Alternate Histories: 6/13, 6/23


I remember in 1978 Louise and I were discussing, and I said, It’s justice, we gotta work on justice, and she said No, we gotta work on the planet. She said, If there’s no planet, what’s the goddamn point? Well, I went and worked in the justice system, in prisons, tried to clean things up a bit. I did good work, but now I think she was right. I’ll die before it’s dead. I’ve got about 15 years, I think. But it’s just getting more and more dead. My generation lives with it all the time–I don’t know about this generation, I don’t know how they see it. I can’t bear to see the trees being cut down. I can’t watch anything about the Amazon. It distresses me.



The next day, JL stood at his kitchen counter holding a framed picture of Louise in the same hand as one of her armbands, which he had kept, and asked for her help in thinking about the Amazon rainforest. He had never felt so foolish except in retrospect. Pointlessness, the fear of it, settled on him like a damp blanket. Thinking about it, his mind jeered at him, what good is thinking about it going to do? He felt the edges of the picture frame, the canvas seam of the armband. He turned his mind heavily toward the picture in his mind: a burnt brown stubble, ankle-high, bordering a tall green haze.

JL realized that he didn’t know what the Amazon was made of. Words like “canopy” and “understory” seeped into his thoughts: where did they come from? He did know enough to know that once he separated it into its parts, he would need to reassemble those parts again in order to know it, that a forest lives in relationships, in root-nodes, in flights and deaths. What good will knowing it do? sneered his mind. He blotted it out with green.

A week later, his head stuffed full of dams and farms and villages and cities, watersheds and weather patterns, symbionts and food webs and the sense that what almost overloaded his mind with green and brown and flashes of bright color was the tiniest, most inadequate scrap, JL quit his job. He signed his house over to the Narragansett tribe and cashed in his small 401K for his travels. He folded scratch paper together to make a book with fifteen pages.

In the first year, he stayed with a friend’s cousin and wept daily outside the Nike offices in the Flatiron building, picturing Mato Grosso forest cleared for cattle grazing. A small crowd gathered. The Humans of New York guy took pictures. But JL didn’t know about any of this. He was a statue with tears streaming down.

He used the second and third years to make his way toward the Vale Mining and BNDES offices in Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes people walked with him, and wept with him outside a Whole Foods or a lumberyard, a maquila or a superfarm. He worked on learning Portuguese on trains and buses, when he didn’t fall fast asleep with a skyline of brown stumps etching his inner eyelids. He lost his fifteen-page book back in northern Texas.

In the fourth year, he reached Rio. Someone said (in Portuguese), You’re the crying guy. Have you seen this? and handed him a phone with a cracked screen. As he slowly thumbed downward, puzzling out the sentences about weepers slowly seeping into corporate headquarters in San Francisco, in Houston, in Orlando, standing there eerily, like the walking dead, with ashes on their faces into which their tears carved rivulets, making it nearly impossible for the people who worked there to get anything done.

In the fifth year, while police and national guard forces were occupied with the weepers, Aweti, Kayapo and Wauja people sugared the gas tanks of building equipment, sent disabling lines of code to project computers, accepted donations of all the company food supplies from Belo Monte dam construction workers who were on their side. We turned around and it was gone, the men said, shrugging. No, we really couldn’t say what happened. We didn’t see it, but you know, we can’t work without anything to eat.

In the sixth year, JL was too sick to travel any more. Three families in Belem took turns taking care of him. A line of weepers moved southeastward to Bolivia, carefully picking up their trash as they went and occasionally, burying someone who died of hunger or snakebite or a bullet fired by a cop from a passing armored car. They learned from each other how to move well in the forest. They made lines and rings of human protection around the trees.

In the seventh year, JL died, worn out by hard travel and stress and grief. In China, people who couldn’t themselves go out to the shale gas fields in Sichuan Province to be weepers themselves tended old people and children, kept up farms and gardens, substitute-taught for third-grade classes, even stepped into factory shifts hoping devoutly that the shift bosses wouldn’t notice. Some didn’t; some did, but let it go.

In the eight year, microbes and beetles ate and digested and excreted JL’s coffin and body, and tree seedlings began to sprout undisturbed. Some died off, infected by blights and rusts, or eaten by tapirs and cows running loose after the people raising them had pulled up stakes and either joined the weepers or left the country in disgust. The cows and the tapirs were wary of one another but came to be companionable.

In the ninth year, the BNDES, unable to recoup its investments in Belo Monte and without the help of outside loans, collapsed in on itself. The weepers of Rio wiped their faces clean of ashes and took in many of the bank’s former employees, giving them a chance to let their old lives go. Some made the transition; one or two took their own lives; a few became violent and the young people of Rio drove them out of the city, where most died.

In the tenth, eleventh and twelfth years, small and very patient coalitions of forest families and their city cousins established indigenous settlements and mixed teaching settlements in and around Altamira, Fortaleza and Mujui dos Campos. Some of these thrived, others dissolved; cholera gutted one, one had to move because a spring dried up, one was washed away because it didn’t account for extreme flooding when a drought broke in three successive superstorms; a leading Matipu family lost patience and returned to their home. Babies were born, fevers cured, parasites adjusted to.

In the thirteenth year, weepers in Kuala Lumpur successfully shut down a logging company there, but this news didn’t reach Brazil and Bolivia until the fourteenth year, and spread only slowly, because many phone companies went under after BNDES and its affiliates collapsed, and people relied more and more on highly localized cell networks and runners.

In the fifteenth year, pacu and their food and their predators were thriving in the river, terra preta was forming again in some of the clearings, and in others, seedlings were bristling like hair.

3 thoughts on “Alternate Histories: 6/13, 6/23

  1. Pingback: Alternate Histories: Labor Day | climateanxietycounseling

  2. Pingback: Climate Anxieties: An Open Letter to Another Friend | climateanxietycounseling

  3. Pingback: About the Amazon | climateanxietycounseling

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