After the War: A Short Story (Web Event 2)

sarahj's picture

I knew plants.  I knew the sun.  I knew the wind.  My head surrounded by the buzzing of bees.  I knew the darkness of the woods at night.  I knew the smell of rain. I knew crickets in my bushes during the evening.  I knew the sound of snow under my boots during the winter and I knew the crunch of leaves under my shoes in the fall.  I knew seasons.  Now, all I am familiar with the sound of metal under my shoes.  I am comforted by the smell of oxygen that saturates the air.  This scent used to fill my nostrils after a race to the hospital when I had an asthma attack.  I know that the war changed the way I sensed the world.    The war started hundreds if not thousands of years ago, but does the time really matter? 

I am old now.  I was young when my senses became cold.  I had just had my eldest child, who had my grandchild several years ago.  It will be my grandchild’s birthday soon.  I wish to take my grandchild to experience what I have lost in the only way that we still can.  I will take my grandchild to the zoo and then we will return to my house and I will show her the pictures and the papers of what my senses were once familiar with.  We will marvel at the beauty in those pictures and we will sit in shocked silence at how precarious life once was. 

There is only certainty left in this life we all lead now.  We are certain that the air that is pumped through those vents will sustain us and we know that the ground will never give way.  We craved this security at one point in time.  We lived for the capture of that security and once we obtained it, we knew we had won the war. We conquered our enemy, stamping out any doubt that it was we who were supreme on this planet.  We celebrated this and were proud of our newfound safety.  For a time that is.  For the ones who knew the time before this current age, the initial elation, the relief, lasted briefly, soon dissipating and leaving us with realization that we were not fully living.  How does one live when there is no danger of death?  What is the motivation?  Where do we find the strength to love, to laugh, to create when all we know is measured and controlled?  I missed the opportunity to teach my child this, but I will not fail with my grandchild.

 I am taking my grandchild to the zoo today.  She is ready to see what I used to be familiar with. 

My grandchild and I walk hand in hand through the tunnels.  We pause only to purchase more oxygen for the environment to which we are headed.  Humans have been away from the environment that we are headed to that many scientists say we will react badly to it without supplemental air.  We arrive at the zoo.  We see people walking around with long cylindrical poles.  At the end of these rods, there are differently shaped pieces of metal. The eyes of my grandchild look inquisitively at the strange object. The eyes of my grandchild flip toward me. In my grandchild’s eyes, there are many questions.  My grandchild asks me what it is that the people are holding.  I flip my eyes toward the people once more.  I am thinking about that which I used to know.  I remember, suddenly, what one of the instruments was named.  I point toward the instrument and tell my grandchild that it is a “hoe”. Humans used to use it to do something called “gardening”.  I am familiar that no one has done any gardening since the war ended. I am familiar that no one has need of gardening unless the person is threatened.  I am familiar that the threat is gone and all the gardening that ever needed to be done is finished.

My grandchild and I continue to walk onwards.  We stop only at a ticket booth.  We are then pushed towards the gates and against turn-styles.  We go one at a time. The tunnel then curves off to the right so that we cannot see around it.  I meet the curved tunnel with dull anticipation.  I knew curves at one time.  I am only familiar with safe straight lines now.  Humans can always see what is coming down a straight line.  The eyes of my granddaughter display acute curiosity. I am knowledgeable of my feet against the metal ground.  I notice the corner is coming to an end.  I feel my anticipation start to mount when I finally see…

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...cages.  I see cages on each side of the hallway.  The cages are made up of vertical metal bars.  I remember these cages from the day my grandmother took me to the zoo.  I know there was a long hallway, like most of what I was used to seeing, made with metal panels from floor, to walls, to ceiling.  The cages were something I had never seen before. Cages hold in and display what you cannot control, as my grandmother said, but we humans control everything now.  I know there is nothing left for us to fear, so why would we need to cage anything? 

I know that I turned my adolescent eyes toward the cages to examine the contents. I suddenly became gripped with an emotion I did not recognize.  My grandmother told me later that it was fear that I felt.  I knew then why humans had made it their mission to erase the instigators of this arresting emotion.

One cage contained thousands of flexible green tubes with colorful bulbs at the upper end.  The flexible tubes bent toward me as the fan hit them. Another cage contained many thin green pieces of plastic that came to a point at the end.  The contents of this cage resembled the carpets we had in our living spaces. A third cage held tall, grainy towers with many arms reaching out from the main body.  The reaching arms had smaller arms protruding from them which contained small green hands.  I know I saw hundreds more cages after that.  I never returned after that day.  I did not want to become familiar with fear. 

My grandmother told me that these were the last remaining prisoners of the war.  I was satisfied with the aftermath of the war.  Humans are safe.  Humans have no fear.

I do know the name of the menacing green tubes.  They were tulips.

If you wish to comment on the short story, please do so now as what follows is an explanation of it.  I would like to hear what you thought about the story before you read the explanation.  You can comment a second time after reading the explanation.

 

The short story above was inspired by a moment of intense frustration at my inability to think ecologically while brainstorming this very web event.  This moment, though it was certainly more than a moment of my life, consisted of some tears and a large amount of ranting about the value I could not see in trying to think more ecologically.  We and others can sit and think about our need to act and think more ecologically, but does any of it really matter?  Why do we need to think about the place we live in now when we already know that it has not always been this way and will most likely change many times over, though we will not be here to see it?   It from this point that I decided to follow Ursula K. LeGuin’s lead, and attempt to write a fictional account of where non-ecological thinking and action could lead.

The above story is an attempt to synthesize many of the things that our class has covered over the course of the semester.  The first and most obvious bit of non-ecological thinking is the content of the story.  As human beings, we attempt to create order in the world by controlling and categorizing things.  Much of this is motivated by fear of what we do not know or understand and by our anxiety that we are not the best.  In this short story, this anxiety is referred to as a war.  In this post-war world, humans have conquered the earth and eradicated “nature”.  The outdoors no longer exists as humans have covered the earth in a metal compound.  Sounding a lot like Disney Pixar’s animated film Wall-e, humans have no need to venture outside their compound and for all of the inhabitants know, the compound is all there is for them. 

We talked a lot about the concept of gardening recently, as it was mentioned in a few of the articles we have read so far.  Through my understanding, gardening is a lot like curating a museum.  The items put on display are placed in exactly the way the curator desires.  A better comparison may be to that of the zoo.  At a zoo, wildlife is put on display supposedly to bring the wild to the people in a safe and controlled environment.  Additionally, the wildlife is also there to display man’s greatness.  A tiger in the zoo may be a fierce and dangerous animal in the wild, but if humans can conquer the most ferocious and some of the strongest animals of the wild, than it communicates that humans must be superior to even the most feared animals.  In this short story, I chose to set the characters in a zoo since, although a museum setting could have sent a similar message, a zoo is a place for living things while museums are generally for inanimate artifacts or deceased beings. 

I also chose to tell the story with two narrators: a grandmother who remembers life before all of nature was defeated and a grandchild who is only familiar with the compound-style living.  The character of the grandmother is inspired by many of my own reflections on nature and ecology.  As a person who is very much afraid of nature and who wishes that the bees would just go away, I do believe that the dangers that nature poses and the fear it inspires make life worth living and have inspired human action and reaction for years.  The grandmother reflects this, realizing that human disinterest in being ecological has resulted in a loss of quality of life for everyone.  The grandchild, being totally unfamiliar with anything of nature, responds to the plant life in the zoo with the exact fear that humans had worked so hard to erase.  She is so far removed from an experience with such things that she can only react with fear and distrust, much in the same way that someone from a society that realized its connection to nature may react to some form of technology or non-natural material.

Another important aspect of this story is the language I used in it. Since I was writing a story about a non-ecological world, I wanted my language to reflect that as well.  I was really trying to place emphasis on the typical subject-verb-object formation of sentences.  The individual is hyper-emphasized in many of the sentences since I was trying to write in a disconnected form.  Additionally, as I’m sure many readers noticed, I did make a point to used words that highlighted the disconnections between certain ideas.  I believe that although the verb ‘to know’, in its various forms emphasizes a personal connection in some cases, I think it also communicates having some sort of command over knowledge.  The world ‘familiar’ does not do the same thing.  Or perhaps I was experimenting with the Spanish verbs conocer and saberConocer means to know as in, to be familiar with a person, place, thing, subject, etc.  Saber means to know information, facts, etc.  I used the verb ‘to know’ in reference to the state of things before the war to emphasize the command and control that humans have over the existence of nature.  The word familiar is used to refer to the state of things after the war because humans do not need to have control over anything in this era.

Thinking ecologically confuses me most of the time so in writing a story that focuses on being un-ecological, I hoped I could make more sense of things for myself.  Often times, I need to imagine what the wrong way might be in order to understand the value of trying to fix myself.  From writing out this story, I believe that I have clarified some of my own thoughts on the value of thinking more ecologically, especially in light of my small breakdown before I started writing.  When I became frustrated to the point of not being able to write, I resigned myself to the fact that none of what we had studied made a difference.  The world will change as it will.  I also couldn’t see why I should be sincerely worried since I did not like many aspects of nature anyways.  I will never stop fearing nature, but I think that that is a rational and needed fear.  If we can learn to live with our fears instead of eradicating them by either erasing the source of the fear or convincing ourselves that we need to become comfortable with the source of our fear, maybe we can find a true way to be more ecological.  Pursuing this middle ground is something I would like to think about more.

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Anne Dalke's picture

Knowing--and Fearing

Well, Sarah--here's a delight! I read this, first, as your next-generational version of LeGuin's "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow"--an account of what happened when humans decided to take on directly "the obscure fear, called panic, which many of us feel when alone in wilderness."

I read it, second, as an account of the price of controlling that fear, of insulating ourselves from vegetable and animal life. I noticed the certainty and control (if also the past tense) of the narrative voice: "I knew.... I knew.... I knew....."

And I realized, third, that separating children from these things that they fear will only increase that fear, if/when they encounter what they have been kept from.

And as I read the story, I wondered that you--our resident voice for "I hate bugs! I wish they would all disappear!"--had been able to imagine this tale. So then I was very eager to read your commentary, and intrigued-and-happy to recognize that writing the story enabled you to clarify some of your thoughts on the value of thinking more ecologically.

Your summary doesn't quite show me what was clarified, though. I knew already that you don't like many aspects of nature, that you fear it. What I don't understand, yet, is why that fear seems to you rational and needed. I'm interested that you conclude with the need to "live with our fears instead of eradicating them," neither erasing the source nor becoming comfortable with it.

Tell me more: why do you want to continue to fear?

I appreciate, too, your description of zoos as animal "gardens," and your explanation of some of the word-play you engaged in here....

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