Between Monday 13th and Friday 17th April 2020 we posted contributions from Helen Moore, Philip Webb Gregg, Hayley Harrison, Peter Reason and Mary Woodbury. You can find the full, week-by-week listing at Quarantine Connection.
Day 5 — Mary Woodbury: Bird Song (an excerpt)
Mary Woodbury is a fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers. Mary is based in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Mary says of this piece:
“Bird Song: A Novella is a twist on Greek mythology, a climate change parable, a coming-of-age story, and a tale of weirdness. I began writing it years ago and picked it back up again recently; the story has completely immersed me, especially now that we’ve been in quarantine.“
Bird Song: A Novella (an excerpt)
By nightfall, Dion made a small campfire and said he’d found a rabbit. I had not seen anything but birds and fish here, so it surprised me, but I ate hungrily. Now at the end of the third day, I almost knew I would not be killing this man. Or at least I wasn’t going to make the deadline for doing so. As frustrating as he could be, he did seem innocent enough to me and there’s no way I could overpower him now. If I told him I wanted to go for a walk and could he come with me, he’d surely not take a pleasant stroll back toward the wasps. And I think he knew it, that I was just a young woman from a faraway land where killing did not come easy.
I felt humbled by the power of the island, unnerved by the uncanniness of it. Tonight the rain had ended nearly as quickly as it had started, and the land seemed to dry up faster than normal. We sat on dry sand after dinner and watched the moon and stars appear one by one. Even in the drab city, if I could look up at night and see stars, it made me feel peaceful somehow, as if the whole chaos of humans was tiny and there was something bigger out there, even if scientifically it was chaotic too. The perspective of the night sky lent to me comfort and paralyzing beauty. The way it all shone down put me in a spell. The eastern shore was softer, less rocky, at least here. No cliffs nor caves. Just white sand stretching on forever, with a gentler lop of sea than in the west.
I lay in my bedroll, listening to the man’s snoring. He was almost as strange as the island, all-knowing yet pretending to be naive. It also seemed he had been teasing me about time and his knowledge of the women on the island. Or maybe he was truthful for wherever he was from: that in his world magic existed, men on ships dreamed of women, and there were no such things as calendars.
I had just fallen asleep when I woke to the sound of a horn or a pipe. It was lower in resonance than a flute, more rich. It sounded first, and then the singing came. Aglatha and Peisini sang the song I taught them. Shambala.
I can tell my sister by the flowers in her eyes…
I can tell my brother by the flowers in her eyes
“Up here, dear Thelsie, we sing. It is the best place to sing because it is high enough so that the wind carries our voices,” Peisini had said.
I was so tired, it made no sense. I looked over to Dion. He was still sleeping soundly beneath the moon, his hulking body a silhouette against the sea of rising foam and wind. I then realized it was probably midnight. The hour of magic, and maybe the hour of destruction. The forest between the beach and the mountains was silent. No birds. No nymphs. The siren song lifted throughout the entire island like an ominous choir in the sky.
Ever since I’d come here, I had not really known where to go. From that first day when I sat on the sand, scratching my head about where I was, nothing and everything had changed. It seemed to be a haunted island now, and so many things had happened, yet some facts still remained. Where was I? When was I? And why was I here?
Unlike during the usual singing, a storm did not approach. The wind grew more furtive, but everything else seemed dead. Dion finally stirred and sat up, his dark eyes taking me in, almost hungrily. Discomfort washed over me.
He sat up and listened to the night. “We have to leave,” he said dryly.
“Just stay with me along the way.”
He was not in a good mood. Maybe he realized his death hour had come and gone but was not forgotten. Regardless, I wasn’t going to argue with him. I had some trust in him, maybe more than in the two sisters. My only other option was to swim away, and I didn’t think that’d work.
I followed him south on the white beach, and then he skipped to near the forest and that’s when the singing softened but didn’t die, but the wind still rose. He didn’t talk, and yet I was full of questions. Where are we going? What’s going on? What are you even thinking?
Tonight he was a man of few words.
Time seemed to stand still as we crossed streams and as the deep, silent night began to once again show signs of life. I heard the nymphs whisper from their nooks in trees and small caves. Their voices joined with the constant waves slipping onto the shore, and while I’d never understood the strange whispers that the little folk said and sung in the preceding days, tonight their sweet voices shushed the women song from the cliffs far to the west, and I began to almost make out what they were saying. It was like a universal language that these little folks sang. It was everything and nothing, happy and sad, fluid and yet not predictable, light and heavy, rich and simple. Because Dion wouldn’t talk with me and tiredly marched forward, alone with himself, I kept pace behind him somberly listening to everything else.
Dawn was not quite here, but faint light stretched into the universe, and it, with the moon, offered enough brightness to keep me from stumbling awkwardly over brambles in the ink of the night. Dion’s shoes surprisingly held fast, but they were more like sandals and I could feel the dew grass and the sand and wind on my feet too. I had cleaned the robe finally, and though it was still splashed with mud stains, it was dry and I was refreshed in the warmth of the island.
Day 4 — Peter Reason: Lines Written While Reading Hunger Mountain
Peter Reason is a writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives. Peter is based in Bath, England.
Peter says of this piece:
“I am writing a review of David Hinton’s work on Taoist and Ch’an worldviews. At the time I wrote this poem I was sitting in my orchard reading his first book in this series, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (2012), reflecting on how individual identity simply is not existent at the point of vivid encounter: ‘in the moment of perception, there is no “I” perceiving, there is simply perception, an opening of consciousness becoming wholly a crescent moon appearing through Hunger’s autumn forests, or dew shimmering in bunchgrass.’ At that moment, the crow flew past.”
Lines written while reading Hunger Mountain
A crow flies low across the meadow grass,
Waits a while on top of the wall,
Black, wings outstretched,
Strange feelings of absence.
I am not there.
You can find all of Peter’s writing and reviews at his website — including Lines written while reading Hunger Mountain and this year’s haiku – and at other places via his ClimateCultures profile.
Day 3 — Hayley Harrison: Progress
Hayley Harrison is an artist examining our disconnection with ‘nature’ and each other via discarded materials, text, performance and video, whose performance commiserates redundant packaging and honours ‘natural’ products. Hayley is based in London, England. Hayley says of this piece:
“Progress is a meditative act that questions the notion of progress – it is an addictive repetition attempting to control in a way that is destined to fail. This was recorded in Penmaenmawr, a town in Conwy, Wales, after completing the 97 mile Snowdonia Way walk with my partner in 2018. Like a lot of people I’m using self-isolation as a time of reflection. I’m thinking a lot about the all-consuming human desire for progress and the detrimental effects of this to humans and non-humans. What happens when the majority of humanity is forced to slow down or stop and the non-human world carries on?”
Day 2 — Philip Webb Gregg: What We Find in the Guts of the Bodies that the River Gives Us
Philip Webb Gregg is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism whose central goal is to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition. He is a contributor and online editor for The Dark Mountain Project, a publication which seeks to re-author the human narrative, and is working on their current fiction callout for Dark Mountain’s Issue 18 (deadline for submissions: Wednesday 20th May 2020). Philip is based in London, England.
Philip says of this piece:
“What We Find in the Guts of the Bodies that the River Gives Us was originally published on The Molotov Cocktail — I wrote this a few years back when I was deep into the flash fiction headspace. My intent was to try to make it as colourful and rich as possible using under a thousand words. I was struck by the idea of how one would try to describe plastic if one had never encountered it before. Also, quite proud of the title.”
What We Find in the Guts of the Bodies that the River Gives Us
There is a place where the river meets the land; a kink in the direction of the water, so that the usually tranquil current froths to a restless swirl, and things wash up onto the grass like bad food spat out.
For the past two weeks we have been pulling bodies from that place in the river.
Twice a day they come, wide-eyed and bloated, with arms wrapped around each other and lips twisted into mute, cruel laughter. Every day there are more and more of them.
We do not know what to do. Our men are exhausted from digging graves. Our women are sore-throated and sick from the songs and the rites of mourning. Soon our crops will begin to fail. Our animals already wander unnoticed through the village, weaving in and out of the huts and eating the wild flowers that grow in the ashes of our abandoned fires. Our children are getting thin. We have no time for anything but the carrying and the burying and the mourning of the bodies that we pull from the bank.
It is becoming a certainty among our people that the gods are being slaughtered. It is a knowledge like the faith of dawn or the necessity of dusk. Our elders tell us that only the gods could inhabit such vicious forms. Only the gods could die such terrible deaths.
The strangest thing is what we find inside them. Swollen as they are, their bellies often burst like ripe fruit when we touch them, and that is when the oddest of objects come spilling from their guts. Collections of thin, slimy wisps, like scraps of rotten bark or over-boiled fish. Great twisted masses of a substance we have never encountered, harder than volcanic stone, colder than even the coldest of our winter nights. Strips and strips of something viscous and see-through, like sheets of flexing ice, only frayed and dry, and unpleasant to touch.
All of this is accompanied by a stench of sickness like the reek of longing and regret.
Today we went to the river to retrieve the bodies and found a flock of birds instead. They rose into the air as we approached, blood and screams streaming from their beaks, and where they had been, lying dying on the sodden grass, was a god.
A god like the others, bleached and bloated, but alive. He crawled through the slit bodies of his brothers and sisters, and we saw that his skin was cratered with countless seeping beak wounds, and that an eye had been plucked clean from his head like a maggot from a rotten apple. The nails of his fingers and toes had also been taken.
He spluttered in his strange language when we lifted him, shouted something at us, something cruel and offensive. We asked each other if the insult of a god was a holy thing. None of us knew. We hurried him back to the village as he spat and bled.
Our elders fell to their knees when they saw him. They whispered prayers into their knotted staffs and touched their foreheads to the ground.
Our women were more practical. They brushed honey into his wounds and bound his broken limbs. They whispered soothing songs and made him tea mixed with special herbs, which he drank greedily, and all the village was repulsed to hear the slurping of his godly lips.
Then he slept.
It took us a full month to learn even a few scattered words of the god’s strange language. During this time, he did not recover. His wounds continued to fester and his temperament was never anything less than foul and embittered. He gave the impression of always being unimpressed. Always disrespectful and half-disgusted by all that he encountered.
He curled his nose at the food we brought him. Made faces at our sons and tried to touch our daughters. His tongue would often wag out of his mouth as he said his strange sounds. And his single eye would roll back inside his skull, in agony or ecstasy we could not tell.
Here are some of the words that he taught us:
Soon we began to hate this god.
At the end of this month he was taken from us, by sacred intervention, our elders say.
It was the dark of the moon, and they came from the ground and the air and the forest, silently and together. Owls and snakes and ants and elk; all manner of wild things with unforgiving eyes. They poured out of every hollow and shadow and descended upon the god, who screamed worse than ever, spilling spiders from his lips and shaking rats from his genitals.
Hearing this, we ran to his side, but as soon as we saw what was happening we stopped, and a stillness descended upon us like the black of the sky. His gargled howls echoed throughout the huts, but for whatever reason, we did not feel inclined to fight the beasts who tore at his flesh.
It was the wolves who took him in the end. They padded through the open doors as calmly as the evening breeze, and then with mouths that shone in the starlight they dragged him out of the hut and into the forest. He screamed one final time, and then was silent.
In the morning we found the strange stuff from the god’s guts strewn to every edge of the village.
The bodies from the river kept coming for another six or seven weeks after that, but we did not bother to bury any more of them. We had met the gods, and we had been unimpressed. And anyway, we were tired of worrying about the dead.
The next time we checked the place by the bank, all we found was a maze of bones bound up with the never-rotting, sickly substance of their stomachs.
Day 1 — Helen Moore: Ice, an Elegy
Helen Moore is an ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and educator who facilitates ecopoetry workshops and uses creative writing to support health and wellbeing and ecologically oriented community-wide projects. Helen is based in Somerset, England.
Helen says of this piece:
“I first wrote Ice, an Elegy more than ten years ago, having watched footage of melting ice sheets in the Arctic. I recall feeling both devastated and awed by slow motion footage of giant walls of ice crashing into the ocean, and knew that I wanted to mythologise this process, because it’s such a major event of our time. As human beings we’re hard-wired to be meaning-makers, and I believe we have a deep need for imagery to represent and heighten our awareness of our dramatically changing world. So I drew on folktales from the Russian tradition, and chose the figure of an Ice Queen to represent the landscapes of the Arctic, and then developed my poem around this archetype. At the same time the research I’d previously done for a children’s book about the Arctic peoples and animals made me conscious of the impacts of the climate crisis on all the beings who inhabit this region, and I wanted them to be included within this mythological framework.
“Sometimes my readers have questioned whether the poem is ‘anti-science’ in its conclusion, but that wasn’t my intention. Ice, an Elegy appeared in my debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012), and is one I’ve frequently chosen to share with audiences over the years. Recently when a teacher in Kazakhstan asked to use some of my work with her students, she selected this poem from those I sent her, and through our exchanges about it, I realised that the trickiness of pronouncing English words meant that a purely text-based experience would be less accessible for non-native speakers. So, having been very anti-tech for years, I decided to embrace the opportunities that having moved from a ‘dumb-phone’ to a second-hand ‘smartphone’ offers and made this little recording for them. I hope it speaks to other kindred ClimateCulture spirits too!”
Ice, an Elegy