My phone. The answer is that I’m reading my phone. I suddenly come to, the way I’d wake up at the wheel on a lonely country road, back in the days before Stop Revive Survive. Shit, was I just asleep? And now it’s Shit, am I reading my phone again? Didn’t I just swear off this about one minute ago?
On the phone, starving polar bears are attacking human beings on remote Russian islands, the total biomass of insects is plunging, a million fish are dead, floating on a stretch of hypoxic water near Menindee. My Twitter echo chamber is a cacophony of angry voices with the odd bit of shrieking laughter and, thankfully, parrots. On Facebook, a man from Carnarvon, the remote Western Australian town where I grew up, tells me: ‘Climate change is a hoax, spread by Al Gore travelling the world charging people a fortune to listen to his made up stories. He has become a very rich man spreading the lies.’ At this point I abandon the argument that has broken out in the comments below a post about the death of sea grass at Shark Bay. I’m too sad.
I’m desperate to read the way I did as a teenager back in Carnarvon, where I worked at Delmonica’s Deli next door to the Book Exchange. I read Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers for Algernon in a Sci-Fi anthology in breaks from serving hot chips. Scientists experiment on Charlie, the cleaner at the lab, to raise his intelligence to genius levels. But then the effects wear off, and his mind shrinks again. I’d read for two minutes, book in hand just outside the back door beside the dripping grey mop head. I used to read like how other people smoked cigarettes: whenever and wherever I could.
Now I want to go back there, to that sort of reading. I want to do it in the vicinity of the remaining sea grass. I want to be smelling the great brown-black rolls on the beach, dried to whiteness on the outside, all strappy rotting darkness full of worms on the inside. But I live here in the central west of New South Wales. I try, mostly fail, to love this cleared agricultural landscape. My mind is always bending to the pull of red earth, the Indian Ocean.
On Twitter, @effinbirds posts a beautiful engraving of a bird with the words Read a Fucking Book. Yes, I should read a fucking book, a printed one. Be free of hyperlinks. Freedom from looking things up. Freedom to be the girl I was, when words made me dreamy, not a rampaging screen addict.
I hook up the hammock between the old shed and the wooden fence. The phone is staying inside the house. I get into position, swinging just a foot off the grass and look up into a world of leaves. The neighbour’s box elder is a generous thing, hanging luxuriantly over our fence. It’s a runway for possums, a landing place for red wattle birds. In spring, there are catkins. In winter, bare grey twigs against a pale sky. Now, in summer, it’s in peak green leaf.
I make the hammock swing. Seen from below the box elder is a world of light green, dark green, leaf shadow, all transpiring coolness.
I open my book. I’m reading Richard Powers’ Overstory, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Its storylines twine around trees, different trees associated with different families. We follow a handful of unroasted chestnuts as they migrate westward across the United States in the pocket of a Norwegian immigrant. The immigrant, Nicholas Hoel, builds a house and plants the chestnuts on the treeless prairie. One survives, and Hoel’s descendants do an odd thing. They take a portrait of the tree every month, year in, year out, the activity passed from father to son without really knowing why. This chestnut forms the spine of Nick Hoel’s story. We move on to other trees, other tree-people, and eventually the branches of the individual stories become entangled in a series of personal and environmental crises.
In the style of other literature of the Anthropocene (I’m thinking of Storyland by Australian author Catherine McKinnon) time expands and collapses, sometimes within a sentence. There’s the time scale and preoccupations of individuals, then there’s the giddy zoom, as if pulling right back in Google Earth, to time scales and perspectives that are superhuman, Godlike, geological, biological.
There’s little time, playing 17 games of checkers in a row on a family camping holiday, and there’s big time, which is now, at a time of mass extinction and oncoming climate change, synonymous with doom. Powers explores how we might confront it with science, with political struggle, with poetry. To try to stop catastrophe, or learn to live with it, or both. We see a man with his head sticking out of his tent, first thing in the morning, looking up at the tops of white spruce.
We’re all doomed, the man thinks.
We have always all been doomed.
But things are different this time.
Yes. You’re here.
Can we think in big time? Powers and others writing the literature of the Anthropocene are calling us to try it. To be that expansive, that brave, that big, that tiny. This literature may motivate us or console us. It shows us how we might live through this time.
We need our friends, too, if we’re to go into the possibility of doom. I think of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, in which she encourages us to find our kin as we go into the world that in different ways may terrify us. I think of my bundles of seagrass on the beach at Shark Bay. I want to bury my nose in it, what remains of it. To sit with my kin.
The alternative to staying with the trouble, to embracing the Anthropocene and all it may mean, is the idiocy of wilful denial: Climate change is a hoax. My Carnarvon friend is encouraged in this by morning television, by talk-back radio, by politicians and coal lobbyists and all those who like to keep us thinking little. Like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, the collective mind is being shrunk to suit the purposes of the currently powerful.
But that’s phone talk, phone mind.
Let me look up from my book into my cool green canopy, on a mercifully cool day among scorchers. Let me look at these leaves, their edges, their shadows, their shapes, all moving slightly in the breeze. I have them now.
Tracy Sorensen is the author of The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018). She is currently completing a PhD in crochet (yes, crochet) and climate change communication at Charles Sturt University.