Excerpt from One Lighted Breath (working title), by Joanna Greenfield
Chapter One, “The Alligator’s Path (Florida)”
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The mud flats stretched before me, disappearing at one edge into a dark sea and at the other side to a briny bog. Behind me lay the woods, safe, and free of alligators. A thick track swept across the mud into the sand above the sea. In the mud, each limb of the animal lay outlined sharp and clear, except where the primeval tail had swept its own spoor aside. I stepped gently over the invisible animal, as if the dinosaur crawled before me.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The tracks smelled of brackish, foul water and of the stems of swamp weeds lying in their trail like the train of a wedding gown. The alligator was nearby somewhere, beneath the sea.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I saw a park ranger later that afternoon, as I foraged for firewood and he said not possible. Alligators don’t swim in the ocean. Perhaps it had been tempted by the dead fish that lined the white sand. Or perhaps whatever had killed the fish had hurt the scavenger’s stomach, so it had gone to the salt water for relief against a killing gravity.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The ranger said that the red tide was killing the fish, but I talked to the campers closer to the beach, and they said that they had seen the red tide many times and it only killed the highest feeders, who ate beneath the toxin–laden diatoms. But this plague had swept the ocean clean. Big fish, little fish, a shark that in life would have eaten the others lying in death beside its prey like family at a barbecue. Shellfish and jellyfish and pipefish and a seagull. The ocean had reversed into the air.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I stayed, though the back of my throat burned, because the island was small and beautiful and the wind that blew from the other direction smelled of seagrass and ocean air. Squatting on a rock in my campsite in a ring of trees, I cooked dried beans, and listened to the silence and the wind. To each instinct that argued “run, the oceans are emptying their larders,” I explained that there was nowhere to go. (Delete? Every piece of this land, from untouched mountain to the fragmented vasts of the sea, is being cleansed by chemicals of its color. )
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I ate beans from the embers of the fire the next morning and walked again through the battlefield of scales. More fish had washed ashore, following the ripples of the tide like the sequined edge of a sari. Mollusks were there, and unidentified sparkles of small fish and anemones, everything from the sea bed up to the surface of the water. I squatted to look at the spilled treasures. Every square foot of sand held animals I’d never seen. As if scuba diving again through someone else’s world, I stopped breathing and let the world breath for me. But that strange burning smell rose above the gentle odor of dying fish and rotting ocean and slashed at the back of my throat, deep into my lungs.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The alligator had scorched another path through mud, this time clear and sharp through wet sand, side by side with its last two “to and fro’s,” as if keeping itself company. Or perhaps a separate alligator had gone for its forbidden swim. But this measured itself against the last, equal in size at least in the unforgiving mud. It had not crawled back up onto these primeval lands.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 I lifted my eyes from the lighted sand and saw for the first time, encroaching like an ocean liner on a too-small harbor, a sea of smokestacks on a hidden point of land.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Their moments of ecstasy always came near lighted water, as if the flickers of the waves spark some ancient section of the brain, perhaps an epilepsy that overcomes our consciousness of self , or perhaps the light fills that reptilian brainstem and wakes within us, uterus and embryo, fish and bacteria, crawling bird, and sunlit ape, so that we are not beast, but beauty, seeing the world as it was meant to be seen. * Just sunshine burning on waves, and trees whispering life to our new ears. There is always water, and light, and an absence of humans in the writing of the transcendentalists. Muir climbed to the top of a waterfall and clung there, wet and shouting, with his blood turned to champagne. Dillard saw leaves floating on her little stream filled with sails of light, and Emerson emptied out into the universe in a puddle of light in the city. Time is halted and self is spread out upon the landscape, we become one with the world, and for the rest of our lives we vibrate with the peace of it.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I didn’t stand for long, watching that long line of death glint in the light. The fish and seagulls and urchins from the day before’s holocaust had begun to smell as only dead and heated fish could, but my mind took a snapshot of the colors and light and animals never seen before and probably never again, as it had always taken those photos of the horizon in Africa. They lay in a shining ribbon like the curves of a wave made permanent, as far as the eyes could see, one strange sea creature after another. Silvered fish of every shape, seagulls resting calmly with their beaks washed in the sand, a small shark, crabs, I think, long fish and small ones, conches and hermit crabs like small punctuation marks. I wanted to believe that it was some red tide that had taken them but the air burned the throat without any scent, like breathing acid, or small swords stabbing into the lungs. I walked through the droplets of gold and silver doubloons preserved intact for this day at least. No predators were eating these beautiful tainted corpses.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In Kenya that one moment of light hit me each time I lifted my eyes from my notebook or telescope. One moment I was human and thinking from the past into the oppression of the future, and the next I was lighted and soaring, spread upon the wind, looking from one continent to another, across the curve of the earth, because from the highland savanna you can see the edge of the world. I was grass rippling with light, and monkey eagle soaring through thick skies, and lions sleeping in the sun. I was sweet white dust and rock cliffs and insects dotting the clouds, I was one slow waving sea of light. There were no humans there, or if a Landrover passed by, it too was an insect in a trail of dust, part of the land as surely as the zebras stilting through the grasses and the impala swirling through their feet.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Breathing the cleaner air, I stood in front of my tent and watched the sun go down as if on a desert island, alone, without knowledge of my fate. Then, somehow lightened of my possessions, as if I had lost interest in them, even my treasured tent, the only real adult home I had ever had, I climbed into my sleeping bag. I had lost something that day and didn’t know if I wanted to find it. But I thought then that I would never have a home.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 I had been told that I was dying, and had decided that if I was going to die it would not be at my parents’ house in suburbia, but in a place like Africa. I was cured of the mercury poisoning that looked like lethal multiple sclerosis but I had been set free of my roots to spiral further and further away. For six years I lived out of my car and tent, in youth hostels and campgrounds, in parrot sanctuaries and artist colonies, with donkeys and bikes and chickens, in desert and mountains and seashores and in each beautiful place was sprayed with chemicals and couldn’t breathe, and ran to the next.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 What would Thoreau have said, about these smokestacks and poisoned lakes, so much clearer, and yet darker, than the small smokestacks of coal that he so deplored? We know he would have grown his own food, with heirloom seeds that he had saved from one generation to the next, not supermarket tomatoes picked by migrant farm workers who worked in fields soaked in toxic pesticides, nor would he have used antibacterial soap, or blue cleansers, sharp with chemical tang, or shampooed his hair with toxic preservatives. He would, if he’d had the choice, have lived as clean and simple as he did a hundred years ago. To him a life of grace was not praying in a church but with his hands at work.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I had opened and spread my dust upon Africa and breathed its air into my cells. But the day I left, memory shut down, and pictures of the savanna flashed forward only in small bursts and I had to write them down to remember them. I could only try to find a piece of Africa at home.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 But while I ran across the continent, uncovering one horror after another, I didn’t know that in every hostel or campsite, I had spoken with someone who had given me a recipe for living with simplicity. And when my grandmother died, and I had to take in the dog that I had given her, and find a home, I rented a house on a lake. As I stood on the threshold, Charlie snorting with pleasure at my feet, looking at a sea of mouse droppings, I thought with grief that I would finally have to become an American and buy the blue cleansers and white powders with their sharp chemical tang, and then I realized one by one, that like Thoreau I could make my own world. Lemon juice and vinegar and baking soda and flowers, as if baking a cake, I cleaned a small piece of this country, separate from its smokestacks. The whole front yard was a garden.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 When you read this, you will go through the seven stages of grief. I can’t help with those, but I can tell you it is better to break up with a bad spouse than have cancer. One of those is curable, and the other poisons you with carcinogenic chemicals and radiation. What I can tell you is, that after you have stopped raging against the chemical corporations, your mother, your doctor, and the entire world of advertising, you will see the world as it is, not needing to be fixed and sterilized, but delicious as it is. Simplicity.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 How would Thoreau have lived in the modern world? Here are some quotes to consider. And a thought – would Thoreau have wanted an iPhone and access to all the world’s libraries?
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 My furniture, part of which I made myself — and the rest cost me nothing of which I have not rendered an account — consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp. None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin.