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

Conversation 43

Blank Vision Board
Chris Benjamin

Start with a newspaper. Twitter’s okay, but scattered. Nothing enrages like the focus of a newspaper, a deep dive into one corporation’s officially approved perspective. Its particular valuations of each life, each species. I may be a GenZ gal, but I’m not in a bubble. Mr. Trumann turned out to be full of shitake when he said I was. He was probably just freaked because I called out how fake his Vision Board activity was. 

“You were supposed to come up with your vision of the future of this town.” Staring from behind his desk at my blank board, he had a fist over his heart and a hand over the fist, like he was trying to pull the knife out. Et tu, teacher’s pet? 

“Exactly. This town has no future.” 

My classmates tittered like nothing mattered so what but they didn’t get it. They don’t see the writing on the water. It’s easy to get them crying about how much our parents and grandparents have fricked up the world. Yet they’d all pasted images of big-city skyscrapers on their Vision Boards. As if all the Bildebergers were at that moment scouring what remained of the planet for just-the-right pulp town to reclaim. Even Maisy Best, who started the Eco-Guardian Club, which had me as one of its five members, couldn’t think past Earth Day garbage pickups and handing out Idle Free flyers at the Kiss ’N Ride. Her Vision Board was covered in glossy magazine cut-outs of waterfalls, whales underwater, and a rainforest. 

I stood there with my blank Vision Board held high. I wanted to shout, “This is our future, don’t you see?” but I said nothing, just like the other kids said nothing to their parents about how the mill they worked at was destroying the air we breathed and the water we couldn’t drink. Mr. Trumann, educator of future visionaries, told me I needed to look outside my little bubble. 

Well, the man is named for truthfulness, so I took him at his word. For weeks I’ve been trying to look outside my bubble. Faithfully reading the local newspaper. 

Here’s what I see:

 

They’re digging up a graveyard full of Native American veterans’ bones to put up a wall to keep out desperate Mexicans. 

It’s the second week of hurricane season, and the second hurricane is already on its way. Probably because the North Atlantic was warm enough to swim in back in July, comfortably, floating like you were in the Caribbean Sea, sipping rum punch, if you were old enough, which in the Caribbean maybe you were. 

Poverty. 

Billionaires. 

Poor people.

Not-for-profits dropping cash on billboards begging government to clean up messes made by megacorporations, like it promised to but probably never intended to.

Woman killed here, woman killed there, backwater to capital, next door and far away. Killed by stalkers, killed by shattered men vacuumed of hope and infused with rage in Afghanistan. Killed by billionaires. Killed by poverty.

Fascists attack other fascists’ oil, still other fascists blame a fourth set of fascists, who throw their hands in the air and scream out, “Maximum Lies!” 

My dad drives all over town in his twentieth-century Plymouth looking for cheaper gas. He says even if he wastes a little gas, he saves money if he finds the right price. I tell him they can always print more money but there’s only so much gas in the ground and only so much CO2 the climate can stand. He says money don’t grow on trees. 

 

My therapist tells me this is not my fault. She says everybody’s got the same condition now, whether they know it or not, but we fortunate ones can at least afford therapy. None of us are happy people. 

There are other ways I’ve tried busting out of my bubble. I read all Mom’s Thoreau books. I’ve spent hours and nights cracked out on Internet chat rooms talking politics. There are boards from all over the political spectrum. Communist boards. Truther boards. Alberta Separatist boards. Stop Immigrants from Stealing Jobs boards. You might think all those different ideas would shatter a kid’s brainstem. I figure everyone’s coming to the same place, no matter their sources. That place we’re all gathering, it’s filthy.

I don’t have to go anywhere to see the filth. I don’t need a screen or a printed page. I just look out my window. The incoming tide looks like infectious mushroom caps invading the rocks of Vessel Cove. Dad claims that when he closes his eyes, he can still feel his body tighten in the air, as if he’s just launched himself from the pier and is bracing for impact with the water, for the icy relief of the Atlantic on an eternal August day. A scene from long before the Plymouth. He remembers swimming with the fishes when it was a literal thing living people did, eyes open and stinging against the saline, some of those fishes longer than him. Old man tales, Mom calls Dad’s rambling. It is hard to imagine Dad all wild and free. But Mom says she fell in love the moment she saw Dad’s ripped, tanned arms hauling in a giant cod on the line, into Grandpa’s boat. My Grandpa had a motherfricking sailboat. He went all up and down the coast on it, singing sailor songs probably. “I wish I was a fisherman.” This was after he retired from the mill and before he died of lung cancer, when I was seven.

It’s hard to picture, when I watch the brown foamy waves roll in, swarmed by ropey green insects, and when I smell the chemical soup they’re lapping up. I swear those bugs are immunizing themselves in preparation for our extinction, preparing to zip into our role as world overlords. Those chems emit a sweet smell; it’s the smell of home, and it’s disgusting. Trillions of litres of Eastern Mulch swill have done that to the Cove, even if the megacorporation does conform to federal emissions standards and has passed dozens of low-grade impact assessments; human science is corrupt like that. We don’t drink the tap water. We leave it to fuel the green bugs.

I like those Thoreau books though. They’re the cleanest thoughts I’ve seen, especially that stuff about civil disobedience. If you’re looking for a life to model yours after, you could do worse than Thoreau. If you’re a man. If you’ve got some money stashed away. And if you can find a patch of forest that the megacorporations haven’t got to yet. But I like reading it. It’s like this bag of  nineteenth-century bones is speaking to me, like I am the powder monkey marching in admirable order, straight into the megacorporation’s sludge, and it fires me the frick up. The machine must fall? You bet. 

But my parents trip over this stuff. I can’t even talk to my mom about her own books. I tell her I’m amped up about making my life a counter-friction to Eastern Mulch and she sits me down for a “chat,” which means it’s time for a lecture on this theoretically new concept called eco-anxiety. 

“And this is how the world doesn’t change,” I say. 

“Excuse me, I change the world every day, one child at a time.” 

This is what Mom thinks primary school teachers do. “And yet when this child wants to do something about the world, you crush her spirits.”

“I want your spirit to soar, Bree. Which is why you should enjoy being a child. We don’t want you to get hurt.”

“But I am hurting.” 

Mom asks for time to think on it. After school she texts me links to a video about activist burnout, some stuff on the need for self-care, and a story about a guy who got arrested when he was a teenager for locking himself to a bridge. Later he wasn’t allowed to go to med school in the U.S. He says he could have made a real difference as a doctor. As if they don’t have med schools outside the U.S.


From “Mulch Glue,” originally published in Boy With a Problem copyright © 2020 by Chris Benjamin. Reprinted by permission of Pottersfield Press.
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