THREE ALTERNATE HISTORIES
AN EXPLANATION: For two summers, I’ve been offering Climate Anxiety Counseling in public places in Rhode Island, asking people about their climate and other anxieties. This spring, I began writing alternate histories: versions of the future, starting from the moment we spoke together, that work better for more living things. Here are three.
CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/29/15
My work is pressing on me the most right now. I have a temporary job that ends at the end of June, so there’s the pressure of a deadline, and also, who knows what happens after that. I worry about how much I’m driving my car back and forth to work. Sometimes I think that all the Rhode Island and Massachusetts people who do the same jobs should just switch jobs, and then nobody would have to do that. My dream would be to walk to work and enjoy the place that I live in while I do it–theoretically I like the place where I live.
I guess if you don’t like the place where you live, or it doesn’t like you–like it’s hostile to you–that’s harder. I’d still really like to do your Rhode Island-Mass switch, even though it feels like it’d be really hard.
It feels impossible. You’d have to put a lot of effort and deal with a lot of no; you’d face a lot of resistance. I did the math–my parents live in New Jersey, and I drive the distance to New Jersey every week. I’d much rather see my parents if I’m gonna drive that much–I’d rather go to extremes for stuff that I really love. I looked at other jobs, and they’re all in Boston, but at least I could take the train and sleep instead of road rage.
ALTERNATE HISTORY: 8/14/15
The highway of the present stretches from horizon to horizon, long streamer rolled out into the future from an age of macro-engineering. On it, cars and vans and trucks and semis are lined up nose-to-tail. They are stopped. Some of their engines are off, because they’re getting low on gas, and if they run out, there’s no way for them to get to more. The edges of the highway bristle with littered bottles and poison ivy, or are just dry.
You’ve probably been somewhere in a line like this before–this metallic suspension–if you live in the U.S. and have left your hometown. You’ve been in it and you’ve been part of it–part of what made it, one of its cells, stoked with frustration and petroleum. If you’re reading this, you also, probably, made it out of there, made it to a “where”, a “here” that you could recognize. But what if you didn’t or couldn’t?
Picture this: no gas in the tank; no gas at the gas station behind you; no gas at the gas station ahead. Brown haze of exhaust above the highway, a hovering shadow. Your temper’s rising, and so are the tempers around you. The way out that you know about is no longer possible. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about driving away from Gulfport after Katrina, seeing the needle quiver down as the line of cars went motionless, and a man coming up to yell at him for apparently trying to sneak up the line. “In the end I rolled up my window and blasted the music, and he melted away. There was no option, for either of us. The gas got me to more gas. But I was thinking, the whole rest of the wait, this is how it would start, the real end of the world. The others in their cars, instead of just staring, would have climbed out and joined him. It would be nobody’s fault.”
Leaving aside for the moment what Sullivan implies “the world” is, what lingers like the taste of metal is his assertion, “There was no option, for either of us.” Picture the desperate clinging, to your car and to the belief that doing the same thing as long as possible will get you home, will get you from no-place to place. Feel the cramps of motionlessness and restlessness and rage building up in your knees and your sacroiliac joint, and the irritability that you’re too hungry to realize comes from hunger, and the feeling down in the back of your neck that this isn’t the plan, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, and then the next thing–a bottle thrown, a vehicle badly angled–seems to heave you out of your car. Or maybe it’s someone else, heaved out of their car by a similar sense of desperation, towards you, and it’s the end, not of the world but of a certain grudging agreement. And the road full of cars becomes a river of violence and then a long junkyard.
Now picture the same line of cars, the same near-cessation of all forward motion, the same pinging, humming, muted roaring. Hear with your mind’s ear a slight decrease in that sound, a wave of softness, falling rather than rising. People are turning off their engines, even those who have gas in the tank, and stepping out of their cars. They’re putting on the comfortable shoes they keep in the trunk; they’re shouldering their bags, or transferring to their pockets the things they actually want to keep; they’re nodding to each other, keeping half an eye out for anyone who doesn’t walk well. They walk along the reflective white strips, slightly cooler than the blacktop, as they did when they were kids in the beach parking lot or at the town pool; they rest, putting their jackets between their rear ends and the hot railings. They leave the highway at the nearest exits. Most of them are too tired to consciously note the sweet cloud of invasive honeysuckle or the weary sound of crickets that stills as they pass, but these things creep in. Mostly they’re determined; they’ve made a decision.
That decision will ramify in the days to come. It’ll affect the people in the towns at the end of those ramps, who meet the flowing, halting, doubling columns of walkers with surprise and, when possible, hospitality. It’ll affect the wreckers and scrap merchants who roll up in ATV trikes and begin to scavenge, running the motor of the car in back to power the tools they use to dismantle the car in front. When the ambulances have to use back roads, it’ll affect people who don’t get to the hospital in time to survive, and their families, and the EMTs and drivers, and their families; it’ll affect the MBTA Commuter Rail, which will rake in revenue but slow and stiffen with the weight of extra bodies to transport. And despite everyone’s best care, it’ll affect the plants and amphibians and insects and fungi and mammals and microbes on the medians and in the verges, who’ll try to eat the foam rubber or grow against the drip of transmission fluid.
One difference between a trap and a shelter is decision, but it is not the only difference.
Picture the changes spreading out from the highway, graveyard, parade of absence. Lines of supply creep or wrench sideways, like dragging the route on an internet map; sources become more numerous and smaller, shorter-term. Work’s changes are less linear: it rips loose and floats like waterweed in a stream, according to currents of need, until it washes up somewhere it can root. Many people move house for what they suspect will be the last time. Along the roads that follow old routes made by Narragansett, Nauset, Pokanoket, Nipmuc, Pocasset and Wampanoag people, their descendants begin to walk again, to hunt and trade, listen and worship, tending the understory.
The first plants to come up through the blacktop are the tough colonists, the ailanthus and bittersweet. After they do their work we rip some of them out, balling manure around acorns and beech mast and tucking them into the cracks. Yes, I am there and they are there, and you are there too; it was a long walk to get here, and some of us are still stern, others shy, on probation.
Another difference between a trap and shelter is welcome, which must be offered, and can’t be deserved. We brew tea from sassafras and share it, knowing we are drinking a little of our own poison.
CLIMATE ANXIETY: 7/22/15
I’m concerned that the agricultural belt is possibly gonna move north and we’re not prepared for it. And then the drought in California, what’s that gonna do–certainly it affects prices, but will it eventually drive prices up so far that it’s more affordable to buy imported food?
ALTERNATE HISTORY: 8/14/15
The grain and legume farms move north each year, like immensely slow green-and-gold rivers, like glaciers used to do but in reverse. What follows them depends: sometimes food or fodder crops that can grow warmer and drier, sometimes a managed return to prairie or high plains. Many more people do the work of farming and un-farming than they did when the big agribusinesses first coagulated; there’s been a swing back to human labor from machine labor now that fossil fuels have peaked, mining has ended and certain kinds of manufacturing have slowed. Their shifts are short, their living quarters cool and dark. Their black-water drains into the fertilizer tanks, where algae and other microbes transform it into liquid manure for the fields; their bodies, like all bodies, are part of a web of conversions from food to shit, from shit to food.
They’re placed, too, in a web of transport, vulnerable to weather. The rivers and lakes are in service again, along with the new fast solar roads. The pill-bug convoys move slowly and clamp themselves to the road when the weather is truly intense. They gather resources–fuel, time, maintenance, ingenuity, materials–to themselves, because what they carry is so important. Let’s follow one to a stop on its route, where people from the city’s several hunger kitchens come to collect their share of grain–we’ll say it’s pre-salé rice from the coast, spliced with horsetails to grow well in salt or brackish water.
The hunger kitchens are also called soup kitchens or, in places like this one where a lot of people speak or once spoke Mandarin, iron kitchens. If you sit or stand for a meal in one of these big, high-ceilinged buildings–some have the ground floor knocked out, so that the street level’s at the building’s waist–you’ll get a storable starch (rice, yucca, taro, corn, potatoes), topped with a vegetable pickle or dried fruit, a legume stew and, if you want it, a sliver of cured meat or plenty of pickled jellyfish. In the city, a lot of the meat comes from goats and squirrels, who are pretty good at living anywhere and eating anything; in the country, it’s more likely to be deer, woodchuck or javelina, depending on where you are. Fish (and the seals that eat them) are mainly reserved for people for whom they are holy. There are fewer chickens in cities than you might have expected, but then again, I don’t know what you were expecting.
Climate permitting and weather willing, many iron kitchens grow vegetables, shrub fruits, spices and herbs on the roof in season. Their names are a little misleading. Unless it’s a time of disaster or forced migration, most of the people eating alongside us are not desperate, just ordinary hungry. They don’t grow their own, or they want the flavor of something they can’t grow or trade for, or they’re too tired to cook that day, or they can’t cook–they lack the dexterity or the concentration. Many people eat one meal a day here. Some bring their own shakers of spices or bottles of sauce, as if to say to a present or absent companion or ancestor: I’m still who my food makes me. I have not forgotten you. Some pray before the meal, some after. After our meal, in time, we’ll scrub the dishes with sand, take a shift in the kitchen, or help mend the building, or if that isn’t possible for your body or mind, I will. Or we can join the line of people waiting to dump the food scraps they brought from home into the middens.
Most people do grow and cook their own, at least a little: in patches of ground, in boxes, in pots, in hanging gardens; near their homes or a walk, bike ride, or shuttle ride away. Some are in what used to be parking garages, multi-tiered, with clever arrangements of panes and mirrors to bring the sun in, pierced roofs and floors and sluices to collect and clean the rain. These are where people grow foods particular to them, climate permitting, weather willing, or foods particular to their surroundings: damp basements full of mushrooms, dry creek-beds bristling with aloe plants. Medicines: culen to ease diabetes, black cohosh to suppress testosterone. Flowers for scent, shape, color: for pleasure. Many gardens have solar stoves on their margins, so people can cook and share food on the spot after a day of work.
Other than grains and a few other things that it makes good sense to make on an industrial scale, like vinegar, or nutritional formulae for feeding tubes, not much travels– almost nothing that is perishable. There are people living near Augusta who have never tasted a banana (though hardy banana is making its way north), people living in Boise who will never taste fresh ginger. While people travel very little, partly because their homes offer them most of what they need, others who make their way to the places where their ancestral foods grow are widely understood, guided, and aided. They take the slow roads, studded with wayside shelters that double as shrines, sun-charged, etched and sprayed with many languages pointing the way, offering warnings, voicing questions: What’s the best way to go this season, and what might you find growing wild? Do you go where the old land was or where the food lives now? Who will be there to greet you?
CLIMATE ANXIETY: 7/22/15
We stand here and we’re talking to each other because of things people we don’t know did, and the same thing will be true three, four, five generations from now. It’s important to be in touch with where we come from. There’s an indigenous proverb that we should consider the effects of our actions seven generations hence, and I used to think it was wishful nonsense, but now I think it means what we’re talking about–we live this way because of the decisions of people that came before us, and we continue that. I don’t know what to tell people to do. ]. …We need a change of consciousness that honors these ideas, these relationships. When I talk about this with my students, I can tell that they yearn for it, but they graduate and they’re in debt, they have to make compromises, and I cry for them … The source [of the Woonasquatucket] is Nipsachook, the place where life-sustaining waters flow from under the ground. Now we call it North Smithfield, it’s named after Smith who carved it up and sold it. And it wasn’t that long ago–all of this happened so fast.
ALTERNATE HISTORY: 8/15/15
The tragedy of shallow time is that actions at the scale of one life, its days and hours, seem terribly, terribly slow. Listening to people and places, A looked for paths into deep time, written in layers of rock and water, and openings into radiant time, which is present and renews itself. He lay in a field underneath the Perseids with a thistle pressing into his back and thought about those who had died, who were traveling outward.
How does an institution die–a structure? We say that the corpse of a person or tree decays, but really it is decayed–fungi decay it, and microbes and animalculae of various kinds, including some that it carried with it while it was alive. They talk to it; it listens to them. They make the way it is part of the place, the way the place takes part in it, become different. They carry pieces of it away, but not far, but very far, into a different state of being.
To a fox, the smell of another fox is a book. To a mountain, the life cycle of lichen is a story it’s not yet tired of hearing–we think. We can’t be sure. We can’t know every language, every shared patois of swamp and slope, every human language shaped by the deep time of those humans’ places, but we can stop assuming that they don’t have one. We can listen for it.
A’s students steered people out of the middle of conversations between stream and forest They took the components of structures they knew–money, buildings, time–and carried them a little distance away, to use them differently, to sustain the people and places they’d been taken from, or that they had once harmed. This felt slow and they were frightened. To inhabit the swirl of their fear, they combined old paths with new. They convened to honor the dead, the lost–the structures and institutions they were helping to undo, as well as the people and nonhuman things they had killed–and guide them into their new forms.
What are we saying to a hillside when our feet compress its grasses in a prescribed pattern? What is a sip of water telling you when it enters your body, when your cells pass its message along, one to the other? What have you learned–which is another way of asking, how have you been changed?
Kate Schapira lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, and co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series. Her 11th chapbook will be out this fall with Projective Industries, and she’s the author of six full-length collections of poems: The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), How We Saved the City (Stockport Flats), The Bounty: Four Addresses (Noemi Press), TOWN (Factory School/Heretical Texts), and two books forthcoming in 2016 with Horse Less Press and Trembling Pillow Press. She offers Climate Anxiety Counseling in Providence and other places in Rhode Island; to learn more, visit the project blog at climateanxietycounseling.wordpress.com.