No More Creepy Crawlies

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

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

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

Should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please. Look down.

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

Mula sa Melismas

Bukod sa tubig, bukod sa paglalayag, mga pagpatay

at mga resulta ng pagbibilang ng hakbang,

pagsunod sa kapahamakan gayundin ang pagkilala

sa mga galaw na itinatago ng mga dayandang.

Malamig ang panahon para sa paglukso

sa mga konklusyon kung dumidistansiya

ba ang mga konstelasyon. Parang nauuso

na naman ang pagmimiron sa mga signos

ng pagbabalik ng Panginoon. Sabay-sabay

na naman ba ang pagposisyon, naglulusugan

ba ang mga puso ng mga bata, bumibilis

ba ang mga kabayo? Kung mag-iisip ba ako

ng mga ibon, lalabas ba ang mga ibon?

Kung mag-iisip ba ako ng kaluwalhatian,

lalabas ba ang mga mekanismo ng hangin,

papangalanan ba ang lahat ng klase

ng sugat upang ipaliwanag ang mga pinsala

sa paligid, upang linawin ang paglampas

ng tubig sa mga naitakdang hangganan

kung hangganan bang maituturing

ang mga lubid at tulos ng aking ligalig?

From Melismas

and

Translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim

Aside from water, aside from sailing, killings

and results of counting steps,

in pursuit of danger as well as familiarity

of gestures shielded from view by dayandang trees.

The season’s too cold for leaping

to conclusions on whether constellations are drifting farther

away from us. Doomsday cultists are coming out of the woodwork

these days, crowing about supposed signs

of the Second Coming. Do we now synchronize

our positions, are the children’s hearts

getting healthier, are the horses

trotting faster than before? Suppose I imagine

birds, will that conjure birds?

If I visualize paradise,

will that render visible the wind’s unseen machinery,

will that produce names for all kinds

of wounds to make plain the level of damage wrought

to the environment, to explain the water rise

going beyond the expected limits

assuming we can still consider as limits

the coiled ropes and upright pickets of my unease?

Salvage Song

So, here we are

at the end.

We have pulled down the sails to make patches for the ocean, come

we will patch those patches with paisley scraps,

with blue and white checks like

Dorothy’s dress, we will save scraps of paper

to cover half-written books; come we will grab

one last plank from the ship to patch

somewhere out past the epilogue. Come,

there is so much farther to go.

 

Let go of the ship’s rope ladder, and we’ll talk

about walking lightly on the world. Not

that we shouldn’t have built the ship or made

the voyage, that the less anyone

could feel your wake, the better; not

some correspondence between the weight

of each step and the storm befalling us—but follow, step light,

if only because the raft is so easily tipped.

Step light down to the raft:

apply your whole self to the push and pull,

to the tumbling forward, the pause, and we will hop

from salvaging to salvaging.

 

Here at the end

you will feel you are doing nothing, and

you won’t: when you think

about the space between

water droplets, a shortness of breath

will lodge in your chest the pain of knowing

there is so much to salvage, a folding

like reaching to tuck even the voyage

back into the pattern.

 

If you have no hope, you’ve come

to the right place to be hopeful

without it. And if you’re worried

this is escape, I will assure

you: there is no escape.

We will drift

in the mess of an oceanic canal flush with pink

rhinestones from prom dates

that never happened and as we go

we will sew up the waves. When the raft sinks,

plug your nose, look up, and hold your breath

a little longer than comfortable. Your heartbeat

will pulse diamond in the water around you.

Take just enough with you

to swim back to the world.

 

So here at the end this song

is for drifting, this song

is for knowing your drifting goes somewhere, this song

is for pulling with all your might

against dead air. Out here,

you will have so much desire you will forget

how to have desires,

but that’s okay, because this

is the end of the world

and we don’t have new things.

 

And I don’t mean to say

this couldn’t be a love story.

Only that we’ll have to salvage

from the love stories already written, here

at the end of the world.

From the Editors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Editors: a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook

The call for submissions for Reckoning 5’s poetry started as a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook I lost years ago. It was Toronto labour rights activist and scholar Dr. Winnie Ng’s answer to a 2013 panel question on what she’d tell young organizers: that we can organize from rage, but where it was possible, you could go the long haul if you organized from joy. I lost the notebook, so I’m not going to get that quote right.

Living in a busy urban downtown sharpens your vision for the natural world living alongside and around you. You start relationships: with the raccoon that topples over your compost bin to eat tomato scraps; with the ash tree whose lowest leaves are low enough to, on the days you wear high heels to work, brush the top of your head like a benediction. You learn to truly value that ecosystem threaded through the cracks, and realize that busy spaces are full of half-visible mitzvot. You can think nobody is and then your vision sharpens to those little signs, and you realize: somebody is. That public native species garden didn’t grow itself, and those squirrels aren’t fat and happy on their own account. Someone planted chestnut trees. Someone is, just outside your frame of reference, doing the work.

Our call for poetry was about those intimacies: the seed waiting in your pocket, cupped handfuls of gorgeous things in motion, little gods. What work you were doing, and why you did it. Maybe we could all sharpen our vision, together.

We had no idea what was coming.

In Toronto, I have spent this pandemic year uneasily hibernating as part of a high-risk household. I stepped outside in May and the trees were leafing outward; the next time, in mid-June, the flowers were already going to fruit. It has been hard to know whose precautions to trust, where the future was leading.

Meanwhile, submissions poured in from every continent except Antarctica, and built a paper spine to keep my head up as the case counts fluctuated. Every week this year, I’ve spent a few hours reading poetry and essays about those little flecks of possibility: vivid, loving descriptions of the ground as wrinkled wise skin; laughing lines about coral; how far you can travel on patched-up sails; “we breathe and breathe and / breathe”. Ambivalent, pragmatic, realistic, joyous, fierce, those carefully nurtured loves started to feel like sonar, describing the shape of a world latticed with somebody is. Everything was most-beautiful. Webbed between chat servers, databases, and international video calls scheduled delicately to link three time zones—systems that felt like they should be so tenuous—what’s emerged is so solidly real.

Doing this project in a disrupted, unsettled year meant no matter what I could find to fear, somebody is. The process of putting this volume together gave us the proof. I can close my eyes and see a constellation: hundreds of people who believe in the limitless potential of being for something fiercely enough to write about it during a global pandemic.

That’s what I hope this offers you: a volume that holds the proof, that shakes with the force of that jotted-down note seven years ago, organize from joy. Even though the notebook got soaked until it was unreadable, was lost in a move, and I had to dig through old websites and event listings to find the conference and rediscover Dr. Ng’s name to properly credit her for the impact, I remembered the important part all the way through: If I love things and work from that love, my strength will not fail me.

So, here we are—not all of us, and not in equal circumstances: on our balconies, in wide-open spaces, in overcrowded housing with a half-dozen people we love, doing the work with our hands, doing the work with our mouths, holding ourselves or other people together, failing for today to do it, following instinct, following best practice, fumbling, planting, advocating, pushing back, pushing forward. Tending tiny miracles until they split the pavement.