if everything that came before, the collection of separate events creating the momentum, were only leading up to that eruptive movement. As if everything after were merely the comedown from that Really Big Thing. If anything, it is convenient for those who are unwilling to recognize the constancy of injustice.

Even as a child, ever the cynic, I side-eyed the promises from the powers that be, instigated by the summit or protest of the day, knowing that even without them, the unglamorous and steady fight would go on. Knowing that when the moment passed, so too would the cacophonous and shallow empathy.

Maybe unfair, but I said I was a cynic.

 

It’s why I’ve done away with tangible places and dates in my stories, chasing instead the tantalizing flavors of uchronias, analogies, multiverses.

 

It’s why I’ve given in to the jolt of recognition when yet another person in the last two years declared “time has lost all meaning!”—my people! join the club!

 

It’s why I have worshipped any device that thumbed its nose at temporality, be it ghost stories and reincarnation and fortune telling, or a certain wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey flying police box.

 

But as most childhood cynicism goes, surprise, surprise: it buckles at first encounter with something so utterly unlike itself. My, how the poems and essays in this issue have proven me wrong. They are blazingly loud and searingly quiet and yes, funny, even. They are a sight to behold.

 

In a way, this call for submissions did more than I could have hoped for: namely it gave us devastating works of art that, borderless, might as well be speaking to a broad, almost abstract humanity.

But, it was also profoundly, unexpectedly humbling to challenge the notion that freezing a moment might reduce the scope of its significance: I sometimes forget how much it can intensify and honor it. We asked for environmental justice at the intersection of social justice—and indeed, every historical event existing under that umbrella is established, constant, neverending.

And yet, each poem, each essay, each story we got tells of what it meant, at that time, to that specific author. Every word, every line entrenched in the minutes, months, and eons that marked those who wrote them; in the specificity of a prancing second, in the gaping parentheses of a noteworthy couple of years. They make profound etches on the authors’ respective soft surfaces: I was There and Then. Whether about fleeting long-ago liminalities, emotions pinioned by constant rumination, or yes, even pandemic-inspired thoughts, they radiate Time.

 

Profoundly, unexpectedly humbling: to be reminded that it is not only futile, but also inadvisable to the integrity of a story, to try to disregard the weight of the moment that made it.

Just as too many people I love remember every setback—financial, emotional, personal—felt in the last couple of years; just as I remember every instance when my mother was told to go back to her country; just as the Lac Rose in Dakar remembers every foot that tickled its shores; so does this planet we’re on, surely, remember every time it was sorely wounded.

 

Cruel Time. Strange Time. Funny Time.

To any and all who need an overdue reconciliation with this baffling notion, I hope that this beautiful collection gives you a helping hand.

 

I still eye Time with suspicion, still dodge specifying questions; but making peace with it doesn’t seem so uncanny lately.

I imagine it’s like a brief closing of the hand around something small and floating, framing it just long enough that we are able to look, really look at it. And then, if we can, we let it go.

Facing Medusas

One thousand apologies to my great-grandfather and the generations of fishermen I come from. I want to be an astronaut.

#

In the summer of 2019, a box jellyfish, known colloquially as the seawasp, stung the girl’s left ankle. She had just resurfaced after a night dive and was stargazing, lying on her back and imagining the worlds miles above and below her. She’d turned the light attached to her gear off, remembering that all sorts of bioluminescent organisms fall for flashlights, when she heard another diver shout. She swam over, suddenly overcome by a weighty fear in the bottom of her abdomen. Something’s gonna eat me tonight.

#

The largest of the cubozoans, the seawasp can grow up to two meters long, from the tip of its bell to the end of its longest tentacle. It possesses no brain, but rather a decentralized network of nerves, with a ring connecting its internal functions to the stimuli of the outside world.

In short, the deadliest animal in the ocean is a freeform bag of nematocysts and water. The Kraken and Moby Dick and Leviathan quiver next to this brain-less, poison-filled sack of jelly. Our minds, inclined to hyperbole and fable fabrication, could not make this thing up.

#

Most nights, when the rain is hot on my hands and I can feel a storm forming, I wish I could talk to Captain Zip. My great-grandfather passed a few weeks before I was born, after falling and hitting his head on the side of a cast-iron tub. The only person in my family who could tell better stories than me.

I want to ask him about the sharks he escaped and the seahorses he saved from his nets. About the billions of phytoplankton that danced beneath the Miss Andrinna and full moons. About how easy it is to lose yourself at sea.

I want to ask him why I wasn’t born in the open ocean, scales and gills and tentacles more familiar to me than our neighbors and their mailboxes. My favorite songs are the gales made from hurricane wind and octopus breath. I know my amniotic fluid was all Gulf water.

I want Captain Zip to tell me about the barometric pressures and the sandbars and the schools of menhaden he loved, but most of all, I want him to tell me about the monsters.

#

It felt like kicking a bolt of lightning. One freestyle stroke and the girl had run into the deadliest creature in the ocean. Her leg seized up, and she shouted that she’d been stung. She was hauled onto the boat, her dive gear stripped, an entire bottle of vinegar poured on her leg. And then, her limbs began to seismically shimmy, the neurotoxins kicking in. The girl convulsed for six hours that night, falling in and out of a dream-state, imagining all the little harpoons digging through the skin in her leg and shooting up her bloodstream, into her heart.

She asked the woman she was with if she was going to die, without much animation. It felt like the proper, cinematic thing to do as they leafed through marine life guidebooks and tried to understand why her body was having such a bad reaction. Through the haze, it was determined that if she went into anaphylactic shock, she’d need to be airlifted. If she didn’t, they’d let her body “ride out the poisons.”

That night and into the morning, the girl wrote down all the people she loved in a bulleted list in her head. She imagined the different ways they might tell her story.

#

Unlike many of its cousins, Alatina alata has four eye-clusters with a total of twenty-four eyespots. Although scientists are unsure as to the connection between the nervous system and these eyes, they have concluded that the species reacts to dark shapes in its environment.

It’s been documented that these sea wasps achieve up to four knots while stalking their prey, contradictory to the normal planktonic methods of most jellyfish. This is to say—the thing hunts. It is a predator. It belongs amongst our daydreams and our nightmares of the ocean.

This is to say—it was not a passive sting.

#

On those nights of cyclones, I think about how Captain Zip, shrimper and fisherman and father, turned down hundreds of mermaids for my great-grandmother. He believed in them the same way I believe in aliens.

If there are no mermaids, I wonder what pearly, iridescent eyes he actually saw beneath those waves. What monsters clung to the bottom of his boat, painful barnacles too calcified to scrape off. I wonder what spell he fell under. If it’s hereditary.

He fled to the ocean again and again and again. He passed before he could recount his monsters to me, before he could paint pictures on the insides of my eyelids before I slept.

On those nights I can’t fall asleep, I want him to tell me the genesis story of his fear.

#

If she could do it again, the girl would drape herself in pantyhose and stay far away from the flashlights. She would swim with her legs parallel to the surface instead of straight down. She would keep her mask glued to the water, not the stars.

But even now, she knows she would ignore the tiny voice in her gut, the one whispering of her trespass in a world she doesn’t belong in. The one silently screaming danger.

#

Since humanity first began telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the predators that remind us of our place. The mountain lions and tiger sharks and sea snakes and grizzly bears that have prowled the shadows of our cave drawings have also been the evils of our oral histories, and despite the growing separation between man and nature, we are still, today, fascinated by the creatures that could kill us.

These beings dictate a story we are not familiar with, one in which we are no longer the center of everything. With them, we are a cog, a part of a chain, reminded of the dirt within our blood. We revere their power and fear their potential. We give these creatures more legs and spikes and slime and poison until we have something that makes our hearts pound at the mention of its name. We mix their stories with our own.

They become the monsters of our God.

#

Most days, she thinks about Irukandji syndrome, the long-term effects of envenomation by box jellyfish. About cardiac arrest and hypertension and she convinces herself she has an enlarged heart for more than just emotional reasons. She thinks about her favorite Irukandji symptom, a feeling of impending doom. She wonders if that’s truly just reserved for people on the verge of death, or whether we all feel those effects. Impending doom. Our fear of the end.

A brief glance at the final pages of the narrative.

#

Despite the seven-inch constellation on the back of my leg and the phantom shakes I get when my nerves set in, this girl returns to the ocean again and again and again. She stares for hours into the salt water and prays for the universe to open up to her, to let her explore the infinite blue-tinted spaces she needs to be a part of. She retells the fish fables that run through the estuaries of her family.

I must admit that my gulf swims are a little more hesitant now. I wade out into the water with my eyes on the surface, shuddering at the shreds of plastic bags and Sargassum seaweed that climb up my legs. I think about the slippery things that rule the waves, about how easily I could be taken under.

Once ashore, I grapple with my strange fondness of this unknown, my odd comfort in the places that speak of everything but safety. About my need to fill the empty, terrifying spaces with story.

#

Tonight, with my fingertips dipping into waves, I imagine what I’ll tell my children when I get back from space.

The unbreathable air. The deep, unblinking abysses. The edges of matter that expand and contract like tides. Alien creatures that stalk our shadows, beings that look at us the way we look at them.

I decide that when typhoons touch the edges of our town and my children climb into bed with me, I will tell them that they have inherited the best parts of storytelling from Captain Zip. I will promise them that they will grow into their craving for danger, just like their mama.

With their warm fingers wrapped around mine, I’ll tell them the story of a girl who almost died at sea, just looking for a place to be weightless.

On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

The forest preserve district wants me to cut down trees. With a saw in one hand and loppers in the other, I oblige.

As a child I got my destructive tendencies out in videogames and martial arts. Beating all of my friends at Street Fighter—and gloating about it—was fine. Plucking flowers was not. Even the ubiquitous dandelions like tiny weak suns in the lawn grass were meant to be seen, and only pulled once transmogrified to puffball form, wanting dispersal.

At the beginning of May this year, I ripped those vivid yellow heads off every single dandelion in my parents’ yard, and then when more had bloomed the next day I did it again.

After I’d dumped the pile of them into the trash, I went to the little patch of trees across the street. The grass here was sparse, a bloom of mushrooms welled from the drying mud. I squatted down and took a minute to admire a single violet plant. Heart shaped leaves framed purple flowers. The flowers are easily recognized even when they aren’t purple. The white ones are indigo-streaked to lead in the pollinators, but my favorite, for the irony and more, are the yellow violets. They are bright, though nestled close to the ground, and not as shiny as the five-petaled swamp buttercups that, as their name suggests, thrive alongside Illinois’ transient and permanent wetlands.

All these native plants and more—the mayapples, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, woodland phlox; and those are only the current season’s more common flowers—evolved to thrive in specific conditions. Varying degrees of sunlight and wetness will even introduce variations within a species. The most vivid specimen of spring beauties I have ever seen, with shocking pink anthers that would put Barbie to shame, was about a minute after my sneaker filled with muddy water because of snowmelt on the unpaved trail. But I’ve also seen them growing in flocks in the grass, out in full sun, the characteristic pink lines on their petals faded to a more solemn hue.

But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.

Garlic mustard pops up in the spring, leaves somewhat reminiscent of violets’, with little clusters of four-petaled white flowers. The roots smell like garlic, which is how it got the name, and it generates chemicals that kill its neighbors. When I see it, I rip it out—it’s not as persistent as dandelion. My family finds this very annoying when we’re out walking, but how can I squander the privilege of this knowledge, this access to the woodlands?

Before I found the local forest preserve, I joined whatever volunteer opportunities in habitat restoration came my way. Some of these included local youth. They came from various backgrounds, but the important thing was they were interested in the program, even when their destructive tendencies were less delicate than mine.

One year we were supposed to take a group of middle schoolers to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood, which had its nature overwritten in concrete and scraggly grass. Of course, a group of middle schoolers and a few adults can’t dig all the holes needed for oak saplings. So the plan was—if I remember correctly—for the community service workers to dig the holes, leaving the saplings with their root balls for the kids to plop in and cover with dirt. Satisfying, right?

When we got there, there had been a mix up. The holes were not dug and there were only a few saplings.

Unable to do anything, the leader improvised a plan: cleanup. We would walk around picking up trash. Dime bags the kids didn’t understand (and we didn’t explain), thankfully—that time—no condom wrappers, and the litter of any place, even those where everyone has a reusable tote bag. Organic bars come in the same metallic wraps as their cheaper cousins.

We came to a tree, a slim thing caged by its surroundings, spreading thin leaves despite the mound of cigarette butts around it.

I’ll never forget the look on the kids’ faces. Why would people make such a mess, right there? It was a learning opportunity, to see the bar across the street and recall the order banning indoors smoking. Unintended consequences. Easily changed by being mindful of one’s own behavior. They cared, and I hope still care. I hope that when they are adults out on field trips, they don’t have to try to hide, at the end of an otherwise excellent kayak up our manmade lagoons, surrounded by squawking birds and shy turtles and the sinuous movement of water gliders, in the middle of the clear summer sky a blot of a cormorant dangling from a tree by the fishing line stuck in its throat.

My pathetic diversion didn’t work, because these were curious kids with functioning eyes and senses attuned after a solid hour looking for animals. But it didn’t stop them from continuing to participate in learning about and restoring nature. Not everything we do outside has to be a conquest.

Buckthorn, like garlic mustard, is allelopathic. It releases chemicals that kill its neighbors. There was one morning where, I swear, the second the last virulent orange trunk hit the earth, the frogs struck up their song, sunlight warming the newly cleared space. Thankfully buckthorn doesn’t grow amid standing water, but it had been close to the edge.

While it’s incredibly satisfying to yell “Timber!” as the creaking turns into a crash, the buckthorn isn’t actually dead. The thing about invasives is they’re not immigrants or foreigners, they are colonists. Killing their competitors is only the first step: they have to be able to grow and reproduce, too. As long as its roots are alive, buckthorn has the opportunity to send up whippy shoots en masse. When these have the opportunity to grow, they create a whole tangle that’s hard to cut down, tangled trunks and branches, and of course the thorns they’re named after.

The only solution is to destroy even the roots, by painting a herbicide onto the trunks that will leach through.

You may have heard of this one.

It’s called glyphosate.

When it’s not damaging farm workers and bees, glyphosate is saving habitats by killing off the invasives that destroy our habitats, the rare plants and animals which adapted to their niches over the course of millennia, only to be derailed by a succession of introductions both intentional and otherwise.

Paying extra for organic produce, living in a place with enough volunteers and staff to maintain the woods that release crisp, fresh air from their rich green leaves, the carpet of moss and grass and flowers underfoot attracting birds that sit up in the branches and trill away, with no consideration for an amateur photographer—it is easy to not understand why things like glyphosate still exist, are still used.

But until there is another solution, our options are limited. We cannot go back in time to save that biodiversity before it ever became threatened, before the pale furl of a blue flag iris beneath its stiff proud leaves became a rare event. We must move forward.

Until there are better options, I will be in the forest, sawing down trees and pulling weeds, with the other regular volunteers and student groups that still, in the middle of a million other assaults on nature, take the time to try and heal this piece.

You’re invited.

No More Creepy Crawlies

There are no creepy crawlies hiding in my garden. I know, because I’ve checked.

The compost, under-turned and full of fresh scraps, should have attracted all manner of bugs and buzzers. The tree hanging overhead should be bowing down with orb weavers, feasting on the to-and-fro flitting parade. The bushes should be moving, rustling, going bump in the night as our insectivore friends come out to play.

There should be corpses. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and nothing lives forever. There should be bits, unglamorous chunks, remnants of private, unseen disputes as the hierarchy of predator and prey is reinforced. A feather, a tuft, a tail. There should be beetles and millipedes and worms, seething and swarming, biting and gnawing, beginning the process of making dirt from flesh.

Should be.

#

It’s amazing what you see when you pay attention. Keep your head up, they say, as if the world below isn’t stuffed to the brim with detail. In the great documentary of life, all the trailer snapshots might be happening in the trees and tall grass, but the meat-and-bones production work happens beneath our feet. The detail work, the foundations—the catering.

As a kid in the ‘Lucky Country’ of Australia, that was all I did: look down. Oh, sure, I looked up sometimes—birds and possums and spiderwebs all demand at least a little attention—but down below, things crawled. Spiders and hoppers scattered from leaf litter, careening off to safety from clumsy hands. The damp spaces under school demountables practically hoarded slugs, snails, frogs, and enough slime and gunk to definitively ruin a school uniform. Multicoloured ants swarmed the playground boundaries. The yellow-arsed ones taste like honey—honest! Go on, give it a try!

The trail up past my local golf course held so many lizards I ran out of memory on my tiny brick cellphone capturing them all in an afternoon. Christmas beetles invaded the damn living room every single summer, no matter what.

And always, always, there was the possibility of the unfiltered joy of a fistfull of dirt and the unearthing of something small, wriggling, and absolutely unsanitary.

#

I’ve lived just north of Sydney pretty much my entire life. I never moved away, and I never stopped digging. I think everything else might have moved, though.

When I dig into the ground now, I find more plastic debris than worms. Hell, I don’t find any worms at all. We’ve got a few crawlers like the ever-dependable pillbug, but not much else. The joy I find in dirt is very much filtered.

I’m not really supposed to dig, of course—the strata and homeowners associations don’t want to disrupt the neat, even, conformist rectangles of yellow-brown dying vegetation. I dig, though, keeping all the plastic I find in an unmarked bag in my tool cupboard. Couldn’t really tell you why I keep it. The worry, maybe, that if I throw it all out it’ll just end up in someone else’s dirt.

We have rules and expectations, and they must be stuck to. No leaf litter. Dead grass, wilting in the summer heat as the dirt dries and roots burn, unshaded and unnourished by its blades cropped too short, far too short. No “untidy” native lawn, no “weeds”, and absolutely no food crops. These are the rules and expectations. A system, designed from the ground up to sabotage itself across months and years.

Council-managed strips wilt, full of water-hungry non-natives. Succulents, everyone’s favourite low-maintenance plant, creep like an invasive carpet, providing no shelter at all, barely holding the dry and cracking dirt in place. I plant what I can in places I’m not allowed, but I can’t always plant food. We have a whole website and mail-in service that tells you whether your soil, the damn ground beneath your feet, is too contaminated with metals to safely grow food in. This is normal, of course. The kids play and the jacaranda trees bloom, and I wonder what little joys they simply never see.

I bite my tongue and keep my head down, keep looking. There’s definitely evidence of death. Corpses, the byproducts of a suburbia red in bloody cats and cars. Lying by the side of the road, deposited by feline indifference or automobile impacts, the possums, bats, and rats come to rest. Always whole, sometimes flat. They don’t rot or get eaten; just mummify, slowly, in the beating sun. Ignored by pedestrians. I make a point of taking them away and burying them. Feeding the soil. Sometimes, there are flies and maggots. Sometimes.

Our local council cares, though. Cares about the environment! About the animals! These pests might hurt our cats, so we poison them, bait them, trap them. Gas them. Hunt them down and ferret them out. A petition saved a den of people-shy foxes from being gassed, but for every indignant act of suburban outrage, there are dozens of systematic plagues against nature.

Suburbia. So damn sterile you grow to miss the cockroaches—yeah, even the ones as long as your thumb. The ones that fly. Can hardly believe it, but I miss them.

#

I used to dream of escaping up north to tropical Queensland, but when I visit there are always fewer clouds and more bones, more cane toads and dust. Farmers north and west don’t seem to be doing much better—parched by the drought, then flooded by storms that the dead ground can’t absorb. We shrug. Our supermarkets raise their prices to help farmers, but somewhere along the line forget to pass on the money. Everyone shrugs.

It goes without saying that our reefs are bleached and dying. That’s not news anymore. We know this. We’ve accepted it. Internalised it. We don’t even shrug.

I used to look with hope to the mountains and the coast, surely untouched by the creeping rot of suburban sprawl; no coddled cat vanguard, no lead in the soil, no strata rules. I looked to the same mountains and coast whose rivers are now clogged with algae and dead fish. The same mountains and coast that have burned, cloaking Sydney in hazy orange, hungrily devouring millions of acres of bushland in a single sweep. Thousands of homes, dozens of people. We shrug.

It’s been more than a month, and not a single day goes by without the smell of smoke hanging thick in the air. Ash drifts from the sky. The sun rises and sets a vile, neon red, so shrouded by smoke that it’s dull enough to look directly at, dull enough to be mistaken for the moon. Mood lighting, if I’ve ever seen it.

“Oh, it’s all theoretical. It doesn’t affect us! I’ll believe it when I see it,” they say, as the sky fills with smoke and the earth shrivels dry. “We have to think about jobs and growth. We’re a nation of innovators,” they say, as our livelihoods crumble and we repeat our mistakes over and over and over and—

I don’t understand how we’re not all furious. Look down. Look down, you fuckers. Look down, beneath your feet, under your fingernails, at the debris in your lungs, and into the silent night. Dig your hands into the dust, watch as it slips through your fingers—any damn metaphor it takes to get you to realise this country is dying around us.

Please. Look down.

#

These recollections were written on Gadigal land; land we have sorely mistreated. The Gadigal peoples are one of 29 clans that comprise the Eora Nation—traditional custodians of land we now call Sydney. Their sovereignty was never ceded.

Green Papayas on a Sunday Evening

TIDINGS

 

A harried wind has come

bearing in his arms

ill tidings.

 

Ratt-a-tatting timidly

on my door,

head hanging low,

hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind

pleads to be let in.

 

But I do not want him

in. I quickly shut my windows, and

stuff all the nooks and crannies.

I even cotton up my ears,

because I know.

 

Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind

has come to say?

 

He’s come to say the world is in utter disarray.

And, that I am weak and powerless. That I

can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing

but watch the horror unfold.

 

Perhaps I was being prescient when I wrote this poem before the world changed. I don’t know. All I know is that there is an odd stillness in my heart now. And the face of that woman selling green papayas is haunting me.

That Sunday evening seems like a distant dream today. We left the city of Hyderabad a few Sundays ago, and are still settling down in our own home, even as I write this piece. The shadow of the virus dims our sun. The numbers have climbed up so high, India now practically leads the global pandemic. Covid 19 has swept out from the cities into the hinterlands, where basic healthcare is negligent, forget Covid care. The virus has even entered our tiny community of seventy-two homes. An eerie silence wheels around the children’s play area. And that mainstay of Indian homes, the daily help, is missing. The sharp edges of people have softened since the early days of Covid. Neighbours are no longer discriminatory towards those in quarantine. Our face masks have created a fraternity which wasn’t there before. There is little difference between our lives in Hyderabad and Chennai. Except that here, in lieu of a large balcony, I have a terrace I can run up to, and stand beneath a vast rolling sky. It provides a respite from the walls. In Hyderabad, we needed to rush out of our homes just to get some fresh air.

That Sunday was no different. My husband and I drove towards Hyderabad’s older parts, where people live cheek by jowl, and the shops are open-to-the-sky carts and wooden platforms. Hyderabad’s historical monuments, the Golkonda fort, Kutab Shahi tombs and further down, the Charminar and Falak Nama Palace, are located there. I wanted to see them as we drove past. So, we went, armed with face masks, hand sanitisers, a large bottle of water, and a shopping bag, in case we found something to buy!

We cruised around, safe inside our mobile egg (that is what Arvind Adiga called cars in his Booker award winning book ‘The White Tiger’). The evening sky had turned into a violet velvet cape, pinned up by the brightest Jupiter of the year. The narrow roads were chock-a-block with people. It was in fact a scene straight out of a village fair, a mela. There were men selling shocking pink cotton candy on sticks, balloons, cheap plastic toys, spicy crispy fried snacks in newspaper cones, corn on the cobs roasting on charcoal stoves on trolleys. People sat with their wares laid out on plastic sheets on the dirt tracks beside the narrow road. Second-hand clothes, rubber footwear, folding umbrellas, fruits and vegetables.

Nobody seemed to care about safety. Most of them did not have masks on. They were obviously not practising social distancing, but were laughing, talking, backslapping and hugging each other with abandon. Some women and children crowded around a handpump, gossiping or playing as they waited their turn to draw water. The scene was a far cry from the other India of glass and concrete towers, air-conditioned homes and malls, and all the necessities and luxuries available in all developed countries. A world we too are privy to.

If anything, Covid 19 has outlined the thousand-headed social divide in India with thick black indelible lines. The have-nots out-number the haves by far despite the strides India has made in the past decade. Online classes are a privilege the majority of Indian school children cannot afford. What the world knows about India is always a few notches off the mark, whether it is the good, the bad or the ugly. This subject is so complex and convoluted that it cannot be explained away in a few lines or even chapters! But if I were to draw a quick sketch, I’d say that those who are subjugated and deprived in India face it from so many angles that they have no fear left. They leave it all to fate. In their world, they have only each other. This was the spirit I observed all around me from behind my rolled-up car window, as we negotiated our way past the human throngs, stray goats and cows, and unruly traffic. And, we also saw the papayas!

“Want to pick up a few?” said my husband in all seriousness.

The woman selling the fruit understood from long experience that she had a potential customer. Her body shifted, almost imperceptibly. I knew if I gestured, she would bring a few over for me to choose.

Raw-green papayas are nutritious and delicious. Their most famous avatar may be the Thai salad, but their buttery texture when boiled and mashed makes them a great substitute for mashed potatoes with roast pork or beef. A pat of butter, salt and pepper is all you need. Bengalis, like us, love them grated and steamed with whole aromatic spices like bay leaves, green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, and topped with shredded coconut and clarified butter. My mouth watered. It had been a while since we had eaten them. Even from a distance, and in the fading light, I could tell how fresh these were. Glossy jade green, with their cut stems still oozing the milky sap.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” I said, even as my fingers itched to touch them. “I mean, nobody’s following any safety rules here.”

My husband swerved just then, taking most of the car out of the road and onto the dirt track. A gleaming Range Rover Autobiography muscled its way forward. A man in his late thirties or early forties was at the wheel. He barely noticed our much smaller vehicle. Irritated, I looked away. At that instant the eyes of the woman with the perfect green papayas met mine. She smiled with compassion at this privileged woman, fearful of the poor and angry at the uber rich. Her eyes seemed to fling questions at me: Would I recoil if my hands involuntarily touched hers? Would I rush home to disinfect myself?

We drove back home without the coveted papayas. Some weeks later we relocated. The young men from the packers and movers kept their masks on in our presence. But took them off blithely during their lunch break. To them we were delicate creatures, not of robust flesh and blood like themselves. Yet we are all brethren under the Indian sky. And, if the little poem I wrote was prescient, my sentiments were wrong. One can always do something, no matter how insignificant. That small something may be a thought in the mind or a feeling, but it is still a shift towards change.

Gratitude for what we have. Frugal and mindful living. Respect for this world and all in it. And outrage at what we have knowingly and unknowingly done. These may sound like platitudes mouthed by a woman living a sheltered life, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

From the Editors

Winter comes (in Provence, it looks much the same as summer from a distance, only crisp and windier), and with it the end of a long, harrowing year. A year of sorrow, for the families of a million and a half. A year of change, some say, though change may be less eagerly anticipated than a return to normal. An opportunity to take a break, for a lucky few, to think, to watch, to wonder. To realise that, no matter how sheltered, no one is safe from the brutal consequences of environmental destruction.

As I asked short story authors to share their sense of wonder with us, to stop and look at the world and report on the beauties they glimpsed there, I had no idea how relevant that question would be, a year later. Yet as the virus came to us out of destroyed forests and ravaged species, the question of the cost of sheltered lifestyles is more pressing than ever. How can we protect our environment if we are hardly ever reminded that it exists? Living in the heart of cities, it is far too easy to forget that there is such a thing as nature, messy, scary and uncontrollable, when trees around us are slashed into submission every year, weeds plucked out of pavements and birds driven out with spikes and hoses. Nature is no longer a fact of life, but a rumour, a holiday experience. Our lives have adjusted around its absence.

There are reports that as covid numbers soar, sales of scented candles drop, as customers report on their disappointing lack of smell. Whether it is true or not, the realisation gives one pause: we live in a world where it is plausible to imagine that thousands of people would fail to realise that they’ve lost one of their senses, so little do they use it in their lives. It is equally disturbing to hear the phrase ‘augmented reality’ used, without irony, to refer to games that restrict reality to pixels on a palm-sized screen. The enormity of the loss, when the reality itself of the world we live in, its weight, its sensorial presence, has faded away from our lives should no longer be allowed to go unnoticed.

But it would be far too easy to answer with nostalgia. There is no utopian past to go back to; we are the direct result of the centuries that preceded us, where nature was an enemy, a poison, an endless source of fear. We did not descend from a golden age. But maybe we can make it come true.

So let’s make it happen. Let’s head towards a world where the ground under our feet crawls with life, and we don’t call it vermin. A world where glyphosate is only allowed to keep existing to rectify past mistakes, where trees grow free and rivers run clean, where the people who live off untamed forests and tundras no longer have to fight for dignity and peace, where the beasts that terrify us are left alone rather than slaughtered, when we turn the mistakes of our past into something that can thrive again.

This is a time of waiting, of stillness, but only if we accept it so.

When winter descends on Provence, the north wind sometimes turns the sky into the purest, brightest shade of blue. Such stillness can only come from the deepest turmoil, air twirling above in mighty currents, even though we cannot see it. Only when we look down to the ground do we notice the trees swaying. Only when we pause at last to look at what stands right in front of us do we realise that movement is in the nature of the world, and it only takes a strong will to steer it where we want it to go.

The present is clay, sitting cool and wet in the palm of your hand. Squash it, twist it, mold it. Shape it into something beautiful.