We (Hannah and Maddie) have long been interested in collaborative nonfiction, in the truths it builds and tears apart, so we were excited to read David Carlin and Nicole Walker’s new book out just now from Rose Metal Press, The Afternormal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on Changing the Planet,
a collaborative book of mini-personal essays considering climate catastrophe through different entry points. It feels only fitting that in responding to this work, we adapt the alphabetical, collaborative form that is so integral to the book’s structure.
—Hannah Hindley and Maddie Norris
The world is falling apart. We know this. The temperature is rising, ice is melting, the sea-level is climbing, species are going extinct. Brown children are dying at the border, black men are being shot, white men are running the country. We know this, and it is overwhelming, the heft of it all, the accumulation of human-made tragedy. How are we supposed to survive? This is the question David and Nicole want to investigate, want to essay into, want to attempt to answer. It’s a question many of us have. With everything that is happening right now, overlapping in a terrifying time, how do we not collapse from the weight of it all? And the answer, I think, is in the question. How are we supposed to survive? There are smaller questions and smaller answers in each mini-essay, but there are bigger questions and bigger answers in the back-and-forth, in the weaving, in the we. If you step on a single nail, the metal will pierce your foot, cut through flesh and muscle. But if you step on a thousand nails, gathered together, packed side by side, one nail head touching the next, metal against metal, huddled beneath the impending foot, the nails will uphold the foot.
A nail is a little object, sharp and small and ordinary. It is the kind of thing Nicole and David might invoke, alongside grass and gutters and phobias and sandwiches. Catastrophe strides across the pages, sure, but it ducks and dances with everyday stuff. We’re only human, after all. Our ink pens ooze. We nurse hateful thoughts toward possums. We sneak bites of bacon. The fact of the matter is, ordinary things are what propel us toward catastrophe. There is an ordinariness to inertia, an ordinariness in knowing a thing and not doing much to actually change it. “They say to live in the present,” writes Nicole. “I am alternately good at taking advice and abhorring it.”Advice, like catastrophe, can be abstract and uncomfortable. This isn’t a book of advice. It dwells in the ordinary, celebrates and illuminates and condemns the silliness and frustration and good intentions and fracturing involved in being alive right now in a world where habits no longer serve us very well. It is the little things that push us toward disaster. Maybe, too, it’s the little things that might redeem us in this burning world.
I’m back in the Carolinas now, back where I grew up, which means I’m away from you. Today, on a walk, under dogwoods spattered with light and past parking lots surrounding apartments, I spotted a Carolina Wren. Looking at the bird, I remembered a friend told me attention is a form of love. The wren is a small bird with reddish-brown wings barred with black, a thin tail feather flitting behind, a light yellow belly glowing beneath. It would fit in two cupped hands. Put your hands out. Can you feel its soft feathers, its huffing body? I’m asking if distance can be overcome with longing. David and Nicole live half a world apart, and yet their words interlock hands, hold each other, build together. At four pm, Nicole writes, “You need to feel it coming coming coming. Only then will you be prepared.” And at nine am, David writes “It is about the varieties of love, and watching a condor or a wedge-tailed eagle, and the blending of objects into new forms.” It is about attention and love, about the love attention gives. If I tell you about the bird I learned to notice in the fourth grade, can you notice it too? If we notice this small state bird together, can we better understand love?
We’re so damn good at moving. You and I know this--the ways that motion, industriousness, tightly booked calendars can push us forward even when the heaviness of loss threatens to sink us. It’s good to keep moving. I flew away from our shared little desert city as I do every summer and didn’t even think to count the pounds of carbon I spent as I arced toward Alaska. These last few days I’ve been squishing through muskegs, which is the word we have for peat bogs up here. Peatlands are carbon sinks, bonsai gardens, soft trampolines of open land where slowness softly saves the world. Bogs are “uncanny places where nothing grows,” writes David, but these are my favorite places to visit because things do grow here. You can find them if you stop hurrying and kneel close: meat-eating plants, and fragrant shrubs with furry leaves that prevent them from losing precious water, and low-growing tiny pink flowers that could kill you dead if you swallowed them. In a muskeg, things aren’t in a rush. Things adapt. Things learn new tricks for getting by in an inhospitable world. Learn from the peatlands, David urges. Let’s try it in this reeling Anthropocene: slowing down, turning toward unconventional answers the way that a carnivorous sundew, sticky and strange, turns toward a gnat.
When someone mentions arsenic, the metalloid element that blocks the creation of ATP in our bodies, that blocks the creation of energy in our bodies, the element that in large doses can kill us, when someone says “arsenic,” I think of peach pits, which isn’t logical because I know peach pits contain cyanide, a different beautifully named chemical that can kill us, that will lay our bodies flat on a slab, but there is, in some ways, a logic to this association, an adjacency, the type of logic that makes sense of the closeness of softness and hardness, makes sense of the ways the sunset skin of a peach is furred with prickly hair, in the ways its juicy flesh, sweet and dripping, surrounds the hard pit of a poison that can clog the gears of our organs, which is to say there’s a logic inherent in understanding that the things that can kill us are linked to the things that will save us.
And this is how it is, isn't it? Lost, looping through associations, looking for logic, we're all locked into this burning ride we've been complicit in building, linked to each other, linked to this world that we love. Is this what Nicole and David knew, writing to each other from across hemispheres? That they were linked, that their linkage, like a chain, held airspace and friction, room for contradiction? That their linkage, chainlike, accumulated into a snaking shape, a line forward, a collective thing that, when strained, held weight? Is collaboration like theirs a way not just to witness from different shores, but to worldbuild? I walk to the coffeehouse down the street from the boat I work on. The ravens in Juneau are fat, their feathers rainbowing across taut bodies built out of trash and dockside scraps. Their voices are like bells; their claws clatter like dinosaur feet on the rain glossed sidewalk. I swing open my secondhand laptop, sign into wifi, open up my latest note from you, sent from a world that is not so far away, really. What I might write next hinges on what you have sent to me. Letters link us, let us look at things differently. The surprise is everything; too easy to predict the ending when you're the only author. Listen: whatever it is that we're mourning, whatever it is that we're confessing, whatever it is that might hope for, build toward, we're not writing alone anymore.
Maddie Norris is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction and was previously the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work can be found in Essay Daily, Opossum, and The Intima. Her writing explores loss, the body, and the many ways to illuminate the two. She is currently at work on a collection of essays.
Hannah Hindley is a writer of both truthful and fictional stories. Her work has appeared in journals, newspapers, and anthologies including River Teeth, the Harvard Review, and Terrain.org. She is the recipient of the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism, the New Conrads prize in maritime fiction, the Bill Waller Award for Nonfiction, and an honorable mention for the AWP Intro Journals Award. Hannah graduated from Harvard University with degrees in English and American Literature and Language and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; her writing bridges the space between those studies, exploring the poesy of natural systems and our human relationship with a changing planet.
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