David Carlin and I, after walking along a beach in Melbourne, decrying the eroding beach, decided we would write essays in parallel, one for each letter in the alphabet. Essays that looked aslant and tried to feel out what was happening. Some unruly letters sprouted multiples. Each essay brought a new object into view, something big or small that insisted somehow to be taken note of and responded to. We tried to resist reverence. Even as we grieve for what feels like a lost world, we take joy in what was, what is, and what could be. Instead of grieving and moving on, as if such a thing was possible, or just hoping against hope, as if such a thing was sensible, we wanted to stay with the trouble, as thinker and activist Donna Haraway advises. The trouble is troubling but it’s also funny and difficult and inspiring and sad — and anyway, it’s what we have. We offer this book as an invitation to pause and pay attention and a guide to make the matter that’s ongoing matter.
I love maps almost more than anything. You draw a wiggly line and a world starts to appear. I used to pore over maps in the World Book Encyclopaedia set that occupied pride of place in our lounge-room. How islands nestled into bays, how rivers widened until you couldn’t imagine them being rivers anymore, how one lake would loop into another like a chain of melons. How could the world be so many-patterned? Now I also know maps have caused a lot of problems, not always because of what they show but also what they don’t show. Some indigenous activists reckon what is needed is a whole lot of unmapping to get a new picture of how the world looks, or to try to remember or imagine how it might have looked for a long, long time before the maps were printed.
Imagine if unmapping workshops were offered by the nearest library. You could get out a local map, unfold it on a table and gather around. Anybody could point at a feature on the map, and say: “Why is that called ‘Mt. Disappointment’?” Who was disappointed? Did it ever have other names, and what did they mean? One thing leads to another once you start asking questions.
I’m looking at a mountain right now, in Kilpisjarvi, Finland. According to the Sami people of Lapland it’s a holy mountain or, as the Finnish would say, a fjell called Saana. The long steep side of Saana facing me is speckled with snow so it looks like it is draped in cowhide, or like a world of continents and islands surrounded by thick, foggy oceans. As soon as I mention the mountain out the window I feel the guilt thing happening again. Am I really in Finland, all the way on the other side of the world from where I belong?
I’ve calculated my carbon footprint since we started writing this book. I found a website that creates an image of a footprint for me called “Your Footprint.” It has a nice high arch, my image-footprint, and looks, all in all, like a very healthy foot, only slightly larger than the Australian average. From my rough estimates based on the questions that they asked, I have achieved (in the negative) a score of 17.96 metric tons per year, as against the average Australian’s 16.30 metric tons. The world target foot, a full nine times smaller than my massively empowered tread, looks grotesque and shrunken, like the end-result of Chinese foot binding. Hardly encouraging. If I had only flown where I have flown since we started the book, but not eaten or drunk or consumed anything at all (apart from what I could forage, maybe) then my foot would only be double the size of the shockingly deformed target. Which goes to show flying by itself is not the problem. Situated directly below my currently impressive footprint on the website is a button in fabulous cool green, inviting me to Offset Now. Who could resist. It takes me to a place where I can choose between Reforestation in Kenya (Personalized Downloadable Certificate Available) UK Tree Planting, or many other options, any of which I could Add To Basket. The most expensive choice, to pay for consuming nine times more of the world’s energies than my share this year, costs $174.02 including taxes. A cheapo option not including trees for Scotland is less than half.
Some things in the world:
- the phrase “Add To Basket”
- people who will make a buck out of anything
On a map you’ll find Kilpisjarvi in the far north-west of Finland. May is not a good time for the skiers: the snow is soft. It’s not a good time for ice fishing, neither for boating on the lake nor hiking. It’s too early or too late. The in-between time. As silent as can be. Tiny groundcovers and grasses, newly free of snow, are soaking up the sun and making green. The birch trees are waiting for their feet to get clear.
Didn’t we believe the worms were good? You can take a whole class on how worms are good for your compost bin and your soil. Worms for fishing. Worms for Great Tits. But here, in Flagstaff, the earthworms are the wrong kind and they, like everyone else, are ruining everything. The earthworms in Flagstaff, like me and the elk and the bison, are transplants. Their good work in the garden is their death work in the forest. For the average backyard project, earthworms are great. They till up the soil, decompose organic material, and make natural nitrogen so your carrots can grow as big as rabbits.
In the forest, the worms do the same thing. They churn through the decaying leaves and pine needles, bark, and pinecones, turning them quickly into nutrient-rich soil. But the trees can’t use all that nitrogen so quickly. The trees rely on the slow burn of decay. The decay holds moisture close to the ground. Tender roots take protection from their crusty forebears autumnal sloughing. The layers pile in the forest making duff to host all kinds of microorganisms that the trees need to survive, as do mushrooms and trillium, a flower that is nearly endangered in most forests. Researchers predict that earthworms will change the face of the forest. Trees might survive but the trillium may be lost forever.
“Lost forever”—the refrain we keep singing. Just today, The Guardian reported that the building in which every country in the world houses heirloom seeds has been compromised by ice melt. We stored the seeds in a repository built deep in the permafrost, believing that there, they would be safe should disease or devastation wipe out all our plants. All our corns and tomatoes and potatoes. Our sumacs, our oreganos, and our za’atars. Our eggplants and peas and lettuces. Our wheats and rices. Millenia of cultivation, hybridization, and fertilization wiped out not by some single person who accidentally unplugged the refrigerator but by a whole planet of people who purposefully unplugged the refrigerator. The permafrost is not as perma as we thought.
The good news is, from melting patches of ice and snow might come new life. I hear a special kind of anthrax is on its way. Maybe some viruses? A bigger, badder small pox?
Some other good news: Women retain the DNA of every man they’ve ever slept with. It’s like we are ourselves one of those seed vaults in Norway.
Oh, my dear friend, who is at his friend’s watching the sweet cream spot on the head of a Great Tit, this is supposed to be a happy book, or at least a book that, with all its melancholy, has a bright side.
So here is the bright side:
There is a bar in Flagstaff called Altitudes that is so close to the tracks, your water glass shakes when the train comes by. Even more deafening is the blaring horn that comes through the doors and windows like they aren’t even there. The wail clings to your shoulders and hangs onto your ears like a hungry monkey.
Altitudes took this opportunity to make a game: dollar shots of the day whenever the whistle blows.
On Sundays, the trains came twice an hour, it seemed. People got a little drunk. Their ears, a little deadened.
In 2010, the city banned train whistles within city limits. Truly, we were all going deaf. Flagstaff is a train town as much as a car town. The Santa Fe runs 100 trains through per day. You could lose your hearing. You could lose your liver. So, no more whistles. No more shots. It’s less lonely here because there is nothing lonelier than the sound of a train whistle threading through the night like worms through forest duff. You can still hear the engines and wheels on the tracks, but that’s the sound of progress, not a whimper from the past.
Here’s the good news. Although the whistle is gone, Altitudes is bringing back train shots. The tracks are still right outside the front door. 100 trains still pass through per day. The sound still shakes the glasses on the tables. Those glasses may as well be filled with booze because nothing lasts forever, not even our livers.
David Carlin’s books include The Abyssinian Contortionist, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, and (forthcoming) The After-Normal for Rose Metal Press, and 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder for Open Humanities Press. David’s essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary and short films have won awards and featured at numerous international festivals. David is Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, where he is co-director of WrICE and the non/fictionLab.
Nicole Walker’s is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story from Ohio State University Press and the forthcoming The After-Normal from Rose Metal Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.