Extinction Gong

The Extinction Gong is a ceremonial automaton for the Sixth Mass Extinction, the human-induced process of planet-scale biological annihilation first formally recognised by scientists in 2014. Taking the form of a large traditional ‘Chao Gong’, its rear face is fitted with a mechanism that beats to the rhythm of species extinction, estimated by eminent biologist E.O. Wilson to be about 27,000 losses a year, or once every 19 minutes. The significance of this figure (and those like it from other scientists) cannot be overstated: for millennia the average ‘background rate’ of (plant, animal and insect) species extinction has been between 1 and 5 a year, right back to the 5th Extinction that took the dinosaurs 65M years ago. Should biologists declare a new species extinct while the Extinction Gong is active it will receive an update via a 3g link and perform a special ceremony: four strikes in quick succession alongside a text-to-speech utterance of the Latin name of the species lost, resonating through the gong. Seen at its front, the Extinction Gong hangs in a large metal frame and bears the stark neo-primitivist image of the Extinction Symbol, the official mark of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Seen from the back, however, it is a work of engineering, complete with mallet, electro-magnet, audio transducer, embedded computer and 3g downlink. This diametric expresses a brutal and contradicting irony: while advances in science and technology augment the devastating impact of human endeavours over wild habitats, so are they our best means of studying and understanding it. The Extinction Gong is a 2017 project by Crystelle Vu and Julian Oliver.

Endurance

Indicators

 

On New Year’s Eve, in small towns throughout Kentucky and Louisiana, people celebrate as they always do by setting off fireworks. The eruption of noise and light startles flocks of blackbirds, which rise up into the tumult and quickly become disoriented. While the people below dance and sing and embrace, the birds, mostly unseen in the darkness, fly into electrical wires, water towers, and the sides of buildings, while others turn on one another in the frenzy, or are attacked by other, larger birds of prey. The fireworks go on longer than usual this year, as a need has been felt for a more than usually grand spectacle of hope and renewal, and so the avian panic does not dissipate quickly but spreads to other flocks and other species of birds, up and down the countryside.

The next morning hundreds of birds are found dead in the meadows and on the highways and streets. Still more continue to fall lifeless from the skies during the day in exhaustion. People in the area, not knowing the cause, are baffled and disturbed. Many are convinced it is an omen, or at least a sign, though of what exactly, none can agree.

Forerunners

 

From Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert, by Frances Gordon Alexander, 1912

 

“The Bedouin came originally from Arabia. Now he is a wanderer in the great Sahara, Libyan, Syrian, and Arabian deserts. A tribe will number from 3000 to 100,000 people, all owning camels, sheep, and goats. When it moves, the tribe sweeps over great tracts of country, forcing before it wolves, jackals, gazelles, and all the wild creature of the desert. The approach of these animals will often warn a tribe that another is advancing . . . .”

 

In our time very few Bedouin still follow their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Most of the animals are gone, too.

Duration

 

For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate presentnot in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.

—Alan Watts

 

They can tell me the attack is in the past, but it isn’t.

—Patricia Van Tighem

 

The woman is on a Sunday afternoon hike with her husband, near the town of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies, when without warning two grizzlies suddenly burst out of the thick undergrowth in front of them.

During the attack there is scarcely time for fear, and no pain, as if this is happening to someone else and she is merely there to witness it, more spectator than participant. One detail alone remains alive in her, a sensation lasting only a moment, but even now, many years after the bears broke off their attack and disappeared back into the bush, leaving the woman and her husband clawed and bruised but alive, it is a moment that has never quite ended.

As she falls to the ground with the great mass of the bear on top of her, she reaches up to ward off the onslaught of claws and teeth and her outstretched hands sink deep into the grizzly’s fur. It is the softest, most beautiful thing she has ever felt in her life.

Israel and Palestine Share a Rapidly Disappearing Gazelle

—headline from Scientific American Online, September 11, 2015

Role Play

 

We are the animals who talk the fables

in which the animals talk. We are talking

animals, claiming that animals don’t talk.

—Robert Kroetsch

 

In her biography of her husband Richard Burton, the famous Victorian explorer and translator of The Arabian Nights, Isabel Burton mentions an incident that occurred early in Burton’s career, while he was stationed as an officer of the British East India Company in northern India:

“ . . . he at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys, so he collected forty monkeys of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them, and he used to call them by different offices. He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears. His great amusement was to keep a kind of refectory for them, where they sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them. He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby’s chair, with a little bar before it. He had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her. He did this for the sake of doing what Mr. Garner is now doing, that of ascertaining and studying the language of monkeys, so that he used regularly to talk to them, and pronounce their sounds afterwards, til he and the monkeys at last got quite to understand each other. He obtained as many as sixty words, I think twenty more than Mr. Garner—that is, leading words, and he wrote them down and formed a vocabulary, meaning to pursue his studies at some future time. Mr. Garner has now the advantage of phonographs, and all sorts of appliances. Had Richard been alive, he could have helped him greatly. Unfortunately his monkey vocabulary was burnt in Grindlay’s warehouse fire, where his papers were in storage.”

—from The Life of Captain Richard F Burton, by Isabel Burton, 1893

Above the Falls

 

The elephant has the following attribute: when he falls down he is unable to rise again.

—from the anonymous bestiary Physiologus, 3rd century AD

 

in falling he seemed for a moment to rise

— George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”

 

Someone shouts, There’s an elephant in the river!

Tourists lounging sleepily on the hotel terrace after a dinner of sizzling kudu or wild boar cutlets leap out of their chairs with newfound energy. They hurry in a crowd across the sloping, well-manicured lawn to the shore, some still carrying their sundowner cocktails.

And there it is. The elephant is struggling to find a safe passage across the rushing Zambezi, only a few hundred yards above the cloud and thunder of Victoria Falls, the greatest cataract in Africa.

The elephant is attempting to cross from Zimbabwe to Zambia, the river marking the border here between the two countries. Its goal is most likely to elude poachers that have increased in number during the last few years of social breakdown and economic hardship (gunshots from the Zimbabwean side are a common sound here lately, one of the few noises that can rise above the ever-present roar of the falls). Two smaller, younger elephants wait on the shore for the older, more experienced elephant to find safe passage. This is an immemorial elephant fording place, but the river is higher and the current stronger than it has been in years. And on the Zambian side a brand-new five-star hotel has been built on a formerly much-traveled wildlife corridor, so that animals seeking to cross are forced to try less familiar, more risky channels.

While guests, staff, and wildlife officers gather on the hotel grounds to watch, the elephant struggles, flounders, finds a secure foothold and loses it again, gets swept into the current and battles his way back from the brink. People take pictures, shout encouragement, weep, angrily declare that someone has to do something. Whenever it can clear water from its trunk, the elephant calls to its fellows waiting on the shore, a shrill, exhausted bellow, more a scream, that they answer with their own cries. He may be warning them to keep out of the river. Or letting them know he’s still here, that he hasn’t given up yet. No one knows for sure.

The elephant makes it as far as the last rocky islet before the Zambian shore, and plunges into the final channel that will bring it to safety. But the long struggle has taken too great a toll. The elephant has no strength left to fight the current. While the onlookers watch in horror it is swept helplessly over the main part of the falls, plunging four hundred feet into the churning chaos known as the Boiling Pot.

Days later the elephant’s carcass is found downstream, washed up on the Zimbabwean side and stripped of its ivory tusks.

Cull

 

If I were a pig I would opt for gas.

—Arnon Grunberg

 

A transport truck carrying pigs was involved in an accident while on the way to a pork processing plant in Burlington, Ontario. The crash occurred close enough to the entrance of the plant that employees were quickly on hand to help bring the surviving animals safely out of the wreckage. Of the 180 pigs in the truck, 138 were rescued terrified but unharmed. They were then herded into the plant for slaughter.

There are no reports that the brief disruption to the processing schedule of this one plant caused any significant delay in the arrival of bacon on breakfasters’ plates.

Harambe

 

The meme was first expressed on May 28th, 2016, and demonstrated a remarkable evolution in only a few short weeks, mutating into new and surprising forms that few if any observers could have predicted. In the final months of the year the meme’s proliferation and dispersal slowed considerably, as other sensational events captured the internet’s fleeting attention, but experts predict Harambe may go on replicating itself virtually forever.

After the gorilla was shot, zookeepers hurried to the body, made an incision in the scrotum, and extracted sperm that is now being preserved in a “frozen zoo.”

There’s a future, the zoo’s director declared in a press conference. It’s not the end of his gene pool.

Camouflage

 

The killer strikes most often in the early evening. It waits at the edge of small villages, in the shadows and tall grass, for children. They come to play, or to relieve themselves, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. When there is more than one child, the killer will usually target the youngest and smallest. Bursting out of its concealment it snatches the child in its jaws, then bounds away into the dark. Sometimes clothing, a limb, a head, is later found. Sometimes nothing at all.

From 1996 to 1997 the central Uttar Pradesh region of northern India is terrorized by a series of wolf attacks. In one year more than seventy children are killed or injured.

Because there is never more than one attack on a single day, and the same village is never attacked twice, conservationists surmise that the attacks have to be the work of a single wolf pack roaming from village to village in this small, densely populated region, carefully avoiding places where they have already hunted human prey. There are estimated to be fewer than two thousand Indian gray wolves (Canis indica), giving the species an endangered status comparable to that of the Bengal tiger. Nowhere else in the world do wolves and such numbers of people coexist in close proximity. This may have disrupted the natural instinct of these wolves to avoid human beings and caused them to begin stalking humans for food.

In the face of such selective, widespread, persistent terror, not everyone believes the killer to be a mere animal in search of a meal. When a boy named Anand is taken near the village of Banbirpur, his ten-year-old sister Sita Devi witnesses the event and later tells her story. She describes how the wolf came slinking through the tall grass on all fours, but then, when it had pounced on her little brother, it rose up on two legs like a man. It threw Anand over its shoulder and ran away, the girl tells her fellow villagers through her tears. It was wearing a black coat, and a helmet and goggles.

Eyewitness accounts like Sita Devi’s fuel fears that the attacks are the work of werewolves, a belief passed down through millennia in tales about such creatures. Others dismiss this as folklore and argue instead that the attackers must be men disguised in wolf pelts, most likely “infiltrators” from Pakistan, India’s hated enemy.

Fugitive

 

Now that they have gone it is their endurance we miss.

—John Berger

 

In 1934 a female black panther escapes from the Zürich Tiergarten and survives through two months of a Swiss winter, before being shot for food by an itinerant laborer in the mountains near Saint Gallen.

The animal’s escape and disappearance quickly become sensational news. During the time the panther is at large, the authorities receive hundreds of reports from people claiming to have glimpsed the fugitive, some from the most far-flung corners of the country and beyond. There is never a confirmed sighting. Suspicious tracks in the snow always turn out to be those of dogs.

A certain religious sect asserts that the panther is demonic and should be exorcized by a pastor from their church. A clairvoyant from Paris travels to Zürich and offers her help to the searchers, claiming she’s had a vision of the panther hiding in a cave of ice high up on a glacier. The clairvoyant is politely asked to return home.

The panther survives by way of her instinctual stealth and her learned distrust of human beings. She hunts mice, voles, and hares in the snow-mantled forest, as far from human habitation as possible, and makes herself a den under the roots of an ancient stone pine, from which she emerges only when hunger drives her.

One evening the panther comes upon two ravens perched on a dead fir tree, croaking softly to each other. The panther knows from previous experience that where there are scavengers like ravens, there are likely to be people. Her time in captivity has does nothing to lessen her innate distrust of humans, but where they are there is always food.

A squirrel in a nearby tree is chattering at the ravens, scolding them or perhaps even mocking their harsh voices. The birds are doing their best to ignore the squirrel and carry on their own conversation. The panther has come upon the scene from a direction that conceals her presence from the other animals. She is famished, having had no luck catching anything to eat for three days.

The squirrel suddenly darts part of the way down the tree’s trunk and freezes there, watching the ravens to see what they will do. The squirrel’s perch is now close enough to the ground that the panther might possibly reach it with a quick pounce. She steals up on her prey from behind, but the ravens see her. They halt their banter at the unaccountable sight of this strange creature, and the squirrel senses danger. In an instant it has scurried back to the safety of the treetop.

The panther leaves the ravens squawking about this unexpected turn of events and prowls on, further down the mountain, finding her way at last to a small graveyard ringed by trees. Hunkered in the concealment of a thorn bush at the edge of the burial ground she can smell dead human. Eating things she has not killed herself is not in her nature, but surviving is. Still, she must be careful. She remembers how the humans first caught her. How they had a thing made of wrong-smelling vines that fell on her so that she couldn’t get away. She has been boxed up, shackled, whipped. She will not move until she is certain there is no hidden danger here.

The panther waits. Humans come. There are many of them, some carrying a thing made of pieces of tree. They carry the thing to a hole in the ground. They set it down. One of them utters that strange flat barking that only humans make. Some make other noises, like the cries and whimpers the panther heard from other caged creatures around her in the place the humans kept her before she escaped.

After a short time most of the humans leave. Two stay behind and cover the hole with earth. Then they leave, too.  

The panther waits until it is well past dark and then she pads silently into the burial ground. She reaches the fresh grave and slowly, with many pauses to listen, digs away the loose soil. She claws and bites at the flimsy thing made of wood and two of its pieces move apart and now she can get at what’s inside. The panther hauls it out and drags it to her hiding place to eat. The dead human is small. It was weak and sickly, the panther knows when she tastes its flesh, which is dry and joyless fare. But it will sustain her.

Later a fall of large wet snowflakes patter softly on the bare branches, on the panther’s fur, on the damp earth. The panther has rested after her meal, and now, in the grey light just before morning, she moves on.

 

Here she is now, a dark shape against the snow. We can only glimpse her from our thicket of language, at the edge of a great silence. If we come any closer she slips away, disappearing into the white page.

Ecophage

 

1558: Aboard the ship bringing French explorer Jean de Léry home from Brazil, the “Land of Parrots”, an eerie silence prevails. All through the voyage the crowded decks have resounded with the calls, grunts, hoots, and seasick whimpers of the exotic New World animals de Léry has collected and that he hopes to present as gifts to noble patrons upon his return. But the ship has run into punishing storms and strayed into unknown waters, and with food running out and starvation looming, the crew turns at last to de Léry’s menagerie for salvation. One after another into the cooking pot go monkeys, lizards, birds, and other creatures with no names as yet in the tongues of civilized men.

The explorer manages to keep his most cherished specimen alive and hidden from the crew for several days, but at last he is forced to surrender a magnificently-plumed parrot, as big as a goose, that “uttered words freely like a man.”

Giddy with hunger, de Léry imagines Noah and his family on the ark, out of provisions and deciding which of the animals will be sacrificed to save the last remnant of humanity. The ones they chose struck forever from the roll of God’s creation. The guoto. The malabee. The speckled orotain.

Five days later the lookout sights land. The decks resound again as the men cry to the heavens in thanks for their deliverance.

Extinction

 

Some words for animals in languages that no longer have native speakers:

 

fish, Ubykh: psa

fox, Woccon: Tauh-he

mouse, Thracian: argilos

worm, Anglo-Norman: achée

turtle, Kansa: ke

cattle, Norn: kye

hummingbird, Taino: colibri

wolf, Old English: wulf

lion, Vaal-Orange: !hoeti

buffalo, Chinook: moos-moos

horse, Phoenician: ss

dog, Mbabaram: dog

Abundance

 

When the last tiger is gone we all get to be tigers.

As wild animals vanish from the physical world, they have begun to proliferate in the digital realm. The videogame Grand Theft Auto V contains more animals than any previous version of the popular title. Among the animals one may encounter while stealing and murdering one’s way through the game’s fantasy of consequence-free mayhem are dogs, cats, monkeys, chickens, cows, pigs, rabbits, rats, hawks, pigeons, crows, seagulls, butterflies, houseflies, fireflies, cockroaches, snakes, voles, coyotes, wild boar, mountain lions, elk, deer, various species of fish, dolphins, humpback whales, sharks, stingrays, and even, it is rumoured, a sasquatch.

Curiously, there are no horses.

Most of the wild animals players encounter will run away at the approach of a human. On one of the game’s missions players can hunt deer and other animals in the mountains outside the city and earn money for each kill. Players can also just kill animals without incentive, shooting them, bludgeoning them, or running them down with vehicles, as a diversion from the game’s other brutal amusements. Every so often predators such as mountain lions turn the tables on a player who ventures into the wilderness. It is also possible for your game avatar to consume peyote plants and enter a psychedelically colourful hallucinatory state in which they become an animal. When they find themselves in an animal body the game’s three protagonists, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor (who may or may not be a cannibal), will babble to themselves in stunned, stoned amazement at what they are experiencing:

Damn. I ain’t never had no antlers before . . . .

I’m a wild boar! I’m a badass wild boar!

Is this happening? This is happening. Shit, look at me. Does everyone become a dolphin?

Oh man, I feel weird. What is this . . . ? Oh. Oh my lord. Hey. This is amazing! Wow. Look at you, Trevor. Look at you. No one is laughing at you now. No one. They’re all losers, and you’re a crow. A fucking crow. Hah! Whoo! Okay, let’s party! Flying . . . flying . . . . Oh, Trevor. Oh wow. Look at your beak. Great! Look at your black wings. Great! You’re amazing! This is the future . . . this is evolution. Man-crow! What’s a man? No idea. An idiot? Yes, a man is an idiot. You’re not an idiot, you’re a crow. Oh wow. Haw haw. Yesssss. This beats eating policemen any day.

The Cliff’s Edge

 

Inside the egg the heron dreams of flight

—Mirabai

 

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is driven to extinction in the modern era by Europeans who hunt and kill the bird for its down, used to make pillows. The bird’s demise is hastened further by its own increasing rarity, as museums and collectors are willing to pay enticing sums for specimens, money that proves irresistible to poor fishers and sheepherders.

The very last colony of great auks survives until the middle of the nineteenth century, on the nearly-inaccessible island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland. On July 3rd, 1844, three men sent in search of great auks by a wealthy collector find what is possibly the very last breeding pair of great auks in the world, incubating a single egg. One of the men, Sigurður Ísleifsson, later described what took place.

The rocks were covered with blackbirds and then we saw the geirfugles (the auks) . . . They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but mine was going to the edge of the cliff. It walked like a man . . . but moved its feet quickly. I caught it close to the edge, a precipice many fathoms deep. Its wings lay close to the sides, not hanging out. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.

The third man, Ketil Ketilsson, finds the nest and, acting on a familiar human impulse which has yet to be fully understood, smashes the egg with his boot. That night, he and his companions return home from their long, exhausting day and fall asleep quickly, their heads filling with phantom people and scenes that vanish into nothingness and are left unrecorded when they wake.

The Green Man

Olly, we know you can hear us,” said Jack. “So are you coming to The Green Man, or what?”

Olly opened his eyes, put his hand to his earpiece and disconnected himself from the cloud. He sat up, the thin plastic mattress rucking up beneath him.

“It’ll be fun,” said Selma, “an adventure. They serve mead. Real mead.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Olly.

“No, we are absolutely not shitting you,” insisted Mohinder, his face as serious as ever.

Olly’s eyes flicked over to Nate’s mattress. It was empty, and for a split-second he was afraid.

Selma laughed. “Yeah, lover boy’s coming. He’s just gone to the loo.”

Olly reddened, told them all to fuck off, and lay down again, his back to the three of them. As he reconnected to the cloud, music and updates streaming into his consciousness, he heard Jack again: “We go on Friday. When there’ll be a full moon. A Green Grass Moon.” Selma said something about bicycles.

Olly began to doze. And as he slipped into sleep his neural feed suddenly filled with strange images: a lime-coloured moon; blades of grass; a grinning man, his green face covered in leaves.

The next day Olly was assigned to the big house, specifically the attics. They needed to be sorted through, cleaned. Selma was to go too. As they trudged across the lifeless fields, away from the giant greenhouses in which they normally worked, Selma asked Olly if he was disappointed.

“About what?” he said.

“Bet you would’ve preferred to have Nate along.”

Olly shrugged. “I’m happy to have whoever. It makes a change from pollinating.”

“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can see the disappointment on your face.”

Olly stayed silent and bent his head to his shoes, his eyes on the sterile mud oozing over his soles.

“Why don’t you just tell him?” she persisted. “That you like him. What’ve you got to lose?”

“What’s the point? He could be sent to other work, like, miles away from here, any day. And then I’d never see him again.”

Selma smiled insinuatingly, nudged Olly. “But what about living in the here and now. And having fun?”

Olly waved his arm at the bleak mud fields. “Fun. Yeah, there’s loads of that about, isn’t there?”

“Which is why we should go to The Green Man.”

Olly laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, right. Like going to a twentieth century pub is going to solve all our problems.”

“I didn’t say it would solve all our problems. Just . . . that going might be fun.”

They trudged on in silence.

“So you gonna come?” Selma said.

Olly sighed. “Yeah, I’ll come.”

The staff at the big house weren’t pleased to see them or their muddy shoes.

“Take them off. Right now!” said the housekeeper.

Olly and Selma exchanged glances, then removed their shoes, powerless to do anything about the mud dripping onto the smooth, clean flagstones.

“We don’t really need you,” said the housekeeper, leading them through the servants’ quarters and up several flights of stairs. “We could’ve managed just fine, but Madam’s got us busy with guests so we’ve no time for this sudden whim of hers.” She gave a snort. “Spring cleaning!”

When they got to the dimly lit attics she reached into a cupboard, handed them a few bin bags and a couple of long sticks with brightly coloured ruffles at the end.

Olly and Selma, round-eyed, stared at the sticks. Olly tentatively touched the ruffles.

“Feather dusters,” said the housekeeper. “For dusting,” she added, her face grim.

“Real feathers?” asked Olly.

“Of course!” snapped the housekeeper. “Now get on with it,” she said, throwing open various doors. “You’re to dust and sort through the chests of fabrics and clothes. Anything moth-eaten or irreparably damaged goes into the bin bags. To be donated to . . . .” Olly assumed she’d just stopped herself from saying “the likes of you”. She cleared her throat. “Charitable causes.”

She swept out of the room and descended the stairs. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she called. “To check on you.”

For a moment Olly and Selma just stood there, taking in the silence, the dust motes that floated in the beams of sunlight, the cool of the real wooden floorboards beneath their polyester-socked feet.

“What does she mean by moth-eaten?” said Selma.

Olly shrugged, then put his hand to the side of his head, to his earpiece, but of course he wasn’t linked up to the cloud. In working hours the AI cut their connection. “Don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. You take that room,” he said, pointing to an open door, “and I’ll do this one.”

“Okay,” said Selma, disappearing into the other room, bin bag and duster in hand.

Olly breathed deep of the musty air, dozens of natural fragrances suddenly alive to his nose, and he smiled, for a moment happy. Of course it would’ve been better if Nate was here with him, instead of Selma, but he pushed away that thought and began to throw open chests, rifling through the beautiful fabrics, the feel of pure cotton on his skin a new joy.

At lunchtime the housekeeper inspected their work.

“Not bad,” she conceded, sweeping a finger across one of the window sills and finding it devoid of dust. She gave them a couple of bottles of liquid food.

“After you’ve taken your calories get straight back to work. There’s still a lot to do.”

“Please, Miss, I mean Ms,” said Selma, suddenly flustered. She didn’t know how to address the housekeeper. “But what’s moth-eaten?”

The housekeeper looked into one of the bin bags, pulled out a woollen blanket that was more holes than wool. “This is moth-eaten,” she said. “There were once creatures, insects, that liked to eat natural fabrics. They would nest in wardrobes, in the fabrics, and eat the cloth, destroying the garment.”

She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room with suspicion, as though she expected dozens of moths to come flying out at her. “Well, keep at it!”

She turned on her heel and left them to their carbohydrate slurries, to their old-fashioned work.

Later that afternoon, when Olly was sorting through the last of the chests, a small, colourful object between two of the blankets caught his eye, something he’d only seen through the cloud. A bee. He gingerly picked it up, some long-dormant voice cautioning him to be careful, and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was remarkable. So intricate. He stroked it with his forefinger. And ever so soft. He wondered how long it had been there. Two decades, three? Just as he was about to call for Selma, he heard her scream. He immediately turned and ran to her, the bee falling from his hand.

“What is it?” he asked as he arrived by her side, her eyes wide, hands at her face.

“A, a . . . a thing . . . .”

Olly looked upwards to where she was pointing. There, in a high-up corner of the room, was a skeletal creature suspended in strings of dust. A spider.

Olly took a step closer. “It’s an insect. Or rather, it used to be. Not sure what kind.”

“It’s creeping me out,” she said. “Can you get rid of it for me?”

“Yeah, okay.”

He took her duster, swirled it round the cobwebs; the spider dissolved into thousands of shards, sticking to the feathers of the duster. After a few seconds there was nothing left of what had been the spider’s creation.

Olly handed the duster back to Selma. “Try not to freak out if you find anything else, okay? It’s all gonna be dead, you know.”

“I do know that,” she said, whacking Olly with the duster. “There was just something about it. The way it looked at me.”

Olly wanted to laugh but couldn’t. He thought of the bee and hoped he’d be able to find it again. There’d been something about the way it had looked at him.

That night, when Olly and the other workers were in the dorm—most of them, like him, tuning out of reality and into the cloud—he pulled out the white square of cloth that he’d wrapped the dead bee in.

He turned to check that he was unobserved; Jack, Mo, Selma and Nate were all huddled together, most likely going over their plans for the trip to The Green Man, so he turned back to his package. He carefully unwrapped the bee, then stroked it. The bee made him feel something . . . what, he wasn’t sure. In his head, he began to list some feelings: happy, joyful, sad, sorry. The cloud supplied him with more: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. He liked the sound of that last one. Then one more word floated into his consciousness. Hopeful.

No, thought Olly, folding the handkerchief over the bee and putting it back in his pocket. “Never that,” he muttered, before tuning into his favourite social network.

Getting hold of the bikes had been the hard part.

“That bitch of an AI almost didn’t let me take them,” said Selma, hauling out four bikes. Olly, Mohinder, Jack and Nate helped her wheel them out of the barn.

“Only four?” said Jack.

“How about, ‘Thanks, Selma,’” she retorted.

“It’s just, you know, there are five of us,” said Jack.

“So two of us have to share,” she said. “As I said, the AI didn’t like that I was taking them out after work hours.”

“So what did you tell her?” asked Mohinder.

“Oh, some shit about how they were moth-eaten and needed to be aired. That got her stuck in a loop for a bit.”

“So who’s sharing?” said Jack.

The five of them were silent, their eyes on the bikes.

Nate started stroking the saddle of the bike he was holding. “The last time I rode a bike must’ve been, like, ten years ago. For some reason, Mum thought I should learn.”

“Me, it was the other day,” said Selma. “Back-and-forthing across the mud flats for no good reason.”

“They still got you looking for grass?” Nate asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Like I’m ever gonna find any. But Madam swears that she saw some a while ago, so Madam’s will be done. I reckon she just likes the idea of me out there in all weathers looking at mud.”

“But it’s better than having no job. Only taking the minimum of bitcredits,” Olly pointed out.

Selma nodded. “I know. But, hey, I like complaining. So who’s sharing?”

Nate said that he wouldn’t mind, and Olly quickly added that he wouldn’t mind either.

“Good, that’s decided,” said Selma, flashing a smile at Olly and mounting a bike. “Follow me.”

They cycled, haltingly, across the mudflats, some of them more confident than others (though Olly had an excuse for his wobbly progress—Nate was sitting across his handlebars). Jack kept checking into the cloud, to make sure they were going in the right direction. Selma kept up a steady commentary, asking, or rather telling, everyone how much fun they were having.

The Green Grass Moon, though not actually green, was huge, golden-coloured and close to the horizon as the sun began to set. As their muscles responded to the exercise, their skin to the feel of the warm breeze, they had to admit that yes, this was fun.

At The Green Man, a burly, bearded man covered in virtual tattoos told them to disconnect themselves. “We’re free-range here,” he explained, holding out his hand for their earpieces.

Selma pointedly stared at his shimmering, roving tattoos, and then at the sliver of metal above his ear.

The man crossed his arms, stared back.

“Turn yourselves off or you ain’t coming in.”

Mohinder nudged Selma. “Look,” he muttered, “we didn’t come all this way to get told to shove off.”

Mo made a show of disconnecting from the cloud, and handed his earpiece to the bouncer. They all did the same.

“You’re buying the first round,” Selma said to Mo as the bouncer stepped aside and allowed them entry.

“No problem,” said Mo, grinning. “Me,” he went on, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, “I’m rolling in bitcredits.”

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Nate, when they’d got their first round of mead and taken their seats at a wooden booth.

“What’s what you think it is?” said Jack.

Nate inclined his head to the fireplace. “A real log fire.”

They all turned their heads to look.

“Looks real,” said Selma.

“But think about the cost,” said Nate, taking a sip of his mead. “God this tastes good.”

They all began to drink; in the silence that followed they experienced a taste of spring—apple blossom, heather, primulas, daffodils, bluebells.

Selma glugged back her pint, then began to giggle. “This is just too weird. And good.”

“Steady on, Sel,” said Jack, “otherwise you’ll be pissed in no time.”

“Maybe I want to get pissed!” she retorted. “Who wants another pint?” She quickly stood, then put her hand to her head and sat back down again.

“Take it easy,” said Mo. “Jack’ll get the next round in. When we’re all done, right?”

“Yes, boss!” said Jack, giving him a mock salute.

“Fuck you,” said Mo, taking another swig, his eyes on Jack who was also knocking back his mead.

For a moment there was an uneasy silence.

“Me,” said Nate, trying to diffuse the tension, “I’m just gonna savour this pint. It’s absolutely delushious.”

Selma laughed. “Delushious,” she said. “I like that.” She slurred “delushious” over and over, and they all laughed.

It was then that Olly noticed the strange man at the bar. He put his hand to where his earpiece would usually be, thinking that the image had come from his feed, then realized that the grinning green man with leaves all over his face was, in fact, real. Olly lowered his head and spoke under his breath. “That weird guy’s watching us.”

Selma immediately raised her head to look.

“Don’t!” hissed Olly, pulling at her arm.

“You’re right,” Selma said slowly. “He is.”

Jack, Mo and Nate surreptitiously flicked their eyes over.

“Cool skin,” said Nate.

“I don’t know,” said Selma. “Green’s a bit last season. Madam’s wearing this gorgeous powder pink skin at the moment. And she’s always bang on trend. When I earn enough bitcredits I’m getting myself a turquoise skin. What do you think, Jack?” she said, giving him a nudge. “Will you still lurve me?” she slurred, somewhat sarcastically.

Jack ignored her, drank some more.

“But what’s with the stuff on his face?” asked Nate.

Mo shrugged. “Enhancements. Virtual markings. Disease.” Mo suddenly laughed. “Maybe he’s an alien. Who knows?”

Olly was just about to tell them that he’d seen this man before—either in his dreams, or in his feed—when Jack finished his pint and got up. “Right,” he said, “I’m going to the bar.”

“Me too,” said Selma. “Actually, I need the loo.”

“So do I,” said Mo. “Here,” he said, helping her up. “I’ll take you.”

Selma grinned at Olly as she left the booth. “We’ll leave you two lover boys to it, shall we?”

Olly reddened, bowed his head, but Nate simply laughed good-naturedly.

When they’d gone, Nate and Olly were silent for a bit. Olly tried desperately to think of something to say. He then remembered the bee. Taking the handkerchief out of his pocket, he told Nate that he wanted to show him something.

“What is it?” asked Nate as Olly unfolded the thin square of cloth.

“A bee,” said Olly, triumphant.

“Whoa!” said Nate. “That’s like ridiculous!”

“I know,” said Olly. “I found it in Madam’s attic. Must’ve been there for ages.”

Olly began to stroke the bee, then risked looking up into Nate’s blue eyes, which were disquietingly close. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He wanted to tell Nate that he was beautiful too.

Nate agreed, yes, it was beautiful. And amazing. “But just think,” he went on, “if bees ever came back to Earth, we’d be out of work, wouldn’t we?”

Olly, feeling rebuffed, covered the bee up again. “It’s not the bees who are the bad guys here, Nate. It’s those fucking miniature drones that are going to put us out of work. Or voluntary labour. The acquisition of bitcredits. Whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing.”

Olly put the bee back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry,” said Nate, putting a hand on Olly’s arm. “It was just an observation. The bee really is amazing.”

Jack returned from the bar, interrupting them with the announcement that they served chips. “Great big fat steaming chips,” he said. “Made from real potatoes. D’you want some?”

“Yeah,” said Nate. “That would be–”

“Delushious,” said Olly, with a laugh.

They continued to drink and make merry, and when Olly felt Nate’s hand on his thigh, he could honestly say to Selma that yes, this was the best pub in the world. And that he was having the most fun he’d had in, like, forever.

When it was Olly’s turn to get a round in, he found himself standing next to the strange, green man at the bar.

The man smiled at him. “Having a good time?” he said, his accent strange.

Olly nodded. “Yeah. We heard about the mead, how amazing it was and–”

“Where you from?” asked the man.

Olly, too drunk by now to worry about what he disclosed to a stranger, told him that they were from the nearby farm.

The stranger looked confused. “What kind of farm? What do you do there?”

“We pollinate the flowers of apple trees. And the other fruit trees and bushes. We spend most of our days under glass, dabbing at blossoms with a paint brush.”

“That’s good work you’ve got there,” said the man. “To be amongst apple trees, the clean air that surrounds them . . . .” The man took a swig from his pint, then smiled. “Handling pollen, the very essence of life. Good work.”

Olly couldn’t help but stare at the strange enhancements on the man’s face. They really were incredibly life-like—like real leaves. And there were also some—what were they?—acorns amongst the leaves. Before he could help himself he asked the man where he was from.

“Not from here,” he replied. “But from time to time I like to drop by. I noticed the sterility, the barren soil, and thought I’d stop. Tell me,” he went on, “how long has the Earth been like this?”

If Olly had been more sober he would’ve laughed, asked the man what planet he’d been living on. Instead he said that it had been like this for most of his life. “About twenty-five years.”

“And what do you young folk think about it?” The green man inclined his head to the table at which his friends were sitting.

Olly shook his head. “We don’t want it to be like this. But I guess we feel . . . ” He sighed. “Powerless.”

The green man nodded. “I see. So the situation’s hopeless?”

“The scientists are working on it. Or so we’re always being told. But I reckon that the people at the top of the food chain, people like Madam, I mean, don’t give a shit. So nothing’ll happen.”

The man fixed his green eyes on Olly. “Do you think the situation’s hopeless?”

Olly thought of the bee, and the words his neural feed had thrown up the other day: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. Hopeful.

Tears came to his eyes, and embarrassed, he hung his head. He didn’t know how to answer.

“All right, son,” said the man, putting his hand on Olly’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”

The five of them left the pub in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. They cycled across the mudflats, making slow, wobbly progress, the only sound the drone of driverless cars in the distance. They laughed and sang and talked about the mead, the chips, the tobacco smoke, the folk band that had rocked up to play some ancient tunes. The oldies who had danced, and persuaded them to dance.

“Delushious,” said Selma, “it was all so delushious.” The strange, green man was forgotten.

Suddenly, Olly stopped cycling, propelling Nate off the handlebars. “Oh God, sorry, Nate. I’m so sorry,” he said, helping him up. Nate, more surprised than hurt, told him not to worry. The others slowed and then stopped.

“It’s just . . . .” Olly pointed over to the east. There was the green man on the horizon, striding towards the rising sun. He seemed to be getting taller with each step.

“That’s the green guy,” said Jack. “From the pub. What the hell’s he up to?”

Olly shook his head. “No idea.”

The green man stopped, turned to face them, plucked an acorn from his face and then knelt, plunging the acorn into the soil.

The five of them felt a tremor, as though the Earth itself was sighing with relief. And then came the small noises—the squeaks and murmurings and gurgles of life returning to the soil. The green man rose, gave them a smile and then turned his back. He continued to walk towards the sun, then vanished into the first rays of light.

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. In time, they each mounted their bikes and rode back to the farm, too exhausted, too awe-struck to speak. And as they returned to their dorm, to slip into sleep, Olly knew that they had witnessed the beginning of something new.

Outside, grass began to grow.

From the Editors: How Can I Look Up

for Michael J DeLuca

 

How can I write you this letter

 

through thick smoke the sun

a red dot in the sky

I should not be able to stare into

 

How can I make an appointment

with the car dealer

while mother Tahlequah takes

her tour of duty      displaying for us

hairless monkeys what the rest

of the natural world already knows

 

How can I take a shower

when thousands of people have poison

                              to drink

How can I look out the window at the moon

stroke my cat’s chin

                    make my bed

How can I admire the late blue background

and mountain silhouette on the ferry heading home

 

How can I take a seat on a bus

hurtling toward a city of dog-walkers     businessmen

and concerned shrugs of passers-by

it’s terrible this smoke it’s all terrible

I know          it’s really terrible      I know      I know

 

How can I bring the sleeping children home

after a long day of amusement park

fried foot-long corndogs

How can I look up my visa bill when

our relationship with the earth

is toxic

stored now in blubber

of whales that send us warnings

and raw grief

a suffocation of sound and light

in the realm of the dead

 

How can I make plans with a friend

     buy groceries          drink tea

while we are plunging toward an inevitable

tipping point

no return

extinguishing what has been

like a comet

or a cancer

or a chapter of some future history book

 

when we alter landscapes          lose habitat

when the world shrinks

gets hotter     tighter    angrier

goes hungry

 

How can I search for a lost coat

my favourite          when

we are losing                    every day

pieces of our humanity

of green

of corals and bees

and owls and streams

 

How do I rekindle passion’s poetry without falling into despair

feeling holding me there

when I exist in coffee pots          lists          renovations of the old

dish-washing          laundry          finally unpacking all my books—

finding homes for paperwork and tools

getting on them weeds in the garden out of control

testing recipes

collecting that fruit before it rots on the trees

 

How do I do the deep work

maintain connection to that slightly

MAD state

and go about my day                    lost as I long to be

 

How can I sit in an alley playing drums with a Turkish immigrant

How can I breathe smoke on the shoreline while

using my cell phone as a hot spot to

send an email about a postcard for a

talk about climate change

 

How can I sleep?

 

How can I ask a friend how I can do these things when

he says

How can we anything

 

My heart breaks because other hearts do not

my heart breaks and I go on making plans

scheduling dates

daydreaming about getting laid

calling out to alley cats

          to birds overhead

          to the leaves in the trees

 

How can I dress myself for success

add accessories

buy lemon tarts

browse antique stores

try on possible new shoes

 

my generation acquiesces to the inevitable

while millennials dream of Super Heroes

bursting through the screen

 

Somebody

do

something

do

something

I want to scream

Let go of every device in your hands

and look up                    are we going to lose

the sky          on our way to losing the sea

 

How can I leave space                    for us

to breathe

 

How can I

unbury your ears

shape a new kind of listening

to what is under our feet          and floating

still-born          (yet still hoping)

all around us                    stating the obvious

 

How can we anything          he asks while

chopping onions and peppers

to feed his young family

in the midst of idling engines

cooked rivers

air-conditioned ignorance

and addiction to machines

Introducing Sakara Remmu, Guest Editor for Reckoning 3

Sakara Remmu is a storyteller, journalist, anti-oppression activist and advocate living in the greater Seattle area. Sakara was first published in 2001 after witnessing a police shooting; she began producing social commentary for local and national print and radio news in 2007.

Of First Nation and African descent, Sakara was born in Torrance, California to a biological mother who would give her up a year later. She was adopted by an interracial couple with two children of their own when she was 3 years old. Childhood was an experience of contrasts growing up in a conservative, quiet suburban city.

“On the one hand we had structure and rules; my older brothers and I went to private school and church every Sunday. Chores had to be done on time, that sort of thing. On the other hand, our parents weren’t necessarily conservative people. They were professionals, but they also had adventure and imagination, and a bit of whimsy.

“We were always outside. Rain or shine, snow or ice, what I remember and love the most when I look back is that we were always outside. Nature was, pardon the expression, second nature. My parents had a huge garden when we were growing up. Understanding food, where it comes from, the dirt it’s grown in—we weren’t really aware of what they were teaching us about the planet or biology, but it’s in our marrow now. My dad grew up traveling and exploring Washington, Oregon and parts of Canada. He introduced his kids to all the places he loved, whether we wanted to go or not. Now we all have kids of our own and we’ve carried on the tradition of dragging them outside and forcing them up a mountain, or into a tent for a week in the middle of nowhere, with no internet access. It’s pretty great.

“It’s also sobering. I’ve lived here long enough that I can actually see the impacts of environmental change and global warming. I can remember what snowfall was like thirty years ago compared to now, and rain and drought trends and heatwaves. It’s confronting, and as a parent it’s sometimes horrifying and overwhelming, especially because my kids are old enough that they see it too. But we still hike.”

Sakara joins Reckoning Press as the guest editor of Reckoning 3, working alongside founding editor and publisher Michael J. DeLuca to broaden the range and diversity of content and stories with her unique personal lens and editorial experience.

For more on Sakara, check out Under the Redline, her miniseries podcast focusing on the lives of those in marginalized communities in and around Seattle, or find her on twitter @BOMBMediaCo.