Last month, packing up the last of my things in my childhood bedroom, I found an old album, its cardboard cover resembling snakeskin. Inside were photographs I had taken over twenty years ago in the Florida Keys with a disposable underwater camera. The edges of the pages were stained.
Toward the end was the page that, cutting through the defensive chatter of my mind, called out to me as an essay—
You and I have heard it many times—“essay” comes from a French verb meaning “to try”—followed by what’s now almost a platitude: essays should be insightful, vulnerable attempts to understand the self in the world. But as I fall in love, haltingly, with essays, I need a new paradigm beyond trying. I consider myself an environmentalist, a pescatarian at times, and yet I’m drawn to the old phrase “to take the essay,” which meant “to draw the knife along the belly of the deer, beginning at the brisket, to discover how fat he is” right after the animal has fallen dead during a hunt. (That’s how James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, a nineteenth-century Shakespearean scholar, defines it in his dictionary of archaic words.)
Increasingly my ideal essay involves that kind of impromptu, exploratory surgery—in the dark, brambly woods of consciousness, we hunt for insights and unreliable memories until they are captured on the page; with the nicked, scratched blade of writerly attention, we cut through our conditioned perceptions, through the instep arch of our sleepwalking carbon culture, to see just what kind of substance is there, what was hidden beneath the chatter and propaganda; both reader and writer return to the village, so to speak, with blood stains because things got a little messy. This approach to writing is not unlike Thoreau’s philosophy in Walden: “to live deep… to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” to remove the bones and “and suck out all the marrow of life.”
It’s an ideal that is pretty new to me in prose writing. To be honest, I wrote my first essay less than two years ago, not counting literary analysis and personal statements for applications. I wrote it because I was assigned to teach creative nonfiction and wanted to seem like less of a sham, because after almost twenty years of writing poems, I was bored and I couldn’t revise another breathy line—now the white space around my stanzas can feel like the dead zone around the outermost islands of a delta. I stubbornly associate stanzas with lyricism, music, and fragmentation instead of evidence, analysis, and narrative. But I’d like all six. Perhaps eventually I’ll bring back to poetry what I’m learning in paragraphs.
The photographic essay’s subject, approached and commented on from several angles by me as a sixth grader, is elkhorn coral. The shadows tell me that in each instance the sun was out and it was close to noon. I would have been wearing ear plugs and a rubber swim cap, and probably holding my mother’s hand, periodically scanning the surface for jellyfish, and the bottom for the next living patch of coral. Notice how barren the reef is around each colony; though I was only eleven or so, I knew that shouldn’t be the case. I was obsessed with finding coral that was still alive. I’d stay out snorkeling until the captain had to blow his airhorn twice.
When I was boy, elkhorn coral was pretty uncommon off of Key Largo. And now even more so. Between the 1970s and the early 2000s, there was a 97% loss of elkhorn in Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and it was recently considered for endangered species status. White pox, an elkhorn disease caused by human sewage and exacerbated by warming oceans, makes the living tissue come off in floss-like strings. Not long ago these “giant redwoods of the reef,” as one scientist calls them, formed seemingly endless thickets on reef crests, protecting coastlines and providing habitat for countless creatures. Now in their place are often just rubble and slime.
That accidental photographic essay, I tell you with a shiver, feels to me like a message from my worried eleven-year-old self. Against the barrenness of the ocean floor, the elkhorn’s color—the orange of the turmeric capsules I take each morning—is itself a lyrical meditation on resilience and beauty, a vibrant exhortation for drastic societal change. Its rhetoric is one of triple repetition, of wholehearted focus and praise, like carving a lover’s name into sandstone, etching and re-etching the letters three times to make them last. It seems to me, even if it’s not true, that the child—offering no easy answers—was telling the man to remember and to write.
And yet a stranger, without any context, wouldn’t be moved by the photographs, which until now have been a private essay. I’d like to write a nature essay that truly speaks to the future as well, but also to my elderly self and yours, to unborn, surviving readers: I saw this, it was gorgeous, I helped destroy it—is it living somewhere still in your ocean? On the bus ride to the gym, if I close my eyes, the branched coral argument of orange—of nasturtium and Sri Lankan monk’s robe and yolks —fills me. Like an overripe pomegranate, the brain, the heart, my something-or-other splits open a bit.
It touched me and perhaps it could touch you.
What is beautiful in your world?
Many of the essays I love most are sliced open, cut up, segmented: Didion’s “The White Album,” Nelson’s Bluets, Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It is as if their most powerful moments bled out from the section breaks, slits in the belly of the page. “Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country,” Rankine writes, “it's been a martyr for the American dream, it's been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel.” Reading those words, I’m jolted into thinking of—and feeling—ecological sadness, how we numb our solastalgia, which environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault... a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.'
In less successful essays, such as David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” those section breaks are spaces where it seems two pieces of Velcro meet, or where the glue has hardened into globs, giving you a moment to gulp down some air. There is an excess of information—“the legal disclaimer on the product’s compliance with or exemption from 18 U.S.C. §2257 and ads for phone services like 900-600-FUCK”—but not much knowledge, not much poignancy. I finish that ironic, clever essay asking, What was at stake beyond the titillation of exposing the porn industry?
I go to such pieces of Wallace’s nonfiction for brainy entertainment, as when I watch a hilarious clip of The Daily Show. When I feel small and want to be enlarged and then pierced, I pick up Keats’ letters. Or Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There. Or Bruce Snider’s “Ammunition,” a piece broken up by bullet points about a son’s relationship with his gun-collecting father. I reach for W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn—it is, among other things, an essay. Broken up by grainy photographs, the whole book of is one long walk through Suffolk, and one unbroken bruise— blue, black, greenish-red.
A stoplight parrotfish, sleeping protected in the mucus bubble that it belched from its mouth—that’s how I see myself this afternoon, safe in the delusion that it’s all going to be okay, my nephews and their children will grow old in a beautiful world of plenty.
Tear the veil, I tell my fingers on the touchscreen keyboard as I revise this at the bar. It’s drag night. Wake me up.
Whether or not I take the round-trip flight to teach in Singapore this summer is a moral choice. In the 5.71 tons of CO2 released per passenger, each molecule is a moral assertion floating in the air.
Fifteen years from now, largely due to warming oceans, the distressed reefs in the album—the reefs of the Florida Keys—will be gone. That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not your unstable activist uncle in Berkeley.
Feeling that urgency, in an essay, or a series of linked essays, I’d like to help dispel environmental, civilizational delusions, ones subtler than Florida Governor Rick Scott banning the term “climate change” in state government communications. I want to “take the essay” of the world in 2015 and 2030 but also in the next century, and the next. I want, for instance, to cut through the dangerous hope that technology will somehow be able to put megatons of carbon back into thawing permafrost, and cause the Larsen B ice shelf to suddenly reconstitute itself, that nanobots in 2135 will remove dissolved carbon from the ocean and allow clams and coral and pteropods to once again build their shells in less acidic water. I want to visualize daily life for people in the Queensland of the future, to imagine diving what will no longer be called the Great Barrier Reef.
Imagining our harrowing future is not ecological snuff porn. It’s generative, to a point. It sounds an alarm, not a knell, since there is still time to avert the worst. For what it’s worth, it does something scary and necessary to my heart: I step outside my little kale-and-401(k) concerns; I think deeply about the suffering of other beings, and how that suffering, instead of intensifying, could be eased; the natural beauty that remains underwater is all the more precious and I’m forced to be more in the moment, to feel gratitude for this life, as when I’ve floated above purple staghorn coral that will soon be rubble, beside a Napoleon wrasse that won’t have great-grandchildren. Then I feel a simultaneous mix of thankfulness and remorse, love and solastalgia, a tender rawness that briefly frees me from a shallow engagement with nature. I don’t know how to express those sensations artfully in a lyric poem, much as I’d like to. And so I turn to writing essays, asking among other things what it’s like to experience beauty that I’m helping to destroy.
Together environmental writers—essayist Amy Leach, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, scientist Jeremy Jackson, to name a few—are building a case for a radical transformation of our civilization. The shift might be painful and it must be swift. What such writers are building I’d like to call an “essay array,” as in the Very Large Array, the 27 antennas arranged in a dowsing-rod formation in the New Mexico desert; even though each individual dish has a diameter of 82 feet, collectively they have the resolution of a radio observatory 22 miles wide. Cutting through time and space, through the dense nebulae of Super PAC-bankrolled fantasies, these writers receive and send signals deep into the culture, which is authoring its own future through its actions and inactions.
Maybe, though, that astronomical metaphor is a self-aggrandizing exaggeration, another delusion through which to cut, like in a dream cutting into a deer’s belly only to find another layer of hairy skin instead of fat. Maybe essays—and I mean that in the broad sense I’ve been using—don’t make any difference at all, are nothing against the money of the Koch brothers and the intransigence of human nature. Maybe there is no end to our troubles, and our delights, until it all ends. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion famously writes in “The White Album,” though she had in mind “the sermon in the suicide” and “the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” not an appalling narrative like that of warming, rising, acidifying seas without goosefish, without krill, without elkhorn coral. The meaning of the photographic album from my childhood, unlike so much else in this ever-shifting mirage of a life, is clear to me, at least tonight.
Greg Wrenn's first book, Centaur, opens with a multi-sectioned poem about a man surgically transformed into a centaur. His work has appeared in The New Republic, AGNI, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Yale Review,and elsewhere. Currently he is at work on a book of linked essays about coral reefs, impermanence, and human destiny. A native of northeast Florida, he currently teaches at Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow.