Interview with Susan Metzger

An Interview with Susan Metzger

by Ben Potter 

Ben Potter: You recently moved to photography after many years as a painter. Does your long engagement with painting influence your photographic work?

Susan Metzger: I’m sure it does but not necessarily in the conscious, everyday kind of way.  As an artist, I have a particular aesthetic that carries across varying mediums, but what drives the content and more formal issues such as composition, etc. also carry over.

BP: How does your sense of place direct your work?

SM: ‘Sense of Place,’ that can be tough to describe in the bigger sense of it. I have always been lucky enough to live near the coast, and that brings in lots of other meanings. The coastal landscape is also an edge, a threshold. It’s liminal – it forms a margin- and in doing so creates an actual state of ‘in-betweenness.’  The tidal zone is a threshold of land, a distinct place between high ground and water; it is in-between and what lies on the other side can be unpredictable, and dangerous, and beautiful – it can be everything. So those connotations inform my work.

 

 

BP: In particular, why are you interested in your local fisheries?

SM: That’s complicated I am interested in how people make a living using the immediately local ecology.  I love the idea that one’s work is dependent on natural rhythms, tides and weather, and the scarcity or plenty of other creatures – all dictated by the environment.  I also was not conscious of an underlying current that was driving me in the background – that my father was an obsessive fisherman and would sometimes take me with him as a kid.  His life ended in a tragic way but while I was working on my own project I sort of suddenly and unexpectedly realized I understood his obsession.

BP: You use vintage film cameras to make your negatives. These are then adjusted and printed digitally. What are your thoughts about the use of old and new technologies?

SM: This is where it gets a bit political for me.   I grew up during the sixties and the Vietnam War was a dark presence in our family – my brother was there, and the rest of us would watch people like Walter Cronkite read the names of the fallen and it was somber – we’d see these incredible photographs by people like Larry Burrows and we trusted it. We trusted the information and the people delivering it. Journalism had a kind of dignity that is now lost.  It’s devastating to me, really, what’s happened to media and how it’s now manipulated and the feeling that you can’t believe anything anymore.  So, in that sense, it’s personally important to me that my photographs simply show what was in front of me at the time.

BP: Do you see your work as a type of antidote or example?

SM: It’s certainly an antidote for me.  I only create work for myself, not thinking about how it might be received.  It’s a way of working out things that you may not even be conscious of at the time. I always- absolutely always – find that by the time a body of work is completed, it tells me what has been on my mind under the surface.  It ends up informing me.

 

BP: Anything else you would like to add?

SM: Thanks for the opportunity to show my Up River series and I hope your young students will get out and VOTE. And if they are artists, I hope they might consider the idea of making work about what is true for them.  I’d like to include some notes I learned from a wonderful photographer and person named Keith Carter. These don’t only have to apply to photography:

“Tell the truth about what you know.
What’s your story?
What do you want to say?
Who do you want to say it to?
How do you want it to look?
What is your relationship to the subject matter?
It’s not what you see, it’s the significance of what you’re seeing.
Make friends with uncertainty.”

INDENT
[Keith Carter]

 

 

 

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Susan Metzger is a painter and self-taught photographer living in Maine. She studied painting at the Museum School in Boston and has been the recipient of two fellowships; from the Wurltizer Foundation and the K2FF Arts in Sustainability Grant. At this time she is practicing a documentary style of analog shooting that is strongly place-based.

Ben Potter was born in 1970 and grew up in Tennessee.  He majored in Art and Biology at Williams College. He received his M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from the California College of Arts in 1998. He lives in Belfast, Maine, and is a Professor of Art at Unity College.  

Joshua Calendar: Yard Dogs

Joshua Calendar

Yard Dogs

INDENT
At breakfast Chub coiled a rubber band around his index finger and watched it purple with blood. He asked if there was any more cereal, or any more milk. I said there wasn’t any of either. He glared at me and then at his finger like it was a hostage. “Go look for yourself,” I said. He set his teeth and watched as his finger ballooned. At ten years old, Chub Munro was a soldier of fortune, and used to pain.
INDENT
“What now?” he asked. I shrugged. We were out of money, mostly out of food, and our parents were assholes. That much was clear. But I wasn’t sure how to proceed.
INDENT
“Do you have other family?” I asked. “Anybody we can call?” No one, on my side or his, had come to the wedding between my father and his mother, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. He shook his head.

INDENT
“Nobody?” I asked.
INDENT
“Nobody from you either,” he said. Which was true.
INDENT
In the kitchen, I reviewed the situation. I opened cupboards knowing there was nothing left in them. The fridge was clean and empty but for a tub of miso paste neither of us had touched, and a mesh bag of green apples. “Heads up,” I said, tossing an apple to Chub. It passed through his hands and bounced off his chest, hitting the floor like a fist. Chub eyeballed me with a baleful squint and wandered out of view. The situation in the kitchen was bad, the situation in the house was bad, and the prospects for improvement were dim.
INDENT
Our parents had met two months earlier at a Reiki conference in Chicago. They got engaged after being partnered in a seminar about dancing with the joy and pain of life. “She moves me more fully into my essence, my most authentic self,” said my father. They decided to make a few sacred changes to their lifestyle: buying a new home together in a new town with no memories, taking a Himalayan trekking honeymoon in Bhutan (which they referred to as the Land of the Thunder Dragon), and getting matching tattoos of trees on their backs. When I observed that he was too old for a tramp stamp, my father told me to stuff it. Our family used to be Methodist. My father used to wear golf shirts.
INDENT
They wanted to visit Bhutan because it was the last country on earth without television; a Buddhist Shangri-la. The perfect place to take off their work shoes and step onto the eightfold path of renunciation. Their first night in Paro all their valuables were stolen. My father called, leaving a message near dawn to say that the credit card he left for me to use was cancelled and that a new one should arrive soon, that they were heading out on the sixteen-day trek anyway, since it was prepaid, and that Chub and I would have to tough it out until their return, which could be delayed as a consequence of having to get new passports from the consulate in New Delhi. As I listened to the message I heard canned laughter from a hotel television blaring in the background. Turns out Bhutan has had T.V. since 1999.
INDENT
There was no television in our new house. No internet either. Our parents had closed on it the day before heading off on their honeymoon, leaving everything but a few essentials and blue air mattresses in storage in our old town. They planned to redecorate and move in after their trip. “It will be like brothers camping,” said my father. “Lawrence loves camping,” said Beth. When they finally left for the airport, Lawrence turned to me and said evenly, “My name is Chub and you are not my brother.”

INDENT
Our first four days together we didn’t talk much. It was the summer before my senior year of high school and I planned to work on my college essays. I was applying to six schools, and wanted to impress each of them with my wisdom and insight, at least enough to draw their attention away from my grades. So far, I had only a title “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.” Which I had stolen from a friend who got into Georgetown. Chub kept to the empty bedroom he had claimed, reading through stacks of old Guns & Ammo and Gun Digest magazines. Occasionally I’d hear the steady grinding of steel against a whetstone as he endlessly sharpened the large hunting knife he wore on his belt. He seemed less like a kid who enjoyed camping and more like someone plotting a murder. I left him alone.
INDENT
It was the fifth morning, after my father’s phone message, that we realized we were out of food and in something of a ditch, survival-wise. I picked up the apple I had tossed to Chub and returned it to the fridge. There are few things as miserable as an empty house when you feel stuck in it. I didn’t have a car, and even if I had somewhere else to go, I couldn’t abandon Chub. However cavalierly our parents had thrown us together, I didn’t want to be responsible for making things worse. I didn’t particularly care for Beth, but she wasn’t as bad as the cologne-wearing married car salesman who inspired my own mother to run away to Toronto and live in a crap apartment he paid for. I didn’t particularly like Chub either, but in this world of abandonment I wanted to hold firm, at least for a while. My thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Chub, dressed in camouflage, a bandana tied around his large head, sliding open the patio door. “Where are you going?” I asked.
INDENT
“Recon,” said Chub, sliding the door shut behind him.
INDENT
I went back to my essay and didn’t worry about Chub until two hours had passed. I wrote the sentence, “I have always liked school,” and got stuck. Then I heard the rumble of water moving through pipes, the sound of an outside hose spigot turned on and then off. I looked out the patio door into the backyard. There was a firepit with a small fire blazing, and Chub squatting next to it, feeding branches. I put on my shoes and stepped out onto the porch. Chub was roasting a misshapen hotdog on a stick over the flames, watching it intently. “Where did you get a hotdog?” I asked.
INDENT
Chub held up the stick so I could see it clearly. The hot dog had four nubs where its legs used to be. “Want one?”
INDENT
“Is that a squirrel?” I asked. Chub nodded and dipped the stick back over the fire.
“You’ve got problems.”
INDENT
“I’ve got lunch.” He spit into the dirt and turned the stick with a practiced hand.

INDENT
Ours was not the sort of neighborhood for grilling squirrels. It was a Midwestern neighborhood of tidy craftsmen homes with small green yards, clotheslines, and tasteful gardens. There were houses close by to the left and right of us, and another across the backyard, separated by a narrow unpaved alley for garage access. If people in our neighborhood wanted to cook outside, it would be hamburger or brats over a gas flame, not lawn squirrel over a firepit. “I’m going inside,” I said. Chub shrugged and wiped his nose on a camo sleeve.
INDENT
I chopped up an apple and considered the tub of miso Beth had bought when she stocked the house with the groceries that were otherwise gone. I opened the lid and sniffed at it. It looked like peanut butter. I dipped a corner of apple slice in and found it wasn’t half bad. Through the window above the sink I watched Chub gnawing on his squirrel, cutting hunks away from the small bones with his knife and waving his fingers from the heat of it. I checked my wallet. Four bucks. I walked to the nearest gas station and bought two packages of peanut butter crackers and a real hot dog and a coke and ate everything in the parking lot before heading home. Chub wasn’t the only one who could take care of himself.
INDENT
When I returned, Chub was nowhere to be seen. Out the kitchen window I noticed that he had elaborated on the firepit, adding a stack of stones that rose up nearly a foot tall, like a beehive. I reached to close the mini-blind, to blot out whatever weird project he was engaged in, but the pull cord was gone. The string had been cut and tied off with a ball-shaped knot so that it wouldn’t drop. I checked two more of the blinds at other windows and found the same. Apparently, Chub had needed twine. I went back to my essay. To the sentence “I have always liked school,” I added “because I believe in personal growth.” Then I changed “liked” to “loved” and sat back. Where was he? The afternoon wore on, and twilight came. My stomach rumbled.
INDENT
His stomp on the porch brought me out. A heavy tread for such a small kid. He grinned and held up two small brown rabbits, gripped by their ears. “Snared,” he said. “Easy as pie.” The rabbits’ eyes were blank and clouded and their bodies flopped at the ends of their broken necks. Limp helpless things.
INDENT
“What’s wrong with you?” I stepped closer to him, using my height. “What kind of hillbilly kills garden bunnies to eat?”
INDENT
Chub’s grin vanished and he stared back hard. “Who listens to a message from his daddy ten times and cries?” Which was me. Chub dropped his hands to his sides and adopted the square-shouldered-chin-raised stance I recognized as the beginning of a fight. Chub was a foot shorter than me; I didn’t back away.

INDENT
“What are you going to do with those?”
INDENT
“Gut ‘em and cook ‘em,” he said defiantly.
INDENT
“Don’t get any mess on the porch,” I said with as much adult tone as I could muster.
INDENT
His shoulders slumped as he walked down onto the lawn. He knelt and made a few quick cuts with his knife and pulled the skin away as clean as peeling a banana. It was impressive, and I felt suddenly lousy for trying to diminish him. “Probably the first rabbits to be killed by mini-blinds,” I said.
INDENT
He looked up at me and his grin returned. “I know, right?”
INDENT
I stifled a comment about Watership Down and instead helped him build a fire in the strange beehive stove. When the rabbits were gutted and rinsed in the gushing spray of the hose faucet, Chub made a grate of branches atop the opening of the stove and placed the meat on it as if on a grill. “You know what would be good?” I asked. “Some salt and pepper or something. Spices.”
INDENT
“Mom doesn’t allow salt.” Chub waved some ashes away from the meat.
INDENT
“I know the thing,” I said. I went inside and got the tub of miso and a spoon. “It smells like dog food, but it’s salty. Not half bad.” I let him smell it and he shrugged so I slathered on some of the paste with a spoon. He turned them over and I slathered them again. “Now all we need is some carrots, or something,” I observed.
INDENT
Chub nodded. “Keep turning ‘em,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
INDENT
Chub returned with pockets bulging. He rinsed off finger-thin carrots and marble-sized radishes and spiny cucumbers the length of pickles. It was only June, and our neighbors’ gardens had not come in yet, but the carrots stick out in my mind as best I’ve ever eaten. “We could get more, you know.” Chub pointed at the small pile of produce. “It’s no moon tonight. Easy.”
INDENT
“How do you know that?”
INDENT
“If there’s no moon, it’s dark,” said Chub patiently. “They can’t see you taking anything.”

INDENT
“But how do you know there’s no moon?”
INDENT
Chub stared at me like I was a moron. “How do you not know that?”
INDENT
I shrugged. “It’s never come up before.”
INDENT
When the rabbits were cooked Chub pushed away the rocks to let the fire spark and shine like a normal campfire. The lights of the surrounding houses cut off as the evening progressed and folks went to bed or focused on the flickering blue strobes of their televisions. We picked at the meat, squatting in the firelight like cavemen, letting the grease drip down our chins.
INDENT
“My dad taught me,” said Chub when we were done, staring into the firelight and wiping our fingers on our jeans. “About paying attention to the moon.”
INDENT
I nodded. “And how to hunt and all that?”
INDENT
Chub nodded. “He’s a Navy Seal. And look.” Chub handed me his hunting knife. “They named a knife after him.”
INDENT
“His name is Buck?”
INDENT
Chub nodded again. “My dad’s name is Buck.”
INDENT
In the firelight, under the stars, I should have realized that Chub was ten years old and entitled to his dreams, however fanciful, but instead I snickered and made a crack. Chub jumped to his feet and pointed a sharpened roasting stick at my eye. “You don’t know shit,” he said. “And your fatass dad doesn’t know shit either.” Which was true.
INDENT
Over the days that followed, we snared rabbit, sling-shotted squirrels, and raided gardens after dark. We drew maps, and Chub taught me the basics of using a compass and how to make rope from the inner bark of trees. I tried to teach him what I knew, which turned out to be not much of anything he was interested in. One night in the backyard I told him that the ancient Greeks thought fire was one of the four fundamental elements of the universe. He countered with the fact that a male mallard duck has a fourteen-inch-long penis. I made no meaningful contribution to his education.

INDENT
I suspect that the neighbors thought poorly of us, but we didn’t think much of them, living off the land as we were. I set my essay aside, and Chub spent less time alone in his room. The rabbits were plentiful, being nearly tame and predictable in their habits, but firewood became scarce and we had to travel further to find it. Neither of us had showered in a week and when the joggers passed us on the sidewalk they kept their distance. One day we abandoned the house altogether and built lean-tos in the park along the creek, to sleep among the sycamore trees that groaned in the night wind. Chub smeared mud on his face against the mosquitoes and I laughed at him until he flared with anger. He kicked over my sorry lean-to and shouted at me: “If you want to survive,” he said, as though quoting a sacred text, “you have to take action and not be a dipshit.” For some reason, I felt the blood of embarrassment rush to my cheeks. I rebuilt my lean-to to look more like his.
INDENT
Later that night I apologized. That made him sheepish and shy, and me somehow even more ashamed. “My mom lives in Canada,” I blurted. “She sends me typewritten letters, on paper she makes look old with vinegar and smoke, like you do when you’re trying to fake a treasure map. Can you believe that shit?”
INDENT
Chub furrowed his brow, which made the dried mud flake. “I’ve never done that,” he said. “Made paper old that way.”
INDENT
“It’s easy,” I said. “I’ll show you.” He nodded and something clear passed between us. Clearer than anything I found in my mother’s letters, which I had read as carefully as any pirate ever read a map. Chub understood, and I was grateful for it. We threw sycamore balls on the fire and watched them spark until we nodded and crawled into the damp and laughable shelters that somehow protected us through the long night.
INDENT
They came home eventually, of course. Their trek had been a disaster. Not only were their belongings stolen, it turns out the summer monsoon season is not ideal for trekking in the Himalayas. Beth hated leeches and they were everywhere – on her legs, in her boots, between her toes. Apparently, she had screamed for hours. The marriage ended after the fourth day. Because the house was empty, the parting was brief. My father and Beth drove home from the airport and then she called a cab for Chub and her luggage. Chub packed his duffle bag with a practiced hand and I could not bear to watch. I stood out by the firepit, kicking the burnt ends of sticks as our parents argued inside. I heard the cab honk, and then felt a light shove. Chub stared up at me, his face as unwashed and grim as my own, a souvenir tee-shirt from Bhutan slung over his shoulder. “Goodbye, brother,” he said. I never saw Chub again.
INDENT
That night, after my father had gotten tight on whiskey and ordered a pizza and we’d had a conversation about how hard it was to remove a tattoo, I went back to my essay. I started on a new page and wrote: “My name is Edward Coogan. I am a soldier of fortune, and used to pain.”

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Josh Calendar is a storyteller, IT consultant, and semi-pro gardener.  He lives in Iowa City, and this is his first published story.

Debra Small: Habitat Lost

Debra Small

 

Habitat Lost:
Negative Effects of Suburban Sprawl on Ecosystems

INDENT
The wild landscape of the western United States is being rapidly converted to a built landscape due to suburban development. The destructive nature of these large-scale developments immediately disrupts the ecosystems. Even after these developments are completed, they continue to destroy the adjacent environment in the wild-land urban interface due to human-caused wildfires, habitat fragmentation, enhancing invasive species migration, surface and groundwater pollution, soil erosion, and pesticide impacts on wildlife. Habitat Lost: Negative Effects of Suburban Sprawl on Ecosystems is a response to this uncontrolled ecological destruction.
INDENT
The work is comprised of large 20” x 30” black and white, digital, high contrast prints of the constructed environment. Furthering the dialogue of environmental loss from suburban development, small kallitype prints on fabric, encased in encaustic wax, of the lost wildlife and habitat, are hung in front of the large black and white images. This body of work relates both to western society’s desire to replace natural land and environments with contemporary construction and developments, as well as photography’s desire to replace the historical with the digital photographic prints.
INDENT
The environmental impacts from suburban developments are pervasive, widespread and not easily resolved. Changes to zoning requirements, community planning, and the use of infill development can provide short-term mitigation to the onslaught of environmental damage from rampant over-development. However, long-term preservation of biodiversity will require us to embrace the moral principles of ecocentric thought, accepting that all living things have intrinsic value and are interconnected. This conversion of ethical thought will not occur overnight, but failure to move in this direction will continue to adversely affect our ecological sustainability, leading to further disruption of habitats and the extinction of species.

Bombus californicus California bumble bee, 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Branta canadensis moffitti Great Basin Canada goose, 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Buteo swainsoni Swainson’s hawk (2), 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

California oak woodland savanna (1), 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Cygnus columbianus tundra swan, 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Eremocarpus setigerus turkey mullein, 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Erodium sp. stork’s bill, 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Sceloporus occidentalis western fence lizard (3), 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Trichostema lanceolatum vinegar weed (1), 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

Trichostema lanceolatum vinegar weed (2), 2018, Archival pigment ink / kallitype encaustic, ©Debra Small

 

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Debra Small is a fine art documentary photographer, based in Sacramento, California, whose work explores environmental issues. Her current body of work is a response to the wildlife and habitat loss from suburban development. She is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in photography from New Hampshire Institute of Art.

Artists, Scientists & Madmen: Giese & Tagg

Amy Theiss Giese / Nathanael Tagg

Artists, Scientists & Madmen

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 6], 2016, unique silver gelatin photograph, 9×11″

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 40], 2017, unique silver gelatin photograph, 11×11″

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 4], 2016, unique silver gelatin photograph, 14.25×15.75″

Rewriting John

Scientist, you love the world enough to activate
Johnny, the only begotten nurseryman robot.
Whosoever believeth in you may wonder
not only if Earth will have everlasting life,
not only if a deus ex machina is in order,
but also if the kingdom has already arrived

and how we ought to live accordingly,
even if Johnny will plant stratospheric sunlight-
deflecting particles, his head the hardest of pots,
and transplant machine trees that perfectly
swallow up the glut of atmospheric CO2.
Different gods and priests, similar questions.
Also, a little more artistry and persuasion,
and I could call a story like this the good news.


Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 10], 2016, unique silver gelatin photograph, 20×13.5″

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 15], 2017, unique silver gelatin photograph, 24×20″

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 24], 2017, unique silver gelatin photograph, 41.75×25.5″

Haldane’s Last Words

I’m called “the man who knows it all,”
but do I know myself? I ought
to have as little reverence
for myself as I’ve had for,
say, the God of theologians,
those who asked me what could be
deduced about the creator

from creation. “An inordinate fondness
for beetles” was my answer,
given nearly half a million species
of them exist. Forget my cleverness;
I won’t recite my verse on rectal cancer,
which is killing me. Da Vinci-esque,

I’ll make a list. 1. To learn, I drank
hydrochloric acid, was locked in rooms
with toxic air and stuck in chambers,
decompressed, then suffered
migraines and perforated eardrums

and shattered vertebrae. 2.
But I gave little thought to animal cruelty
in experiments and agriculture—
not a moment of non-speciesist
consideration to a pig that has a higher
IQ than some unfortunate kids. 3.

I wrote Darwinian books and papers.
Hundreds. 4. And yet I penned
a measly paragraph or two
on the kinship of animals and humans—
less on kinship’s connection to altruism.
5. I was deemed “the cleverest man”
who’d make a mathematical system,

then write a Shakespearean sonnet—
left and right faithfully married in my brain.
6. However, I coaxed a girl to leave
her spouse and marry me.
I almost lost my post at Cambridge
thanks to the scandal. 7. I initiated

modern scientific talk on altruism. 8.
And still, at times, I enjoyed the war—
enjoyed its tanks and bullets,
gas and trenches—so much so
my commander called me “the bravest,

dirtiest” soldier. 9. Pursuing justice,
empathizing with the destitute,
I was a socialist, who had the wit
to say that Britain and the US
adopting communism is as likely as hippos
doing somersaults and jumping hedges.

10. But then I deemed a mass-
murderer, Stalin, a “very great man
who did a very good job.” 11.
In the end, I met myself on my deathbed.
12. My abdomen relaxed, and after weeks
of weight loss and fatigue came
a jolt of strength. 13. Though waste

refused to leave my body, a list
had purged my soul of something worse.


Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 2], 2016, unique silver gelatin photography 7×8″

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 26], 2017, unique silver gelatin photograph, 20×16″ diptych

Untitled Chemical Painting [IC 9], 2016, unique silver gelatin photograph, 6.25×8.5″ diptych

Dragon Sturgeon

Wildfire is not supposed to reach their area,
yet she sees what look like many a solar flare.
To prevent her kids from noticing the fire,
she blindfolds her six-year-old son and four-
year-old daughter. “A game,” says the mother.
She unplugs her hardly charged electric car.
As they approach the interstate, her daughter

says, “What’s that smell? Are we going to Daddy?”
Her mother circumvents the flames by driving
off the road. Her son enjoys the bouncing—
giggles since he doesn’t see the lifeless deer.
Around its neck balloons are tied, beside
a family of trees, ablaze. The kids’ mom and dad
separated recently. A decade ago, he wanted

to live with his wife—but also with friends;
the bunch would share a house. She wanted to live
with just her spouse and (eventually) her kids,
within a couple hours from her whole
tight-knit family. But the couple followed school
and work across the country. Then their separate
wants arose again at a wedding reception,

at an aquarium with a tank of sturgeons, which
anyone with clean hands could touch.
One was black and bright-eyed like a dragon
capable of starting instant wildfires. It swam
alone, evading fingers dipped into the water.
Other sturgeons swam together and tolerated
being touched, and one, the slimiest ham actor,

let itself be touched on every lap around the tank.
She’s since heard of the future possibility
of head transplants. This morning, she dreamed
that every time the slimy sturgeon surfaced, it was
her son’s or husband’s head atop the fish’s body.
Every time the dragon sturgeon surfaced, it was
her daughter’s or her own head on the fish’s body.

Wedding guests had human parts below the neck;
above were various aquatic creature heads.
A game of words on blocks had come alive;
the blocks arranged themselves: “community,
friends as family, village to raise kids, wildfire!”
She woke and saw the flames in which her home
is now engulfed. Her kids remove their blindfolds.

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Amy Theiss Giese is a Boston based artist and educator. Giese received her MFA from Parsons School of Design and her BA from Amherst College. Giese’s work is rooted in materialism, exploring what the fundamental forces are for a given medium focusing on photographic and sound recordings of spaces and places.

Nathanael Tagg is the author of Animal Virtue (WordTech Editions, 2018) and an associate professor of English at Cecil College. He has an MFA from Rutgers. His poems and reviews are published or forthcoming in Colorado Review, Barrow Street, Pleiades, Confrontation, Cimarron Review, and other magazines.

Leopards: Sears

Stephanie V. Sears

Leopards in China: The wild card

Several years ago I embraced the cause of the Asiatic common leopard and as a freelance journalist I headed toward the northeastern region of Jilin in China which is, at present, the leopard’s best hope of survival in China. Unlike Patagonia, the Russian Altai or Costa Rica, China does not spring to mind as an ecologically friendly destination. Nor does one relate a large wide-ranging carnivore like Panthera pardus to the most populated country in the world, unless the animal is to be found cut up in parts for medicinal, decorative or sartorial purposes. Surprisingly, the big cat has survived in this heavily industrialized country, hostage to its vast human population and severe environmental problems. The survival of the leopard in China is a testimony to this cat’s remarkable ability to survive.
        The seven-hour fast-train ride from Beijing to Changchun, capital of Jilin Province, reveals a flat, irresolute landscape, never quite weaned from urban/industrial domination and its spoliation of nature. Agricultural strips alternate with ‘brown field’ zones. Beyond, in every direction, high-rise housing, ever in the process of going up, casts menacing Mordor-like shadows over the ‘countryside’. It reflects China’s on-going real-estate boom bolstered by the improved buying power and desire of the Chinese people to acquire private property.
        In this dismal panorama there are, however, signs of an ongoing change. With noticeable frequency, a number of ‘brown fields’ whizzing by the train rails have been or are in the process of being reforested.
        In Changchun I am greeted by a frosty wind and a toad-colored fog erasing the outlines of the city: a typical sandstorm that might be coming from any of the regions in North China subjected to aeolian desertification. The wind, mixing sand with industrial pollution, fills the air with particulate matter scientifically named PM10 (or if less than 25 micrometers: PM25). The risk of lung damage has become common throughout most of China. The hotel management hands me the type of surgical mask I’ve seen Chinese people wear frequently. Breathing has apparently not become easier since my last visit to the mainland sixteen years ago; during the drive from the airport to Shanghai’s center. I had then found myself gasping for oxygen whether the taxi windows were open or shut.
        Yet environmental concern in China has been brought to the fore. Not far from Changchun, in the best-preserved and most extensive forest in China, the government has recently officialized a 15000 square kilometer national park astride the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin adjoining Russia and North Korea.  The park will primarily benefit the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) and tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), allowing these big cats to circulate freely between Russia and China as double nationals. Wildlife enthusiasts wants to keep it wild, and an international collaboration such as this appears to be an ideal solution to increase the size of a protected area. Juxtaposition to the Russian ‘Land of the Leopard Park’ greatly improves the chances of survival for the endangered cats. Joint ecological action between countries also suggests something of a shared culture, which may contribute to improved overall cross-boundary relations. The area chosen to be the tiger and leopard park based on ten years of consistent camera–trapping, has confirmed the presence of forty-two leopards, (the gender ratio being seven to eight males for forty females).


A few days earlier, in Beijing, I met Dr. Feng Limin, Associate Professor at the Beijing Normal University, and directing force behind the research and monitoring of leopards in the northeast. With vivacity and driving optimism he seemed to embody what I have come to see as China’s capacity to do a quick turnabout from previous policies when deemed necessary.  I had derived from him a keen sense that conservation of the Sino-Russian Amur leopard was going to be a success.
        Collaboration between Russian and Chinese scientists has become normalized through a yearly workshop during which the more experienced Russians in matters of Amur leopard and Tiger research, act as guides to the Chinese researchers, who willingly acknowledge their beginner’s status regarding big cat conservation. Since the end of the twentieth-century efforts to increase and stabilize a leopard population in the region have led the Chinese government to take steps to preserve primary forest and return some farmland and grassland to woodland. As a result, forest land has increased by some 165,414 hectares, contributing to the region’s Green Great Wall plan against desertification and floods.
       Such radical changes in environmental policy, along with the plan to create 24 additional national parks throughout the country, signify that wildlife conservation has become a priority for the Chinese government, according to Aimin Wang, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society/(WCS) China. Beyond the focus on the northeastern leopard, a population that conservationists hope to see double by 2020, the policy shift will benefit other smaller leopard populations known in China. Though Dr. Wang admits that poaching and the manufacture of illicit medicinal products are not entirely eradicated from China, their slowdown has positioned China favorably compared to other Asian countries such as Thailand.
        The quality of protected areas determines whether conservation will be a success or a failure, specifies Dr. Kong of the Jilin Provincial Academy of Forestry Science. Ungulates in China thrive on Korean pine. Wild boar, Sika, and Red deer need oak. Their prospering ultimately benefits the leopards that prey on them. Other leopard prey such as the wild Gaur, will have to be reintroduced in China, or officially protected, like the oft-hunted Roe deer.  My faith in the new environmental measures taken by China meets with Dr. Kong’s more measured assessment of the future.  He wants things to move faster. The large tiger and leopard park is indeed a great step forward but only if preservation can be sustained. The necessary funds for the project, secured by way of the real-estate boom,  create a yin and yang dilemma where land is preserved thanks to money earned by wrecking nature elsewhere.  Indeed, one can only wonder how in a country of 1.4 billion people, (the statistic inexorably ticking upward), an enduring solution for wildlife can be found.  How, precisely, can building on land to shelter a relentlessly growing population guarantee the permanent conservation of land elsewhere in the country? How long can such a balancing act endure?
        Hunchun is three and a half hours away by train from Changchun and the panorama flashing by shows, this time, many seemingly untouched forest patches. Previously informed that Hunchun was small, I am expecting a village at the fringe of the forest.  In fact, it is a fast-growing town of broad avenues, inhabited by 200,000 people reliant primarily on its natural resources for income.  Still, a feeling of wilderness lingers nearby. Russia and North Korea are, respectively, twenty and forty kilometers away. With the Land of the leopard Park on the Russian side and the unknown of North Korea’s wildlife the leopard may have a real fighting chance here.


Ren Yi, director of WCS/Hunchun, drives me to the Nature Reserve of Hunchun established in 2001. While he and his colleagues verify the camera traps I look around at the type of habitat that leopard and tiger may be roaming through at this moment. It is the same kind of Manchurian forest I have seen on the Russian side: well-watered slim, tight woods, vividly green in this month of May. Sunlight plays a subtle hide and seek where one can easily imagine the spotted coat of the Amur leopard invisibly slipping by. Fourteen leopards in a 1000 square kilometer area have been camera-trapped here recently, against eight to eleven in 2012. The camera traps, typically placed in pairs facing each other, at 45-50 centimeters above ground, every three to four kilometers on average – have captured no leopard this time.  Perhaps this edge of the forest, regularly frequented by Hunchun locals, is not a leopard’s favorite haunt.
        Russian field scientists have taught their Chinese colleagues one of their tricks to get leopards in the camera frame:  a piece of aluminum foil is left on a log placed in front of the camera (leopards like to step on logs) so as to draw the cat’s attention. The cat then typically investigates the shiny object on the log and is photo-trapped. The anecdote encourages me to draw from my pocket a bottle of a famous men’s cologne that is reportedly used by feline specialists to attract big cats into view when in the field.  I spray it on neighboring tree trunks under the doubtful eye of my companions. But previous use on captive tigers and leopards has proved it to be irresistible.
        Is it utopian to hope that such idiosyncratic practices based on close animal observation, foretell a new quality of relationship with wildlife? One closer and more attentive to a wild animal’s individuality?
        Another consideration which, increasingly, must be concomitant with nature conservation, is human population size. How many people and how many wild animals can satisfactorily coexist, and for how long? Despite China’s outlawing of poaching, Ren Yi informs me that people gather pine nuts in the forest (thus competing for food with ungulates)  but also place traps to catch smaller animals, in which leopards occasionally get caught.  The urban limits of the expanding tri-lingual Hunchun are coming ever closer to the park boundaries. Destined to become a trade center for the three neighboring countries, (or four, including South Korea) Hunchun’s growth portends added pressure on the nature reserve.
        The Amur leopard population over-flowing from Russia into China does not constitute the only leopard presence in the country. The north Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), or ‘golden coin leopard’, a nickname alluding to darker rosettes, survives as a small group of some fifteen individuals on a small terraced area of the Taihang Mountains west of Beijing. Here, perhaps more so than elsewhere, one wonders how long they will resist the incursion of new roads and a highway linking this formerly isolated region to the rest of China.


Second only to the Amur leopards in terms of conservation priority is a surviving group of leopards in the northern Sichuan region of Ganzi, and possibly also in the south of the province, according to  wildlife cameraman and collaborator of WWF and The Nature Conservancy, Zang Ming. Though the animal’s presence has been known to local rural people for some time, its occurrence in this region comes as a general surprise to a country that, in the last decades, has been concentrated on modernizing and expanding its economy to the detriment of nature.
        Of the four common leopard species traditionally found, and hoped to be still found in China, this particular group, long isolated from other leopard species, would be either PP delacouri or PP fusca, according to Zang. Found living at high altitudes of 2500 to 4000 meters, the leopard has been caught on camera, sharing the same region of Qinghai, in northern Sichuan, with the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Such an overlap of common leopard with snow leopard has been found in other parts of the world. A plausible assumption, in this case, is that leopards have sought refuge from human encroachment at higher than normal altitudes, taking advantage of warmer temperatures and a higher tree line. Though mating may take place between the two species, the probability of offspring, is very low, in Zang’s opinion. But an increase in their population would make the existing territory insufficient, thereby exposing a characteristic dilemma in today’s wildlife preservation: where to put the added wildlife if conservation succeeds?
        The most effective solution to this problem, for both humans and wildlife, resides in creating a system of nature corridors. In view of the current modest number of leopards in the whole country, Zang thinks that such outlets would allow isolated leopard populations to grow without much risk of miscegenation with other leopard species.  No formal nature corridors exist between China and its fourteen international frontiers according to him, save for the new tiger and leopard Park linking up with the Russian Land of the Leopard Park.
        Elsewhere in the country leopard presence remains a mystery. No statistics are yet available indicating a total leopard number in China.  A map of sightings across China given in the report ‘The Current distribution and Status of leopards Panthera pardus in China’ published in October 2015 in Oryx-The International Journal of Conservation,  shows sporadic, unverified sightings near the south coast and confirmed sightings principally nearer to Nepalese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Russian and North Korean borders, along a northeast to west/southwest arc across China.  The map also shows how the historical leopard distribution,   once comprising some three-quarters of the country, has shrunk over the years.
        The Wakhan corridor between Afghanistan and China, a sparsely populated area, with little road traffic culminating at 4923 meters, and Vietnam’s Golgong mountains near the Chinese border may serve as effective though informal corridors for wildlife. The main obstacle to the creation of nature corridors is widespread and dense urbanization. Even if the solitary and evanescent leopard, unbeknownst to the human eye, manages to cross frontiers, official trans-national corridors would bolster China’s planned park system and on-going efforts to preserve and reconstitute its wildlife. If leopard numbers in China continue to rise, corridors will improve the chances of avoiding human/leopard conflicts as presently witnessed in India due to human density and urban sprawl. 


Zang Ming gave up his work at a large Chinese bank to become a naturalist and cameraman. Both he and his friend and colleague Luo Nei Qian personify a new Chinese passion and concern for national wildlife. This outspoken concern from the country’s people is in part responsible for putting pressure on the State to prioritize nature preservation and take strong measures to improve the environment. Yet the question remains: will those measures be sufficient to allow for the sustainable survival of the big cat?
        With 19% of the world’s population, China is a microcosm of what the whole world is about to face in its efforts to conserve wildlife. Reality compels us to ask a few unsettling questions: Can we honestly speak of saving wildlife while we, as a species continue to multiply in overwhelming numbers that continue to intrude upon remaining wild habitat? Is human expansion and interference with nature a moral right? Before answering such questions, let us first consider some facts. Only two hundred years ago, we, as a species, represented a mere 10-12% of the earth’s total mammal mass.  We now monopolize 96% to 98% of that mass, the rest of living mammals representing therefore a mere 4% to 2% according to an article by Russell McLendon in Mother Nature Network of October 2016: ‘11 startling statistics about earth’s disappearing wildlife’. According to the same article, over 3000 animal species are now considered critically endangered and a 58% decline in wild vertebrates since 1970 may reach 67% by 2020. An estimated 240 acres of wilderness are destroyed every hour according to Kelvin Thompson in his study ‘The impact of population growth on wildlife’ published in 2011 by Population Media Center. The statistical arc of human population growth fits neatly over the statistical arc of animal extinction. The prognosis for the world’s human population by 2030 is 8.5 billion, 9.7 billion by 2050.
        China had a 1.3 billion population in 2008 on the basis of a one child policy begun in 1979 but which encountered some opposition. Since 2015 the one child policy has been abandoned to guard against an aging population, and possibly in reaction to accusations of ethics abuses. Consequently, birthrate increased by 7.9% in 2016, a rate inferior to what the government was hoping for, yet nonetheless leading to an expected population of 1.42 billion by 2020.
        Despite global and heightened environmental awareness, such statistics imply that   wildlife remains secondary to what we consider to be our innate precedence. When human and wildlife conflicts occur, as they do increasingly in buffer areas, communal woods, suburban and urban zones, they are often seen to be caused by the ‘bad behavior’ or illicit presence of the wild animal. For the survivalist leopard this has become frequent in India where they are removed and relocated, or killed, sometimes in cruel circumstances.
        The anthropocentric spirituality of the West and Middle East gives man priority over the animal and though man is instructed to be a compassionate steward of nature he is by the same token encouraged to dominate the rest of creation. It was not always the case in the West. The Greek mathematician and vegetarian Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls and in equality between man and animal, and such thinking converged with Eastern philosophy and with more ancient beliefs such as animism, Celtic or East Asian. ‘Chinese Folk religion’, referring to an aggregate of ancient animism and Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, was made official in China at the turn of this century.  After a previous attempt to condemn it as superstition, the syncretic religion was defined as ‘intangible heritage’ and now rallies some 80% of Chinese people across the world.  It could well serve as a foundation for less destructive and more harmonious relations with wildlife in China.


 In fact, Chinese tradition has long established character and status equivalences between animals and men. The leopard was the emblem (hsiang) of fierce bravery in battle, worn as a badge by military officials of third rank. Also, associated with the magpie, the leopard (and the tiger) was a symbol of good luck.
        In the West, in the wake of Pythagoras and later of Saint Francis of Assisi, the seeds of a change of attitude within Christianity were sown, and developed by the eighteenth-nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bertham for whom an animal’s evident capacity to suffer was proof of his ethical equality to a human being. In 1824 this type of thinking became formal with Arthur Broome’s creation of the SPCA in England (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and later, in 1980, with PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals). Animal rights have since been further advanced by the likes of Peter Singer, Australian author of ‘Animal liberation’ (1975), the American philosopher Tom Regan, author of ‘The case for animal rights’(2004) and by Andrew Linzey, British theologian and founder of ‘The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics’. Such a philosophical evolution allied to scientific progress in wildlife preservation, seem, gradually, to bring us closer to our ideal of the garden of Eden in which all species live in mutual harmony.
        For their part, some animals like moose, puma, bear, coyote, leopard and many others, seem to have already taken steps in that direction by adapting to suburban and urban areas. But what, one might wonder, can these animals ‘think’ of their new environment, when straying near an airport or into the subway of a big city?  Has adaptation to a human way of life begun to make wild animals less than wild, or ‘semi-wild’ as Monika Fiby notes in ‘The future of wild animals’(2012 Zoolex.org)? The very idea that tigers in some areas are already semi-wild through frequent contact with humans is a repulsive one; not only from a deontological point of view of an animal’s right to his natural surroundings, but also from a deeply aesthetic, and, admittedly, human point of view. Adaptation to human proximity eventually leads to physical changes in a wild animal: a loss of sexual dimorphism, a reduction of tooth and brain size, a slower development from infancy to adulthood….Is it ultimately to our advantage to reduce an elusive predator like the common leopard (or any big cat for that matter) to the status of an alley cat haunting our suburbs? From a climatic and immunological point of view, it is now well established that the greater the biodiversity around us the better humans fare.
        Yet it is perhaps the more intangible cultural attributes we confer on nature and its most beautiful and secretive inhabitants, such as the leopard, that are most crucial to us and capable of filling a human existential void. The leopard has long enchanted our nature with essential notions of freedom, beauty, and mystery. I, myself, have walked in forests where big cats still roam and the unparalleled thrill is akin to walking through a fairytale. Therefore, it is perhaps the stealthy presence and unhampered wandering of the leopard that will contribute to China ’s recovery from an overwrought anthropocentric environment, elevating the feline once more to his status of living symbol in China; but this time he will symbolize China’s capacity for self-reassessment and perseverance in regaining the full splendor of its culture.

 


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Stephanie V. Sears is a French and American ethnologist, free-lance journalist and essayist who has previously been published, on the subject of nature conservation and wildlife, in E, The Environmental Magazine, Insula(UNESCO), CerisePress, The Montreal Review, Wildlifeextra, Zoomorphic.

Image provided by daddyboskeazy is a derivative of leopard_print_background used under CC BY 2.0.

Connections: Gaines and Cohen

Alison Gaines / Brian D. Cohen

Apology Ritual

The evening begins with the rain
clearing its throat: I’m sorry, I waited
as long as I could. Retreating
from every windowsill and bicycle spoke,
the lizards shy under leaves.
The wasps pause their nest
construction, carry it to an unpeopled
place, still sorry for what happened
last week on the porch. The palmettos
have whacked enough faces on the road,
and now lean away from it.
In the house, there’s you,
adding today’s infractions—
bicycle knocked over,
sharp pencil dropped,
thing said too loud
or too soon—to yesterday’s,
another layer under which
you will not sleep.

Nest, Etching 5″ x 5″, 2015 © Brian D. Cohen

Galaxy, Etching 5″ x 5″, 2014 © Brian D. Cohen


Nostalgia Moon, Relief Etching 5″ x 4″, 2010© Brian D. Cohen

Waved Albatross

They fish for weeks at sea, hardly moving
a wing, then stumble on land, risk breaking
a leg in touching down to the cliff. They lay
one pointy egg on the rocky, sinking island.
Coleridge hung on them the idea that they
must hang on us, a yoke, a new way to feel
sorry for ourselves. Eight feet in wingspan
but only a few pounds, one begins helpless,
a bundle of brown shag carpeting, left
for all those weeks of fishing. Then they fledge
and move from one era of solitude
to another, years before returning.
I envy those dark eyes and their long sight.
These birds are terrifying. They mate for life.


Gray Whale

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light …
            W.S. Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction”

To be born at the surface
drinking 53% milkfat

Held up by mother
on her belly or back

in case of orcas
or something else with teeth

To migrate up and down a coast
one’s whole life

close to the surface
where light ripples ancient skin

To sleep there. To give birth
every two years or so

year-long gestations
ending shallow and warm

To abstain from feeding
during migration

To feed by pushing along the floor
on one’s right side

making a cloud of sand
and spitting out the mud

How large, how slow
What to make

of the curve of the mouth
the expressionless eye

Ask their secret
They seem like creatures with secrets

They would probably tell us not to worry
not to feel bad

their medium being water, we think
not the future or last weekend

Whale, Etching 5″ x 5″, 2014© Brian D. Cohen

Ailing Moon, Relief Etching 6″ x 6″, 2011 © Brian D. Cohen

Snail, Etching 5″ x 5″, 2015 © Brian D. Cohen

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Alison Gaines studies poetry at the University of Florida. She is originally from Vancouver, Washington and has a BA from Knox College. She has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as an MFA scholar, and written several textbooks for young readers. Her poems have appeared in Sweet Tree Review.

Brian D. Cohen is a printmaker, painter, writer, and educator. He founded Bridge Press, publisher of limited edition artist’s books and etchings, in 1989. Brian has exhibited in forty individual exhibitions and in over 200 group shows, and his work is held by private and public collections throughout the country.

 

Raina Sciocchetti: Ants Like Us

©Genlyne Fiske White

Raina Sciocchetti

Ants Like Us

I

        Like an ant quivering on the edge of a table before scurrying away, I stand, relying on two crampon points and the tip of my ice axe to anchor me to the icy slope. Inches from my right boot, a threatening crevasse snakes down the glacier, revealing cavernous blue depths. Beside me, the gap is not more than twenty-four inches, but the entire glacier is a forbidding patchwork of fractures. I stare at thousands of tons of dynamic ice, unable to muster the nerve to navigate the uncomfortably broad step over the abyss. I am strongly inclined to turn around and scamper away, but I’m effectively attached to the glacier, the last teammate of five spread along the length of a rope, waiting unsteadily while our leader buries an anchor into the ice in case anyone is to slip.
        Frozen by my fear of falling and failing, I am reduced to a small, terribly unworthy opponent of the glacier. The ice creaks and shifts, producing an ominous growl. My calm is as precarious as my position, and I start crying, terrified, trapped in a personal hell on the cold, hard glacier. I stay there for a moment that stretches longer than my early morning shadow before I step, convinced I’m about to find myself an unwilling participant in a crevasse rescue lesson, dangling far below the daylight in the narrow, unnervingly blue slot and crying until (and likely after) rescue. Over the course of the climb, I’ve shrunk from a slightly below average sized human to an infinitesimally small, exceedingly insignificant ant now trembling on the frictionless surface of a disquieting landscape.


II

        Perched on a couch back at home, I feel something crawling on me. I catalog speedy little legs and unknown size and purpose. Alarmed, I aggressively swat for the threat, imagining a spider, tick, centipede, tarantula. Predictably, it’s just an ant, one of ten quadrillion members of the ant race alive on Earth at any given moment.
        “It’s just an ant,” says everyone, everywhere. Ants are biters, stingers, predators, destroyers of crops, and eaters of houses. Industriousness and the ability to carry over fifty times their bodyweight constitute a dangerously insufficient evaluation of these underestimated creatures. Ants developed systematic agriculture millions of years before humans, cultivating crops, managing herds of aphids, and fiercely defending farms against pests and molds. Possessing outrageously keen senses of smell, ants are able to detect minute particles from several meters away and identify minor chemical changes in other creatures. Driver ants swarm animals one thousand times their size, bullet ants render their human victims to a reported state of wanting to lay down and die with the most powerful sting of any insects, and leafcutter ants tear up living vegetation and effectively compost the leaves to raise fungus.
        Over 12,000 species of resilient super-sniffers inhabit this Earth, organized into complex social colonies characterized by advanced communication and systematized lifestyle. Like ants, people aggressively protect, expand, and obliterate, relying on physical faculties and self-established superiority to perpetuate the notion that humanity is permanently and exponentially bigger than any other species. As the total biomass of ants is greater than that of humans, perhaps we should be less dismissive of these fellow animals.


III

        E.O. Wilson, biologist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and renowned expert on anything ant, uses ants to study the evolution of social behavior. His repeated thesis: humans are like ants.
        Ants are an exceptionally eusocial species, defined by their highly organized society founded upon individual sacrifice for the greater wellbeing of the group. Wilson considers the forces of social evolution revealed by ant colonies highly applicable to humans and argues that eusociality is what enabled humans to prevail as the dominating species of the world. Just as humans are supported by the collective nature of civilization, individual ants survive because of the social structure of their incredibly refined colonies, characterized by communication, organization, smell, farming, maintenance, social roles, and practically civilized lifestyles. Although ants are by no means miniature humans and the eusociality of humans was developed differently, intertwined with other aspects of humanity such as higher intellect, complex emotions, sense of free will, and advantageous anatomy, ants and humans both alter their environments like no other living species. Humans can do many things that ants cannot, on a literal level, but both rule their respective worlds.


IV

        The comparison of myself to an ant is a subject of ongoing consideration.
        Ant identity is suggested soon after when articulating the trauma of crawling across glaciers to my best friend, she compares me to an ant. “Ants are strong little things,” she tells me, “And always running.” I protest the comparison, profiling my character with even less mercy than the adversary glacier: weak, unskilled, helpless, frantic, tearful, fearful. I survived the ambitious step across the crevasse by way of miracle; I accomplished the rest of the climb only because every other glacier was comfortably snow covered which ensured that I never again saw a crevasse glowering at me before it swallowed.
        “Do you display agricultural tendencies?” my friend asks helpfully.
        “NO.”
        “Well, some ants do, so I thought I’d check.”
        Although any comparison between humans and ants must allow for variation within either species, if I’m brave enough to possess the inclination to be challenged, it manifests in painful, ambitious projects involving dry glaciers and consequent suffering.
        “I’m NOT an ant,” I protest for the second or fifth time.
        “But you are pretty short.”



V

        Although small and (usually) easily squished, ants are characterized by their resilience and ability to survive extreme adversity.
        In this regard, I feel significantly less than worthy of ant status. A charging dog, a slip into glacial innards, a centipede, a risk, a failure leave me paralyzed or fleeing. Fear aggressively invades my mind, seizing my thoughts in a grip of iron, smashing, melting, and warping logic into a new shape. I point out the glacier as the site of my greatest chicken impersonation, citing my display of hysterics and denial of rational survival skills as clear evidence that I should assume a mascot clearly more resembling of my character. Biologically, some degree of fear is critical for survival as a vital response to danger, so chickens demonstrate not only fright but also admirable survival instinct as they run directly into hazards in their frantic attempts to seek safety. My best friend protests with simple but faulty rationale: “No, you can’t be a chicken, because you’re an ant.” At this stage in the ant discussion, ant has become my nickname, and hers as well, and we strive for an advanced strength of will associated with ants. Yet any level of ant-ness I maintain, fear is my frequent companion and I naturally flutter away from hypothetical threats.
        Chickens are renowned eaters of ants, but many red ants, particularly fiery in taste and in nature, will win. If ants froze and stared at every threat like I do on unstable ice, they’d die so much faster.


VI

        Carpenter ants scurry in a continuous line on the precariously thin edge of the sink, carrying small particles of food and house in an efficient line of production. The ants are not only cleaning the kitchen counters but also slowly nibbling away at the structure of my grandfather’s house. When I was little, present adults would advise that we execute the ants upon sighting. Now, an established vegetarian and general ant sympathizer, I only remove the ants like unpalatable raisins dotting my toast or cereal and pretend not to notice the larger insects parading past me, flaunting chunks of the walls.
        The ants thrive while the house deteriorates into a marginally smaller, messier, emptier construction representative of cumulative neglect. Neither humans nor ants are infinite in quantity nor lifespan, but both populations reach towards the same sense of perpetuity, creating and destroying complicated structures and systems infinitely larger than themselves and altering the natural environment on different but nevertheless impressively exhausting levels. Numerous and busy, the determined little creatures impact their environments and regularly survive.
        Most of us live like worker ants, conducting short lives, ranging, for the most part, only short distances from our homes but impacting much larger areas. We’re small and busy, afraid and brave, tiny and consequential against the immense geography that is the world.


       VII

        My list of fears is finite, but not permanent.
        When Ant and I were smaller, we imitated the courageous journeys of ants by flouncing back and forth for hours on a seven-foot tall fence swinging brooms like batons singing fourteen versions of “The ants are marching one by one, hoorah, hoorah…” We astonished passersby and entertained ourselves, not remotely afraid of our reputation or the potential drop. Eight years later, on the steep shore of a lake buried in the wilderness, I’m boldly navigating through boulders and ice when I tumble down a steep snowfield nearly into the water. I drag myself to a halt, fingers dug into the icy slope; I lie on the snow under the rapidly liquefying sky, a foolish, brave, tiny speck of an ant.
        Although we’re no longer brandishing cleaning instruments, we’re still emulating ants, now elevated by our pursuit of ant qualities, growing ant-aided confidence, and dare I say it, occasional ant-boosted success. We’re mildly crippled ants, ever stumbling, but intent on pursuing our ant dreams.


VIII

        Ant and I discuss the merits of working toward more definite (braver) ant status.
        There is a proverb: If you do not smash an ant, it is impossible for you to find its guts. Every day, ants are stomped and spared without thought. The question is not if smashing will occur but how much damage will ensue. Ant imitation is an effort to crush insecurity, functioning as a lens through which to be forcefully pressured but not fatally squished, fiery but functional, uneaten and still flying.
        Ant and I remind ourselves of our ant strength daily and arrogantly define our ant-ness as exclusive. “Infinite ant power,” Ant says, and I echo the refrain. We quantify our total friend counts, cruelly, in decimals, but assign each other infinity as a numerical value. It’s impossible, but we’re already impossibly ants.
There are no ants like us. Most are smaller.

 

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Raina Sciocchetti is an aspiring writer from Northern California. She is an Environmental Writing and Media Studies Major at Unity College.