Remembering Water

'This year the fires came early' – Steven Morgan journeys across the American wilderness to escape a raging inferno while battling an autoimmune disease, finding parallels between his porous body and a dying world.
is an artist and mental health trainer who lives in an aluminium box on wheels throughout the mountains and deserts of the Western United States. A wanderer of moods, he enjoys the many travails of long, long walks.

 Once my body began viciously attacking itself, I took to living on the road. Having suffered too many winters holed up in Vermont drawing childish depictions of the sun, I yearned for the big sky out west. I’d work a computer by day, hoot with owls by night (being doomed to a life of chronic pain has the virtue of simplifying plans). Though I harboured no doubt — given encroaching machines — that the withering of wilds would eventually parallel that of my bones, I figured the future was a ways off. 

This year the fires came early. I was in the Montana wilderness, gulping glacier water and tracking grizzly bears, when the bluest sky morphed into a weary haze. A thick stink of smoke followed, and my little home, 65 square feet of aluminium on wheels, failed as my shell. The nearest clean air was on the Olympic Peninsula, a thousand miles away off the coast of Washington. And so I drove all day and night, through bloody milk fermenting above Missoula — where vacationing anglers still stubbornly cast their lines, past Idaho forests made ghoulish by wispy orange fingers, over jagged Cascade mountaintops disappearing into a smudge. Safely sealed within my car, I chain-smoked the entire ride.

Once on the Peninsula, home to the largest rainforest in the lower US, I finally breathed. The next morning, strolling into a valley of giant cedars, I was shocked to discover that their soft crimson fur had become worn and brittle, like old paper. Then I glanced down at the understory, which had just weathered a hundred degrees of something alien called a ‘heat dome’, and saw the mosses were dry. Here — the wettest area in the lower US — was a tinderbox, and my bare feet no longer sank in, but cracked the desiccated forest floor.

I can’t make sense of the death of the world. I won’t call it change; I won’t call it a geological epoch; I won’t apply evolutionary logic to the presence of living decay.

Something happened to me out there. I’d been focused all year on recovering from yet another devastating autoimmune flare and its attendant thoughts of suicide, but I could no longer keep my focus inside. I understood, at that juncture, two truths: one, that my body was too porous to be mine; two, that the world I loved and who loved me was no longer, would never be again, and that the future was not a ways off, but now, everywhere.

I can’t make sense of the death of the world. I won’t call it change; I won’t call it a geological epoch; I won’t apply evolutionary logic to the presence of living decay. The world I loved was made of glacier melt and spongy mosses, of loons and cottonwood arms, of wet spiderwebs and tender saguaros hiding shyly behind swirls of spikes. That world is not just dying: it is going to die, and soon. I am completely lost.

Meanwhile, the machines swallow — the land, yes, but the land in us too. They coagulate the porous places where our bodies meet other minds, trapping us inside when outside is too thick with haze to see into. That we would digitise the capacity for connection alongside that love retreating from the parched world is not accidental, but orchestrated, maybe nefariously so. Though a two-dimensional glare will, blessedly, extinguish the three-dimensional coals simmering inside its casing, the same machinery through which we flee the world burns the places to which we run.

Once the smoke finally cleared, I headed from the coast back into the interior. Across a thousand miles of hot flats and canyons, my dehydrated thoughts wandered aimlessly. I’d grown tired, so tired of childishness that even the shining sun felt oppressive. I wanted thumping rain.

Rocky Mountains, Colorado. A council of peaks (photo: Steven Morgan)

Suddenly, on the horizon, soaring Rocky Mountains crept into view. Up there in their council of peaks, I saw the earth and sky gods still gathering in clouds to trade on precious elements, and I felt wet with remembering.

I remembered sage Lao Tzu, thousands of years ago in the Chinese kingdom, so withered by civilised life that he retreated once and for all into the wilderness. On his way out, the city’s gatekeeper asked him to record his knowledge, and the result, 81 passages known as the Tao Te Ching, is a perennial wisdom. What did the elder know? Water: how water bends around the hardened, how water fills the empty vessel, how water never dies.

All streams flow to the sea

because it is lower than they are.

Humility gives it its power.

When the world is on fire, use water.

Should the trend hold, this spring the Western US will hold water again. It will thus be a year of forgetting. The cows will merrily graze the desert creosote bushes, thirsty almond trees will flower. Vitally, the machines will stay on.

But we can’t go on like this.

My pain is like this dam, a barrier siphoning fantasy from reality, a halting of natural flows that draws my attention to places of division.

The cold quench of October has arrived, and I am camped at a reservoir in southern Colorado. To the east, the Dolores River (now a creek) slowly trickles in; to the west, beyond the concrete dam, she’s reduced to disjoining puddles. On this moonlit evening, I am on the shore staring catatonically into the mass of liminal water. My pain is like this dam, a barrier siphoning fantasy from reality, a halting of natural flows that draws my attention to places of division.

Hand-carved mahogany spoon (photo: Steven Morgan)

So I do what I always do when the currents fail: I carve wood, that I might aim these repetitive cuts towards something lasting. Carefully, patiently, a spoon finds its way out of the block, covered in dust. As I dip it beneath the water’s surface, the moon glows in the bowl’s baptised face, revealing all at once the shape of the wood’s immanent grain: wavy and curving.

For the road I once called yearning circles back to memory. Yes, the future came faster than forecast, but it’s been seen before. In the vision, there is no engineering solution, no dimming the fire-breathing sun. There is only the land, and us, and an empty vessel. A stream still flows nearby.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS

Our Autumn 2021 journal is a special all-colour collection of art and writing that delves into the legacy of extractivism

 

Read more
Comments
  1. Beautiful piece, Steven. The way the smoke gets into everything, yes we are very porous. Every next summer we make it through these days, with its flowers and coyotes here in the North Cascades, is like something extra.

  2. Thanks Laura. Yeah, the North Cascades have been awfully rough the last few years. I have fond memories of the Pasayten Wilderness: I hope they don’t have to forever remain as memories, and that you may see those wildflowers again in their ripeness. I’m stupidly planning to stay on the road West this Summer again, but I’m pretty sure praying for rain isn’t going to cut it anymore.

  3. Thank you for this beautifully written and clear-sighted, honest piece. I am currently struggling with an as yet undiagnosed, unnamed disease, and I, too, feel like the pain of the Earth is all within me, and I don’t know what to do any more, where to go, how to mend this. So reading your piece was … I won’t say comforting because there cannot be anything comforting about the environmental destruction happening … but it was lovely to know that those who deeply sense and feel this are not alone.
    As you say, we can’t go on like this anymore. But we can go on differently.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.