Alternate History: 1/23

Normally I write alternate histories in response to one or more climate anxieties that people share with me at the counseling booth or in some other context, but the idea for this one came from hearing our radiators bang and hiss, I think, mostly.


It took the people of the states neighboring states with oil, coal and natural gas economies about three years to get everything together, and in that time, the burning, the trucks passing over the roads, the leaks, the excavations, continued to do their damage. Many people died of them–salamanders and mosses, canvasback ducks and grasses, cactus wrens, honeysuckle bushes and humans. Some of the blockades during this time kept coal trains or LNG trucks from reaching their destinations, and others kept them from collecting new loads by standing across the railways and roadways and chanting the names of the dead. Meanwhile, people in neighboring states adjusted their budgets, in some cases altered the interiors of their houses or apartment buildings and increased the capacities of their septic systems, spread the word, and at last announced that they were ready.

Anybody who had made their living working for these industries–as riggers or as administrative assistants, as claims filers or miners or geologists, could leave their job and a person or family in another state would make themselves responsible for them, just as if they were cousins coming from another country. Some called it “adoption” and others “asylum”, but everyone called the people on the giving end “responders.”

Some humans moved in with their responders, right into the house, helping them build adaptively after storms, remediate their soil, remember to charge the batteries of their power chairs, or doctor their dogs. The people and plants and insects in that place adjusted to the presence of additional people: a new set of eyebrows for the mites to colonize, a new pressure on the ground above the roots.

Some of these living arrangements lasted years, some months; a few dissolved almost immediately, but the responders continued their interracination–their inter-rootedness–sending money, answering questions–as long as the newcomers wished it. “Interracination” because it needed a new word: it wasn’t patronage, since they weren’t patronizing; it wasn’t support, which can mean too many other things, and doesn’t acknowledge the work of entanglement, the constant recalibration, unease and shifting. Even those who remained to nurture their home places, with packets of money, kids’ clothes and nonperishable food arriving weeklyish via the still-functioning mail, or to pick up monthly at the fair days that were starting to spring up in disused parking lots, felt the stiffness, the difference, the pull, and had to work it off in their own ways. Teenagers attached harrows to their ATVs, now sunpowered, and shrieked their way around the edges, tearing up asphalt, and older people strolled or shuffled after them, scattering the seeds of tough grasses, elderberry or scrub pine or nasturtium, whatever they thought might be able to endure it.

The hardest months were the cold months. A lot of people living on high ground or in dry zones moved into their basements then, running vents to the outside, and some became seasonal migrants, learning the new and shifting patterns along with traveling birds, for whom they left sustenance in exchange. In cities, people got good at making paper waste into pellets and logs, and in the country there was the wood of trees that hadn’t weathered the changes. But there really is nothing you can burn for warmth that doesn’t add particulate matter and carbon molecules to the air, and people lived, as they had in the past, with the knowledge of what they were making worse. They sang songs of mourning and gratitude for the pulp and the ashes, for trees that had died last year, or twenty years ago, or fifty. They moved on to stories of the people of the past: giant insects, dinosaurs and ground sloths, rheas and dodos, moose and bowhead whales. These weren’t exactly adventure stories, since most of them had no humans in them, but they were stories of the thrill of being a living creature. When childrens’ eyelids got heavy, the adults–born family, gathered family, and responders– switched to stories of small people: close-to-the-ground animals, quick birds, the frogs that were slowly coming back to some of the streams near the tracks, though the mining and fracking sites wouldn’t support life until long after everyone listening was dead.


Alternate Histories: 5/29, 6/13, 9/29

[Note:  this is another alternate history for the same two people who evoked yesterday’s.]


[After asking his nana for permission to talk to me]

I’m worried that I’ll never get to see my dad and he misses me and I miss him. And I miss nature, I miss everything.

Your nana’s over there, you don’t miss her, right?

No, she’s right over there, and my mom, and my auntie, except for my dad.

Are you guys in touch? [Shakes head.] Do you like to draw?


Maybe you could do some drawings and save them for him, I bet he’d like that.

I like to draw Minecraft. I make a comic book and I turn it into a comic book and all I do is make Minecraft, that’s all. Can I have a piece of paper? [I give him a piece of paper and he folds it.] Do you have a scissor or can you rip it? [He draws a line to show me where to rip, and unfolds a one-sheet booklet. He then goes and lugs his little cousin over to meet me and they draw together for a while on the backs of some of the alternate-history blanks, except he’s having a competition for how much paper he can cover and she’s not. I give him a marker, a clipboard, and the rest of the alternate-history blanks to take with him.]



I worked at Apeiron, I worked in Woonsocket. Life is so totally out of balance, so disconnected. We’re all implicated. It makes me so unutterably sad.

What do you do when you feel that sadness?

I try to put parts of my body on the grass and connect with Mother Earth … A lot will survive, but I think it might not be us. I try to breathe. I think about the bad things I do and how they contribute … I believe that everybody cares, given the opportunity to care.

I’ve been trying to think about what sadness might make possible.

Sadness leads to the desire for connection. Sadness informs reaching out. But I don’t share sadness often, because I want to make opportunities for people to perform their own responses, to facilitate a journey to authentic response.



Okay, you don’t believe in the bell in the sky, you don’t want to make the bell in the sky happen. How about this…

When you’re in pain it’s natural to throw yourself down on the breast of your mother, if she’s not your enemy. And so the slopes with their scrub, the sidewalks with their cracks, the parks and beaches and vacant lots and meadows become dotted, striped, coated with people in pain, W and T among them, in different places, their chests or fingertips seeking contact with the dark earth. They share their sorrow with her and they rise up replenished; they take her wounds into themselves. Because of where and when they are, they lie eye-to-eye with yellowjackets and ants, they look to the side and see acorn caps and plantain leaves, a loose feather or a fallen oak twig. They look to the other side and see someone’s shoulder, or their hair interweaving with the grass.

They know (and if they don’t, they tell each other) that a big group of people in a place has a tendency to leave a mark, so they are careful with the length of time they stay. They start by grooming the places they lie down for human-made debris, but then they start to ask: what counts? Is garbage in a trashcan or a landfill better for the skin of the earth than garbage in the leaves? Some of them bring trowels and pick meditatively at the asphalt or concrete.

Mostly people stay for a little less long than it takes their body and their bacteria to move food or water along, so as not to cause problems with their shit or piss. But a few people lie there all day, for days. Maybe they’re skipping work, or don’t have work. Maybe they’re ignoring their families, or have no families.  Their sorrow is profound, and the people who lie next to them sometimes begin to bring them food and water, help them to nearby toilets or latrines reserved for them, even bathe them. They become shrines.

The other thing that happens is that through the seasons and years of lying on the ground, people come to know it better. Their ears and noses, as well as their skin, become attuned to its shifts, its layers, its veins, the motion of creatures within it or water below it. Someone who lies on the ground all the time can tell whether the ground they lie on is rich in plastic sediment, or lime, or mycorrhizae, or aerobic bacteria. They can sense the degree and nature of its strain or plenty. More often, it’s strain, and they share that stress and sorrow. Sometimes they can even tell what it needs, and ask for that, or bring it there–manure, or charcoal, or certain kinds of plants, or better drainage–not to serve humans better, but to feel more itself, to steady its balance.

… Does this offer you what you need? Do you believe it? Do you want to make it happen?

Alternate Histories: 7/15, 7/17


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.



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.