By Lacy Johnson
There was a time when we lived in a place that was green and alive, where trees grew together in clusters we called forests, where we grew food we could eat right from the soil, where we could swim in the creeks after working in the fields and the water felt clean and cold. We could swim in the rivers, too, protected only by our own skin, and in the lakes we could catch fish that we might cook over an open fire after the sun had set. We would gather logs for this from the forest floor, rub two sticks together until they smoked and then with our breath or a bit of wind, they would catch a flame and burn. We had oceans once — water that covered most of our planet, like our bodies were made mostly of water. The coldest oceans froze in the winter and melted in the summer, but never completely — there was always some part of the world encased entirely in ice. There were once whole ages for the ice, which advanced and retreated, and this movement, a kind of breathing, carved our planet into mountains and valleys. We knew once that the world was alive, and from this life we emerged and planted our corn and our houses and cities.
It was hard to build the cities — so many people, so many buildings — and hard also to keep them from crumbling once they had been built. We had to find ways to keep the water out, ways to keep them lit, ways to keep them warm or cool. We had to move ourselves from building to building, across great distances sometimes, too far to walk or run. We had to move ourselves and our inventions from city to city — things like picture frames and hummingbird feeders, televisions and toasters — a machine we used to turn our bread crispy and brown. We had to power these machines — the machines we used to wash and dry our clothes, to wash and dry our dishes, to keep our food cool so it didn’t spoil, to warm it to a temperature appropriate for eating. We had machines to clean the tiny crumbs we made while eating, machines to clean our rugs and the streets in front of our houses. We had machines to clean our other machines, like one that cleaned the outside of the cars we drove from building to building within the city, from city to city within a state, and from state to state within a continent, which was a word we invented to claim the land as our own.
The world belonged to us, we thought. The forests belonged to us, and the soil belonged to us, and the fish that swam in the rivers. We cut down the forests for our cities, and we covered the soil with our cities, and we ate whole cities of fish. We ate all the birds, and we ate all the cattle — a slow kind of fatty mammal we raised only for eating. We drank all the milk they made for their babies. We even ate their babies, a meal we reserved for celebrations of our most minor accomplishments. We wore their dried flesh as clothes; we polished it for shoes and belts and boots. Our closets were filled with so many kinds of boots! Boots for rain and boots for mud and boots for working in the yard, boots with heels so high they could be worn only while standing very still, and boots we wore to tear open the earth and plunder its treasures. We plundered the iron for our tanks and our guns, the coal for our burning smokestacks, the gold to ornament our fingers and ears. We plundered uranium for our bombs and said instead it was to power our cities. We drilled into the earth and its gooey liquid center bubbled out. We celebrated this discovery and said it was ours for the taking.
We risked everything for those juices, as soon as we learned to burn it as fuel in our lamps and our streetlights, in the engines of our tractors and airplanes and 18-wheelers. We called it “petroleum” and invented cars to burn petroleum across very long distances or sometimes distances that were very short. We invented ships to transport the petroleum in giant tanks across the ocean. We found the petroleum by luck sometimes, but more often we looked and looked. We looked inside salt mounds and mountains, under glaciers, in wheat fields and forests, between rivers and in the desert, even at the bottom of the sea. The risk, we thought, was worth it.
In our madness we said there was no way to survive without it anymore. Some of us forgot about the other ways we had lived, or ignored them. In our madness we opened up wells and fought wars over them. We set the wells on fire because we wanted them only for ourselves. The smoke and soot and ash filled the air and we covered our faces with masks to breathe it in. We spilled the oil into the ocean. We spilled it onto the land. Each time we said this is the worst thing we have ever done, and then we immediately pumped the oil through thousands of pipelines thousands of miles long — enough pipelines to wrap the equator of our planet over and over, to cinch it like a belt. On maps the pipes looked like veins, and that is how we thought of them, pumping not oil but our dark blood, which gushed and gushed and gushed. The earth overflowed with oil but we never had enough. We drilled in the ocean as dead sea turtles washed ashore. We built new pipelines as dead dolphins washed ashore. Oil washed ashore and smothered the birds and frogs and grasses, whales and seals and otters. Our fishermen bled from their ears and noses; our children grew tumors in their lungs and brains. Their sacrifice, we said, was worth it.
We sacrificed the rivers, into which we poured our fertilizers and solvents and wastes until we made them unsafe even for the fish. We sacrificed the land, where farmers found their crops claimed each season by rot. Giant holes opened up to swallow our towns; lakes of oil began forming where once we had built streets and bus stops and churches. We sacrificed the animals: the Tasmanian Tiger, the Passenger Pigeon, the Layman Crake, the California Grizzly Bear, the Golden Toad. We sacrificed the Black Rhinoceros, the Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse, the Turgid-Blossom Pearly Mussel, and the 24-rayed Sunstar, which we had once given the name Heliaster solaris. It sounds like something to be worshipped, right? Would we have cared more if we had made ourselves use that name? We sacrificed the oceans, which slowly turned to acid, and we sacrificed the sea snails, whose shells dissolved in the acid. We sacrificed the ice caps — and that deposit of methane underneath we imagined would bubble to the surface as a giant burp. We sacrificed the snow on top of the mountains, as well as the glaciers, though some of us understood their fate was tied to our own. In our madness we killed them and we did not care.
Humans versus nature— that was a story we had been telling for a long time. It began with a beautiful tree in a beautiful garden and from the tree there grew a sacred fruit. In that story, the fruit was forbidden and the tree was forbidden and also the garden in which it grew. But the earth was made for us, we thought, so we ate the fruit and cut down the tree and burned it for fuel in our factories. We left the garden and nature became a place we visited, not who we were and how we lived. We never tired of telling this lie to ourselves, never stopped inventing ways to destroy ourselves and one another. A few of us remembered other stories of the beginning and said that the earth belongs only to itself. We tried to protect the rivers and the glaciers and the mountains with our bodies, and were surrounded by the madness of those who had tanks, who pointed their guns at us, who sprayed us with gas that burned our noses and mouths and eyes until we saw and tasted only fire; who blasted us with water in freezing temperatures until the skin fell like ice from our bones, who chased us with dogs and put us in their cages.
We were not animals. We did sometimes recognize the way that beauty arrived in our lives almost entirely unbidden, like the clouds that towered in the air, tumbling upwards higher than mountains; like the mountains surrounded by fog and their own shadows at dawn; like the fields of sunflowers that turned their faces toward the sun — yes, though blind, towards the sun; like the sunsets. We used to stop everything to watch the sunsets. Can you imagine? We watched in a kind of rapt wonder that never got old — the play of light on our atmosphere that turned the sky all red and gold except for the darkness that we expected but did not fear. Some sunsets turned the sky a thousand shades of violet. We never invented enough names for violet. The violet of the sky in the evening, the violet of flowers, the violet in the fins of the Purple Fire Fish, or the mirage of violet in the feathers of the Amethyst Starling. We gave such beautiful names to the rivers — Missouri, Yukon, Potomac, Brazos, Mohawk, Susquehanna, Allegheny, Atchafalaya — but naming beauty is not the same thing as caring for it.
What would we change if we still had time? We learned to swim in the sea in our submarines and fly through the air in our airplanes, but we never learned that we were creatures along with the fish and the birds. We were not animals, we said. We climbed aboard our rockets and looked back from space, and from there we could almost see the ebb and flow of all the civilizations we had planned, built, inhabited, reinhabited, in a tide we imagined we could make endless. Each day the ice grew smaller and smaller and the deserts grew larger and larger, and we shook hands in private clubs to mark new deals over lunch. We looked for refuge in the cities but the cities would not save us. The cities washed ashore and we doubted the evidence of our eyes and ears. Dead babies washed ashore and we looked away. We made small coffins in which to bury them. We said no, this is the worst thing we’ve ever done. We told ourselves there is still time. There is still time.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, activist, and is author of the memoir The Other Side (Tin House, 2014). For its frank and fearless confrontation of the epidemic of violence against women, The Other Side was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction; it was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writer Selection for 2014, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus, Library Journal, and the Houston Chronicle. She is also author of Trespasses: A Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Her third book, The Reckonings, is forthcoming from Scribner in 2018. She teaches creative nonfiction in the Low-Residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and at Rice University.