Short Story: Selkie

(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticism and longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)

Selkie

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He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.

His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.

The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.

The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.

He never does. It is only the sea he loves.

[…]

Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.

“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.

“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.

“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.

He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.

The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.

“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.

“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.

He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.

“I’ll have a postcard instead.”

“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”

He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.

Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?

Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:

The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard
in tidal cycles, an errant moon
throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound. 

Oh mariner, how you have travelled
so deep in the blood of the world! I miss
the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky

in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely
is the newborn day! There are precious
few elements as vast as you, I should

dream only of your strange motifs,
a darkening glass against turquoise air.
In the morning I plot 

my passage to the mainland, sullied
with the effluvia of island living,
drunk on the salt and the still bright rain. 

He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.

Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.

A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.

Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.

It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.

“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”

The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.

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The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.

“You lost your chance there my son.”

The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.

The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.

The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade,
the green that makes flickers of the water
shiver among those darkling fish, to fade
inexorably among its daughters,

the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur.
Five generations have known such deep love
as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir,
still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls. 

We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call,
laying our bodies to waste on the sound
while the immature moon makes fools of all
who believe in the beautiful, who drowned

Easy as sailors on a summer’s day,
Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.

Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.

“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”

“No father. I’m sick at heart.”

“You’re in love?”

“No. It’s the oil.”

He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.

Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.

From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you

He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.

There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.

The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.

When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?

Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.

The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:

It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye. 

He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.

“There’s evil out there, my boy.”

“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.

“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”

That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all. 

Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.

“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”

“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”

“But—”

“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”

He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.

He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.

Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.

The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night
against the harbour wall. I miss the green
abstracted aqua light, playing so bright

amid those blues, those waters clear as glass
who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish
to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass
by an old sun that loves life like a wish. 

And now, if I were but a lonesome child
making his way to the soar of the sound
would my young mind find soon such passions wild
inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?

Son to the slippy, cerulean sea,
I rise forward in time to what will be.

When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.

“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.

“So why haven’t they?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing. 

One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.

“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.

Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.

I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words. 

He scribbled out the last line.

I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe. 

His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.

The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.

Her milk-sweet cheeks…

He scratched that one.

 The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…

Trackings of light from west to east:
Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus
Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning
pale and lovely skeins of flesh
in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk
making cream of an evening,
the curdled settlements of a westerly tide. 

My mother, my mother.
Your presence vectoring the harsher
veins of the waves in clearer photons
which press their coastal scars on the canvased
skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic
stirring of the heart. 

There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram
shedding the chintz of its skull off
in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food. 

(…What are you writing son?
Nothing.
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
I can’t.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Like mother.
Yes, I suppose…)

I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like,
if you struck a match to the black black oil?
He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing
with secret poisons, a formula
for ending its own incantatory eloquence
that spreads in the waves such messages
as to embrocate the flow of blood
diseased in the world’s great spleen.

He said nothing of the sort; he was cold
and mean. The tumorous lumps
puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling
like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse
and scrub of a forest. I knew then
that his pain was utterly edible.

A molten pot of onyx, a knot
shaped like a pretzel, the twisted
wire that snarls in the dark
of his heart. Father,
he was a sailor once,
a man of the deep
black waves.

He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.

Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?

In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.

“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”

“My father?”

“Torn asunder, you could say.”

“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”

(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)

“Yer mother, stupid.”

“He still loves her.”

“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”

“Liquid.”

“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.

Of all the animals in the marble menagerie
I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone
streaking the fault-lines
of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial
beneath the midnight billows. Funereal,
sweetening the crumbling aura,
you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s
dilated vision. 

The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.

What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?

the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble /
like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth /
i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable
annihilating the spill of me /
your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise
of future absence / a terrible,
sickening lubricant

Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.

Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.

He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.

The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.

“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.

“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.

“That’s okay.”

A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.

“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”

Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.

The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.

The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?

There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.

“How are you, it’s been so long?”

I love the seals and the way their skin
is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles
like sexy black outfits on tv
stretching and spreading for the flesh
of human hungriness. 

“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.

“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Women are not so callous.”

“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”

“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”

“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”

“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”

“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”

“I’m not sure I love you.”

“That’s okay.”

He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.

“Do you miss her?”

“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”

“Is that really enough?”

“Sometimes it’s all there is.”

The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.

The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.

Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack
beating the tide in the stillborn black,
a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins
where poisons gather their listless death. 

Everything he wrote was terrible now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.

“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.

“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.

The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.

“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.

“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.

“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”

“You miss her, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.

One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.

After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her beautiful origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.

She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”

Enough of the hoary midnight mist
that tricks me into feeling.
I am old as the sand, a grain
of the past, and I
am willing to die for that.

He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.

The Bog Girl’s Dark Ecology

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Red Desert ~ Source

My body was braille

for the creeping influences:

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.

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The mariner shoots the albatross, plate by Gustave Doré

 

This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.

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glitched landscape ~ Source

Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident (2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.

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Source

We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired  and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.

Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).

Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.

Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates  (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.

What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).

Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:

Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.

(Derrida 1998: 61)

This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.

The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:

I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy

(Haraway 2008: 16).

It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.

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Source

In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.

Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:

“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”

(Russell 2016a)

My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…

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I looked upon the rotting sea, and drew my eyes away ~ Gustave Doré.

Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.

Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).

Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).

Wasps

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Wasps 

I heard a dull, sizzling thump and a wasp fell into my room. It fell through a crack at the top of my window and disappeared among the sunflowers, shivering, then stopped dead, seemingly. I was not bothered at first, because I thought the thump was merely a moth, or a postcard dropped off from the wall. Then the wasp appeared again. I saw it whizzing out of the flowers and it hovered round the glow of my computer. It was inches from my face.

Naturally, I panicked. I stepped back as if someone in front of me was holding a gun.

Seconds later, six more wasps swarmed at my window, pelting themselves against the glass. I could hear their angry buzzing humming in my ears, which were already ringing from a gig that night. Quickly I leapt up to shut the window, but another two got in somehow.

I ran out the room. Everywhere I looked, I could see things flitting around me. I don’t know if they were real or imagined. It was like standing in a forest, surrounded by the glitter motes of midges, only not half as pretty and in fact pretty freaky. I thought I was hallucinating. I could feel the flutter in my chest, like the insects themselves had gotten into my ribcage and were seething to get out. I was only a little bit drunk.

Gutted my flat for the fly spray. Thank god I found it.

They were crawling about in my lampshade when I tentatively opened the door. Three of them, glutted on light, their tiny bodies blown up to absurd proportion through the illuminated paper. I stood stock still and waited. They didn’t seem to want to leave; they’d found their paradise up their in that giant orb, lovers of sun that they are, like the elderly expats of Benidorm. So I pounced with the spray, gushing it upon them, tearing through the paper with all those solvent chemicals.

I thought how kids might sniff this stuff to get high.

I thought how I might kill the plants by accident.

How one wasp was still lingering, so close to a pot of aloe vera.

Then it joined the rest.

Could I smell the burning of their furless bodies?

They fizzled out, drunkenly, from the lampshade, stumbling through the air and dropping to the carpet, one by one. Brutally I crushed their writhing bodies with the bottom of a mug, mashing them into the pieces of notepad that covered my floor. The stains of their deaths would remain, irrevocably, tiny, upon those pages, like just so many slight smears of grease. Traces of vague terror, like a half-remembered dream.

Is it bad to kill animals? Even these pointless, evil creatures? Of course it is. I felt guilty, but there you are, survival of the fittest. 

My head swam from the smell of the fly spray, just so much butane and strong perfume.

I thought: why is it that we humans are so frightened by things so little? I was stung many times as a child, but you’d think I’d get over the fear, the same way I got over my terror of talking on the phone or eating olive oil or standing up in class to give a presentation. Maybe it’s like death, a fear you can’t shake off. I see a miniature demon in the matte black eyes of each of those wasps. It’s like they’re from another world, sent here to torture us. Whole lunchtimes at school we spent trying to slay the bastards, usually to no avail. They just descend on you in September and August, haunt the bins like a bad smell.

They came into my room, the three wasps, confronting me with their strangeness. How ugly they are, shrivelled and wispy and probably a bit crunchy if you dared eat one. Where do they come from? What mulch is chewed in the elaboration of their nests?

I had to scoop up the triptych of their carcasses from my carpet, toss them in with the compost.

Every prickle of skin, each brush of hair or fibre on my bare limbs, I thought was another one, crawling along my pores.

What does it feel like, to have your whole body shudder with the intoxication of pyrethrins? Odour of chrysanthemums. Surely they were only looking for the sun, diving for my window at 2am which was the only lit window in the block? Did my human habits deceive them, fools that they are, for an early sunrise, a portal to a new dawn? Did they want the delicious, golden sap of my desktop sunflowers? I hate them, I hate them. Is it so very bad to hate them?

Maybe somewhere there is a very pure and generous person, who nourishes wasps with banquets of aphids and caterpillars, who smiles at the yellow-black beasties and lets them inside. Who maybe even harvests their nests, provides comfort for the queens in winter, makes good use of the moulded warmth of a soft, unused loft. Who tries to welcome them to their city.

In another life, there’s a feral child of the forest or street, letting them creep up and down her arms; welcoming their buzzing, contrapuntal to her own sweet breathing. She’s not me.

I wouldn’t harm a fly, I wouldn’t touch a bee. Maybe I’d even feed it honey. My friend used to nurse them back to life when they were dying on the pavement.

Wasps though, wasps are something else entirely.

They can cling to the carrion of the suburbs and schoolyards all they like, enjoy the spoils of autumn’s decay, the fading of other insects among fallen leaves and shrunken bracken, the tattered remains of crisp packets. Still, if they come in my room again I will kill them with spray. I am that sincere in my cruelty, that human, that absolutely succumbed to stupid, distorted fear.

And will I ever open my window again; create that rectangle of air that forges its gateway to the morning rain, the telephone wires, the birdsong and greenery of the garden?

Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

DSC_2614Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

Picture the wild deer: all elegant neck, soft fur, tawny eyes staring back at you like butter wouldn’t melt. The stag too: a rare glimpse of those striking antlers flashing through forest leaves or the wire mesh of a fence, gazing gallantly over the hillside – a little like a proud lord, a patriarch admiring his land. There is something quite British about the graceful deer; something evocative of country outings, of heritage and sprawling estates, of heads rather unceremoniously stuck on pub walls.

Today, there are more deer in the UK than in any time since the last Ice Age[1]. It seems poetry is the wrong way to go about this; deer have become a real issue.

On the radio this morning I heard reports proclaiming new figures representing an excess in numbers of British deer. Deer, it is argued, in their proliferation, are posing a serious threat to British biodiversity. The overspill of deer will lead to more traffic accidents, more damage to crops and a drain on natural resources. With estimates of the current deer population positing 1.5 million, new research has suggested it will be necessary to kill off 50% to 60% of the animals to fully address the problem[2].

The above arguments may seem persuasive reasons for tackling ‘The Deer Problem’, but I would like to step back and question these fundamental justifications given for widespread slaughtering. I want to question the idea that the – let’s face it, unintentional – disruption of food-chains by deer warrants their culling.

My objection to culling derives not from an inherent concern with the ethics of killing animals – the morality of the practice of culling is another difficult issue – but from the premises given to defend culling by appeals to the negative consequences of an excessive deer population.

The problem I have with culling can be understood by considering a convincing argument offered by Australian philosopher and rights activist Peter Singer. Singer declares, somewhat radically, that ‘all animals are equal’[3]. Yet this statement is not as controversial as it appears. By ‘equal’, he means not that we should treat all animals the same – Singer is not justifying giving rabbits the right to vote or freedom of speech to chickens – but that we should give equal interest to all creatures, regardless of species. Singer points out that any claim asserting the superiority of human beings over other animals is arbitrary, speciesist.

Speciesist? Why?

Consider the reason we typically give for justifying the accordance of moral supremacy to humans:

1) Humans are rational creatures, or at least significantly more rational than other animals, and this makes our lives intrinsically more valuable.

Singer’s problem with this is that not all humans are rational. What about a child with Downs Syndrome, or a person in a coma? What makes them more superior to say a highly-intelligent primate if they lack rationality? Consequently, Singer states, any attempt to argue for human rights over animals is going to run into the problem of speciesism, since there can be no universal claim for the rationality of all humans. Speciesism is just like racism or sexism, in that it appeals to untenable claims about the essentially superior ‘nature’ of a particular race or sex which gloss over the reality that not every person within a race, sex or species shares these characteristics. If the sexist argues that men should be paid more because all men are more intelligent than women, his argument is rendered invalid by the stark fact that this is a sweeping, fallacious generalisation. Likewise, the speciesist cannot justify exploiting animals for human need by claiming humans are intrinsically superior because all humans are more rational than animals.

Therefore, for example, an argument justifying animal vivisection to support the more-valuable lives of humans (by exploring cures for cancer) will have to concede that this argument also, logically, licenses vivisection on non-rational humans. And I think most people would agree this seems a little distasteful.

Singer’s argument is compelling: the only relevant consideration that unites all humans, then, is sentience – the experience of pain and pleasure. An experience inherent to the lives of most animals and all humans.

Back to deer then.

The justification for culls is primarily their threat to the food-chain: too many deer means too much consumption of natural resources, too much disruption to the natural environment which other animals are dependent on. Deer, munching and treading and stomping all over our country’s flora and fauna, are threatening other wildlife. All very well.

But what about us? Aren’t we a threat to wildlife? What about our fossil fuel omissions, waste disposal, annihilation of forestry for paper, our excessive industry, infrastructure? Our pollution of lakes and rivers? Surely all this amounts to much more destruction than an overabundance of deer trampling on the landscape and eating too many acorns?

Well, it may be argued that we are humans; we are entitled to do these things because they fuel our rational progress towards more enriching lives. What gives us the right to think the world is ours to destroy, but not that of the deer? I would argue that our threat to the food-chain is significantly greater than that of our deer population, and yet I hear of no ecological experts advocating human culling.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating human culling. But think about it: are we morally justified in killing deer because too many of them destroy the environment, when we wouldn’t do the same to humans, whose excessive population is also consuming too much of Mother Nature’s milk, and tainting it with acid rain in the process? If there is no relevant moral distinction between humans and animals, I find arguments which devalue animal life in favour of maintaining human interest deeply problematic. And after all, this isn’t just about preserving nature for nature’s sake, this is about preserving nature for people – for farmers, ramblers and future generations.

I acknowledge that there may be other reasons why culling might be justified – I am no environmental expert. Reducing deer numbers may work in the favour of their species, as too many deer means many will starve due to lack of resources. It is obvious how this can be turned around to humans: again, most people would object to human-culling because there isn’t enough bread to go round. Therefore, if there is no plausible moral distinction between humans and animals, then culling is difficult to morally justify, even if it produces certain good consequences.

It’s a thorny issue, and one that people often don’t consider; culling doesn’t seem to raise the same controversy as animal testing, hunting or meat-eating, because it is seen as a largely benevolent, if a little unpleasant, way of improving conditions for people and wildlife. I believe, however, that we should be concerned – at the very least, philosophically – with the flawed argument that lies at the heart of culling practices.