alternate love letter

dear ________________,

with you i have learned love
is utopia & dystopia at the same time.
so love is Earth
& we are highly skilled to kill
it. like damn, what did you think? 
all the god in the gold
chains round our necks 
could make us beautiful, & holy 
& not human? we are
just bodies, drums
of water & chemicals & constructions, paper
-skinned. little marbles
of World rubbing
against each other, how
acid leaks from a cloud’s 
cheek more than rain. all this,
to say: we are ending.

 

Painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, “Two Calla Lilies on Pink”, 1928

Becoming Beetles

Once there was more song than birds,
and the birds did not mind because they had trees,
and the trees did not mind because they had enough earth
to sink their roots into and inhale the earth’s phosphorous core
without some barren tractor ruining their fun.
When the school bell rang, you tore open
your snot-stained shirt and tumbled from
gates to muddy shores and dug earthworms
by the fistfuls. Hungry fishes waddle
out of water, heavy with the past in their porcelain bottoms.

Now all we do is make dunghills out of disposables.
They pile up all colorful and rusty and unbreakable.
We made a mess and we made it ugly
and we made it in the image of ourselves.
But we are the generation who will make pillow talk
out of missiles, make missiles into pillows,
cheer the fireworks on while worrying about the dogs,
nurture our houseplants and compete with them
for water. When we recycle, we recycle the past into cash.
And when the day comes, we will rideshare our way up,

               up,

                            up into Mars.

Artwork by Adel Abdessemed, “Turtle”, 2015

The World is a Great and Perfect Animal

The life of an urchin is very long and our understanding of time is slower than humans. We can live for hundreds of years. Someday, I hope to become a famous philosopher: a leader for those sea urchins who have no memories of human time. I imagine the truths of the world emanating from my mouth like the light of the ancient fanous my mom once told me about. She said that during Ramadan, when she was a girl, the fanous piled outside the lamp shops of El Rabea in Cairo, and their lights were so bright and beautiful down the narrow human streets that everyone journeyed to see them. They came from as far as Alexandria or Tunis to feel the lights’ hope and brilliance. I want to be like that.

But that was a long time ago, when my mom was still human. In fact, she told me that when she was still human she had once slipped on a rock covered with urchins while she was  learning to dive off the coast of Oman in the Musandam Fjords. This was before she met my dad and before any of the human soul-to-urchin implantations. She said it was a beautiful day, but the air was worse than usual. The air had changed since the time of her parents; it had become a thick invisible web full of pollutants and dust. She would gasp to find spots of clear air between the web’s poisonous strains. That was the day she first met an urchin. After a dive, she had wanted to stay under the water, explore, not deal with the air again, but an urchin with long black spikes stung her foot. She jumped out of the water and crouched on a rock, her foot in her hand, screaming, “Yil’an shaklek konfoz al bahr!” or “Damn you sea hedgehog!” while she yanked out the spikes. “It hurt like getting a tattoo!” she told me. “Since then I’ve never liked urchins.” But I have never seen a tattoo, and I do not understand my mom’s kinds of pain. It feels useless to me to hate what you are. Unlike her, I have never been anything other than what I am now.

I was alone, sweeping north, off the coast of California, when an E-HIP Inquisitor finally found me. Tarn was bigger than most urchins; he must have been at least one hundred years old. The biggest urchins were always the oldest, and the oldest urchins were almost always inquisitors. Urchin bodies are covered with slender tentacles or spikes; these spikes are our legs, our lungs, and our eyes. At the end of each spike is our podia, which we use to grasp food or weapons. Tarn’s countless spikes clutched countless sharp tiny rocks. 

“Tell me your earliest memory, Meera,” Tarn commanded.

I tried to remember the exact words I had rehearsed with my dad. That was the deal my parents had made with me when I was young (too young to understand the agreement); they would tell me about human times, about literature and history and science, but I had to be extremely careful if I ever encountered an E-HIP Inquisitor. They warned me: the inquisitors were convinced that excessive memories of human times would lead to violence and depression among us. Any young urchins with memories of human times would meet a terrible fate. They killed many of the eldest, urchins like my mom and dad, who had disagreed with how things should be run underwater. Somehow my parents had gotten away. Since then though our family had roamed the seafloors for countless years, we had yet to encounter an inquisitor.

Like I said, Tarn approached me while I was alone. I was gliding across the sea floor scraping whatever was below me into my toothy mouth: small animal particles, spongy pieces, algae. Our mouths are located on the underside of our body. We have five pyramid-shaped teeth. Aristotle’s Lantern, that’s what the humans had named our lantern-shaped mouths. Aristotle was one of the great western philosophers. That’s what my mom had told me. Aristotle believed the human soul could not exist outside the human body.

Boy, was he wrong.

I wish I knew why our mouths were named after this particular philosopher. Why him? Aristotle did say humans were political animals, but he was also an atheist. Why not Ovid’s Lantern? My mom had told me stories of Ovid—women turning into trees, ships into sea nymphs, and animals that changed into other animals. Or why not Plato’s Lantern? Plato thought the soul could wander. Wasn’t that true? Isn’t that what the humans had done? What Tarn and I were doing? My mom told me Plato had also believed that a sexually frustrated womb could travel around a woman’s body and make her insane. He thought of the uterus as an animal. Sometimes, when my mom cried at night, I imagined that a piece of her human uterus had somehow made it into her urchin body, latched onto her soul.  

When I was little, my dad taught me all the anatomical names of the body. He taught me in English and Taiwanese. I can’t say I remember all the words. Nor has my memory categorized the words into two separate languages. I don’t understand where one language begins and the other ends, exactly. I like the words ām-kún and clavicle best. My mom, meanwhile, taught me about the body’s textures and desires. She said she had been the size of a dolphin calf, but narrower. She described her skin as stretched over like a smooth brown sponge. Human skin, unlike urchin skin, she said, could be easily punctured. My mom’s human body had been covered in tattoos. Tattoos were paintings on the human body created by needles, and humans got more and more of them towards the end of their era. I knew all about paintings and literature, because my mom was always talking about the past, and what she liked most about the past was human art.

I remember another time, when the three of us were still together. We were slowly migrating north up the seafloor near the coast of California, trying to escape an epidemic that had broken out among the starfish. We glided north avoiding the clumps of star pieces on the bedrocks and coral skeletons. Some starfish were still alive but they were puffy and covered in white lesions, too sick to attack us. My dad said it was a wasting disease like what had happened to the humans as the temperatures rose. To pass the time, my mom described the frescos she had seen in Florence when she was a young human studying there. Her favorite was inside the San Marco cloister, one called Annunciation, where the mom of a god meets an angel. When describing the colorful striped wings of the angel, my mom’s spikey body began convulsing and my dad had to lean up against her.

 “Maryam, come on now. Cheer up, my little red Christmas garland. We’re so lucky, we have each other. And if we ever break a leg, we’ll grow another!” 

My dad had lots of funny jokes like this. Other times, he’d say, “Maryam, my little sea gallbladder, perk up, don’t make me get cannibalistic.”

The cannibalism joke always made my mom shake happily, because it was common knowledge in our family that my dad was a great lover of uni when he was in human form.

Before we lost my dad, I could always rely on him to help lift mom’s spirits.  

The truth was that my dad didn’t mind being an urchin, even though he was born in the time of humans too. He was the second child of a midwife, born in the milky grey port city of Keelung.

“I was Taiwan-ren. I could swim before I could speak English,” he boasted, but that meant little to me. Our speaking didn’t sound like any human language (or so my mom told me).

We didn’t speak through our “Aristotle’s Lantern”; we spoke through vibrations in the water. We somehow willed what was inside us into the water and if lucky, it reached someone else. My parents had learned how to communicate in urchin form before the implantation. They had worn special masks and suits inside ocean-water pools in Sicily that E-HIP had arranged. My dad said my mom had thought it was fun. My mom said that whenever they finished their trainings, she and my dad would run home and have sex.

My mom was explicit with me. She had no reason not to be: I feel no shame for how we use our bodies to receive and give pleasure. 

My dad’s positive attitude about urchinhood might have had something to do with loving the ocean from an early age or maybe because he had been a Buddhist or perhaps, even a small pride in his contribution to the Echinoidea-Human Implantation Program (E-HIP). While my mom studied languages and philosophy as a human, my dad was an evolutionary biologist. They had both been comfortable with change in their own ways, but my dad’s research on the evolutionary paths that marine echinoderms were taking to adapt to the planet’s harsher environment had proven a more useful comfort. His research team was able to demonstrate the urchins’ unique ability to adapt to the rising acidity in earth’s oceans, and his work caught the attention of the head honchos at E-HIP just as they were searching for the most viable species to transfer the human soul onto. Other companies were looking to the sky. My mom once teased that she should have fallen in love with an astronaut, maybe she would have gotten to keep her body that way. My dad was quiet when she spoke like this.

E-HIP was based on the tropical island of Sicily. My dad told me the lab facilities were near the bluest waters and surrounded by avocado farms and mango trees. Sicily was a hot place during the end of human times; the average temperature was already 7 degrees Celsius higher than it had been in so-called pre-apocalypse times, but the island had plenty of drinking water and dromedaries for folks to get around on and there was hopeful buzz in the air about E-HIP’s potential solutions. Wealthy pilgrims had made homes near E-HIP, clamoring to be part of the implantation program. My mom had been there to teach the children of the wealthy pilgrims. That’s how my parents met and fell in love.

As she explained it, she was relaxing under a mango tree, translating a sonnet called “Del mondo e sue Parti” by Tommaso Campanella when my dad came over and broke her concentration. He had long dreaded hair and a sparkling smile. His skin was patched with ugly scars from the sun and he wore a large floppy hat. “I still remember some of the lines from when he interrupted me.” 

I had begged her to tell me them, and though her spikes pointed downwards whenever she recited from her fading memory of verse, she agreed.  She stated, “The world is a great and perfect animal, that God lauds and stimulates, we are a family of tapeworms, imperfect and vile, who have, within God’s belly, life and shelter…something something… we must measure how much every being is worth, then you will learn what part is left to you…or for you. Maybe it is for you. Not to you?” her spines leaned lower. “I can’t remember it all.”

On days like today, when I miss my mom, I try to imagine her in her life before the sea, even if that means I wasn’t born yet, because I know she was happier then. I try not to picture her in her red urchin form, though that is the only form I know her in. When I picture her human body, I see her skin tattoo-painted in the most beautiful Italian frescos, winged-humans and toga-wearing great thinkers and bosomy fruit trees and storm clouds covering every part of her, swirling over her arms and her neck, a red stingray’s tail curling around her kissing lips. She is perpetually under that mango tree in Sicily. In some memories, she is reading and just about to meet my dad. In other memories, she is reading and she never meets my dad. He walks right by her and she never marries him, and therefore, never qualifies for the E-HIP implantation program. She dies in her human form when the sun finally heats the land to oblivion.

“Meera, what is your earliest memory?” Tarn asked again.

Nervously, I clenched my anus on the top of my head. “I remember bobbing along among the plankton, the blinding sunlight.” I said it exactly right. My mom and dad would have been proud. Tarn nodded his dark pinchers.

“Anything else, Meera?”

“There were roaring sounds and choppy waves, geese, and my larval body—.” I wanted to say my body fell from its transparent spaceship to the seafloor like a parachuter out of an airplane, but I could not admit to knowing about parachutes and airplanes and spaceships, so I said, “My body fell to the ocean floor as my soul turned itself inside out like a sock—”

“A sock?” Tarn froze in his glide and dozens of his black-stripped spikes converged and pointed erect at me. Tarn’s urchin kind originated from the reef slopes of Hawaii. His kind of urchin was called a wana. The wana’s long razor-sharp spikes were especially venomous.

“A swell! What’s a sock?” I hoped Tarn would think the lights were on but nobody was home (as the human saying went). He stayed erect another moment and then finally released his predator stance. He nodded and we continued gliding forward crushing over the skeletal remains of a flathead fish.

“Anything else, Meera?” Tarn asked, his sticky manner was as misleading as a sea otter’s friendly whiskers. We know what sea otters do to urchins.

“I remember descending through turrets of kelp and the light becoming dimmer and dimmer until I could barely see it anymore.”

He nodded approvingly. “Yes, Meera, our species sees light better when we are young before our skins harden. Then, we exist in darkness and we can only see certain lights with the tips of our tentacles.” 

“Wow? That makes so much sense.” If it saves my life, I’ll act as dumb as a brainless urchin. Or as they would have said in human times, according to my dad, I’ll act like a fox.

“Yes, Meera, it is better that way.”

He asked me a few more questions and then left. I froze, overcome with relief and a strange sadness. I wondered if Tarn had known my parents. Had they been humans together in Sicily? Probably. If he had been less brainwashed and zealous, could he have told me stories of my mom and dad? It would have been so good to have another educated urchin to talk with, especially since I am alone now with my thoughts and memories. I also wonder about what Tarn would have done to me if I had failed his questions. Would he have grabbed my weakest spikes and dragged me up a stalk of kelp? Led me to the surface of the ocean and into the light? Would I have become food for some larger animal, another soul that was trying to survive too? I am sure of it. What I am less sure of is what happens after a soul dies. My mom had said she once believed in god, but that god had abandoned her.

My mom told me in the beginning of human times, the people had many stories of metamorphosis, so it made sense to her when the governments and scientists became interested in metamorphosis again at the end. We were off the coast of Oregon when she had me start memorizing the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “Oh habibi, I wish you could have read it. It was beautiful. I’d give anything to hold a book again. Even an electronic one.”

My dad was nearby giddily chomping on a ribbon of kelp. He hollered over, “Oral storytelling, my sweet porcupine, powerful stuff!”

But my mom ignored him.  “You just never think you’ll be the one who transmogrifies to something so much lesser, lesser than you can even imagine,” she said, her spikes crestfallen. I looked outward at the purple carpet of laboring urchins, shuffling in long rows along the ocean bottom, clearing the algae away, without any nostalgia or complain. “Kharoof” my mom usually called them, “ignorant sheep.” I wondered what my mom thought when she looked at me. I wondered if she could imagine me in a human form. My mom was beginning one of her rants against god and E-HIP and urchins…

That’s when it happened—a swoosh of bubbles and micro-plastics and blurry ocean came charging our way, and before we could move a centimeter or decide what was going on, a furry paw stretched out of the shadows of the kelp forest and tore my dad off the plant. The sleek otter carried him up and away to the water’s surface. I can’t remember any thoughts in my head. I watched the blob of dark color rise until I could see it no more and then the ocean was dark and undisturbed again.

If we could have screamed, we would have.

Instead, my mom began slowly beating herself against the fallen rockweed.

“No, no, no,” she cried. The army of laboring urchins continued grazing unmoved.

“Mom,” I said, “Stop, stop. It will be okay.” But I was lying.

For hours, she went on in this torpor. She was mystical. As the days passed, my mom stayed inside a crevice of half-alive coral and I brought her pieces of drifting kelp I caught with my spikes. I encouraged her to move, to chomp, to recite poetry—but quietly. I told her I could understand her, but she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. She flipped herself over, her “Aristotle’s Lantern” faced the sky. She slurred words from “Del mondo e sue Parti” and ancient Egyptian love poems. Worms. God’s belly. Her womb. We are all worms in her belly. I worried we could not travel together. I worried her pain and sadness would attract an inquisitor and the inquisitor would drag us both out of the coral and kill us. I believed there must be others like us and we had to find them. We could start a new civilization. There must be inquisitors who had fallen out of rank, fallen angels like Lucifer, like us. I told my mom this, but she only fell deeper into her self; she stopped vibrating the water with her thoughts towards me. The last thing she said was that I had it all wrong. I had mixed up all the stories. But I think there is only one long human story. I can’t categorize the human stories and languages and nationalities and histories the way she does and my dad did.

The night I left, while my mom was sleeping, I whispered into her long spikes, “I’m so sorry. I hope you can forgive me someday for doing this to you. You are rohi, my soul.”

I don’t know if she heard me. I remember her red tinsel body becoming smaller and smaller as I drifted away. Sometimes I imagine myself as the piece of her womb that made her crazy. I imagine that I have run away for her sake. I like to think she is better now. Couldn’t that be true?

I have been traveling north since I left her. I believe there is a colony of large urchins above Alaska. I believe they are different from other urchins. Where does this belief come from? I don’t know, but what can I do but wander?

My body is small and dark, but I feel like a lantern. I am lit with hope. What will I find? Do I have a special mission? Or maybe I am truly the lantern and others will find me. I survived the E-HIP Inquisitor. I have inside me the knowledge of human times and urchin times. I once asked my mom what was the difference between a philosopher and a prophet. Her answer did not satisfy me. She said prophets’ messages came from god, not just from intellect. She said that philosophers weren’t worshipped and remembered in the same capacity as the prophets. But I think she is wrong. She cannot see that they are the same; this is her defect from once being a human. If she were better and here with me today, I would tell her that the intellect is god, wandering among us. 

Photo by Pascal Kobeh


ruin

how many hands did god
cut – makers
of coffeebeans & compost &
money, mahals
how many hands 
fell

left carpets 
of wool & ice & persian delight &
skin severed; centerpiece 
shimmering

in the sun, 
my hand reveals the brushwork
the veins & their decisions
i have written, here

my wonder & my questions
the stones i have thrown 
in god’s koi 
pond watching for ripple 
to sunburst upon 

this ruin 
i stand 
before.


The Mountains Are Melting: A Discussion about Climate Change in Nepal

By Rastra Raj Bhandari

My first real awareness of climate change was at the age of 19 as an aid worker in the foothills of Mt. Everest after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. During my stay, I noticed that my hotel staff left the guests behind and hiked uphill for 2 hours every night seeking shelter over the fear of a potential glacial flooding, triggered by the recent earthquake.

My newfound curiosity about climate change gradually turned into a dedicated passion and career aspiration. To further a career in this field and make a difference, I did internships with the World Wildlife Fund working on projects ranging from conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and scaling climate finance in Fiji to representing the U.A.E in climate negotiations as a youth diplomat. I was initially anti-corporation as I saw them as only a part of the problem. But after working on the environmental divisions of a corporate firm, I had my perspective changed. I understood how closely linked all different stakeholders are, and that the private and the public sector are often working together in trying to combat climate change. Over my university years, my outlook on climate change expanded from naive, sophomoric activism to an appreciation for the depth of the problem.

It felt great to be around the drivers of climate finance and policy at such a young age. At the same time, I acknowledge that I was disappointed with how slow things were and how powerless I felt. However my experiences strengthened my aspiration to build a career in the field of climate change. Growing up, I used to travel with my father, who studied insects for a living. Some of my fondest memories are of hiking in the Himalayas and camping in the wilderness as a boy scout. I felt that I needed to act considering the future generation would never have the opportunity to experience nature like I did. Perhaps even in my generation many people have not had that chance yet. This was a powerful revelation, the one that prompted me to explore how people view nature and in particular climate change in present day.

Studying at a global university like NYU had its benefits as well as drawbacks. While I traveled the world and understood the global nature of climate change, I knew I was losing touch with the impacts of climate change in Nepal. Still, I looked back to my time at Everest and what must be happening with melting in the Himalayas. What surprised me was that there was very little I could learn about it, given that it’s rarely talked about. Conversations on melting glaciers are dominated by Antarctica and Greenland – while extremely important, they are not the only large ice-reserves in the world. Organizations like ICIMOD are doing incredible work in understanding glacial melting in the Himalayas, but their work was often limited to the science. While I respect science, I questioned what could happen if we channeled the money that goes into climate research towards solving climate change.

The lack of resources to understand what was happening in my country frustrated me. I could not find a single book that explored melting in the Himalayas and portrayed the human story of climate change. Why is climate change such an abstract concept of science and equations when it should be about the people living there? That prompted me to learn more – my mentors thought I should ditch my corporate summer plans and go back to Nepal and write a book that not only studies the impacts of glacial flooding to downstream communities but also explores the geopolitics of the Himalayas as a paradigm for the appropriate policies to address climate change.

The Himalayas are not just an aesthetically beautiful mountain range. They stretchs over 8 countries and contain the world’s largest volume of glacier ice and perennial snow outside of the polar regions. The melting of the Himalayas puts a quarter of the world’s population at risk from water scarcity and it endangers downstream communities from adverse climate induced disasters.

Presently, increased atmospheric warming and changing precipitation patterns are causing glaciers in the high Himalayas to retreat at an unprecedented scale. Alarmingly, there has been a 27% decline in glacial volume in the Himalayas in the past several decades. The resulting meltwater is accumulating to form glacial lakes which could potentially be tapped to produce hydropower but are also extremely vulnerable to bursting and causing downstream flooding, often triggered by large avalanches or earthquakes.

The most recent study by ICIMOD released in 2019 suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100. Under such circumstances, temperatures in the Himalayas can increase up to 4.4. Degrees Celsius by 2100 causing radical disruptions to food and water supplies, and mass population displacement. China, India and Pakistan need to join hands to solve this crisis, this is a major political discourse that should be happening but is not.

But what could I do to help?

Over the summer, I set off on a motorbike from the border to India riding along the Koshi river – one of the largest rivers in South Asia – upwards towards the source of the river in the mountains. My destination was the infamous Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake – one of the most vulnerable glacial lakes in the world. After 12 days of walking along the traditional walking route used by ancestral Tibetans moving into Nepal, I ended in the foothills of Mt. Gaurishankar – next to a massive 1.7km2 lake, which did not exist several decades ago. The lake is one of the only 3 lakes where the government has created an artificial outlet to drain water gradually and contain the crisis. Standing in front of this lake was a powerful feeling that I cannot fully express in words. It was difficult to comprehend that a lake this beautiful would be the cause of devastation for human society. That was when I fully realized the power of water.

Over generations, water has played an important role in shaping human civilization. From the ice-age to floodings to droughts. From culture to religion, water plays a central character more often than not. Anecdotes, personal stories, fables – water has played a role to play in shaping human civilization.

I am going to tell you the human story of glacial flooding in Nepal. Before I begin sharing these stories, in no way am I arguing that the local people are right. What I am trying to do is to share what they have to say about climate change.

According to traditional beliefs, there used to be a big garden in the Himalayas for yaks to herd. Then one day, god came to the dream of the Sherpa people, and told them to take their yaks away. Some people didn’t agree and the next day, many yaks were killed because the mountain suddenly melted to form a lake. Among the older generation, it was common to hear that environmental disasters were happening because we are upsetting the mountain gods, a classic ‘act of good’ – common in other societal beliefs as well. Some locals were upset with the recent influx of workers from the South of Nepal to work on the reconstruction efforts after the earthquake as they were unaware and unaccustomed to respecting local norms. For instance, I was told that urinating and defecating near the water sources are the causes for flooding.

I spent a few days over the summer with a wonderful host-mother, Janmu Sherpa. She runs a small tea house along the river bank – she is positive, full of energy, and has 11 pet goats that she looks after. Like many of her age in the mountains, she believes in fatalism – a belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. She also knows that glacial floods are very unpredictable, just like earthquakes. All Nepalese know that there might be an earthquake again – but none of us know when it will actually hit. So does that mean we stop living ? No, we keep it in the back of our minds and move on. What else can you do when you have so many other priorities? Let fate decide, she said.

Simply put, there are too many other things for people to worry about when climate change is classified as part of the “uncertainties.” At the same time, although the Himalayas disappearing by 2100 seems close, it is very long term for people who struggle to put food in their plates every night.

For instance, I interacted with several tour guides who were there to scope a potential trek. Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake is formed next to Tashi Labtsa Pass – a treacherous mountainous pass which famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, acknowledged to be one of the hardest passes to cross in the world. Tashi Labtsa is special because for those daring adventurers who can cross it, it provides an alternate route to the over commercialized route to Everest. And with more melting in this section, some tour guides believed the pass will open up and be more accessible. One of them, who chose to remain anonymous said, “Climate is definitely changing! When we used to take tours a decade ago we had to walk in snow for many days. Today, there is barely any snow in the routes. For instance, Everest Base Camp was very difficult to reach because of the weather, and very few people went there. Look at today, it doesn’t snow at all, and even children go to base camp! It’s much warmer but we don’t complain as we are getting more work.”

Then, the most surprising of stories! There was an overwhelming majority of people who thought that glacial flooding was a hoax, primarily created by the Japanese. According to local beliefs, the Himalayas are full of rare gems and minerals; and foreigners (particularly Japanese people) have for a while attempted to find excuses to mine the Himalayas to find them. The Japanese were pioneers in glacial research and were the first ones to discover the threats of glacial flooding in the region. They were, however, not particularly well received, and at one point, there was news of local sherpas threatening the Japanese scientists for sensationalizing the threats of glacial flooding. During my 3 months stay in the mountains, it was common to hear discourse on the inefficiency of the government. For instance, “Why is the government interested in spending millions of dollars to mitigate climate change when the government has never invested in schools, health-posts and roads in the mountains?” There was large mis-trust over the intent of the government.

After hearing these stories, I wanted to know if the youth felt the same way. That was hard to do because there are simply no young people in the mountains. Most of the Nepalese youth are either studying in India, Australia or the U.S. or working primarily in the Gulf and raising remittance for the Nepalese Economy.

I traveled to the nearest big city and conducted a survey among 250 university students and a similar survey among the same demographics in Kathmandu – the capital city of Nepal, to make a comparative analysis. I learned about their awareness and perceptions of climate change, and I estimated their willingness to pay to protect the Himalayas and the lives that depend on the mountains. Awareness was based off their knowledge about glacial flooding while perception was based on their attitude towards climate change and priorities. In doing this, I found that perception of the environment is directly correlated to an increased valuation of the environment while simply knowing about climate change has no effect.

Indifference towards climate change might occur because someone is not directly affected by it or because they have other priorities. Regardless, this revelation has a message for policy makers around the world. How do you incorporate climate policies in an environment where climate change is not as big of a priority in the minds of local people?

But, there’s also the question of why we expect people to make individual sacrifices when the top 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions.

The mountains are melting fast with people who are unable to stop it neither adapt to having to put the problem off their minds to continue to survive. Alongside a massive shift in the responsibilities of the top 100 companies, there also needs to be a shift in our global consciousness. We will not simply be losing the Himalayas in less than 100 years, which should be sad enough, but rivers will run right through the lives of real people, almost 1.4 billion of them.

Photograph by Rastra Raj Bhandari

Hazed

Hazed is a short collection of poetry on the total penetration of the palm oil industry in our daily life, as well as its oft unseen effects on animals, plants, and indigenous communities.

By destabilizing our capitalist human gaze, I rediscovered the magnitude of the problem—not only are non-human lives completely destroyed, but the palm oil industry also holds eerily colonial characteristics. The rainforests in Malaysia used to be hideouts for the anti-colonial communist resistance movement, the grounds of which the palm oil industry have now claimed, thus erasing nonhuman witnesses to history. Furthermore, fauna like orangutans and sun bears are forced out of forests. They often turn to the surrounding palm oil plantations for food, where they are treated as pests and brutally shot down. Additionally, increasing colonization of land for commercial use gravely endangers the lives of indigenous peoples. Their food and medicinal supplies are dwindling, and their waters are poisoned by the pesticides used by palm farmers. As their land diminishes, their youth, seeing no future in the dying tribes, move to cities and adopt new languages, and hence new identities.

National boundaries do not control natural environments. The palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia has led to the deterioration of rainforests and human life within and beyond. Territories like Singapore, Brunei, and Thailand are affected by the haze caused by the slash and burn technique of land clearing as well. However, the utilisation of palm oil has reached an almost ubiquitous level, and turning to other plant oil alternatives will lead to other consequences. Like our many dependencies, our addiction to palm oil is a symptom and enabler of our accelerating slide into irreversible environmental destruction.

Eulogy for the Orangutan

It wasn’t you
It was the fire that took away her child who crumble
In the greedy fire like Israeli troops storming in
She screeched as the world ate
Burnt limbs, felt no pain in the inferno
Until unconscious, at the foot of a tree
She was picked up by creatures who looked into a mirror
But only saw where the skin peeled red, like raw steak
Hauled her into a truck and took pictures
Just like that, an internet sensation

I heard she succumbed to her injuries
The hospital could not do much
For a dying flame. They said she was severely malnourished
There was no emergency contact, nor funeral wreaths
Only a fleeting image on the scrolling screen
On another hazy day, when the smell of grilling satay
Tempts the passerby on the street

Little House

School is canceled
Sister jumped for joy and turned the TV on full blast
Mama said we should help her with the housework
Get to cleaning the behinds of dusty cupboards and spider-webbed corners

It is very hot
And I have cut myself on broken glass
Trying to shut the windows to keep the bad air out
Sister threw a plastic cup at my head and I saw flashes of yellow and red

Our cats ran up and down the stairs
Leaving behind clumps of fur that Papa hates
So he screamed at Mama for his financial rut
And locked himself in with the air conditioner

After we finished crying there was still a lot to do
Mama had left the house into the grey world, said she’s not coming back
At least she’s got a car
We better clean the ceiling fan and mop up the blood

In case she comes home coughing
Will we have dinner tonight?
We watch the evening news with swollen eyes, just in case
Feeling too big for this little house

Oxygen

I saw you on the hospital bed in my dream last night
The tubes made you look superhuman
The same spell they casted on grandfather’s static figure
As a last hurrah he loudly gasped for air, his death throe bulged his fat eyeballs
Before all calmed down

Already, your face constantly in masks during the haze seasons
And your pale skin twitching as you cough and sneeze
Or falling asleep on a plank, with an air purifier humming eerily
Alert comatose, alive vegetable
Seeing, feeling, but not moving
Life around the house goes faster, faster

You said next year you would run away from the smoke
Those bastards, clearing land and endangering your lungs
You would take a plane, and go to lands untouched by fire
Where the birds of paradise fly low
And waters are pregnant with life
And there on a hammock, you would think about the family you left behind
But breathing, at last,
Maybe then you’d start thinking what
You are living for.

A forgotten war

When the bulldozers trampled your voluminous body
Money hungry, trembling at the potential energy
You carry, I was angered by their audacity
For you were a creature of many in the past
Here, fungi consumed by slugs
Above, a bird nest fern overrun by ant colonies
The colorful hornbill once built a nest on the tree over there
Who stood tall amongst her sisters
And hidden, softly breathing,
Freedom fighters anticipated attacks

I held my breath as colonial descendants
Felled yet another acre
Your friends and comrades, howling
Now refugees on bare lands. Some shot down in defending their birthright,
Some charred to carcasses, or simply disappeared
No international outcry and no memory etched as proof

Only more trucks, more toiling bodies.
As your skin thins and dries, new settlers come:
First the rats, then the snakes, and then the owls
I know you miss your old friends
I saw a starving sun bear dig for insects one afternoon, a year later
They shot her with a crooked grin

Drying out, your scarcity
Feeds abundance elsewhere

Uncharismatic microfauna

Oh, you unnamed millions
Of scaly skin or feathery backs
Or abundant eyes or twitchy legs
I hunted on the internet for your names, or a face
But no one cares about you
Your brains too small and your bodies not plush-toy replicable
Like the Sumatran tiger
You don’t have wet eyes like the Orangutan
Nor you are big and steady like the Javan rhinoceros
You backboneless creatures, our little
Ligaments of the forests, without many organs
You easily hide
When a monkey briefly blinks and rubs his eye
You disappear into tree trunks and edges of the screen
Die within days
Without the chance to even become peripheral

Dendi

His face carries a hundred thousand faces
People whose lineage embedded in
Landscapes I do not understand
I see his firm stature, rooted.
As alien bulldozers and lorries
Come to shrink a country

Nativity here is not skin deep
Nor is it claimed with such ferocity and greed
On the basis of national borders
But like an exposed land the richness leeches
Battered by the currents of modernity that sees no prize in love
Eats away at the core. Emptying out
His brothers, who saw no excitement in watching medicines go extinct
And pygmy elephants limping to find bare land after land
Run to cramped shop lots and adopt another face

He says the toxic is in the waters
And in the air. It chews away at the fibers of his roots, forbidding natural growth
Like rotating machinery extracting oil. Churning, churning
To be bottled up in plastic labels, as dizziness settles
Into pure oil, sealed tight
In tanks like stolen inheritance
By dried out hands, like a sacrificial ritual for the documentaries
A day’s worth of work done, as Dendi walks away from the camera
And the worker washes his face before dinnertime

Hazed Children

When the haze season begins
And breathability becomes a headline
Competition in my classroom pops open like a champagne bottle
Starting with the boy with the white turtle shell mask
The next day, a girl comes in with a pink Hello Kitty one
I know she has trouble breathing through the fabric
So I wore a paper thin one, going back to the basics
Which prompted the kid with a mole on his face to bring in a heavy-duty gas mask
In awe, the teacher came in the next day
Abandoning his completely

Our daily reading becomes muffled
As the creaking ceiling fans spin above us
And the windows grow heavy with soot
Elsewhere, schools get canceled on Fridays and Mondays
While us Northern children, tough like tigers
Strain our eyes to find our daddies in the crowd
As soon as the bell rings
To return to homes with air conditioners, hot showers
Before the evening news fizzles into snores on the couchAnd we tuck ourselves into bed, dreaming of the December holidays

Honey

She cradles her child, humming softly
The tune of the rising sun, a lullaby to celebrate
The golden crescent around his neck, he breathes gently the heavy air
She remembers stories of a quieter time, where
Honey was in abundance, and fear near absent
Standing on two hind legs or crawling amongst the undergrowth
You lived amongst food, and spirits who tire of life outside
Watch over you with tenderness

Baby, baby
You’re beautiful like honey
Baby, baby
What will you do when I am gone?

She cannot bear to tell him how it always goes
His paws are too small, she hopes they never chop them off
His face is too precious, she hopes they never lay eyes on it
His curious snout, puppy-like, so many times she pressed her own against it
And saw their ancestors, muscular and vain
By chance if they were to take him, it would not be the first
But let this be the last; she would rather be shot than
Feel an empty chest, nowhere to go

Baby, baby
You’re beautiful like honey
Baby, baby
What will you do when I am gone?

Beyond the fringes of the shrinking jungle
In a run-down hut, where water tastes like earth
And snakes are common as mosquitos
A girl cradles her firstborn child, humming softly
Her husband just left with the boys on the truck for another day’s work
She remembers stories of a quieter time, when
Family provided abundance, and fear near absent

Baby, baby
You’re beautiful like honey
Baby, baby
What will you do when I am gone?

Monster(s)

Forgive me, for I did not mean to kill
Long ago they took my ancestors by the seeds
From a land far away. The climate felt right for germination
On surgical tables and glass plates, they altered me many times over
Eugenics, I think you call it that, against the grain of my nature
And then sowed duplicates on raw land with such precision

I fail to recognize myself, when I see rows and rows of
The unalive. I am unsure if they are copies of me or
If I am copies of them. Like cows whose milk is pumped forcefully
To pour into cereal bowls. I am taken forcefully to make cereal
And more. It brings me pleasure, to know how much I am needed,
And to see those who exploit me become so vulnerable

Those creatures killed in my name, I assumed they
Were not meant for world domination. I am in your digestive
System and the air you breathe in. I have men in suits and
Power in their pens protecting my right to grow in larger numbers
And your petitions are useless against chocolates and baked goods
For I have become one with everything you desire.

Photograph by Isaac Cordal

A Concert for Plastic Bottles

aurora

I call plastic a friend. Do you?

 

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With the global economic prevalence of petroleum, so came a massive abundance of plastic. With possibilities to chemically engineer it and thus, fulfill a plethora of purposes, plastic soon replaced wood, stone and metal in the crafting of everyday materials. Plastic has become so essential to us, we don’t even notice it. If you’re reading this on an electronic device, perhaps you weren’t fully conscious of its plastic components until reading this sentence.

Unfortunately, while plastic’s ubiquitousness has led it to blend into the background, it has also, more literally, begun to blend with the biosphere. Due to their strong polymerous molecular structure, plastics cannot biodegrade – through wear and tear, as well as photodegradation, they can be broken down into smaller pieces, but these pieces themselves will never go away. Once they’re reduced to smaller than five millimeters, they are referred to as a microplastic. Becoming aware of and understanding the existence of microplastics is crucial to understanding how and where plastics create impact on our world, both in the present and future.

These tiny things are, essentially, everywhere. The oceans teem with them. And when drinking from a plastic bottle, you are now probably ingesting some amount of microplastics as well. Plastics are not only all around us, they are within us too.

 

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As plastics, micro or otherwise, become increasingly entangled with our environment, the inhabitants of the biosphere seem to be unable to escape interacting with them. Many of these interactions are quite gruesome and deadly, such as the albatross suffocated by plastic in Chris Jordan’s haunting short film Albatross (2017) or the cod raped by a dildo that Heather Davis opens her Toxic Progeny article with. Sometimes, biological beings have managed to successfully colonize plastic, using it to their advantage in survival. Davis mentions that microplastics “are becoming rafts of biodiverse ecologies for bacteria and viruses”. Scholar Kim De Wolff writes about a ghost net in the open ocean, where researchers have found “a host of coastal species: coral, reef fish, sea slugs and even a lone oyster”. She also writes of the Velella vellela, a species of jellyfish, which is perhaps a very direct example of a fusion between a biological being and a synthetic plastic: “Velella vellela may have incorporated synthetic materials right into their bodies. […] They are both plastic and jellyfish.” Plastic is not only around us and within us, it is becoming a part of us.

With plastic production showing few signs of diminishing and the rising inevitability of entanglement between biological beings and plastic material, it seems to me that efforts to “save the environment” from plastic need to go in two directions: first, we must try to move away from the mass production of plastics; second, we must learn how to live with existing plastic, and to minimize the damage it causes. It is the latter problem that fascinates me. What does learning how to live with plastic entail?

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In their futurist speculative fiction piece The Ragpicker Meets the Composter, Ståhl and Lindström present us with a glimpse into a future where plastic is much more valued than it is in the average human’s mind today. The Ragpicker spends their working days collecting scraps of plastic washed up on the shore, and has a certain appreciation for the plastic that we presently do not have. “Look at this beauty! It’s got shimmering stones and a toothbrush almost in disguise. I think I want to keep it as it is.” the Ragpicker says, and then mentions how the other ragpickers make jewelry out of the plastiglomerates (stones containing sediments and other natural debris, but held together by plastic) that they find – a process of literally turning trash into treasure, meaninglessness into art. This appreciation for plastic is in line with political theorist Jane Bennett’s ideas of vibrant materialism, which mentions that “vibrant materialists… linger on those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects”. It is in a vibrant materialist approach where the Ragpicker excavates this kind of fascination and value for the plastic they come across, directly contrasting with the way that most humans perceive plastic currently.

The writer Heather Davis asserts, “Although plastics appear as mere surface, designed to be discarded, and are associated metaphorically with change and malleability, plastics are actually extremely obdurate materials”. Even though we often regard plastics as temporary, using them only once and then simply throwing them away, they outlive both our expectations and even our lives. Because they will be around for longer than supposedly intended, they can thus be useful for longer as well. So, if us humans could harbor a higher appreciation of plastic, like the Ragpicker or, in some sense, even befriend the material, we would be less willing to just throw it away. Instead, we would rather prioritize searching for methods to optimize its usefulness, even impose on it a new purpose – one that is more emotional rather than pragmatic.

 

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How can humans begin to befriend plastic? This is the main question around which my art piece was conceived. The piece was a concert where the main intended audience, rather than humans, was a crowd of empty plastic water bottles. Music, or merely sound, is an interesting area to explore in the quest to befriend plastic. Unlike art that is solely visual, sound waves create vibrations that are capable of transmitting energy not only to our eardrums, but also to other various materials. I first became aware of this at a rock concert, when I felt my half-empty plastic water bottle vibrating from the band’s loud bass. But I noticed it would vibrate only when particular notes were played, likely because these notes corresponded to the harmonic frequencies of the bottle. The fact that these vibrations are not only intermittent, but in fact selective, is fascinating. Like a human who is emotionally moved by a particular song attached to a memory, the plastic bottles are moved by particular frequencies within sounds that match their current size and shape. This makes sound a medium that physically interacts with the plastic bottles in ways that are comparable to mere touch or even hearing, thus inviting the human audience of the piece to consider what the water bottle might be experiencing in the moment.

The concert does not exist by itself, however. There is a short curtain speech before the human audience enters the room, where I explain that the audience has already been seated and that there may be only a few seats still available. This part elaborates on the social and political positioning of the bottles within the piece. It directly prompts the human audience to consider the empty bottles as more than just trash – the bottles are now clearly audience members, presumably also here to enjoy the song. The fact that the bottles far outnumber the humans and that they sit on the floor, not just on the chairs, is important to the piece. The human audience is asked to be careful with the plastic audience when entering the space, suggesting the bottles rank socially level to the humans. Once more, the bottles are no longer considered mere garbage, or beneath us; they are equal audience members. Portraying them as such invites a host of other various associations we have of theater audience members: they are wealthy enough to afford a seat; bumping into them creates awkwardness. When a human bumped into a water bottle during my piece, the rest of the human audience gasped, almost as if she had stepped on some important person’s foot and caused a commotion. Additionally, we think the theatregoers have set aside time for their leisure, choosing to go to a concert, and not just any concert, but with regards to my piece, a solo music recital sung by a suited man on an elevated platform with atmospheric lighting… they have a particular taste. Within my constructed scene, the bottles thus elevate themselves from their performative capability as trash;  they morph into plastic wrapper-wearing audience members at a bourgeois classical music recital.

One last important choice was the the song. In the little introductory speech for the song, I explain that it is very significant to me and that “it is about love and the Moon”. The song is in fact Luna de Margarita written by Venezuelan singer and composer Simón Díaz, and when I say that it means a lot to me, I sincerely mean it. Margarita is the name of my island home in Venezuela. While growing up, I have also always been enamored by the Moon. Moreover, Luna de Margarita appeared in the movie Pina by Wim Wenders, which is a matter of pride to me, seeing a piece of my culture in a documentary about one of the last century’s greatest artists. The water bottles do not have a brain and hence they will never be able to grasp this last sentence as you, my dear human reader, just have. But what matters is the intention. If we humans fully open up to the water bottles, we will begin to get closer to befriending them, or to at least start shifting the way we perceive them and treat them. Sharing important memories and emotions are, after all, important in nurturing a friendly relationship.

Thus, the piece constitutes an experience that invites its human audience to reconsider the value and existence of plastic water bottles and, hopefully, other plastics in their lives. Perhaps the next time they drink from a plastic water bottle, they will at least remember having sat next to their kind in a concert and begin to develop a sense of kinship with them, maybe even prompting them to become closer to the bottle, learn more about it, and take better care of it.

 

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This piece stems from an assignment that involved creating a 5-minute art piece on Plastics. The art piece consisted of a one-song concert inside a room where both class members and a mass of empty water bottles were considered part of the audience.

 

Photographs courtesy of the author.
Header artwork by Aurora Robson.

 

References
Bennett, Jane. “Vibrant Matter.” London, Duke University Press Durham, 2010.
Davis, Heather. “Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures.” Philosophia, a Journal of Continental Feminism, vol. 5, no. 2, 2015, pp. 231-250.
Jordan, Chris. “Albatross.” Chris Jordan Photographic Arts, video, http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway-film/#trailer.
Lindström, Kristina; Ståhl, Åsa. “Plastic Imaginaries.” Continent, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp 62-67.
De Wolff, Kim. “Plastic Naturecultures: Multispecies Ethnography and the Dangers of Separating Living from Nonliving Bodies.” Indeterminate Bodies, special issue of Body & Society, vol. 23, no. 3, 2017, pp. 23-47.