Alternate Histories: 5/16, 4/7


Traditionally the solution to the “tragedy of the commons” is to privatize it, so to have the land be privately owned and the owner protects it, but you can’t privatize the earth. And the other way is to have more structure, more organization. We were studying the problem of care for the elderly, you know, as the baby boomers get older, and we were like, “So since we know this, why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” and our professor was like, “Basically, people don’t care until it’s too late.” So all the arguments that are like, “What kind of world will your grandchildren live in?”–people don’t care … How could you get people to be more connected to the earth? I need to get outside more–I want to get to where I can go running in the woods.




The next day, B sat in the university library and wrote out a set of questions. Who owns the land around here? Who uses it? What for? Who takes care of it? How?


B wrote, What kind of world do I live in, right now?


B crossed out I and wrote we.


B looked out the windows of the university library at the giant, ancient beech tree, the fungus seaming an old injury, the bark like the skin of an elephant’s foot when it hits the ground–something we might call “an engineering miracle” but it’s really neither. It’s more contingent, more awe-inspiring, than anything made on purpose or by magic. The tree is a host, B thought. He wrote, Who protects the land around here? Who does it host? He crossed out us and wrote me.


All that summer, B ran on Blackstone Boulevard. He took the number 51 bus to Lincoln Woods to run the loop there. When he ran he thought about nothing and saw almost nothing, so sometimes he walked. Once or twice he got semi-lost. He saw a fat round brown animal he later figured out was a woodchuck. They looked at each other.


Nearly a year later, B read about the proposed natural-gas pipeline expansion running through southern New England. He wrote, How can I help? in his notebook, and then in one email after another. When he stood in a rocky field in Burrillville, his arms linked with strangers’ arms, he saw himself as though he were another animal looking at himself. In his mind he wrote, How did I come to be here? He didn’t remember ever asking that question before.


You will do things you didn’t think were possible for you, but you will also do things you didn’t think had meaning, things you didn’t believe had power. You will have a kind of power you didn’t think was power. You will recognize yourself.


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