Web Rove: Writing About Climate Change

by Kristen Daily

Earth Day just passed—Wednesday, April 22. As one of the largest civic holidays around the globe Earth Day is day to celebrate our planet and to rekindle public commitment and activism to saving the earth. Today’s web rove honors several voices seeking to save the places, plants, and animals they love.

Carbon Capture” by Jonthan Franzen (from The New Yorker)

In this essay Franzen explores how climate change has made it harder for people to care about conservation. In the following passage he examines his own struggle in grappling with climate change: “But when I started watching birds, and worrying about their welfare, I became attracted to a countervailing strain of Christianity, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us. I gave my support to the focused work of the American Bird Conservancy and local Audubon societies. Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it. And so I became to feel miserably conflicted about climate change. I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance.”

While Our Backs Are Turned” by Clarisse Hart (from Ecotone)

In this essay Hart writes about her home, Petersham, Massachussetts, which is home to old hemlock forests. As a science communicator, Hart recounts her experience her experiences giving tours in the Harvard Forest, but her essay is an elegy for the disappearing trees. In this passage she describes what it is like to walk into a hemlock grove: “Even if you don’t spend much time with trees, even with your eyes closed, you’re aware when you enter a hemlock forest that you’ve arrived somewhere new. It’s ten degrees cooler than surrounding forests, for one thing, because of the dense shade: only 1 percent of the sun above an intact hemlock canopy reaches the ground at your feet.”

section b, page 6” by Meryl Stratford (from Rattle)

In this poem Stratford responds to the story “Horseshoe crab faces threats from pollution, development” as a part of Rattle’s online series Poets Respond in which poets address current events. “section b, page 6” asks readers to consider the effects of human desire and consumption on the life of the horseshoe crab. The horseshoe crab was here long before we were, and Stratford calls readers to consider their lives, which have been happening across deep time. “Now they’re making the news: / how we use them as bait, grind them up / for fertilizer, destroy their habitat / but their ancient blood detects endotoxins, / makes possible our flu shots, /pacemakers, and hip replacements.”

Big Mother

I lay in the middle of Willamette Forest Road 8413, staring up through the morning mist, when the first truck registered beneath the springtime music of songbirds. I sat up and imagined I could feel a low rumbling in the gravel beneath the seat of my guerilla cargos. My wrists were wrapped in Ace bandages with chains fit snugly over those, and attached to each chain was a carabiner. Men sat on either side of me, Fox on my left and Chinook on my right, each with a leg cemented in the earth up to his knee. The birds kept singing. Dust rose over the distant trees.

“This is it!” Fox shouted.

Bear rushed over with the two lockboxes, reinforced PVC pipes that swallowed my arms up to each shoulder. Fox and Chinook slipped their arms in and we each clipped our carabiners to the bolts in the middle of the pipe we shared. Fox’s fingers found mine, and he gave me a nod before facing forward. With my arms extended, I felt like Christ on the cross, then checked my ego, my little sacrifice nothing compared to His.

Bear took his position on the road behind us. Osprey passed before me with her camcorder running. I hardened my eyes as sweat started beading on my bare arms.

We’d built the links of our three-person chain a week earlier at the crash house in Eugene, an old machine shop converted into an anarchist co-op next to a vacant lot in the Whiteaker. “We need Raven front and center,” Fox had said. I wasn’t sure about my Watcher name. The alter-ego thing was kind of cool, but I liked my own name, Maya, just fine. “I’m too ugly and Chinook’s too dopey,” Fox continued. “Raven will be our poster girl.”

Fox wasn’t so much ugly as unruly: knotted red dreads and patchy red beard, brass hoop dangling from his septum, barcode tattoo on his neck. I’d tried to imagine the look on Mom’s face if I ever brought him home. I wouldn’t prep her, just enjoy the split second of shock before she masked it with politeness. She’d probe beneath his rough exterior and find a pissed-off street kid fighting just as hard for the environment as she did on her side of the law. He was smart, too, had done his homework and found out about this little fifty-acre timber sale that none of the mainstream environmental groups were talking about. It was in the middle of nowhere, on nondescript national forest land without any waterway or established spotted owl habitat to legally protect it, but old growth was old growth.

And this whole Watcher thing he’d put together, savvy enough to visualize the impact we three would have on computer screens: Fox, like a fire bursting from his Utilikilt and black hoodie; Chinook, soft on the inside but imposing as a Viking with his blonde mohawk and full beard; and me, like something out of a Che Guevara movie, dark and decked out in guerilla gear I’d ordered online. I’d considered streaking my face red and black like the Amazon warriors Mom defended in Brazil, but I didn’t want to offend anyone.

Osprey shuffled behind me with her camcorder, wanting us in the foreground for when the first truck appeared. Sweat trickled across my skin. I remembered the carabiners and breathed.

Back at the crash house, Chinook had driven a bolt through the middle of each pipe, melting the exterior heads and nuts with a glass blowing torch so the cops couldn’t unscrew them. They could pull all they wanted, but there were only two ways I could be separated from Fox or Chinook: if they figured out how to cut through the pipe, or if I unclipped my carabiners from the bolts.

I fingered each one and peeked at Fox. He stared toward the bend in the road, maybe a hundred yards away. His chin rose slightly when he sensed me looking. His fingers still rested on mine inside the pipe.

I knew Chinook’s face was calm, but I looked at him anyway. He gave me a quick wink. I tested the carabiner on the bolt I shared with him, careful not to open it all the way.

All three of us wore Depends adult diapers.

A long way from the crash house, where we’d experimented with the diapers while slamming cans of warm Pabst, Osprey and I had debated whether pads might work better, but we settled on the Depends. She was a pixie who hummed while painting a huge banner that stretched across the lot. Bear, her oversized boyfriend, had tied back his brown dreads and cooked garden burgers and tar over the same open fire, flipping the burgers on a camping grate and stirring an industrial pot with a broom handle. He was our muscle, harder than Chinook and scarred from scraps, though Fox had promised no violence. While Fox tinkered with the Watcher blog, I had helped Bear and Chinook plaster hot tar to the PVC. It got me thinking about the Revolutionary War, tarring and feathering those Redcoats, though rolling the sticky pipes in pebbles and nails felt more like Mad Max. We wrapped chicken wire around that, then a mix of electrical tape and duct tape melted with a hairdryer. By the time we finished, I was drunk and leading Fox to his tent, pitched among tall weeds in a corner of the lot.

I’d met him at the Saturday Market just days earlier, had approached him after watching him shout into a bullhorn about old-growth logging. We’d sat at the edge of the drum circle and talked about the movement until he invited me back to the crash house, which seemed a little quick to me. I’d considered his motives: if he intuitively saw me as worthy of this activist group he was forming, if he smelled money on me that might bankroll it, or if he just wanted to get inside my pants. I had a paper to write on low-cost drip irrigation alternatives, but the spontaneity excited me. It was a relief to let myself be drawn into something real, to meet people ready to actually lay their convictions on the line. I finally felt some of that old militant fire from freshman year. I was the one getting inside Fox’s pants, and he never brought up money. When I asked where they got their cameras and equipment, he brushed it aside.

A flashing light burst around the bend. I pulled my fingers from Fox’s and clutched both carabiners with jittery hands, a long way from my cozy off-campus apartment, where I’d prepared for getting arrested by reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Where Mom had called but I hadn’t told her what I was up to. The color of the flashing light finally registered—yellow. And on a white pickup—an advance vehicle. Too much noise and dust in its wake to be a single truck. But the pickup wasn’t slowing. I imagined a pissed off driver pressing his boot to the pedal. Bear started forward from his position behind us.

“Back!” Fox barked.

The carabiner in my sweaty grip slipped off the bolt that I shared with Fox. Fifty yards out, the pickup finally slowed. I fumbled to lock back in, hoping Fox hadn’t noticed. Through the haze of dust hanging over the road, a flatbed semi rounded the bend. Strapped to its back sat a mechanical monster with tracks like a tank.

“Feller buncher!” Fox yelled.

Brakes squealed as the flatbed fell in behind the pickup. The trucks rolled to a stop fifty feet away and sat with their engines running. Osprey crept along the side of the road with her camcorder. She’d posted a link to a feller buncher clip on the Watcher blog, and the video had exposed my outdated notion of logging. I’d still imagined burly lumberjacks working tree to tree with chainsaws. But in just a few minutes, the feller buncher had taken out at least a dozen trees. Like a giant scorpion, an angled boom swung out from a cab and struck with lethal force, slicing trees at their base with quick puffs of sawdust. The machine dropped big trees where they stood and grabbed bunches of smaller ones at a time. It was like the Super-Axe-Hacker from The Lorax, no logger visible, just the cab swinging around like an all-seeing eye.

I saw only vague outlines of men in the pickup, an extended cab, maybe three of them behind the dust-coated windshield. One driver in the flatbed. Neither shut off their rigs. No one got out. I found Fox’s fingers, sweaty like mine. The pickup driver lifted a phone or radio. The chalk smell hanging over the forest filled with diesel. Long moments passed before the driver set down his phone. The men were making their own statement: Let the hippie punks choke on these fossil fuels.

“Come on already!” I yelled.

Fox turned his head but I just glared forward and lifted my chin like he’d done earlier.

The passenger door of the pickup opened first, the Green Mountain logo with its unbroken tree line. Out stepped a logger, a squinting man in his forties wearing black Carhartt suspenders and a Green Mountain cap. I’d expected someone more imposing. This guy reminded me of my sustainable agriculture professor. He glanced up at Osprey’s banner behind me and shot a black gob of tobacco spit into the bushes.

The pickup’s engine stopped and a bigger man hopped out of the driver’s seat, a younger man, attractive. He could have been a student in sustainable agriculture. He sported a big smile, teeth slightly off, and though I wanted to tag it as sarcastic, the smile seemed genuine. He wore the same outfit but with the suspender straps hanging at his sides instead of over his shoulders, broad like I’d imagined on a logger. I glimpsed a wedding band and suddenly felt less mature despite our common age.

Another logger stepped out, somewhere between the other two in age, with scarring around a lazy left eye. All three fell into a line in front of the pickup. Bear cleared his throat behind us. The first logger spit again. The flatbed driver remained in his rig, engine idling.

“Lane County Sheriff’s on the way,” Spitter said.

“Fuck the sheriff and fuck you, too,” Fox snapped, pulling his fingers away from mine.

My belly tightened.

The young logger chuckled under his breath and leaned back against the hood. Spitter pointed toward Osprey and said, “Better shut that thing off.”

Osprey stepped closer, filming with one hand and pointing the other up toward the banner behind our blockade. “Big mother is watching you,” she said.

I doubted any of the loggers got the 1984 reference. I wasn’t even sure all the Watchers got it. The burlap banner stretched above the road, twenty feet up and tied to two Douglas firs. Osprey had filled the “O” in “MOTHER” and the “O” in “YOU” with blue-green planet earths that now looked like eyes watching from the trees.

“We’ve got another camera rolling up there,” Fox said.

“Big Mother can watch this,” Lazy Eye said. He walked to the side of the road, worked out of his overalls, and peed in the bushes.

I met the young logger’s eyes. He seemed amused and curious. Nothing malicious about him. I wondered if he’d seen other protests, if he didn’t give a rip because he was getting paid by the hour. Or maybe he just wondered how I’d pee when I had to.

I’d sit there until dark in a wet diaper. Now that the protest was under way, and maybe because of the reprieve from the cops, I felt less nervous, like I did when making a speech, like my final presentation in Environmental Ethics. It was a relief just doing the action after all the planning.

“Watchers,” Fox had told me they called themselves. “The eyes of Mother Earth. Big Mother Watching. BMW. The corporate acronym turned on its head. We’ll be huge. We’ll go viral.” When I did a quick search and pointed out that “Big Mother Watching” was already a term to describe overprotective parents using technology to track their children, Fox shrugged and said, “Same thing.”

Now he focused on Spitter and spoke clearly into his hidden microphone. “Why don’t you find some second- or third-growth to chop down? That’s old growth in there.”

“You think we decide where to log?” Spitter shot back. “We just work here.” He spit on the gravel.

Fox eyed them and settled on the young logger. “Then why don’t you quit?”

The young logger didn’t budge from where he reclined against the hood, still smiling. “I have a kid to feed.”

The gulf between us widened further.

“And this is the example you’re setting?” Fox asked. “Teaching your kid how to destroy an endangered ecosystem?”

“He’s three,” the logger said, laughing. “I’m teaching him how to wipe his ass!”

The loggers laughed and I smiled with them. “Right livelihood,” I said. Mom had raised me Catholic, but I’d dated a Japanese guy the year before and read up on Buddhism.

Fox shifted, pulling my arm with him.

“It’s a Buddhist thing,” I continued. “Finding a job that doesn’t hurt others.”

“And what’s your livelihood?” the young logger asked, still smiling, still curious.

Student, I thought, but it sounded lame and barely true considering I’d take my last finals in less than a week. I worked part time at the campus bookstore, but Mom paid for almost everything—room and board, tuition and books. I had one interview lined up after graduation, with an outdoor education program called Oregon Wilderness Leadership.

“Raven’s a Watcher,” Fox said.

That name again. And I didn’t need Fox speaking up for me.

“Like Chinook and me,” Fox continued. “And our friends Bear and Osprey. And our friends in Eugene and all over the world. We’re Watchers. The eyes of Mother Earth. It’s our job to keep our eyes on criminals like you.”

“Criminals!” Spitter leaned forward and shot a black gob that landed a few feet from Fox. “We’ll see what the deputies think.”

The young logger hadn’t looked away from me or given up his grin. “Doesn’t pay much though, does it? Not sure I could support my family sitting in the road like that.”

I had a comeback, how he wouldn’t be able to support them once all the big trees were down, but I shifted on my rear and looked into the forest. His parents couldn’t afford braces, much less college. Fox found my fingers. Chinook sat like a rock, and Bear came around with a drink of water. I felt the first hint of a need to pee.

More dust rose in the distance, more rumbling as another rig approached the curve, blocked from my view by the flatbed. Spitter walked to the side of the road to look. Osprey backed away from him, turning her camera toward the bend.

“Skidder!” she called.

As Spitter ambled back, Fox spit loudly into the gravel in front of him. Spitter smiled and leaned back to join Lazy Eye and the young logger against the hood of the pickup. The second flatbed pulled up behind the first and also left its engine running, doubling the noise and diesel.

“Wonder who they’ll send,” Spitter said.

“Big John I bet,” said Lazy Eye. He faced me but seemed to be looking at Fox. “He loves this shit.”

Spitter laughed. “Didn’t give much love to them other kids.”

“No sir,” Lazy Eye said. “But you know he loved it. Like them executioners in the old days. You know them sick fucks got a rise chopping people’s heads off.”

“Whatever,” Fox said. “Don’t listen to them.”

I wished Fox would just sit quietly. He might as well have told the loggers I’d never done anything like this before, that my mother would freak if I got arrested, so it would be great if everyone could take it easy on me. The young logger had turned his attention to his thumb, frowning as he pinched at a splinter. I fought back the urge to pull my fingers away from Fox.

“See that Blazers game last night?” Spitter asked.

“Lakers can suck it,” Lazy Eye said.

Spitter mentioned a name I didn’t know. I barely knew the sport was basketball, which the three men continued talking about while the young logger quietly poked at his thumb with a pocketknife. The idle sports talk was deliberate, like burning the extra fuel or trying to scare us with Big John. They had found another way to show their contempt, ignoring our protest and leaving us for the sheriff. Facing the law did scare me, but the loggers’ tactics only fueled my desire to stick it out. I hated how the rumbling of the flatbeds had become the sound of the forest.

I checked Fox’s reaction, but he’d closed his eyes, a thin smile spread beneath his red scruff. He’d moved on as well. He had his footage, and now, like them, he waited for the next confrontation.

Sliding my fingers away, I tried to prepare myself for the pain compliance the deputies might use. Pepper spray or wrestling moves. Though the camera might keep them in check. Osprey would disappear into the forest if they came after her. Of course, there would be no camera in the patrol car or at the station. They would separate us. I would be at their mercy. Just me and Big John.

I had to pee now. I ran through the Hail Mary to calm down, reminded myself that I’d already made this decision. I didn’t want to go through life without getting arrested, and what better way to get arrested? Environmental Ethics 101. Like Thoreau wrote, under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man—or woman—is also in prison.

But Mom. The prospect of facing her scared me more than Big John. I’d already imagined what would happen if my arrest prevented me from graduating, like if I couldn’t get out of jail in time to take my finals, Mom showing up to bombard me with questions. I had my defense ready, my Thoreau quotes and how she got arrested back in the day over nukes. But Mom was the lawyer, and she would be loaded with comebacks. Times were different back then. Why couldn’t I have waited until I got my degree? And what about my career? Wasn’t the job market tough enough without having an arrest on my record? After all those thousands of dollars she’d spent?

I smelled my own body odor, the kind that rose up when I was anxious.

I reminded myself that I wouldn’t want to work for anyone who had a problem with what I was doing. I wondered if the wilderness program would have a problem with it.

The loggers talked baseball now, something about the Mariners. The young logger had lifted his face, eyes closed, to a ray of sunlight breaking through the trees.

I wanted to think Mom would have a secret pride if she knew what I was doing. She would admire Fox’s fire, how he’d channeled his anger into a positive force that rallied gutter punks into a gang for Gaia. In a secret fantasy I’d relished for a while now, I saw the video going viral like Fox predicted, this protest leading to more protests and me right in the middle of them, the face of a growing movement, an appearance on late night television. Maybe I’d embrace my Watcher name: Tonight on The Daily Show—Raven! Vain, I knew, thinking I could become a one-name wonder like Oprah or Madonna. But I could reach so many people that way, actually make this my livelihood: professional protestor.

I heard another vehicle arriving, less rumble than the flatbeds, just right for a patrol car. But something was off, and I quickly realized what. This rig came from behind, fast approaching the bend at our backs. We craned our necks to see dust rising from those trees, the forest we’d been protecting. Osprey hustled up with her camera rolling. What sheriff’s deputy would be up in those woods?

A silver SUV charged around the bend, a Toyota 4Runner with camping gear strapped to the rack. Civilians behind a dusty windshield. The driver hit the brakes and skidded to the right, spitting gravel into the bushes. The passenger spun to check the back seats.

I turned to Fox, who met my eyes briefly before looking back to the SUV. I could see him trying to sort it out. We hadn’t talked about this possibility. I hadn’t even considered it.

Windshield washer fluid squirted up on the 4Runner, the wipers revealing a man behind the wheel and a woman beside him. The urge to pee crept back. The man drove up to within ten feet of Bear, who stood right behind us, then rolled down his window and thrust out his head. He was about forty, good-looking with light stubble, right out of an REI catalog, if not for the wild look in his eyes.

“You need to move,” he demanded. “We’ve got a sick kid in here.”

“Fuck,” Chinook whispered.

Bear and I turned back to Fox, whose face gave nothing away. I felt weight settling on me, pee building. I wouldn’t be able to think straight if I didn’t let it go. Luckily the diaper soaked it up without a sound or any smell.

The driver narrowed his eyes and let the SUV lurch up to within a few feet of Bear, who tensed but didn’t budge. I felt the heat of the engine against my back, more gas fumes choking the air.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?” I heard from the SUV, a whine breaking into crying that I couldn’t make out as that of a boy or girl.

“Hush now,” spoke the mother.

“Nothing, sweetie,” the father said, looking us over and settling on me. “These people are going to move so we can go home.”

Did he guess I could detach? Or was it blind hope? And what were they even doing out there, camping in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the week? Kind of cool to pull your kid out of school. I wondered if they knew about the timber sale, if Green Mountain was the family business and they’d been taking in the old growth before it turned into money. I held the father’s glare and knew he was used to getting what he wanted. Like Mom.

“What’s wrong with your kid?” the young logger asked.

I faced forward, neck strained from craning it. The diaper had gone soft and damp beneath me. The smile was gone from the young logger’s face. He and the others had risen to their feet. They didn’t seem to know the family.

“Diarrhea and fever,” the father said. “We were up all night.”

The crying rose in pitch and volume to back him up.

“Hush!” the mother ordered, and the wailing stopped, replaced by sobbing.

I thumbed both carabiners and sized up the length of the pipes. If I got up, there might be enough room for the SUV to sneak through. The young logger jingled the keys in his pocket as he stared at Fox.

“You can take another road,” Fox said to the father. “We have a map.”

“We don’t have enough gas,” the father said. “Or time. I need to get my daughter to a doctor. Now.”

Fox turned to Osprey. “Cut it,” he said.

Osprey looked up from her camera. I had heard Fox’s instructions that she was to roll nonstop during every confrontation and worry about editing later. She kept filming.

“Goddamnit,” Fox said.

I had an idea. Fox might not like it, but tough shit. “You guys move first,” I told the loggers. “Back around the bend and give us time and we’ll let them through.”

If the loggers thought it out, they would realize the lockboxes had releases. The father would know he was right. Fox slowly exhaled but held his silence, waiting to see what they would do.

“We ain’t the ones breaking the law,” Spitter said, stepping forward.

“We wouldn’t be here if you weren’t,” Fox snapped.

Spitter stepped closer until his crotch was right in my face.

“Back off,” Bear growled behind me.

Fox fumbled for his carabiner.

“Don’t,” I said, fighting back the urge to crush Spitter’s nuts with a head butt.

Spitter ignored us and addressed the SUV. “I’m sorry, folks, but if they won’t move, you’ll just have to wait until the cops show up. Shouldn’t be long now. You got enough water?”

“I just want to go home!” the girl shrieked.

“We’re trying!” the mother yelled. “Just calm down, would you?”

I closed my eyes, trying to keep my cool knowing Osprey’s camera was trained on me. I waited for Spitter to back off, knowing this would be footage we could use, knowing Fox would be thinking the same thing. But how awful if this image went viral. I imagined Spitter letting his crotch touch my face or dropping a black gob down into my hair, then focused instead on the crying girl. I guessed she was six or seven, a little younger than I was when I got sick visiting family in Oaxaca. I’d burrowed into Mom’s arms at a bus station, then thrown up in an empty feed bucket on a bumpy hillside ride, wanting nothing more than my room back in Ashland, my cat and my posters of fairy worlds.

“Easy,” the young logger said, and I opened my eyes to see him laying a hand on Spitter’s shoulder, guiding him back toward the pickup, but not before that black gob landed inches from my combat boots.

Fox exhaled and leaned toward me, gesturing for the others to do the same. “Let’s think this through,” he whispered, reaching for my fingers. “Good call, Osprey. It’s too bad about the kid, but that was good footage. I think we can flip it on these fuckers and keep them the bad guys, do the same when the cops get here.”

The girl’s crying suddenly muffled as the father rolled up his window. Moments later a door opened and slammed, the engine still idling, burning gas they claimed not to have. I turned to see the father stomping toward me in his hiking boots. He grabbed my shoulders, and Bear rushed forward to engage him. I couldn’t quite see because they scuffled right behind me, a tangle of black and khaki clothes grunting and huffing, while the wailing inside the SUV intensified, the mother yelling for her daughter to be quiet. One of the men landed a punch, the dull thud of fist against flesh. Then Bear’s dreads swung wildly as he roared and threw his weight into a pin. The father flailed beneath him but couldn’t break the hold.

I could feel where the father had squeezed my shoulders, imagined him trying to yank me out of the pipes and realized that’s what I would have done. I waited for the other door to open, for the mother to rush over and work on me, start screaming in my ear with Bear now occupied, but she stayed inside the SUV with their hysterical daughter.

“Please,” the father begged.

Osprey’s camera had caught it all and now settled on me.

“Stay strong,” Fox whispered.

He had trusted me, must have seen more than good looks to plop me in the middle of the chain instead of cemented into the ground where he sat. I’d be letting him and the Watchers down if I unclipped, but the longer I sat, the more I felt myself hurting the girl. A different kind of violence. And what images would all this leave in her young brain? I’d never returned to Oaxaca.

Maybe I wasn’t meant to be in front of the camera. Maybe I’d get that wilderness job, hook angry kids on Big Mother and help people and trees that way.

The young logger bit at the splinter in his thumb, glancing from logger to Watcher to SUV until his eyes settled on mine.

I gave him a smile before I unclipped.

Loose Parts

Our spot is across the red delicious orchard, down one granny smith and across
two cherry plots until we get to the refuse pile. Looming warehouses, iceboxes full
of fruit—their generators making the ground hum as we stay hidden amidst junk.
We drag, flip and tilt broken fruit crates, each large enough for three girls to lay
down in with legs curled, until we have a house. Our hoard of chipped plates
and plastic cups scattered each week with weathered boards, pale at the break.
We never pretend we're rich or moody fairies like we do in our green yards with
their shady trees. Instead, we are Russians in the cold, we are gnomes far from
home. Under the trash, high mountain desert scrub. We practice shelter, crouch
in dirt and shrug on the aspect of things forgotten. We share and scavenge, noble
in hardship. Running home for dinner in the early autumn light, we carefully skirt
the migrant workers and their camps.

Shells

I smell it before I see it, that faint stink of sewage and saltspray. Next comes the familiar murmur: The sea’s speech carried by a funneled breeze. I skim the sign first in English, then stutter slow in Chinese: Cheung Chau Tung Wan Beach, and between shop doors of shuttered steel the grey pavement falls away to faded sands. Beyond, a thin ribbon of white foam frills wintry waters. The sky is grey and the ocean is grey-green. I am home.

Fifteen years. It feels at least that long. I don’t go down to the beach yet. Instead, I walk over to the lifeguard station and gaze up at the bare metal pole. No one sits in the watchtower; no flag flies in the wind. In my mind’s eye I try to see that banner at mast once more, black fin set against blue and white, back when my seven-year-old self conjured life out of dark depths, willing into existence silent sharks in search of little feet to eat. Beneath moonlit skies I would run from sea to sand and back again, holding down the surge of thrill as dark waters washed up my knees, until all spilled over and I sprinted to safety, screaming in glee. Can’t catch me!

I try to find my old spot. Thirty paces out from the steps and twenty left used to place me dry above the lip of high tide. But things change. Instead, wet sand and surf threatens. Moving up a few feet, I throw down my baby-blue towel, kick off my lime flip-flops, and feel the grit of years against my soles, worry in between my toes. The sand is coarser than I recall. I am home, but I realize, perhaps for the first time since being back, that home may also be a place I have never been.

Nearby, a bicycle’s slumped frame is the lone sign of life on what was once a bustling stretch. The island’s dying, my grandfather lamented earlier when he took me out for morning dim sum. Tourists don’t come visit and youth have moved away, leaving behind us old bones. My grandfather looks old, is old, getting older all the time. Facing the end of possibility, he complains unceasingly of trifling matters. But I accept his thin and bitter vintage. Everyone learns the business of dying through living.

It is death that brought me back across the Pacific, pulled me back to this home place I had intended only to revisit in memory. My uncle and I were not especially close, but I had admired him from afar all my life as the prodigal son, the Swiss success, the kin mercurial. Brain tumors at forty-nine. Two kids, nine and twelve. There are no reasons, and even if there were, they would not suffice. Things are.

I dig hard into the sand, focusing on the raw sting of my hand instead of those behind my eyes. My mind slips back across the years. Does it still exist, that perfect shell I unearthed, then abandoned, half a lifetime ago? As I delve down I imagine it there, sheltered from scour and decay, remaining as I remember it, butter-yellow with even rings, imbued with deep purple hues, immaculate. But it’s not. I’m in the wrong place, years removed. The shell has long since melted into sand and sea, and there shall never be another one like it in all the world, in all the worlds, in all the expanse of time.

Deep in the wet salt depression I come across another shell, a wretched looking thing. A solitary barnacle erupts out of one side, forming a pale cancerous crater, and on the other, ragged rings thin and thick scar the mottled surface. I am about to pitch it into the waves when I realize that the shell is still sealed. Alive.

I squeeze my hand on the hard thing, and upon feeling its heft, bury it back in the sands. The wind picks up, cursing in sharp gusts, but I pay it no heed, having long ago grown accustomed to the chilled tongue of another home. Instead I lick warm salt from the corners of my mouth as the sea responds on my behalf, only slightly hurried. I sit and listen for what seems like a long time. No one comes back for the bicycle.

Lunar Musings: The Moon, My Sister, and Me

From my bed, I watch the moon. My youngest sister crawls in with me. We curl together, spine against spine. And in its gentle light, she and I slumber amid moon-cast shadows. It seeps into our skin. It settles in our bones. We are pulled skyward and bathed, baptized, reborn. We belong to the moon and it is ours.

“Moon”—the word is an ancient one. The root is Proto-Germanic, maenon, meaning both moon and month. Mona, mano, maan, mena, mene: the words are strikingly similar across many old tongues. For several of these languages, Greek, Italian, Celtic, and Armenian, the word now only means month. Lunar cycles have been used throughout the course of human history for measurement. Women are considered the first scientists because they were hunter-gatherers, watching the world around them, and conducting the first studies in natural observation. They recognized the parallel between the cycles of female menstruation and the cycles of the moon. These two words share their origins. Waxing: light comes across, swelling from the right. Waning: darkness follows. Waxing, waning. Waning, waxing. The full moon, rich and round, gets eaten away in careful bites, the most meticulous of devourings.

Each lunar cycle begins with the new moon: it sounds so young, so fresh, and so bright. But on the night of the new moon, there is no moon at all—merely a darkness in the sky. The moon swells slowly, like the gestation of a child, characterized by that initial lack, the expectancy. At the apex of the lunar cycle comes the full moon. Swollen and heavy, it seems representative of all that is womanly and round.

***

I was almost thirteen when my parents decided they wanted another child. Before my youngest sister was born I had been one of three, a middle child, with a slightly older brother and a slightly younger sister. Curiously, it was through the birth of this final sister, this last little family member, that I grew up. She aged me.

My memory of the summer of my mother’s final pregnancy is characterized by my recollections of the day my father returned from Iraq. At first it’s only an image: my mother and father embracing outside the plane hangar at the military base. My father has returned and he makes it just in time. My mother is due any day. In my mind they’re backlit by the setting sun, silhouettes. I’m pretty sure it is actually high noon in this particular memory, but who can be upset by a little post-action dramatization?

So, they’re embracing: her arching, 5’4,” massively pregnant, up and over that swollen moon of a belly to embrace him, 6’2.” A slightly comical pairing, yet at the same time so imbued with my understanding of my parents and their relationship that it seemed to me almost tragic, even at that age. Like I said, he’s made it just in time. He left again soon after.

At this point, I was trying terribly hard not to cry. What an awful, grown-up, suffocated feeling. Restraint is definitely an adult concept. At that moment I felt like all that was young and weak and vulnerable about me was choked up in my throat, rising like vomit. Yet I decided to restrain myself, not to cry, and that choice stands as one of the few identifiable moments in my life where I know I grew up. In that choice, on that day, I got older.

***

The moon is unswerving in its devotion to Earth: our natural satellite. Rotating on its axis at approximately the same speed it revolves around the earth, we only ever see one half of the moon. Its dark side will never be revealed. It is 2,160 miles in diameter. 238,857 miles away. Yet it does not leave.

The moon is the second brightest object in our sky. Its surface is dark, yet reflective, like coal. Its core is solid: strong and iron-rich. Before my sister’s birth I went with my mother to one of her ultrasounds. They situated her on the table. It looked awful, clinically cold, clinically green. She hadn’t wanted to go alone. So there I was, standing by her side as they glopped the gel on her stomach. Somehow it was worse that it had no color. Oozy and thick, her flesh distorted through the colorless goop looked alien to me: shiny, melted out of shape, and wrong, like the bubbled flesh of a burn victim.

Suddenly feeling quite nauseous I went into the hallway, leaned against the wall, and slid down. The cheap wallpaper brush-burned my lower back. Curled at the base I ended up with my head between my knees, in fetal position— of all places. I thought of my mother’s strength and her brave iron core, carrying another child at thirty-nine while my father was so far away. I took a few deep breaths. Then I picked up my head and went back inside smiling.

***

The moon has often been associated with madness. People used to think that because the moon pulled tides, it pulled the fluids in the brain. The word “lunatic,” developed in the late thirteenth century, means: a person affected with periodic insanity dependent upon the changes of the moon. The origin is Old French, lunatique—meaning insane—and Latin, luna—meaning moon, or moon goddess.

I couldn’t sleep at all the night after she was born. I kept dreaming that I had her in the bed with me. And I would reach, reach both in my dream and in reality to the crook of my arm. I would reach to place a hand on her soft belly, to reassure myself that she was there, that she was alright. But of course she wasn’t there. She was at the hospital where she was supposed to be, no doubt snug and safe, all rolled up like a little piece of sushi, face poking out of that rice-white swaddling.

So my arm would thud to the mattress. And I would awake, panicked, searching her out. Blind in that dark bedroom, my eyes frantically roved the moon shadows until I realized, remembered, and fell to fitful sleeping once more—only to reach and thud, panic and remember. Again. And again. And again. Such frantic anxiety and fear for another, such a hyperactive sense of responsibility was crazy, insane. Yes, she aged me.

***

Once I was moon-gazing with my sister one summer evening. I held her cocooned in my lap and lazily we stared at the sky while the Adirondack chair pressed red lines into the undersides of my thighs. It was then that we noticed the darknesses, the spots on the moon. She thought them freckles like her own, dotting across the moon’s nose. Ancient scientists thought they were large bodies of water, moon-oceans and named them maria, which is Latin for seas. But both were wrong: the marks are neither freckles nor seas. No water in liquid state can exist on the moon. It becomes decomposed through a process called photodissociation and lost to space. Selenography, or the study of the physical features of the moon, has revealed that these dark patches are craters. Deep and wide, these chasms might have once held seas of some sort, so the ancient scientists weren’t far off. But I like my sister’s answer better.

The moon may not have water, yet it controls ours. It pulls the tides and lengthens the days. Tidal theory is one of the biggest messes in contemporary physics. The sun has a stronger gravitational effect on the Earth than the moon. Yet the tides are pulled by the moon. Tides pulled by the sun would be about 180 times as great. The solution to this riddle involves a lot of complicated math, numbers and letters lining up together to prove something, which, in layman’s terms boils down to a simple matter of cancellation. Apparently, the tidal forces result from imperfect mutual dissolution of centrifugal and gravitational forces at a specific distance away from the system’s center of gravity. I’ve always thought there was something almost sad about the tides. It’s an embrace, but it’s also an abandonment. Ebb, flow. Come, go.

My littlest sister has always loved the ocean. When she first saw it, she was still crawling. The moment her knees and hands touched sand, she headed for the water. That initial mouthful of brine did little more than momentarily stun her. Then she was crawling again, deeper into the waves. Laughing, I had to carry her shoreward repeatedly. If I hadn’t, she would have continued onward, never pausing, even as the sea closed over her head.

***

The tides tease in their reach and retreat. Constant yet every-changing, they can no more cease their fickle habits than a child can keep from growing. I understood this intuitively of course. My sister would grow older and need me less.

Pain is inherent in loving that which cannot remain the same. But the heart is slow to learn.

***

The moon has moonquakes. They’re weaker than earthquakes and are caused by a sudden release of built up tidal pressures. Since there is no water on the moon to mute the tremors, they last longer. The moon shudders. It quivers like a racing heart, trembling like adrenalized limbs.

One day a friend of mine came over to pick me up for practice. She had a cold and her already deep voice had deepened considerably. My sister had just begun stringing simple sentences together: subject and verb, occasionally in agreement.

“You sound like a man.” She said it without inflection, a child’s observation, unintended to harm and oblivious to the constraints finer social manners would soon teach her. My friend bent down till her eyes were level with my sister’s.

“Your hair looks like a man’s.” She threw out the retort, mocking the mop of chocolate curls that were just starting to come in on that soft-centered crown and hurt welled in my sister’s round young eyes. My fury was immediate and engulfing. I had my sister in my arms, one hand protectively cupping her head so swiftly that I blinked down in shock at the limbs that had reacted so protectively, so suddenly.

“Leave,” I said coldly. I never made it to practice and our friendship was never the same. Afterwards I realized I was shaking. I shuddered with racing heart and adrenalized limbs. Moonquaked. Even now I scarcely understand the ferocity of my reaction.

***

My sister has piano lessons on Monday evenings. During the summers, when home from college, I’d help her practice. One afternoon, not long ago, we were playing together. It was a little duet that she had been working on and I played the teacher’s part. The fine hairs near her temples were slick against her scalp, sweaty from playing on the swing-set in the backyard. When we finished I leaned in and kissed the top of her head. Her sweat smelled—not terrible, of course. It was not in any way comparable to the body odor produced by a pubescent boy. But neither was it the innocent, odorless sweat of a baby.

Something inside me crumbled in that moment, tiny fractures forming in my core. There were cracks in the reservoir of strength I had built that day when I had chosen not to cry. I felt this terrible shrinking feeling, though I did my best to hide it. How had this happened? When had this happened? How dare I be gone so frequently, so long? What kind of big sister is as absent as I? I knew what that smell meant, even if I didn’t want to face it at the time. She was growing, and soon she’d be a full person of her own, not that infant I had reached for in the night, but a girl who wouldn’t need me, at least not with the intense, encompassing need of a baby. I shook myself out of my reverie. After all, there was nothing I could do about it. Change is inevitable.

I poked her playfully in the side. She giggled. We went upstairs and did a little washing up before dinner. My sweaty little sister, whose hand still felt so small in mine, but whose head was cresting dangerously close to the height of my shoulder.

***

The moon’s practical role in our society today has become obsolete. It no longer provides necessary markings of the passing of time. Our culture does not depend upon it; we don’t need it anymore. But it is still wanted: its presence is still beloved. My sister no longer needs me the way she used to, and I am obsolete. But I hope that I am still wanted, still desired, still beloved. Her presence in my life changed me irrevocably… and I am without regret.

According to the Outer Space Treaty, the moon is free to all nations for exploration. Yet I am unwilling to share. The moon is ours, my sister’s and mine. And though we may not need it, as I am no longer needed, we still want it all for ourselves.