Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out,/ willing prisoner/ inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?



AMINA CAIN: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two year old should. I had very few fears as a child and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”

Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself), and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there. I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.

Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.

There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.


VERONICA GONZALEZ-PEÑA: I think that I swim because I have to … and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat… this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people – this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave, or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing and so I do and do and do, I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in LA.

Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NY. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space… the wine dark sea… how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.

I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it – it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too – the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine dark sea of self.

In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is… her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.

But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire, and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?


AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness, but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.

Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land, or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.

When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.

When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.

In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too. “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.


VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition, and patterns, and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by Sebald, or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing… the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes, and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term – that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that… For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence – I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement, how stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference, and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch – that is just beyond…

But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters who are so often there and not there at once – this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration – because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous –  they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a  dream logic, as in Black Wings where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in Homesteading; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal – like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?


AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday, and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.

It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself, and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.

I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!


VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing – or work to create, anyway. I want the reader to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary and deep and intense, and so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow…. I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.

It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things – this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, and language, and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell, the children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In And Went Inside the narrator tells us, Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.

I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope, and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on, I believe he is still alive, he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share – a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work, and about yourself as a teller of stories?


AC: Regarding Death is like a shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.

I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. I believe he is still alive. If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.

What kind of storyteller are you?


VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out, or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others… I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much…


AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.


Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009) and the forthcoming CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). She is also a curator, most notably for the literature/performance/video festivals Both Sides and The Center at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles (with Teresa Carmody) and When Does It or You Begin? Memory as Innovation at Links Hall in Chicago (with Jennifer Karmin). She lives in California.

Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is the author of twin time: or, how death befell me, which won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize in 2007. She is also the founder of Rockypoint Press, which produces a series of artist-writer collaborations. Her new novel, The Sad Passions, will be out June 2013, on semtiotext(e).

Into the Wine-Dark Sea of Self: A Conversation With Amina Cain and Veronica Gonzalez-Peña

Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

What is your relationship to the natural world? And do you bring the natural world into your writing?

As I answer this, I’m looking out my window at a madrona tree with its peeling bark, huge areas of blackberry bramble, and low-growing ferns, all while listening to a crow and eagle have it out somewhere near this cabin on a hill.

Because I live in the Northwest, and particularly in a small rural town where you have to commute by ferry to visit, my relationship with the natural world is intimate. We are more than dating, we are significant others. We see each other regularly. As a mountain biker, I ride deep into the trails of our forests. I never know what I’ll see when I pedal off into nature: some days deer, some days owls, occasionally a black bear. As a paddleboarder, I see the world from atop the water—blue heron and kingfisher above me, flounder and moonsnails below.

In the last year, several writing conferences have asked me to teach classes on “nature writing,” which seemed odd to me because I never considered myself a nature writer. Though looking over my work, it does appear that the landscape has slipped into my writing quite frequently. I guess just as the city writer writes about her urban landscape, I write about mine, which tends to be lush and green and growing.


Sketch of a Fig Tree
(forthcoming in Hourglass Museum, published by White Pine Press in 2014)

Halfway through the day with the sun like a halo
over my neighbor’s house, I think about God
and time and if it’s possible to feed my soul with a pen
and ink drawing I saw at a museum by an artist
whose name I didn’t recognize.

Somewhere across the country my house is falling apart,
or maybe it did years ago, returning to my old neighborhood
to realize the streets were never as big as I thought
and the house I lived in was not as nice
as the house down the road, but I was never allowed
to walk that far.

I’m older now and what’s falling apart is the sunset
I try to watch from my office window
where I’m surrounded by books
and it doesn’t matter how much the fog moves in
or if there’s a neighborhood where kids fight

about the color of poppies. I think back to the fig tree

that grew in my yard and how the leaves always reminded me
of being somewhere else or in the middle of a Rousseau painting
where the jungle was a prayer and everything I needed
was above me and all I had to do was reach up,
all I had to do was open my hands.


What aspect of human nature are you finding peace with? What are you cultivating?

Instead of “finding peace,” I’ve made peace with people’s belief that being busy is important and that money is worth more than one’s time. These are areas I’ve struggled with and when I see others caught up in a life they aren’t happy with (but not making any changes to improve their lives) I try to find understanding instead of trying to fix everything.

I feel the same way about people who have a lot of promise and talent; it pains me to see writers and artists not taking risks with their art out of fear, or worse, they may even be self-sabotaging possible opportunities. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to stretch myself and do things that make me feel uncomfortable—that is where growth occurs. I want other writers and artists to push themselves as well, but I realize we each make our own decisions and while I may offer suggestions or advice, I know ultimately, we each create our own path and are responsible for our own lives, so I do my best to respect and understand others’ choices.

I’m cultivating creativity, imagination, bravery, and authenticity as best I can.



What is your understanding of why violence against women is “naturalized” in our culture?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m not sure “naturalized” is the word I’d use. Overlooked? Ignored? Forgotten? Not spoken of? Disregarded? For me, “naturalized” implies acceptance and that violence against women has adapted to all conditions in our culture, which I don’t think it has. Our culture has become and is becoming more aware of violence against women and there is outrage. There are pockets in our culture where it happens more and where it happens less, but in all areas there will always be people who speak out against it and there will also be denial or disregard.

As for understanding why violence against women or why it still happens in our culture, that I cannot comprehend.


What is your nature’s candy? And why?

The sweet smell of lilacs in early spring because they remind me of Walt Whitman.

Plucking off a blossom of the honeysuckle that winds itself around the treehouse and tasting the nectar.

Strawberries that have stretched from my neighbor’s yard into my yard because it’s always a surprise even though it’s somewhat expected.

Figs picked off the tree in my backyard in August; a luxury in every way.

Blackberries in late summer because the vines that take over my yard, each year, apologize with fresh fruit and I make a wicked blackberry crumble.


When do you leave a wall intact, when do you knock it down? 

Most of my walls are down until I lose trust in someone, then I build amazing forty-story creations that can’t be scaled by any amount of words or actions.

I leave walls intact when I can see the benefit of privacy or security.

I knock them down when they are no longer fun to climb.


Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma

HER KIND: Deborah A. Miranda ends her poem “Old Territory. New Maps.” with this entreaty to a former lover: “…Help me/ translate loss the way this land does—/flood, earthquake, landslide—/terrible, and alive.” What are the natural worlds of Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma?  In what ways do you and your work connect to the natural world?


WENDY BABIAK: Wow. First, I have to thank you for introducing me to this powerful poem. And then say that the natural world reflected in it manifests one way I see it: the landscape in which we love. But it’s also the world that feeds us, the very stuff from which we grow. As I’ve heard it said, the earth peoples like an apple tree apples. To imagine that we’re separate from the natural world is one of man’s most ridiculous fallacies. And it’s why we’re killing ourselves, by poisoning the air and water, by killing the micro-herds of the soil and the bees that pollinate our food, by dismantling with our carbon in the atmosphere the life-supporting systems of the planet: because we imagine that we are not of this world, but just living in it.

But it’s more than just the stuff of life; it’s also the stuff of spirit. As a panentheist, I believe that everything is imbued with divine nature, that God is immanent. (Also transcendent, which is why I say I’m a panentheist, not a pantheist.) And since we’re part of the natural world, we partake of that divine nature. The Hindus’ greeting, namaste, means “the divine light within me recognizes and honors the divine light in you.” The consciousness that looks out of my eyes is the same as the one that looks out of every pair. We are God meeting herself, whether we greet another human, a wasp, or a sunset. So Christ’s mandate, love one another as you love yourself, is quite literal. You love the other because you are the other. Of course, I’m not talking about the small self, the ego (which is just a trick of the mind…shhh, don’t talk about that too loudly, the little bugger really takes it personally). I’m talking about the ground of being.

I was born and grew up on the east coast of Florida. As a teenager, I watched pristine areas be developed into strip malls that no one wanted. “If you build it, they will come.” It was the 80s, it was totally stupid, and it broke my heart. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. Instead I walked, roller skated, or biked wherever I wanted to go. I engaged the world with no barrier between me and what I moved through, and that’s still my preferred mode of travel. I spent a lot of time at the beach. I saw dolphins from my dinner table, which looked out over the Intercoastal Waterway (what we called the Halifax River, though it wasn’t a river at all). Great blue herons would land and stand on my dock. Brown pelicans bred on a mangrove about a mile away. I once had a close encounter with a pair of manatees. As a moody teenager, the truth of the human world dawning on me, I walked the beach in the wind of November at night, feeling kinship with the clouds and the Atlantic, and suicide no longer seemed necessary, all my bad energy drained away into the storm. Now I don’t go home to Florida much. To see how much of it has been paved is distressing.

I have lived in big cities: Valencia in Spain, Chicago, DC, New Orleans. I remember in Chicago feeling trapped between the buildings, looking up at the strip of sky, and not feeling okay until I got to the lakeshore and could again see the horizon. In DC I walked to work along the C&O canal. Canadian geese spent the winter at the reservoir, near where I lived in Georgetown, and in the spring the goslings announced the season’s arrival as surely as the tulips. One time one of my bosses on K Street was stressing out, and I asked him, “Have you seen the pear trees down there in bloom?” Wherever I have lived, I have observed keenly the passage of time as it plays out in plant and animal life, learning the names and relationships. I started gardening as soon as I could, learning as I went. I got tired of killing plants and enrolled in the Master Gardener program through the extension in Shreveport, completing it shortly before being uprooted from my garden there (still a tender spot). For a very long time I’ve been gardening for butterflies and hummingbirds. About seven years ago I read Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and started trying to grow my own food, though there’s lots of competition for that stuff out there, especially here where I live in Cayuga Heights, overlooking, on East Hill, Ithaca, NY. Just today I noticed that somebody’s come and eaten one of my kale and two of my Brussels sprouts starts. Tomorrow I’ll need to go out and fortify the fence. I think it was the resident groundhog. This summer I hope to complete my design certification at the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, outside of town.

Because of all this I can’t write a poem without some detail from the garden or glade cropping up. I wrote a poem about desire, “Fall, Falling, Fallen” that begins, “The leaves of the dogwoods now/ almost match their berries/ heavy and red, swollen with rain.” I also can’t keep my concern regarding what we’re doing (the rape of the biosphere) out of my work. My first collection, Conspiracy of Leaves, is full of such natural imagery juxtaposed with very different images. I chose to focus my first collection on war and fundamentalism, though climate change is, strangely enough, an even bigger threat in the long run. But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology. My next collection, Perrenial, deals even more directly with the land and our relationship with it.


METTA SÁMA: Greetings. I echo Wendy: thanks so much for introducing me to that poem, and to this conversation, as a way to begin.

Yesterday, while driving here (to upstate NY), I was in Maryland on the Interstate, 895, I think, and talking to a friend about this conversation that Wendy & I would soon embark on. By way of reminding her of who Wendy was, I reminded her of a poem Wendy wrote for me, and, as I did when I read the poem the first and second time and consequent times, I stopped the tears that were brewing. 895 is surrounded with trees and there are signs throughout Maryland asking us to respect the natural world around us. Wendy’s poem begins on a premise, a question: do black people in the U.S. see trees as trees, or do we see the sordid history of the U.S., lynchings and such. I contacted Wendy & told her that when I see trees I see trees (and this was partially true). However, I’m now on these 1000 acres of land, and when I see this land, I see 250 freed enslaved persons who didn’t receive their 40 acres. A friend reminded me, too, that these 1000 acres are carrying the blood and bodies of Indigenous persons who were brutally removed from this land. I’ve been here about 26 hours and I’ve taken two long walks through the woods, encountered a snake, dozens of insect varieties, some tadpoles and birds. This is protected land, and I’m already loving it here, yet I do worry that when I get into my car I’m disturbing the natural order of things. But this is the new natural, yes?

Too often, we treat the land and the water and the air with incredible brutality. We believe it will replenish itself, and often it has, but it can’t keep getting depleted and returning itself to us, scathed but unscorned. At least once a year, when I lived in New York, I’d drive down to TN to visit my family, and so I’d have to drive through VA, which I both detested and completely loved. VA is a naturally beautiful place that’s being devastated by mountaintop removals and is also being devastated by widening highways. It’s always been so amazing to me to know that there are people in this world who feel nothing at the sight of mountains being cut into, trees being chopped down, rivers being polluted. How can one not feel that you yourself are being torn apart, dumped into?

When I was a young’un, I would feel intense physical pain to see our mountains in TN being dug into, watching people tear into the land simply to have a house perched on a mountain peak. I no longer feel that physical pain; now I feel rage and prolonged sadness. I’m an earth sign, and I’m a woman, so I feel that the land and all its non-human inhabitants are my kindred folks. They belong to me, and I belong to them; as Wendy said, they are of me and I am of them. I’ve always had a deeper connection to non-human forms; I was a bare-footed wanderer who spent most of my time looking up at the clouds, walking barefoot through the hills, trying to understand insects, hanging out in trees. I recently showed my parents my swollen, fire-ant bitten foot, and later one of my sisters immediately asked: “were you barefoot?”

Wendy’s final thought strikes me as what and how the natural world has to mean and matter, if any of us are serious about continuing on this planet: “But I knew I could never get anyone to see the personhood of a tree if they couldn’t see the personhood of another human being, blinded by their ideology” (par 5), and I’d add “and vice versa and interwoven”. And to return, briefly, to Miranda’s poem, and because Claudia Rankine’s Nothing in Nature is Private is sitting right next to me, I’ll add that there is something about escape, for me, in the natural world, and recognition, of humans, and their destructive force and power. And the natural world has always been a great source of power, of erotic power; there is energy in the land, more energy when the land is fed by water, tended to by air, cleansed by fire. I’m turned on by nature, physically, yes, and also mentally, spiritually, psychically, emotionally. Charged. ~


WB: Metta, lovely that you end with the resonant word, “Charged.” As you may know, in spellcraft, one charges an object (a candle to be burned, a crystal or stone to be worn or handled or placed as protection, a tool to be manipulated) with intention. I love the thought of you being charged, being filled with intention, by the natural world. I feel that way, too. Sometimes I can feel it rise up through the soles of my feet. And after it’s discharged, often through writing, I am left feeling a little shaky, like after good sex.

How wonderful, too, that you find yourself in upstate New York while we’re having this conversation via email. I went to Google Maps to figure out how far away you are: only about 3 hours driving. Oh, I hope you do come for a visit. I bet we end up laughing, and crying, and we can “bravely deplore.” And there is so much to deplore (of course we don’t want to let that sort of emotion eat us up, there is that danger, but dang, one can’t simply shrug off such ridiculous brutality, such obvious willful ignorance, such absolute disregard for the consequences of their unfettered greed—sounds a little like slavery, or colonization, doesn’t it?). Maybe I’ll drive you over to Seneca Lake, where my daughter goes to summer camp, and where an out-of-state company is attempting to colonize what is now a jewel of a place, with soft folding hills and long, deep lakes, by making it the northeastern hub for natural gas storage. In salt caverns that have been declared geologically unsound. I shit you not. And they’ve already been given permits to dump obscene amounts of toxins into the lake, which they’re doing. I’m not sure I’m going to send my daughter there this year, though she will be heartbroken. But not as much as I will be if she gets cancer.

Or I may come and visit you— a real possibility once the old Volvo is out of the shop and my son gets his driver’s license, both immanent occurrences (fingers crossed). Alas, I thought perhaps I could trek there on bike, but that would take 21 hours riding time, which means having to spend the night on the way, and risking who knows what. Well, we do know what. Rape and murder. Which brings me to another constellation of thoughts I’ve been watching dance in my head of late: the mythologizing of the natural world, and what impact it can have. And I don’t mean the sort of historical associations that can mar the experience of nature for some people, such as my poem engaged. (I didn’t mean to make you cry!) I’m talking about the way, at least in the West, nature has been imbued with a feminine being by patriarchy, making it ripe for rape. The whole Mother Nature trope. Material, matter, mater. Which places environmental degradation at the apex of rape culture.

We can blame it on Plato, convincing us that the soul, a perfect sphere, resided in the skull created to house it by the gods, the body simply being a machine to carry the head around. Cut off from the heart and from the brain in the belly, instead of fully inhabiting ourselves along the axis of being, we’re stuck up in our cranial brains, wondering why we feel so alienated. We’re alienated not only from the world we sprang from, but from our own deeper selves. This is how those whose actions against the world we so deplore can do what it is they do: they are cut off from the parts of themselves that would speak to them about the truth of things. The cranial brain is very good at rationalization. We all carry this conditioning, though some of us, admittedly, are at least in the process of teasing it out. Some swim through this story completely oblivious. The fact that you so identified with the natural world, so saw the truth of your oneness with it, that you felt physical pain when you saw it damaged, tells me that you didn’t quite buy into the culture’s story. Good for you.

Imagine instead a culture in which fully integrated people, people inhabiting their whole selves, engaged the natural world aware that they were an inextricable part of it. This is where we need to go. It seems like we need to write a new myth, of a sort, to get us there. Sure it’d be great if people could simply wake up to the truth, without some story to lead them. But that’s not the way we work, is it?


MS: Ummm hell yes I want to see you! I’ve been wanting to trek the gorges with you for quite awhile now, to see it as you see it. When I lived in Binghamton, as often as I went to Binghamton, I never went to the gorges. If you visit here, we can hike the trails & perchance take a book of St. Vincent Millay’s poems (and maybe a cocktail or two!).

What has happened that made the salt caverns unsound? I can imagine this to be true, particularly if people have been allowed to visit there and touch the walls, disturb the environment.

A few weeks ago, while I was co-editing (although I think we used the term co-curating) a section of a journal, I read a poem that had been sent in that likened the woman’s body to the land (the oppressed woman, the trampled on land); no troubling of phrases, no complicating of ideas, and I was so bothered by this, that I talked with the co-editor about it. He insisted that my irritation was steeped in Western ideologies, that many African nations readily likened women’s bodies to the land, and there was power in this. But I recalled being a conference of women writers of the African Diaspora, and this notion–woman-body-earth–was deeply critiqued, writers ridiculed for continue to validate this trope. Assia Djebar’s Fantasia opens with the trope, of the veiled mountain (veiled by fog) and the veiled women in the city, the generals seeing the penetration of horizon as the penetration of the women. In Pueblo, México, there is a volcanic mountain range with four snow-capped peaks called Iztaccíhuatl (which is Nahuatl for white woman), and the highest peak is called La Mujer Dormida (sleeping woman); there’s a whole legend about it. And then there’s Walt Whitman, who, in *Song of Myself* talks about dropping his seed into the earth. During the time that I first came across Djebar’s work, I was also writing missives to a student-turned-great-friend about the rape and pillage of Africa’s natural resources, the wars waged on people and land to get to these resources, the women’s bodies being pillaged and raped, too; for a time, I couldn’t get the image of caves and caverns as vaginas out of mind, so deeply ingrained was I in that rendering of the land as mother as woman! I fence-straddle about the connection: it’s there & it’s not there; it’s been mythologized, yes, certainly, and often, when we read these myths, they seem to damn the woman to the land or silence the woman in the land. Claudia Rankine says Nothing in Nature is Private (and I often think she’s saying): “everything is nature is up for grabs,” literally. We’re a very grabby race, humans.

Rationalizations and Romanticizations and Plato (who we have to stop blaming things on! The dude was theorizing and philosophizing in an age that had little technology to see and understand the mysterious concepts he and others were contemplating. We were talking about Freud, here, and I saw the eyes rolling, and I thought, “Xist Almighty! How much weight we always give to white men! Ideas only seem to die down or get hidden away or erased when they don’t belong to white men!.)

Mentioning white men, I brought Roland Barthes’ Mythologies here, and it’s quite appropriate that we’re talking about mythologies, now at this time, for each of us, it seems!

It’s a good thing for a poem to prompt tears. I can’t recall the last time I’d cried from reading a poem. That poem stays with me, while I’m here, in part pondering settlements and settlers.

What’s the equivalent of laughter for the land? This morning, I woke up in tears (intense dream!) and got dressed and set out on my daily walk to rid myself of those dream-memories. Didn’t work, so I turned around and sought out my resident mates, who are always filled with some turn of phrase or story that gets me laughing, which always seems to be just the stimulant my body needs to slough off the blues.


WB: I will be researching good hikes. I often simply walk the dogs through my neighborhood, passing over the gorges that separate the village and the Cornell campus, but I have gone on a couple slightly out of town. One on my birthday in July last year, to a disappointingly dry Taughannok Falls. Drought. Thanks, climate change.

I’ve heard it said that the earth laughs in flowers. If that’s the truth, then something is seriously tickling her funny bone this spring. It’s a riot around here! (Look, I just did it myself, that feminine pronoun.) There is some basis to the metaphor, however clearly it’s time to move past it. It started before they understood how necessary the male contribution was to forming life, when they didn’t know how it all worked. Life clearly emerged from the woman. And I think that ancient (though mistaken) feeling of not being necessary created a deep-seated insecurity that fuels a lot of misogyny. They should get over it all ready. Too funny that you’ve brought Barthes with you! I’m reading it myself, the final, long essay. It’s so funny how disparaging he is of myth. I do understand why he might be so, but I’m a long-time student of Joseph Campbell, so although I grok how it can be and has been and is misused, I also very much find value in it. The key is choosing, as Campbell says, the right myth to live by. (Nationalism/racism/patriarchy/consumerism sure ain’t it.) One of the books most formative for me in my evolving relationship to the natural world is Thomas Berry’s *Dream of the Earth*, in which he posits that we do need a new myth, one that he calls The Universe Story. Berry is (was? not sure we still share the planet with him) a monk who took advantage of his decades of solitude to study deeply just about every aspect of the physical world, as well as studying theology and myth, and synthesized it all into an incredible statement the reading of which will give you a new set of eyes with which to see the world. (Part of the Sierra Club’s Natural Philosophy Library.) Wondrous, really. And he offers a lovely authorial presence, deeply humane, good company. One of those white guys who transcends his white-guy-ness.

You were right to object to a straightforward perpetuation of that trope. It’s essential that we tease it apart, that we muddle it, because as long as it’s accepted without question, it will continue to work as it has, allowing those hyper-masculine CEOs to keep raping and pillaging the planet. This need to oppress and penetrate in a damaging way is one of the most toxic of concepts regarding masculinity. I start a recent poem, “Communicable,” with the line, “A man peacocks with a Bushmaster.” I could easily have made it, “A man peacocks with a bulldozer.” What strikes me as ridiculously ironic in this masculine=intellect/feminine=body construct is that the mythological feminine and mythological masculine have nothing to do with genitalia. Every human being contains both the masculine and the feminine in their psyche. And yet, and so, patriarchy’s denigration of the feminine has led men to be unable to accept and embrace half of their very selves. Pity the fools. They’re not only cut off from their heart and their gut, but they’re cut off from half their psyche, as well. And they spend a lot of energy and do a lot of damage trying to prove how masculine they are, because they’re freaked out by what they hear in the silence, their feminine selves screaming for release from behind that closed door.

I know what you mean by the goodness of having a poem make you cry. That doesn’t happen often for me, either, but it did just the other day. It was Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wandering Around An Albuquerque Airport.” The ending is so hope-laden it hits me in the gut. Not in a stupid hope way, but the kind of hope that carries the burden of knowing the distance we have to go to create the world of connection she craves, and that she experienced temporarily in the incident the poem relays. And I find it no less powerful with repeated readings. I wish I could thank her personally for it. And I thank you, Metta, for being the person you are, a bridge builder. Goddess knows we need more bridges between us. It was that about you that led me to believe you’d be receptive to a poem that could indeed have been seen/felt as an imposition.

Don’t worry, I do cut Plato some slack; I know the kind of idiocy he was surrounded with, the sacrificial-bull-intestine-reading bullshit artists, the eager men with swords. And a lot of his ideas turned out to be spot on. But dang, when the man is wrong, he’s really, really wrong.

The salt caverns were mined hollow until they were ready to cave in. Now they want to fill them with an explosive fuel, under pressure. Again, yay. I believe I mentioned willful ignorance and blinding greed. They’ve got it bad. Speaking of cocktails, when you come I’ll take you to dinner at Maxie’s Supper Club, a New-Orleans-inspired restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their shrimp and grits are off the chain. And they make a mint julep with local MacKenzie’s bourbon that is worthy of an ode. One of the many products from this area jeopardized by this insane fracking industry.

Just now, I heard something outside the window, a scratching very close. It was a bird I’ve never seen, hopping up and down one of the posts of the fence I’ve built around the beds against the house, looking for bugs under the post’s peeling bark. Onwards.


MS: We’ve yet to see any wolves or foxes, no bears, although we’ve been told about the brownie-smell-loving bears (that come (or perhaps once came) to the window to sniff some freshly-baked brownies, was satisfied, and moved on), no raccoons, not even a squirrel sighting. There are only birds, the same robin that seems to alert the others of our presence, a few mockingbirds, a finch every now and again, and a black bird with an undercoat of white, that we’re trying to find a name for. There are bees, wasps, bumblebees (who are very protective of their wild daisies!), and carpenter bees that seem to only exist to run headlong into each other. Every morning and evening I walk a mile and a half and often think of my friend, Randall Horton, who once queried where the poems about urban nature were. It’s tough, isn’t it, to find any balance between human existence/urban life and the natural world. We have to destroy in order to build (the Dadaists love this idea), and we seemed so consumed with building building building. And waste. Monteverde, Costa Rica, founded by Quakers (there’s a horrible story about them walking all the way from Alabama with hundreds of cows to the northern mountains in Costa Rica and establishing a place for themselves there; it’s supposed to be an inspirational story, but I often quake at the thought of frontier stories being simply inspiring, without thinking of the land occupations and the (often) displaced persons. . .), is all undeveloped roads, and just one step from Monteverde (literally, as all land borders work), there is Santa Elena, all paved roads, cars, 4 wheelers, scooters (If I’m not mistaken, you’re not allowed to operate a motor vehicle in Monteverde, although I do recall a nice motorcyclist, who was, perhaps, just across the border). The Quakers (and I believe some Korean War conscientious objectors) had an idea to preserve land and do some dairy farming (I find this quite impossibly hilarious! I have to study cows; I just don’t think cows naturally produce milk all the time; somehow, preserving land has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the cow, the dignity of the cow, to let it’s milk dry up (I say this as I sip a cup of coffee that has more than a few dashes of half and half in it!)).

I think some parenthesis got lost along the way, which is an indication for me to shift direction.

I also brought along Ed Roberson’s City Ecologue and Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In. Roberson, a limnologist poet, somehow easily blends the urban landscape and the (mostly) untouched natural landscape, the body and the spirit, language and gesture. He once said (and this is pulled from Poetry Foundation, from an interview he did for Chicago Postmodern Poetry: ““I’m not creating a new language. I’m just trying to un-White-Out the one we’ve got”. I’ve been thinking about gender and nature, the sexed body (Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is on my desk as well) and nature, race(ial designations) and nature, nationalism (and regionalism) and nature, who has access to the natural world (there was a brief conversation here about how the open space, the clean air, doesn’t allow our bodies time/space to fall into a brief illness here (a travel cold or sinus infection, although pollen pollen everywhere).

And I think of my nephew who has asthma and lives in the South, but not the rural South, and those multitudes of kids who grow up in congested urban areas, who have limited access to clean climates. Every coffee-shop I’ve entered, since being here, has reminded me of the ways in which race and money (sometimes, but not all the time, right, there are some financially struggling farmers out here, Caucasian farmers) have made spaces like this, cleaner air, wider pastures, available to some folks, but certainly not to all. Suffice it to say, I’m the person (the Black person) who enters town and the normal blah blah everydayness of life stops for a second, and the giant, omniscient camera clicks on, and the townspeople stop walking (at least their limbs stop walking; their eyes, however, walk all over me), and stare at the outsider (the Black outsider). So often I just want to stop thinking “oh! you have to be overly friendly and smile smile smile!” and just yell at them “I have a right to fresh air too!”

As I think, then, of the line to your poem (what a great great line! fantastic image of the “man peacocks”!), and of this conversation about gender and the natural world (and of that awfully funny cock building in China that you shared with me and the pussy mountain that you also shared (we can talk about that, too, the ways in which we can often find women’s bodies embedded in nature, and yet, the images we find of men’s bodies are almost always cocks (or phalluses for those cock-shy folks) and almost always hand-made (recently, a friend admired the cock-capitol of a town, and here I was thinking, Xist! another cock as a stand-in for legislative power!)!), I’m also thinking of, say, Lucille Clifton: “the earth is a . . . black and living thing”.


WB: The earth is indeed a black and living thing. Witches wear black because it’s believed to repel negative energy. Darkness is good, because it protects us, gives us cover. And so much of life happens in darkness, the silent exploration of roots, the beginnings of life in the womb, all the interior workings of these bodies. The splendid flight of the owl. Strange that all you’re seeing is songbirds. I imagine that means that at night the foxes and wolves are very busy. Around here we have huge numbers of small mammals, which we coexist with to varying degrees of satisfaction: groundhogs, chipmunks, gray and red squirrels, skunks, weasels, raccoons. And also an obscene amount of deer. This is what happens when you get rid of the predators. But further out, past Ithaca College, in Brooktondale, people have had bears in their backyards. And lately we’ve had coyotes here in our village. Cats disappear when they’re around. The fawns lure them in, but they’re easy prey only for a short time of the year, and then the cats start to look tasty. What’s really scary are the coy-dogs, especially if the coyote have bred with a larger feral dog. They’re not shy, like the truly wild coyote, but they’re sure not tame, either. A friend had one scare the bejeesus out of her retriever. Poor thing doesn’t want to go into her own backyard anymore. I am thankful that at least there have been no cougar around. Those see us as food. Out in California they build subdivisions in pristine cougar territory, then act surprised when someone gets eaten while out for a jog. Brian once saw one about ten feet long (from nose to tail) when he was commuting from Carthage in the foothills of the Adirondacks to Sackets Harbor, where we lived. Our backyard was an abandoned pasture, and I would sometimes have fearful imaginings of watching from the second floor while one hunted my children, and me unable to stop it.

I couldn’t resist the Mother Earth vajayjay and the techno-penis, sorry. I was taking a quick break, after having written my last missive to you, and there they were in my newsfeed. They seemed serendipitously a propos to our conversation! And I thought you might enjoy a laugh. Cock-as-symbol-of-power, yes. So tired. Not all phalluses are man-made, though. There’s a highly toxic mushroom that looks just like an angry red one stuck up out of the ground. A friend in Shreveport had one come up out of her lawn. Of course she took a picture and shared it with us.

Apt that you stuck in the parenthetical “mostly” regarding untouched landscape. Truly, there is no place that we haven’t disturbed, what with our chemical trespass. Our persistent petrochemicals have shown up in the fat of penguins at the South Pole (as well as in every mother’s breast milk). Roberson sounds like a poet I need to explore. I’m very interested in the line between wild and not wild. For the organic gardener, it’s pretty wild right outside the door. Because I’m not spraying stuff out there to get rid of the bugs, there’s a whole ecosystem forming in my yard. The more I learn about the relationships, and provide the proper plants for the wildlife I want to attract, the more complex and stable it becomes. This will be my third summer here. Already the little bit of land I’m stewarding has changed quite a bit since I’ve started touching it. There’s a certain mythologizing about wildness that goes on, as if land that we’ve interacted with is automatically debased. And though all too often that’s true, there’s another way to relate to it. And since we belong here, as part of nature, there’s nothing inherently negative about changing things around, as long as we learn and practice ways that replenish the land instead of degrading it. Nature takes a hundred years to make an inch of topsoil (which is why the loss of so much of it due to our chemical agriculture is such a crime). We can help it do that in a year, with sheet mulching, piling up layers of organic matter in clever combinations. There are people who’ve been studying this stuff for about fifty years now. We just need to get that knowledge out there, get all hands on deck. Permaculture, if widely adopted, really could save the world. It’s absolutely insane that we’re still growing lawns, with all that water and the poisons and the carbon to mow it, instead of growing food right where we live. And permaculture landscapes, because of the way they mimic nature, are beautiful. Like living in Eden.

I am sorry you’re getting stared at. That’s rude, and you’d think that at an artists’ colony the locals would be past that already. There are so many people who do need to get out into the fresh air. Richard Louv in 2005 posited in Last Child In The Woods that many of us are suffering Nature Deficit Disorder. Clearly not you and I, because we thrive on getting out there, and we know it, and so do. In the book I mentioned earlier, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver writes of a friend, apparently intelligent and well educated, who didn’t realize that carrots have a “green part.” I know there are neighborhoods, mostly black, where you can find lots of liquor but no produce. In Dirt!: The Movie, we see heroes who are transforming that situation by creating urban food forests and gardens to feed their neighbors. The change that needs to happen is happening. So far too slowly, but things could snowball. They’d better.

Oh, foxes. Our first night up here, several Februaries back, in that basement apartment in Oswego, our furniture still riding the truck up from Louisiana, we lay, the four of us, on our bellies, propped up on our elbows with our pillows, the half-empty pizza box on the floor next to us, looking out the sliding glass door for entertainment, barely talking. There was deep snow out there, and about twenty yards away, a line of fir trees. In the moonlight, all by itself the landscape was magical. And then a red fox streaked across, coming around the side of the building, taking cover in the trees. We all gasped. This was another world.


MS: Here’s what was in my head all day today: let’s compose a list of items that we need, that we currently don’t have (“we” in the large global sense). And let’s also compose a list of resources that we need in order to get those items on list one.

I’ve been thinking this since yesterday, after I read your post about the salt mines and the fracking, and later, as I followed behind a truck hauling wood, wondering where it was going, and I’d also just come down a hill, and looked up and saw yet another of those houses sitting on the highest point in the mountain, and as I tried to figure out how much land they’d cleared out to get that house there and to get that view they wanted, I began to wonder: could that family truly not find a house that had already been built? And that question, of course, with the truck ahead of me, spiraled. I don’t know where to begin with the list, I’ll admit. I can’t think of one thing that is needed in this world that’s not already here.


WB: I’ll tell you two things that we need that aren’t already here, or rather are here in insufficient quantity: love and forgiveness.

And the huge irony is that the source of both is infinite. It’s about getting out of the way. The ego blocks it. Get it to step aside, to go to sleep, to sit down and shut up, or if necessary, chain that bastard and hide it in the dungeon, whatever you can manage with compassion and discipline, maybe some prayer: and let spirit flow.

What we need: real food, shelter, and clean water and air. All that talk about jobs, but there’s plenty of work to be done ensuring those. What we don’t need: strawberries in December. McMansions. A constant influx of new toys and clothes. The newest gadget. Movies with big, expensive explosions. They talk about how green energy can’t yet meet our needs, but that’s only because our needs have become unreasonable. Ridiculous. And neoliberalism/neoconservatism, with its financial elite doing shit like starting wars so they can sell missiles and missile defense systems and get paid to rebuild the buildings the missiles turned to rubble is the same sick system that has chickens inhumanely raised in California shipped to China to be processed by near slave labor and shipped back to be sold cheap at Walmart, the carbon cost on the planet externalized and the cost of the fuel subsidized. The cruelty to both chickens and Chinese citizens (and the brown people under the rubble) ignored. WTF? And the fact that millions of farmers have been put out of jobs.

And speaking of homes, a sane person builds a home into the south side of a hill, not on top of a mountain. That’s my dream, a passive-solar hobbit house surrounded by an edible forest. A pond for fish down the hill a bit. Some chickens for eggs. Tolkein’s brilliance shines in linguistics, narrative, and characterization, but his deeper genius is his subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) critique of humanity and gorgeous vision of the Good Life as lived by the halflings.

What we need to get from where we are to that good life is not just love and forgiveness (though boy, we really do need those), but also to regain the knowledge that was lost when people moved from the land into the cities, when everyone came to rely on the industrial food system. That system is failing, based as it was on plentiful oil. We’ve run out. Even if climate change caused by our carbon weren’t a reality (and it IS, for Christ’s sake, people, get a clue), there simply isn’t much left. Hence the fracking. Hence the BP ecocide: shit’s gonna happen when you’re drilling for oil with a mile-long sippy straw. There’s also the fact that we’ve exhausted the soil.

So we need to learn or re-learn things like: how to grow food in a way that replenishes the soil, how to preserve food, how to cook food. How to make bread. How to keep sourdough starter going. How to make beer and wine. How to keep bees, chickens, cows and etc. How to prune trees. We don’t all need to know all of this. But we need to build communities in which together, all our needs get met. I’ll come prune your apple trees and you pay me with eggs. Next week I’ll bring you some honey. See? But we need to start now, not only because it takes time for roots to grow, time for trial and error, but because we need to build the loving relationships with our neighbors that are required for such a community to exist. And we can’t wait until everything falls apart to do so. The relationships need to be there beforehand, or when everything falls apart, and it’s headed that way, we’re going to end up eating each other.


MS: Say that, Wendy! Say. That.

Post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic narratives are based on what you write above, it seems to me. A total collapse, a pure, total collapse, that tests our abilities to be human (whatever that means, yes? I agree that we can use more (condensed) expressions of love and forgiveness (I say “condensed” because I believe, deeply, that those of us who love, freely, wholly, persistently, and seek and offer forgiveness (and are compassionate and kind), outweigh those who are tra-la-la’ing along, self-absorbed and self-serving; we get so caught up simply working towards being alive in this world, that we somehow don’t see or sense those who are, en masse, doing the work to help this planet survive the current over-consumptions). Somewhere along the way I left out a closed parenthesis, but that’s all well, yes?

I have this ex-colleague who once said, “there’s no turning back; we’ve reached the point of no return, and all we can do now is to not go any further towards” the pure and utter collapse of the planet. Those remarks set off a chain of reactions, of course, one being: “so, okay, then, if my recycling isn’t helping; if my solar panels aren’t helping; if my composting isn’t helping (a long list of “if my”), then just fuck it all! Let’s go out with a bang!”. I’ve never quite gotten unshaken from those comments; from this sense of solo “I’ness”; no conversations about what we, as a community, are doing; what we, as a series of linked communities can do; what we, as linked communities, can do to, well, shut this shit down.

There will be those assholes who read this and say “let’s punch holes in this conversation” (I’d likely be one of those assholes if I weren’t participating!); there will be those asses who will say “nothing new has been said here! this is just a bunch of liberal talk!” and well, because sometimes I’m an anticipatory kinda person, I’ll ask our readers: what are you committed to doing? what communities, globally, are you committed to connecting with, to collapse this old world? You know, Wendy, I think that even for compassionate, loving, caring folks such as you and I, we still have this mind that has to be completely overhauled, to completely re-see and re-imagine what we’re doing here, what our relationships are with others (and I include the natural world in “others,” as I have a hard hard time distinguishing the important differences between these organisms, other than the obvious: some of us are typing and driving cars and smoking and producing junk food and making 100% Egyptian cotton sheets (sooooo lovely) and some of us are squabbling mid-air and acting as sentries and building nests and stalking prey). I don’t know what that re-seeing entails, but I know, deeply, that it’s not what we’ve been talking about so far. Not in its entirety, anyway.

BTW, I think I said daisy at some point and I meant dandelions. The dandelions have EXPLODED from the ground since yesterday’s rain, and the bumblebees are truly becoming quite territorial about them! One hovered right in my face, a couple of days ago, before the grass become mostly dandelions, just hovered there, staring at me, for like 30 seconds! Eye level, eye-to-eye; I reckon because I was sitting on a bench that was sheltering a cluster of dandelions. The coyotes have started announcing themselves and that one robin that was following me on my walk, seemingly calling out to the others what I was (boringly) doing (you know, walking, stopping every so often to take a photograph; I think a woodpecker has now taken on the shift of sentry). It seems they were sniffing us out, figuring out what we were doing here. Yf we’re a threat. Some of us, too, have waited them out, have sniffed around, staying out later and later in the evenings, walking through the woods.

One of my college peers said, about the death of Barthes: all of that talk of symbols, and he was (eventually) killed by a symbol of wealth and the working class, one that he, apparently, didn’t see: a laundry van. I think of that, often, when I’m ready to give in to Barthesisms too quickly. Mythologies is serving me well, here, though, I must admit. . .


WB: To those who say that we’re past the point of no return I have to say: why bother breathing? Nihilism serves no one. Pessimism serves no one. Have we thoroughly f&c#ed things up? Oh, hell yes. BUT, the earth operates on a different time scale than we do. Think of it like steering a huge ocean liner (another one of those things we don’t need): what we do now will come to fruition in thirty years or so. That’s both really scary and really heartening. It does mean that if we continue on our path, all this carbon we’re pouring into the atmosphere currently (such a thin membrane around this jewel of a planet, it’s hard to believe that anyone who’s seen photographs of the earth from space can’t understand that the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our effluent is incredibly limited) is going to totally cook things to the point that the whole place is a hell. But it also means that, if we get our act together, if we, through Permaculture and such, restore the soil, the living skin of Gaia, we can turn it around. Because a layer of living soil, planted with carbon-sequestering biomass (food forests!), could filter out that excess carbon, clean the water and air of toxins. According to my favorite movie referenced before, this could happen in about a decade. We could turn this ship around. But it will take all hands on deck. I don’t have time for anyone’s nihilism. We’ve got to get to work. Compost…and not just households, though that’s necessary, but municipalities. (I just came from the district-wide Green Team meeting, for which I’m the parent-at-large rep. The Ithaca school district composts, using Cayuga Compost, a company that also picks up from a lot of restaurants and office buildings around here.) Plant trees. Quit growing lawns. Eat local. Garden for wildlife. It DOES do good, but it’s a matter of scale. We’ve got to get everyone on board.

And we’ve got to reign in industry, especially biotech (I’m looking at you, Monsanto!) and fossil fuels. They are literally killing us. If our government refuses to do it, we need a new government. Which seems impossible, but it’s been done before. We can’t let the appearance of impossibility convince us to lay down and die. As long as we have life in us, we can fight. And people are fighting! Grandmothers are locking themselves by the neck to the machinery of extraction. There are so many more of us than there are of them. And information sharing is happening at rates that were unheard of just a few years ago.

I’m not saying that we can simply compost and recycle and grow a few vegetables and everything’s going to be hunky dory. No matter what, we’re in for a rough ride. But if we play it right, if we fight the battles that need to be fought and really put our backs into the work that needs to be done, we could survive, as a species and as a planet. And that is really what’s at stake, not just our comfort, not just our economy, not just our species: if we continue on our current path, we could make this place unlivable not just for humanity, but for life. There are some feedback loops that could be brought into play (that are very close to being brought into play!) that could turn us (the earth) into something like Mars. Let’s not go there, I say. Why would we do that? That’s a level of criminality that surpasses even Hitler’s evil. And ignorance is no excuse: the science is there. It’s a fact. We need to risk seeming like some hysterical tree-hugger in order to raise the alarm. The knowledge is there about how to fix things, we’ve got the backs and hands to do it. All that’s missing is the political will. And that can change very quickly. It’s up to us, thinkers, writers, to make it happen. Mother Nature is certainly not shy about giving us the stimulus needed. Here comes summer. California’s already having wildfires, in May. This past summer, in Australia, while we wintered, some spots were so hot that they couldn’t pump gas: it just evaporated. There are going to be food shortages, drought, floods. Remember Sandy? Political will is going to be easier to get every season that this new normal passes.

The needed re-seeing, something I hinted at in the beginning: understanding ourselves as part of a web, not at all separate, that is divine. I’ll leave you with my poem published recently at IthacaLit, part of my next collection:



for Deanna Graff


It happens to you, I know. You’ve said.

Waiting in your car, or walking the dogs

watching, to see what you will see, that

sudden wing-flash, the crimson leaf settled

on a blanket of green. Or, the poem the clouds write

across an azure sky, the trees’ hands waving.

And the God That Is the World

suddenly appears as a web that you are a part of

and the joyfulness erases everything else

and of course you have to laugh: even the grass

is in on it.


Actually, no, I take it back. I won’t leave it there, because your story of the dandelion and the bee reminded me of something that happened once down in my garden in Shreveport. Down there I had to deal with fire ants, which had an unfortunate symbiosis going on with another foreign invader, Bermuda grass. They’d use the deep roots of the grass as fortification for their tunnels, building around the roots, so when pulling out the damned stuff I’d often end up discovering a new nest (and by discovering I mean I’d be marauded by a swarm of the little beasts). Very distressing. Once I was weeding, and with my garden knife poised to plunge into the dark ground, I stopped, a bee buzzing frantically a few inches from my nose, under the brim of my sunhat. This was, of course, enough to get my attention. So I stopped what I was doing, and addressed the bee, which was clearly addressing me (it didn’t feel aggressive at all, but simply conversational). This was enough to satisfy it. It hovered close, still, but quietly, while I turned my attention back to the ground, in time to see that fire ants were pouring out of it. To this day, I believe the bee was warning me. I’d been gardening there for years at that point, and the life there understood that what I did created sweetness. I was the god of the garden. My work meant flowers that provided nectar and pollen for the hive, and the bee wanted me to keep at it, and risked getting swatted to ensure that I would.

Interconnectedness IS reality. If someone you know doesn’t believe it, cover his nose and mouth with your hand and see how long he can manage separated from the whole.


MS: That’s a great story, Wendy! Glad you didn’t end with the poem (although the poem, too, is rather full and speaks to much of what you’ve been saying here), and instead with interconnectedness (and protection from fire ants! The wretched little things. I know they have a purpose and their toxin is great for something or other, but ouch!). This morning I went out, as is my custom here, for a walk. I went the opposite direction I typically take and, once again, every time a bird really went hard on the chirping, I stopped to have a look around, to find the bird, to see its shape, and instead, I happened upon the most beautiful sights. I can’t say that they were telling me to stop thinking and take some awareness of my surroundings (& whoa was I thinking thinking thinking), but their sounds made me pause. Interconnectedness is precisely what I felt: surrender and commitment to be aware of the world I was currently inhabiting.

I had such hope for the U.S. when Majora Carter was becoming the face of urban greening, a series of ideas she got from projects throughout the world. Growing gardens and grass on high-rise rooftops in urban areas, yes; creating sustainable jobs, yes. What happened to that momentum? Wangari Maatha’s Greenbelt Movement. . . It sounds like upstate NY is doing some great work. Maybe folks who read this conversation will provide information about what’s happening in their neck of the highway/woods/cul-de-sac.

Today is Joy Harjo’s birthday, and I think you mentioned her much earlier. I’m providing a link from Poetry Foundation to her poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”  .

WB: Eating of the last sweet bite.” Oh, ouch. I don’t mind that I will have a last sweet bite (I mean, I’m going to put that off as long as I can, and try to get as much work and loving done as I can before it happens, but I came to accept my own mortality eight years ago, when I had a close brush with death, undergoing an emergency surgery only 2% survive). But that the world might have a last sweet bite, because of our stupidity and greed…yeah, that gets my goat big-time. Sometimes I get filled with rage, but it doesn’t burn long. It’d burn me up it’s so hot. Sometimes I sink into depression, but what can I do from the bottom of that pit? I’ve got kids to raise, chickens to feed, a husband who needs my own sweetness. Poems to write. And a novel! A novel that imagines a post-dystopian future in which, by necessity, we’ve figured out how to live in a lasting way, with the mess we’ve made. So joy! Joy is the mode of choice. It’s what works. But it takes faith. Not just faith in Christ, though I’ve got that, finally. But faith in the healing capacity of Gaia.

During my most recent poetry binge, the first poem I wrote was “Nineva,” exploring the concept and purpose of prophecy, and repentance. The sackcloth and ashes, the fasting, were gestures that begged for mercy. Successfully. The biosphere wants to heal, has powers to do so, but we have to move in that direction, take steps, make the necessary gestures. I trust that if we start to move in that direction, the planet will cover the distance to meet us. But they can’t be empty gestures. They can’t be greenwashing. The Greenbelt Movement is a good model. They got (are still getting, I believe, though we’ve lost Wangari, sadly) some real work done, planted millions of trees. And the miracle of trees is that they pull up deep water, and make it available for the rest. So they can turn apparent desert into an oasis, if we help them just a little bit with judicious watering until their roots reach down. Of course, they also sequester carbon, taking it out of the air and turning it into solid matter.

Outside, the clouds are gathering, again. For the past two days they’ve promised rain, but delivered only a drizzle. The ground, with everything in flower, is cracked. It does not bode well for this summer. I read a recent report that really frightened me, projecting long-term significant drought for everyone but the tropics. We already know that the warmer air holds on to moisture longer, that our agriculture dependent on annual crops is doomed. The seedlings dry out between rains, and those that survive get washed away when the hard rains finally come. That’s what Permaculture, with its deep roots and water catchment, can address. But if most of the moisture ends up hanging around the planet’s midsection, we’re going to be seriously screwed. Again, I have to say: we’ve got to get serious about the work to be done, and now.

I went this morning to buy flowers from a friend’s business (of course Ithaca has a sustainable florist) to bring to church this Sunday, which is both Mother’s Day and confirmation Sunday. Not only is my son being confirmed, but I was a mentor for a girl (young woman? she’s right on the cusp) who had been convinced by this culture’s assertion that you have to choose between science and a life of faith. When we started on this journey together she was solidly on the side of science. I think I’ve successfully convinced her that it’s a false dichotomy (the presence of particle physicists in our congregation, and many other scientists from Cornell, has helped a lot). The Daddy-In-The-Sky that’s posited by fundamentalism makes a convenient straw-God for the Dawkinsites to tear down, but the mystery of the divine is so much more than that. My favorite theologian, the feminist Elizabeth Johnson, argues that the patriarchs have created in God the Father an idol that obscures the wide horizon of divine reality. Part of that wide horizon is the immanence that animates everything. To be one with nature is to be one with God. And it’s not really something that one chooses; it’s something that one recognizes, or doesn’t. And to fail to do so is to consign oneself to alienation, to separation.

Swedenborg has a great analogy for the Kingdom of Heaven and Hell. He likens them both to a banquet, a long table set with every delicacy, a feast. And at each place setting, a three-foot fork. In Hell, the banquet’s guests sit at the table, smelling and seeing the food but unable to feed themselves with these long forks. In Heaven, the guests feed each other. Thank you, Metta, for feeding me here.


MS: I guess there are some very thin folks in Swedenborg’s Hell and perhaps some chubby ones in Heaven! Hopefully everybody gets to get up from the table at some point.

Did you see yesterday’s solar eclipse? I didn’t even realize it was happening, but today at the post office, the clerk was talking to a man in front of me about how the eclipse through her whole day off, & he talked about how mucky his day was, and I was standing there, waiting, thinking about how I twice had to “press the hard reset button” yesterday. When it was my turn, I asked her what happened, and she explained this whole series of snafus at work; she was certain Mercury was in retrograde, but one thing she knew: that solar eclipse had some magnetic energy that caused all kinds of problems, electronic and otherwise. It’s always amazing to me how the planets press in on us, how their energies become our energies.

It’s been a divine pleasure listening to your thoughts, sitting with them, before coming back to respond. I’m serious about us meeting face-to-face in the sooner rather than later future & in continuing to learn from you! Have a splendid Mother’s Day. Have you read “These New York City Pigeons” by Jayne Cortez, who transitioned last December, and would have celebrated her 79th birthday today? It’s hard out there for a pigeon, Wendy, real hard ~


WB: I confess the poem does not make me sorry not to live in New York City. But did make me chuckle. Once, down in New Orleans, I sacrificed one of my son’s blankets to try to save a pigeon with a broken wing that I came across while pushing the stroller, not far from Maple Street. I carried it in one hand, in the blanket, pushing baby Sasha in the stroller with the other, to a nearby vet’s office. The doctor there took it from me, looking at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t just leave it there in the street, not when I could do otherwise.

No, I missed the eclipse, and as far as I know nothing here went haywire. We’ve had a lot of cloud cover, so it didn’t even register. I’m an agnostic about the zodiac, myself. Considering how everything is hitched to everything else, I don’t consider planetary movements having an effect on us to be impossible. But what do I know?

Do come to Ithaca when you’re done at Millay. I’ll show you my developing garden, the chickens, take you to the gorges, see some ravens which roost there. I wish I could put you up, but we have no guest room. But I’ll feed you, and give you good strong coffee, and we can talk, and read each other poems, and watch clouds, and pray for rain.


Wendy Babiak (Conspiracy of Leaves, Plain View Press) has had poems published online (Poets for Living Waters, -esque magazine, Big Bridge, No Tell Motel, among others) and in print journals (Poems Against War, Barrelhouse, Tampa Review, among others) and in anthologies. She’s currently working on a novel that imagines a post-dystopian culture in which by necessity we’ve figured out how to live in relative harmony with the natural world, after screwing it up almost beyond recognition. Wendy is also an editor for Poets for Living Waters.


Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks 2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under her Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, & book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, Vinyl, among others. Sáma is a Visiting Assistant Professor of the MFA Program at LSU.


What Made the Salt Caverns Unsound: A Conversation with Wendy Babiak and Metta Sáma