Dis-ease    

Documenting change and nurturing young life in a climate-uncertain world.

LYMAN TELLS ME HE IS WORRIED. “I’m glad I’m old,” he says. He’s concerned about the now frequent algal blooms. The sea urchins are gone, starfish, gone, clams in his favorite cove, gone, lobsters moving to funny spots. We talk as I get some eggs down. Five months into pregnancy, I feel the baby shuffle inside my belly. Lyman tells me about Jewell Island, out past Long and Cliff islands in Casco Bay, where they used to watch for the monarch migration. “That’s how we knew the lobsters were ready,” he explains. The monarchs were so thick you couldn’t see the sky. But last year, there were only two monarchs off Jewell Island. “I’m looking around,” he says, gesturing with his fork, “and thinking, where is everybody?” As he talks, his face gets redder and redder. Behind his glasses the wrinkles around his eyes deepen. The corners of his mouth droop. “Real worried,” he says quietly.

We pay our bill and walk outside. Lyman waves and heads down to the wharf, where he keeps his boat. For a moment, I sit in my car, watching the rain hit the windshield. The wipers going up and down, up and down. The place where I am sitting, in my car, next to the diner, will be under water this century. I look out the window, imagining saltwater creeping up around the cars in the parking lot, licking the tops of my tires. I imagine tourists wading through it as they make their way into the diner, street signs floating by as the water reaches the bottom of my window. The baby kicks. I back up and start driving home.

WE BOUGHT OUR FIRST HOME IN MAINE in the fall of 2016, and filled with anticipation, planted raspberries the next spring. We figured the bushes probably wouldn’t fruit that year, but they did, in early September. My husband and I each savored one while we watched our son toss three into his mouth at once. “More, more!” he said. We did get more, about three weeks later, and again, we marveled at the red berries hiding in the bushy greenery. It was an unusually warm fall, we said, maybe that was why we were still getting berries in mid-October. We forgot about them and moved on to other fall tasks, stacking wood, putting the garden to bed, raking leaves. About a month later, just before Thanksgiving, I was walking through our yard carrying discarded toys when some tiny flashes of red caught my eye. Raspberries! I thought. My heart swelled at this sweet pleasure, unbidden on a gray November day. Then my gut clenched. I felt a burning in my throat. Raspberries? I thought. In November? In Maine?

THE NEXT YEAR, I AM PREGNANT with my second child and suddenly shrouded in illness. Constant, debilitating nausea. Acid reflux. Headaches. Insomnia. It is like that moment before the moment when you vomit, where there is a shift in your gut, an awareness deep down that something is not right. I carry this feeling of dis-ease around with me constantly, day and night. I wake in the night and am unable to fall back asleep, with the churning in my stomach and the feeling moving up through my esophagus and into my throat, one wrong movement away from losing it.

artwork, depicting a pregnant woman in a jar, flood imagery

This feeling, not total chaos but the certainty of being unwell, the churning in my gut, eventually gives way. But I still get it sometimes — an unnerving feeling that starts deep in my abdomen and crawls up around my heart and into my throat.

For my dissertation, I am talking to people who work outdoors in Maine — as fishermen, farmers, and foresters — about changes they are observing in their landscapes. Like Lyman, most of them are noticing changes and trying to figure out what they mean. I spend most of my days driving to different meetings. Sometimes it’s on a dock on Casco Bay, other times a farmhouse, the woods, or a gravel pit off a back road. What is a typical day like? Why do you like your work? How is the weather changing? Are the fish in the same places as they used to be? How are these changes affecting you? As the interviews progress, I feel heavier. By the time we finish, I walk to my car unsteadily. I feel a burning deep in my chest, rising up into my throat. My stomach is tense. I drive home, my head full of things lost. No more bees. Mussels disappearing. No clams. Cannot take these new costs. Drought. Need more irrigation. Too much rain. Not enough rain. Don’t know what to expect anymore. Unpredictable. Not sure we can keep doing it.

I get my son undressed for his nightly tick check. Once rare here, ticks have spread into new areas as their habitat range increases with the warming weather. This means that ticks are active for more days each year, and in places that were formerly inhospitable to them, like my backyard in Maine, the state which now has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the country. It’s early summer now, and I find ticks on myself almost daily. I sometimes reach up to scratch an itch behind my ear, or on my arm, and find a tick crawling on me instead. I feel revulsion, then rage. I dream of chairs turning into ticks, of ticks in the barn, ticks in the car. I fear finding a tick on me. I fear not finding a tick on me, knowing it could be there, a tiny poppy seed-sized arachnid digging into flesh. I feel resentful of these nightly tick checks. It’s hard enough getting a toddler into pajamas, but getting him to stand still while I comb his entire body with my fingers and eyes? He runs around his room, naked, laughing. “Stay still,” I say, but no, this is a game. “Chase me Mama,” he screams. I turn and look out the window, take a breath. No, this is not a game. This is a very real danger. Yet, however foreboding the motive, here is an opportunity to witness my son and his sweet body, growing and changing so fast. A tiny gift wrapped up in a new ritual of climate vigilance.

WE’VE HAD OUR HOME FOR TWO YEARS, and are experiencing the hottest August on record where I live. Intense humidity that doesn’t lessen even at night. I feel like I’m moving through a dense, scorching fog. To cool myself, I head to the ocean, scoot gently down the rocks to the edge of the water, and slide in. The record heat waves keep on coming. It’s the second warmest day in recorded history in the Gulf of Maine and the third straight year of drought on land. I talk to farmers who have resorted to feeding their cows hay twice daily, because the grazing lands are too dry to produce healthy grass. The lettuce is bolting due to the heat.

What I am really doing, I now understand, is bearing witness to catastrophe.

“It looks like I’m growing lettuce Christmas trees in my field,” one farmer says. “All I can think about is water. Water, water, water. Are we going to have enough? Are we even going to be able to grow lettuce here, in Maine, in 10 years? I’m a glass-half-full kinda gal,” the farmer says, “usually. But I think we’re all going down the shitter.”

When I began this project, I set out to record observations on the changing climate from the standpoint of those who work the land and the sea. What I am really doing, I now understand, is bearing witness to catastrophe. Every day, I swim through a sea of change. The shoreline is changing. The winters are changing. The bugs are changing. Every day, I listen to these stories of changes all around us. As the worries and the losses and the fears, and even the denials, pile up, my insomnia worsens. At night, I cycle through the stories I hear during the day. My belly is in knots. My breaths are swift and shallow. I stand up and go to the window. A delicate moon shines lightly on the barn. Shadows of the pines stretch out across the lawn. I put my hands on my belly and breathe in and out.

The baby comes two months later, in October. We nap during the day, awake for only a few hours before the sun drops again. We do not leave the house. We do not listen to the news. It creeps in anyway. Thick descriptions of the coming chaos are released out into the world. I read that when this baby becomes an adult, there will be no Arctic. I read that statement again. “Will live on a planet without an Arctic.” I read it one more time. The baby has fallen asleep, rosy and quiet. I ask my mother to take her. I fill a glass of water in the kitchen and look out the window. In the rush of things, I had not properly cleaned up the garden or planted the garlic. The garden beds, now frozen, are still full of wilting kale and slimy, brown tomato plants. The next day though, it warms up. “I’m going to plant the garlic,” I tell my husband. Instead, I sleep and feed the baby.

Several days pass this way. Finally, I put on gloves. I take the garlic from off of the top of my dog’s crate and head outside. Everything is brown, except for the sky, which is gray. The yard is soggy from too much rain. I kneel down beside the bed that last summer had lettuce. Peeling apart the cloves, I stick each one face up into the ground. It’s wet and frozen in places but still workable. I know I don’t have much time to be out here. I have not taken off my gloves, and they quickly become muddy and wet. I continue this way, taking the cloves and pushing them into crooked rows. I have no idea whether it is too late to plant garlic or not, but it feels good to dig. My back aches from the constant breastfeeding. I stand up, clasping my muddy hands, and lean one way, then the other. I look at the branches of the oak trees, dark against the gray sky.

MONTHS LATER, WE ARE SITTING IN THE KITCHEN. The woodstove is throwing light out into the room as the snow outside turns to rain. I place the baby on a blanket while I work on getting dinner organized, chopping scallions, then garlic. I read today that the Greenland Ice Sheet is rapidly melting. I crack eggs into a bowl to be whisked, putting the shells into the compost. Icebergs are melting into rivers, rapidly changing states and flowing into the sea. I look down and realize that I’ve just cracked the egg into the compost bin and put the shell into my bowl.

Changing states rapidly. The oldest ice in the Greenland ice sheet is one million years old. It contains enough ice to raise sea levels 23 feet if it completely melts. Now it is turning into rivers flowing into the sea. Now the sea rises. Soon the coasts will be uninhabitable, and mass migrations inland will begin. I look down at the baby. She stares at the logs burning in the fire. Then she swings her body onto its side. She is stuck there, breathing through the side of her mouth pressed into the rug. She seems driven to roll. She is happy on her back, looking, but then she starts to roll again. She falls back and starts the roll again. She does not know the outcome. She knows only to try. Again, and again, and again.

Climate change is destabilizing our present by undermining our future. I used to feel like I had a rough idea of the future, because I could extrapolate from the past. The world of my children will be similar to the world now. Climate change has changed that. I can no longer envision a future based on the present. Yet hasn’t it always been that way? We trick ourselves into thinking our lives are predictable, stable, that we can depend on certain things, among them, tomorrow. But I could die in a car accident tonight or find out I have cancer next week. The false certainty of tomorrow is a veil we willingly don in order to preserve our sanity. The difference is that now, not only can I not count on my own life continuing, but I cannot count on other forms of life continuing. I can no longer count on the planet to continue, in its current form.

There are moments when it all seems overwhelming. Frantic nights falling asleep sitting up with the baby, waking at 3 a.m., then 4, then 5. Stealing moments to read and, ideally, write, during the day. The forests are burning. The ice is melting. The soils are eroding. The insects are dying. It feels both urgent that I work and impossible to put my head down and work when the world out there is fraying. My eyes hurt. My head hurts. My heart hurts. I can’t think about this anymore.

Here is the terror and the gift. Climate change reminds us that we cannot know what the days after this day will bring. It reminds us that each moment is one in a string of uncertainties. This is the challenge: Can I let go of my need to know the future and let today be enough? I do not know what my baby’s world will be like. But I do know that today, she is learning to roll over. Today, right this very moment, the garlic cloves that I planted are sprouting up through the soil in the garden. Tenacious, they reach for the sky.

butterfly artwork

JUST BEFORE THE BABY IS BORN, Lyman takes me out on his boat for the morning. We stop for bait, then motor out into the bay. It is a hot September day. The bay shimmers. I immediately get seasick and have to sit along the edge of the boat, looking at the horizon. Every few minutes I stick my hand into a bucket of seawater and splash my face and neck. I watch Lyman and a sternman pull traps, circle the boat around and pull more traps. They glance at me uneasily. Lyman revs the engine. They twist the rope up and attach it to the winch hanging on the side of the boat, flip a switch, which pulls the trap up. They take out the lobsters, throw them into cones to band later, and pull up the next one. We do this for a while, then begin heading back in. We are motoring along when I think I see a butterfly ahead of us. Is that a monarch? I ask. Sure is, Lyman replies. We watch as it jerks up, then down, with the breeze. This tiny butterfly floating above the blue bay.

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