This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.
A sheet of paper stapled to a telephone pole looks as weathered as ancient parchment after a few days outside. This sight alone gives me an appreciation for the impossible task of the archive. I’ve been wondering how a legacy is made now, whether I should be trying to write one or dig one up.
Whole branches of science are devoted to telling stories through fossilized shells and core samples of ice and earth for clues to how the world once worked so that a line might be drawn from A to B, then to now. From this, we know days were more important than seasons to bivalves. Instead of vlogs or tweets or novels recording daily monotony, clams from 70 million years ago laid down thin layers of their own cells called laminations, permanent records of the chemistry they lived that we’re still trying to decipher.
When it first occurred to me that I might be trans, I went spelunking through my old journals, transcribing and writing commentary on entries I’d begun when I was thirteen. Drilling through and analyzing layer after layer for trace elements that marked certain atmospheric disturbances. When I lie down on the exam table and my doctor presses near my navel, she looks shocked and asks me “What are these lumps?”, and I tell her that’s where I’ve done my shot every week for the last eight years. Those twin lumps of scar tissue on either side of my belly button are another treasured record like the clam’s, whose accretions are so precise in their recording of light and dark that we can tell a cretaceous day was twenty-nine minutes shorter than the one we live through today.
Beneath Portland’s World Forestry Museum a 300-foot-long core sample is displayed for the length of the Washington Park MAX platform. 16 million years of geologic history we didn’t think to look for until we built a way to move more quickly about the city. Public transit gave us stories in rock about Missoula Floods and acres of basalt, though no one would have claimed that was the goal. Will there be a period in the fossil record of the future in which the rings of our teeth will show when we all had to hide in our homes for fear of fire, smoke, disease, war? What will it take for these grains of sand and shells and scars and words to change the length of our days? And what will archivists of the future think it meant to us?
Biking home from work, I pretend the last several months have vanished, there is no record of the season in my bones or in my mind. Could I tell what time of year it is if I’d just been parachuted in from a plane? Is it after the leaves have fallen and been raked up, or have they not yet grown, the rosy buds still pent up? Is that old man weed trimming the edge of his immaculate lawn very late or very early? Is it so good to see the sun again after months of gray and rain, or am I tired of seeing its stupid cheery face everyday? A day is androgynous—autumvernous—without the weeks and months of a season to back it up. A person is spring and fall, femme and butch, masc and femme and nothing without the years of cultivated gender expression behind them.
One of the first things I noticed after moving to Portland was all of the hummingbirds. No one had prepared me. Among family on the east coast we go to great lengths to entice hummingbirds with marvelous blown glass feeders hung out of reach of bears and filled with perfectly balanced sugar water. When my aunt was laid up after foot surgery, she would wheel herself out to the back porch and watch the hummingbirds spar over her sweet offerings. So it was a shock to me when I realized there was a hummingbird seemingly on every telephone wire, branch and stop sign in Portland, their metallic screeching filling the air with a less than musical ambience.
It hasn’t always been this way, I learned while participating in my first Christmas Bird Count. Showing up at eight in the morning in the first days of January to a church basement where the group of birders was meeting, I learned that the count has nothing to do with Christmas, but was started instead as a conservationist response to the increasingly popular duck hunts in the 1920s, and now it consists mostly of older white birders in knit caps with large binoculars the size and girth of newborn babies strapped to their chests. I collect with the group of misfits and people of color, queers, and others who obviously don’t fit into the rest of the group. This fact is noted out loud by the organizers.
During our seven-hour walk looking at birds, most of it in the rain, I learn that the Anna’s hummingbird used to only be found in southern California, but it’s enjoyed an unrivaled expansion north in the last 100 years following the boom in ornamental plantings in backyards and botanical gardens, especially eucalyptus. Now they’re everywhere up until Vancouver, British Columbia, and sometimes even Alaska, with populations on the west coast increasing two percent every year since 1966.
Am I supposed to be sad about hummingbirds in Alaska? If biology has taught me anything it’s that there’s probably some other bird or bee or insect receiving less nourishment as a result of this new interloper, whose presence is in turn a result of our desire as a species for beautiful, familiar things, or else exotic ones that put us in the mind of someplace else. But I don’t care about that as much as I enjoy the Anna’s hummingbirds singing their terrible song to me on my way to work. Or rather, I do care, but I also feel a surge of recognition when I follow the sound to an infinitesimally ferocious bird whose fuchsia neck feathers shine brilliantly when the light strikes them just right, and I smile and think, you’re not supposed to be here.
On a recent weekend in Seattle full of bluster and heavy rain, a friend who grew up in LA says she’s always liked the rain because people seemed friendlier in a downpour. Holding doors, providing shelter, peeking around hooded raincoats with childlike smiles.
Alain de Botton asserts the opposite about bad weather. He writes that it was easier in ancient Athens for citizens without large institutions of journalism to take the pulse of their society “thanks to good weather, a small and cohesive city centre, and a culture of democratic conviviality.” He continues: “But we aren’t so blessed. Our cities too big, our weather patterns too unpredictable, our democratic systems too indirect and our homes too widely scattered.”
It’s a strange argument, the notion that bad or unpredictable weather discourages enough people from congregating outside and therefore necessitates news organizations and their practices of disseminating information. But when it begins to hail, who doesn’t step outside for a better look? In Portland, Maine, my favorite bar cut the price of a pint in half during parking bans due to a nor’easter, ensuring they were packed. When I went snowshoeing through my neighborhood this past February during the only appreciable snowfall in the city that winter, neighbors stood and grinned in their windows, they lifted up the baby for a better look and waved excitedly. Even when confined to our homes by smog or heat or blizzards, we’ve got many more windows on the world now than we once did, more ways to connect.
Weather is the least lonely thing.
On Saturday, March 14, just after all of the schools announced they were closing in response to COVID-19, it snowed six inches in Portland. It was the most snow I’d seen outside of the mountains since moving here two years ago, and as G and I climbed to the top of Mount Tabor, I had to keep stopping to throw my unfocused gaze at the whirling pieces of sky. I’d forgotten what it was like, being able to look into a snowstorm at both nothing and millions of tiny things all at once, how it jazzed that part of my brain at the back of my neck that thrills whenever it looks at something not on a screen. The flakes were large and dense, falling as fast as rain but holding their shape. The day after was warm and windy, and all over the city snowmen stood stranded in the middle of lush green lawns, not a carrot out of place.
In the first decade of the new millennium, the Jakobshavn glacier’s ice loss accounted for a one millimeter global sea rise, all on its own. It’s much harder to determine how ice melts than we thought. Although Jakobshavn has been growing and advancing for the last year thanks to a plume of colderwater from the North Atlantic, the melting at the glacier’s surface continues to burrow holes through its middle like a giant block of swiss cheese.
We know in the long run, this cooling is going to pass. When it does, the glacier is going to retreat even faster than it was before.1
Anyone who’s ever tried to smother a part of themselves could tell you about the complicated nature of disappearance glacier scientists are just starting to understand. Try and lock something away, and it comes back stronger. Try to forget summer by pointing to winter, and you’ll want heat all the more.
Why does the glacier do what it does? Who tells it what to do? The ocean? The air?
Huge, blocky fissures sliced across the giant white layer cake of the Pine Island Glacier, a fast-moving part of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The sound of clicking shutters filled the noisy, drafty cabin of the DC-8. There were broad smiles and exclamations. “It’s so big,” someone said. “It’s incredible,” said another.2
Less ice could mean less ice, or it could mean more ice.
B-46 is an iceberg three the times the size of Manhattan that broke off in 2018. On December 20, 2020, Florida suddenly feels much closer to being underwater in my lifetime. It’s important to keep a record of these things, I think. At a certain point, big and small mean the same thing.
How big do you think when you hear “iceberg”? If I told you nothing about it, not even where it was, and if you never saw it in person? How large would you remember it to be? How large would it loom in your mind?
My father was recently diagnosed with cancer, a chronic kind, a leukemia they can detect in the blood years before he has any symptoms. It has a good prognosis, some live another twenty years after they’re diagnosed. He’s seventy now; ninety would be a good run, close to the age his own father was when he died, and he was a lanky man who lived without diabetes. I would be fifty then. How to stop doing this math in my head all the time and just live. How to live with a projected diagnosis—cancer, climate change—that shows its face only briefly, a sea monster swimming just under the surface, a prophecy you hope won’t come to be fulfilled, but you have no reason to doubt its truth.
This particular cancer cell has been blasted open by an ion beam. A yawning crevasse. Up close, a cancer cell resembles a glacier. It might feel like one too, the field of vision contracts and expands—is this Antarctica, or the tundra of the invisible you? Inner ice fields you’ll never glimpse?
I have a map in my head, but on the terrain of my body I’m lost.
“One Map Stapled Together” is excerpted from Sex Weather Climate Death, a longer work of fragmented art and climate writing by Callum Angus.
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