Dispatches from a Stricken World I

This month our Outbreak series, reflecting on the current pandemic, will feature a 'palimpsest' of pieces from around the world: short overlapping texts that give individual insights into our collective dilemma. We begin with two dispatches, from Joanna Pocock in London and Austin Jepsky in Pittsburgh, USA.
Austin is a student at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been working with conservation groups around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the past eight years to protect the remaining chunks of wilderness amid suburbia. Joanna is a British-Canadian writer currently living in London. Her work of creative non-fiction Surrender was published in May 2019. She teaches Prose Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction at the University of the Arts, London.

Hawk and Dove

It was a crisp December morning, not even a month before the word ‘Coronavirus’ first began to make its way into the international lexicon. On my way to a Christmas market in Downtown Pittsburgh, I passed a window and stopped. There below it lay the bodies of two birds. A Cooper’s hawk and a mourning dove. It did not take a forensics analyst to see what had happened here. The hawk had been chasing the dove, just as I had seen it doing with another bird only two months prior. Desperate for an escape route, the dove misjudged the presence of the glass and collided with it, followed quickly by the hawk. There they laid, predator and prey. I took a picture to file a report and got on my way.

All day at the market, I couldn’t get those birds out of my head. The thought of all the moments and elements that had to align to result in their dual demise. The hawk spotting that individual dove. The dove fleeing towards that window. The failure of the hawk to catch the dove prior to the collision. I pondered over this for hours. The dove like a sort of Samson, through its own death killing a mortal enemy of its entire species. The hawk, more agile than even the most advanced jet-fighter, unable to bank off from the certain death it had just seen smash its prey.

Then another set of thoughts crossed my mind. The thought of watching their bodies rot over the next few months, just as I had seen with a dead squirrel on that same street, as I walked to and from class. Or, perhaps worse, the image of a Groundskeeper Willie lookalike unceremoniously throwing their bodies into a plastic bag for disposal in a landfill. I could stomach neither fate for them.

Once I returned home, I grabbed a shovel and a bag. I walked back to where they laid and picked them up. Holding that hawk in my hands felt surreal. It was beautiful, its striped tail feathers, the curved end of its beak showing it to be an efficient hunter of other avians. It and the dove showed no sign of external injury, like pristine museum specimens. I placed them both into my bag and began a long hike up to the Hill.

The Hill is how Pittsburghers refer to the Hill District. The Hill District encompasses just five of the 90 individual neighborhoods that make up Pittsburgh. Separated by winding rivers and the hills characteristic of Appalachian topography, these neighbourhoods all grew as one off of industries like steel and glass production. But with deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, Pittsburgh as a whole suffered. Some of the neighbourhoods have since recovered, but others have not. The Hill is one of the areas that has not. It was severed from the Downtown by an urban renewal project, like a flower being cut off from its roots. The area began to decline, many people who could moved away, crime increased, and houses became blighted and were torn down. Now the place resembles a partial rewilding project with many vacant lots and abandoned houses covered in Virginia creeper and Japanese knotweed. 

Amongst the remaining habitable houses in one part of the Hill District, there is a cemetery. I had discovered this place during a Sunday stroll several years prior, and I knew it would be the only place they could rest undisturbed by a future developer’s bulldozer. On the edge of the cemetery, in a hollowed-out stump, I buried them together. From this hill top, they would have a prime view of the coming decades.

On the edge of the cemetery, in a hollowed-out stump, I buried them together. From this hill top, they would have a prime view of the coming decades.

They are now viewing the clearest air and skies this city has seen in centuries, with eagles and falcons taking full advantage of the Coronavirus shutdown. But soon enough they will see these skies become polluted once again as things return to ‘normal’. They will watch as the landscape around them changes, all the while the climate crisis grows worse. They will likely watch a scene in the near future like that witnessed during the Fall of Rome. The buildings of this city consumed in fire. The streets covered in the chaos of a sack or riot, followed by an eerie silence. Then the vines and the knotweed will take over, followed shortly by trees. I don’t know along what timeline this future will occur, but I am certain it will unfold in a way similar to this. 

The planet will eventually recover, as it always does. Whether people live to see it or not is another matter entirely. If they do, I hope my descendants are explorers. I will leave them a quest to pursue. Through the Pittsburgh jungle to the top of the Hill, find an old field of covered tombstones. On the far side of it, in the ring of ancient stump, dig down. See what remains of the hawk and dove.

– Austin Jepsky

 

Dreams of What We Already Know: Locked Down in London

Bedroom ceiling (Photo by Joanna Pocock)

A photo of my mother laughing. No, not my mother, but a photo of my mother. This distinction is important. 

My daughter Googling global pandemics. She earnestly recites the number of girls and women murdered by the men they are living with during lockdown – another unexpected effect of this virus’s grip on the planet.

Ice. Lots of it. And all of it melting. The sound of icebergs gnashing and glaciers creaking, softening, becoming sludge. 

And then there is this one: I dream that black holes exist on Earth. All you have to do is write the word TIME onto a sheet of paper and stare at it. This is enough to suck you into a vortex in which there is no time or space or matter. This is our route out of here. 

The most surprising outcome of lockdown for me, apart from the vividness of my dreams, has been the upending of my relationship to time. I had always seen myself as existing in a present, a dot on a line, with a distinct past and an emerging future. My present derived its meaning partly from its relation to a past and future. I travelled along this line carrying my baggage, cases strapped to the back of waiting cars or passed through the open windows of trains. These suitcases travelled with me into my future for me to unpack as I needed. The trajectory, regardless of whether it led to desirable or unwelcome places, was always a forward one. With everything stalled, with book tours postponed, jobs cancelled, physical travel curtailed, I am frozen in a small patch of East London in an unmoored present. The only route open is the route already travelled. My future is being sucked into the black hole of nostalgia. I long for things I once experienced, places I once lived, people I loved who are now dead. The past is rearing up, casting a long, dark shadow obliterating the vision of a future. I used to distrust nostalgia, but perhaps the past is as safe a place as any to explore when our future is unimaginable. 

I used to distrust nostalgia, but perhaps the past is as safe a place as any to explore when our future is unimaginable. 

My lockdown dreams are random and unexpected. They are the drunk, anarchic explorers of the dream world, pushing at the edge of consciousness, rousing me from sleep with slurred words and demands for more, for entrance into whatever sober ideas I might have once held. What does one do with these drunk explorers? Allow them free reign? Give them more whiskey? Reason with them? Let them sleep off their hangovers on one’s sofa?

Let’s get back to the ice. It is the sound of it melting that disturbs me the most and teeters on the brink of my sleep. The sound isn’t all unpleasant; it brings me back to my childhood in Ottawa and that drip-dripping soundscape of spring when melting icicles left little pools in the snow directly under the straight edge of the eaves. But the meltwater that comes to me at night is not the reassuring soundscape of spring; it is the portent of an uninhabitable planet. These are not icicles in my dreams; but whole continents, and they are disappearing. In the melting of icecaps, icebergs, glaciers, and permafrost, our collective past is flowing from our solid Earth. With increased temperatures, some of it is evaporating into thin air, and some is merging with existing rivers, creating new lakes, flowing into the sea. Ice not only holds space, it holds time. When it disappears, so does our past. We will need a new word for the melancholia induced by a loss of ice; a word more specific than solastalgia. 

I have a horror, a deep-seated fear, of living on a planet without ice, without access to our shared planetary history. Thinking of our pasts melting away, I experience the same horror I felt as I watched both my parents have their pasts taken from them by dementia. With their pasts erased, any sense of their selves, of who they were or had once been also disappeared. The melting of the world’s ice is our planet’s dementia. This virus has filled my head with the dreams of what we already know. I call them dreams because they come to me in my sleep, and because the nightmares are what we are living while we are awake.  

– Joanna Pocock

 

MAIN IMAGE: Jayne Ivimey
The Red List
Clay fired sculpture

An exhibition of 70 clay birds on the list of endangered British birds that is not only a celebration of the birds themselves but also a chance to pause and look at them, as they are and have been for so many millennia and could be again if we were to make their world a safer place. In 2009 the number of birds on the RSPB’s red list was 52, their numbers having declined by up to 90%, as rural development and overfishing wreaked havoc with their habitat and food. Then the number rose to 70, 27% of the entire population of 244 species. Could rewilding help to reverse the decline of nature in Britain and offer a new way of looking at conservation? The simple possibility of leaving things alone and remembering that we are one species among many.

Artist Jayne Ivimey has returned to the landscape of her native East Anglia over many years in a quest to understand its geology and ecosystems. Seven years in New Zealand working in bird conservation alerted her to the global problems in the bird world. Her book Bird by Bird: The Red List in Thought and Image is written by Julia Blackburn. jayneivemey.com

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 17

The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.

 

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Comments
  1. Lest we forget, all this latest pandemic–like the 2003 SARS epidemic–was HUMAN-caused, a direct result of our gross abuse of animals over the millennia, both wild and domestic. I’m reminded of a statement by the late U. Utah Phillips: “The planet is not dying, it’s being killed. And those doing the killing have names and addresses. ” Sadly, ALL of Homo sapiens (sic) share the blame. Perhaps, miraculously, this godawful pandemic will teach us a much-needed lesson in humility and compassion for others, humans and non-humans alike. Judging from past history, I ain’t holding my breath…..

  2. Dreams of the not yet known. Waking up and emerging in lockdown.

    Dear Joanna, a wonderful piece about the emerging awareness of the dream state in lockdown. The unconscious becoming more fascinating than what we ordinarily call the “waking life”. I am by no means a dream expert, but I am doing my research. The ice is melting. I am reminded of the subject line from one of Naomi Klein’s The Leap newsletters that I received a few months ago: “We are the wildfires”. I didn’t read the newsletter, but I assumed that the title was meant to be an inspiring call to action and passion, rather than an admonishment, but it was probably both. I wonder if you know of the modern day mystic Caroline Myss, I don’t know if she is up your street, but I love her speeches. She talks about how, for a while now, humanity has been moving from a materialistic way of being to an energetic way of being. She talks about the different states of water in physics: solid (ice), liquid and gas. How many of us are starting to melt from a solid state to a liquid state. (We are the melting ice).

    I hear that there are many different ways of interpreting dreams and that we must not get stuck on a literal interpretation. There is the literal (what appears to be the perception based on “real life”), there is also the unconscious (not yet known or integrated) and the collective conscious (archetypal). When we do deep work on ourselves we begin to unleash the unconscious- the scary- not yet known parts of ourselves. Having the courage to discover those parts is just as edgy, if not more so, than having the courage to bear witness to the things we know about the world dissolving. I am still hoping that it is a liberating journey. Solastalgia is clearly an important new concept that has been named (I had to look it up ☺), but it is also just one interpretation, one story out of many possible ways of imagining. What story do we tell ourselves today? There is certainly a softening, a melting taking place, as you say. Perhaps even a Surrender. And I love the connection with time. This new knowledge we are discovering, that the way we have been perceiving or interacting with time has been- perhaps- an abusive relationship. You must watch the film Mother (!), if you haven’t already. It is very interesting, that the great Mother is so often cast as the victim. But then, we ourselves have been stuck in victim mentalities for so long, as Caroline Myss points out.

    Unfortunately, no matter how hard we work on compassion, many of us still remain locked into this culture of blame, a violent, separating state of existence against ourselves and the wider world that we still imagine to be separate from ourselves. I hope this is something that is gently softening or melting, with an emergent deeper sense of knowing, we need the energy that goes into blame, guilt, shame for healing. In the words of Carloine Myss: “What do I finance with my energy?”

    Lots of love

    Abby x

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