Sweetwater, Poison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Author: Brianna Cunliffe

Brianna Cunliffe (she/her) is an environmental justice activist and writer currently studying at Bowdoin College. As a queer woman who grew up on a rising shoreline, her work is animated by fierce love of the fragile places we call home. In 2019, she served as the artist-in-residence on the Kent Island Scientific Station in the Bay of Fundy, generating poetry, short story, and essay focused on the climate crisis. Her poems and short stories have been published in Storm Cellar, Claw and Blossom, Blind Corner, isacoustic* and more.

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