Updated: Dec 17, 2019
By Erika Veidis
It is a dented half-cylinder, reflecting in its metal shell threads of light and the lonely and mysterious desolation of what it means to be in the middle of the Pacific. It sits atop a chipped building on Midway Island. It dances with the wind, awkwardly, disjointedly, in spurts, clanging. Quieting suddenly as the wind leaves, roaring back up like a peg-legged armor-clad warrior carrying too heavy a sword on too old and tired of legs, it desperately calls to the sea: “I am here!” It is the sound of time-keeping.
The weathervane needs the wind to dance. The wind needs the weathervane to be heard. They are a long-married couple, and their song is worn. The weathervane lives through air-starved gasps, intermittent and violent. The wind catches in its rusty ridges, shoving, rolling its eyes, until something gives way, and its partner has a moment to speak before coming, again, to abrupt rest.
I feel the metal’s salt-weathered rustiness in my own throat. In the shallow and soft dimple between my collarbones, the wind catches. “Will you just let me move you?” it asks in exasperation. And sometimes, the throat complies, allowing for a sudden and momentary and indulgent and delicious in-rush of air before returning to its shallow and soft breaths. “There you go,” it answers. “I am sorry. I am trying.”
It is a long beam tip-toeing in muddy water, midway between Poughkeepsie and Albany, connected by steel threads and the forgotten work of welders to the rusted bridge above. It screeches in low frequencies, the unused structure dismantling itself one molecular bond at a time. It catches what the tributary floats past it, like a lazy game of sharks and minnows, like a haphazardly-constructed spiderweb: a thin sleeve of high density polyethylene painted with a round and yellow smiling face, a spindly branch snapped in heavy rain, a faded red shirt, a circle of brown foam. The spiders have long gone. The men who once sat on the beam’s edges, eating their bread and mayonnaise wrapped in wax paper, have left. They are wrinkled now, and their sons work on newer and shinier structures further upstream.
What was once a thin red line in a rock yielded to shovels, yielded to excited shouts, yielded to phone calls and calculators and legal documents, to trucks and drills, encampments of workers. The wound grew quickly, seen from above as a terraced canyon, necrotizing fasciitis, winding snakes of tire tracks and heavy trailer loads. What was once a thin red line was shipped from source to factory, alloyed with other metals, submerged in a tub of cold water, lugged to the river, woven into a structure that allowed the people from the west and the people from the east to cross over by rubber instead of wood. What was once a thin red line was slowly abandoned as the bridge lost its value and wasn’t worth the repair.
“You don’t mean to tell me you think a rock is alive,” he said, narrowed eyes probing for satire, my level-headed and data-driven and infuriatingly logical friend from college. “I’m not saying it’s alive,” I respond. But what is ‘alive.’
According to the natural scientific traditions, in order to be alive, you must exhibit:
1) order (systems, organs, tissues, cells, organelles, molecules, atoms);
2) metabolism (biochemical reactions for energy production);
3) homeostasis (feedback loops to maintain a narrow range of internal conditions);
4) growth (from small to large);
5) reproduction (from one to two);
6) response (to stimuli or changes);
7) evolution (endless adaptation to the environment).
According to land-based traditions and their quiet observation, water is alive. Conditions include: sentience, sacredness, soul. “We respect the water like it's a human being,” says Autumn Peltier of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Canadian teen, crusader for clean water, delivering remarks to the United Nations General Assembly.
According to a cohort of modern philosophers and cultural ecologists and magicians who draw from the sort of drugless psychedelic animism that prompts crawling under the ghosts of fallen trees and arises from long nights staring up at stars and a dark blanket of sky, aliveness is simpler than that, defined as having agency, efficacy, tangible impact on the surrounding world. “It’s so fucking insulting to think that we are the only ones who matter,” they tell me. Looked at long enough, the cascading and thunderous drumming of a waterfall is not so different from the languid droll of speech. Bumped into hard enough, a rock face is expressive. Aliveness as mere physicality. Aliveness as something proven through subtleties of language that we’ve forgotten, where the call of a whale is just a sped-up version of the groan of tectonic plates.
The Latvian folk songs I learned as a child construct what is alive through story. The sun’s barefooted daughter getting married in the heart of the forest. The river carrying an oak branch. The moon riding into war. The trembling mountains.
What do we gain by discriminating by chromosomes and carbon? (Sanity in a nebulous world?)
What do we lose?
All I know is the value in taking care; of finding selflessness in stewardship. In anger, we smash porcelain. In conscientiousness, we place dishes in cabinets quietly. In neglect, we let a stack of plates pile up on the counter, caked with food, until they are too disgusting to bear, and we are too overwhelmed in our daily lives, and we throw them out for Tuesday morning pick-up.
I watch my mom, cleaning the roof, accidentally destroy a bird’s nest and reconstruct it with tufts of our dog’s fur. I see my brother wrap his fingers around a sea-smoothed stone I brought back to him from Newfoundland.
What is ‘aliveness’ but a transfer of energy?
As the sun settles low in the sky, the dark-skinned Uchupiamonas man and his friends quietly string hooks through a fishing line, wrap it around rocks, and walk through the jungle down to the river to catch pirañas, recounting the tracks of the tapir, the armadillo’s latest feast, the dead howler monkey, a fallen branch, in the same way that my friends and I gossip after a Latvian gathering, recounting who is married and who has a new job and who had an affair with whom and who sends their love to those who weren’t there.
I watch them unfurl the lines. One man pierces a hunk of meat with a hook, attaches it to a rock, and, firmly holding his line, swings the rock above his head in long, slow arcs. He lets go and watches it sail across the river, break through the water, and land in the muck beneath, anchoring the hooked meat and tempting fish toward death. It’s as if he stands in a human-shaped pocket of space that has opened up for him on the bank, and he waits in stillness, wrapped in hazy gray humidity, bird calls, and the sound of splashing currents.
Amidst the flames, pasted into my open palm by Instagram, I struggle to breathe. As I let my eyes gloss over pictures of the trees that the Uchupiamonas had named, who had housed the monkeys that the man and his friends had excitedly discussed, whose bark they had sliced away with a machete to brew a tea to heal me from the parasite I had accidentally ingested, I remember the ragged and sparse inhales of a loved one near death. What is the forest but an obstruction, what is the river but a source of food and power, the dirt but a recipient of our shovels and Tuesday collections? Preoccupied with ‘aliveness,’ and principally our own, we redefine what is ‘pragmatic’ and what is ‘naive.’
Is breathing about inhaling space, or pushing out and releasing and screaming, howling out to create a vacuum, exhaling, exhaling, until there’s nowhere else for air to go but in, and it rushes in by itself, like a roaring river, easily, naturally, like being born?
I escape to the mountains. I explore pools of evergreens. I watch an eagle cut through the low, gray sky, and I clamber up stone faces, my gripless shoes sliding like velvet, my legs at lizard angles. I stand and look for miles, howling into the wind voicelessly, not wanting to disturb the peace. If I’m mindful in my own life, isn’t that enough?
The wind answers back, batting my face, whipping my coat, accosting and embracing, a chill in the dense summer, tough love: “This is about more than you. Speak.”
Erika Veidis works at the intersections of environmental change and health through her role at the Planetary Health Alliance.
Art by Maya Adams