Discover more from new work by astra
Lessons on vanishing
Or, "how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance"
Last weekend, I drove from Portland to Banff, where I’ll be completing a residency for the next month while I try to write a book. (Relatedly: if you happen to be in the area next Friday, November 3, I’ll be giving a reading from an unpublished section of the project. The event is free, and I’ve been told there’ll be wine.)
On the drive, I listened to PJ Voigt’s conversation with Ezra Klein about being brain-rotted by the internet on Voigt’s new podcast, Search Engine. Klein said something that I would have written down if I hadn’t been driving through the cold, gold Okanagan. The line has been sitting on the tip of my tongue ever since. It was something like: a different type of writing is possible if we’re writing for people who pay attention in similar ways as we do.
Over the summer, I taught my first writing course. The course went well, I think, but that had little to do with me and more to do with the intense attentiveness shared by everyone in attendance. When I came home, I wrote a craft essay about the experience for the print-only newsletter distributed by the Author’s Guild (writer friends: join the Guild! It’s America’s largest and oldest union for writers!). I got republishing rights and am going to use them to share the piece with you here, because I trust that you pay attention in similar ways that I do. That you, too, may have spent some time in the last several weeks toiling over the question of who gets to live in the future. That maybe you have been searching for portals that will carry us (and I mean all of us) into futures that are desirable, futures in which we survive.
My craft essay is about climate change, not about genocide. But it is about finding a way to insist on belonging from the middle of a crisis. If you’re looking for more words to reorient you in these dizzying days, here are two other works I’ve turned to these weeks:
“A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, “for those of us who live at the shoreline.”
“Vulnerability” by David Whyte. I wrote down a line from this piece in 2014, and spent (literally) the last nine years looking for it. Someone I know posted it last month, and I was gobsmacked. The rest of the piece was worth the wait.
Lessons on Vanishing
Originally published in the Author’s Guild Fall Bulletin, 2023
There was no spark of recognition when the fall began, only a buzzing awareness of its severity as I tumbled from one ledge to another. Forty feet below me, ice pulled away from the golden cliff I had been scrambling down, a bergschrund yawning wide and dark where it separated the nunatak from the thirty-degree snow slope below. The fall was long enough to have feelings about it. It was long enough to imagine how I would say sorry to my pals that I let myself die, long enough to feel the fizzing apology saturate my body with a pale blue light.
Twice in the week before I left to join the Juneau Icefield Research Program as a Teaching Faculty, a person that I love texted me: “Don’t fall in a crevasse.” I had been invited to join the eight-week scientific research program for its final two weeks, to teach the program’s students about climate change storytelling. Together, we would ski off the icefield, navigating its rotten terminus. We would cross the threshold from ice to lake to land.
My eyes didn’t have the chance to calibrate before I set off scrambling to some vista point with a student group an hour after I arrived. The mountains were still flickering before me, the gap between expectation and reality refusing to meld in my head. By then, the students had spent almost two months together, trekking 90-odd miles by ski and on foot across a sheet of ice that stretches from Juneau, Alaska, to British Columbia’s Coast Range mountains. They were, in other words, sure of their footing.
No one saw my body bounce from one ledge to another, my limbs spinning in a loose plié as I tumbled through stretched seconds, and my fall stacked into something building, something containing a distinct beginning, middle, and, mercifully, an end. I landed on my butt on a rock shelf, my legs dangling off the edge, uninjured. Finally, a few members of the hiking party turned. “All good?” they asked, sounding unconcerned. “All good,” I said. Downwards we continued over teetering stacks of rock and slick, hard-packed ice.
These students – young scientists, most of them – had spent months under the supervision of a rotating cast of 40 scientific faculty members. They had deployed dozens of spindly instruments to try to extract some meaning from this web of glaciers before they disappear. I had been told that, by this point in their summer-long expedition, the students mostly felt as though they were on a precipice. The long encounter with the wilderness of this landscape has a habit of changing people.
I could see this was true from the moment that I joined them. These were people for whom something had been weathered away–as though they had forgotten whatever sixth sense otherwise insulated them from the constraint threat of hostile perception. For weeks, they had fallen asleep to the steady ocean
I reread Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing before departing. She writes,
“Our not knowing allows us to notice the blessings we sometimes forget. There is an abundance that emerges, birthing new possibilities and imaginings that continually surprise us. States of unknowing remind us that even stability is impermanent, and that we are beholders of change. Even amidst heartache, the unknown calls for us to remember the interconnecting forces of love in our lives. The earth splits open for our creation during these febrile moments of transition. In our unknowing, so much is generously revealed to us, and that too is a form of abundance.”
The writing I tend to love alludes to the possibility of an entire world that exists just beyond the edges of the story that’s told. Or, as Carl Phillips wrote in a poem,
“all the more powerful parts to a life — as to art,
as well, when it’s worth remembering — resist
translation. Whence comes their power.”
Yet in climate writing, the task of trading in mystery gains a leaden weight. I catch myself resisting the mystery; I want certainty that we can survive. On the icefield, I felt this nausea even as I cite Rebecca Solnit, the lord-and-savior of climate optimism, in my lessons: “Despair is a delusion of confidence that asserts it knows its coming.”
Climate change writing has had something of a tide change in the last decade as outlet after outlet turned to “solutions journalism,” committing to “what feels like a healthy human decision to endure,” per Columbia Journalism Review’s 2021 review of the tone change. No need to be alarmist, no need to revel in the warning bell. No need, the logic follows, to admit we might be scared. The decision to ensure implies a sea change in our cultural perception of whether or not enduring is possible. Maybe it is possible; some are even starting to call it likely. As climate reporter David Wallace-Wells wrote for the New York Times in late 2022, “the most terrifying predictions [have been] made improbable” by widespread decarbonization efforts. The piece was dragged on my Twitter feed for weeks after it ran.
The intensity of our hope that the point of no return remains in the future is, Maggie Nelson wrote in her book Freedom, a frequent impediment to our ability to live. “The horse race of hope and fear has never seemed more important to resign from,” she writes. “We’ve got to… play a different game.” This is what I tell my students: In writing, we build a bearable myth. It has nothing to do with surviving or not; we must tell stories – about the futures we could live in, about the love that will find us there – that can at once make us want to, while also readying us for the reality that the force of our wanting is very seldom enough to make our wishes real.
For a half century, the literary canon has been taken up with writing from the margins; perhaps climate narratives ought to as well. After my fall that first day on the icefield, when I had recovered my pride enough to carry on downwards across the cliff’s ledges and the steep snow below, we arrived at the top of a rocky protrusion that jutted like a crooked tooth from the sea of ice. Algae and lichen had eroded the rock’s little divots into pockets of soil. There were the pink studs of blooming heather flowers. One student identified a flower-less lupine from a clump of silvery leaves. We pulled shiny black snowberries from their stems, greedy at the first sight of fruit. Purple-lipped, the students walked off to find the best perches to nap in the sun. On this geologic margin, even as the wave-break sounds of icefall echoed all around us, new life insisted on taking root in the cracks.
I have heard the climate emergency called “a crisis of narrative.” Dino Gilio-Whitaker has written that it “is not just a problem of technology or economics; it’s a problem of philosophy”; or, as Sam Hamilton says, a problem of badly modulated relationships to “space and time.” We are, he writes, in need of “visionary interventions to create frameworks [that have] the potential to radically change our perception and, by extension, how we act.”
During one of our workshops, I told the students that they must always imagine an audience. I asked them: Who enables your safety? Who creates the conditions for your truth-telling? I think the answers to these questions also reveal something about the sorts of futures we are writing towards: because the moments that we are able to be bravest are not, perhaps, the ones in which we are most at risk. Rather, we are bravest when we believe that we are safe. For planetary scientists engaged in observing and, in some cases, manipulating the material conditions that may have vast implications in who lives and dies, it feels important that actions come from a place of embodied security. These students especially are engaged in the verb of geography – its etymology meaning, literally, ‘earth-writing,’ I want to challenge them to write an earth where we are held (by livable atmospheric conditions as much as by one another).
And so, we talk about who allows us to say the impossible, even as our voices shake. That is our audience. As had happened in the mid-air moment during my fall, the face of my worried friend appeared in my mind as I spoke. A vision of him had come to me again a few days later. During a traverse between camps, I had needed to strap my skis to my book-heavy bag and was stumbling under its unfamiliar weight. The razor edge of my focus flickered like a light. I thought of him as I leaped over crevasses wider than my body, and again as my foot cracked open rotten ice where it landed. I thought of him when I faltered near the pool-blue edge of a moulin, thinking, “I’m sorry,” thinking, “thank you,” thinking that I wish he would know somehow, if I were to slip, that my last thought was of him, with gratitude for the safe harbor of his friendship that I knew I would find when this shattering, sacred experience ended, and I was somewhere else.
As is also true of the will to live that surfaces when a body finds a fulcrum, my favorite writing is relational. At its best, the reader’s understanding of what our social bonds can accomplish is stretched.. Art, wild landscapes, unexpected love–all stretch our understanding of what remains possible. It has less to do with hope than with the terrifying ordeal of being known – and how even that labor is sometimes best accomplished by honoring all that remains in the hollowed out liminal spaces, and in everything that is left unsaid. Just as Phillips wrote: sacred things resist translation. Some pieces by Deagan Miller, Franny Choi or Craig Santos Perez land here. The work run in Emergence Magazine often does, too. These are the clunky, resolution-less pieces that fall somewhere between despair’s confidence and Wallace’s delusional victory cheer. It’s uneasy. This type of work makes me unsettled. I can’t stop reading it.
The Juneau Icefield is at once a geography that is known almost exclusively through scientific intervention, and a landscape that is undergoing rapid, irreversible change. I am compelled by this paradox of observation and uncertainty. This makes the land–as well as any stories we might tell about it–a site of “intense struggle and negotiation”1 between what was and what still may be. To this end, art and land–author and subject–are subsumed within what Hélène Cixous wrote in The Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing was a primary task: “learning to die, learning not to be afraid in other words, to live at the extremity of live.” I understand the continent as a vehicle for arriving at what eco-theorist Elvia Wilk calls living by landscape–as a place where language can work to presence geographies, lifeforms, and still-liveable futures.
It is scary to do so much as imagine belonging. It’s not something I’m used to. Upon my arrival at the first camp on the icefield, I observed something initially jarring about the students’ presence, something in each of their faces cracked open and vulnerable that made me feel a twinge of something caught halfway between envy and repulsion. They held long conversations with uninterrupted eye contact, noses close enough to smell saltines on each others’ breath.
“All souls come here to rub the sharp edges off each other,” Chuck Palinchuk wrote. He wasn’t talking about living abreast a planetary margin, but he might as well have been. “This isn’t suffering. It’s erosion.” A river stone is round as a way of carrying everything that happens to it, a student read to me, once I too had been among the ice for long enough to know not to look away. It is a line which, as I have done with hundreds of little pebbles over the years, I have carried with me for some time.
At dusk on my final evening at one of the camps, I gathered a few students to work with Eileen Myles’ “At a Waterfall, Reykjavik.” Thirty quiet minutes passed as we all replaced Myles’ lines to write our own two-stanza poems about what beliefs they were carrying, and for whom. When the time came to share, no one wanted to read their poems. Finally, a boisterous blond boy volunteered. His voice was loud and clear, but when he finished, he looked out at his friends, sighing. “Reading that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Why am I so afraid?” he asked me, deer-eyed, having just read something any stranger would have known was unimpeachably true. We all smiled at him. Finally, he smiled back at us. Then he read another, and another, continuing on as the sky blushed and then blued. It always seems to happen like this: buoyed by someone else’s courage, suddenly everyone wanted to share.
As the other students’ readings slowed, we heard a yip in the distance. Seven students that were due to arrive that night, traversing in from the previous camp, had just crested the final hill and caught sight of us on the horizon. They bellowed and whooped. Around me, the camp was set into motion, everyone leaching out from the little cabins as honey from a comb. My workshop students leapt up, scrambling to a high ridge of boulders that flanked the camp, ready to link arms and sing songs welcoming the arrival of their friends.
One student hesitated for a moment and then came to squat beside me. “A poem for the moment,” she said. “It’s called, At A Workshop, Camp 26.” The poem was short, only three lines.
“I still believe the ice is my home,” she read, lifting her gaze to mine with a smile. Then she ran off to join the others.
Bruno Latour, Science in Action, 1988