As the Water Rises

A cedar waxwing almost brushes my forehead, drawn by mosquitoes who are drawn by my warmth and my breath exhaled into the evening. I am standing at the edge of the water on our land. The sweet bright air seems absurd against the backdrop of floodwater rising in Houston and Miami, in the St. Martin and Barbuda, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal. So many people waist-deep in the streets. Islands destroyed. I feel acutely aware of my dry feet, dry home.

Across the wetland in front of me, common gallinules shout to each other. They are new here, with their purple-black bodies and red-orange bills voicing raucous sounds—clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps. I am glad they are here, drawn by our cattails and wetland expanded this spring by beavers. I welcome the beavers, too, but they are aggravating the neighbors and the township that clears their dam from the culvert to keep water below the road.

Like us, beavers engineer water movement and levels to suit themselves. Effects on others simply happen. Some species, like the cattails and gallinules, share the beavers’ priority for more open water. Some, like our human neighbors, require dry land for roads, hay fields, and one guy’s private landing strip.

I consider the widening wetland-now-pond in front of me. Drawn by gravity, water moves downhill until something blocks it. Both beavers and humans spend considerable time helping water defy gravity. We stopper flowing water, backing it up into reservoirs that spread over previously dry land. Or we guide it away from low wet places, draining them into livable, workable landscapes. When our engineering is destroyed, we rebuild it the same.

Humans not only rearrange water, however, we also rearrange carbon, dragging from deep in the earth and burning it, releasing it. Beavers’ activities change the landscape; our behaviors have changed the entire planet.

In this changed world, water misbehaves. A year’s worth of water falls from the sky in a few days. Water surges from the ocean. Having been so tightly reined into unnatural riverbanks and reservoirs and gutters and sewers and channels, all of this extra water no longer absorbs into wetlands or flood plains or deltas or shorelines. Water rises, now seeming to defy gravity on its own.

One more stride from where I stand, and I will be calf-deep. Do I deserve to sink into the wetland, being unprepared for this moment, having walked towards the water wearing only my worn leather boots, not quite paying attention? None of us has the right shoes on at all times. I do not deserve misfortune, even for my mistakes. I do need, however, to pay attention. My actions have consequences, and not just for myself.

My actions and my lifestyle have contributed to what seems like a tiny shift—just one degree of warmth in an ocean. It’s not tiny though. Even a small change on a large scale can have big consequences—melting permafrost, epic storms.

Standing at the edge, I am lucky. I have the option to step back onto dry ground, to return to a dry home. We work hard for our home, but we would not have it without both help and luck, neither of which I earned any more than I earned the nose on my face. Help and good fortune mean that I am more buffered than some people from the consequences of our actions on this planet. Many people live in vulnerable places. Many people do not have options.

The evening here is so calm it is hard to believe there are catastrophes. It is hard to believe that those catastrophes have anything to do with me. But I am not separate or alone. I am here with the beavers, gallinules, and cedar waxwings. And with my neighbors—that is to say, our neighbors—Houston and Miami, the St. Martin and Barbuda; India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Now is not the time to struggle with believing what is abundantly evident—we are creating disasters. Now is the time to stop changing the climate. We are all here together.

 

And Then It Is Dawn

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So many objects in the night sky are shining and flickering that it’s hard for me to tell which ones are real. I mean real as in masses of gas and rock and energy sending their light from the deep past across space to my eyes. The satellites and airplanes are real too, but somehow they mean less to me than the stars.

A glow blankets the southern horizon from the direction of town—more human lights confusing my view of the stars. Maybe these unnatural lights disappoint me because the work of our brains seems better at causing damage than at fixing things. Even our complex, satellite-building minds can barely comprehend the scope of the trouble we’re bringing upon ourselves.

As always, I’ve been looking to the sky, a practice that lifts my chin and opens my chest. It is not, otherwise, a useful practice, so I am trying to level my chin and keep my hands busy. There are a hundred small tasks in every day. Pouring the milk, picking up a dropped toothbrush, turning the key, driving to the school. I deliver one-armed hugs over backpacks and release my kids with off-you-go waves when I want to stay on my knees pressing them in my arms.

I have been building weird things. My seven-year-old and I screwed together several pieces of wood from the burn pile and added carpet scraps to make a tall playground for our kitten. Crooked fence circles of various sizes encircle our tiny blueberry bushes, which I am determined to protect. In the barn, our chicken coop has new, gigantic roosts with long black locust branches staggered unevenly almost to the ceiling.

I have been building in these uncannily beautiful late fall days. At night, the moon has been strong—called a supermoon when it was full, but even more haunting to me in this past week. When waning, and this moon’s top appears scooped-out, as if the moon is hollow, but still powerful. In this moon’s glare, hunters are tempted to shoot early this morning as they watch deer wander nearby on the first morning of the hunting season, when the laws prohibit shooting before dawn.

And then it is dawn. As always, things seem a bit more real to me in the morning. It might have to do with what I can and cannot see. Out my kitchen window, I see chickens enjoying our garden soil and the sunlight touching treetops across the wetland.

From my window, I cannot see the swastikas freshly painting in public places or the faces of men who have amplified hatred as their life work being selected to advise our government. I cannot see tear gas pluming into the faces of Native people protecting our water or the rapid warming of our planet. But I know they are out there.

I also cannot see the thousands of people in the streets, people no longer standing by, people rushing to defend victims of hate crimes increasing across the country. I cannot see the networks of caring, thoughtful people building empathy and concern for each other and our planet. From here, I cannot see the small flowering cyclamen plant that I left at our local Planned Parenthood clinic last week or my phone calls to our representatives in Congress. But I know they are all out there, too.

And this evening out my window, there are three ducks, never apart, quacking in their busy way across the yard to their favorite puddle. Nothing will descend upon them unnoticed since they are always watching out for each other. There is one vocal, rangy barn cat who spent her whole previous life kept indoors, but now owns the place. She is nobody’s fool; she can take on any rat that causes us trouble.

And then it is dawn again, and all of the stars have fallen, are falling, and blanketing the ground in our first snow. Each strand of our fence netting carries the weight of the snow. Every branch bows to this unexpected beauty. The distant things seem near, and everything seems both imagined and real.

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For Everyone Struggling to Breathe This Week

Driving a curving, ice-sleeted road near home, we slide. In our ‘93 Toyota Camry, my mom stays calm somehow and, from the passenger seat says something like, “We’re going in the ditch.” In the backseat, Stella and Sam stop their chatter. Abandoning brakes and thought and maybe breathing, I just keep steering. We glide like a slow boat—first to the left, then towards the right ditch, then undeniably into the left ditch. At the last minute I touch the brake, and in some astonishing wonder of physics, we gracefully turn 180 degrees and stop still, facing where we had started. Still on the road. Still a week to go before the election.

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On Wednesday morning, November 9, the kids’ French toast burns when I run upstairs for I forget what. A charred smell takes over the kitchen, then drifts into the mudroom. There, it mingles with our farm boots and ends up smelling just like calf dehorning—seared flesh and burned hair mixed with wet shit. The smell seems to fit the day.

On Wednesday morning, the physical therapy room at ground level in our community’s small hospital steadily fills with white men. They are verbally thumping their chests at the women and the one person of color. “You seem really edgy this morning,” my PT tells me, and she hisses. Later, I walk over to the men and shake a hand and say, “Congratulations. I hope this change you’re excited about includes more kindness. I hope you can be kind.” I want to say more, but I’ve used my available breath. I walk away, gulping air.

On Wednesday night, a petite, fierce musician on a blue-lit stage presses her eyes. Her whole career has been poetry music that amplifies voices of people nobody hears, trying to sing towards change. Tonight, she speaks to us in uncharacteristic understatement.

“Tell us how you really feel,” someone yells from the darkened audience.

“I’m really trying to play it straight here,” Ani DiFranco says.

“Go off the rails,” someone yells.

She laughs, but mutedly, like it’s a little hard to get enough oxygen for a big open laugh.

Later she stands without her guitar, just a poem from years ago, saying,

“I sing sometimes like my life is at stake, ‘cause you’re only as loud as the noises you make. I’m learning to laugh as hard as I can listen, ‘cause silence is violence in women and poor people. If more people were screaming then I could relax, but a good brain ain’t diddley if you don’t have the facts…We live in a breakable, takeable world, an ever available possible world,”

and her words will ferment in my head for days.

On Thursday night, after the kids are asleep, I sit down, then stand up, walk to the kitchen, then back to the sofa. I suck my teeth and turn on my phone and turn it off. Discarding all other media, I look for books, but can’t settle. I pick up The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz and open it to Chapter Three and read that fermentation is transformative action. “‘Mixed cultures are the rule in nature,’” and I digest this, slowly.

Here is a process that utilizes—demands—diversity and produces energy without oxygen. It works in dark places. It smells powerful and makes tangy, amazing things. From it emerge sauerkraut, kimchi, chutney, miso, tempeh, dilly beans, and a hundred other pickles. We get yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and just plain vinegar. Without it, we would miss wines, meads, ciders, beers. Mixed cultures. Transformation.

For everyone struggling to breathe this week, maybe this stench is something burned and inedible, and maybe it is something beginning to ferment. Something that will make the invisible visible, that will bubble and rise, that will feed us.

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Also this week at physical therapy

Going to Seed

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October. We have not turned on the heat, and the picnic table sits steadfast in the yard as if it is still September. In this lingering warmth, we are stealing time from winter. We fool ourselves by delaying things at the beginning of a long haul, the way we wouldn’t eat the good snacks or trade drivers in the first few miles of a ten-hour road trip. The next season could be a long haul.

Or maybe I am borrowing back time from summer—time lost in my concussion fog—now that I have energy. I grab the long-handled lops and flail into the pasture to clear around our young poplar trees, leveling goldenrod, burdock, and some thorny black locust sprouts mostly taller than my head. Sometimes I just swing the lops like a sword-wielding samurai to whack down the thinner weeds. Mostly I scissor through, taking ridiculously precise bites with the tool’s small, curved mouth.

It’s really too late for this work, since these weeds have gone to seed. Everything seems to be doing that these days.

Thorny problems have grown up among us while we looked away. We find ourselves not-so-suddenly in a thicket of hateful stuff, which has already formed seeds and begun to scatter them. Painful barbed sticks have resprouted from deeply rooted stumps like the black locust trees. Even as we try to address this current tangle of racism, misogyny, fear, and hatred of others, the seeds of next year’s struggles have been sown.

November. And now it is November 4. We tick off the days until election, wanting relief from uncertainty. Wanting the world to go back to before the election insanity began. It seemed quieter then, and now everybody is raw. We are hurting the way an infected blister hurts, just after it bursts open

And I realize that nothing is over in four days; November 9 is simply a beginning. No matter who arrives in the White House, the people we need to live with are all around us. We have cracked open many new and old conversations in the past year. We are talking about truth, safety, love, hatred, the basics that define our country, and if democracy will survive. Right now these conversations are wounds, but maybe we can begin to heal if we take care of each other.

Everyone I talk with thinks everyone else is going to seed—getting out of hand, taking over, choking out the good, threatening this place itself. Once again, our differences scare us.

I am weeding again, and I notice that when all kinds of plants have gone to seed, some hope can grow out of it. The milkweed carries pods loaded with seeds, each one equipped with a tuft of down to lift it on the breeze. Next year’s milkweed will feed Monarch butterflies on their improbably long travels. Clover grows where we never planted it, fixing nitrogen from the air and into the soil, making it more fertile.

Let’s live in these conversations—this weedy, seedy place. Let’s talk and listen about all our despair and hope. Let’s breathe this same, fine November air together. For now, to help me keep breathing, please tell me your stories of kindness and love—seeds that can grow good things in the long haul. We all need each other and our stories in the days ahead.

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A Barn on the Brain

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I have been quiet here for months. And now the purple asters punctuate goldenrods along the roadside, and the tomatoes sink into weeds. The twelve-foot tall sunflowers, keeling over, seem to have drained their warm colors into the pumpkins. Summer’s upward projects slow, pause, relax—the barn is secured for the winter, spaghetti sauce in jars, book writing complete. Fall brings its spectacular grand finale of sky and color, and a permission to settle ourselves into routine. My brain is grateful.

The barn, in particular, challenged us this summer. Even 18 months ago, our 200-year-old barn gave us headaches, looking dilapidated, but still housing the previous owners old cars and piles of junk. Last fall, finally empty of junk, the barn was dizzying with its crooked beams and floor. Over the winter, we felt vaguely ill watching the barn’s north wall bending in the wind. This summer, the barn pained us both, for different reasons.

Andrew led the restoration efforts, starting by clearing out almost a century of hay and tearing down a filthy dropped ceiling and old electrical wires. With his dad, he carefully jacked up all posts in the leaning north end, some requiring 18 inches of lift. I fretted, declaring that I’d rather bulldoze the barn than see anyone get hurt, but they were careful, and raised the barn safely onto stacked wood towers.

We hired an Amish construction crew to excavate the ruins of the foundation and pour a new one. Friends and neighbors helped to further straighten the barn with giant come-alongs and chains. Meanwhile, I was painting the stack of barn siding, with more help from friends and family, until the afternoon I became the only person injured in this whole summer of barn work.

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The fateful doorway

I was heading out behind the barn to paint siding, but detoured through it to admire the progress, enjoying a quiet moment alone. After a few minutes, I decided to get to work. Striding from the main barn through the even-worse side barn, I ducked out the low back door. But—distracted and wearing a ball cap—I miscalculated. The doorjamb’s blow to my head whiplashed my neck and sent me backwards onto the ground.

While I spent the rest of the summer wrestling with worsening, then finally improving concussion symptoms, the barn crew performed miracles. They set the barn down on its new foundation, replaced huge rotten beams, cranked the barn into straightness, and painted the rest of the siding.

I still have some residual headaches and neck pain, but I am much better. We still have some barn doors to build and another year or two of work on the remaining half of the barn, which will include tearing down the concussion-causing side barn, but the main barn is much better. As the fall sky fills with wild geese and the green disappears, our minds have a respite, knowing that the main barn and I will both remain standing this winter.

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