The Solace of Connection

“Thank God we have the work,” my godmother and I keep saying to each other, “thank God we have the work, I don’t know what we’d do without the work.” She’s a painter, and I write. We said it last year when my dad, her big brother, died unexpectedly. We’re saying it now.

Everyone copes differently with stress. For me, writing is a solace, but I sometimes get afraid of saying so because people use that as a bludgeon on themselves: if someone else can do it, why can’t I? Because people vary. People and circumstances vary. So in addition to the novel I’m still revising, I’ve written two stories I wouldn’t have thought of without this, not about plagues or pandemics or anything like that, but still, two completely new from scratch stories. This happened when my dad was in the hospital, too. Different things came to me. The exhaustion came later.

What kind of world will that exhaustion come into? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think any of us does. My hope is that we will have an awareness of how connected we all are, whatever happens. There will be terrible losses, both of people and of the kind of small, quirky institution that does some of the best work for change. We are long past the point where we can pretend that those losses won’t happen, and to do so would be inhumane. But I do have some faint hope that while we will mourn them individually, we will come away with a clearer understanding of what kind of global ecosystem we really do live in. We can’t say, “this is China’s problem,” or “this is Italy’s problem.” Like so much else, it is a human problem, it is a global problem.

The very act of trying to isolate shows us how isolated we aren’t, we can’t be. I hope we’ll remember and learn from that. Since we have to be here, we might as well look around, look closely, and try to learn something. I hope it’s that no one is truly isolated. I hope it’s that none of us, not one of us, is expendable.

 

—March 28, 2020

Xoxoxoxoxo

I’m bad at leaving. My friends Monica and Jeff hosted a high school graduation party for their daughter Juliana on the back patio of an Oakmont restaurant. They served barbecued chicken and steak kabobs and deep-fried chicken rolls. I drank an eight-ounce glass of wine, which contributed to my not leaving. I told Erik I’d be home by 7, but at 7:30 I texted him to say I was on my way home. It took another half an hour to say goodbye to Leilah and Eric and Annette. I said goodbye to Monica and Jeff twice. I promised Tia we’d make real fried chicken this summer. I hugged Gioia Woods and asked her one more time about how happy her daughter was at Flagstaff High School. I’m spending half my time fretting over where my kids go to school. School choice, like leaving a party, is a miserable thing and takes too long. Rip it off like a Band-Aid. Pick a school. Go home. Leave before kissing Juliana congratulations one more time.

So I do leave, but I bring Karen home with me because if she’s still with me, then the party is not over, even though I really do need to go to bed so I can wake up and pack for Iceland where I get to see you and we can talk about Y and Z.

But then at my house, there’s more wine and more talk about school choice, and Erik comes to hang out even though he swore he was just going to stay in the other room and fall asleep on the couch because he doesn’t have the same relationship to party and people that I have. But really, he does like people and parties and so he has a beer and Karen stays and we have one too many glasses of wine, but that’s okay because it’s still a little chilly at night and the door is wide open and even though Max is asleep on the futon at the foot of our bed, Erik and I wrap our legs around each other all night so I don’t sleep that well, but I get up anyway and make the kids’ lunches and take the dogs for a run and get to work grading and editing and writing about saying goodbye, which I really hate to do.

Every day I don’t die is a good one. It makes me grateful, the prospect of death. Today the plants we call red hot pokers poked their red heads up like matchsticks, friction against sky blue air, and the blue flax, more moisture than friction, lives, and the kitten that got thrown out of a window lives. The kid with the cough lives and the kid who got lost in the forest lives.

Yesterday wasn’t as good a day. The kids immigrating from Libya drowned, and the girl who survived the Manchester bombings succumbed to her injuries, and Denis Johnson died, and although I didn’t love him as much as everyone else seems to on the Facebook, I still hate to say goodbye.

You and I will meet in Iceland where we will not have to say goodbye. The sun won’t set. We’ll stay up all night remembering how we began this project, on a different, warmer beach. We will sit and stare out at the old harbor and think that maybe one of these molecules of water has traveled all the way from the Southern Ocean (are we still calling it that?) to say not goodbye but hello to us. There will be no polar bears there to die, nor any reindeer, and even the puffin is extant enough to appear on the touristy menus.

Maybe if we never go home and maybe if the sun never sets and maybe if we figure out how to linger without drinking too much wine, we won’t have to say goodbye. We won’t have to come to a conclusion. We won’t have to sign off. The humpback whales. I can see it in the distance. They’re coming back. Maybe all intelligent life doesn’t destroy itself. Maybe it just bides its time.

 

Xoxoxoxoxo” originally appeared in The After-Normal in 2019.

Resource Extraction Zone

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town

Sometimes I have a great notion

To jump into the river and drown

—Leadbelly, “Goodnight Irene”

It’s been nine years since the last 500-year flood, which means we’re due for another one in five or ten. Climate change math: the only thing you know for sure is that the numbers are always the wrong order of magnitude.

In the last flood, Irene, I never saw a drop of water. I was high and dry in a second-floor apartment in a neighborhood that got lucky, running an experiment called Let’s Do Local News on the Internet, which had everybody around here pretty skeptical ‘til whole towns started washing away. Overnight, the idea of finding out what was happening before the paper came out next Wednesday began to look a lot more attractive. We spun up a 24-hour live blog, tracked washed-out roads and lists of the missing, and did our damnedest to let the rest of the clueless world know how badly our region had been shattered.

Two hours from civilization, and we might as well have been on the moon. On the Brian Lehrer morning news show, where they patched me in to talk about Prattsville being gone, they were bitching about the subway not running.

The flood before that, in 1996, didn’t have a name. It was freakish warm rain on top of three feet of January snow, and it liquefied the valley. The Batavia Kill behind our house became a sea. We got candles and flashlights, waited for the power to go out, and watched our neighbor’s chest freezer roll end over end through the hay field. I was home from college, and I had pinkeye, so in lieu of more exciting recovery work, they set me to ironing page after page of irreplaceable hand-written ledgers rescued from rising waters at the Margaretville Telephone Company, which kept the locations of all the phone poles.

When the next one hits, I want to be ready, so here I am. It’s September, the bank of the East Branch is heavy with goldenrods and asters, and the night air is still warm enough to be heady. One guy yells out to be careful, the river’s undercutting the bank where they mean to put the strainer into the water. Maybe they’d better find another spot. No, I shout, I can get down there! and scramble down the slick bank like a lizard, along with one of the few other women here. We got it! Hand it down to us! we yell.

I’m brand new on the fire department, I know what none of these parts and valves are called or how they work, and I’m fizzing with the joy of being useful.

The strainer, when it is handed down, proves to be a big perforated tube of steel, locked onto the end of the hose that feeds up the bank and into the chrome-and-glory fire truck waiting above. Heavy as the thing is, the current wants to bend the stiff hose and press the strainer back toward the bank, where it scrapes and bumps in the rocky shallows. We feed it into a deeper eddy, chock it in place with a rock. Useful, by God. Maybe I belong here.

Already a gorgeous monster, the truck is even more magnificent in the green and humid dark, floodlit in triumphant white. When the pump goes on, it makes a huge, thrilling, vibratory sound, the unmistakable sound of important men doing important things. Dials and gauges tremble. The third lieutenant is in charge of running the pump, and he squints at a red LED number display dithering along to the roar of the engine. He’s trying to bring the water pressure up to where the chief wants it. Somewhere in the night, on the other end of the mess of hoses and valves wending through the grass of the riverbank, between the overhanging trees and across Route 28, the water we’re pumping out of the river is leaping in a pretty parabola over the sewer treatment plant. The plant hasn’t caught fire, thank God. We’re doing our annual flow test, for practice, in case it ever does.

That’s the city’s water flowing through our hoses. The city’s sewer plant too, run on the city’s tax dollars, to protect the city’s nine million from the perpetual peril of our shit.

It’s New York City, of course. There isn’t any other city in the world; surely none worth mentioning. We say “the city,” because to say the whole and proper name makes you sound like a tacky fake cowboy in a commercial for salsa, and to say “New York,” like New Yorkers do, is to cede ground that belongs to us, too. We are New Yorkers.

That feels like a technicality, though, a sop to the politically irrelevant. Something Andrew Cuomo might say into a big foam cartoon microphone. So instead, maybe we’ll say we’re from Delaware County, as if that meant anything to anybody; there are too many Delawares just like there are too many New Yorks. We’re from Margaretville, population 560 and falling. We’re from the Catskills, a dark, inchoate place, with no clear boundaries. We’re upstate.

Never mind where we are. If you don’t know the place, it won’t mean anything to you. That’s why people come here, if they weren’t here already. To be nowhere, to get away, to taste that pure elixir.

The water is all the city’s. All the water there is: the river, the wet squelch of the grass, the puddles in potholes, the music of rain rolling off the roof of my old house and landing with a hollow ball-bearing blong on the propane tank in the yard. The land around here for miles is a wrinkled tarp with the Pepacton Reservoir weighing down the bottom of it. 140 billion gallons full to the brim, the Pepacton is the largest and the clearest of the six that filled up the old valleys long ago, and every drop that rolls downhill toward it is spoken for.

Of course the city made it. Of course they did. Only 15 years before the moon landing, and every bit as much of an engineering marvel. People remember; that scab isn’t fully healed yet. They bought what they could, condemned what they couldn’t, moved the graves and dammed up the whole valley. They’re still here. Their lawyers write our laws. They buy more and more of our land every year just so it can lie fallow, so cows won’t shit on it and people won’t build on it. So when it floods, like it does more and more often these days, all that washes down into the reservoirs is trees and rocks and mud, not cars and oil tanks and prizewinning Percherons and the entire contents of the local CVS pharmacy department. The city occupies us. They have their own upstate police force. Where did you think your goddamn water comes from?

In a descendant of the watershed, a full-throated disquisition on this topic is never far beneath the surface.

I have never witnessed anyone deliberately pissing off the Shavertown bridge into the Pepacton, but surely some son of the valley with the blood of drowned Arena in his veins makes a regular religion of it. Never mind. Worse things ended up in there during Irene. The solution to pollution is dilution.

The city is far, far larger than its maps. Beyond the five boroughs’ borders, beyond the thousandfold glittering points of light, beyond the listening ear of the last cell phone tower, lies the resource extraction zone. The poorer we become, the more valuable we are.

The city never stops buying land in the watershed. Year after year, there goes another old farm, another back forty sold off to the DEP. If the city ever stopped buying, the state Department of Health and the federal EPA would force them to build a water purification plant they can’t afford. But ask a local, and you’ll hear the inexorable logic of the paranoiac whose enemies are all too real: the city wants us gone. They’re trying to starve us out, a slow economic war of attrition. Squeeze our towns down into the narrow river valleys, so the floods that grow more wrathful with every generation can sweep them away. Endgame: Depopulation.

Mention any of this to a visiting downstater and watch their brow furrow with confusion. No one wants that. As a topic of concern to your average New Yorker, “people are living in your water supply” doesn’t even crack top ten.

They don’t have to want it. The ecological law of colonization requires no intent. Apply pressure on a critical resource. Watch it eat away at the community, little by little. Shift a variable, watch the landscape change.

Climate change will have winners and losers. The warming world will want more water. We have all we could ever need here, if we can manage to keep from starving, or drowning.

We are all under siege as the world warms: rising seas, rising rivers. The city has a $20 billion resiliency plan, overseen by a growing Office of Climate Policy and Programs. We have the volunteer fire department. Like the village it serves, it’s smaller and grayer than it was.

We drain the hoses and pack up the gear, which is just as much work as setting up for the flow test, and involves more slugs. Me and the other new guy on the department, we’re learning how to work as a pair to uncouple the big ring valves that plumb the hoses into the trucks, one of us holding the heavy metal coupling while the other whales away at it with a mallet. We’re not very good at it at first. We’re getting better.

If I can hack basic fire training, I’ll learn to do swift water rescues. Those who can probably should. At 43, I’m one of the younger ones. It’s long since time I stepped up to volunteer.

When the next flood hits, no one is coming for us.

Two Tides

We stand above the water when we stand at the water’s edge. The foreshore is elevated, offering protection against hurricanes that come with harvest moons. Williamsburg began with rowboats, and then came steamboats, and then a bridge, and then many forms of forgetting about the river.

Recently, we started to remember.

Williamsburg is not the Brooklyn that most people inhabit, but it’s the Brooklyn that most people talk about, the Brooklyn that has become an international brand. Before I moved to New York, I knew this neighbourhood’s narrative, that it had once been an industrial centre, and then a place where artists lived and worked, squatting in lofts, and that now tourists often spent a day there, returning to their homes to tell their friends that they went to Brooklyn, that they saw more than just Manhattan, and that it was really quite nice. I, too, once visited Williamsburg as a tourist, sampled artisanal chocolate and giggled at a neon sign outside an underwear store reading “LOVE, LUST, PANTIES.”

It is not only tourists talking about this part of Brooklyn, though. Sometimes it feels as if everybody in New York is at once complaining about Williamsburg and dreaming about Williamsburg. I myself have spent an hour on the subway travelling from my home in another Brooklyn neighbourhood, Sunset Park, and arrived with notebook and camera to look at a place that seems to slip through my fingers, more famous than understood. Williamsburg is a place with an outsized significance, like a bellwether for the twenty-first century. It is a microcosm of the larger city.

The world is changing, and Williamsburg is changing first.

Williamsburg was once a major manufacturing hub, an industrial centre considered a rival to Wall Street. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and Standard Oil had factories and refineries here. Domino Sugar’s factory is still standing, one of the last signs of those industrial decades, but it’s being converted into condominiums. After World War II, the role industry played in the life of the city changed, and factories fell vacant; jobs disappeared. In the 1980s and 1990s, rents in Manhattan began to increase and artists moved across the bridge, to Williamsburg.

The city has rezoned Williamsburg three times in the twenty-first century under the pressures of development. The City Council prioritized waterfront access and low- to mid-rise housing in 2002; Mayor Bloomberg presided over a major rezoning in 2005 that rendered the factories closest to the waterfront residential; and in 2009, the city tried again, attempting to correct the excesses of 2005, with a new zoning plan that claims to protect the character of certain inland streets by requiring that they remain residential and by creating height limits for new construction.

It may have been too late, or it may have provided the wrong incentives; Williamsburg is disappearing under scaffolding, replaced by computerised renderings of an anodyne future.

I attend a panel discussion, organised by Open House New York, that contemplates what we might learn from Williamsburg. Gregory Wessner, the organisation’s Executive Director, suggests that the changes taking place in this neighbourhood have “nothing to do with New York City,” but spring instead from changes in the way things are made today. Leah Archibald, Executive Director of Evergreen, claims the problem is money. In the last rezoning, the government agreed to create a twenty million dollar fund for manufacturing, but deposited money in it slowly, reaching only half of the promised total. Archibald’s job focuses on assisting working-class businesses in Williamsburg, trying to help these businesses find financing and navigate regulatory issues, and also in trying to get public acknowledgement of their continued presence.

“We probably lose a little more than we win,” she says.

There is no discussion, here, about the tide. We are not thinking about Williamsburg as the edge of Long Island, as a fortified coast. Access to the water was a reason that Williamsburg became an industrial center, and it’s a reason, now, that people want to live here. This is short-term thinking, because this neighbourhood will be submerged.

The waterfront was evacuated in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck. People taped up their windows and bought alcohol and snacks, caught taxis to hotels in Manhattan. The water rose above the shoreline, and sandbags sealed the entrances to towers. Further inland, too, there were flooded streets.

Another storm could turn Williamsburg into a peninsula and Greenpoint, just north, into a small archipelago. The tides are always getting higher.

Williamsburg’s rezoning was intended to promote affordable housing, but instead created an influx of luxury units, the most jarring of which are the towers clustered beside the pier for the East River Ferry. These are all glassy and forgettable, taken individually. These are non-places, bearing no trace or memory of what was before. They have no history. They have no connection to the earth. They have names like “THE EDGE.”

It could be anywhere in the world, perhaps, save for the Chrysler Building across the water. Those who live in Williamsburg and work in Manhattan—most of those living in these towers—have an enviable commute, boarding the ferry and jetting across to Midtown or south to the Financial District. This is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in New York City, which some people find hard to believe because Brooklyn, until Williamsburg, was the place where people moved when they couldn’t afford Manhattan. But you could go weeks, living here, without setting foot on a Brooklyn street.

There are benefits to building and living in towers. In theory, dense living frees up land for parkland and agriculture, meaning food can be produced and transported efficiently. In theory, these towers could relieve pressure on the market for apartments. But in Williamsburg, they don’t. Their main effect is to create a hard barrier between Brooklyn and the river, with only small paths between them for people to permeate.

I close my eyes outside a bar on Bedford Avenue and the crowds of people laughing, chattering over one another, sound almost like gulls calling out as they scavenge for food. I imagine animals that might replace people in the waterfront condominiums, picture birds perched on fifteenth floor balconies, lizards on the mezzanine, fish swimming up from the basement and over lobby tiles.

If we think of neighbourhoods for people in the same way that we think of ecosystems for animals, we remember that we don’t just need homes, but also jobs that suit us nearby, and food, too, that we can access and afford. Our conversations about gentrification often focus on affordable housing, but when applications for one such scheme in Greenpoint, just north of Williamsburg, closed recently, over half the applicants were rejected because they didn’t make enough money to rent the units. Developers speak of creating jobs, but the jobs they create aren’t the jobs that people want: hotels where there once were foundries.

I don’t know which species are, or will be, native to this habitat. I don’t know to whom Williamsburg belongs. The histories are obscured; the futures are uncertain.

Opposite the Brooklyn Brewery is the Wythe Hotel. “Everybody knows the Wythe Hotel,” says a woman with curly hair, as I stand on the street looking at a map. It’s in Wallpaper*’s guide to New York City. “The Wythe has given Brooklyn the grown-up hotel it deserves,” reads the guidebook.

“I don’t know if grown-up is the right adjective,” my companion says, looking at the crowd outside. I’m not sure about deserves.

The Wythe Hotel is a very busy place, with guests and visitors to the bar and restaurant constantly moving through the lobby and elevators. The staff are preparing for a wedding party later in the day. There are signs in a corner to direct visitors to the Northern Innovation Happy Hour. In the basement’s private dining room, I see a copy of Forbes’s ‘500’ issue lying atop a stack of boxes.

The Wythe Hotel used to be a barrel factory. There were still people working here when Morris Adjmi Architects were invited to work on the building’s conversion into a hotel. Jeremy Reed, giving us a tour of the hotel, points out the many features the architects chose to keep—the tracks in the ceiling, the details around the doors—and those they changed. The floors can hold a lot of weight, Reed tells us, because they’re made for heavy industry.

It’s a decadent hotel, in more ways than one. The owners, reportedly, were not concerned about making a profit, and the financial crisis bought Reed and his team the luxury of time to finesse their design before any construction took place. There’s a rooftop bar, where a cocktail called Brooklyn View costs $18: visitors look out across construction and warehouses, dusty lots, and the Brooklyn Brewery.

In the guest room, the focus is not on Williamsburg, but on Manhattan. The architects kept three of the building’s original façades, but cut off a bay on the building’s western side and replaced it with glass, differentiating the façade facing Manhattan from the others. In the guest room on the southwest corner, exposed brick obscures Brooklyn; glass, from floor to ceiling, directs the eye out of the hotel and beyond low-lying warehouses, west across the East River, to the city’s skyline.

The design is nice, and the architect is friendly, and perhaps the Wythe Hotel wouldn’t have felt quite so cruel in 2006, before Williamsburg fully became the place it is today. Reed tells us that the owner, looking for furniture, walked around the neighbourhood until he found somebody making beds, and then commissioned a prototype. The bed we see is beautiful, made of wood with rope stitching around the frame that suggests an old-fashioned box-spring. I wonder if the woodworker is still based in Williamsburg.

“These logos are all taken from companies that don’t exist anymore, to add authenticity,” says Reed, directing our eyes further down, to a brick wall opposite a lower floor.

On the evening Hurricane Sandy hit New York, in September of 2012, high tide was at 8:46 PM. The tide, that day, was not much higher than any day that year, but was accompanied by a nine-foot storm surge and high winds.

Kinfolk is less than a block from the Wythe Hotel, and it used to be a garage. Now it’s a coffee shop and a clothing store and a bar, with space for live music and other events. There’s a sign outside the clothing store reading “I spent half my money on liquor and fancy t-shirts. The other half . . . I wasted.”

John Berg, the architect who designed the interior, is meeting groups of visitors outside the entrance to the bar. The client told him that they wanted something that felt like it was designed by “an off-the-grid hippie mathematician from the Pacific Northwest,” and that caught his attention. Williamsburg has almost no trees and none of the dramatic coastline of the Pacific Northwest, but rather an artificial waterfront under which we’ve lost the real one. This neighbourhood is on every grid—even the streets line up as a grid. I am taken by the coolness of the concrete and the way the light filters down through the ceiling, made with Douglas firs from Washington State, but it must take an incredible lack of self-awareness to ask, in Williamsburg, for a design along these lines.

If you come on a Friday or Saturday night, Berg tells us, there are huge crowds of people and, outside, “a line of cabs to take you back to Manhattan.”

When Hurricane Sandy struck, some Williamsburg residents disobeyed the order to evacuate and stayed to watch, making their way to the forbidden waterfront. Some leaned against the winds on the pier, while police tape waved in the air behind them, and others held empty plastic bags up to the sky, holding the handles and attempting flight.

The water is a playground and a threat.

“As an architect,” Peter Zuspan says, “preservationists are my nemeses.”

We are in a room that Zuspan designed, a performance space with black lines crossing patterned white aluminium panels at a range of angles, disappearing into the dark voids that form doors and a recessed balcony. This room is at the centre of National Sawdust, a non-profit music venue in a brick building, once a sawdust factory.

The capital that allows National Sawdust to operate came from rising property prices, with a model in which investors own the building. The metal components in the sleek central room were made locally, though the manufacturer has since moved elsewhere in the borough. The neighbourhood’s development, here, has been leveraged to benefit local artists and local industries.

It feels impossible, in Williamsburg, to be pure in ideological commitments, to keep one’s place without allying oneself with the financial forces that are driving change. I think of the imaginative commitments of art and music as at odds with capitalism’s value systems. I think of architecture and design as fields with social commitments, as arts which aim to solve problems and create affordable solutions that work for everyone, and I forget that, for some, art and design are business opportunities, part of a process of creating products that sell.

It could be water that breaks the system, that resists in a way that people cannot. Water, already, is pushing at Williamsburg’s infrastructure. It will be necessary, soon, to close the tunnel through which the L Train, the neighbourhood’s main subway line, runs, in order to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. It only takes a tiny amount of rain, less than a quarter of an inch, before sewage tanks overflow, sending waste into Newtown Creek, just north of Williamsburg. We saw the hurricane as an anomaly, as an event, but the emergency is continuous, invisible to those looking elsewhere.

A few blocks south, at FACE Design and Fabrication, a woman in a floral dress is talking passionately, to a man who doesn’t seem impressed, about how she thinks “the community needs to see makers,” about how she’s trying to get spaces for industrial fabricators that people can visit, close to green spaces. Reuben, working in the next room, tells me they’re worried developers will notice them if the community does. It’s a noble intention, he suggests, to encourage general awareness that manufacturing is still taking place in Williamsburg, and isn’t just a thing of the past—but what if developers see another opportunity and come after the block they’re working on?

“I hope we can stay here,” Reuben says. FACE were pushed out of the East Village, and then the Meatpacking District, and then moved to another site in Williamsburg, on which condominiums now stand. The William Vale Hotel is close, and very visible, and Reuben tells us another hotel is going up beside it. I notice a sign reading “FOR LEASE” on a building across the road.

There are so many predators, ready to pounce.

In the evening, during the hurricane, after hours of sirens and loudspeakers urging evacuation, after the wind and rain had combined to scare everybody from the pier, after Williamsburg’s streets had filled with water, there were still people by the waterfront, watching, as the Con Ed Substation across the river exploded and lower Manhattan lost power. In a video taken that night, a crowd on a corner are illuminated by the explosion; they are silhouettes in raincoats surrounded by shimmering water. I think of Guy Debord’s idea of spectacle as something larger than people, something that people watch and absorb, silently, without forming a critical commentary. There is silence, for a moment, and then there is shock, exhilaration, voices saying “woah,” “fuck,” and, to the person holding the camera, “did you get that?”

We are thinking, in architecture, about how to disappear. We do not presume, now, that our buildings will last hundreds of years. We don’t think about buildings that will last forever, but celebrate the temporary, predict dilapidation, imagine surfaces wearing thin, structures breaking down entirely. It is wasteful; it is exciting.

Industry, of course, is not innocent either.

In 1978, a streak of oil appeared in Newtown Creek, and over fifty acres of soil is still contaminated today. On a map showing where chemical and petroleum spills have occurred, Williamsburg is covered in dots. There are brownfields and superfund sites everywhere.

We did not know, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, about the larger consequences of oil. We did not expect hurricanes or floods. We are nostalgic, now, for a flourishing industrial centre that we could not accept today. Williamsburg has always been tipping toward crisis.

In many places, contaminated soils overlap with floodplains. Nine months after Hurricane Sandy, samples showed that contamination from industrial areas had migrated to residential ones.

I suppose the basements will not fill with fish after all.

Across New York, the areas that flooded during Hurricane Sandy are being watched by developers. Red Hook, further south, was evacuated entirely, with water reaching seven feet on some buildings. Over a year later, businesses were still closed for repair. The city hasn’t yet invested in work to mitigate the effects of similar events that will occur in future, but there is a complex for tech companies under construction, and 45,000 apartments being planned. The waterfront warehouses of Sunset Park, where I live, are in the first evacuation zone, and developers are currently campaigning to bring a hotel to one of them. Their dream, it seems, is to make the neighbourhood like Williamsburg.

The only exception thus far to this desire to build where the water went is in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, where the city has started buying houses that were damaged in the hurricane and returning them to nature, transforming the neighbourhood in a strategy of managed retreat. There are wild turkey and deer where once there were harried commuters and high school students.

There are many buildings in Williamsburg that used to be something else. Diviera Drive, which I walk past as I return to the subway station, was once a garage; it’s now a bar and an Italian restaurant with a boat named “El Dorado” decorating the yard. I don’t know, yet, if it floats.1

Architecture, across this neighbourhood, is being used as a means of creating links with the past, an attempt at reconciling the changes taking place with the place itself. Everybody wants to move to Williamsburg, but as they move to Williamsburg, Williamsburg disappears.

The dust from construction makes me thirsty.

It will all, one day, wash away.

1. Diviera Drive has since closed.

From the Editors: Holding On When All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

I wrote this issue’s call for submissions thinking of architecture. Thinking of drowned cities and burning ones, of sun-cracked concrete where the water can come in and fields gone too fast towards some warmer version of themselves, not even fallow any longer so much as lost. Of waiting for the next hurricane, on the twelfth floor of a Manhattan apartment building, thinking well, we won’t drown, but what’s going to be left—and of years later, watching wildfire trackers from a house in the high desert, wondering how fast, how far, how many dead.

I wrote the call with all of that grief on my tongue—I am a thing that loves cities and loves deserts and wants to lose nothing, and will lose anyway—and asked for the point of contact where human alteration and ecological alteration touch; fantasias of density and of absence; blurs between organic and inorganic forms, places, and persons. Asked for stories and essays that would think of architecture, of the built environment, and not merely write pain, but instead think of symbiosis, of touch, of memory. Of what could be built out of what has been built already.

The stories and essays in this volume of Reckoning are a gift to have received. They are anguished, vicious, exquisitely gorgeous; they speak, over and over again and in a thousand different ways, of place, of connection, of making and remaking. Of coming home, and never being able to come home again, and what you might do afterward.

The issue is dark, and it does hurt: but the world is, also. Dark, where it is not burning. And this is not a darkness of despair, or retreat, but one of recognition; a display of a wound, and a cautery—or a rope spun out in the dark, hand to hand, voices over the flood. It is an honor to share them with you.

The Rule of Capture

1.

There is no such thing as an empty lot.

0201:123115:29F:CAMERA1 :6

2.

I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.

It is curious how we can identify so many animals that we have never seen. We are taught to do it as children. Especially the animals dangerous enough to eat us, or wily enough to live at the edges of our encampments and steal our food.

The realtor did not see the fox, and I did not call it to his attention. If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that.

We entered the lot through my back gate, and then walked through the tall grass toward the old roadbed that once led to the ferry across the river. That’s where I saw the fox. It ran right down one of the tracks of the human path, then into the dense brush of cactus, scrub trees and mustang vine grown up around the drainage pipe that empties behind the construction supply warehouse. I suspect the den is back in there, and have seen trailsign, but have never found the hole.

Most of us are better at the taxonomy of human variants than the naming of animals, even though we have no zoos to show us the former in simulated habitats, unless you count television. The realtor was typical of his breed, an affluent white guy in his twenties, tall and business casual, looking lost the minute he stepped out of his polished black SUV and tried to interpret the spot where the road ended at a run-down chainlink gate overgrown with uninvited vines, like Boromir pondering the hidden door to Khazad-dûm.

As with most realtors, this one was kind of a hunter, but not the kind with eyes trained to see movement in woods. He was hunting for human value locked up in undeveloped land, a percentage of which value he could capture as numbers on paper by finding someone who would “improve” the land. The lot was ten acres of woods above and along the river, land that had once been owned by the ferry company as its north landing, and then been a place where men would dredge river rock to make concrete to pave the city.

Capital abhors unimproved land, especially when it is in the fastest growing city in America. And capital does not see wild animals. They do not appear on its register, unless they have been captured and turned into property. And that is probably why realtors cannot see wild animals, even in Texas, where all the realtors who are real Texans are also real hunters, the kind that have nice guns and coolers full of very cold beer.

Realtors are how capital captures the wild instincts of human hunters and uses them to eliminate wildness from the world, by partitioning every spot of earth and sometimes the air above it, overlaying the surface of the entire planet with a grid that allocates dominion among the naked apes. A system which has very little to say about the things capital does not register, like all the other living beings with whom the land and air and water is shared.

 

3.

The first case you read if you go to law school is about a fox running from a real estate investor across an empty lot.

The exact date is hard to find, but around 1805 (the year the ensuing lawsuit was finally adjudicated) a rich dude in the Hamptons named Lodowick Post, on horseback and aided by hounds, pursued a fox across “waste and uninhabited land” (aka the commons, which was more plentiful in the early days of this country)—only to be stymied when, just as Post was about to strike, another local named Jesse Pierson killed the animal first. Post sued, asserting that by initiating the chase he acquired ownership of the animal. The trial court agreed, but the New York Supreme Court reversed1, citing ancient precedents to find that “occupancy” is essential to turn a wild animal into your personal property—and that occupancy can only be achieved through kill or capture, or mortally wounding the animal such that it will inevitably come under your control.

This case is used as a laboratory for hypothetical theorizing about property rights, and learning to think about the natural world in the way lawyers do, as a realm overlaid with infinitely divisible chains of human right. Rarely does anyone ask about the rights of the fox, and if they do, there’s a good chance they will get publicly shamed by the professor.

The fresh social contract under which Pierson and Post and their fellow citizens of the brand new United States lived derived its notions of property from the English philosopher John Locke, who theorized the justification for individual ownership of things found in nature by an invented counterfactual, the imaginary “state of nature” in which no prior property rights or other forms of “occupancy” exist. If you own your own body, said Locke, you own your own labor. And when you apply your labor to nature, by carving a piece of wood, or capturing and skinning a fox, you obtain ownership of the object because your labor is now embodied within it.

The rule of capture comes in very handy for people who make their fortunes off the things we find in the ground.

A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which, as the World Wildlife Fund recently reported, more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.2

4.

On Highway 81 in north central Oklahoma, which travels the path of the old Chisholm Trail, there is a town called Bison. The only bison you will see there is a faded painting on the side of the old grain elevator.

Images of buffalo are all over the human landscape of the Great Plains. You can buy them on ball caps and refrigerator magnets in the service areas of the Kansas Turnpike, much of which follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail. In the Visitors Center they have brochures for places where there are actual living buffalo. Like petting zoos, without the petting, you imagine.

The ecology of the continent is there in the country you drive through. Sometimes you can perceive it through your windshield, in place names and long view topographies. There are remnants, real remnants, but they are not easy to find.

North of Bison, Oklahoma, southwest of the Wichita Vortex, near a town called Jet, one of the forks of the Arkansas River flows through an exposed plain of salt. You can see it on your computer map right now, the Great Salt Plains, where there is a national wildlife refuge and a state park. In the time of the free ranging buffalo this was an oasis for all manner of migratory wildlife, a place where the megafauna would gather from far away and the humans would come to hunt them. It still is a sanctuary for the waterfowl, who flock there in huge numbers. When you leave the refuge and head south through Jet, you realize where the town got its name, from the United States Air Force landing strip along the lake, and you understand why there are all those warning signs around the salt flats.

Boom.

You see it in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the scenic overlook where they let you take pictures of the very scary-looking old federal prison that looms beyond the main road. That riverfront northwest of Kansas City is a military outpost, strategically placed as a launching point for expeditions into the Missouri River basin all the way to the edge of the Rockies. As you drive south from there along the edge of the plains, you pass through other forts, and while the Indians are largely gone and subjugated, you see how the whole landscape is a captive. You see it in the brutalist grain elevators that tattoo themselves with the memory of the animals they displaced, in the grid of mechanized land uses traced on the road map, in the oil derricks pumping by the road, in the microwave transmission towers, even in the giant wind farms that now grace the flats along the interstate. The yeoman farmer that is the lodestone of American identity is a rapist who cut the trees and plowed the prairie to plant grain to feed livestock to feed white people so they can repeat the process. The Air Force bases of Kansas and Oklahoma, at the heart of the American continent, are the grandsons of the cavalry forts that were there before soldiers learned how to fly, taking the exercise of dominion into the sky. We have applied our labor to the rich wilderness we found across the water, and made it into a cyborg.

5.

A real estate broker, a fox, and a manitou walk into a bar.

6.

“Dogs are hereby declared to be personal property,” says Oregon law. There are caveats, and limits. Oregon law also declares it a crime to own, possess, keep, breed, train, buy, sell or offer to sell a fighting dog, to keep an exotic animal without a permit, to use a dog in the commission of a crime, or to carry a dog on certain parts of a vehicle operated on a highway without specified protective measures. Most importantly, it makes it a crime to cruelly kill or injure, or fail to provide minimum care for, an animal in your custody and control. On that basis the Oregon Supreme Court recently concluded that dogs are not mere property, but “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear” that may not be treated in all the ways humans are free to treat other forms of property, even if they may be treated in ways humans may not treat other humans.3

The Chippewa people of the Great Lakes, or so we are told by the Europeans who first encountered them, believed the bounty of their environment came from the union of man and dog. The story was told that woman, who was the first human being, had a nocturnal dream that she was sleeping with a handsome youth, who in reality was her pet dog transformed. Then one day a giant appeared, shaped the land into lakes and rivers and mountains, then grabbed the dog, ripped it to pieces, and cast its guts into the waters to make the fish and dispersed its flesh over the land to make the animals.4

The Chippewa, Ojibwe and Cree lived by an ecology grounded in a kind of contract—a relationship between the people and the animals that surrounded them based on duties of mutual obligation and courtesy. When the Algonquinian populations were ravaged by European disease that may have taken as much as ninety percent of their population, disease the indigenous healers could not combat, some Indians took it to be a conspiracy of the animals against them, and undertook a war of retaliation, aiding the Europeans in the harvest of most of the fur-bearing animals of the North Woods to clothe urban Europeans.5

Our cosmology may articulate similar obligations on our part in its notions of stewardship, but only trace echoes of those notions appear in our jurisprudence and political economy, which know only rights of possession and consumption grounded in the valorization of the human self and its physical expressions, countermanded only by such duties as our worst behavior compels the law to encode. Imagine if the opposite were true—that we were governed by obligations to protect the natural world in the way our contemporary religious traditions tell us is our duty, and that our rights to take from nature were confined by their concordance with ecological balance.

That is a dream, even sillier than a dream about the original woman making love to a dog disguised as a hot boy.

7.

That is why, every winter, we sacrifice a realtor to a remnant of the American woods. It would be an overstatement to call the supplicant a volunteer. Baited by the carefully dressed lure of a gorgeous woodland acreage in the heart of the city waiting to be sold to a corporate developer, he (it is always a he) comes to enslave the land to industrial capital. But this quest is closer to the search for the existential heart of the land than you might imagine.

Coyote_6-11-15_day_cropped

The ceremony takes place in a riverine grove of cottonwood, hackberry and mustang vine. The realtor is stripped and secured with flotsam cabling to the throne of the Texas Druid king, a wooden yard chair deposited in this spot by a Halloween flood some years ago. Adorned with a crown of chile pequin harvested nearby, gagged with the green brain fruit of the Bois d’Arc tree, the broker is “dressed” in a suit of honey made by a colony of Africanized bees in a half-buried truck tire. As night comes, a song is improvised on instruments made from the things the city leaves in the woods, a song of summoning and loss.

They say that many of the animals of the American woods only became nocturnal when the European trappers arrived. This is easy to believe, even if it is not true. Ask a beaver.

Sometimes the realtor manages to eat his way through the gag, and you can hear his cries echo along river corridor. But even then, language seems to be lost, as man becomes mere food and finds the involuntary path to authentic oneness with the woods.

The remains that cannot be eaten are mostly taken by the wet earth of the floodplain, eventually devoured by the bugs who provide food for the armadillos that forage the subsurface at night. Once in a while a bone is found in daylight by a human wanderer, but they rarely know what it is.


1 Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805)

2 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk

3 Oregon v. Newcomb, 359 Or 756 (2016).

4 See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978), pp. 69-70.

5 Ibid.

How Far Are We From Minneapolis?

Reckoning 1

My Swedish cousins were very confused by the walk through the woods down to the Mississippi River. “How far are we from Minneapolis?” they kept asking. And we would repeat: we’re in Minneapolis. This is part of Minneapolis. We’re in Minneapolis right now. They gazed at us in frustration, unsure what part of their excellent English was not getting through. “But how far? How far to get to Minneapolis?”

The urban park land that stretches from just upstream of Minnehaha Falls down to the Mississippi is mitigated, human-focused land. It’s not wilderness by any reasonable definition. And yet the small wilds, the contained wilds, have their place—not to substitute for larger conservation efforts, but to preserve specific landforms. And more, to set aside green space not as a thing that city dwellers visit, but as a thing that we live with intimately.

The park navigates the space between human and wild expertly. At the top of the Falls, there are lawns, even small cultivated gardens. There are statues and plaques. Picnic tables and a bandshell and even a little restaurant that’s open in the warm months. And there is the destination on the official tourist checklist: the Falls themselves. The statue just upstream ties them in explicitly with Longfellow’s poem (though it would otherwise have nothing to do with the area—Longfellow’s Gitchee-Gumee—Kitchi Gammi, Lake Superior—is three hours north). All of that is the farthest thing from wild. But if you take the stairs to the bottom of the falls, a trail leads along Minnehaha Creek, to a wide, grassy meadow with no amenities, except that it’s fun to run around in. Follow it a little more, into the trees, and before you know it you’re alone, you and the bunnies and the squirrels, heading down to the Mississippi.

Close to the Falls, the WPA stabilized the streambeds against erosion back in the 1930s. Those walls have been rebuilt and expanded into a pool area slightly downstream. When I was eight, we took my great-grandmother there on a picnic, and she told us about how she would take the streetcar and walk to get down from Nordeast Minneapolis, where she grew up, for Sunday School picnics beside Minnehaha Creek. Our family was so poor then that Great-Grandma couldn’t afford the white dress she needed to participate in her high school graduation. But they could still enjoy the park, even before its WPA improvements. When we brought her back, she was so shaky she needed my dad’s arm, but she could get there. She couldn’t go up to the Boundary Waters into the wild woods. But this, with shaky steps, with help, she could do.

I didn’t know how soon that lesson would apply to my own life.

Further along, the main signs of human habitation are a stretch of boardwalk where the trail tends to get mucky in the spring, and a bridge and bench at the confluence with the Mississippi. And, of course, the trail itself. The other people you meet here are quieter than the people at the top of the Falls. There are conversational hikers, friendly hikers, but the kids’ birthday parties, the raucous laughter, are left back in the entirely human environment of picnic tables. Between that and the half-wild environment of hiking trails, there is space and the sound of water. It is a very short walk.

Sometimes you need the walk to be short.

“But we have seen her in the woods,” One of my Swedish cousins said, when I was diagnosed with a major balance disorder. More than anything else, that spoke to the frustrations I was feeling. They thought of me as sure-footed, swift and eager to show them my favorite natural surroundings. I thought of myself that way.

I spent a lot of the first year inside. I did the things I absolutely had to do, but when even the most level paved ground pitches and yaws under your feet, it’s hard to add unnecessary tasks to your day. One of the hardest things about disability—especially as you make the transition from hoping it will be temporary to realizing it won’t—is figuring out how to keep the parts that are most important from who you were before.

I couldn’t make a trip to real wilderness. I couldn’t reach the sorts of sprawling forests needed to make life possible for countless species including our own. But even on a bad day, like my great-grandmother, I could take someone’s arm and get to the bridge over the falls. I could inhale the smell of iron-rich Minnesota soil in the water, almost like blood in my nose and mouth. On a better day I could make it down the stairs into the woods. I could take deep lungfuls of the quiet green smell. I wasn’t very far away from people. But I could be away from people, in one of the places I have always belonged.

The Falls park let me be the person my cousins had seen in the woods and find the limits of how I could be that person based on how I was feeling that day, not defaulting to the worst-case scenario like I’d have to on a long trip. And that gave me strength to keep going while we were figuring out an imperfect solution that would allow me “real” hiking trips later—on good days, in good months. The Falls park didn’t demand my best days. It was there for me every day.

Once I was back on my feet, I took a friend’s kids to the park around the Falls, and the thirteen-year-old wanted to know what we were doing there. “Is it the tallest waterfall?” she asked dubiously. “The most volume of water?”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “and it’s ours.”

Certainly there are things that make the Falls unique—geological, historical. I love The Laughing, Leaping Water, a blog about the history of Minnehaha Falls and Minnehaha Park. But what I love about the Falls are the things that make it beautiful, the things that make it ours. If we let our experiences of the natural world be reduced to a tourist checklist, we miss what’s important about them. We miss the details.

You can experience the Falls, the walk down to the Mississippi or the nearby Minneapolis lake parks on a single visit. Coming back over and over, you learn to understand them. How high is the water? Is that typical for the season? What does it mean for the months to come? What does the water smell like? Did it smell like that the last time the leaves and the grass smelled like this? What does the combination tell me? Is there a lot of garlic mustard around the path down to the river, a little, buckthorn instead? How are we doing with removing those invasives? How far does the ice extend this year down the path into the sunny section? When do the Falls freeze? When do they melt?

You can smell the air, look for invasive plants, admire the swirling currents in the water as it passes, on your first visit. You should! They’re great! But they’re even better in context. This place has so much to teach us.

When you stand at the confluence of Minnehaha Creek with the Mississippi River, having walked the length down from the Falls, you’re watching the lifeblood of the center of North America. It’s all part of the same gigantic system.

Maybe the Indigo Girls told you that “the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” Amy and Emily wouldn’t lie to you about something like that. It’s true, and Minnesotans are supposed to make a pilgrimage to that unassuming spot. But a pilgrimage takes time. The headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca are four hours north of Minneapolis. Great for a weekend trip, no good at all for every day. You can’t make a pilgrimage like that for just a minute on your way home from work. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t flee to the smell of freshwater and trees if it takes four hours to get there. When I heard that my beloved aunt’s surgery had not been effective, that she would have to live with a debilitating condition for the rest of her life, I did all the things I needed to do, updating other relatives, running errands, holding her hand while she cried. And on the way home, I went back to the Falls.

My Swedish cousins love to hike, and to walk in parks and gardens near them in Stockholm. But for them, the two never meet. Parks and gardens are planted, cared-for, manicured. Beautiful. But not a bit wild. There’s no gradient of setting from the managed to the natural. There are grand monuments, mighty rivers and beautiful natural forests, but nothing like this semi-wild park in the middle of Minneapolis.

The grand and the mighty are worth experiencing. But bucket list tourism doesn’t give a sense of rhythm and scale, and it can’t work its way into a city dweller’s daily life. The things that make Minnehaha Falls Park less wild make it accessible. People who don’t have a car for a four-hour drive or the money to rent one can get off the lightrail very near the Falls. People who can’t hike to the confluence—like my great-grandmother, like me some days—can still walk or wheel to the top of the Falls and take the water in, take notice, take stock of what’s the same and what’s different. Someone’s bicycle abandoned in the rocks at the head of the Falls, a mitten frozen in the ice dams. Leaves upon leaves upon leaves. And they can come back tomorrow, next week, the end of the season: has the bicycle gotten pulled out? Is the ice thawing around the mitten? Are we done with leaf season? On a day you’ve gotten bad news, if you live in a city, you may want to go hide in the woods. You know it doesn’t actually work like that. Your life is still there. But this mitigated, urban wilderness gives me a piece of those woods to flee to, to breathe in, to make myself part of.

Pristine, no. But beautiful, and ours.

Read Johannes Punkt’s interview with Marissa here.