Poetry: Langfur & Riff

Charlene Langfur / Paula Riff

 

©Paula Riff, “Ginkgo’s Folly,” from the series Shibui, 16×10”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 


 

Trying to Do The Right Thing Even When It Doesn’t Matter

My 13 pound honey colored dog and I are out walking
under the blood colored moon in the middle of summer,
under the ashes from the fire in Cranston.
Today the fire is on the other side of the mountains in 119 degrees
and this is the way of it now for those of us here near the old oasis,
troubles and omens around us, I call them signs and move on
but they are everywhere I look, past the fat old palm trees,
trees overwhelmed with their own fronds, burgeoning leaves, carrying
weight, trees trying to stick to a life plan, and we walk past the scrub pine,
and wild yucca in near bloom, whatever made it through the hottest
most humid of summers, here where life continues as if no change
is actually taking place in the world, as if no shifting to solar and low water use
is an imperative, nor focusing  on what is needed most in order to make it through to what is
we know we need in the future. We walk easy along the sand, a familiar sand path along
the canyon’s edge, each of us breathing in the darkening air as if it is easy
to react to what is around us, and we do our best to adapt to a new world.
I am of the mind to help with the earth changes around us. It is because
of the way I am, trying no matter what the odds. As I walk I plan
for low water gardens, calendula, aloe, planting a sweet orange nasturtium bed,
colors to enchant the heart when nothing else will, a plan to plant seeds to grow herbs
and flowers and to save the seeds for next year, for dreams and succulence.
Later I think we can walk through all the heat wave’s bad air
to the other side of it as if there is a door, past the wild air of trouble around us
which seems to have no end. Talk in Washington is we do not have the resources
to change what is happening, no money to help humans and animals.
But money is piling up, monopoly style, higher and higher. Green paper, gold bricks,
all that. This tender we use to represent our real needs in life.
My dog and I move on, speed up a little, waiting for what comes next.
The fire finally to be put out, or the air to turn even poorer. Tomorrow
we will pile all our recycling in the car to bring to the recycling plant
and we’ll buy up more seeds to plant for the next season. Planning to give back
and live with less. We head home, any way that works, here in the same world
we were both born to, with its earth and water and here where we think we can keep it safe
by changing our ways to plan for whatever comes next. We know how to make it home,
walking hard, reaching out far as we can until we catch hold
turn the key in the door, make it all right again for one more day. 

©Paula Riff, “Snapped & Crackled,” from the series Shibui, 8×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

©Paula Riff, “Indigo Dreams,” from the series Shibui, 16×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018


 

©Paula Riff, “Because of Sunflowers,” from the series Shibui, 8×20”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

Signs of Life

What survives the big summer heat in the desert always catches my eyes.
It’s easier to see the gains and losses here than everywhere else,
here where there are endless stretches of sand and the lavender survives at 117 degrees.
I am not sure how it does it but I see how what survives encourages me to thrive along
with it as if we are all part of the same life force. I see the plants grow, with such insistence
in spite of everything, taking what they need and letting everything else go.
Today I feel my life feels stronger as I am able to hold up against the force of the heat.
The rabbits bolting from behind the mesquite, I watch them carefully to keep them in my sight,
movement from out of complete stillness. All at once they disappear in thin air and never look back.
I see how fragile we all are here, here where the giant century plant takes 20 years to grow
and poachers bleed them dry to make the littlest bit of tequila. Here where the moon rises
over the mountains as if perfectly timed. I see how what grows here tells us more
about our future than we may want to know, how our government turns a blind eye to it all,
ignoring advances in solar, wind, anything that works to save what we have now for the years ahead.
Here in the desert it’s easy to see the advances needed. See what we need to do next.
This morning the cactus was in bloom, a single flower reaching out on a single stem
of its own, only inches in diameter, lotus like, full blooming with crème colored jewels,
a near impossible sight, I think, rare, miraculous, something from nothing even in times like these.

 


 

A Simple Life with What is Here

Today my plants became a way of life
for me. Transplanting the lavender takes time.
$3.00 on sale a Home Depot. Can you imagine
my good fortune? I dig up the dirt from an unused lot
and carry it home. A shovel full at a time.
Set the plant on top of the dirt with a half inch
to spare on the sides of the plant’s roots. Room to grow.
A rule of thumb for a job like this. Getting the room
it needs exactly right matters. And picking off the old growth to lighten
it up. I can smell the lavender on my hands and arms
as I work through the delicate leaves to thin them out.
And when the plants grow I know I will feel richer, protected.
Already I see how the plant takes to the pot quickly, how it settles in,
protecting itself, how the leaves are a sweet green, and I am sure
the healing color will help me live as the plant grows. That is how full life
starts here. From branch to root, everything I’ve put to a new life
more than I know.

©Paula Riff, “Beneath Her Feet,” from the series Shibui, 11×15”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 


 

 

©Paula Riff, “Night Garden,” from the series Shibui, 11×15”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

 

©Paula Riff, “Day Glo,” from the series Shibui, 16×20”, Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

Catching After the Light

The heart takes me to where I feel at my best today,
helps me find a way for me to connect to a human place,

a path for me to follow when there is no other way

find a few words for what runs too deep for me to describe,
a simple way out,
a way for the 10,000 thoughts
the mind comes up with every day, to take me where I want to go,
thoughts that help keep me afloat

thoughts about saving what we have, gathering small seeds
getting ready for another season, tending the aloe plants for healing,

especially the soft, nubile ones,
take to what is around me in the dirt to help me start over no matter how much
I want to stick with the past and not move ahead,
I push forward on solid ground, gather what works,
the morning coffee, sweet red strawberries

looking for a path with patience to it,
today I’ve spent a good part of the day watching the road runner
idling on the back porch, the opal feathers glistening in the sun,

and the purple headed lizard
watching me from behind a rock and running off when
the time is right. It knows the exact moment to take off.
I feel better with them, the small animals
and the path we were on together, waiting for the earth to lighten up again

as if there is more to all our connections than we know in our bones,
staying true, sleeping long, catching after the light

one day another night until we know exactly how
to do it again and then again until it works.

 


 

©Paula Riff, “River Wild,” from the series Shibui, 16×10”, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Print, 2018

00

 

Charlene Langfur is an organic gardener, a rescued dog advocate, a Syracuse University Graduate Writing Fellow. Her poems are about the environment and how we all need to make changes. Her most recent publication is in Still Point Arts Quarterly, called “Chasing Home.”

Paula Riff creates cameraless images using the processes of cyanotype and color gum bichromate as a way to physically interact with the natural world as an artist.  She cuts the paper at various intersections which allows her to enter the conversation with the images in a very intimate way. Her intention is to strip away as much as possible so that she can focus more on the elements of design and consider elements of nature in a different way.

Shibui. The Japanese word shibui refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty and it is this concept that reflects the spirit of this series, Shibui.  An object of art that employs these characteristics may at first appear to be simple, but upon closer inspection the subtle details and textures balance that simplicity with a rich complexity.

(Dis)place: Lyons and Lampton

Bridget A. Lyons/ Adam Lampton

Home on the Wing

When I blow out my birthday candles or find a fallen eyelash, I wish for a home. Some people in their forties may have outgrown this childhood superstition, but I feel like I need to hang on to anything that gives me hope—like the butterflies I’ve come to envy, who band together in clusters several thousand strong.
A boardwalk leads to their favorite gathering place. Unlike the more famous boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, this one is quiet, shady, and secluded. It winds through a thick grove of trees where sunlight intermittently penetrates the foliage, allowing for the identification of a eucalyptus, a laurel, or a bay. Their greens are muted—dark sage, dusky olive, frosted pine—and the leaves themselves are thick and waxy, built to survive California’s dry summers. Frogs sing from their hiding spots in the swamp below, laying a melody over the irregular beat of footsteps on the wooden planks. And then there is the richly layered landscape of smell. It is a potpourri of the sweet and spicy eucalyptus magic that tickles the nose, a combination of the earthy odor of the swamp’s decomposing biomass and the pungent salt air that wafts in from the ocean, just a quarter of a mile away.
They are just around the corner, at the boardwalk’s end—thousands of them. Danaus plexippus, monarch butterflies. If it’s warm enough—fifty-five degrees and above—the air is thick with flight. Flashes of orange and black dash, dart, jerk, and jitterbug in every direction at every visible elevation. While the flying ones are most obvious, there are others, hovering as they drink from puddles between the tree trunks or wet patches on the planks. There are motionless ones too, resting on branches—right-side-up and upside-down, at every angle. And, unless the day is very warm, many of them are still clinging to one another, collectively hanging in clumps, resting in warmth and safety.
Once I located their winter hangout, visiting these migratory insects became part of my daily life. Their movements—flutters, dips, dives, and swoops—convinced me that insects must feel joy because joy is what I experienced while watching them. I also found myself admiring their community-oriented approach to survival; their clustering behavior protected the many at the expense of just a few.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

 

Before my last move, I had made a list of what I wanted in a new hometown—access to open space, a good swimming pool, regular farmers’ markets, progressive values. Santa Cruz fit the bill. I tested the waters with a month-long sublet, and, when I didn’t want to leave, I signed a one-year lease for an apartment down the street. It was a two-room back portion of a 1911 house with a kitchenette tucked into a former bedroom closet and a stained-glass window embedded in the front door. I spent sizeable chunks of my days in there, editing documents and assembling newsletters for my clients, occasionally looking up from my computer to observe the pattern of daily life in my little neighborhood, Beach Hill.
I made a habit of walking every day, always starting under the neighbor’s ginkgo tree with its exotic-looking leaves—the ones carved in the shape of Ginsu knives. Just beyond it were a couple of bush-sized jade plants and a twenty-foot long rosemary hedge. I marveled at both of them, having grown up in New Jersey where jades live indoors in small plastic pots and rosemary is confined to glass bottles on the spice rack. At the end of the block, I’d turn and cut through the parking lot of the Art Deco motel, heading downhill past the bowling alley to the Boardwalk—the famous one, with the historic carousel and rickety wooden roller coaster. Eventually, I’d make my way out onto the beach, stopping at the water’s edge to look for sea lions or otters.
When I walked in the morning, there were often people sleeping in the sand up above the tide line. Wrapped in sleeping bags with shopping carts next to them, they stayed huddled until the fog burned off and the sun warmed them into motion. Sometimes that process was accelerated by the Boardwalk employees cleaning up trash or the police shaking them awake and announcing that camping is illegal on all city beaches. Then they’d gather their belongings and head towards the park benches by the bathrooms or the green space next to the river.
When I was considering Santa Cruz as my next place to live, several people intimated that the “homeless situation” should scare me away. It didn’t; in fact, it drew me in. I had spent the majority of my adulthood living in ski towns and guiding in wilderness areas. There were no street or van dwellers there. I had begun to forget that hundreds of thousands of people in our country lack safe, warm, and regular places to spend their nights. I knew that acknowledging the problem did nothing to solve it, but avoiding it certainly didn’t help.
Beach Hill is situated right in the middle of three areas some locals call “ground zeroes” or “zombie zones.” One of these is the Main Beach, the huge expanse of sand in front of the Boardwalk. Another is Lower Pacific Avenue, an area to the north of my old apartment, down the outdoor staircase. I walked those blocks almost daily, and, on my way, I passed the Taco Bell where men and their Chariot baby strollers filled with pillows and sweatshirts commonly congregated, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. Sometimes they asked me for spare change, and sometimes I gave it to them. Other times, I said hello and smiled, starting a friendly but short conversation. But, still other times, I kept my gaze to the ground, trying to avoid provoking a man who appeared to be yelling at no one in particular.
To the east of Beach Hill lies the San Lorenzo River, a waterway which flows into the Pacific Ocean on the far side of the Boardwalk. Above it sits an asphalt pathway, ideal for crossing town on foot or bicycle. When I ran there in the mornings, groups of three to ten people would be sleeping under the protection of the bridges, hiding from the overnight fog or winter rains. Later in the day, I would weave a route through clusters of younger homeless folks. Their pit bulls scared me, with their bony heads, stocky bodies, and sharp, raspy growls, and the cloud of marijuana smoke was often suffocating. I never stopped to talk in those spots; I just slipped through the crowd, trying to make myself invisible.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

“Everyone’s from somewhere,” I always hear. I suppose that’s true, in the sense that we’ve all got city names on our birth certificates, and most of us can identify the hospitals or houses we kicked and screamed our way into. But I’m not sure that these cities and towns are where we’re actually from. I think that our concept of home is more complicated, that it has something to do with our connections to particular ecosystems, particular copses of trees, patches of beach, city blocks, or even highway vista points—places where we feel settled and grounded, places where we are who we think we are and who we know we should be.
Of course, it’s possible my opinion about personal provenance is rooted in the fact that I’m hesitant to own up to my New Jersey roots. Even though I spent eighteen years in a roomy colonial house on a cul-de-sac, I was never really comfortable there. The topography was bland—no big hills or mountains to help me position myself in space, no ocean to remind me of my relative size. And, the all-too-visible march of economic progress began to depress me as soon as I was old enough to understand it. I watched New York City’s urban sprawl steadily creep towards my hometown, engulfing the few patches of wetlands and open space that remained. By the time I left, the parcel of woods just beyond our dead-end street had been chopped down to make room for McMansions. It was no longer a “dead” end; it had come to life with in-ground pools, leaf-blower armadas, and professional dog walkers.
When I was old enough to pack up a no-frills Mazda pick-up truck and head out on my own, I began to search for my place. I knew where it wasn’t, but I had no idea where it was. Between then and now, I’ve found shelter in several Rocky Mountain towns, a southern Chilean city, and an off-the-grid Mexican educational facility, as well as in the myriad backcountry campsites I occupied while working as an outdoor educator. Santa Cruz was my latest stable sleeping site—until recently, anyway. I moved away a year ago.
The last time I was asked, I said I was from Santa Cruz, although I’m not quite sure that’s true.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

The butterflies that hang out in Santa Cruz are from somewhere. In some ways, they’re from Santa Cruz; after all, it is where the species returns to, winter after winter. When the world gets cold and dark, this is where the monarchs hole up. Home, to many, is where you go when things get hard.
But if where you’re from is where you were born, these insects are from fields and farms stretching from California’s Central Valley all the way to the crest of the Rockies. In those spaces, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants which not only host the tiny eggs for their week-long gestation but also offer the creatures a potent natural defense: milkweed sap is poisonous to most vertebrates. When butterfly larvae hatch, they immediately begin chomping on the leaves that housed them. The toxicity of their food becomes part of who they are and protects them for the rest of their short lives.
Milkweed is not as widely distributed as it once was. Chemicals like Roundup, which are broadly applied to fields planted with herbicide-resistant GMO crops, have nearly eradicated milkweed from commercial agricultural land. At the same time, development transforms vacant lots and farms into more human housing every day—especially in places like California’s Silicon Valley.
Monarch-friendly residents in Santa Cruz, in their attempts to compensate for the dearth of milkweed in nearby inland communities like San Jose and Palo Alto, have begun to cultivate the plant in their backyards. It’s a thoughtful gesture, but Santa Cruz is not milkweed’s place. In the coastal climate, milkweed frequently hosts a protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), that appears to have coevolved with its butterfly host. Pupae infected with OE exhibit uneven dark splotches that are visible through their casings. If those insects don’t die before they emerge, they will be too weak to migrate once they do. Since their ability to reproduce is not affected, infected butterflies typically pass their OE spores onto their offspring, perpetuating the condition.
In addition to the threat of OE, the presence of backyard milkweed in Santa Cruz allows monarchs to stay in town all year, completely fouling up their complex multi-generational migration cycle. They’re meant to be snowbirds, not permanent residents.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

Santa Cruz’s homeless are from somewhere too; but, I don’t ask them where. I don’t know how to ask, or when. Most days, I could barely make eye contact with the woman in the pink velour running suit who talks to herself, much less figure out how to start up a conversation with her about her roots.
I’m not sure where my hesitation comes from; I just know that it feels like paralysis. I felt sick knowing that she’d been sleeping on a tarp under the footbridge. But, when I thought about offering her a spot on the couch in my heated apartment, I felt scared and uncomfortable, wondering if it would be safe to have a stranger—any stranger—in my space. If she asked me for money, my conscience turned into a battleground for the arguments I’ve heard: “Handouts enable our broken system; give the money to a support agency instead” and “If you have the money, why wouldn’t you give it to them?” Neither line of reasoning has ever satisfied me. For a while, I bought extra food on my downtown grocery store runs and gave that out in place of dollar bills. One winter day, when the woman had a plastic Hefty bag draped over her pink velour, I offered her a turkey wrap. She slapped my hand and said, “Whaddya think, I need your unwanted food?” My gaze dropped back to the ground, and I slunk away, feeling ashamed of my full bag of groceries, the apartment key in my pocket, and the family I knew I could call if things got really bad.
Last fall, just after I moved, Santa Cruz decided to establish a homeless camp on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River, in a spot people refer to as “the benchlands.” Police Chief Andy Mills declared a renewed effort to clean up the downtown area by prohibiting shopping carts—a curious law that happens to effectively displace much of the homeless population. At the same time, the chief openly acknowledged that a series of recent California court decisions, by upholding people’s “right to sleep,” have required cities to create enough overnight facilities to house their residents. Santa Cruz has fewer than 180 shelter beds and a homeless population of at least 2000, with no immediate plans for additional infrastructure. Knowing this, Mills relaxed the overnight camping ban and told his officers to quit issuing citations for erecting tents on the beach and rolling out quilts in doorways. Many residents expressed anxiety about their lawns and parks becoming crash pads, so the police attempted to consolidate people sleeping outdoors into one area—the benchlands encampment.
Last Christmas, I returned to Santa Cruz for my own winter break and semi-hibernation period. While I was there, I rode to the river on my rusty pink cruiser bike to see what the city had set up. The tents—all thin, worn, and poorly erected—were arranged in lines on either side of the lawn. In the open center aisle, people were huddled in groups of three to six, some gathered around a bag of chips, some reading books or napping.
I wanted to cross over the boundaries of survey stakes and flagging tape. I wanted to ask someone what it was like to be corralled into a designated area. I wanted to hear someone’s story and find out how what they thought the city—or any one citizen—should do to help out. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I already felt like a voyeur just watching; going in and asking questions like some privileged reporter seemed even more wrong. So, I just stayed on the sidelines, again.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

It is the tranquility of the sleeping butterflies that really drew me in. They are beautiful when they are flying, of course. But they are magical when they are sleeping. They cluster in groups of several hundred to several thousand, latching—one onto the other onto the other onto the other—until they form a two-foot-long mass of doily-thin wing, whispery antenna, and inchworm body. Then they sleep, or shut down, or check out. Really, we don’t understand where they go when they rest any better than we understand our own sleep consciousness. They stay put until the ambient air temperature reaches fifty-five degrees, when they start to shimmy, shake, and greet the day. If the sun keeps shining, they leave their clumps in search of nectar and water until the temperature drops again. When it’s cold, wet, or windy, they stay put, sleeping away the inclement conditions. Seeing them takes me out of my head, out of myself. Seeing people sleep outside is much, much harder for me. When I glimpse men huddled under bridges on slabs of cardboard, stretched out on the asphalt of the bike path, or burrowed into the sand of Twin Lakes Beach, I feel a hollow lurch in my stomach. People without shelter often cluster together, too, wisely seeking strength and safety in numbers, in community. However, witnessing their congregation deflates me and makes my head spin with questions. How have we gotten to a point where we—myself included—just take this in stride?

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

I loved living in Santa Cruz. I managed to tap into several communities—groups of writers, artists, swimmers, and mountain bikers—and, though I didn’t feel like I was a crucial member of any of them, I did feel like I belonged when I wanted to. I kept walking and exploring, making a habit of visiting the big bronze surfer statue and the spot along West Cliff Drive where people build towers of precariously balanced stones. When I finished a work project, I let myself browse the three or four thrift stores on Lower Pacific, just north of the Taco Bell. I was proud to live in a city that had outlawed plastic bags and declared itself a sanctuary for everyone.
Once a week, I drove a carful of donated day-old bread and grocery items to a soup kitchen in Watsonville, fifteen miles south on Highway 1. After unloading the food, I helped chop vegetables or roll burritos, chatting in Spanish with the kitchen ladies before serving lunch to the eighty or so people—almost all men—who showed up for the daily free meal. There were a lot of “regulars” there, so I got to know a few of them. I first started talking to Hector, who picked strawberries when the work was available, because he was wearing an old Guns n’ Roses concert t-shirt—an easy conversation starter for me. Martin scared me for a while; he had tattoos ringing his neck and a hunched, imposing presence. But he liked salad a lot more than the other guys, and since I was always stuck pushing the greens, I got to see him smile a few times before I introduced myself.
While having regulars meant I got to know some of them, it also meant that these men weren’t getting any closer to stability. They weren’t out working or at home cooking for themselves. They were making the daily migration from the city park to the food pantry for what might be their only meal of the day. Every time I took off my hairnet and apron and slid into the driver’s seat of my little car, I was exhausted—not by the work, but by the emotional turmoil. I got to drive away, back up north, to my small but safe, warm, and dry apartment perched up on Beach Hill. I knew how lucky I was, even though every rent check dug further into my savings account. I have a savings account. Many people don’t.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

The monarchs further captivated me when I learned about their migratory patterns. Santa Cruz’s butterflies leave the area every spring and come back to the same sets of trees every fall. Human beings do this all the time—especially retired ones who have had their fill of northern winters. When the butterflies migrate, however, it’s not voluntary; they’ll die if they stay where they are. It’s also not the same individuals making the journey from year to year. A later generation flies back to the historic wintering spot, and, that generation, often called “Methuselahs,” lives months longer than both the generation that preceded it and the two or three that follow. These butterflies spend up to four months on the coast, their longevity promoted by the state of semi-hibernation, called diapause, in which they spend much of the winter. When they leave in the spring, they head east over the Santa Cruz Mountains to mate, lay eggs on a milkweed plant, and die. These eggs will hatch into a generation of butterflies that lives between two and six weeks while heading further north and east, following the milkweed bloom. Their children, and their children’s children, will do the same. It’s their children’s children’s children, post-metamorphosis, that return to occupy the same tree branches along the Santa Cruz coastline one year later. This is mind-blowing to me—someone who has to muster up months of motivation to buy a ticket to Newark Airport, someone who’s not sure you can ever go back to a place you’ve left.
Much to the dismay of park management, their lepidopteral celebrities are spending less time at Natural Bridges State Park, where the well-built boardwalk welcomes the human voyeurs. The monarchs have begun to make their midwinter move down the coast to Lighthouse Field State Park earlier and earlier each year. Lighthouse Field is situated along the same coastal road as Natural Bridges—West Cliff Drive, the Rodeo Drive of Santa Cruz. On the inland side of the road stand the city’s most expensive houses, many of which are empty. They are vacation properties that rent for upwards of $500 per night on VRBO and Airbnb.
Lighthouse Field’s geographical position seems to be working better for the monarchs these days. It is possible that recent changes in the coast’s storm cycles—as well as the overall warming of the Santa Cruz winters—have precipitated the move. However, while the location may be right for them, the grove itself is becoming less and less conducive to their nightly roosting. Park officials have been clearing the low branches from all of the area trees in order to be able to better monitor the homeless people who often gather around them. Because the men and women who congregate there make fires to cook and keep warm, the park has to clear the understory to reduce the hazard of wildfire ignition. Apparently, displacement can have a domino effect.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

 

 

After a couple of years in Santa Cruz, I had to move away. I wasn’t getting the jobs I’d applied for, and my freelance work had started to taper off. I had applied to graduate schools that offered funding, and when one of them—one in a city with cheaper housing costs—accepted me, I figured I’d better attend. My landlords had bought a new BMW with my rent payments, and my bike rack had been stolen from the roof of my car. I wondered if Santa Cruz wasn’t really my place—or, if it had been my place for just a short time. How could I call somewhere “home” when it made itself, in some ways, so overtly inhospitable? Still, after I drove off in the U-Haul, I cried all the way to Watsonville.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

A few days into my Santa Cruz Christmas visit, the city announced that the homeless camp would need to be moved. There were too many complaints about drug use, prostitution, and theft, and city employees who work in the building nearby said they were scared to walk from the parking lot to their offices. In addition, the San Lorenzo River typically swells with the winter rains, inundating the benchlands. They said it was important for the health of the watershed to clear and clean the area before the flooding begins. They didn’t mention that it’s also impossible for human beings to sleep in an inundated field.
The plan was to move the encampment residents across Highway 1 to a city-owned vacant lot near the Costco while government officials and real estate professionals continued to search for an appropriate indoor facility to shelter them—a plan that went into effect in February of this year and was funded only through the beginning of the summer.
“Goddamned zombies,” a man said under his breath as he passed me on the bridge by the encampment. “They don’t belong here in the public space.”

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

During that same visit, I eagerly reinstated my old daily ritual, the one I call “butterfly church.” On one of these pilgrimages, I met a scientist who monitors the Lighthouse Field grove on behalf of the city. After explaining his system for tallying insects and recording weather data, he paused to show me a patch of young plants adjacent to the eucalyptus and cypress stand where the butterflies commonly spend the night. “See this? It’s a butterfly-friendly native garden. The local native plant society thinks the monarchs should be eating only native nectar. You see any butterflies in there? Of course you don’t. They prefer the eucalyptus and cypress nectar—or even nectar from the ice plant across the street. Eucalyptus, cypress, ice plant—these are all invasive species. That’s why the park is letting the big eucalyptus trees die—or even cutting them down. Their policy is to let non-natives disappear. But when they go, the butterflies will go with them.”
Before returning to his paperwork, he reminded me that fifty years ago, none of these giant trees existed in the park. Historic records indicate that, back then, Lighthouse Field was a grassy, treeless, open area. There were no butterflies.
In time, it’s likely the monarchs will be displaced—from a place that wasn’t really theirs to begin with.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

The Santa Cruz County Point-in-Time Homeless Census is conducted every other year during the last two weeks in January. The most recent count, finished in January of 2017, put the county’s total homeless population at 2249[i]—a number that seems a little low to me. Of those counted, 80% were labeled as “unsheltered,” and within that group, 36% of them were sleeping on the street, 30% in their vehicles, and 10% in encampments. For whatever reason, lots of people in Santa Cruz think that the majority of the county’s homeless migrated from other states to take advantage of warm weather and liberal attitudes. According to this census, however, almost 70% of the individuals surveyed claimed to have lived in the county prior to becoming homeless.
The questionnaire didn’t ask them whether or not they call Santa Cruz “home.”

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

Every year, on Thanksgiving, citizen scientists throughout the nation count monarch butterflies. The Xerces Society, the invertebrate conservation organization that sponsors the event, reported a total of 192,692 butterflies spread throughout 262 sites in California in 2017.[ii] When this tradition began in 1997, California tallies registered over 1.2 million butterflies. Although the total number of monarchs counted was at its lowest point in five years, Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field, the main two sites in Santa Cruz, were actually among the handful of sites where numbers stayed roughly the same as last year.
The study acknowledges that the fall of 2017 was unseasonably hot and that California experienced unusually severe fires, smoke, and mudslides. These factors—and climate change, their underlying cause—may have contributed to a later migration and overwintering cycle.
No one questions the undeniable reality of ongoing habitat loss.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

On December 21st, a radio snippet reminded me that the solstice is the day traditionally set aside to remember the homeless people who died in the previous twelve months. The reporter said that the names of fifty people would be read at the Homeless Services Center in the City of Santa Cruz—the highest number of deceased homeless recorded in the county to date.
I decided to run to Lighthouse Field to catch the sunrise, expecting to see the same huge clumps of earth-toned butterfly wings that I had seen earlier in the week, since it was an inhospitably cold morning for flying. I did see a few small clusters, representing maybe a few thousand insects in total—a far cry from the 13,000 the scientist had counted. I walked all around the grove, unsuccessfully searching for agglomerations in other trees and scanning the sky for individual airborne insects.
Suddenly, two young men appeared, each with fifteen or twenty butterflies in their cupped hands. “Want some?” one asked me. “They’re dead.” I told him that they might not be, that when monarchs are asleep, they often look dead. “Nah, they have no bodies. See?” he said. “They’re just heads with wings. Definitely dead.” Right. I had read about this phenomenon in the local paper. “Zombie butterflies,” the article had called them. Wasps pluck the butterflies’ fatty abdomens from their exoskeletons and abandon the carcasses. The wasps actually shouldn’t have been there; temperatures should have been low enough by then to kill them off for the winter. But it was an uncharacteristically warm one, so, they were there, they were hungry, and they were taking over the cypress grove.

©Adam Lampton, From the Series “Portland”, 20×30”, Archival Inkjet Print, 2000-Present

I started back towards the apartment where I was dog-sitting. The sun was shining on the surfer statue, and the surfers themselves were out patiently waiting for the right wave to find them. The illegally-parked van dwellers were just climbing out of their rusty vehicles, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and firing up their propane stoves. City employees were reopening the parking lots to day users and plucking abandoned sleeping bags from under the eucalyptus trees. I decided to run up Beach Hill, past the jade shrubs, the rosemary hedge, and the ginkgo tree, looking longingly at my old home with someone else’s plants on the front porch.
Meanwhile, the ocean was pounding the beach below, as it does each winter, slowly but surely repossessing this section of coast.

 

[i] Santa Cruz County 2017 Homeless Census & Survey Comprehensive Report, produced by ASR
[ii] Pelton, E., S. Jepsen, C. Schultz, C. Fallon, and S. H. Black. 2017. State of the Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Sites in California. 40+vi pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. (Available online at https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/data/)

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Bridget A. Lyons studied at Harvard University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University where she also works as an editor and composition instructor. Her essays have been published by
Atticus Review, Wanderlust, 1888 Center, and Elephant Journal.  She was recently awarded a Voices in the Wilderness writing residency in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In addition to exhibiting internationally, Adam Lampton’s work has been seen in publications including Art in America, Maisonneuve Magazine, and Polar Inertia Journal. He is a recipient of a 2006-07 William J. Fulbright fellowship to Macao, SAR., China. He currently is Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Stonehill College. He lives in Maine.

 

Portland, Project Statement
These pictures were taken on the outskirts of Portland, Maine in a particular wooded area of only a few square miles formerly known by some of Portland’s homeless population as ‘The Jungle’.  Starting in 2000 I roamed the area that functioned as a dump, homeless shelter (usually devoid of any people during the day) and illicit playground for local youth. I returned four years later to find the land changed by an addition of a newly constructed off-ramp and many more semi-temporary living shelters.  In 2006 construction crews began work on what is now the completed “Mercy Hospital” where my daughter was born in 2011.

Initially, I found the area interesting both for it’s surprising quiet and for it’s darker connection to the struggles of the people who use it as home, drug store or escape.  As I have returned there throughout the last ten years I have begun to understand the landscape not just through the lens of geography or aesthetic inquiry but as inexorably entwined with my own story in a way that feels inevitable.  This shift from public exploration to private expression mirrors what I see as the fundamental issue at stake in contemporary photography: No longer is it simply a choice between taking pictures of either what is “out there” or what is “in here,” but every corner of the physical world is assumed to be contaminated by the individual.

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.  

Tenneson and Short: Trees

Kayann Short / Joyce Tenneson

 

Bones  Beneath   Bark: The   Ecological   Kinship  of    Trees   and   Humans

“[W]hat ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness . . .” – Virginia Woolf “On Being Ill”  

The trail in the Rockies is steep, but pine roots stretch across the dusty path, creating steps my feet can find. Because I am still weak from an early summer flu, I watch for these roots to help me climb like rungs of ladders nailed across the face of the earth. Roots are limbs without bark, growing down instead of up, exposed on the mountainside by the wind and rain of violent storms, bare as skinless bone. If all goes well, those roots will anchor their trees for many more years than I will live.

The mountains are covered with pines in all stages of growth—and death. Pine beetles have chewed rusty swathes across high slopes; deadfall and forester-felled pines, fir, and spruce lie like scattered toothpicks atop millions of acres of national park land. A warming climate means the beetles survive the winter and the infestation spreads among trees already weakened by lack of rain and snow, with the health of the forest at stake. In some places, crews have piled logs and branches like makeshift bonfires, but not for burning. Some of the material will be used for building trails in the park itself; firewood can only be taken out of the park by those with permits.

 

 

 

Along the trail, I’m on the lookout for anything of interest. At the ocean, I walk the wrack line for shells, beach rocks, and other artifacts thrown on shore by passing waves. In the mountains, I scan the edges of the trails for pinecones, stones, and small sticks in interesting shapes and colors. I search out visual patterns: the randomness of the fall, the grouping of the objects as they lay, the contrast between light and dark. I find bones, round and white against the rougher ground. Except these bones do not come from animals, but are litterfall: coarse, woody debris from fallen tree limbs, bleached and smoothed by the forest elements of wind, water, and weather, waiting to be broken down by microorganisms into finer humus, the rich topsoil in forests. These leftover bits are the bones beneath bark, broken by epoch and skinned by time.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson


As a farmer and environmentalist, I write about animals and I write about vegetables, but the living organisms with which I feel the deepest ecological kinship is trees. Growing up, I thought nothing would be cooler than to live in a tree like run-away Sam in My Side of the Mountain or the Swiss Family Robinson in the movie my family saw at the drive-in one summer. I had a swing in a weeping willow in our backyard, but that was no tree house. Even so, when the tree was felled to build a patio, my heart was broken and I sobbed, inconsolable, to the chain saw’s drone. Any chance I’d had of living in that tree someday was severed with its trunk and limbs.

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

* * *

 

How like a tree our bodies can be, with trunks and limbs upright in our common standing. Beyond the shared basic biological fact of our existence–composition from living tissue and constant need for air, water, and food–trees grow branches and we grow bones, both structures forming a life support system that provides nourishment and strength. Like a tree’s trunk and branches, our bones allow us to stand upright, that upward stance of evolutionary development seemingly separating our industrious primate order from other species. Just as trees line the surface of the earth, humans, too, are vertically propelled, but with an important difference from our arboreal relations: trees are rooted in place, while our skeletal structure allows movement. We may break a bone, we may even lose a limb, but our imperative is always to use our skeletal system toward physical momentum. Any rooting we do is the metaphorical equivalent of stability and permanence. 

While humans are not exactly like trees, “upright” and “uprooted” describe an inverse relationship of health that further points to our ecological kinship and mutual existence. For both trees and humans, to be upright means to be healthy. Uprooting creates or indicates death for trees. Similarly, as Woolf suggests above, in humans, uprooting is aligned with illness and potential death. 

 

 


 

 

My metaphors here are toward this point: we are more like trees than we think. The ecological kinship between trees and humans goes beyond the analogy of bodies, however. The conditions that threaten trees threaten us too. If uprooting means disruption of normal processes, then climate change is uprooting on the largest of scales, affecting trees and humans alike.

Humans have long owed a debt of survival to trees. With the exception of water and soil, trees provide more benefits and resources to humans than any other part of our ecosystem. Trees provide shelter (think lumber, furniture, and shade), paper and fabric, food of many kinds, and, most importantly, clean air. Trees have been called the lungs of the world; they cleanse the air we breathe by inhaling CO2 and exhaling the oxygen we need.  

In “When All Trees Die, So Will You,” Adam Rogers writes, “Dead trees mean dead people, and scientists are finally starting to figure out why.” In other words, loss of trees means loss of human life because without trees to clear our air, more of us will die from preventable illnesses.

According to Rogers, scientists are attempting to correlate trees with public health and “differences in illness and death in populations that live near greenery versus those that don’t.” Some studies suggest links between tree loss and increased morbidity from lung and heart disease, as well as 

 

its inverse: higher contact with green spaces leading to conditions as diverse as higher-birthweight babies and lower rates of anti-depressant drug use. Studies like these are beginning to reveal the benefits of protecting and replenishing trees as part of our public health infrastructure.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

A similar message is found in “Trees Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Change, But Forests Are Dying at Unprecedented Rates.”  As Eric Holthaus bluntly writes, “Forests are our last, best natural defense against global warming. Without the world’s trees at peak physical 

 


 

 

condition, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.” According to Holthaus, even though human CO2 emissions have flattened, climate change is still accelerating. That’s because even though we count on trees to draw a hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air every year, trees are dying from drought, forest fires, insects, disease, and development encroachment faster than forests can recover or migrate northward to cooler temperatures.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tennyson

Climate change creates an anti-arboreal loop which not only increases the likelihood of forest fire but in which forests have a harder time regenerating after fire because of climate change-induced conditions like drier, warmer weather. To mitigate these impacts, according to Holthaus, some conservationists “are considering tinkering with the ecosystems in various ways, including introducing novel species, replanting forests with climate change in mind, and even planting fast-growing species just to burn them for energy.” But if “an area equivalent to the size of India would be needed by 2100 to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to help stabilize the rise of global temperatures,” can we plant enough trees in time?

With the loss of the resources and benefits trees provide—euphemistically called “ecosystem services,” as if trees make house calls–we should all be concerned about decreasing tree population. The truth is, however, forests will be able to adapt better than humans will. To use Woolf’s word, trees are “obdurate,” stubbornly holding to their course of action despite change. Their resilience gives me hope that forests will survive the changing climate in some form. The likelihood of human survival is much more tenuous. 

* * *

 

 


 

Now that I live near three irrigation ditches on rural land, I pay particular attention to trees. Our farm lies along the Front Range foothills of the Rockies. We can see Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker from our fields. Our land is crossed by vintage waterways that began as natural limestone gullies dug by teams of burly horses in the late 1800s. Willow, cottonwood, birch, ash, pine, and cedar grow along our ditches, some of them more than a century old, which for this dryland area of the country is considerable. Apple trees are prevalent here, too, some planted by us and some planted before our time by others, including squirrels saving seeds for winter food. 

I think and write about trees a lot because they grace my life with shelter, shade, and sustenance. They prevent soil erosion around our cropland and provide habitat for neighboring species. Without trees here, our land and our livelihood would be drastically diminished and eventually devastated. As old as our trees are, sometimes they fall. We have lost many trees on our farm, but they do good work before they go. 

One mid-summer night as I lay in bed with the window open, I heard a noise outside. I couldn’t tell from how far away the sound came; I’d never heard a sound quite like that before. It sounded big and brittle and thick, yet muffled, somewhere between a thud and a clunk. Even though the night was calm, something large had broken and fallen,  

 

 

 suspected, like a tree limb on a rooftop, a serious enough thought for that time of night, but it was too late to get up and look. I would investigate in the morning.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

 


 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

It wasn’t a tree limb that fell, but a whole tree of limbs, one of the largest willows on the farm, a tree that had been leaning for years across our lower ditch a quarter mile from the house. I wasn’t surprised it had fallen, but rather that I had heard it fall at all. What were the chances I’d be awake with my window open and ears attuned enough to hear something out back? Even though the tree was a giant—150 feet high and 6 feet in diameter–the impact must have been great for the sound to travel so far.

The impact, in fact, was hard enough to shatter the old tree, which was dying by degrees. Half the tree was in leaf from branches still drawing nutrients from the trunk, while the other half was already dead, its limbs standing without bark, brittle and bleached by the sun. Dead wood is heavier than live wood because the tissues compact as they dry; that’s why old logs burn longer than newly cut logs.

Dead wood also hits the ground harder. The cottonwood fell across the ditch. Where the lower tree spanned the water, the trunk was saved in one long slab like a bridge. But where the upper trunk and limbs smashed the ground on the other side, the tree now lay like a splintered skeleton, spine severed on impact, vertebrae scattered among scapula, humerus, and phalange. As the force of the fall from heavy boughs dug trenches into pasture grass, brittle limbs were thrown wide. The ditch company tasked with clearing the tree used their largest crane and heaviest chains to lift and swing the trunk to the bank’s edge, where it will


 

 

decompose in time. Walking in the meadow after this operation, I stumble over broken bones, the cracked ribs and bare-knuckled fingers that will lie in the grass for years to come.

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

The death of such a large tree on the farm fetched a heavy loss. That cottonwood framed our view of high mountains, especially lovely in the golden hues of fall against new snow on the peaks. The tree provided habitat for birds and small animals. Its limbs shaded the pasture and its roots anchored the bank of the ditch. Growing up along the ditch, that tree was older than our century-old farm. 

But as much as we cherished that tree and the homes it made for owls, squirrels, and raccoons, it didn’t provide food for our farm members. Not like the apple trees that died the winter before. That November, an 80-degree drop in temperature killed our largest apple trees following a mild fall. Our farm season ends on the last Saturday of October and we were still giving tomatoes for the last share, unusual for the Front Range where heavy frosts used to hit predictably between mid-September to mid-October. The autumn apple harvest was heavy that season, our best ever. We used the bucket of the tractor to raise apple-pickers into the top branches. We pressed hundreds of gallons of cider with our members, some to be made into hard cider for later enjoyment. 

Our first light frost finally caught up with us at the tail end of October, but the trees were still not dormant on November 10 when the killing frost struck. The morning started mild, but by the end of the day, the temperature dropped 80 degrees from summer to winter and the damage was done. 

A hundred years ago, Colorado’s Front Range was an apple-growing region. Now, with more frequent drought and less predictable climate, growing apples is a gamble. We plant varieties that bud later in the season in the hope of missing a late spring frost but that’s no guarantee. Warmer 

 

 

 

 


 

 

fall temperatures, a longer autumn, and temperature variability are taking their toll on apples here. The warmer conditions that created our best apple crop contributed to the death of the very trees that produced those apples. Ironically, heavy fruiting may have weakened the trees, making them even less resilient to the sudden temperature drop that caused their demise.

It will take years for newer apple trees to grow to the size of those mature trees. Some days, it saddens us to know it’s possible, even probable, we may never get an apple crop like that again. Other days, it frightens us. This loss of apples is, in itself, a kind of uprooting, one more reason to be anxious about the future of the planet. Yet as I worry about our apple trees, I can’t help but worry about myself too. How will I stay healthy on a planet in which human practices threaten the trees upon which I depend? How much of what trees provide will be uprooted as both our species adapt not just to climate change, but climate crisis? If upright is the word for our continued mutual existence, I think, then how will upright be sustained for trees and humans alike in the not-to-distant future? 

In illuminating our ecological kinship, I write to forge an alliance between humans and trees that will lead to our mutual survival, an uprightness that provides a future for trees and humans and all other living things, as well. Clearly, our future is tied to trees. If you don’t do anything else for the future of trees and all they support, do this: Get upright. Get moving. Go find some trees. Plant more. 

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

 


 

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

 

But if you can, go another step and join with others to preserve trees, cherish trees, and make and keep a home for them on this planet. We must, if we intend to make and keep our homes here as well. 

Hiking along a river trail on the flatlands east of our farm one cold, but bright, January morning, my grandson and I pick up what looks like a deer femur from a pile of leaves, only to discover it is not a bone attached to a chunk of hide we hold, but a stick wrapped with bark.

The stick reminded me of the deer foreleg the farm crew and I found while picking vegetables six months earlier, the animal’s rough skin still attached, a bone dropped by a coyote or mountain lion as it crossed the field one moonlit night. Instead of burying it, we threw the leg into the trees to be eaten by other animals, insects, and organisms, providing a feast, as nature intended. 

In reverence of that cycle, my grandson and I lay the bone-branch back where we found it to become litterfall, preserving, perhaps, one tiny, upright step in nature’s obdurate ways. 

 

 


 


Holthaus, Eric. “Up In Smoke.”
Grist. March 8, 2018. https://grist.org/article/the-last-ditch-effort-to-save-the-worlds-forests-from-climate-change.

Rogers, Adam. “All the Trees Will Die, And Then So Will You.” Wired. May 9, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2017/05/trees-will-die-will/

Woolf, Virginia. “On Being Ill.” The New Criterion. January 1926.

 

 

From the series, “Trees of Life”; Gold mixed media on plexiglass ©Joyce Tenneson

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Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, a Nautilus winner published by Torrey House Press. Her essays appear in The Hopper, Pilgrimage, Dash, Mad River Review, The Roost, Dirt: A Love Story, and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Non-fiction. She farms, writes, and teaches ecobiography at Stonebridge Farm in Colorado. See more at ecobiography.com.

Joyce Tenneson. Internationally lauded as one of the leading photographers of her generation, Joyce Tenneson’s work has been published in books and major magazines, and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Her portraits have appeared on covers for magazines such as: Time, Life, Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Tenneson is the author of sixteen books including the best seller, Wise Women, which was featured in a six-part Today Show series. She is the recipient of many awards, including Fine Art Photographer of the Year in 2005 (Lucie Awards), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Professional Photographers of America in 2012. In a poll conducted by American Photo Magazine, readers voted Tenneson among the ten most influential women in the history of photography. In the Fall of 2014, Fotografiska Museum, in Stockholm, Sweden, mounted a large retrospective of her work which was seen by approximately 30,000 people. Tenneson’s work has been exhibited in museums around the globe and is part of many private and public collections. In addition to her photography exhibits and books, Tenneson has taught master photography classes in the U.S. and Europe for over 40 years.

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.”

00

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

 

00



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.

00



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.