Recently, I was thinking about statistics related to the number of uninsured in America, when the old phrase Numbers become meaningless past a certain size popped back into my head, and I saw the skulls laid all before me again. I was walking down the hallway from my office at the university in Colorado where I work, descending the stairs to the bathroom shortly before office hours began, when I remembered it. I could hear my old boss at Ashfall in Nebraska warning me how twelve million years means nothing to people, how most people can’t grasp numbers beyond a single human lifetime or generation. Putting it in visual scales and layers helps, but even then: what does twelve million mean? How can you even hold it in the mind?
Sometimes, I find that all I need to do is shut off the part of me that’s paying attention to find myself right back in Ashfall again. I’m washing my knuckles in the afternoon sunlight that slants into the university bathroom, a chinook wind carving over the mountains, but letting my focus drift and light braid into bone, I can see the ashbed I spent a summer memorizing. I can lean over the railing that surrounds this ash, looking down at our prize cormohipparion specimen. One of the ancient rough drafts of the modern horse, its adult body, if raised from the ash where it lies in situ, would only come up to my waist. Its neck sines back into a sharp rigor mortis S, the vertebrae splined with ash. Three of its legs bend slightly as the knees, as though just lifting into flight—almost-horse, almost flying. The fourth leg is folded up tight against its rib cage, the three-toed hoof wedged somewhere just around where its heavy-chambered heart would have been. Its backbone tapers to a whisper of linked beads for a tail that looks more reptilian than mammal, nearly unrecognizable. White sunlight from the skylights overhead slide over its molars, gritted in its grin like constellated stars or stones.
When I volunteered to teach at Ashfall as a site interpreter, I thought I was fulfilling a childhood dream: work with fossils, even if only in words behind a metal fence. Day after day, though, the bodies lying in state taught me something else. Something I wouldn’t know I needed until later seasons, something in the sockets filled with such an ordinary kind of light on such ordinary Sundays that I have pressed them somewhere into my own chronic physiology. If there is a kind of knowledge to death, it is a knowledge both terrifying in how weak the body is and calming in how ordinary the body remains, how it, too, can become something one simply comes to contemplate and see without seeing behind a railing, how beautiful the brief life it preserves.
I first visited Ashfall on a school trip with the Explorers Club, a group of people at our tiny liberal arts college in Wayne, Nebraska who all chipped in money to motor around on weekend or day trips. When we arrived at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, I followed the rest of the group into a large corrugated steel barn situated over the exposed ash beds where diggers continue excavation every summer. In winter—or even late spring, which is essentially winter in Nebraska—the pale ash is too cold to kneel on, and so it was empty the day of our arrival. The barn was built toward the bottom of a hillslope, and as of 2013, part of the hill still stood, cross-sectioned, inside the barn. The rest of the ashbed lies exposed as a broad square full of bones, with the upper layers of sand and modern sod all removed. A boardwalk for visitors wraps around three sides of the ashbed.
We stood around the railing while our tour guide explained the bodies left in the ash to best tell the story of the site: how animals, gathered here at a watering hole twelve million years ago, were baffled and eventually killed by a dark cloud of ash blown from an enormous eruption in the present-day Yellowstone area. The cloud, which stretched east clear across what is currently the United States, dumped up to two feet of ash in Nebraska and left no possibility of escape. Over a period of several hours to several weeks, depending on their lung size, the animals suffocated. Local extinction eventually gave way to the return of mammals like elephants ten years later, and with time, wind and rivers carried sand from runoff in the Rockies to cover over any remains of what had happened. Because the animals at Ashfall died and were preserved in a watering hole, which acted as a natural pocket in the landscape, they were packed and cushioned by the ash, and so instead of being gradually crushed or eroded by layers of sediment above, they were preserved as some of the world’s only three-dimensional fossils. Not even fully fossilized, they look in many ways as though they only just died.
Though I had given up my goal to work in archaeology and paleontology years before, having shifted fully into writing, I had also always held onto the desire to work at a fossil site. Excavation reveals past lives and past narratives, whether animal or human, and remains are a kind of vessel for imagination: gaps to fill with speculation, memory, and meditation. Of course, paragraphs have always served much the same function for me, and I learned long before college that I had no interest in measuring the chemical properties of sediment or carbon decay. When I visited Ashfall, I couldn’t articulate to myself just what I was interested in measuring instead, but I latched onto the fact that the tour guide had been an English major instead of a person in the sciences. Working with fossils might still be a possibility after all. I wasted no time firing off an email to the staff, asking if I could volunteer with them for the summer. Though what I really wanted was tactile contact with the past and its forgotten narratives, I stated in the email that I was happy even just answering questions about the site. I don’t think, consciously, the idea of storytelling was on my mind so much as finally being able to work with my lifelong obsession (fossils), but obsessions have had a way of manifesting in multiple directions in my life.
Since having an extra person there just to answer questions would allow the diggers on site to progress further in their work, the staff agreed. I spent the dig season of 2013 leaning against that railing for hours, describing the deaths of animals twelve million years old and yet, tangibly, only feet away from the people milling about on the boardwalk. Sun shifted over the bodies half-buried in the ground, the rhinos with jaws swollen and bubbled from oxygen depravation in their final days and weeks after the ash hit. The ash, which is essentially powdered glass, ground into their lungs and drove them, feverish, into the water for relief. My job was to answer questions and to tell the narrative of the site, the life that had played out here not only in the final hours for these animals, but also in the alien version of North America here long before us. Its geologic timescale is shocking for its relative brevity compared to Earth’s history and its relative enormity compared to humans’ time on the planet, along with how thoroughly it has been erased by the ages that have followed. Ice destroyed much of the evidence of this time in the continent’s history only a little north and east of Ashfall, layers of water advancing from the north, tearing up chunks of rock to deposit them miles and miles away, chilling and closing off ways of life for beings that had otherwise lived here for millions years. Telling the narrative of the site was a way to tell that history, as well as a way to tell the story of the lives lived here—the value they held as beings and bodies in their own right, beyond the ways they are being used in the present day to further our knowledge of science.
My job was also to listen. Sometimes children shared with me how their own family members or pets had died. Often adults would simply stand in silence for a while, especially on slower days with fewer people. Even if twelve million years could not be grasped, this could: the ribs of each individual animal, still fully articulated, tipped against one another in slanted cages and now filled with ash and air where there had once been viscera. Jawbones strung and dragged away by dog-like creatures. Camels and horses splayed on their sides or with lower jaws simply missing. Cranes folded beneath them. Spines emerging as pale alphabets and disappearing beneath the pale buttes of other bodies where the diggers had cut over, under, and around layers of them, carved in sunshien. Everything revealed in its last pose, where the water took and settled each one, how the last ash packed down tightly until what was kept there was like a frieze, some memory-vault where the great plains remembered something else. Even through all the changes, this part of Nebraska, at least, pays witness to a time when the chill plains were a lush savannah and when the bizarre animals that walked here were simply a normal part of it, now a sprawled vision of hurt we can barely understand, let alone imagine as having actually proceeded us and our collective human memory. It is something for which we construct a narrative in the moment, but can have no recorded history of, something with which we had no part at all, something with an agency and self totally outside of our own short time, so old we couldn’t even have captured it in art or song or writing.
At the end of every Saturday and Sunday, I would get back in my car and drive the hour home, marveling at the contemporary species descendants that accompanied me. Horses fenced in fields lifted their heads, ears backlit gold by the setting sun. Redwinged blackbirds’ small calls whistled holes through the air into the car. By mid-October, the end of the season, I would be driving back home in a blur of rain and a darkening sky that melted the windshield silver.
When I had my first real experience with Crohn’s Disease the following February, I wasn’t thinking about twelve million, or numbers, or deep time and history. I was concentrated on the pinpoint the moment allowed me the night I experienced acute symptoms of total bowel obstruction: the black cardigan and white slip I wore as I hunched on my side in the motel bed, the small black and white beads on the bracelet I wore (a recent Christmas gift from my mother) on the wrist drawn up close to my chin, the bare yellow bulb overhead that made a slick kind of shine on the dark panels of the walls. Past and future simply ceased to matter at that point. All that mattered were the seconds I counted during abdominal cramps that circled around to the small of my back and that hurt so badly they caused me to wretch.
The doctor in the ER I eventually went to informally diagnosed me with Crohn’s (a formal diagnosis wouldn’t come until several weeks and several tests, several proofs later). After saline and morphine were dumped into my veins, after I drank purple prep to light up my soft insides properly on the X-Ray machine, after beds with railings and pillows to prop up my arm to receive IV lines, I began to try to untangle the chronology. I am still trying to. If we are counting from October 14, my last guestimmated day at Ashfall, to February 14, then 107 days later I was experiencing symptoms of total bowel obstruction. Over the course of the 219 or 246 or 283 miles (according to various routes listed on Google Maps) I traveled between Norfolk, Nebraska and North Platte, Nebraska to judge a speech tournament, my mildly uncomfortable abdominal cramps escalated into acute pain that I rated at a “10” on the pain scale. There is no direct link between working at Ashfall and the onset of the disease, nothing in one that caused the other, but I wonder now if I was ill even while I was working there, and if it was meaningful that I spent so long teaching about bodies before having to learn so much about my own.
There are other numbers: according to MinutePhysics, there would have been approximately 5,000 stars visible to the naked eye that night, if they were visible. I’m not sure if they were, though, or if I’ve merely placed them there over the motel I stayed in. I know that the few inches in diameter of my terminal ileum, which connects the small intestine to the large, completely swelled shut because of a fault autoimmune gene that finally triggered. The pain was my gut trying to push past this block. We know that the peak times for Crohn’s to manifest are 22 and 52. We know that it has only been fully understood as its own disease since the early 1920s. We know, as my Fort Collins gastroenterologist mentioned to me in passing, the gene likely responsible for the disease, though that is purely academic knowledge at this stage, with no practical applications or solutions. Gene therapy holds some promise, though, provided we can assuage the moral naysayers.
What I struggle with, what I am still trying to understand, is whether I could have done anything to prevent the scar tissue currently in place. Did the inflammation finally, truly only happen that weekend? Had it started at a much lower level over the previous year, in the random abdominal pains I sometimes felt around my navel, even when I was at Ashfall? If I had gone to the doctor sooner about that, could we have caught it at an earlier stage? Will the immunosuppressant I’m on lead to certain cancers? Will the low-level inflammation I still likely have, even with the immunosuppressant, also lead to certain cancers?
That way lies madness, I tell myself, another phrase I always have at the ready. Asking these questions has not made the illness any more meaningful. But there I am, still thinking it when I walk home at night from the bus station, listening to owls call back and forth to one another across the road, their voices sometimes meeting over the road where tire tracks frozen in the snow make snowy spines extending forwards and backwards in the dark.
It’s an old line that Nebraska has four seasons: winter, still winter, mud, and damn hot. It is cold and, with little exception, filled with constant wind that you can hear at night sawing past the windows, the doors, the chimneys, the slightest crack or fissure in the house and any place a bit of chill can get in through the frame.
People have had to contend with this since at least as far back as the European settlers generally had poor knowledge of the land and how to live in it. All but decimating the original tallgrass prairie in favor of crops like corn, farmers have pushed the plains into a dangerous boom/bust cycle. Water tables have been decimated by constant irrigation. Though locals have so far successfully protested the laying of the Keystone XL Pipeline through the Sandhills region and over the Ogallala Aquifer, Nebraska has generally been poorly handled as an ecological model. According to the National Park Service’s page “Prairies and Grasslands” for Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska, only 4% of the prairie remains, though I am not sure if this means 4% in Nebraska or 4% in the country—I fear it is the latter. The Sandhills cranes are still a wonder each spring, gathering in long chains of white wings above the river like a moving backbone against the sky, but one can’t help but feel these are pressured in particular ways.
Driving through Nebraska, though, you wouldn’t think that the long shadows of fields of corn are precisely the scars of a vanished prairie. Or, rather, a particular kind of silencing, a covering of the loss of the prairie. At least, when I moved back to Nebraska in my mid-teens (having moved to Missouri with my family when I was three), I didn’t think of the corn as unnatural—what can be unnatural about something so green, forming rows and rows of quiet on a late summer afternoon? Such environmental degradation may disguise itself, but the land bears other kinds of scars, too, particularly when the harvest exposes what lies underneath: the flat, low hills darken to brown in winter and run the length of a lead-sealed sky with barbed wire fences. Abandoned barns—whether from newer models going in, economic collapse, or the population bleeding into surrounding states like Colorado—are left flayed and clawed paintless by the constant wind. Everything is drained colorless by ice. Erosion of all literal and figurative kinds abounds. Even in summer, when floods sometimes spill over the highway and make a kind of second world out of the few paper birch trees planted here and there, it is worth remembering that the rivers would no longer be recognizable to even the original European settlers of the area. They have been rerouted and channeled away, ghosting off like the prairie that was here.
My mentor, a poet and horseman, always talked about this, but I only began to worry for the region after several years of hating it. It is difficult to care for a place like Nebraska with its particular combination of fraught history, eye-watering flatness and wind, and rural culture that’s often felt like anything but the postcard version of small-town America painted on logos of milk cartons. Ashfall, and the people I met there, helped me care—because I learned more about the state’s history, its troubled and disrupted chronology, and I developed history of my own with it. I developed a body of knowledge. It’s the state where I discovered poetry as an alternative method to narrative, when fiction and its insistence on constructing full story started to elude me. It’s the state where I learned to navigate my illness that late winter and early spring, driving around with my father to photograph abandoned barns despite the freezing wind and discovering that healing is so often an act of attention, both inside and out.
Now, like so many other plains writers, I find myself writing difficult love letters for a region I fear may be too late to save. In the years since working at Ashfall, where the surrounding land is under the stewardship of the park and home to species otherwise absent; in the years since I have grown ill and moved away to Colorado, one of the inhabitants bleeding out of the state; in the years since I have begun to think more and more about vulnerable bodies, my own and others’—I have worried. My mentor has noted how many ranchers here don’t believe in wildlife, in their own words, and he has said a young Nebraska male will shoot anything that moves. This particular culture also doesn’t believe in acknowledging pain, instead using the favorite phrase, it could be worse. Once I heard my mentor snap at someone, “Don’t say it could be worse. Damn Nebraska stoicism.” He raised one hand in mock benediction. “‘Oh, the cattle have died in the blizzard and two of us died over the winter, but it could be worse.” He slammed his pencil down. “Say it’s bad, damn it.”
I worry who—and what—are lost in the silences of this land. The silences of not talking about pain, yes, and also the silences of bodies who are most vulnerable here in the place of constant wind. Silences of birds vanishing from fields, of creatures like the wolf long since eradicated from Nebraska, silences near the Sandhills and little canyons of Nebraska where mountain lions have returned but now face the ready guns of farmers.
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Incorporated, 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease of some kind. Up until 2014, an autoimmune disorder counted as a pre-existing condition that could disqualify people from insurance. While laws are now in place to prevent such discrimination, legal effort has already begun to erode these protections. Even with the laws in place, the numbers on premiums and deductibles continue to skyrocket, thanks to massive inflation of hospital costs attributable to any number of factors (but bound up with for-profit insurance companies). When you pay to have your blood tested or a bone set, for example, you’re paying costs that are significantly inflated beyond the actual cost of materials and labor to do those medical tests. The several hundred dollars I spent on a few blood tests in 2017, when my periods stopped and started randomly and I feared my disease might be screwing something up, probably cost the labs a few cents or dollars to process. That’s such an abstract kind of fact that I have to remind myself of it every time I log in to a screen to simply pay the amount. There’s a threat in the rows and rows of numbers presented on the pages I get in the mail, a threat to not paying what they ask; what’s hidden is the actual cost, along with how to navigate the complicated systems of insurance. It’s a threat I find myself getting inured to, all those white stacks of paper that sometimes catch the wind when I leave the window open, the way I rub the back of my neck when I’ve been sitting in front of the computer too long, navigating health websites and the little marks of text crouching in the light.
A favorite counter-phrase to the inflated costs of healthcare is, Lack of health insurance has never killed anyone. That’s a particular chestnut of wisdom conservative politicians love to offer. However, in 2009 the American Journal of Public Health reported that up to 45,000 people died each year due to lack of insurance. It is difficult, in 2019, to provide these facts and have them be believed, though. This is the age of the alternative fact. What is true and what is a number passed around social media? What is real? What counts as good evidence? If evidence doesn’t fit the narrative, do you rewrite the narrative or go back to reconsider the evidence and its context?
Another favorite phrase: I believe in personal responsibility. This is generally the attitude many Nebraskans in particular take toward medical expenses. I have seen friends and acquaintances on social media mention that they would rather pay for their own expenses, and if they get sick, they will deal with those expenses. But while I understand where people are coming from when they are paying $14,000 in deductibles, I also know the dangers of high-risk pools for someone like me. And I think that when we say personal responsibility, we aren’t really thinking about the fact that we’re saying we’re going to be personally responsible for the grossly inflated costs of medical treatments, or that our varying levels of privilege help us to recoup (or not recoup) those inflated costs. When we say uncovered, or flying blind as the saying goes for people who choose to not buy health insurance, there’s a normalizing we’re not thinking about, a languaging for lack of access to affordable health care that masks what is terrifying. And responsibility has come to be, itself, a term loaded with meaning, simultaneously attaching to those who can least afford to be responsible and abstracting away from us, as when we try to determine who’s responsible for environmental degradation, how this kind of history is present and happening in systems all the time. Risk that grows neatly in the gaps.
How do we make sense of this? How doI make sense of this? What’s my personal place in it all, when I hardly understand how some of it works? I don’t feel personally responsible when I’m struggling just to walk through a hospital parking lot, hunched over in a thin whipping bit of new snow when it’s twenty degrees outside.
What hurt me the most working at Ashfall was the knowledge that there exist some people who either believe the placing of the bones is fake—a whole conspiracy—or else the scientists’ ability to measure time was faulty. But how do you know it’s twelve million years old? runs the line. No amount of evidence can prove anything, particularly in a region where white-sided churches dot and cluster the landscape like so many stars. More than one of my friends attended schools in Nebraska that forbade the teaching of evolution, and more than one of my friends has found other ways of counting years and layers of history, other kinds of evidence for time. Similar arguments attach themselves to climate change and environmental destruction, which are sometimes hard to see directly and can manifest in soft damages to the body that accumulate through time.
I knew of nothing else to say, besides telling myself over and over again, this is real. It was something I had to remind myself of, sometimes, looking at bones that were old enough to have pre-existed civilizations by millions of years and yet that looked as though they had died in a fire only recently. Because the ash had preserved them so well, it was still mostly bone I was looking at, the ribs hardly turned to stone or hardly locked into something that had fully replaced them yet.
Some visitors, though—and this is the only way I think I know how to put it—found God. Some would look at it and say: it’s all right here. Evolution or not, here they found bodies preserved in their final moments, these bodies curled and coiled and flung over one another, and they got a sense of time, and life, and death, that numbers could not capture. When larger groups drifted away, I heard stragglers speak in hushed voices and raise hands to point at the animals half-emerging from ash. Sometimes, if I drifted over to them, they would ask me what I believed. Did I believe in God? Did I believe in evolution? Did I believe they coexist? Do I still believe those things? I don’t know. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I didn’t want to offend people, and I dodged. I still don’t really know.
Call it God, call it years, call it time, call it a kind of truth, most people recognized something when they looked down into this pit held in light. In that time and space, many ceased to be stoic Nebraskans. They watched diggers kneel on blue pads and carefully brush away tiny flecks of grit from rib cages and femurs. These workers did it carefully, and they did it right. One wrong move of the scalpel would break something that could not be put back together, something older and far before all of this. Most workers walked into the ash barefoot, feeling with their toes in case they stepped on anything, coming back with soles whitened and smooth of calluses after months of slowly revealing the bodies that at first looked only like stones in the ground.
Moments like that, I simply joined the visitors in looking at something revealed in all its silence. We listened to the dry scrape of small trowels, the soft calls of migratory bulls outside in the autumn, the constant wind whining around the building. More than once, I had to run to close the doors we propped open for guests, as gusts of wind galloped in and knocked the ash back into the air. In those moments, it was if it were twelve million years ago: ash spumed and grayed everything, and as it fell, it caught the sunlight, sparkling in small bits that turned and turned in the most beautiful kind of death possible.
Moments like this collapsed time for me and for the people who gathered around me. In those moments, when I did not know I had a body vulnerable to illness and insurance whims, I found a kind of truth in looking at bodies like this. These animals died in terror—and wonder—but today rest in a kind of calm and comfort that I come back to again and again, like a river tooth inside of myself. They create a place of quiet I can return to, to pause, to think, to get a better sense of time’s scale and my place on it; a body can be utterly frail and utterly fallible in its time, and yet remain something permanent that holds meaning for the living in the years that follow, something without dread. When the ash rose, we were all threatened by the glass again, all held equally vulnerable through our breath to something from millions of years in the past floating down on a specific afternoon of 2013, all exposed to the wound of living that is the same through time. I ran to and fro closing the doors, letting the old deaths fall back safely for a time.
Sometimes I sit down on the edge of my bed in my room, when the pain of a symptom is especially intense, and I recite, like a chant: Yes, it is bad. Yes, it is bad. Yes, it is bad. I breathe through the tight band of hurt across my belly, feeling my ribs rise and fall, believing in this as much as the hurt.
Today, on meds, my disease is hardly visible even to myself. When I first got sick, I lost weight rapidly and could more easily discern the lineation of my ribcage in the mirror. Now I’m back to recognizing myself, and sometimes even I forget what it’s like to be seriously sick. The memory of the pain has reduced to something abstract, difficult to grasp and reach back to. I can remember the vague black and gray viscera of my gut illuminated on the light-board held up by the doctor, the white pillar of my spine cutting somewhere down the center of this. The loop that the doctor traced that proved, supposedly, how it went up by my heart, but that looked like a random bunch of blobs, to me.
What I think I struggle with is making this illness both visible to myself and concrete, tangible. Most days it sits in my head as something abstract, even when the symptoms (like a kind of IBS, when I’m medicated) are noticeable. It’s intangible in the body, even when I can point to specific locations that hurt. The terminal ileum aches, yes, but everything where I point is vaguely just somewhere here. I can map pain, and yet I can’t. And though people always believe me, have never doubted that I’m sick, even though I don’t look sick, they doubt the medication I use. Why don’t you try ________? It’s more natural, it would probably be healthier for you.
My response to this has been, I think, to try to make things more tangible for myself. The syringe I inject myself with every couple weeks is just full of little live things (kind of? I still don’t really understand biologics), like any set of organisms in an environment. It is a set of live things. I am a part of a larger breathing. I don’t know if this is true for other people. I struggle to name or talk about anyone else’s experience of the disease. Just like I struggle to remind myself that the loss of the prairie, or the stoicism that hides pain in silence, or the ways that I don’t look sick, are both visible and invisible. The risks, though, of forgetting, outweigh the risks of reminding, of asking questions. What happens if I let this knowledge disappear? What happens—what kind of permanent damage is done—if the tallgrass disappears completely? What, then, is revealed? The loss of such landscapes seems not only a loss of history, but also a loss of the ability to make sense of our own bodies, of any way of living. Solastalgia: the feeling of nostalgia for an environment in which one still lives but one no longer recognizes, where old knowledge and old language no longer applies. Where one can no longer be fully alive, not in the sense we’ve ever known as a species, before. A word recently developed to describe what greater and greater numbers of people feel. What can death mean when one’s knowledge of it no longer even applies? When abstract environmental loss becomes something acutely tangible?
I think that I have tried to excavate the illness out of me, again and again, and each time it keeps slipping back inside of me and out of sight. I think that I struggle to articulate this each and every day to people, most of all myself. I think that I struggle to remember my own death, whether due to the illness or something else, a tangible thing instead of something abstract; and I think I also know that, to keep going on with life, I have to navigate this distance of tangible and abstract, as we all likely do. If I can do so with my body, perhaps it is possible for me to do it on a larger scale, with a whole landscape. It is a trick of perception, having to imagine one’s place no longer being recognizable; it is hard enough to imagine one’s body as becoming a home that turns against the self, when one is well. One must learn to count and not to count, to see and not to see.
When I release the medicine into my body, I imagine the little live things spread out inside the night of fat and skin and blood, and they star it with something to keep me alive. I imagine that this is a way I am articulating it. I imagine this is a way I keep making my body a home, familiar in its strangeness, alive for a short time to build spaces of breaths and paragraphs.
In the end, for all of this, there is no escaping the numerical chronology: I worked at Ashfall before I became officially ill. Part of me wants to think that, in going every day to see the first stumbling attempts toward horses, the beardog burrows, that I was also in a way preparing myself for recovery. I want to believe that, on the days when I slept late in my parents’ house with the white curtains rippling like ghost ribs from the wind coming out of the heating vent in the floor, I was using ladders of ribs to climb back out of myself. That I was learning to see the body as something that could hold death and terror side-by-side with wonder, with the glory of life, with a kind of equilibrium or calm in the surrounding ground and landscape. There can be acceptance as well as fear, a dwelling in the body and a moving beyond it.
The fact of the matter is, though, no matter how I arrange it, no matter how much the layers emerge through one another, Ashfall came before the illness. I didn’t choose it in some subconscious need to learn about the body, no matter what I tell myself. And yet some chronologies, some measurements, some bodies of knowledge, are of course ongoing: prairie decimation continues, extinctions continue, the plains culture continues inside of me even after I have moved away to Colorado. I don’t know what this says about how I grapple with pain, or how this culture is balanced—or mixed with, or stirred up inside—spending a summer as a speaker for bones, in a flat landscape full of churches, my own weird kind of faith in these tangible objects and something intangible at the same time.
What I’ve avoided saying, I think, is that I want to believe in something after death. That I don’t want to vanish into a void, particularly if Crohn’s shortens my life. When people say personal responsibility, I think I fear that I’m left responsible for the days and hours I have left in my life, and that scares me when I should be existentially liberated. The truth is, I feel terrified.
When I go back to Ashfall in my mind, I see one of the last days I was there, when my boss finally let me walk around the ashbed. Ostensibly it was to do my job better. Really, though, I think he wanted me to finally just get to see it up close, like I’d wanted from the beginning. He led me through the gate, across the ash, and I had to pick and step my way across near-invisible rodent burrows and a young horse head not much wider than the span of my hand. I set my feet carefully. Breaking a single thing could permanently disrupt the narrative happening here, or register my foot and carelessness as part of that narrative, a permanent record on the landscape inside of here. Isn’t that what I have wanted, though? Lines broken at angles that last? I don’t want to leave marks here, and yet I think I have wanted to not want this, to make some kind of permanent impression, for better or worse. I think of the people who first discovered this place, after finding a bit of bone jutting out of the dirt that water and wind had worn away to uncover, what came to light through a kind of inevitability that wasn’t inevitable at all, only accident. This knowledge became possible because of the marks people like the first diggers have put on this landscape, walls and all, and the only way to hide it is by hand or by random disaster, like a tornado, erasing its existence again. Ultimately, for however long they persist, is the bones that last, their brief, specific record of being alive.
My boss points to the faint halo of green ash surrounding one of the recently-excavated bodies. “See that? That’s around all the new bodies. The green fades over time. We don’t know why that happens or what it is.” In life, he later sent me a paper detailing the exact biochemical numbers charting it, though this still did not (and has not) added meaning for me, either. In the eternal present of this moment, though, we are looking at this ring. It provides a kind of faint outline of the body, demarcating its shape, like it has been deliberately traced. Over time, that line will disappear, and the body will simply be another body lying next to the others, without separation. The mechanisms of the loss of the green are not fully understood, and bags of green ash have been documented and photographed in case the color is important. Ultimately, though, outside of the diggers’ control, all the bones and ash become the same light gray, erasing whatever biochemical byproduct of life—or death—might have produced the green and becoming another ordinary part of the larger tableau.
When I look at all the skeletons around me, I try to comprehend this in terms of distance from my body, not numbers or time. The scale is still staggering: to see vertebrae and tangled limbs spreading several meters in every direction, lifted out of the dark of the cold gray ash and lathed into something like light again. Bones inverted out of their original bodies, killed through one unfortunate random day that became a fortunate random discovery for all of the scientists, all of the visitors, all of the people seeking something here each year. If there is a meaning to this—this place, and my own death—I have likely given it, and that I hold onto, dearly, with both hands. Haloed, tangible, a death state I cared for for a time.
- “Autoimmune Disease Statistics.” American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc.
- Cecere, David. “New Study Finds 45,000 Deaths Annually Linked to Lack of Health Coverage.” The Harvard Gazette, 17 Sep. 2009.
- Google. [Google Maps directions from Norfolk, Nebraska to North Platte, Nebraska]. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018
- “How Many Stars There Are in the Sky, Explained in Ten Seconds.” Youtube, uploaded by minutephysics, 17 Nov. 2013.
- “Prairies and Grasslands.” Homestead National Monument of America Nebraska. National Park Service, 10 Apr. 2015.
Kelly Weber holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. She is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weirdfrom Pseudo Poseur Press, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in upstreet, Mud City Journal, Bodega, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journal Award, and she has received professional support from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference workshop. She has also served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review and as an artist-in-residence at Cedar Point Biological Station. She lives in Colorado, where she enjoys exploring the outdoors. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.