Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 24

Fossils
Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Her amagi sticks as though the water fastens itself to her through the cloth. Her arms outstretch, her one-lens mask seems intent on the kelp below. Another ama, as if surfacing nearby, also in a white dress, looks into a barrel that seems floating. 

Ayuka looks at them from below. The tile beneath her is golden brown. The light is soft under the wood beams curving over her. Like kelp fronds reaching for light, each golden blade buoyed up by the perfect egg of gas on its stem, the blades meeting at the surface in a shimmering quilt of water, sun, and algal life. 

The ama as if kicking their way up and down have their heads wrapped in white zukin embroidered with the traditional symbols: seiman, doman. The water behind them and the kelp below aren’t changing color in the backdrop photographs. Overhead are not kelp fronds but the beams where the lights hang and the banner naming this “Exhibit F: Ama Divers.” And the mannequin in her amagi as if plunging headlong to the floor. Ayuka sees cables tethering the mannequins to the ceiling and the floor. Suspended without floating.

Ayuka visited the Kaiyōno Village Museum when it opened. Until now, she never came again. Perhaps she’s just been busy flitting up and down; now she’s sixty-five, getting to and fro sometimes takes longer. The time between is longer. 

“In-between” is Ayuka’s lifelong condition. But it’s about to become a shocking, shattering sensation too. The next moment of her return to the museum will be an overwhelming swarm of times.

It is a moment of suspense: Ayuka is waiting for the museum’s director. Fumi has gone to her office for some fossils. The fossils are a bequest from the great Sumiko Iseya, who died last month on a routine dive. Fumi is eager to show off these fossils. Ayuka also has something in her pocket for Fumi. This is the easy bit, the pretty seashell of the moment.

But turn it over and it’s dark, delicate, slimy, sensitive. It might be hungry and may bite. Within this squirming moment are a memory of Ayuka’s—Sumiko at eighty-six laughing underwater, pointing at a tiny frogfish—and the mannequins who are nobody in particular. They aren’t the ama that they are. They won’t finish this dive that’s more of a flight and even more a swing without motion. Suspended in pretenses of swimming they can’t even invoke death. They collide with a blank image of Sumiko’s real ending, which Ayuka did not witness. 

The collision is a blow from out of nowhere. It’s the onset of feeling “in-between.” In this terrible sensation, Ayuka almost understands that by gazing at the mannequins above her head, she’s peeking as if into a separate realm where what’s visible isn’t what exists and what has been but is almost “what could be,” “what might have been.” Or maybe most of all “a recollection of something the like of which will at some point be no longer,” as if “prefiguring a memory” of flesh-and-blood ama not existing anywhere. 

But this, so to speak, barely scratches the surface of the blow. Ayuka’s understanding is never more than “almost” and “as if” during this slithering moment because her understanding happens below the level of articulation. Closer to her own gooey insides than concepts. 

Next, as though the impact knocks her off a pier, she’s sinking backwards into a memory. Dead whales hanging over her grandnephew in the picture Umichan took at Osaka’s Natural History Museum. Umichan’s grandson was small, elated under the suspended skeletons of a fin whale and a sperm whale. 

Ayuka remembers them from television. The dead and bloated fin whale washed up on concrete. The dead sperm whale at Sakaisenboku Port. The museum’s visitors delighted in the corpses’ remnants as in acrobats dancing dangling from rigging. The bones, collated, glued, and bolted, posed as if swimming through air. The air went through them not as breath. 

The city named the skeletons like they were newborns. It occurs to Ayuka that “Makko” and “Nagasuke” were make-believe life eliding the suffocating, gangrenous event of death. It occurs to her all at once that most whales die from collisions with ships, entanglements with nets, altercations with hunters. One dead whale could feed how many deep-sea fishes. Sumiko was found not breathing or flippering. Steps away from the dead whales were dead dinosaurs. And Ayuka almost wonders whether what is honored here are premonitions of a future where the last whale is already dead. 

All this occurs to her in a fractional instant that could precede a flash of inspiration: skeletons and mannequins, mammals and mammals, divers and divers then and now to come … but Fumi arrives with a tiny glass bottle.

Fumi gives Ayuka the bottle, asks about the morning’s harvest. Ayuka answers with the cheer she’ll show the tourists: The inn will have a good lunch. But in her mind are abalone, which they won’t harvest for another month in hope that they will grow but which were nowhere to be found this morning anyway. Sea urchins and turban snails, which she’s used to finding in abundance, were today elusive and small. There were oysters and an octopus, no lobsters. 

What she doesn’t think of, though it’s forming a slow fissure in her unconscious, is what Umichan says to tourists: Water pollution and global warming can prevent urchins and snails from having babies. And what Umichan doesn’t say: Certain harmful chemicals come from fishing nets and boats. The stuff their husbands use to deter barnacles, for example. 

The vanished morning and absences of thoughts are just the first minuscule aftershocks of the blow that knocked Ayuka back to those whales’ bones. A giant wave seems to engulf her when she looks at the fossils in the bottle in her hand.

Fumi says they’re shells of seasnails long extinct. They’re crammed on top of each other in the bottle. Bone white and parched-soil brown, they are thoroughly dead. The largest is about two centimeters long. 

Spattering Ayuka from within is the thought that those extinct snails lived. They lived in the same sense that her grandnephew lives. They died in the same sense that Sumiko died and “Makko”: shuddering maybe painfully to a stop. But Ayuka knows this isn’t how she’s supposed to think of fossils. Fossils are specimens, examples of what humans don’t remember of a past we do not share. Fossils are no one in particular. They’re triumphs for collectors of rare objects and “facts.” They are sensations of distance. That’s why fossils seem not to be corpses or dead friends. 

The clear bottle with a Latin label insists on an almost spectacular experience of “prehistory and posterity.” Ayuka knows she should thrill to the “presence here and now of what no one alive has seen and none will ever see again,” which is only paradoxical if you forget death. But only vaguely can she conceptualize it all. 

What she understands, as the wave drags her down into itself by her feet, is that she doesn’t feel as she thinks she should. Slight dizziness as she wonders what’s wrong with her. Sudden feelings of congestion, not knowing why she wants to burst into tears. Museums aren’t the place for tears. 

The truth is the now-moment is becoming monstrous. The item in her pocket takes on the weight of approximations hung from ceilings, of the morning and the boat and Fukushima, of Sumiko not lifting her head, and of the future blacker, colder than the ocean of a winter’s night. 

Ayuka says, Ah! She’s staring at the bottle with water in her eyes. She wants to stroke the things inside, which makes no sense. They aren’t snails anymore. Touching them would be like begging forgiveness of “Nagasuke,” which in a sense was never a whale. Ayuka’s sense of “here and now” is scattered like debris over a beach. Shards of her resolve are flinging here, there, and everywhere. Her clearest thought is that she can’t give Fumi what she’s brought for her.

Fumi mistakes the Ah! Fumi says, Yes, they’re very ancient. They should probably be at a university. Fumi reveals that this bottle has inspired her to make a new exhibit. She says, I don’t know if you’ve heard. 

Ayuka has heard but can’t find her voice or bring herself to reach into her pocket. Fumi has spread the word discreetly: Anyone who finds unoccupied ibonishi or “Reishia clavigera” shells, please bring them to the museum. We think of ibonishi as ubiquitous, but they’ve been declared extinct in the waters surrounding the Fukushima-Daiishi nuclear power plant. They’re about to dump all the irradiated wastewater into the ocean, and you know how currents move. 

We need to have something to look back on, Fumi says. She doesn’t say “when all the snails are dead.” Ayuka does not produce the ibonishi shell in her pocket. 

When she was a child, feeling through her gloves in rough water full of swirling sand, her hand mistook this unpalatable ibonishi for a tasty turban snail. The shell was empty. Ayuka kept it for its asymmetric, black-spotted, almost dervish-like beauty. Now, at sixty-five, trembling under the weight of moment piling upon moment, she says nothing to the museum director about her ibonishi. 

She bows smiling and thanks Fumi for showing her Sumiko’s fossils. And the moment is past.

Ayuka walks along the shore. She goes to a place where she’s seen hermit crabs. She drops the ibonishi shell in the water.

She feels exhausted as if she’s been raked through, all her bits mixed up and strewn. The tide is low, the ocean gray and seeming closed under the paperish sky. Everything seems not exactly itself as Ayuka dithers. 

As the debris of that grotesque moment, of which she’ll never form a proper memory, a thought asserts itself that might tear her in two.

Well, that’s that. That’s part of it. And a sense of something lost. But Ayuka knows it isn’t the shell that’s lost. The rest of the thought is in pieces, like sand is mixed-together pieces of gone things. The pieces have to do with life and its taking, with the loss of understanding that comes with taking life. The loss of understanding a life for what it is. 

Her mind begins to reach for the unvisualizable image of where precisely she exists—the ama diver between a seasnail as a seasnail and a seasnail as food or collectible. Her whole life long, Ayuka believed herself capable of automatically shifting her perspective.

Only now something’s happened. A moment exploded into what it always was. It set alight the devastating connections between worlds. Which, if she wishes, Ayuka could forget in the next moment.

She’s expected at the inn. She wraps her head in her zukin as she hurries along, so on her forehead, shielding her from oceanic hazards, are the symbols: seiman, doman. 

She arrives in time for dinner. The sisters in their amagi bow to the tourists. The elder, Umichan, addresses them while Ayuka slips into her place behind the grill. The oysters, the lobster, the turban snails that only a child would mistake for ibonichi lie dead on the grill. Ayuka turns on the flame. 

Umichan says: My sister Ayuka is an example of an experienced ama. She will cook for you what she harvested this morning. Like whales, ama harvest sea animals and plants only for food. We dive without any equipment except a single-lens mask. We have no weapons or breathing equipment. This is to ensure that we cannot empty the ocean of all its life. Today there are less than a thousand ama in Japan. Our kind exists nowhere else. Our greatest challenge is preventing our way of life from dying out …  

(sea) (lake) (river)
Joanna Lilley

(sleep) (summer) (sea)

Sea-dawn at my temples, finger
and thumb pressing skull to pillow:
two hours, thirty-eight minutes.
Out-slept by parents. They keep me
awake with their sleeping.
I listen on the landing
to stereophonic slumber.
We never hear the waves from here
though they’re not so far.

Today, I will measure bookcases
and chests of drawers
to fit their furniture downstairs.
This the best I can do
with a rag in my throat
and this insomniac ache in my jaw,
my occipital bone.

The sister has saved the day, saved
the parents from the rest home,
from losing the house,
by moving in.

She stays, of course she does,
while I run down the street
to the shallow, clouded sea
to shed my fugitive dust,
immerse my mother’s body in me,
backstroke for her,
breaststroke for us both,
emerging more or less myself,
standing from water, from rocks,
kelp boughs and bladderwrack,
a gull’s white feather angled
where wave soaks into sand,
shaft landward. 

Still standing, dripping, bathsheet
heaped on shoes now around my shoulders,
I hear the hard gallop of horses on rippled beach.
Sand ridges under my feet remind me
I’m here to measure bookcases
and chests of drawers, to fit
my parents’ furniture downstairs.

We’ll still be here
in the soft, sunny morning.
I’ll keep sea-swimming until
I’ve cured all our salted lifetimes.


(gold) (bird) (lake)

Upright worms in fancied uproar
at my blubbered crash
into little lake, in shoes and t-shirt,
bra and pants. My gill-less ribs
smashing cool water, a body
self-sealing every orifice
from leeches and half-inch spring fish
I couldn’t even swallow because
the body exhales underwater
without me knowing. 

A hundred sacrificial rainbow piped in,
concussed, to save the lake trout.
The goldfish the parent told the child to let go.
Taken, tipped from tank to black bucket
in the back of the truck, from warm to cold,
scales, lightless, soon dulled from gold
to olive green, discarding bird
and bear bait glitter.

The sound-split distance of the loon call
skimming mirrored lake.
Dusk sets the sun adrift.
Water can’t distort.
Fish have such good eyesight
they see everything that’s coming. 


(trail) (melt) (river)

Yesterday after family calls
we walked from our back door
to an unfamiliar ridge, frail earth overhang,
slumped to a snow-cracked marsh we named
The Meadow of the Ancient Beavers,
their dam a wooden, wobbled, curving
causeway, draped in years of slow, pale grass.

From our back gate, we walked
for miles on Sunday afternoon
under gazing ravens, white-headed eagles,
bending to busy squirrel prickle prints,
scoops of softened lynx tracks,
oblong hare hops. Perhaps
we saw a distant dark-brown moose
though not if the dog didn’t. I know
nothing of spoor and soil, of what
to follow, of how to disregard a trail.

We do not live by lake or sea
as I dream and hanker, tensing
at others’ photographs of jetties,
lawns that curve to liquid.
Our house is forestside, moored
to greying spruce trunks. I leap
across the firebreak, a float of woodchip
flotsam, tread the ice bridge returning
to creek, soaking my boots in sulphured
overflow as underfloor dismantles.

I am not waiting until the famous river
down the hill is warm and fluid.
I’ll soon swim in the eddy, in the rain.

Never rush to save a drowning dog
or human. Never die in the attempt.
Call them to the shore, run downstream
as they near, especially a dog
as some dogs follow.
Humans give up hope and drift mid-river
when calm kick, paddled palm
could bring them to the bank.

Know how water works.
Grab and yank dog collar, shirt.
Count all the webless fingers and the toes.
Don’t wait for gills to grow
beneath your armpits. Only ever
swim with joy, with river gasp
of chill and plunge and underwater
brackish divination, open-eyed,
of every cloud and glacier
becoming sea. 

summer-j-hart-tidewrack-the-scales-project

Tidewrack
Summer J. Hart

Water-soluble graphite and neon thread on paper
38 x 56 cm
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