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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 10: October 2021
Nonfiction, Climate Crisis: 541 words [R]
+ Author’s Commentary: 602 words [R]
By Nicole Walker

Microbiotics

 

Most of the time I’m kidding. The apocalypse. I’m not afraid. There’s water in the pond on Butler Avenue. It is raining puffs of dust and wind. I have not seen an article about the bird flu all day. I have not even seen a bird. The Keystone Pipeline keeps a’comin’, oil from sand—how can I worry we will ever run out of oil? I stock tomatoes—three Mason jars left. I have two packages of pork belly in the freezer. In bacon, we shall overcome? A pound of bonito flakes. May the ensuing apocalypse require miso soup! My munitions are no ammunition against any apocalyptic threat so I must not really be so worried.

And yet, on the top shelf, I keep an unused package of antibiotics. Azithromycin. A Z-pack my doctor gave me for a sinus infection I decided to make my immune system fight on its own to help stave off the antibiotic-resistant sinus infections of the future. The Z-pack is from 2011. It has probably expired. I wonder, at night, when I’m trying to fall asleep but not sleeping because of the bird, whether I should put the Z-pack in the freezer. I wonder if freezing the antibiotic would make it ineffective. I wonder why the doctors don’t keep all the antibiotics in the freezer in case our apocalypse comes supplied with electricity. I wonder about apocalypses without electricity. I think about the cold whirl of wind, the dry pond, the car in the garage that is fully out of gas. I picture making the last batch of dashi broth to feed my son and daughter. I picture spooning it into their mouths. Their heads are draped with washcloths to keep the fever down. They are bone-thin. They are wretched because the apocalypse courts Dickens. I think of my Z-pack. Will half an antibiotic work for each child? Is whatever bird flu they have contracted antibiotic resistant? Isn’t the bird flu a virus anyway? Still, an infection. I do what I can. I will break each of the pills in half. I think, it’s only six days, it’s only six days, only six days, and then everything will be better. The water will fill. The birds will return. The flu will subside. The car will learn to run on sand. We will make our way to the ocean where the bonito will leap into our arms, sacrificing themselves for our miso soup.

When I have these thoughts, I put my earplugs in, as if sealing off my ears can keep the thoughts out. But every once in a while, when even the earplugs don’t work, I find myself creeping downstairs to the closet where I keep the azithromycin, next to a Ziploc of lost buttons and two hundred vials of albuterol solution that we could not nebulize into my daughter’s lungs in an apocalypse that does not come endowed with electricity. I pray the apocalypse comes with electricity but I presume that is not the name for apocalypse at all. There are visions of the future that are too hard to see. I bring the box of antibiotics into my hand. I look at the expiration date. I think, that is not too long ago.


—Published previously in Where the Tiny Things Are: Feathered Essays (Punctum Books: Peanut Books imprint, 2017); appears here under Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International


Author’s Commentary: On the Micro-Essay

I don’t sleep very well at night. I feel like I’m drowning. Thoughts race by and I can’t catch one of them long enough to linger, to figure out a solution, to find a way to resolve it so I can get some sleep. Oyster reefs, salmon, school budget cuts, Planned Parenthood, dying frogs, bats with fungus—it’s a constant stream of disaster and I can’t make myself turn it off. I spend too much time on the Internet reading status updates and news briefs. I can’t help posting to Facebook about the polar bear who, along with her cub, swam for nine straight days looking for an ice floe. She swam as far as she used to swim to get to some ice but found no ice there. She swam a little farther. Nothing but open water. Winter in the northern hemisphere isn’t supposed to be this blue. She couldn’t tell day from night, but she could tell when her cub went missing. He had been swimming alongside her. Then he was gone. She couldn’t see through the dark to where exactly he’d drowned, but the splashing ocean that he’d been flailing in was now quiet. After nine days, after swimming without fins or gills, after swimming against current and across deep trenches, she finally hit a block of ice big enough to rest on. Weighing nearly half as much as she had when she’d left land, the bear pulled her exhausted body up onto the floe.

The day after the polar bear story appeared, NPR’s Marketplace hosted a segment about the way people tune out when they hear about global warming. There’s too much to think about there. The ear, let alone the mind, isn’t big enough to contain all the horror.

But people live for a tiny bit of hope. These tiny bits of good news accumulate. Some bits of good news even accumulate enough to make a dent in some of the bad news. Some small acts might even accrete to save the polar bear. Maybe not. I am full of want and hope. I cling to the idea that as the whale population recovers, whale poop can help sequester carbon. That tiny rhizomes sink carbon into soil. That miniature turbines roll back and forth in the ocean tide, making clean energy, enough to propel a country.

Maybe the small isn’t just a distraction from the bigger issues. Maybe the small is key. Maybe the small provides an answer this way: if you look closely enough, there are solutions in those distractions. Or, rather, the small is a way to make us think in new ways, to learn how to make small adaptations to survive big changes. If you open your mind wide enough, maybe you can imagine that small things can help undo some of the damage to the whole, big planet. If I could stop and look at that mouth, that lip, or maybe it’s more of a tongue, of a pinecone? What if that square of bark explained something about the cellular structure of trees? Sand is geologic. It’s the sign of what kind of minerals can be found underground and a sign of the way the water might flow. I’m not a scientist. I was trained as poet. Like the scientist, I want to look closely. I want to pull ideas out of a grain of sand, to learn the seductive charms of pinecones, to plumb the back-scratching potential of a square of bark. Maybe by paying attention to the small things, you can become more like them—adaptive, responsive, embracing.

—Published previously in Where the Tiny Things Are: Feathered Essays (Punctum Books: Peanut Books imprint, 2017); appears here under Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Nicole Walker
Issue 10, October 2021

is an essayist, a poet and professor, and the author of, most recently, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2021). She is co-author with David Carlin of The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (Rose Metal Press, 2019). Her previous books include Sustainability: A Love Story (Mad Creek Books, 2018), Where the Tiny Things Are: Feathered Essays (Punctum Books: Peanut Books imprint, 2017), Egg: Object Lessons (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), Micrograms (New Michigan Press, 2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (Zone 3 Press, 2013), and This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street Press, 2010).

Ms. Walker’s work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Normal School, among others, and her essays appear in multiple editions of Best American Essays. With Rebecca Campbell, she curated 7 Days, 7 Artists, 7 Rings: An Artist’s Game of Telephone in 2010 for The Huffington Post (now called HuffPost). She also edited Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction with Margot Singer (Bloomsbury, 2013) and The Science of Story: The Brain Behind Creative Nonfiction with Sean Prentis (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

The recipient of an NEA fellowship (National Endowment for the Arts), Ms. Walker is Professor of English at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and a nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM.

Author’s website: https://nikwalk.com/

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

“Metaphor Offers the Promise to Move Us”: A Conversation with Nicole Walker, Author of Sustainability: A Love Story by Kay Keegan in New Ohio Review (2021 Summer Exclusive). An excerpt:

KK: It seems that a working theory you have is that climate change deniers are those who have no means to cope with the despair stemming from our planet’s dire situation. With that in mind, do you think climate change deniers are also bad at break-ups?

NW: In a way, I think we’re all having a hard time really acknowledging the vastness and badness of climate change. That doesn’t make us all climate deniers, but I do think we’re all in a bit of denial. The work is going to be so big. We are tired. We love our furnaces. Our air-conditioners. Our cars. And, it’s not that we have to give them up but we have to spend 72 trillion dollars to change the entire fossil-fuel infrastructure upon which our economic system is built. Sometimes, people stay together because divorce is expensive. We’re all bad at break-ups and this one will hurt. But we’ll emerge stronger, with a new sense of self, with a new notion of who our partners are.

 
 
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