Out of the Woods On Climate/Borders/Survival/Care/Struggle

This conversation with Out of the Woods, a collective investigating capitalism and climate change, gets at the heart of a lot of what I’ve been trying to do with the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth, the alternate histories, and the Interdependence Day gatherings (now on hold, but these writings may help us reinvent them).

“To say ‘yes’ to what we want,” they say, “and what is already created in cramped spaces – necessitates saying ‘no’ to the world that dominates save for those cracks or openings.”

I knew about Out of the Woods, but hadn’t spent a lot of time with their ideas and questions. I’m going to do so now.

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Alternate History: Refusal 5

The next day, truckers spoke over the radios, recalculating their routes, passing the word along. Air traffic controllers refused to let planes land. No one who drove a truck or flew a plane or ran container shipping in the Gulf would bring any concrete or rebar or wire or cable or steel or cement or construction equipment or surveillance electronics to anywhere at all in California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas.

Companies in these states that made or used or sold these materials and tools made haste to sell their products, at a discount, to people and companies building anywhere else–other states, overseas. Ann Arbor and Vladivostok both took big deliveries of cranes, for some reason, and a lot of materials went to Haiti and Georgia.

People who worked large-scale construction in those states knew that the government would probably bring in prison labor anyway, but just in case, they went to visit relatives in other states if they could, or picked up work far from home. The unions passed the word along.

On the border, men with guns and men in suits stood with no power to move or build anything more than a handful of dirt.

*

Rhode Islanders can see if Dorcas International needs volunteer help. Anyone can call their city’s or town’s mayor and ask what they are going to do to protect and accommodate their immigrant and refugee neighbors.

This refusal is for everyone who was murdered trying to make the crossing, and for my students, who are still alive.

 

Alternate History: Refusal 3

The next day, everyone who worked at the Alyeska Pipeline Operations Control Center in Anchorage locked the doors, typed in the codes that would stop the flow of oil at every pump station within four minutes, and sat on their hands.

That’s not entirely accurate. Someone had brought a Sudoku book with only half the puzzles done. They played the game of who could ignore the most phone calls, emails, texts. They’d laid in a stock of food and bottled water, but someone also found it necessary to microwave a box of stale Peeps left over from last Easter. Someone had brought a carving he was working on. They sat and waited for–who would come? There was a betting pool: riot police? Hostage negotiators? Tanks? Most of them had left a letter, just in case.

About half of them had rifles, because they hunted on the weekends, and one person had brought her compound bow because she thought it would be funny, no matter how many times someone else told her that none of this was funny. “Sure it is,” she said.

*

Share what you can spare with the water protectors fighting the Sabal Trail Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Trans Pecos Pipeline.

This refusal is dedicated to all of them, past, present and future.

Alternate Histories: Refusal 2

The next day, everyone who could walk, walked in the street, and everyone who could roll, rolled in the street. At first, they would do it until someone yelled at them, and then when that person was gone they’d get back in the street. In later days, when there were more of them, they just kept walking and rolling.

When drivers or police asked them where the fuck they were going, at first they said, “Work,” or “The store,” or “My girl’s house,” or “School.” Later, sometimes, they said, “Boston,” or “The ocean,” or “The future.”

They got where they were going whenever they happened to get there. So they made other refusals possible: their supervisors had a choice as to whether to mark them late, cops had a choice of whether to harass and threaten and hit them, drivers had a choice whether to honk or keep quiet. People on either side of a desk or checkout counter–social worker and client, checkout clerk and customer–got where they were going at the same time, just later. The number of cars abandoned by the side of the road increased, incrementally.

Sometimes there were just a few people, strung like beads in ones and twos along a road in a small town. Sometimes hundreds, thousands of people were walking and rolling, all the mobile people in a city.

Over at the feedlots, the stockmen opened the gates and turned off the electricity and the cows stumbled out to walk among the humans and eat the bitter grass by the side of the road.

*

In honor of this refusal, please write to the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, especially the transportation committee, and tell them that House Bill 1203–which would allow drivers to hit protesters with their cars with impunity–is disgusting and inhumane. If you, too, get on a roll, there are similar bills proposed in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Washington State.

This refusal is in memory of Mark Baumer.

Alternate Histories: Refusal 1

The next day, every medical and dental practice that treated a member of Congress removed their annual checkups and their colonoscopies and their root canals and their physiotherapy appointments from their schedules.

From that day forward, every medical receptionist looked blank when a congressperson came in. The dermatologists and urologists said they were so sorry, but they weren’t taking new patients. Pharmacists shrugged and said they’d never received that prescription. Chiropractors and podiatrists and acupuncturists, even the few psychotherapists–all  doors were closed, all voices smooth and regretful.

At the urgent care clinic, congresspeople watched old people in compression hose, little kids with cold sores, a pregnant woman in her early 40s, a blue-haired person in a wheelchair go in ahead of them to see a doctor. We’re sorry, they said at the desk, we’re sorry, we can’t help you.

*

This refusal is accompanied by an invitation to call elected officials about the Affordable Care Act, today, if you live in Providence and are free between 12 and 3; by a second invitation to pay attention to Fight4Medicare and see what you can do for them in the coming days.

This refusal is in memory of Esmin Green.

Alternate History: A Just Transition

This alternate history, whose task is to show our current choices as contingent rather than natural and to imagine a world that works better for more people, owes a great debt to the ongoing work and words of Mariame Kaba.

7/8/16

That day we recognized that police officers were like coal miners or offshore riggers, maintainers of imbalance, people distorted and damaged by the work some of us were asking them to do, and that they were in need of a just transition away from dirty, dangerous, dehumanizing work. They needed true and possible paths that would allow them to recognize themselves and others without damage.

We did all the usual things, to start. We made cordons with our bodies around entire neighborhoods, three and four people deep. Similar cordons formed around the Public Safety Complex, around the parking garage, around at least some cops’ houses. The moments when one threw their gun or taser on the ground, out of reach, and came to stand beside us were precious to us; this didn’t happen very often. More often, we said to armed men and a few armed women: this line can open to you. There’s a place for you beyond this line. But you can’t force it open. You have to tell us what you’re going to do. And it can’t be anything like what you did before. We said: you can’t stay on that side of the line alone, forever.

They didn’t hit us, didn’t shoot or gas us. They knew, we think now–and some of them have even said, since then–that the time for that was over. That was the beginning of their part in the change, but not the end.

It’s a struggle every moment to unschool yourself as a bully, but it was part of their reparations to the rest of us: when they asked us what we wanted, what would satisfy us, after the days of blocking their paths everywhere they went, we said that we couldn’t undo the past but that we needed to undo a future of violence, starting now. We said, you have to be the ones to do it; our job will be to make a place for you as you get better at it.

A person who doesn’t know that they are desperate is dangerous, and a person who doesn’t know that what they’re doing is a decision is equally dangerous. We stood in front of them. We said, we’re desperate; this is what desperation looks like. We said, this is our choice; this is what a choice looks like. Do you want to see who you could be on the other side of the line? What you could have? What you could leave behind?

People who weren’t cops stopped calling the cops. More and more cops quit. Like everyone now, they were guaranteed a living whether they worked or not, but they told the rest of us that that wouldn’t be enough. They needed something else to attach their ideas of themselves to, like the mussels that cling to the rocks; they needed to do work, and they needed to learn how to feel fear without doing harm. Well, so did we.

The world we were making was full of necessary daily work, both grim and joyful; the need for extreme heroics, sea rescues, fire control, resuscitations and transfusions; plenty of dead bodies to tend, despite everything we could do. There was a lot of that kind of work for them, in addition to the slow, grinding, stammering labor of breaking survival away from entitlement, identity away from blame. Most of them were very bad at this at first, no matter how willing they were: it always had to be someone else’s fault. But there was no one else’s fault for it to be.

The men’s houses were helpful for some of the ones who were men. (Free access to hormones, and confidence of their welcome as women–though not necessarily as former cops–in all places, was helpful for some of the ones who were in fact women.) The anger shrines on street corners, with their punching surfaces and screaming chambers, saw a lot of use, too. Some of the ex-cops spent time tending horses, as veterans also did, forming a new understanding of risk, fragility, care and trust. We were using horses more for certain tasks by then, even in the city–hauling things that weren’t in a hurry to get there, supplying manure for our farms–and occasionally for fast city-to-city transportation, since the solar shuttles were still in prototype.

More people were living more of their lives in public, too, by this point–houses were fuller, streets and waterways more active, privacy more a matter of courtesy than of soundproof walls and locked doors. It was harder to hide cruelty, and there was less to steal. The night watch made it harder for people who wished to stab and twist and violate to do so under cover of darkness. We used Build the Block and Creative Interventions as models for emergency response. We mostly didn’t allow the ex-cops to do these things with the rest of us: it was too close to the wound of what they had been for us to be safe with them, and sometimes, in spite of all that work, they were the people we needed to stop.

We sunk the guns in the last of the concrete–it was the easiest, most permanent thing to do with them.

 

Direct Action Opportunity with Fuerza Laboral: POSTPONED

THIS ACTION HAS BEEN POSTPONED. I will update if it is rescheduled, or you can email the organizer below.

Why is Climate Anxiety Counseling posting about a direct labor action with Fuerza Laboral? Because both are about bringing the world we want out of the world we have.

Here’s their statement:

“DIRECT ACTION OPPORTUNITY WITH FUERZA LABORAL: Labor Abuses and Wage Withholding

The owner of a cleaning company  employed a group of 8 people to clean student apartments in North Providence. The workers worked 40+ hours, but after the work was done he claimed that the job wasn’t done right and that they took too long to clean the disgusting apartments after the students went on summer break. The apartments were so dirty that the workers had to be on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors, bathrooms, walls etc.. He owes them over $3,000, so we are going to his very fancy home in the suburbs of Johnston. This is not his first offense: he has done it before to other workers, and Fuerza Laboral has already done an action against his company in 2008. The action will be on Thursday  7/7, starting at 5:15 am in Johnston.”
You can email the organizer for details/location: organizer AT fuerza-laboral.org.

Alternate Histories: Oblong Books & Music, 6/2/16

I gave a reading at Oblong Books and Music, the bookstore I went to and bought books at when I was growing up, and I invited the audience to write alternate histories for each other’s climate anxieties. These are what they shared with each other and with me.

As with the climate anxieties people share at the booth, I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse these, necessarily: rather, they’re expressions of what people are able to imagine for each other, part of the picture of how people are thinking, and what they think change and responsibility and possibility are.

 

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Less rain, water will become more and more scarce, more droughts, harder to garden, grow food and bathe.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: I read an article in the Times that some MIT student resorted to Kickstarter to get funding for his Rainmaker. No conventional grant givers were interested, since they don’t believe in global warming. But on his own, he made it rain on the farms in California last month, and he’s on a path to everywhere. He tested it first in his own garden. It does not require clouds, or even sky. Sometimes where there is a quirky smart guy, there is a way.

 

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I fear that in the next 50 years, 100s of millions of people will die because of climate change–what will happen to compassion?

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In the process of losing everything, people will suddenly awaken to their true nature as children, and will make their first priority to go outside each morning, kiss the ground and then bring something yummy to their neighbor. All extras will be brought together and shared as needed.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Losing my inherent instinctual connection to nature because of habitat and/or species loss such that when looking at my cat one day we both realize something crucially important is gone even as this loss bridges a potentially powerful and unknown connection between us.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: Knowing the love and connection you have to nature, do not dismay. Mother Nature thrives and survives, is deeper and more regenerative than our comprehension. The ecosystems which may be dwindling now create an environment for an evolved version of its ancestor.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My child is too gentle, kind and anxious to survive in this harsh, harsh world

ALTERNATE HISTORY: “Global” anxiety may be at an all-time high, with resultant aggressive and defensive emotions and behaviors by [adults? illegible] in difficult situations around the world. The only saving grace for society, some will realize, belatedly, is to foster a new tenderness and gentleness in children. Your child will be an ideal person to help others in pain and denial. The talents of your child/growing adult will be more and more valued with each year that passes. A child of peace grows into an adult of mercy, compassion, love and health. It is only from such souls that the cosmos continues. NB: A delicate perennial may appear too vulnerable to possibly survive the predatory vicious freeze of an intense northern winter, but survive it does–and can re-emerge next spring even more lush and powerfully beautiful than before.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Political corruption is everywhere. Politicians working to better themselves and not the common people are everywhere. We can’t do much about this.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 3 children in a desert devise a mind-altering “helmet” that is so beautiful, everyone needs to put it on. It tells the wearer to share, not thinking about rewards. Soon, everyone has all they need. All feel compelled to uplift, educate, feed, heal, comfort … la dee dah.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I fear the powerful corporations that produce much of our food because so much of it contains things like sugar that bring on diabetes; individually people suffer and require medical care.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: There have always been toxins (although we have not always been aware of them). Life did go on–perhaps in forms yet unknown to us–but it survived–and we will–but we might not recognize now what it will be then. I only wish I could visit then to see now what will be–

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY:

– Werewolves in the White House

– Death camps for dissenters

– Disappearance of hedgehogs

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In the same way that smoking in public places went from being desirable to nearly gone, those who have the sensitivity for compassion will overcome their fears and provide safety and kindness.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I’m worried that we don’t teach our children enough self-love and compassion, and that we let magic and imagination not take enough importance.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In this world you cannot succeed. You are not helped to jump over the wall–you are helped to laugh at the wall or sing to it. You never want to win or get it or manage it. You never think it is now compared to then. Everything is liquid and inviting and sweet and amusing.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: In a world of resource abundance, I feel hopeless that some take so much without caring [for] those who need.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: People will share what they have. New resources will replace old resources, no longer needed.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My anxiety is that people will never stop thinking that time is what they think it is. My anxiety is that everyone will forever be imprisoned–trapped–by the idea that it is now.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: One day, the sun rose and every single person rose to greet it. People woke up and breathed in peace and felt peace. And exuded peace to each other and all of life on the planet. And every single living thing sang the song it was born to sing.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My fear is that we will run out of drinkable water in the foreseeable future.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: Drinking water is being synthesized from the rising sea–billions of gallons of fresh water pours from international spigots. Everyone bathes three times a day and drinks all they want.

 

 

Alternate Histories: The Subway Series

I went to New York, realized that what I was seeing in the bottom of the subway tunnels was water, and wrote this story.

*

When we pried up some of the streets, we laid down metal grid and limestone and marble and peat moss and sharp sand and the bones of some of the dead and broken glass turned back to sand. We planted salt-tolerant grasses, beach peas, heathers, junipers. We left plenty of streets, don’t worry. The ambulances and the power chairs can still get through.

 

The negotiations between the builders’ and plumbers’ and electricians’ unions (whose representatives drove in from Queens and Staten Island each day), the water’s lawyers (arriving on foot and on bikes), the various tenants’ rights cadres (some of them armed and riding the city buses), the Doctors, Nurses and Patients’ Coalition (in wheelchair-compliant vans), the delegation from Riker’s Island–these took almost a year, even with everyone eager to be fair, to admit that they might have been wrong or done wrong, to outlive years and decades and centuries of mutual suspicion and uneven violence. Pain and anger and hatred all wash out slowly, slowly, and only when people stop renewing them.

 

Rainwater filters down through the grids of plant and sand and stone into what used to be the subway tunnels, diluting the dank sick dark-brown water with clearer, washed water. In the storms, on the wettest most tantrum days, the tunnels become flood tunnels: the seawater crashes in and the skywater pours down: we made a place for them, because everyone and everything needs a place to be, and sometimes more than one. Spillways open and when the storm subsides, they close; when the storm subsides, sunlight comes down through the light-and-ventilation shafts and makes the water steam up.

 

We don’t need the subway tunnels for the subway anymore because work doesn’t work the same way. Most people live pretty close to the work they do, and no one works for a living; people live and they work. This took a long time, almost as long as it took to pry up some of the streets. We started doing it, and some of us got tired, and lay down, and the rats and the dermestid beetles from the Museum became our undertakers, and we gave our bones to the water.

 

This is terrible, we hear you saying, how can you stand it? There are pilgrimages to the catacombs but there’s no horror, or rather, horror is a part of our lives, a neighbor. We combined a few of the many things that people have done with the dead, since the beginning of the world.

 

We admit that we smashed up some of the buildings to get the marble. Even the softest stone is still hard, and holds a lot of memory. We wanted it to communicate some of what it had known to the water; we wanted its power to be transformed. But we didn’t smash up any people, or trap them into smashing themselves. We worked slowly and we worked with care, and no one worked past or even close to the limits of their strength, to move the stone on rollers, we chanted rhythmic encouragement and carried cleaner water, water gathered before it hit the ground, in the heat. Our plant and animal neighbors fed us, or calmed our minds, or renewed the air, or shit fertilizer. That’s how they were to us. How we were to them: pruners, killers, renewers of air, cleaners of habitat.

 

The rats have their own routes; the light that filters in, the unpredictable waters, and the lack of dropped food–there isn’t nearly enough to waste, anymore–make it less of a place for them. They live there, and sometimes there are terrible rat stampedes–we feel disgust–we stand as still as we can, shuddering, while they flood our ankles. They stay out of the water, though, now, we don’t know why. Science works differently now, too, we cut fewer things open, we stop fewer processes. Its motion is even slower, making some of us feel crazy. Those of us who can write, write our findings up on the tunnel walls, and sometimes the floods wash them away. Depending on the changing levels of dampness, moss and fungi flourish or dry to dust and sift down.

In the tunnels a few bats live, refugees, but they’re shy of people. We found out about the crayfish when the first raccoons came down. We stay away from them: they carry rabies, and there’s no vaccine anymore, not anywhere in the city or the world. But they’re among the best at finding exits and entrances, so sometimes we follow them at a safe distance, to see if there are places we should be watching out for, places where we poorly understand the change from aboveground to underground, where they understand it well. We don’t eat the crayfish. You can go to another storyteller to find out more about how we feed each other and where we sleep, the various ways we decide about children or pray or joke or clean. This is about the way we know the water underground.

 

Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, the water in the tunnel bottoms becomes sweeter. We lay marble tile from the smashed-up buildings, with cracks between so it can seep back down into the cycle, what we used to call the water table but now call the belly. The tunnels are long throats. This metaphor will break down pretty soon, but that’s okay with us. We build things now to be breakable, reparable, to flood and subside. Sometimes the water that sinks back down is seawater, is salt. We know this slows renewal, poisons roots, just like it would make you sick to swallow. We hope for time to dilute it.

 

On the hottest, driest days, the former tunnels are cooler than the streets, and we walk down the long ramps to lower our temperature, and that’s how we notice–after some generations have passed–the stalactites starting to form on the roof, just little nubs with a drop of water glimmering. Their roots are deep tobacco-stained brown; their extremities are gray and pale tan with the slightest surface glitter, as the sediments work their way down. When you see them changing, you don’t know it’s change you’re seeing. They are made up of millions of years of the minute dead, in aggregate, now entering another form, moved by the requirements of matter. They aren’t beautiful yet. Neither are we.

Alternate Histories: 5/11, 5/17

(If you’re a new visitor to the blog, you can read this explanation of alternate histories.)

5/11/16

 

We don’t kill the fish ’cause the fish have toxins in ’em by the time they come up this far. I tell people not to eat ’em. I tell people, there’s three discharge stations up there, three. … We just put ’em back. Stripers, if they stay out of the water too long, they get stressed and they die.

*

5/17/16

Two stories here: the story of H and the story of the fish.

The fish was born in a big river. (I’m sorry, but I have to use human names for the things the fish knew.) It swam with the current. It snapped at tasty fragments first, then smaller fish. Its siblings schooled together with it. The water brought it temperatures, pressures and flavors, currents and other currents. It moved like a muscle inside of a muscle. It tasted metal, plastic, rank things. Older fish of its kind came to the river–big shadows, muscling the water aside–and ate most of the food, but it managed to find enough. It was fish-wise, fish-strong. It inscribed itself on the currents briefly, repeatedly. For lice, it was a country; for smaller fish, it was the end of the world.

Seasons passed. The fish’s third winter, the water cooled less, it didn’t grow as torpid, it stayed hungrier. Some of its schoolmates died and the decay of their flesh flavored the water. When the fish was old enough and strong enough, it moved along a particular current, following the taste and itch of salt, passing the changes in plants and other animals, riding the rapids and pushing through the slow shallows, until it reached vastness.

H is a human, so he knows time and survival differently. His birth is a long time back, in what, up North, he calls the South. He rides his bike, he gardens, he works as a guide for kayak fishing. Sometimes he takes his kayak through the river some humans call the Woonasquatucket out into the bay and beyond, to get to where the stripers are that his fellow humans want to catch.

The fish wants to live and H wants to live. Once, he would have let the fish live long enough to grow big and stout, and maybe mate and make more fishes, before catching, killing, scaling, gutting, cooking, eating. Now he coaches his customer how to put it back without any intention of ever eating it, gently, reverently. It will still probably die from something humans have done–plastic in the water, carcinogens in its own body–but not this human, not this thing

But now trace the stories back upstream. Dredge out the plastic, by hand if necessary, all the able and available hands maneuvering small craft and squatting on the tangled banks; go to the houses, collect the plastic, go to the factories, don’t make any more. Find the places where the sewage outfall or industrial discharge enters the river, diverge some of it or plant them up with the cordgrass or phragmites that will filter the water (we’ll need to rip it out later, since it likes to spread; we’ll need to bind and weave the reeds into boats when our kayaks and canoes spring leaks we can’t fix because we’re not making plastic compounds anymore and the spruce sap won’t stick to the fiberglass properly). Pay the reparations that are due to H on behalf of his enslaved ancestors, before we get rid of money entirely. The window is small; we need to do it soon.

The fish has died, long since, drifted to the bottom to be devoured by the scavenger snails and hermit crabs that have managed to survive the increasingly warm oceans. Other fish spawn in the river, tastes their way to the ocean. They know all that fish know: the water reteaches it to them, along the lateral lines that run down every fish body from generation to generation. A blurred or interrupted lesson is still a lesson, and many fish have come to grief. Others have learned in their bodies how to digest new kinds of food, how to endure greater warmth and less oxygenated water, how to float low and weather out the turbidity and violence of storms.

Humans live longer than fish; H is old in this part of the story, and history has injured him in many ways, but his life is full of sweetness and he has access to all the medical care he needs. He kayaks out for the pleasure of survival; he lets out his line. The fish he hooks late in the day will feed him and six or seven of his neighbors; it thrashes with all its weight, because most things want to live. He says a reverent prayer of thanks for its life and its flesh, knocks it sharply on the head, and paddles back upstream.