November 27, 2016
Dear Filmmaker of the future,
How to start writing about the election? There are too many things to explain at once, and not for the first time do I wish writing had evolved already to something that can have many beginnings, ends, and parallels of time to match the pathways of my mind that wants to flood yours, with only these ill-matched letters as keys. Too many things to explain all at once, and so I sit here observing a kernel of sand in the palm of my hand and wondering how to transmit this image to you, completely, on November 27, 2016, on day 20 of not reading the newspaper. Too many things to explain at once, and I should mention that I am not convinced of your existence, and whether, should you be a being beyond our biochemical understandings of life, you will bother with reading in the age that comes after the great dying. Too many things to explain at once, and while I am typing I would like to graft a piece of my heart on your feeling organ, so that others might not be another country, and we could once and for all clear up these old nightmaring questions: can we ever know the experience of another? Does anything ever change? Too many things to explain at once, and I recommend you to skip over the articles you may presently find in the New York Times and other newspapers because they are not real – imagining the present is beyond their capacity; instead, return to something very old – the Rg Veda maybe – as here you may find a clearer idea of grieving the self and time as something humans made up.
But since there is nowhere to start but with a sentence that forms the beginning, I have to first tell you about May 5, 2016, when thousands of fish washed ashore on the Chilean coast. You can imagine them as fish in all shapes and sizes, their white bellies upturned and reflecting the sun like small icicles, blinding the fishermen who are staying on land today. The oceans are warmer to the touch, and the salty water is turning sour. Ocean acidification, for which there is no shorter word in the English language, occurs silently, like extinction. In your documentary, I would not bother with recovering the science behind the acidity of carbon dioxide, but if you can, interview the plankton choir floating on the great blue’s surface to find out what songs it’s singing. And if you find that there is a better word for ocean acidification being uttered in one of the small villages where the dead fish are mourned, please include it. I am here in the desert and wanting very much to know, and I often wish I could touch – unmediated – the white stomachs of the dead and the gradual trickling of acid from sky to water where the blues meet on the horizon.
You have to imagine that at the same time as the fish are washing up upon the shore and a photographer is sent to document the scene, the Kauai ‘O’o bird is singing a mating song. His is a call without response, because he is the last of his kind, and no other creature speaks his language. His song is here, in a time-capsule.
The next sentence is already rolling out, in the beginning were the dead fish, and while they were dying, California was drying up, although the banality of dehydration is hard to transmit unless you can recreate for your viewer walking a pure breed pug in a forest near Oakland and reading the sign: “Brown is the new Green”, before picking up said pug’s shit in a plastic bag designed for the occasion. You may note for your records: yes, in the final days people still cleaned up after their dogs using hydrocarbon materials imprinted with recycling messages. When it is very dry, the ground makes sickle-shaped wide-open mouths, and if you inspect one of these lesions closely you can see all the way to the bone. The absence of water runs deep.
That was 448 days before the election, when my friend and I took the train cross country, through wetlands and open fields, reaching the ocean that shone in a brilliant, blinding blue through the observation windows of the California Zephyr. In San Francisco there are palm trees and conifers in the same street, and in front of wealthy houses signs: “Water is a human right – end the water scam”. And it dawned on me, stronger than before, that the climate crisis is not an edifying one, where as its symptoms become worse, the mask of unbridled consumerism does fall after all, and Moses descends from the mountain to lay down the new law. No; other amnesiac myths will spring up and create warped histories to confirm to its adherents that water to supply a 2000 square foot house with air conditioning is a human right, and that the municipal authorities are shady bureaucrats squashing American liberty. Brown is the new Green, and we may all forget that there was ever another way these hills could have looked.
Filmmaker of the future, I often wonder what myths you have in store for us – how will you emplot how we loved and lived, what terrible things we did to one another, and our ability to live live live on in times like these.
In the beginning (although it’s not really a beginning) were the dead fish, California drying, and the rise of Trump. I imagine that you should have very little difficulty capturing his square-jawed face and thinning hair, and if the future still believes in caricatures he will be a welcome relief from the mightiness of an acidic ocean. A million psychological profiles have already been assembled, and somewhere in CNN’s video archive some intern has put together an obituary.
You could depict the months before the election as a series of talking heads making statements of incredulity: He said what? How could he? Does he mean it? But I suspect the future will be less concerned with the individual, and maybe even perplexed by our focus on the ONE in 9 billion. But, after all, there are now TWO: Trump. Trump and the folk. Maybe you will be able to understand what I never could: why populist movements are so obsessed with their strong-man leaders.
In the beginning (if you like) were the dead fish, California drying, Trump rising, and the first demagogue of climate change. Trump is the demagogue of course, but I need to make the distinction so that you may not labor under the assumption that people recognized him as such when he grew like mold under the humid conditions of instability. There are other more thoughtful and well-researched articles out there in the world of ideas that will provide you with a network of cause and effect, and how it came that instability of weather and temperature bred fascists in the countries where empires are starting to crumble. And by ‘bred’ are we not making a contentious statement? The spores of the mold were always there maybe, the acidic oceans simply giving the germinating push.
Dead fish in Chile, California drying, the rise of the first demagogue of climate change, and on November 9, 2016 wide open fields in Wyoming and North Dakota. The car can only take a sharp left or a sharp right on these roads drawn by a colonial ruler. The land comes in through the windows in two colors: blue for the sky and yellow for the earth, blocks that clearly separate air from heavier matter. The grass is still, but not silent, waiting for a steady soul to read its blades and hidden swamps of old trees. If I sharpen my ears, the sounds of life reach the hairs of my cochlear and send a signal to my head: a mouse is building a home, a worm is pushing its body past a rock, a blade of grass gently leans on its neighbor. I do not know how legible this land would be to you, whether you have in the fiber of your being molecules that travelled from these parts and settled in you. Whether the map would conceal from you that peoples of this land are not contained, but are embedded in these North Dakota flood planes, like the Missouri turning the earth along its borders into loamy soil.
If the contrast in your film thus far was mild and the lines blurry, you may want to adjust your filter for these scenes, because today is sharp lines and drenched colors. The river cuts through the land and the construction cuts through the river. The floodlights that overshadow Standing Rock from the construction site make our shadows crisp. Most moments in life allow for ambiguity until we reach the frontline, and suddenly things are brought into sharp relief, paradoxes included. You know better than I what comes next, but you may be assured that I see civil war all around me – the metal cowboy holding an American flag on the side of the road, in the dishwater of the camp sink, in the face of the woman who tells me not to play with her child because I am white, in the white people who seem to not comprehend just how deep this story goes, how unhealable the wounds, how bottomless the trauma. On the day people voted for a man who represents nothing but vitriolic contempt for the Other what is there left to do but meet fire with fire? That is not a rallying cry. It is a dry assessment of magnitude.
In the beginning white bellies on the shore, then gaping mouths in California, on the third day the election of a demagogue, followed by a the great yellow of the northern plains. On day 6: grey water. Two figures drag a cart to a great hole and dump buckets of grey water into the ground. Pieces of bacon, bagel, pancake float about and form little swirls. No more melting pot, no tossed salads – here is a new metaphor for America: a myth that is only true for a moment: here we are, suspended in grey water.
January 20, 2017
Dear Filmmaker of the Future,
I wanted to write again because it appears that I have not finished telling you all I wanted to say. In the place I live there is a large salt lake, of which many stories are told. Some say it is the Dead Sea and the land around a holy land, some say it is the lost daughter of a great ocean, and some say that it is drying out, and that as punishment for the lake’s death the city at its skirts will be covered in mercury. No one knows how the mercury got into the lake, and, perhaps like the lake itself, its origins are prehistoric.
It is this sense of the time I would like to tell you about. The lake is so old that we all thought it would never die, and yet now it may be passing. Its death is not quick of course, nor is it under the knowing watch of some clinician who has seen many lakes pass before, some resting in the knowledge that it is their time to go, and some choked to death suddenly. But the lake sends signals, asks us to come and visit before it cannot remember itself, before it cannot send migrating birds on their way, and offer its deeps to mating brine shrimp. For months, I could not look the lake in the eye. I did not want it to die, and tried to forget its passing as I hid behind the skyscrapers of our killer city, running between buildings lest it should spot me between bricks and cement.
But now I find myself standing in its estuary, where sweet water meets salt, and so many different forms of life come together in a great ecosystems mess. I cannot save this lake, and it was the fear that I could and was failing that made me run and hide in the city. Afraid to come out lest I be called to account for all the things I have not done in its defense, for all the ways in which it was never enough, and even if I had offered to die in its place, the earth would have shrugged her shoulders and told me that there is no bartering when it comes to dying. So what is there left to do, but to be here and see the layers of salt and dirt, still teeming with life. To love the lake as it is, and on this day breath in its salty air and travel along the sound wave of the crunching salt beneath my feet. Dear Filmmaker of the future, the water is cold and the horizon pink, the clouds reflected in the lake, and the snow a keeper of sleepers beneath its thick coat. It’s wordless, this joy of being, of breathing, of favoring life because one is alive.
Today a new president is inaugurated, whose supporters want to take us back to a time when fewer living creatures were accepted as humans and instead beaten, raped, and shackled. A president who rapes, a president who dreams of death camps. I do not know what I can say when a people voted for a man that openly advised to grab women by the pussy. What we did during all these years of fighting, fighting, fighting for right of existence was not enough to change what is coming to wash over us next. I never had it, this power that extinguishes hatred and greed.
Dear Filmmaker, I do not want you to misunderstand me: I am not speaking from a place of despair, although I know the words I am writing are sad. And I do not think that our struggle was for naught or that we failed. Rather, I have stopped fighting the wave that rushes in and pulls me under, and instead recognize its strength and know my fists will not break its force. And in this moment of being under, I have so many souls in my heart – the people who are under the wave with me, the people that came before, and I am filled with so much joy that they exist in the world, as the sand kernels that live on the banks of the Salt Lake do. There is so much beauty in all the things that have nothing to do with making America great again, and in the seconds of breathing in and out, and the moments that make up a life before our lungs seize, these are the things I count. I say my prayers to all who stepped lightly, who loved lakes, and who raised their fists in spite of it all when the wave came.