No More Creepy Crawlies

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

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

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

Should be.

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please. Look down.

#

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

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?

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?

Green Papayas on a Sunday Evening

TIDINGS

 

A harried wind has come

bearing in his arms

ill tidings.

 

Ratt-a-tatting timidly

on my door,

head hanging low,

hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind

pleads to be let in.

 

But I do not want him

in. I quickly shut my windows, and

stuff all the nooks and crannies.

I even cotton up my ears,

because I know.

 

Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind

has come to say?

 

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

And, that I am weak and powerless. That I

can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing

but watch the horror unfold.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Reckoning 6 Submission Call

and

Seeking speculative fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry about environmental justice that addresses the intersection between social upheaval and environmental changes, from collapses to breakthroughs, and everything in between. People’s large-scale relationships to the Earth produce formidable stories of devastation and resilience, which we welcome, but we also welcome those moments of intimacy, of quiet revolution, of deciding that changing the world means understanding and fighting for one’s place in it. We’re especially interested in work that demolishes or subverts binaries; that engages all the senses and emotions; and deals in hope, complexity, and complicity.

  • Fiction that shatters, stretches, or realigns mainstream Western ideas about relationships between individual humans, humans as a whole, and all other members of our environment. We’d love to read something with the vibe of Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, N.K. Jemisin, or something brand-new. Send us your solarpunk, your biopunk, your hopepunk, and all things of multiple genres.
  • Nonfiction stories of environmental racism, of mental health intertwined with climate justice, of reckoning with systemic inequities during natural disasters, be they incisive or philosophical, bleak or hopeful, private or macrocosmic.
  • Poetry that deals with the questions of: how does social justice impact the manifestations, understanding and assimilation of environmental justice? How are attitudes toward preservation influenced—or complicated by—cultural roots? How have civil rights exposed or strengthened breaches in the makeup of activism?

We are actively seeking work from BIPOC, queer and transgender writers, artists with disabilities, and anyone who has suffered the consequences, intended or otherwise, of dominant society’s systemic disconnect with and mistreatment of the natural world. And we’re actively seeking new ways to reach all of the above. Seriously, if you know of a way we can do that, please share.

Read the full guidelines and submit your work here.

Kondottiyans

The repatriation flight skids off the tabletop runaway,

thundering in the tailwind.

Homing dreams crash through the optical illusion.

 

Breaking the pandemic shackles,

they gallop toward the gruesome gorge.

Downpour and darkness cannot immure their vigor.

They are incandescent with compassion,

forget their masks.

Excruciating voices.

They hasten to hospitals,

carrying the passengers in PPE kits,

who are either dead or dying.

Their WhatsApp messages multiply agile hands.

They wait before the blood banks.

The forlorn kids are glued to their hearts with the love-epoxy.

 

They return home to quarantine themselves

at dawn.

Humans aren’t extinct among men.

 

September 20, 2020