Empty Gestures

“The house I built is burning”

The Turnpike Troubadours’ lyric echoes in my ear as I walk, the original stuck to the corner where I heard it, its copies mutating and shifting as the real becomes more distant. “The house I built is burning… the house I built burnin…the house we built…burnin…” It’s sunny and warm here in Providence, but the remnants of the bomb cyclone that stormed away weeks ago still liter the corners. Across the country, my sister’s town is covered in the scar tissue that fills the void burning brings. In Atlanta, there’s still ice on the ground. Before I left, I watched as fire failed to melt the snow around it, my understanding collapsing with each flicker. In between these coasts sit proud mountains stripped of their cold coverings, the snow refusing the peaks’ plea for modesty.
*******
Down in Southeast Atlanta, there’s a park centered around two ponds. The ponds were created by The South River Brick Company, who used the area as a clay quarry. They weren’t the first diggers though—the area around the park had been a quarry as far back as 3000 BC, mostly for soapstone. After SRBC closed down, an African-American family homesteaded there, only for white neighbors to burn their house and chase them out, turning the location into a dumping ground. Years later, after a billionaire philanthropist gave Dekalb County the money to turn the land into a park, local artists started using the remaining trash to create installations. Dolls’ heads and broken brick dot the hiking trail, sitting in old TV’s and playing tricks on the local copperheads. Geese land on the lakes, flapping their wings until they have a readymade whitewater ride. The dead trees have ornate tattoos, the product of termites’ artistic ambitions. Occasionally otters appear, messing with the floodplain in unexpected ways.
Yet something is off as you walk through, a palpable tension independent of the lifeless eyes that track walkers or the greedy poison ivy that reach for your legs. It comes from the nagging suspicion that though we gave this land back to nature, it didn’t forgive us. Huxley writes that English forests and marshes are “only there on sufferance, because we have chosen out of our good pleasure, to leave them their freedom.” But the truth was these wilds did not accept their enslavement peacefully—it is only now that we begin to see their vengeance manifesting, and so we desperately return what we never actually conquered. What good is a million dollars for a park, when the money came from the system that destroyed it in the first place? Our house is burning; even our most conscientious leaders are doing little more than throwing cups of water on the ever growing flames, knowing damn well it’ll change nothing. They’re in collusion with the fire, just like those in the back dumping gasoline and laughing as the flames grow. They don’t feel the heat, at least not yet. Cotton and linen, the make-up of currency, are mighty fine at cooling.
*****
“And all that trouble you’ve been looking for is easy in the finding
Well the devil’s into fine detail” The Turnpike Troubadours sing. Oh how I wish they were right! The devil Huxley found in nature, the alien distance that fills the tropics with dread, that asserts there is world outside of us we cannot know, is gone. With it is inimical goodness; the devil cannot exist without God to cast him out of heaven. Those details the devil loved—the ice on the corner, the burned out tree, the rock strewn peak—reveal nothing but his retreat. Climate change is the manifestation of capitalism, of our society. Every tree we plant is already dead, stripped of its essence and power.

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