Hold that image. The moon. The sidewalk. Let’s instead skip to 21st April 2018, when I walk out of a nearby drugstore with a pregnancy test in my pocket.
Must I really make myself the protagonist of this story, as we humans are wont to do? Let’s resist that habit. Let’s instead talk about what was, what could have been, what will be. Let’s talk about early colonisation of the New World, about flocks of birds so dense they blocked the sun, the lakes and streams so full of fish you could just reach in and grab one, the miles and miles and miles of dense forest.
Let’s talk about time:
Forty-six weeks since I dipped one plastic applicator in pee and the other in water, just to be sure
Three hundred thousand years for a rock by the shore to wear down to sand
Nine years since the moment I decide never to have a baby
On 6th August 2010 I board a plane to Miami where I meet my parents and sister for a long-planned vacation. We warm our feet on the sand and walk into the ocean, which we all agree feels as docile as bathwater, unreconcilable with the violent images on the news. There’s been an explosion at sea just 600 miles away, two million gallons of crude oil billowing out of the ocean floor every day for months with no real plan to stop it, pundits claiming the ocean will ‘self-clean’. Watching the water from the beach it is tempting to believe them, but then I think of the bluefin tuna arriving to spawn in this toxic slop, the strongest, wiliest ones on their 6,000-mile journey, the ones who have eluded high-priced plates at sushi restaurants, and I wonder if it’s even moral to catch a little swim by the shore. It is on this beach, sliding so easefully into the oily foulness of that water, that I decide I’ll never have children. This decision makes it easier to enjoy the swim.
Twenty-eight weeks since the last day possible to get an abortion in the state of New York
One point five seconds for a small handful of sand to fall through five fingers
Three hundred and ninety years since Puritan John Endicott took charge of Massachusetts Bay
Let’s talk about the people who took and took and took so much it was never enough, who demonised indigenous folks, swore Satan lurked in the woods and made up the rules of dominance that got themselves rich. Let’s talk about concrete, traffic jams and plastic trinkets.
Let’s talk about a book I start reading in February 2019, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building, by a historian called Richard Drinnon. The book is 467 pages long but may as well stop after 34 because I am reading the first chapter at a snail’s pace, repeating sentences over and over, stopping to attend to cries and gurgles, catching streams of drool before they reach the blanket, hoisting my tired body out of bed to lift the baby, pad to the kitchen and carefully warm ounces of milk. I read somewhere that hearing as many words as possible in a baby’s first year helps with brain development. So I plop her on the bed, scratch her little feet and read aloud the books I’d planned to read before she was born.
Drinnon’s been in my collection for years, recommended by an activist I met while supporting some environmental justice work near the Texas-Mexico border. But this book is dense and violent, so I’ve guiltily carried it through multiple apartment moves, jamming it up high among the reference volumes, assuming I already knew, more or less, the truths revealed inside, as if its mere presence in my home were enough. But suddenly this old book calls from the shelves with fresh urgency. Perhaps by speaking the history I never heard as a child, perhaps by telling my daughter the truth from the very beginning, I can help her shift something. Perhaps a pathway to some sort of reconciliation starts with this book on this bed in the New York City winter of 2019.
Perhaps a pathway to some sort of reconciliation starts with this book on this bed in the New York City winter of 2019.
Sixty-nine years since atmospheric carbon rose above its highest level in pre-industrial times
Four hundred and fifty years for the plastic applicator of a drug-store pregnancy test to degrade, but never fully disappear
Two hundred thousand years since the first Homo sapiens walked the earth of Southern Africa
Early pages focus on a battle between the Puritan Endicott and a maypole-dancing infidel named Thomas Morton who celebrates nature and, for the crime of trading with the natives, is reviled and deported twice back to England, on one of these occasions dragged aboard an eastbound ship as the colonial leadership destroys his maypole and sets his home ablaze. They burn it to the ground before the boat pushes off to ensure Morton will see it crumble. The cheerful tone and soft cadence required to read this gruesome history to a baby give it a fairy-tale quality, and a certain dark magic fills the room. The baby’s unencumbered gaze slides above and behind my head, exploring the humid green of the pre-industrial land, watching the maypole ribbons, the burning house, the fleeing wildlife, the thwarted man dragged away in shackles.
Eighty years until daily floods will make lower Manhattan uninhabitable
The sidewalks of New York City are weathered and uneven in places. Muted colors of fossilised chewing gum form archipelagos on the concrete. Names hastily scratched in wet cement announce histories of love, trace the human need to hold on, to be seen and remembered. When she cries, I wrap the baby to my chest in the manner women have been doing for millennia, using a long, flexible cloth now mass-marketed on Amazon.com to the descendants of Endicott for $39.99. Walking the sidewalks quiets her. I look down expecting to see her fuzzy head burrowed and sleeping, but instead there is her face – serious, alert, her tiny eyes blinking and shifting from place to place to place. What must she make of this place, so removed from the nature that brought her here?
Seventy-eight point six years until the average woman born in the US in 2018 will die
Massachusetts can be reached in a morning’s drive, but in the 1600s the two lands must have seemed distant and remote. Could anyone at the time have believed the space between would ever disappear, and along with it all the quiet spots to listen, to think, to consider, to feel? Could they have felt the true weight of their footprints on this land, understood the consequences of an unexamined idea, imagined what a baby born in 2019 might face? A time that must have felt so ordained by the will of God now seems just another time, just another group of people who happened to be there in that moment, people who simply could have made the decision to do something else.
Twenty-eight months since the US government shot rubber bullets and tear gas at indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock
As for Morton, who knows what he was really like? Trained to read history as a series of leaders and saviours, I am tempted to view him as the alternate universe, the road not taken, the path to a less punitive, less anthropocentric future. But reality isn’t so cut and dried. A white man of his time, it’s probable Morton engaged in his fair share of bigotry; a Morton-led colony would still have been a colony, after all.
But the baby and I allow ourselves to imagine a bit. As I read to her, the Morton who materialises above our heads is blustery and kind; he galumphs through the bedroom with a bird on his shoulder, a skunk at his heels. He is funny, wily, resourceful. He escapes the ship and puts the fire out; he befriends his captors and they dance together under the moon. Why not make Morton a woman, I ask her. She gurgles in assent. Let’s make him a girl! Or why not make him not-human altogether? Let’s make him a worldview, a spirit, a breath of untainted air, an extended hand. Let’s make him the frond of a weeping willow, following the wind. Let’s make him awe. Let’s make him quiet. Let’s make him love.
Twenty-two months since the Global Seed Vault was flooded by melting permafrost in the Arctic Circle
The baby begins to cry. She’s recently been fed and changed, so maybe she’s done with this story for now and wants to be held. I get up from the bed, cradle her head in my left hand and lay her over my right shoulder. We pick up the looping pilgrimage we began two days after she was born, walking from one end of the apartment to the other. I move slowly so she can study all the things I’ve long stopped noticing – the old photographs, the books with their multi-coloured spines, the stained-glass lamp with its bulb on a dimmer. We stop for a spell, easing the bulb from low to high, high to low, low to high.
Ten hours and fifty-three minutes from sunrise to sunset in late winter New York
We move from the lamp to the bedroom to the bedroom window, so we can look over 90th Street from the second floor. It is a grey day, windy and damp enough to pretend we are standing on the deck of a ship, moored to this street, ready to set off across the sea. I place a white tissue in the baby’s hand and we wave together, ‘Bon voyage! Goodbye! Fare thee well, neighbours!’ Her face is serious, expectant of the journey ahead. She clutches the tissue and awaits a reply, but the people below don’t notice us. They look down, mesmerised by the screens cradled in their palms, deafened by their earbuds.
Twenty thousand years for the carbon emitted from a transatlantic flight to leave the atmosphere
Remember the moon? Let’s go back. On 22nd December 2018, I stop on a sidewalk in New York City to look at the moon. It is a full moon, large in the sky, yet to stare it straight in the face I have to stand in a specific spot, hold my head very still, and aim my gaze between the silhouettes of buildings.
She will be born a nomad, ready to pick berries and give meaning to the moon, or she will be born a modern consumer, ready to hunch shoulders over an iPhone and travel across the world in a single day
At this point the baby is three days late, and I believe this moon might draw her out. Pedestrians swerve around me without slowing their pace. I stare at the moon and the moon at me, as though sharing a secret across a crowded room. This patient observer of life on Earth, of human history. This baby, curled in a ball of animal muscle and light fur, genetically identical to the first Homo sapiens who roamed the Earth 200,000 years ago. She will be born a nomad, ready to pick berries and give meaning to the moon, or she will be born a modern consumer, ready to hunch shoulders over an iPhone and travel across the world in a single day. The buildings across the street flicker with the lights of fifty flat-screen TVs in the living rooms of identical apartments, each lulling its individual owner away from his neighbours, away from the moon.
Had Morton made it off that ship, the Morton of our fantasy, would my view be unobstructed, all these years later? Had Morton turned to wind and blown the colony away, would my neighbours be gathered together? Had the wind resurrected the maypole, would they still be squirrelled in separate boxes, watching separate televisions, spooning food from individual take-out containers, scrolling privately for inside jokes?
Twenty-two hours between the full moon and the birth of my daughter
I desperately want to show my daughter the world, yet I despair at what’s become of it, what will have become of it, by the time she understands how much we’ve lost and for what. I question my morality for bringing her here even as I see her smile for the first time. I keep myself from thinking too deeply when I wrap her in blankets thoughtlessly decorated with cheerful images of all the animals that will be extinct when she is old enough to wonder about them.
When I’m 50, my daughter will be ten, and she will know. I stare at her face and already can’t imagine life without her, yet the horror of what I’ve brought her into persists. And despite my greatest efforts to remain optimistic, I hope upon hope she will be stronger than I was, and will not want children.
No. Not like this. Let’s try again.
Centuries ago, before the days of Morton and Endicott, parts of what is now Manhattan island were navigable by canoe. The Lenape people paddled the land, caught fish and gathered oysters from the clear waters, travelled quietly from the Hudson to the east, breathed clean air and listened to the sounds of birds, the songs of wind blowing through trees that lined the river banks.
Today my daughter and I stand amidst the blinking chain of knock-off electronics and plastic tchotchke shops on Canal Street, and it is impossible to imagine what the Lenape must have seen. Impossible for me. But she is new to this world, her imagination not yet calcified by expectation, disappointment and fear. Although mine are the feet that touch the ground and hers are suspended above it, I imagine she is the one who feels most acutely the pulse of those ancient streams, their history, their promise, their patience. They are buried, long since polluted, filled and paved over, but still they flow.
What is human history but a series of decisions, made by a series of people?
It is heartbreaking to think things could have gone a very different way. But these waters are patient. This wild is patient. I look down at my daughter, bundled to my chest, and despite the noise of the street she is facing out; her eyes are open. Her gaze passes the cars, the jackhammers, the keychains and handbags. Her gaze digs through the concrete and over the tops of high-rise buildings. Her gaze reaches the moon. Her gaze reaches the water.
What will the future be, but a series of decisions, made by a series of people?
When I’m 50, my daughter will be ten, and old enough to know. I stare at her face and already can’t imagine life without her, yet the reality of what I’ve brought her into persists. And despite my greatest inclinations to remain pessimistic, I hope upon hope she will be stronger than I was and will remember those waters, and someday she and her children will swim and lie along the banks.
IMAGE: Woman of the Horses by Kate Walters
Watercolour on gessoed-paper
I made this work after time spent on Orkney and in particular visiting the ancient site the Ness of Brodgar. I learned about the connections between the earlier peoples and their animals, and in particular a structure of animal bones they left behind when they left the site for good (we don’t know why).
Kate Walters grew up near London, and always longed for wild places. Now based in Cornwall she loves to spend time in the Northern Isles. A painter, writer and newby print-maker, she’s more recently a campaigner too. Obsessed with Arctic terns; blessed to have had a horse for a mother. Instagram: @katewaltersartist
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