I read my friend Jeff VanderMeer’s books Borne, The Strange Bird, and Dead Astronauts throughout a time when my experience of mortality, loss, and grief was at a height. Not long before Jeff started writing Borne, my mother was diagnosed with a rare degenerative disease, and it was clear she would not live many more years. She beat the expectations, but died at the beginning of November 2018. Jeff sent me a finished draft of Dead Astronauts a week and a half later, at my request. I knew I would struggle to read it then, because I struggled to read anything then, but I asked for the manuscript because I wanted it to be with me, wanted the companionship of my friend’s imaginings.
Dead Astronauts proved particularly difficult for me to read at that time because it is a poetic, nonlinear narrative, a novel that requires careful attention, and in the midst of life upheaval, it’s hard to give attention to anything other than the upheaval. I recognized that it was up to something extraordinary, but for months the only fiction I could read was fiction with simple language and simple stories. I set Dead Astronauts aside. I came back to it every few months, wanting to read some words from my friend, wondering if I was ready yet for the full experience of the manuscript. Eventually, during summer, Jeff sent a revised version and I read through it, but I recognized that I had missed much. Still, I was happy to be able to read complex, even difficult, fiction again. I was happy to feel these imaginings beginning to slip their way into my mind, a renewal of intimacy. I knew that with a bit more time, I would be able to be an appreciative reader of Dead Astronauts.
I decided first to reread Borne and The Strange Bird, since I needed to refresh my memory of certain characters and images from them. They were books I’d read and enjoyed before, and their familiarity allowed easy entrance. I was struck more forcefully than before by how much Borne is about a kind of parenting, and about caring for each other (whether human or nonhuman) in a world that is falling apart. The story crept up on me this time in a way it hadn’t before — but the me who had read it previously was a different me, a me with a living (if dying) mother.
Now, beginning to feel some release from a grief I knew I’d never fully recover from, I read words the creature Borne wrote in a journal: The world is broken and I don’t know how to fix it.
It is common knowledge that avant-garde writing after World War I tended toward fragments and collage, seeking in shattered forms an expression of the breaking of the world, of the psyche, of old verities and received truths. (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot famously wrote at the end of “The Waste Land”.) Other arts also flowered with fragments and collage.
Nowadays, a century later, it might be more avant-garde to embrace connection and linearity, to express the wholeness of things. And yet, our great-grandparents’ avant-garde has remained avant, invigorating even, while most contemporary artistic experiments feel empty to me. This may be a failure of my own imagination, a failure to embrace newness beyond what was made new long before my birth.
My sympathy for the fragments and collages of the Modernists is not so much a sympathy with broken worlds and broken minds, though I am sympathetic to those. (Ours, no less than theirs, is a broken world; my mind is held together with crazy glue.) I am, though, less drawn to the expression of shattered vision than to the creative possibilities of montage.
In 1926, after watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Virginia Woolf published an essay considering the possibilities of the cinema, writing that the “most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain…” Speedy or not, fragments and collage bring contrasts, which allow the reader (or viewer) to imagine new connections, new worlds. Out of scattered juxtapositions, imagination creates connection and coherence.
Imagine this: A book of footnotes, its asterisks leading back only to blank pages that we ourselves must fill.
(I am writing these words in November 2019, assembling notes and shards I have been jotting down since the end of the summer. Dead Astronauts will be published in about ten days. Originally, I hoped to write a coherent, linear essay about the book, and I hoped my essay would be published to coincide with the book’s publication. I don’t think I’m going to finish in time, and this essay is becoming a leviathan.)
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes: “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
In a section of her book The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, a section named “Are we still seers and dreamers?”, C.D. Wright says she once heard the poet Heather McHugh tell an audience that there are “two points in life for which poetry is an absolute necessity: the point of love and the point of death.”
Was it Auden who said that all poems are about love, death, or the changing of the seasons? Or was it Yeats? Or someone else? I know it because my favorite book by Marilyn Hacker, a collection of sonnets, uses that statement for a title. I could look it up, whether it was Auden or Yeats or someone else. I could look up the exact quote, which I may have misremembered. There was a time when I was a stickler for accuracy, when misquotations and misrememberings caused fury. Age has tempered me. I am as much interested in dreams and hallucinations as in realities. The best words are ghosts that drift along craggy palimpsests of memory.
What we have done to the planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems has added new perils to the seasons, new losses. The poetry of the changing of the seasons is now also the poetry of death. But it may, too, be even more than that, because if we seek poetry for what we have lost, then that seeking is a sign of love.
As we survive life, losses leave scars, and scars are parts of stories. In Dead Astronauts, the character named Moss attends to the scars on the body of the leviathan named Botch. Moss “told Botch, who had forgotten, what each scar meant, and how it had happened and why and what else had been in the world around Botch at the time. Each scar removed in this way that told the story of Botch’s long life, and with each story Botch gained with the loss, and at the end, bereft of scars and thus of wounds, stood before Moss shining with an original truth.”
Moss enacts any storyteller’s ideal: I will replace your scars with stories of scars, your loss will become a gain, and thus your scars and wounds will be healed, and you will be left with a story, original and true.
It is a lie, but a necessary one. We need to believe that our suffering has meaning, and that the world has ended for a reason.
Dead Astronauts is ghostly, less narrative than lyric. Across the pages accrue versions of stories, realities, names, encounters, feelings, memories, words. The construction is careful, but on a first reading feels loose, until the point where you realize that your memories of the text are being revised and reconfigured with each section, and sometimes with each page. It isn’t so much an experimental novel (whatever that is) as it is an experiment in how we perceive, how we read, how we imagine, how we know, and how we feel.
In Dead Astronauts, the emotions remain more or less consistent — emotions of love and grief — while properties we expect to be immutable reveal their deep impermanence. Life persists, but names float away, identities shimmer, events slip into uncertainty, history hallucinates, versions proliferate.
Botch becomes a later version called Behemoth, a creature of existence and repetition, with little loss and little gain. “The company never spoke to Behemoth, asked nothing of him except that he devour. In this way, Behemoth read the ripples he left behind, the rings. Knew thereby he was the lord of the water. Free. To eat. To sleep. To shit. To pull himself back and forth between the holding ponds. As if Behemoth had been made to describe such a path until the end of days.”
Existence, then nonexistence. That is all.
Life persists. Loss persists.
How do we feel about this?
(How do we feel?)
In Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, Kate Zambreno writes about reading an interview with Anne Carson where Carson says that “when she sets out to write an essay … she has about six books in front of her, and the task of writing is to write about how they connect with each other.” Zambreno notes that among the books she has in front of her as she writes this is her own Book of Mutter, a book about memory, death, and grief.
(The new contexts that collage allows may come from old material. Though now in a new context, the old material may bring with it something of its previous place, some shadow of feeling, some spark. This is true when the reader is familiar with the source, but it is most magical when the reader is not.)
In the paragraph in which she mentions Carson and the books, Zambreno writes that she does not open her own book. “What I want to think about is not there.”
A few pages later, Zambreno writes: “What kind of book can contain the enforced silence of the home, of family, the unwriting of violence and separation?”
It was nearly a year after my mother’s death that I finally, successfully read Dead Astronauts with appreciation. It was the publisher’s advance copy sent out to reviewers, slightly different from the manuscript I had read four or five months before, but that wasn’t the difference that mattered to my ability to let the book fully into my imagination. The difference was in me, a difference of time, of wounds hardened into scars, of need. Like all intimacies, the intimacy of fiction is also about need: I need these words, this music, these ideas, this experience, these images, this magic.
(I need you now.)
Forrest Gander’s wife, C.D. Wright, died unexpectedly in 2016. Gander’s 2018 poetry collection Be With grew from the grief of that death. In an interview with Poetry Northwest, Gander said, “For a long time, I was just in hiding. And I hate talking about this because it’s all ‘I, I, I,’ about me, while the person it’s really about isn’t here to speak. That’s the place where the real loss is.”
A report on a survey of residents of Greenland from the summer of 2018 to the winter of 2019 says: “When asked separately about how strongly they feel different emotions when they think about climate change, over 4 in 10 residents say they feel very or moderately hopeful (43%), followed by those who say they feel very or moderately afraid (38%), happy (28%), sad (19%), disgusted (19%), hopeless (18%), guilty (18%) and/or angry (17%).”
A list of the texts that have actually made me cry is a short one. Donald Hall’s poem “Without”. Jo Ann Beard’s narrative essay “Werner”. Where the Red Fern Grows when I read it in fourth grade. Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (repeatedly; no novel has ever affected me so deeply). The ending of Jeff VanderMeer’s novella The Strange Bird.
I read The Strange Bird in manuscript. The ending was effective, but a moment shortly before the ending was almost unbearably powerful, wrenching, beautiful. In the finished version, that moment has become the last paragraphs, and that placement only adds more force and finality to the feelings evoked by the words. I couldn’t help but have tears as I read — those last two paragraphs grow more powerful with each sentence, until the final sentence gives us a vision both apocalyptic and touching, a vision not of hope, really, but of love persisting even into death. I have read The Strange Bird multiple times since then, and every time, even though I know what is coming, even though I have nearly memorized the words, there is always a tear.
Do other readers feel the same at the end of The Strange Bird? Does the author? I don’t know. I haven’t asked. I don’t care. It is one of the few truly perfect intimacies I have had with a work of literature.
A September 2019 article published by Nature is headlined “‘Ecological grief’ grips scientists witnessing Great Barrier Reef’s decline”. In that article, marine ecologist John Pandolfi says, “I now feel much more hopeless, and there’s a deeper anxiety breaking through.” He worries about the future his children will live in: “I don’t care that the world can go on without people,” he says, “but I do care that I’m incurring debt on my children that I can never repay.”
A few years ago, I gave a reading from a collection of my short stories. During the question and answer session afterward, someone asked what sorts of stories I like to read. I said when I was younger, I read a lot of science fiction, but less so these days. Someone asked if I had ever written a science fiction story. “A few. None very successfully,” I said. I surprised myself with the next words I spoke, words I’d never even said to myself before: “I’m not very good at writing science fiction because I think to write science fiction well you have to have some belief in the future. And I don’t.” I chuckled. The audience laughed. A moment of awkward silence. Next question.
In a poem titled “Tell Them No”, Forrest Gander writes:
It means just
what it feels like
The grief in Dead Astronauts is the grief of all that is lost: the trees and forests, the insects and animals, the humans who lived and loved, the future they hoped for, the future we imagine.
We might dream of a new book made from the ruins of other books — and then realize that this is the case for all books, all writing and art, because nothing comes from a void. Even the most befuddled communication relies on previous communication, on histories and traditions. If something is at all visible or comprehensible, it is connected to something else already seen, already comprehended.
In Economies of the Unlost, Anne Carson writes of Paul Celan that “he lived in exile in Paris most of his life and wrote poetry in German, which was the language of his mother but also the language of those who murdered his mother. Born in a region of Romania that survived Soviet, then German, occupation, he moved to France in 1948 and lived there till his death. ‘As for me I am on the outside,’ he once said. I don’t think he meant by this (only) that he was a Romanian Jew with a French passport and a Christian wife, living in Paris and writing in German. But rather that, in order to write poetry at all, he had to develop an outside relationship with a language he had once been inside. He had to reinvent German on the screen of itself, by treating his native tongue as a foreign language to be translated — into German.”
I said that in Dead Astronauts, emotions (particularly love and grief) remain more or less consistent while everything else is fluid and impermanent, but I ought to revise that statement, make it less certain, less universal, because it may be that I am alone in this idea. Other readers will find other feelings.
When I was younger, I enjoyed absolute judgments of books and writers: This novel is terrible, that writer is the best in the last fifty years, this book is moral, that story is evil, this writer ought to be trepanned. Though I still occasionally enjoy such judgments, mostly they feel shallow, easy, arrogant. The years have mellowed me, as has being a fiction writer myself. I need something else from evaluations of art than simple judgments of yes or no. What I want from a reader is exegesis, sometimes, yes, but also (always) a chronicle of reading. “How I Read, and What I Read For” is the subtext I desire from essays about fiction and poetry. Value is an inevitable part of that, because we value most what brings us the most passion, but I do not need those values to be transcendent, I do not need the reader to say, “Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the 20th Century.” Rather, I need the reader to say, “Paul Celan is the 20th Century poet whose work has meant the most to me, whose sense of language has most deeply influenced my own, whose nightmares have haunted my dreams.” As I grow older, as my future grows shorter, as the time I have left to read seems (and is) more finite than it was before, what I seek from fellow readers is that story of their reading, that map through their way of making meaning from bits of ink on a page.
We seek communion as we read in solitude. By sharing how we make stories from pages scarred with words, we share how we imagine, how we dream, how we yearn, and how we feel.
The last complete collection of poetry that C.D. Wright worked on was ShallCross, which was published posthumously in 2016. In an afterword, her editor Michael Weigers writes that while they were putting the book together, “she seemed to express concern — as any writer might — about whether anyone would read her, whether anyone would care. And her uncertainty came not, I believe, from vanity or ego or even resignation. She seemed instead to be thinking aloud, wondering how to make a place in the world for her type of writing and thinking. I assured her she didn’t need to worry.”
In a 2018 essay for Nature titled, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss”, Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis write: “To bear witness to ecological losses personally, or to the suffering encountered by others as they bear their own losses, is to be reminded that climate change is not just an abstract scientific concept. Rather, it is the source of much hitherto unacknowledged emotional and psychological pain, particularly for people who remain deeply connected to, and observant of, the natural world.”
The dead astronauts are objects in the landscape of Borne. “Three dead astronauts had fallen to Earth and been planted like tulips, buried to their rib cages, then flopped over in their suits, faceplates cracked open and curled into the dirt.” Rachel, the narrator of Borne, finds them inspiring at first: “Someone had come to the city from far, far away — even, perhaps, from space! Which meant there were people up there. But they’d died here, like everything died here.” And then she realizes that they are not actually astronauts, that “they only looked like astronauts because the sun had bleached the contamination suits white, and I felt perversely less sad.” No need to grieve a death-force reaching out to the stars, no need for new sadness. There’s nothing up there, just corpses down here, as there always were.
Rachel is convinced that the dead astronauts are not astronauts. She needs them to be grounded. She calls them people “who had never fallen to Earth but looked like they had.” Borne turns them into wall art, calls them dead astronauts, and Rachel corrects him: “They’re not dead astronauts,” she says. She wants to humanize them for him. “They’re dead people, Borne.” He understands, in his own way, but perhaps not in Rachel’s way. “They’re definitely not living in there anymore,” he says. “The dead astronauts have gone away. There’s nothing to read in them.”
Beyond the basic grief of a lost loved one, the loss that most unsettled me when my mother died was the loss of our shared memories. Not that the memories are gone, but that they are no longer shared. I am now the only person who remembers, for instance, what it was like for us to live with my father.
Fragments, paradoxically, reveal the fact of interdependence: A fragment seems broken, a thing unto itself, a shard — and yet to know anything of it at all, we connect it, in reality or in imagination, to something else, and something else, and something else…
There is a website called Is This How You Feel? where scientists share their feelings about climate change. Danish scientist Dr. Ruth Mottram writes that in the year 2050, her children will be only slightly older than she is now. “I have a glimpse of the possible environment they will likely experience and it is sobering. I feel a profound sadness that they will be dealing with a much degraded environment. They will be living with severe problems of our making, an acidifying ocean, reduced biodiversity, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and an Arctic environment that is very different from today. I have no idea how to start to talk to them about this.”
After I wrote my mother’s obituary and a eulogy that I read at her funeral, I wrote very little for many months, and no fiction.
In 1958, as his poetic practice was changing, moving away from lyricism and toward the fragmentary and condensed, Paul Celan answered a questionnaire from a Paris bookstore. German poetry, he said (in a translation by Rosmarie Waldrop), “can no longer speak the language which many willing ears seem to expect.” It is “a ‘greyer’ language, a language which wants to locate even its ‘musicality’ in such a way that it has nothing in common with the ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors.” Celan soon stopped allowing his most famous poem, “Death Fugue”, to be reprinted. It was too lyrical, too alluring. Horror must not be euphonized.
At least since Finch, Jeff VanderMeer has been interested in the possibilities of sentence fragments. It makes sense: he writes of broken people and shattered worlds, and the prose reflects that. If I were writing a book review, I would document this, quoting a prodigiously-claused sentence from, perhaps, City of Saints and Madmen in comparison with some sentence shards from Finch, and I might meditate on the meaning of this stylistic development. Because I am hypersensitive to written rhythms, and this hypersensitivity sometimes manifests as an annoyance with short and fragmentary sentences, a critical analysis of the stylistic development from City of Saints to Finch would likely not be in Finch’s favor, but I would temper my criticism by referencing Shriek: An Afterword, my favorite of Jeff’s novels before Dead Astronauts, a book with its own technical wizardry, a book that hasn’t gotten nearly the love it deserves.
To write such a review, I would need to return to Finch with more attention than I am able to give at the moment. But wanting to make sure I wasn’t completely lying about the book right now, I picked it up for the first time in years and started reading. And was surprised.
Finch is more persistently fragmentary in its sentence structures than the later books, but opening it this time, I discovered it was not the book I remembered, not the prose I remembered. Its first sentence (“Finch, at the apartment door, breathing heavy from five flights of stairs, taken fast.”) echoes the first sentence of City of Saints and Madmen (“Dradin, in love, beneath the window of his love, staring up at her while crowds surge and seethe around him, bumping and bruising him all unawares in their rough-clothed, bright-rouged thousands.”) — and I find the sentence from Finch now interests me in a way it hasn’t before, and my curiosity is compelled by the opening sentence of one book undoing the opening sentence of another.
On what turned out to be the last day she was lucid, my mother got to look at two pieces of writing I brought her: a story I wrote when I was twelve years old and the eulogy I wrote for her funeral.
The day before, she had said she would like to have something of mine to read. I don’t remember what else she said, but her intent seemed absolutely clear to me: She wanted to know, through something I’d written, that I would be okay. She had always been a great reader of my fiction, always recognized the autobiographical and the imagined, even when, as is so often the case in what I write, what seems imagined is autobiographical in its emotions, and what seems autobiographical is quite distant from my real concerns. I realized in that moment that we had, throughout my life, communicated through the codes of my stories. The only way I could assure her that I was ready for her to let go was to write something that said it.
I went home and wrote it all at once. It was the first time I felt the absolute grief I knew would become familiar after her death. I wrote through tears, through the inability even to catch my breath, wrote with my muscles tensed, my teeth clenched, my throat aching to open in a scream. I didn’t want to keep writing, didn’t want these words to exist, but I knew my mother’s mind and body were fading fast and if she had any hope of reading what I was writing, I needed to write it that night. What I wrote was not a traditional eulogy, more of an essay. I never mentioned my mother in it, but rather talked about the memories of the dead I carry with me, the comfort of those memories, the recognition that grief is the other side of love.
And then I thought of a story I’d written when I was a child, a story called “Snow”, about the joys and frustrations of snowy days in early spring. My mother had always been fond of that story, because there is in it a gentleness to the relationship between the mother and the little boy. From a pile of my childhood writings, I dug out a yellowed, dot-matrix-printed copy. Rereading it for the first time in probably thirty years, I was brought up short by the final paragraph, in which the adult narrator looks back on his younger self: “I’m going to die someday, everyone is. It frightens me to think that my life will be ended and I will be no more. To think that it will make people unhappy. But I’m not sitting around waiting for that! I’m doing what I did when I was twelve and snow fell in April — I’m living and trying to stay happy. What else can be asked?”
I stuck the story in a folder with the eulogy, and the next morning brought the folder to my mother at the hospice center. I don’t know if she ever had the energy to read the story or the eulogy, but I know she looked at them, because I showed them to her, told her that I’d brought some of my writings for her to read, told her what they were, and she smiled.
In Borne, Charlie X is called a “psychotic scavenger”.
In The Strange Bird, Charlie X brings The Strange Bird to The Magician, a powerful force in the world of Borne. We hate him for this, but we also learn that, horrifyingly, Charlie X’s throat is full of mice, that he has been made by someone, his suffering has a cause (even if we don’t know what it is). Charlie X suffers and causes suffering.
In Dead Astronauts, Charlie X gets more of a story of his own, a voice of his own, a past and a pathos, a version.
“Once there was a boy-man who had a magical garden. He hid it behind the laboratory, at first nothing more than a large storage closet that no one else used, that was where his father made him sleep after his mother died. The boy-man who we will call Charlie, and leave off the X for now, took all of his mistakes that he could hide there.”
(A magical garden: a place to take your mistakes.)
Charlie X writes a journal, an item that floats through the pages of Dead Astronauts. We also hear his voice, embedded perhaps in a creature he created, echoed perhaps through his journal, transmitted through the pages of this book we are reading: “So my father removed any memory of my mother from me — from every part of me. I could not tell you now the color of her eyes or what she wore or what her voice sounded like or what she smelled like. Did she hug me or keep me at arm’s length? Did she feed me breakfast, or toss a pail full of parts in my direction across a dirty floor. There is none of that left.”
It seems to me that in some ways Charlie X is the protagonist of Dead Astronauts, or a protagonist, at least. (We can’t forget the astronauts. Or the duck. Or the fox.) We could follow the traces of Charlie X through various pieces and episodes of Dead Astronauts, we could trace Charlie X’s actions, his presence, his influence, his words. A protagonist, surely. Someone about whom stories are told.
Maybe I am just wishing it so. I felt the most for poor, horrible Charlie X out of all the characters when I read Dead Astronauts, but that may just be me. To suffer and to cause suffering seems to be the human condition. I sympathize. But there is more that speaks to me in Charlie X’s story. My father could have obliterated my mother. We didn’t let him. She survived him and her memory survives.
(I try not to write about my father anymore.)
In the acknowledgments section of Be With, Forrest Gander writes: “As after certain events, everything changes, many of the poems cited above are different now than at the time of their publication in magazines.”
In September 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that they “evaluated the conservation status of all 454 tree species native to [Europe], and found that two fifths (42%) are regionally threatened with extinction. Among Europe’s endemic trees – those that don’t exist anywhere else on earth – 58% were found to be threatened, and 15% (66 species) assessed as Critically Endangered, or one step away from going extinct.”
In a poem titled “What Poems Are For”, Heather McHugh writes:
I can’t give you
a word to hold the dead.
One of the notes I wrote to myself while reading Dead Astronauts says: “All the stubs of sentences.” This note indicated not a criticism but an inquiry: what to make of these stubs? There’s something of Samuel Beckett in the way the language starts, stops, crumbles. There’s something of Paul Celan.
Euphony must not sound alongside horror. But perhaps what we can learn from Dead Astronauts is that there is a euphony that resists horror, that does not dress it up, that does not disguise monstrosity, suffering, and grief; that, instead, allows recognition. Recognition of what? That is the question Dead Astronauts allows us to keep asking ourselves. “What,” we must ask, “do we recognize in this?” Like searching through distant radio stations while driving through a desert, we wonder what we are hearing, and whose voices are speaking to us, singing to us, and if the song is one we know or one that is new, and if it is a song of our self, and how long might it last.
On Twitter, journalist and activist Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote: “As someone who writes about and works on climate, I often find myself engaging in a sort of personal denial, or at least self-delusion, because the truth is simply too terrible.”
There’s a four-line poem by Paul Celan that I love. Its third and fourth lines are:
Wo flammt ein Wort, das für uns beide zeugte?
Du — ganz, ganz wirklich. Ich — ganz Wahn.
I first read this in Pierre Joris’s translation, which remains my favorite:
Where flames a word, would testify for us both?
You — all, all real. I — all delusion.
There’s also John Felstiner:
Where flames a word to witness for us both?
You — wholly real. I — wholly mad.
And Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh:
What word could burn as witness for us two?
You’re my reality. I’m your mirage.
Delusion. Madness. Mirage.
Possessed, the leviathan creature hears: “And in time, Behemoth, you will not suffer. Nor will you cause suffering. In time, you will be as you were hatched from the egg. New, curious.”
In 2017, the Krefeld Entomological Society in Germany reported massive drops in insect biomass and biodiversity between 1989 and 2014. Traps in one nature reserve showed a loss of 78% of insect biomass, with data from other traps in other reserves proving similar. An October 2018 article in PNAS reported that scientists who analyzed data on arthropod and insectivore abundances between 1976 and 2012 at two habitats in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest found that that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. An April 2019 report in the journal Biological Conservation argues that over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction.
Once upon a time, I read dystopian and apocalyptic fiction because it seemed realistic, it seemed to be getting at something I both felt and suspected. It seemed an objective correlative for my existence, which I then felt was difficult, and which I knew would end in death, as all things do, and I sometimes hoped that that death would come soon. As I came to accept more of my self and my circumstances, and experienced more of other people’s struggles, and learned of even greater struggles beyond those, I realized no, there is hardly any dystopian or apocalyptic fiction that can compete with the actual suffering of the world — the suffering of the present, not the future. Most dystopian and apocalyptic fiction ends up being consoling. It shies away from the greatest grief. It tells us we’re good at heart and we’ll be okay. But we are not good and we will not be okay.
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
An extraordinary passage in Dead Astronauts begins: “They killed us with traps. They killed us with poisons. They killed us with snares. They killed us with guns. They killed us with knives. They strangled us. They trampled us. They tore us apart with hounds. They baited steel-jawed traps. They starved us out. They burned us alive.”
It continues for pages.
In 2018, the World Wildlife Federation reported that the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians had declined 60% in 40 years.
I have shared Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth” with friends and students for many years, and never have any of them known quite what to do with Woolf’s basic insight: at its most primary level, life is life, regardless of whether it is the life of a moth or a human being. “The same energy,” Woolf writes, “which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane.”
Woolf describes the moth struggling in its last moments: “One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death.”
No-one has yet found any hard proof for when Woolf wrote “The Death of the Moth”. One educated guess is September 1927, but that’s certainly not certain. The essay was first published after Woolf’s death. It is difficult not to read the essay retrospectively, through all we now know of Woolf’s life, her struggles with depression, her suicide. I like to think she did write it in the late 1920s, or even earlier, because that would mean she wrote it more than a decade before she died, and that the writing reflected her own will to live.
Nothing, Woolf writes in the essay, had any chance against death. And yet the moth still struggles. It surprises the onlooker. “Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.” The form of the sentence reflects the struggle: Also… and then one clause, another clause, another, another — until, inevitably, conclusion.
In November 2019, an international group of researchers reported in Science Advances on their study of 22,036 vascular plant species in tropical Africa, finding that 33% of the species “are potentially threatened with extinction, and another third of species are likely rare, potentially becoming threatened in the near future.”
Toward the end of Dead Astronauts, a fox tells a story of talking to some prey: “There was the artist who believed we were all sacred as he begged me for a ham hock or any scrap of meat and clung to the tattered remnants of his fur coat, shivering against the cold. Who thought us holy, but perhaps not holy enough not to kill. I bit his head off. It took quite a while. He would not stop talking.”
There’s no point in writing for posterity (you won’t be around for it). We may write, though, to capture what Virginia Woolf called moments of being; we write to imagine; we write in what we know will be a futile effort against impermanence; we write to bring form to chaos.
Dead Astronauts ends with a short chapter of something like poetry, broken lines and all, titled “A Scrap of Paper Found in Chen’s Suit.” The book has been counting down to zero, to the original moment, the version before the first version, and this is it. A bit of paper found — when? by whom? — in the pockets of a dead astronaut.
Before that chapter comes a more delightful one, a chronicle of the joys of foxes (“The joy of running. The joy of digging. The joy of hunting earthworths through the dirt….”) and that is the part of the novel that I find myself looking back toward. The foxes knew something, even if they knew they were doomed. They knew joy. And in the moment of joy, their doom was far away.
In Economies of the Unlost, Anne Carson writes that throughout his later poetry, Paul Celan “refers to things that cannot be said by using the printed symbol called an asterisk. Asterisk, that perfectly economical sign. A star in any language. A mark on the page that pulls its own sound in after itself and disappears. A meaning that refuses to waste a single word in order to write itself on the world.”
My mother left me a letter to read after her death. Even now, more than a year later, I have not opened it. I cannot escape the feeling that when I read that letter, everything will end. After I read that letter, I will have no new words from her. Until that day, if it ever comes, I live with the joy of knowing there is still one message left for me, one page of words as yet unread, one future left to believe in.
Images: Details of the cover art for Dead Astronauts. Cover designed by Rodrigo Cortal, art by Alycia Rainaud.