A gargantuan storm gathered in the Atlantic this fall, a hurricane sweeping two winter storms into its galactic arms. New York City took a major hit. I happened at the time to be on Grand Manan Island watching the Bay of Fundy churn, the surf rake rock against rock on the Castalia shore in front of my home.
I’d come to my family’s retreat in Atlantic Canada for a much needed week of writing. I was reading an essay by one of my Tucson students about gang life in the city. “If he was going to slang,” she wrote, “he’d better get strapped up.” A drug dealer was out for justice over the mismeasure of his goods. He was heading for a club, armed and righteous. This is not fiction. This is the daily life of one student, a woman who comes to class wearing a white wife-beater that showcases her spectacular tattoos. She has a smile as warm as Oprah. Sometimes there’s a sheepish quality to it, as if she’s asking, “What am I doing in this movie?” She knows how to use a Glock. “You’re gonna need it,” her boyfriend said, looking after her. She’s lost so many friends to the street, she’s afraid to count them. Still, she feels pride in belonging, hanging with a guy who wants to put Tucson on the map, wants to make it as badass as L.A. or New York.
White caps were exploding up there. Wind bursting in gusts. But the sky broke, clouds fractured and fell away so that blue appeared in a tenuous opening. The fishermen had lashed down every boat in the harbor, but the island was spared, the storm spinning inland after strafing New York and rolling on to Ontario.
In autumn on the island, I have more of a view than ever. The poplars and maples and tamaracks go bare in autumn. And then there is the die-off. Spruce trees and tamaracks continue for the third or fourth year to fall, dozens upon dozens of statuesque giants going from plush green to brittle gray in a few months. On this recent visit, I found six more gone. The power company downed them, since they threatened the electrical lines on the edge of the property. Six trees planted in 1957 by my father, then a vigorous and movie-star-handsome man who’d just turned 50 and loved to work on the land, as much as he loved to work on a stage entertaining an audience. He’d dug up the spruces from the woods and planted them to make a hedge around our retreat, a purchase for thrushes and yellow throats, warblers and white-throated sparrows. The trees had been a living presence of my father long past his death over 20 years ago. I’ve been learning to let go of my losses. This place has helped teach me that skill.
Reading my students’ work while on the island challenged me to reframe how I think about the place. It’s not that the island has been spared the woes of urban life. It’s a village society of roughly 2,000 residents who’ve made their living working the sea for 200 years, that stability crumbling as fisheries decline. Fishing’s tanking and so the youth, who once had a dignified local calling, fall prey to cultural drift. Some leave the island for crap jobs on the mainland—working at Walmart in Saint John, New Brunswick. Some stay but get hooked on alcohol and drugs. The island has lost too many kids to this woe. Dead in car wrecks with too much of one thing or another in their blood. One summer, islanders in anguish that the Canadian Mounties couldn’t seem to bust the local meth dealer, rose up in a riot, burned down the man’s house, and ran him out of town.
My neighbor came another day to fell three dead spruces, the latest victims of the woodland beetle depredation on the island. When the trees started dying, my neighbors consoled me. “Oh, Alison, it’s just their time.” But after dozens went, after whole hillsides on the island began to look like their green hair had turned gray, it became clear this was not ruin on the expected timescale of arboreal aging and decline. Woodland parasites are doing well with warmer winters, allowing more larvae to make it through the cold to emerge in spring and feast through the bark. Over the past two or three years I’ve lost 30 or 40 black spruces and tamaracks. Some were wider than I could compass with my arms, grand elders I’d admired, because on a working island where the forest has been used for two centuries for ship’s masts and weir stakes and house timber, a tree that old is one you tend to notice. There was a spruce in front of my writing studio with an uncanny curving trunk, as if it had had to weave its way past fallen limbs as it climbed. The obstacles are long gone, but the waves in the wood remained.
When the trees were cut, the chainsaw stopped roaring and there was silence. Then the trunk cracked at the juncture where the wood had its last grip on the vertical. It was strangely beautiful to watch the old giants lean, hold, lean, and then go. They landed in a muffled whoosh, dry branches cushioning the fall, the birds singing madly from what was left of the woods. On the day the last three spruces fell, the forest went crazy with cowbirds screaming about the disruption. By the next day they were gone. I wanted to be like them—adjusting to loss, letting my complaint rip then moving on. Or like the forest ground that wastes not a minute contemplating ruin: here 30 tiny spruces sprout, here a sprawl of wild raspberries leap, here the yellow throats call back and forth across the opening—all beings embracing the new exposure to sun.
[This is the template engrained in the human imagination: cycles of ruin and renewal measure the way the world works. Spring follows winter, new growth rises from forest decay, raspberries follow ruin, peace ultimately follows war, recovery follows the storm. Climate change is frightening on a deep level, because it can seem as if renewal is impossible. It’s easy to feel like we’re watching a demolition derby, becoming obsessed with counting up what crashes. Psychic numbing sets in and it’s time to go shopping again. I’m grateful I’ve had the privilege to observe this patch of forest, this view of the sea, for over 50 years. I’m wired to write about this place, neurologically linked to it after so many years of watching it display simultaneously all stages of living and dying. How does this translate to urban life? To youth displaced by economic and ecological misfortune? To find the precise words to speak one’s truth is to defy ruin and make the energy of renewal rise. Here’s to defiance and here’s to the rising.
Alison Hawthorne Deming is Professor and Director of the University of Arizona Creative Writing Program. She’s the author of four books of poetry, most recently Rope (Penguin, 2009). Her new nonfiction book Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit will be published by Milkweed Editions.
Header photo by Alison Deming.