Alternate Histories: 10/15, 11/14

10/15/15

We’re maybe entering World War III. All the different hot spots of violence. Climate change changes environments, changes natural resources–it’s all connected.

*

11/14/15

The animals moved first, Z noticed: a red-bodied dragonfly clinging to his clothesline, nutria spotted in the river that divided the city, dead canvasback ducks at the midpoint of their migration when he drove out to pick up a secondhand desk. He pictured the soil under his feet crawling with bacterial motion, adaptation, life and death, migration, flight at a scale he could barely imagine. To them, all borders were open, all bodies were vehicles. He walked by the river and felt the wind splashing against his back, parting around him, pushed ahead of him, Z, the big thinker, the porous obstacle–the wind was changed by people and ducks and the surface of the dirty river, by temperatures of ice slowly shaling off thousands of miles away–that too changes the shape of the wind, the wind’s approach, the wind’s methods.

When at the COP21 convention in Paris participating nations agreed to the dissolution of borders, it was surprising how easily everyone adjusted to the idea, how little borders are felt in the body. Adjusting to the reality was harder: more people here, fewer there. Food, buildings and fields, no waiting, people streaming across, but how was “across” different now? On the other side of the river is the other side of the river. Maybe it’s a little higher or lower, but food was scarce everywhere. Places became “the place where the spiders come out of the ground” or “the place where we need to plug the leaking abandoned fuel tank” or “the place where the pileated woodpeckers used to nest” or “the place where Concepción and Beto were born, but it’s underwater now” or “the place where we’re borrowing the tools to dig the toilet for the Barzanis and the Ghaishes” or “the place where you leave the offerings.”

Near the foundations of the dismantled houses, next to the grave marker for the people who didn’t make it ashore, someone else had raised a grave marker for blue crabs. The water was predicted to reach it within the next four years. Z limped out there with two new neighbors to show them how to tend the seaweed seedlings and to learn from them how to tell the names of the dead to the wind in a way that makes it certain, almost certain, that they will cross the ocean.

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Alternate Histories: 10/14, 10/14, 10/15, 10/31

10/14/15

Because of where I live, the disappearance of my home. I live in Wellfleet–we’re not on a FEMA flood zone, but we’re damn close.

10/14/15

I live in Gloucester, MA, right on the edge of a river and there’s the ocean on the other side. I realize the disappearance of the cove, being swallowed up by water. I can’t see it but I know it’s happening … It’s just a beautiful place. It’s just insane to think about.

10/15/15

I’m anxious about changing weather patterns and disappearing coastal wetlands. I grew up on the Gulf Coast and that’ll disappear if climate change continues.

*

10/31/15

As soon as they got home, G and V and O walked the bounds of the places they loved. O had to take a plane to do it, and then walk through water and muck, ankle-deep, knee-deep. He took a garbage bag with him, collecting plastic debris and crying as he went. V touched rocks at the waterline. G picked ticks from her skin after brushing past the beach grasses. Each year they do this now, walking the new line and the old line, noting the growing distances between them, learning their scabs and leaks, their places of surprising strength.

The ghosts of places replace places. At the hallow of the year, the old contours of the land and water hover over the new ones, almost solid, almost real, and that’s where people go. If they have to wade, the able-bodied carry on their backs anyone who can’t keep upright in the heavy surf. If they have to go in boats, they go in boats–more people who live on the coast are better at boats now, more intimate with the unruly muscle of the water, the big live animal that sometimes lashes out in pain.

When they reach the sites of their old homes, or their grandparents’ homes, or their great-great-grandparents’ homes, they let down the sounding lines. As the weights touch the bottom, the hills, the inlets, the insects, the clam flats, the bird tracks, the blades of grass become present to them, known to them. The air smells like soil as well as salt. They stay as long as the old land stays, rocking with the water. When it subsides, they leave their home to go home.

Alternate Histories by Other People: 10/15, 10/15

This is the second of two alternate histories from the Alliance of Artists’ Communities conference: the climate anxiety comes from one person, and the alternate history from another person, neither of whom are me. Here’s the first one.

10/15/15

All my favorite beaches are gonna disappear. I scuba-dive, and I can see that it’s already changing. The coral reefs are bleaching, the diversity is disappearing. I don’t see all the schools of fish that I used to see even ten years ago. And the other thing is in Colorado–the pine beetles, the dead trees.

*

10/15/15

While the building of islands in Dubai has seemed nothing but exploitative and blatantly, disrespectfully selfish, new technology for curbing erosion and inspiring reclamation of beaches and coral reefs is discovered. International relations are improved by this partnership to bring this new venture to other countries. Ecological restoration becomes lucrative and a driving force of industry–balance of resources the new paradigm.

Another Chance to Speak Against Raised Fares for Senior/Disabled RIPTA Passengers

There are meetings today in Providence and Bristol to offer feedback on RIPTA’s fare change proposals, which would increase fares for senior and disabled passengers. Please go today if you can. Living fairly means meeting people’s needs.

11am-12pm, The Commerce Center at The Providence Foundation, 30 Exchange Terrace, Providence

5:30-6:30pm, Burnside Building, 2nd Floor Meeting Room, 400 Hope St., Bristol

There were also meetings Tuesday in Woonsocket and Kingston; I’m sorry I didn’t post those here. Someone who attended one said:

I went to the RIPTA meeting at URI. I was one of about 5 people who showed up. There were more RIPTA people around than “voters.” We were asked to read panels with the current fares, panels listing 4 options for other ways to structure fares, and then to vote and comment. Each option would charge disabled and poor seniors something.

UPDATE: I went to the Providence meeting, which was as this person described, except that many senior and disabled riders were also present and did outnumber RIPTA employees/spokespeople. It’s possible to adapt the “voting”/comment structure to demand a plan that doesn’t increase fares for senior and disabled riders on fixed incomes, and that’s what I and a few other people did: we used comment forms to explain why we couldn’t endorse any plan that raised those fares. According to RIPTA, there will be public hearings about the proposed fare increase for senior/disabled rides (with opportunities to make statements on the record) in November, and those hearings will be announced at the RIPTA website, so check back there–and ask about the hearings if you don’t see them listed.

Alternate Histories: 5/27, 5/29, 9/11

5/27/15

Bringing my son out to swim, which he’s been wanting to do. He’s autistic, and I get anxious when I wanna bring him outta the water–I had a lot of problems with that today. And last night we had a little trouble sleeping ’cause we have no electricity, so no A/C. I had to take like a wet rag.

Any chance of getting it turned back on soon?

I’m hoping in the next six months. I work over here at the mall and they’re not giving me enough hours. Matter of fact, climate change messed up my hours at work. I work at [REDACTED] and no one wants to be inside playing games.

*

5/29/15

All this air conditioning–too much of it. We don’t condition ourselves to higher temperatures. I was on the coast in [KwaZulu] Natal, South Africa, when I was a teenager, and there was no air conditioning, full stop. One day I remember was 80 degrees Fahrenheit at 8 a.m. and there was 80% humidity, and we just went to school, we went home, nobody talked about the heat. And in the middle of Harare, in Zimbabwe, there’s a building that is cooled entirely through the use of air currents. We need to go and ask hot countries how they do it.

*

9/11/15

[These are two anxieties from two different days; here’s an explanation of why they’re together.]

P and F don’t really want different things, but each brings his own knowledge, his other needs–met and unmet–and the net of others’ needs and knowledge he inhabits to this need, this desire for cool air. They bring their presumptions and their prejudices, the blank spots in their understanding and experience. If F has never been in a building cooled on a hot day not by chemical means but by its very construction, he may not know that’s possible. If P has never spent a day caring for a  child when neither of them have slept, he may not understand that cool air is more than a luxury, and heat more than a test of fortitude.

(Remember, I don’t know that they don’t know–I’m guessing, from what they said and what they left out.)

F and P now draw on other kinds of knowledge, other stores and stories. Thickening a wall is relatively easy, lining it or filling its empty spaces, but they need help and someone’s sense of materials: what will hold up? won’t offgas? can be easily replaced? Moving a window is harder: they need someone versed in structure, weight and angles, a tool-user and a measurer, and someone to be aware of light and wind, not just this day, or that day, but on any day. Someone to build shutters from reclaimed wood. Someone to germinate a screen of plants and the dirt they need to grow in and the story of their care, plants that give in the summer their necessary shade and die back in the winter to admit the necessary light.

As they offer this knowledge, they also accept some. They learn how to understand and be understood by F’s son, building with him common languages and perceptions. They learn from each other, borrowing methods and tactics–motions as small as the way to hold a nail to drive it in, skills that this task doesn’t need but that emerge in conversation or while they’re resting. They adjust to a matrix of work that’s more intermittent and slower, less taxing, with different rewards. It’s strange, to not be paid, to not have money as a marker of what you take away and what you’ve given, and yet have enough to eat well, a place to sleep safely, the certain knowledge–in some cases, based already on experience–that if you need to receive what you’re currently giving, it will come to you.

 

Alternate Histories: 5/8, 5/15, 9/8

[These are two anxieties from two different days; here’s an explanation of why they’re together.]

5/8/15

I saw a thing in the paper about how a sea level rise of 3 feet is going to destroy the marshes and salt ponds, down in South County, that are breeding grounds for lots of fish and birds–plovers and stuff like that.

*

5/15/15

The city–pollution. Buildings, cars, power plants. People just like to litter, it’s just fun to them. Like when I was younger and I did litter, I felt bad about it. Like why would you do that.

What do you think would make people change that, those habits?

More influence. More influences. Maybe through music–I’m a musician, reggae, hip-hop, percussion. Inspirational vibes and dancing. If it’s there, more broadcasting of it, something in there for children–the inspiration needs to be there. Rhode Island is very depressing, people hate it. It’s depressing, it’s boring, there’s nothing to do. All it really is, is an ocean, which, sure, if you have money.

*

9/8/15

The next day, I’m going to ask you to imagine, C listened to D and D listened to C. They saw that each other had said these things; they knew this much, at least, of what each other wanted.

The people living near the edge of the water broke their houses down to make room for some of the water–to make paths for it, to build rising bridges and floating marshes. D’s music gave shape to their work; he toured from site to site, and so did other musicians and bands (not everyone loves reggae, or early-’90s rock, or bachata). Back in the cities and inland towns, some couples in houses too big for them moved in with friends, opening their houses to people from the edge of the water, or people from over the water. Some, to preserve their ability to be alone, repaired houses that had stood empty. There was time to do all of this, time grouped and divided by music and silence.

Twenty-nine years later, the ocean is where music is, at certain times of day: a parade winding like a slow current, a circle pulsing around a performer like the devouring mouth of a starfish, a skein of song nourishing a difficult task. You take care of it because it takes care of you, or you take care of it because it’s where the music is, where the bus-boats fueled by algae stop to drop off people from the city, where the far-traveling boats still dock or rest from time to time. It’s on the platforms that sink and hover with the tide and that everyone works together to draw in or anchor when the storms get bad.

At other times of day, the music drops. It doesn’t stop completely–air doesn’t, water doesn’t–but ebbs to make room for terns and osprey to fish, sandpipers to stab for worms, the ears to recover their quiet. Some people learn the music, or the silence, because of the animals. Some people learn the changes of tide, the bugs, the tiny hungers, because of the silence, or the music.

Sometimes, the music turns somber. There are no more plovers. There are no more moon snails. Your home, your home, the place that you loved, the place where you learned to love, is no more, has become something else–you will never see it again, never. It will never again surround you, as this music does, as these people and other creatures do–known to you only so far, so much–as this air does, as this water does.

Alternate Histories: 7/22, 8/4

[This is the third in a three-part sequence about, loosely, faith and practice. The first is here; the second is here; another, by Janaya Kizzie, is here.]

722/15

The indigenous concept of Mother Earth [has been] Disneyfied and trivialized, but it’s an important idea: the earth as a mother that feeds us, that gives us what we need. 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.

*

8/4/15

When the teaching semester started again, A rented a biodiesel van and drove his students out to the Fisherville Pond Dam on the Blackstone River. Together, they watched and listened with skepticism turning to awe as the biologists, ecologists, chemists and engineers–some their own age–explained how the canal restorers work. One of A’s students squatted down and touched the tip of one deep-brown finger to the skin of the water. She looked a question at their guide, who nodded reassuringly; she dipped her finger, put it in her mouth, and started to cry.

The point, A said to his students on the way back to town, is not that you guys all need to drop what you’re doing and learn how to make these specific things. The point is that this is a form of living intimately and reverently, the way we were talking about in class. The people who are making these things are giving back to the earth that made them…

… And they’re getting paid, said A’s surliest student.

And they’re getting paid. Which means–we talked about what that means–

That society recognizes the value of what they’re doing, said A’s most eager student.

A smiled at her. We are society, he said. What nourishes the earth nourishes us, because we get all our nourishment from the earth. When your boss says he’s standing on his own two feet, he’s ignoring the fact that he’s standing on the earth, breathing in what the trees breathe out, and that his feet are made out of things the earth gave him.

But how can we act that out? demanded a student who was usually quiet. I mean it sounds really good, but.

How do you all think? A asked. Let’s write, and then we’ll pool our ideas and write a little more.

My mom always say she should get paid for raising us. Everybody say welfare is bad but isn’t that what that is? Except it should be more.

I want to be a nutritionist because helping more people be healthy is a public service.

You should get money if you DONT pollute not if you do.

My grandmothers gave me a bath in the river when I was born, in Liberia, wrote the student who’d sipped clean water off her fingertip. I want to give my grandchildren a bath in the river when they are born, here. I want them to be born.

A and his students shaped these writings into letters and sent them where they thought they’d be most relevant: to Blue Cross Blue Shield, to the Social Security office, to National Grid, to the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture, to Hasbro …

Think of an animal or a plant as a moment of great and temporary good luck, something that allows other things to help it build itself and allows other things to help it destroy itself. First we grow; we burgeon. And then, unless someone interrupts our arc with violent contempt, we begin to dismantle ourselves and to be dismantled. Why don’t we recognize that one is as beautiful as the other? Why shouldn’t a business do it as well as a body, when it reaches the turn of its natural life? Nothing else even tries to grow forever.

During the seven years that followed, the people and plants and animals whose lives were touched by these companies, and who had helped these companies grow, helped to take them apart–not violently, but as part of their arc. They used their assets to tide people over–the healers, the growers, the restorers–as they worked out ways to give and take in balance and to move away from money, toward honor and sustenance, as rewards for the business of living.

The dismantlers knew in their own ways of knowing things that they too were being disassembled and disarmed piece by piece, as well as nourished, by other living creatures they needed but could not see, by the cells of their own bodies, by time, in order to become a field for more and different people and plants and animals and ideas and possibilities to grow.

Alternate Histories: 7/15, 7/17

7/15/15

Honeybees. The wild honeybee population this year is really small. We lost a couple hives at City Farm. And without bees, without pollinators–

Are there things people can do to preserve their hives? I know some people say it’s a pesticide and some people say its like a mite, a parasite.

Yeah, I’ve heard both of those things too, but no one really knows.

*

7/17/15

The next day, T borrowed one of the City Farm trucks and drove out to Chase Farm Park. He walked up the steep hill, put a palm on the plane tree trunk so huge he couldn’t get his arms all the way around it. This is a living being, he thought. He walked carefully in the mown grasses and clover and plantain, detouring for the occasional sprig of poison ivy, and noting the honeybees and sweat bees and cellophane bees feeding there; noting, too, the patinaed backs of defoliating Japanese beetles. He breathed in the sweet air.

T went home and sent a group text to farm volunteers, friends, siblings, and his two neighbors with large, intimidating-looking pit bulls. For the next three weeks, as quietly as possible, in darkness and daylight, they tore down houses burned out by neglect or foreclosed on by damp, and used their boards and pipes to make fences around the lots. KEEP OUT, the younger volunteers spraypainted on the quilts of wood scraps and wire. DANGER. UNSAFE. Cops did their part by ignoring the changes. Neighbors did theirs by casually walking past with Hippo and Olaf, whose heavy feet and swinging jowls made an additional barrier. BEWARE OF DOG, the kids spraypainted.

Within the walls, they first planted sunflowers and mustard greens and blue sheep fescue and bladder campion, to draw up lead and other heavy metals in the soil. At this stage, they chased the bees away rather than let them feed, taking turns walking up and down the rows, smelling hot greenery around them with whiffs of garbage and dryer sheets from over the fence, maybe smoking a blunt to keep away boredom and mosquitoes, picking beetles off the leaves and drowning them in the rain barrels. It wasn’t until the third summer that they planted half phytoremediating plants and half broadleaf woodland plants that bees and butterflies like: clover, yarrow, pleurisy flower, bee balm, lobelia and sage, with young swamp maples in each lot’s lowest corner. The scent of the gardens began to rise above the walls. People changed their routes home from work, booty calls and the store in order to walk past them.

The practice spread to North Providence and to Silver Lake, both of which had their share of empty lots and orphaned buildings. As long-distance travel became less common and less reliable, people began to consolidate where they were living; many of the houses thus vacated went to people displaced by flooding or people who hadn’t had a home for a long time, but some of them were in bad enough shape that it wouldn’t have been fair to ask anyone to live in them. The fences were lined with PVC tubes for carpenter bees and hanging gardens for food plants; lots with poor drainage and a history of mold problems held skunk cabbage, for fly pollinators, and alders, which like to grow with their feet wet.

In the 15th or so year, when enough had changed that who owned these lots, who had a right to them, was the last of anyone’s worries, the walls came down, or went skeletal. The gardeners staggered plantings of windbreak saplings according to predicted changes in temperature: willow, catalpa, hardy banana. Some of the trees overshot their growth in the carbon-thicker air, but others survived and lived well in a living net of flies and wasps and moths and butterflies and bees.

Alternate Histories: 5/7, 7/15

This alternate history is by Ethan Robinson.

5/7/15

Success. I’m trying to do good at carpentry. I got certificates from JobCorps, I graduated high school. I found $2700 on the floor–at the casino–and I got my license, my truck, I just gotta register it. I got my business plan, my references, my resume, in a book like this one [taps notes binder]. But I’m homeless, and that makes it harder. I got no mailing address.

Could you maybe ask someone you trust if you could use their mailing address?

I thought of that, but I don’t like owing people things. I don’t like asking people to do things for me.

Do you do things for other people if they need it though?

If anybody down here, if they ask for change, anything in my pocket, it’s theirs. But I don’t like it when it’s like … collateral, like, Oh, I did something for you, now you owe me.

*

7/15/15

C put a lot of the $2700 into his under-the-table carpentry business. He did all right, sometimes, but worried that the government might notice he was doing business without legal permission and take it all away. He couldn’t open a bank account without an address so they probably wouldn’t be able to find everything, but he worried. And it made him uncomfortable in other ways too. How is fixing a door so someone will pay you for it different from any other kind of obligation? Why take money today from someone who’ll probably need it tomorrow? He started to wish he could just live out in the wilderness, where there would be no debts. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. After all, he basically knew how to build a house.

One morning while it was still dark he took the 58 bus to Mineral Spring and lugged his tools to Peter Randall Park, which he chose because it seemed like no one ever went there. He was about to try to cut down a tree when he looked up and saw a family of roosting turkeys looking down at him. This was the birds’ home, and he realized there was a lot he’d have to learn to live in it. That, and he’d heard that wild turkey claws are razor sharp.

He hid his tools, went back to Providence, and asked around. Soon he found L, who seemed to know what she was talking about. When she went to see the park she laughed and said it was hardly wilderness, pointing out how from almost everywhere inside it you could see someone’s backyard fence. But they started planning. Like C, I don’t know how to live in the woods, so I can’t say what they planned. I’d have to find someone like L to tell me.

Problems kept cropping up. C could build the structure, but he didn’t know anything about the systems that make a house livable. Many times they had to go back to the city to find people who knew plumbing, or heating, or old-fashioned things like how to regulate air flow to keep temperatures down in summer. Eventually over twenty people were working on the house, which kept getting bigger and bigger because almost all of them wanted to live there. When they cut down trees they tried to pick ones with winter moth damage, burning the branches and hoping they were killing the larvae, not spreading them.

Meanwhile people were abandoning the suburbs. Even though a lot of trees were struggling with winter moths and the new harsher seasons and unreliable rainfall and stronger winds, forest was taking back the yards whose fences L had laughed about. By the time the house was ready, the thirty-one of them (some younger than the project) were really on their own, depending only on each other and the trees and the edible wild plants L knew about and the water and the turkeys (who they occasionally ate) and all the other parts of their ecosystem, so complex they couldn’t understand it fully, so unstable they had to keep finding new accommodations with it. Things were hard, but there was happiness too.

C lived, and the day he died the nineteen humans of the community sat up late around the fire talking about him. Most didn’t remember, or had never known, that C had started the whole thing, and those who did kept it to themselves because they felt he would have wanted them to. H, the plumber, now very old, sat quietly thinking about how different her life might have been if she hadn’t lost all that cash the year before she met C. She’d had big plans for that $2700 and losing it had seemed–no, had been–catastrophic. It had left her needing something to latch on to. She stared into the fire and as the larvae burned she lost herself in awe at how one thing can lead to another, at how every breath depends on the one before it, the ones around it.