The Field

by Esther Vincent Xueming

I find myself standing again at the edge of the road, although now, there is something different, I can’t quite pinpoint what, about this road from the road I remember. In search of the field of my childhood, I cross. In this dream, the place I grew up in is familiar yet strange, and instead of a small patch of grass that used to mark the boundary between this estate and the next, there is now a manicured lawn with various kinds of weird and wonderful animals perambulating.

But this is not the field of my childhood—where as a child of nine or ten, I used to ramble for hours on my own while my mother did her chores in our apartment on the third floor, leaving me to return with bunches of wildflowers and rapt stories of tiger moths—so I continue walking down the road, on the red road tiles shaped like arrows pointing me home, through the void decks of the housing estate, under sheltered walkways connecting block to carpark, past the empty playing court where you could string a net or ride around in circles on your bike, towards the lift lobby, normally flooded with natural light, now morphed into a dark corridor. But I walk further still, towards the phone booth near the letter boxes on the ground floor, because my memory tells me that beyond the labyrinth of pillars, the grey of concrete will give way to a field of green.

 

//

 

Mary Oliver writes in Upstream that a writer’s subject may just as well be what she “longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty”. And yet, to long for the subject of this essay, the field of my childhood, is to long for a broken and irretrievable past. A place or habitation I can no longer enter in the physical sense though I keep returning to it in my dreams, in various iterations and permutations, the field changing each time, but still the same.

The field of my dreams was once a field of green, inhabited by wildflowers I would only later learn the names of. One day, upon visiting my mother, she hands me two books I used to own as a child: A Guide to the Wildflowers of Singapore and A Guide to Medicinal Plants, scientific handbooks published by the Singapore Science Centre. I flip the cover and on the reverse side, my mother’s name “Mrs. Vincent Elaine” is written in blue ink, dated “10/3/99”, against paper ringed with the sepia of mould. These would be the same two handbooks I would consult twenty one years later as I revise a poem for a Creative Writing Graduate course about childhood, memory and change.

But what of the field, you ask?

To paint a landscape from memory, one has to take certain liberties. But let me endeavour to recreate the scene as accurately as I can remember. As accurately as it is deserving of memory. To a child, the field was an immeasurable expanse of grassland, a gentle slope leading up to a plateau where all around, an ocean of green. Of course there were already high-rise blocks bordering the edges of the field, but a child’s mind is immune to limits and boundaries, and so I invented stories and places, telling myself that to my north was a strange and forbidden land (in reality, my mother had disallowed me from venturing too far, the field containing my adventures and exploits), to my east, the road of daily traffic, to my south, my castle, my home, and to my west, nothing of real consequence.

The adventure begins with waving goodbye to my mother, walking out the house gates in slippers, my fingers trailing the white walls of the corridor, fingering the peeled beige paint of the metal staircase. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would be greeted by a tiger moth resting on the wall, but if not, I would skip down the three floors of stairs, walk past the lift landing on the ground floor, towards the pillars at the void deck, phone booth to the left, letter boxes somewhere nearby. Past all that, the block would end with a narrow strip of metal drains, and all I had to do was take a breath and cross over, and I would enter another world.

The field was always there for me, waiting. And I was always eager to be alone in her company. I remember climbing up the little slope with great effort, imagining it was a steep incline, and then running across the wide expanse, lungs bursting like the white tufts of the common vernonia fruits when they explode from the tight cups of their flowering, or blowing bubbles into the air when I brought along with me a small bottle of cheap soap. I remember touching and sniffing the wildflowers, knowing they were common weeds but loving them all the same. How I would look for grass blues, little silver-blue butterflies that were ever in abundance, flitting from wildflower to wildflower, doing their work diligently, interrupted only by my thumb and forefinger when I picked them up in wonder, before setting them free on their powdery voyage.

The grass was green and the field of my childhood was open to me, like a mother whose heart would daily welcome the daughter who stood at the door, asking to return home.

 

//

 

We are told a story of scarcity and economy, one whereby our government’s land use policy is predicated upon the need to “optimise limited land” to meet the demands of the people. As a small nation-state with supposedly little natural resources, we believe that people are our key resource, and that our land should be subject to stringent planning for the continual growth and development of the nation. Redevelopment, the word is sandy in my mouth, and so I gather it into a ball and spit each grain out.

Here, it is common for the average citizen to view land as a scarce commodity, a piece of real estate that appreciates or depreciates in economic value, a thing to buy, sell, rent, cordon off, tear down, build over. Rationalised in pragmatics terms, land is partitioned into parcels and plots, put up for the wealthy to acquire and commercialise. A house serves its purpose well in so far as it facilitates day-to-day living, and most of the time, when housing decisions are made, factors like proximity, accessibility and convenience rank at the top of a homebuyer’s list. Home owners buy and sell their houses when the property market works in their favour, buying when low and selling when high, and so we trade our homes for houses of brick and stone in the housing marketplace.

Marshall Sahlins, cultural anthropologist, writes that “modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world’s wealthiest peoples”.

As a child growing up, I had little notion of this at the beginning. My childhood before the age of six was a hazy blur, and much of what I recall about home was aided by old photographs, which conjured long forgotten memories of sand-filled playgrounds, a bulky, red, wired telephone, a tricycle in the living room, dark sliding doors in the bedroom, my father carrying me in his arms, smiling by the main door gate. We had lived in two different parts of Singapore by then, Yishun which was in the north, and then Serangoon North, which was the northeast. Much of that I have forgotten.

The home of my remembered childhood, the one that appears to me time and again in my dreams, is the place of my primary school years, of taking the school bus, then the public bus to our school at the other side of Tampines, of crossing the road, past the small patch of green, and plucking a handful of Cupid’s Shaving Brush to secretly feed the neighbour’s rabbits before heading home. Going over to the Thai home-based hair salon for a cheap haircut, then walking past the basketball court quickly to avoid getting hit by the ball. Spending hot afternoons after school watching Speedy Gonzales on the television, and then racing for joy downstairs to the void deck with my father, back from work in the evenings, to rollerblade from pillar to pillar, pillar to his arms.

Cycling in dizzying circles in my living room, holding large birthday parties, and once, hearing the sounds of an Indian wedding from down below, I ran to the kitchen window and caught a glimpse of the procession. Bride and groom smiling, flowers strewn on the red road tiles, the scent of jasmine and the drumming of the tabla lingering in my awestruck mind long after another season of monsoon rains washed over the city.

Before I turned thirteen, we would sell this house, and move even closer to my secondary school, affiliated to my primary school and located at the same site. Here, high-rise blocks lined both sides of the small road. We would only be a five-minute walk away from school, where before, we had to take a thirty-minute bus ride with our ponderous school bags. There was a coffeeshop and some amenities on the ground floor, which made it convenient. While this new place was much smaller, there was built-in air-conditioning, as well as cabinets in both bedrooms, so we could readily move in with little renovations.

True, there would be no more large birthday parties, no slipping next door to our Malay neighbours’ place for cookies and cake. I would no longer be able to meet my cousins who lived a few blocks away to rollerblade, cycle, or play. There were no sand-filled playgrounds with the smell of rank piss, but by this time, I had outgrown playgrounds, and moved on to crushes instead. While downsizing from a spacious four-roomed to a three-roomed apartment financed our first family trip down south to Sydney and Melbourne, in hindsight, I now regret the price we paid just to afford ten days of leisure.

I remember our last weeks in my childhood home. Our bedroom was locked, and now filled with the belongings of the new homeowners. The house no longer smelt of the five of us, but of an inevitable past and a beckoning future, housed into one living, breathing space. We would leave behind wall posters and charts of fruits, vegetables and Chinese characters, for the new homeowners to do with them as they pleased. Perhaps I visited the field everyday, perhaps I willed myself to forget, perhaps I truly forgot about it in my delirium to grow up and move away.

Or perhaps I shut the door to the memory of my field because the pain of separation was too much for a child of twelve to bear.

 

//

 

A girl observes from a distance an indiscernible shape on a hill, which unfolds into a red fox. The fox unfurls, bows and stretches its body, unaware of the girl. It takes its time, licking its front paws, looks around and eventually ambles away. The girl comes to a profound realisation—that life goes on in spite of her. The red fox and the girl, both alive, both sharing the same space for a moment in time, the girl regarding the fox, the fox disregarding the girl.

This is what I reimagine of a poem by Mary Oliver, although I have taken the liberty to dream that the girl stands in a field at the foot of the hill, wishing she could peel off her skin, shake loose her luscious, red fur, and bound off to join the others in the woods just beyond the hill.

 

//

 

Secondary school would pass with little nostalgia for my childhood home. I entered polytechnic, I graduated, I worked for over a year in a small marketing firm. I received a teaching bond and travelled across the island for four years to complete my education degree, and returned to my secondary school, this time as a teacher.

The field did not come to me in my dreams, and I was now a young woman of twenty-seven. Jo Gill writes in her chapter “Poetry and Place” that a “return to the country is also a return to the self”. In this case, the field was my country, the country was my childhood, my childhood was the part of my self I had barred shut behind a door in order to survive.

Perhaps it is Eavan Boland, who in “The Woman, the Place, the Poet”, says it most poignantly, that “there is the place that happened and the place that happens to you”.

The field of my childhood happened to me, and when a tiger moth landed on my kitchen windowpane one evening as I was doing the dishes, it was as though the waters in the well of my memory, the silence and loss buried within my subconscious, began brimming and running over, flooding the shores of my conscious waking self. The tiger moth as spirit guide, as patient teacher, as intuitive dreamer, leading me by my fingertips on a bittersweet journey of returning.

 

//

 

Let me tell you the Iroqouis creation myth of Skywoman.

Skywoman fell from Skyworld down into the water below, and was greeted and cared for by all the animals there. Turtle carried her on his back, and after many gave up their lives trying to get her mud from the bottom of the lake, little muskrat succeeded before he too breathed his last. Skywoman was grateful to the animal beings for their sacrifice, and she created land with that mud, blessing the earth with all manner of seeds, plants and trees, her hair, wiingaashk, or sweetgrass, reminding us of Skywoman and bringing to mind forgotten stories that tell of our indigenous and reciprocal bonds to the land.

I read this moving creation story from the first chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, scientist and Potawatomi nation citizen, and I think of how, like Skywoman, my ancestors too left their homes, leaving behind memories and maps of the rocky plateaus, hilly plantations, waterfalls and beaches of Sri Lanka, the salt deserts, arid scrublands and coastal plains of Gujarat, the mountains, farmlands and infamous harbour of Fujian, known also as the starting point of the “silk road of the sea”, the forests and caves of Ipoh.

What did they expect, crossing the seas, when they finally set foot on a land whose name, derived from Sanskrit, meant lion city? Displaced from the lands of their ancestors and the homes of their births, they would soon forget their own stories of home. What was once memory, now lost and forgotten, like the winds that blow gently away at the sands of time.

But if I look back even further, if I dive into the darkness of the pool of my ancestry, beyond the abyss of time and remembering into the mantle of history to witness the first birth, my first mother, I will find her in the Northern Islands of Melanesia. Towards the end of the book, in the chapter, “Defeating Windigo”, Kimmerer writes that we all come from “people who were once indigenous”, and in genetically tracing my ancestry, I am beginning to understand why I have always felt drawn to the song of the sea, the tug of the winds in the sails of a boat, the beckoning of the stars like a celestial map charting my coordinates, pointing me home. On my right thigh, an anchor to steady the boat, and an eight-pointed compass star for direction.

Perhaps, I am remembering the way of my ancestors, who could once read the winds and the stars at the back of their hands, who one day sailed away from their islands and did not return, whose travels, migrations and displacements over land and sea over time has birthed me home on this new island, this island whose body of red hills, green forests and thriving coral reefs has been shaped by the sickled hands of men into a sinking first-world city. Like the non-native Flame of the Forest trees that hail all the way from Madagascar, my roots have sprouted and continue to tunnel deep into the earth in a land I call home.

I sing myself home as a child of ten in a field of green, wildflowers still wet in the grip of my fist. I sing myself home as I walk down a familiar road, navigating my way back home in a dream. I sing myself home at the edge of a lush, verdant field full of rolling hills, finding myself in another dream. I sing myself home as all around me, wildflowers and green fields turn into terrifying towers rising like pristine chimney stacks against the dazzling sky.

 

//

 

To be indigenous to land is to care for the land, to nurture and cultivate it so that it looks after our children long after we are gone. If we look to nature, we find that she is the best teacher, showing us how to tend to the gardens of our lives, through planting and watering seeds of gratitude, balance and reciprocity, and weeding out greed, strife and selfishness.

A few years back, I learnt the Hawaiian word Kuleana, which embodies the reciprocal relationship and responsibility we have with and to the land. Kuleana, I write this in green on my chalkboard door as a daily reminder to myself. Kuleana, my heart jumps with joy when two stray dogs lie in the empty field in front of my new home, where I now live in the northeastern part of the island. Kuleana, from my window, fourteen migratory egrets visit today in the field down below, wintering here all the way from southeastern China or Korea. Kuleana, the workers have set up wooden fences, they have wrapped you, field, in a ghost net of blue. Kuleana, they have sent in the excavators and towering blue cranes; so it begins. Kuleana, how do I still find the strength to sing on as their drills bore deep into the wet belly of the earth?

 

//

 

This time, the field is lush, full of vegetation that only takes on such girth when nursed by the tropical sun and rain. There are verdant, rolling hills, and wild animals grazing. I see boars and dogs together, and I know then that I am in another dream, and though my body now sleeps in yet another part of this island city, my mind is travelling in space and time, excavating the dream-world of the subject of unquenchable desire, a desire for home.

According to Martin Heidegger, the topology of Being is to dwell on the earth by means of building. Apart from physical buildings, language too can be a way by which human beings attempt to build their dwelling places. A prerequisite of dwelling is caring for one’s dwelling place, by cultivating and constructing home as we know it. The English word eco can be traced to its Greek origins oikos, meaning house. The house as a home, the earth as our first home, the home as the centre of our universe.

 

//

 

It is hard for me to return.

The field that used to occupy my time and imagination no longer remains. Instead, it is replaced by another estate of high-rise apartments, buildings that house nameless, faceless others, weeding their way into the field of my childhood, blocking off the view my mother used to have when she looked out the corridor from her chores. When I was a child, she tells me she loved to watch The Little House on the Prairie. Googling it now as an adult, I wonder if she too felt the prairie’s call through the screen, halfway across the world from Plum Creek, that unspeakable urge to burst out of the metal gates and launch into the open of an endless green. Her own prairie in the tropics, her daughter in the field.

Canadian poet Anne Szumigalski, who spent her formative years growing up in the prairie, acknowledged how its open landscape was “an enabling psychological space” for her writing. Reading that, I think back to how I would imagine scaling mountainous terrain when I climbed up the wee slope. Tiger moths, with their instinctive trust, would wander from flowers to the twigs I held, and to my fingers. I collected wildflowers of all sorts—Kanching Baju, Common Vernonia, White Weed, Cupid’s Shaving Brush—and brought them home to my mother, hoping to brighten up my home the way homes were brightened by flowers in vases in the English story books I read.

Like the prairie of Szumigalski, the field of my childhood was not bound to a beginning or end; there are no boundaries to a child’s imagination. From the Greek, peras, boundaries did not indicate where something stopped, rather, the Greeks recognised how, like horismos, or horizon, boundaries were places where things began their “essential unfolding”. The field unfolding into the prairie, the prairie unfolding into the world, the world unfolding into the self.

The field as the beginning of knowing, and in knowing, I navigate my way home.

 

//

 

Let me end then, with the beginning. Let me invent and narrate a new myth, one that pays homage to the fields of our childhood, the homes we have lost, the mothers who taught us the meaning of love.

In the beginning there was a field.

And a girl was born into this field.

That field, with its tiger moths, grass blues and wildflowers, was her world.

That world was her mother.

And the mother was good and beautiful, and she loved her daughter well.


Esther Vincent Xueming, is an editor, poet and educator. She is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an eco journal of art & literature based in Singapore, and has co-edited two poetry anthologies, Little Things and Poetry Moves. Her poems have been published locally and internationally, and her unpublished manuscript was a finalist for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 2020 (New York). She is passionate about the intersections between art, literature and the environment.

On Witnessing Fires, One at a Time

by Hasheemah Afaneh

There is a long strip of untamed land between the road leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home in Jabal Al-Taweel and the Israeli settlement, Psagot. One can find shrubs, yellow grass, cactus, lost soccer balls, and even, more times than not, Israeli soldiers camouflaged into the land, watching the neighbors and their guests go about their days.

Over the past few summers, the Jabal Al-Taweel neighbor-hood witnessed a few wild-fires emerge in this untamed land. The grayish-black smoke rising into the skyusually gives the wildfire away before the actual fire does. Two summers ago, I was sitting in my grandmother’s veranda one evening, staring through the large windows out onto the street, when I saw sparks of orange appear in the shrubs. The neighbor-hood youth playing soccer outside on the pavement ran to their homes, including my grand-mother’s, to relay the message that a fire had started.

Al-dunya hamya,”  my grandmother, of whom I am the namesake, would comment matter-of-factly. The world is heated.

We watched the clouds of smoke grow larger, as Israeli soldiers emerged, as if from this air, to try and put it out. This swiftness of movement to action was not luck, or that a settler so happened to be adjacent to where I was sitting and she, too, was staring through large windows, and she, too, saw orange sparks appear. It was not luck, at all, for at least one soldier is always on the watch, watching us more so than keeping an eye out for the potential fires that happen every now and then.

This particular fire seemed to be getting out of hand, and so, the Palestinian firefighters were called, by whom, I can-not recall. They parked their fire truck on the road between my grandparents’ home and the untamed land and began their attempt to put the fire out. The fire seemed to be put out within thirty minutes, which was much shorter than the length that the smell of burned land lingered in the air, I’ll tell you that much.

The next afternoon, I was sitting with my grandmother and the neighbors as they spoke about the fire. The Jabal Al-taweel neighborhood women have witnessed the changing landscape - an olive harvest season that was not like what it used to be, threatening economic growth of Palestinian farmers; and settlement fences getting closer and roads getting tighter, threatening Palestinian access to land and movement.

Al-dunya hamya, one of the women remarks. The world is heated.

I thought of how this group of women were speaking about a symptom of climate change without realizing that they were speaking about a symptom of climate change.
I don't even think the Israeli soldiers realize this, as their first question post-wildfire was, “who started it?”, pointing fingers at the neighborhood youth and their friends.

Al-dunya hamya, or the world is heated is, in the literal sense, used to describe weather events. However, it has a metaphorical spin: the world is heated with struggle and strife. I reflect on how the United States has witnessed its share of moments this year depict-ing both the literal and metaphorical meanings of this phrase. Whereas in a small neighborhood in Palestine, the wildfires were extremely small, the fires that raged through the lands across the West Coast were on the other end of extremities. The world is also hot, so to speak, with struggle and protest in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many others we have and have not heard of. From Palestine to the U.S., we are collective witnesses to the changing environmental and political climates.

“See this picture?” The barista at a local coffee shop in New Orleans said, as she approached me with her iPhone. Her and I, like everyone else living through 2020, are witnesses to a world of social distancing and masking up, so she stretches out her arm, and without getting close but being close enough for me to view what she wants me to look at, I see a picture of a picture of a group of people in front of a home. It was a photograph taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she told me.

“They came to help us clean up and fix our home. We need to go over there and do that,” she comments, nodding her head in the way that one does when their mind is made up. I smiled at the gesture, thinking, if only it was that easy to get over there. 

The over there she was referring to was Beirut, Lebanon. Just two days before, I was working from the same coffee shop she was working at, when a seven-second video of the August 4th blast circulated on the internet. We both were so taken aback when we viewed it that we  could not focus on any task for the rest of the day. For the barista, it brought up the memory of a rescue crew coming to help the locals after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For myself, it brought up the memory of when a gas tank blew up in the home next to mine, killing the father in the household. When I finally got ahold of the Palestinian fire department that day, I was asked, “Are you on the Israeli side [of the area] or the Palestinian one?” In other words, there are places that they would not be able to reach because of the Israeli occupation, even if they wanted to.

All the neighborhood youth, women, men, and elderly could do was witness the wildfire from across the street  and believe that it would be taken care of. In this particular area, they cannot run to stop the fires, even if they wanted to. It is not because they don’t care about the land. They cannot approach because they would risk their lives, and not because of the wildfire but because of open fire. There would be two fires to put out, and no one wants to be witness to that.


Hasheema Afaneh, MPH, is a Palestinian-American writer and public health professional based in New Orleans. Her work centers on social justice and various intersections related to it. You can find some of her work in the Fair Observer,
HuffPost, Shado Magazine, The Markaz Review, 580 Split Magazine, Glass Poetry Poets Resist Series, Poets Reading the News, This Week in Palestine, and others.
Her website is norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com.  She tweets at @its_hashie.

Keep Goin’

by Myliyah Hanna

I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO RIDE A BIKE.

In admitting to such, I reveal that a “quintessential” American childhood rite of passage was taken from me. Somewhere in a quaint suburban town, where the houses circle an untouched-by-potholes cul-de-sac, a mother watches her children, maybe two or three of them, cycle in loops on the driveway. Then somewhere in a city, with its gummy, concrete sidewalks, are Black boys standing on the pedals of their bikes as they race to the park to shoot hoops. Chicago is no stranger to bikers. In my neighborhood, families with their young kids and babies take morning rides. The kid’s helmet is usually covered in bright obnoxious cartoons. The people who ride them pedal forward, always forward, sticking their arms out to signal a turn. They wait for the green light like cars.

Growing up in New York means learning to speak the language of subways. Sit on this cart, by this door, to be closest to the station exit. Language is muscle memory. I was never taught to speak the language of bike chains and helmets. Yet somehow, in the eyes of the other, I am lacking. Everyone’s supposed to be able to ride a bike. It is always the ever-general “everyone” that gets me, the “everyone” who lies on the outside of its periphery because “everyone,” to this day, does not always account for the outliers.

*

I am seven years old. The day is sunny, spring temperature. We are in the Statue of Liberty Park in New Jersey, uncreatively named for the land’s proximity to the Lady in Green. I’m on a bike–pink, I think it is, with streamers on the ends of the handles that reflect blue and purple and green–and there’s some wind on my cheeks. My legs are moving and something warm, frothy, is welling up in my lungs. The wheels are spinning. Children in the grass, on either side of the bike path, are running with their kites, diamonds and dragons casting shadows over their heads. I’m moving faster than them. This is what it means to fly. Keep goin keep goin, he says from behind me. I am looking forward. I think I am happy in this memory. To call this new taste of excitement “happiness” is cheapening the jubilee in my smile, in the ecstatic shout that escapes my chest. I turn back to look at him–

This is where the memory ends. I do not remember my father’s face.

*

“Let’s go for a bike ride.” I’ve received an invitation just like this, or one of its many variants, plenty of times. We’d be out enjoying the nice weather, or inside lying on the couch and listening to music. I’ve made friends with a number of active, outdoorsy types. I adore these friends of mine, with their wide lawns and annual family vacations.

“I’d say yes, but I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

I know how their reaction will play out. It starts with a rapid-fire series of blinks. If you can count, it’s usually between three and five. Their brows slowly come together, mirroring the speed at which their brain is making sense of the string of words I just uttered. I imagine they’re picturing me on a bike, riding it, and yet their conscience is yelling no because that image is a fantasy. Then the mouth opens slightly or drops open if they’re more dramatic in their reaction. Something is just not adding up; everyone knows how to ride a bike. Yet here I am, telling them that I cannot do what that nosy son of a bitch “everyone” can.

For a long time, I didn’t understand the reason for the dramatic responses, the laughter. Not knowing how to ride a bike didn’t strike me as terrible–a phenomenon akin to committing some kind of white-collar crime. There wasn’t time to learn, there was no bike to learn on. This is what I would tell people at first.
Simply put, I would rather take the playful shock than deal with the pity that would inevitably come after telling them that the man who was once my teacher was no longer in my life. That would inevitably lead to a deeper, more invasive conversation about where he had gone, why fathers were necessary. And perhaps there would be some truth to their statements, but it would come from the same place that believed everyone should be able to ride a bike. The pity would be stronger, uncomfortable. Pity would imply that I am feeling pitiful about it, and that, simply put, is not the truth.

*

Most of my life was spent with my mother and sister. They were all I needed to be whole.

Sometime in my junior year of high school, I attended an end-of-semester award ceremony. Families flooded the auditorium–mothers and aunts preparing their phones to catch their prodigy walk across the stage.In the crowd were men–standing brusquely–chests puffed out like pigeons– waiting for the ceremony to get to the part that mattered. Speech, speech, yada yada–where’s my kid? Once it was time, their children would clamber up onto the stage to retrieve their award, get their spotlight, their fathers’ booming applause filling the space. And suddenly I was thinking about that day on the bike, details foggy and clear at the same time, so distinctly long ago that it could’ve been entirely made up.

It was the clearest memory I had of him.

It was a sudden thought. I focused my energy on cheering and clapping for friends who were called to the stage, who stood awkwardly while their parents ran up front to get pictures. Friends did the same for me. During that particular ceremony, I was called up quite a bit for math awards despite it being my worst subject. I was filled with something that felt like longing. It didn’t feel true to say that I was missing him at that moment. Still, the idea of his proud pat on my back seemed nice. It was just an idea, something never to be given a voice.

*

On Father’s Day, I will send a text to my uncle.

*

I am seven, I think. I am in a kitchen with its white walls and oak cabinets. There’s a bowl of soggy cereal in front of me; it’s colorful, saccharine. I don’t remember why, but I don’t finish my breakfast.

Something is missing in the interim, but I blink and I’m in the living room. The walls are lined with cardboard boxes; somehow their usual brown feels muted and grey. My sister is on the right of me, and on her right is Pam, a woman we understood, then, to be our father’s “good friend.” Sometimes she would bring us back home from Jersey after our weekend spent with our father at her house. We liked her, Pam, and she liked us. At this moment, her face was wrong; normally, she was smiling, but there was something deep in her frown. My sister and I read it to be sad. She is sad. And we are sad for her. What we as mere children understand as “sad” is much more than that. We wouldn’t learn of this difference until years later.

Across from us is a deep green, seemingly black, couch. And sitting on it is my father, knees spread, head low. I think he is wearing a cap. Or is it a durag? He is looking at my sister and me; I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember the width of his nose or if his ears stick out. I don’t remember his smell or the color of his shirt, or is it a football jersey? When I remember this day, whatever that means, I try not to think of him as the focal point. The blurring of his persona from my memory seems more significant. And yet, every time I return to this day, I am left thinking that this is the beginning of some kind of childhood trauma, as others would make me feel towards it.

“Alright girls, it’s time to go.” Pam nods her head in the direction of the front door, where our jackets hang adjacent. We follow our nonverbal orders well; our mother would be appalled if we were disrespectful to anyone, no matter the relationship. Still, something isn’t right. Neither one of us can explain what it is. Our father seems sad.

This is only a guess. I do not remember my father’s face.

For six months after this day, we will ask our mother why he hasn’t come to pick us up.

*

In the beginning of September, my mother and I rented a car and drove out west towards Chicago. It was a black Jeep Cherokee, packed strategically so we could see out of the back mirror and so the weight was evenly distributed.

She was nervous about me being behind the wheel. I hadn’t had my license for even a year when I decided that driving out there ourselves would be more cost-effective. I chased the dying sun for about five hours, eyes focused, foot switching between brake and gas. The route we were taking was straightforward, hundreds of miles, riddled with construction. 70 to 45 mph, rinse and repeat.

Somewhere in the middle of Ohio, I thought about the bike. Here I was driving a car, a vehicle responsible for more deaths than most Americans would care to acknowledge, and I still didn’t know how to ride a bike. A couple of nights before the move, I watched riding tutorials on YouTube. It looked easy and familiar even though I was certain I would fall on the first attempt. Maybe I was missing out on something after all. Or maybe I was starting to crack under the pressure. Not that there was significant pressure–I was never bullied or threatened for the lack of the skill. I just figured, with being able to drive, it would probably make sense to learn how to pedal and balance and control the brakes down a steep incline.

Those were zoned-out thoughts, things coming and going through my mind as I hit the gas and entered the unbroken highway.

*

It was winter break of my second year of college. I was sitting in the passenger seat of our then-car, a silver and smaller SUV, and the heat was going. The seconds ticked away on the phone call time. It was my father’s voice booming through the car door speakers, or at least as he told me. Until then I couldn’t describe the tenor or pitch, the gravel in his voice that came with age. When he first spoke, a bell deep in my subconscious struck once, twice, and the look on my mother’s face confirmed what I didn’t want to know.

“How are you?” I think he asked.

“…good,” I think I said.

“It’s good to hear you.” I paid no attention to the sentiment in his words. I responded to his probing as best as I could: yes, my day is going well; no, I don’t go back to school for a couple of weeks. I was stoic and uninterested. Yet I felt frustration thrumming in my jugular. Minutes later, my mother told him that we had more errands to run and ended the conversation. The music replaced his voice. For a moment, I thought it hadn’t been real. Maybe I was exhausted from school to the point of hallucination. My mother said, “He wanted to talk to you,” and I bit my lip to keep the sarcastic answer to myself. So it had been real. So that was his voice.

An hour after we returned home, his voice had penetrated our apartment. He called again and she answered and his voice was coming through the speaker on her phone. He was saying he got chased out of town, that he had no choice but to leave in order to protect us. In the back of his head, I imagine he hoped I would find his story a reflection of his valiance, his heroism, and think, what a guy!, but on the surface of my frontal lobe–

What a fucking sucker.

As he spoke, I was reminded of what I grew to understand. Younger, I didn’t have the words to fully articulate it, but I knew that he was mean for leaving us, for not saying why. He swept us out, hurrying us out the door before we could ask if he would get us again for the weekend. He didn’t hug us goodbye or help us put on our coats; no, he watched Pam fasten the buttons from the couch, staring past us. No matter of storytelling and explanation would change for me that he was, and perhaps would always be, a selfish man.

On the tip of my tongue was a lack of sympathy; my fingertips were itching to press the red phone button and end this futile attempt at fatherhood before it could begin. It felt intrusive and wrong. Before the phone call even began, my mother said she wanted me to hear him out. I was jaded by the sentence; why was I expected to make space in an already tiny box for him? There was no room for him, no space to give. I accepted that my family was my mother, my sister, and me. And sure, he had been there once–before remembering and having childhood memories meant something.

My mother and sister were listening, taking it in, faces contorted with questions. I thought about how the three of us have come to balance each other out. We established our routines and understandings of our personalities. In the midst of his phone call was one of the few times I couldn’t tell what they were thinking.

Once he hung up, silence spilled into the living room. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Silence like that–cold and stiff–a body dredged up from under the floorboards–unnerved all of us. I pressed the tendon between my thumb and my index finger for one, two, three, then release, then one, two, three, then release, until my sister sighed and the silence gave us a moment to reach out for breath.

I imagined for my sister the phone call was closure, finally being able to relax a fist that had been shut tight for years, muscles aching with tension. I listened to my sister and mother teeter-totter off each other, both nodding slowly and coming to conclusions from his words. Eventually, I removed myself from the conversation. I would grow to understand the human desire for completion, for the two ends of a circle to finally meet. One day I would feel that towards him. And one day this wouldn’t be an interruption–it would merely be an alternate route to the same place.

And I think, had he been truthful about being a changed man, that that is the end we all would’ve wanted.

*

Sometime during this fever dream of my father’s peacocking, I remember my growing persistence to understand why I needed to interact with him at all. In response, my mother said that the relationship with my father would affect my future relationships. I thought about the many times my maternal grandfather would call our house, sometimes drunk, sometimes plain irritable in his attempts to reconnect with my mother. “I didn’t think it would affect me,” she said, “but it did.” I shuffled it away in the file of Black mother wisdom.

As time went on, as I dated more, I think back to that conversation. How unfair, that parts of my life will somehow be guided and shaped by a man who wasn’t present in my puberty or the end of it. How on point, that the life of a growing woman is determined by the presence or lack thereof of her father, a man who chose to leave. Men are given choices, and women are given consequences.
I think about the women who sit at award shows, who attend the annual company barbeques, who no longer go after their passions in an effort to see their husbands through to their success. Soft, tender kisses to their cheeks. “You’re my rock,” the husbands will say; and in this teeny little box all of us exist in, we’ll read the husbands’ words as endearing. Unconsciously, we will know what the husbands mean: their greatness matters more than their wives’.

You were meant to be small.

I don’t believe my mother thinks I should shrink myself for a relationship. Still, I wonder why a man who made the conscious decision to leave deserves space in my life, why I’m encouraged to give him that real estate. I suppose the question, then, is what does it mean to live as an incomplete circle?

*

What is a daughter without her father?

*

Soon it’ll be March. The sun has started to peek its head over the horizon a little longer. Chicagoans are still wrapped in wool scarves. People are standing under the heaters on the train platform less. When it’s warm enough to wear just a cardigan, just a light jacket, I will climb atop a bike, one leg planted on the ground, a childish grin on my face.

When I take off, struggling to balance, I’ll think of the seven-year-old on her bike with training wheels and duochrome streamers on the handles, how she never finished learning how. I’ll keep goin for her. I’ll learn how to ride a bike, maybe on my own, or with the help of others. And maybe then we won’t feel the sting of others thinking we’re unfinished, somehow lacking. It’ll be the ending we deserve. It’ll be my love letter to her, my cheer and support–the world is too big to be trapped in such a small box. A girl like you needs all the space she can get.

Now start with one foot off the ground. And push, push, forward.


Myliyah Hanna is an upcoming essayist from the Bronx and a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Cheap Pop and Zora. She maintains a personal blog at myliyahhanna.com. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of Small Fictions award. She lives in Chicago with her cat Jasper. 

The Forests I Have Lost

by Theophilus Kwek

And, after all, it is to them we return.

Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn…

— Geoffrey Hill

I.

The first was one I’d never even ventured into. It lurked on a low hill behind our house, and, by the time we moved in, had been parted down the middle like the Red Sea – or the neat path through my father’s hair – to shorten the journey to our MRT station. For years, I went to bed terrified of the creatures that might dwell within (Singapore’s last wild tiger was, alas, killed in 1930), before finally daring to cross it on my own, aged ten, to catch the bus to school. 

It must have occurred to me even then that our darkness-defying footpath, recently paved and still brightly lit, was a sign of things to come. But the developers dragged their feet and our forest stayed, unruly and unruled, to shield us from the world. On occasion, a ten-foot python would steal into someone’s drainpipe, but a quick call to wildlife rescue was all it took to return the creature to its haunts. For the most part, I grew up with friendlier neighbours: kingfishers on our back gate, the odd civet-cat, bats feasting among the fruit-trees next door.

We moved into public housing when I was twelve, and after seven years I moved again, to another country. So the end, when it came, was muted by time and distance; relayed, like the death of a relative, through cousins who still lived in the estate. 

What happened – I imagine – was this. One weekend, men with name-tags and shovels would have come to breach the fence around our forest’s fringe, clearing the perimeter for heavier equipment. Then the toughest work: trees sawn at the base, split and piled; denser understory dug from the earth. More men arriving afterwards with more machinery to stamp recalcitrant roots in place, level the overgrown hilltop to a surveyor’s plane. 

By the time I returned home, four years later, a housing project had taken pride of place at the top of the road. Someone had thought to name it ‘The Glades’, even if barely a sliver of the old canopy remained. All steel and glass, it barely seemed to fill the space: dwarfed, almost, by the ground beneath it. Even our home felt smaller. Stopping by one weekend, we realised the new tenants had re-done our yard, where a dishevelled palm had once held court. The new, neat porch felt like a scene from a film shot on location, with the plots of impossible lives layered over ours. 

With an image of that now-shaven hill in mind, I began to realise that I lacked a vocabulary for its disappearance. I had read plenty of books that dealt with more personal losses, but none that quite prepared me for this – losing a forest that I loved and feared at a distance. 

I come from a part of the world, after all, that has acquired new literatures as quickly as it has lost old landscapes. Poets and novelists from our region observe how built environments have been transformed by urbanisation and globalisation, turning established social worlds on their heads. Fewer have written about the contests that continue to take place on the city’s edge, pitting tightly ordered streets against the rooted knowledge of field or forest. 

This is especially so in Singapore, where I live. On the one hand, the loss of natural habitats has formed a rallying-point for civil society: over the last decade, the government’s plans to run a highway through different segments of the Central Catchment Reserve have earned sustained opposition from a wide and colourful lobby. But ruffled feathers do not translate easily into the landscapes of our imaginations. Instead, jungles of the concrete variety have come to lend their ersatz backdrop, of a flourishing literary scene with thoroughly urban sensibilities.

During my time abroad, I attempted to make sense of my lost forests by turning to a rich tradition of landscape literature in the English language – a genre which, in 2014, was being revived under the label of ‘New Nature Writing’. 

Many authors claimed their places in this lineage with close observations of local landscapes; from Gilbert White’s landmark Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, a paean to the no-man’s-lands of the 1970s. More recently, writers like Kathleen Jamie, Helen McDonald, and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett were reinventing the genre, taking the natural landscape as a foil for the personal and global anxieties of a new millennium. 

All these writers could name native species as if they were friends, map every hollow of a habitus, or habitat, locations which they knew from inside out. But though their deciduous worlds welcomed me in, I still grasped for words to describe the uprooting of what had, for me, always been at arm’s length.

Like everyone else I knew growing up, my own forests grew almost exclusively in the past and conditional tense, as what had already been cleared to make way for the city, or what would one day be paved and signposted for a weekend’s walk. It seemed a privilege to have such intimate awareness of one’s landscapes, even to know where to look for a knowledge of what was gone. 

It was too late for me to tear down that fence at the edge of my wood – but here I was, miles from my own disappearing forests, trying to come to terms with a more peripheral loss. 

II. 

Flying home each summer became synonymous with such absences. Fighting off the jet-lag on my commute from the airport, I’d keep count of the new malls and condominiums that had sprung from once-empty fields. The forests of my childhood hovered like a ghostly presence above the shape-shifting landscape, refusing to give up their place in my subconscious. 

One year, it was the deep wood behind our church, yanked away like a scab to show the red earth beneath. The next summer, it was a forest that arched over the side-gate of my secondary school, the last outcrop of an overgrown cemetery dug on its slopes. Years after the graves were exhumed, the last pockets of remaining forest were to be replaced by astroturf. All that remained were the old columbarium’s jade-green tiles: the boys would have their artificial grass. 

Back in 2007, when I first went to school there, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to fell a century-old tree that stood by a traffic flyover behind the campus. The decision – ostensibly, to protect motorists who might veer too close to its trunk – was thought to be prime-time material, and every news outlet reported on the tree’s fate. What seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves was that two years earlier, the same Authority had chosen to preserve the tree by building the three-lane flyover around it, but now decided that this was too dangerous after all. 

Never ones to forgo a ‘teachable moment’, our teachers organised classroom debates around the Authority’s decision, taking the chance to fix sentence structures as we made fervent arguments about ‘The Disasters of Development’ or ‘The Powers of Compromise’. It may be that too long has passed since then, but I struggle to recall if any of us actually took notice when the old angsana was felled. Like other roadside trees that had become inconvenient, it must have been hewn down under the cover of night; branch by branch, and out of sight. 

This episode is memorable for many reasons, not least for what it revealed of a school that dared to prepare us for the big questions of running the country, but not always for the small truths of living in it. For more than 150 years, it had produced men who thought themselves planters and planners; under their leadership, a gregarious young country had come of age. By the time I enrolled, the school had come to see itself as no less than a seeding-ground for the city’s elite. 

One Chinese proverb puts it this way: it takes ten years to cultivate a tree, a hundred to cultivate a man (or a people). The character for ‘cultivate’ has shades of meaning; here, it reads as the verb ‘to nurture’, but also as the noun for ‘tree’. Just as a garden must be pruned before it comes into bloom, I can almost hear my teachers say, one’s character can only flourish if it is trained and taught. Needless to say, the old colonial institution found itself faithful to the task.  

In 2015, some years after I graduated, the school was designated as a nomination centre for the parliamentary elections, and I made my way back to hear the candidates make their maiden speeches. One of the ruling party’s new faces that year was an alumnus, who happened to be running in the same constituency where the campus was. Stepping up to the podium, he gestured to the high-rise apartments on all sides, reminded of how his party had turned ‘swamps into showflats’, a success mirrored in the life-stories of his prospective constituents.

Except, of course, it hadn’t – or at least, not here. A century and a half ago, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants had chosen the hilly, wooded area as a communal cemetery, and built two villages in the vicinity. One village came to be run by a federation of sixteen Cantonese clans, which oversaw a population of more than two thousand by the early 1900s. When the Japanese arrived in 1942, the high ground of the cemetery made it a natural staging-ground for many skirmishes, echoed in the bitter gang fights that erupted in the area after the British returned.   

From at least a century before the postwar government began its first housing project in Bishan, then, the area had been of no small significance to local communities, who negotiated their forested slopes into a precious resource for the living and dead. Perhaps I was naïve to expect more from a moment of glib electioneering, but something about how he waved history aside troubled me deeply. Our forests, it seemed, were forgotten long before they were even felled.

III.

It is safe to say that no state has had a straightforward relationship with its forests. The word itself has tangled roots, signifying in Old English both woodland and hunting ground. Not long after the Norman Conquest, it became a legal term for the new aristocracy’s game preserves, and the ‘New Forest’ in South England was one of the oldest, so called. Later, the crown would find more uses for its forests: timber for the ships of empire, or vast tracts of land to reward loyal nobles with.

To those in power, forests have always been equally tempting and forbidding. Abundant in riches, yet careful guardians of secrets, forests are fertile for conquest, but lend a safe haven to the rebel and exile. Little wonder that so many tales of resistance are set in sylvan surroundings, from the Green Knight’s duel with Gawain, to Robin of Sherwood’s egalitarian heroics. These stories have since arrived on stage and screen, most memorably in Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.   

Here, the same dynamics are evident. From the clearing of rainforest for plantation agriculture to the making of Western reputations on indigenous ‘discoveries’, Malaya’s forests were exploited by generations of colonial administrators, aided by the business classes that flourished on their watch. Early traders dealt in rare produce, while later merchants shipped rubber and tin to fuel a distant ‘industrial revolution’. The jungle itself was held at bay: one well-worn tale from my alma mater involves a former Headmaster shooting a tiger under the bar of the Raffles Hotel.

After the Japanese left, the Malayan National Liberation Army took to the woods for a decade-long guerilla campaign against the British, and the tiger came to stand for Communism itself – or at least, the righteous and unpredictable fury of the anti-imperialist movement. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was said to have won power by ‘riding the tiger’, but the image of a ‘Garden City’ that he later promoted was far more amenable to investors from the West. Without irony, the country successfully applied for its colonial-era Botanic Gardens to be accorded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, exactly half a century after political independence. 

Much of this history remains visible in our urban geography. Old Peranakan houses financed by the plantations of an earlier era still stand along Orchard Road, which now serves as our main shopping belt. The Thai Embassy occupies the site of one such mansion, first acquired by King Chulalongkorn in 1880. A stone’s throw away, the President’s official residence – built entirely by convict labour – sits on the sprawling nutmeg slopes of Mount Sophia.

Though sizeable tracts have already been lost to developmental projects, even the forests that survive are enlisted to the national purpose. During National Service, we’d drive out to ‘training plots’ across the island to watch 18-year-old recruits practice against an imaginary enemy. Occasionally, we’d find the ruins of demolished or abandoned villages, their crumbling walls now used as props for infantry maneuvers. No doubt, some of their former residents are still alive. Yet the Singapore they knew could well have been an altogether different place. 

These days, one hardly encounters ‘true’ forests in urban Singapore. Larger tracts line our landlocked reservoirs, and others fringe upon our mangrove waterways. Those closer to the city centre are whittled down or hemmed into ‘park connectors’, while rooftop palms cast a semblance of long-lost shade. We take perverse pride in our roadside trees and verges, tended to evergreen perfection by low-wage workers who spend difficult hours on these modern ‘plantations’. The Garden City remains verdant, while their labour provides the window-dressing.

In late 2016, Singapore made an appearance on Planet Earth. It was the city’s debut on the series, despite playing host to an astonishing range of flora and fauna (including five hundred species discovered in the past five years). As David Attenborough’s narration went on, cameras homed in on the gleaming ‘Gardens By The Bay’, a 101-hectare development at the mouth of the Singapore River, which, the producers hoped, would point a way forward for urban greening. 

Unmentioned was the fact that this billion-dollar project sat entirely on reclaimed land, part of a coastline altered forever through the bulk purchase of sand from across the region – not to mention the destruction of marine ecosystems. And all the more unnoticed: how the Gardens’ two iconic greenhouses, built on earth stolen from the sea, seemed to represent the way in which a country had tamed its forests at long last, building for them an oasis of air-conditioned calm.    

IV.

The lines at the beginning of this essay are taken from Geoffrey Hill’s poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (1968), where they refer to the warm, cathedral stillness of the English church, open by custom – as they would have been in Hill’s day – to the homeless and destitute. There’s a wry nod to the 19th-Century architect Augustus Pugin (best known for having designed ‘Big Ben’), whose eponymous tract urged a return to an architectural style he saw as the ‘correct expression of the faith…and climate of our country’. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, those lines seem better suited for an older and more universal calm: the sense of earthy resolve that settles over us once we step into a forest’s hush. Despite our penchant for depicting forests as untamed and dangerous, they retain a capacity to carve reflective pauses out of our hyper-active days, even in the mere moments we spend beneath their canopies. Gone is the hard asphalt from beneath our feet. We feel the spring and crunch of leaves, a pleasing cool in the air, and the trees take us under their wing. 

It is for this reason, perhaps, that forests seem inseparable from belief. In January 2019, National Geographic ran a story on Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’, some of which date to the fourth century. Surrounded by harsh desert, these pockets of green envelop hand-painted buildings of wood and stone, lovingly maintained by the congregations of the Orthodox Tewahido Church. To them, the forest has always been ‘as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself’. 

A similar association persists in Singapore, albeit on a more prosaic scale. It’s hard to walk through any of our older estates without encountering a ‘tree shrine’: one of many meeting-places of Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic tradition, as ancient in their syncretism as this port-city itself. 

The question of where, and how, we worship is inextricably tied to what we rely on for a sense of welcome and security. Though our oldest ‘tree shrines’ are lost to time, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how those coming ashore in an earlier era would have found, in the forests’ calm repose, a refuge from the threatening seas. Or how the trees’ agnostic shade would have afforded a natural gathering-place for those with few shared languages or traditions.   

The part of Singapore where my first, lost forest is located is known as Tanah Merah – literally, ‘red earth’. Among the manuscripts available to us today, the name first appears on a 1604 map of the island by the Bugis-Portuguese travel writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. It was, as historians have surmised, a reference to the blood-red cliffs on the island’s eastern flank, which served as a navigational landmark for the orang laut, who have frequented our waterways for centuries. 

Those heights, once so reliable a guide, no longer exist, having been levelled in the 70s to extend our southeastern shoreline. Part of the area which became the housing estate where I grew up, while what was once known as Tanah Merah Besar (the ‘greater cliff’, as opposed to Tanah Merah ‘Kechil’, the ‘lesser’), was shorn down to make way for Changi Airport’s third terminal.

I like to imagine that my own tree-topped hill was once part of another history, a past that reaches much further back, and remains open to much wider possibilities than the timeline we have grown accustomed to. In that history, its indomitable forest still stands, the crown jewel of a long red ridgeline beaming welcome and journey’s end to those out at sea.

Being orphaned of that forest, what gives me a sense of refuge now are individual trees that, defying the city’s logic, have come to root deep in the mind’s terrain. In my final year at Oxford, I lived on the ground floor of Grove Building, an old house that looked over the city wall onto Merton Field, where James Sadler made England’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783. A tall redwood rose like a sundial over the lawn outside, throwing its deep shadow across my study table. 

Five years on, I am writing this in my office, nestled beneath the austere blocks of the Singapore General Hospital. Across from me, separated by a pocket of green, are the old dormitories of the King Edward VII College of Medicine, reassuring in their bauhaus simplicity, while a rain tree of unknown vintage reaches over the low buildings. On hot September afternoons, it casts a clean circle on the grass, as if inviting us to step away from our desks and breathe its cool. 

Trees such as these offer a universal, age-old belonging that seems radical in the modern metropolis. Unlike malls and cafes, islands of bourgeois respectability which have come to pass for ‘public space’; trees insist on their own place in the landscape, creating misshapen zones of rest, reverence, and play that are as safe as they are open. All are utterly welcome beneath their shade: their generosity, so unnatural to our present ethos, astounds us.

Lest we miss the forests for the trees, our true loss may well be this: a sense of the wider ecology in which we have lived and must live, a knowledge of the messy, mutual dependencies that belie the straight lines of our streets and stories. I started this essay to seek a language for the forests I had lost, but the histories retold here only begin to shed light on what new ways we might find to speak to each other. 

Words we might learn, that take our collective past and present into account. And make a path, perhaps, through the trees.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry and was shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and The London Magazine. He has edited several books of Singaporean writing and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry. His next collection, Moving House, will be released by Carcanet Press (UK) in June 2020. 

Notes from the Latigo Pasture: a Summer on the Colorado Steppe

by Bruce Hoppe

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Don’t call me by that name. A tawdry developer’s hawking. West Coast investor speak. A peddler’s cinematic hustle to conjure up images to families of the chance to have their very own cul-de-sac piece of the Wild West out there on the Colorado plain. You will get me soon enough this I know. My great grassy expanse will bear the scrape and scour of hulking yellow diesel motors until I am carved into a modest domestic grid—a mélange of civilized defeat. But I am not done yet so don’t call me by that name.”

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Call me by any of the names that I am. Call me by the name that tells of the crackling ricochet of static electricity as foxfire streaks along the top strand of barbed wire in the luminescent green shadow light prelude to the monsoon wizard’s tempest. Or call me by the name of the evening song of the male lark bunting as the summer solstice nears, the musical score of his refrain perfectly synchronized to a precise patterned arc of his flight. I am these things and more so call me by the names that I am.”

This is how it was back then. The prairie primordial. You could stand at its epicenter surrounded by an ocean of grass and lift your gaze to the far horizon there the gray-purple colossus called Pike’s Peak kept its fourteen thousand foot above sea-level sentinel watch over the plain. You could ride a horse past a badger boldly sunning himself on the dirt mound earthworks at the portal of his den. You could pause within a few feet of a nesting infant antelope blended into the tawny tufts of dried prairie plants and she would not run. Too weak yet for flight and in the absence of her mother’s defense her only chance instinct and hope.

The Ute and Arapaho knew these things even as they preoccupied themselves with their running territorial conflicts. The gold rushers hurried past these things in pursuit of the material, precursors to modern times. The famous rodeo cowboy Hugh Bennett ranched this country and the older locals still called it by his name. But before it was done, before it passed into memory there was one more traveler who came to know this land the way it was, its dreams, lies and whispers—its story. Only there for a very short time. He made do. In the native beauty of his surroundings his life and his notion of place became inseparable. When he left he took nothing with him but the thought of how near he had been to the impossible. For in truth there was nothing to take, save the memory as if a forge in which he would be relentlessly tempered for the road and the things to come.


Bruce Hoppe has received multiple New Mexico Press Association awards for journalism. His feature and investigative journalism articles have appeared in publications including the Union County Leader and the Boulder Weekly. He is the author of two novels: Don’t Let All the Pretty Days Get by and The Thomas Ladies Club. He has taught writing classes at Colorado State University, New Mexico Highlands University, and Luna Community College. When not at his writing desk, he can usually be found horseback prowling Colorado pastures.

Moving Sand, Moving Water, Moving People

by Heather Marie Spitzberg

As a child I lived on a narrow street
without shoulders or painted lines. Across the pavement was what we called the
swamp. Beyond the swamp was a small clear lake. Our feet entered that cool
water and emerged with cuts from mussels to become covered in sand and pine
pitch. I wondered about that sand, misplaced as it was, at the edge of the
otherwise rocky shore.

We shared that place with a scattering of
other homes and hundreds of hemlocks and oaks. I glided from water to land as
effortlessly as the beavers inhabiting the stream that fed the lake. My dad and
I regularly walked the stream, and I delighted in beavers slapping their tails to
warn others of our arrival.

In 1985 Hurricane Gloria doused us with
rain, wind, and panic. Birches weren’t supposed to be horizontal against a sky
the color of a yellowed bruise. After days of helping crews remove debris from
the roads, we inspected the river. A fallen maple created a new bridge to
cross. A sheared-off tree top blocked the deer path we followed. The beavers’
dam had broken. Water poured over the breached sticks and mud as it might out
of a pitcher. The animals had begun rebuilding in a different place, further
downstream. I wish my young self knew to study the advantages of that location
over the other.

In 1994 I stood on the shore of a
private-access beach, spiral-bound notebook in hand, salted air frizzing my
hair. Finished with my count of Piping Plover nests, I slid my notebook into my
waistband and walked to where the land ended at fast flowing water between me
and the next beach to the south. In the middle of the river that fed acres of
tidal marshes behind the beaches floated a brachiosaurus-sized machine that
scooped buckets of sand onto a barge.

The beach maintenance person told me they
were returning the canal to where it belonged after Bob moved it. He meant
Hurricane Bob, which had devastated the New England coast over two years prior.
Twenty feet away, on the other side of the flowing water, was a public-access
beach. Once the birds fledge, he said, they’ll pump sand on the dunes to
restore them, too. He pointed to where snow fencing and months-old Christmas
trees wrangled sand into a pile attempting to grow valuable dunes.

The naturalist in me held back a scoff at
the idea that a canal or dunes belonged anywhere other than where they existed,
no matter human need, history, or understanding.

The young woman in me who had been raised
by local government employees in the Country’s Live Free or Die state saw the consequences of twenty feet of shore
on tax base, tourism, and the owner’s sense of, well, ownership.

In the mid-twentieth century, my mom grew
up outside of Daytona Beach before moving north. The beach she knew formed one
half of a track with cars speeding onto the adjacent Route A1A for a race’s
second leg. Flattened dunes provided seating for the throngs of fans,
precursors to today’s NASCAR enthusiasts.

We visited throughout my childhood, years
after the beach was rescued from the racetrack. Dunes had been restored and
hotels built. Mom commented on the beach’s improvement, even with its risky
towers. Perhaps that was true, for a while. Until the sand eroded like the
snowbirds flying north in the summer.

In 2018 I visited a town in southern
Florida connected to the mainland by bridges. On the southern tip of the
island, at the end of a breakwater, squatted a round structure that looked like
a misplaced granary. Curious, I learned it was a decades-old sand pump that
became necessary with the expansion of a non-navigable entry to the
Intracoastal. The expansion interfered with natural sand drift, preventing sand
from traveling further south. Now, erosion on the shore to the north of the
pump created a three-foot drop between the dry sand where children played and
the wet area where waves crashed and joggers ran.

Around the corner from that pump station
stood a wall of white plastic sandbags. They were not temporary. Along with a
grassed berm, they protected a waterfront building that appeared less than a
decade old. A seawall and mighty boulders tried to hold back the waves, which
crashed into the rocks, spraying warm salty mist onto my eyelids. With tide in
half-way and the moon only three-quarters full, larger waves were assured

In 1987 we moved from that house across
from the swamp. As much as I loved the location, I never trusted it. Our home
sat dozens of feet higher than the grade of the road in a notch that had been
blasted out of a face of granite. I feared the boulders, and trees, and
millions of pounds of dirt hanging above us. None of those slipped; the water
got us. Pouring rain on the frozen ground created sheets of water flowing
overland toward the lake. The house held strong, but the window wells filled,
and thirty-six inches of water flowed into our basement. Our cat drowned.

We left for unrelated reasons, but it felt right.

 


Heather Marie Spitzberg has over twenty years of environmental science, law, and writing experience. She lives in New York’s Capital Region with her husband, twin son and daughter, and rescued dog, Thor.

Driving West into Gary on U.S. Highway 12/20

by Ellen A. Orner

Andy’s on 20 – Vienna Beef. Drifter’s Restaurant and Lounge. Absolute Air Heating and Cooling. Depot Dog – Vienna Beef. The People of Gary Welcome You. Need a Divorce?

Marsh grass. Cottonwood. Goldenrod. Mosquito swarm. Freight train. Amtrak. Another freight train. Honey’s Gentleman’s Club. PolekatZ. Lightning Fireworks – We Have What the Others Don’t. RomantiX. RomantiX. RomantiX.

Dune grass. Cottonwood. Sand dune. Honey’s 2. Laser tag warehouse with caved-in roof. All Mart Flea Market. Asphalt. Cinderblock. Discount Cigarettes. Ponderosa Steakhouse. Smog. Wing Wah Restaurant. Mufflers 4 Less. Used Truck Tires. Republic Frame and Axle. Fresh Fish. Temptation Gentlemen’s Club. Dunes U Store. Steel Transport – Safety Inspection Lane. Trailer park. Move Your Home Here – 219-938-0772. Semi Truck Parking. Deep Foundation Contractor since 1977. R&G Pallets. Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant. Shangri-La Gentlemen’s Club. Banquet Hall/Church/Full Kitchenette with Fridge/100+ Digital Channels/Free Phone for $696 per month with FREE SUNDAYS.

Jonathan’s Pancake House. Empty sign frames. Northwest Indiana Humane Society. Fortune House Chinese Dine-in. McDonald’s. Miller Beach Home Center. Arman’s for Jolly Good Food – Vienna Beef. South Shore Line Train Station. M & M III Beauty Supply – Dollar Gifts. Darnail Lyles, Esq. Attorney At Law. Cottonwood. Maple. Oak. Miller K Market. Fagen Pharmacy Liquor. Race Way Gas. Sporting Life Liquors. Healthy Smiles. Dom and Pete’s Point View Bar: Package Liquor, Fine Food. GoLo Gas. Cottonwood. Pine. Train tracks. Long line of 1940s pre-fabs. Smog. Power lines. Concrete. Road Construction Next 5 Miles.

Danger High Voltage. Pandora’s Show Club – Now Hiring. Junction Interstate 90. Milkweed. Marsh Grass. Hurt in a Wreck? 222-2222. Motel with green roof and no walls. Cottonwood. Dune grass. Ramp to Toll Road. Junction Interstate 65. Dunes Highway/West 12, West 20. Mint-green warehouse. Door 17. Red brick. Smokestacks. Road Construction Ahead. Walter Bates Steel Corporation. Rail Road Crossing. Centennial Processing. Rusted bridge. Rusted steel coils.

Dunes Court Apartments. Lake Street Express I: Full Line Groceries – Fresh Fruits and Veggies. Handmade signs. Painted brick houses. Yard with weeds taller than fence. Yard with close-clipped grass. Ivy on brick. Grass on roof. Life-sized Christ on cross.

Avila’s Auto Repair – Body and Mechanical. The Difference Between A Parent Who Hits His Child & A Parent Who Doesn’t…About 10 Seconds! SHARKS: 1 lb. shrimp $9.98. Freight train. Ambulance. Mr. Archie’s Grill and Sports Bar – No Standing Outside Vehicles. US Steel SteelYard – Home of the RailCats. Passenger train. Decommissioned steam engine. Junction Indiana 53. Life-sized statue of Elbert Henry Gary, Lawyer, Industrialist, Benefactor, Founder in 1906 of the City of Gary.

Lake County Superior Courthouse. Greyhound Station. Three-story brick houses. Wooden fence. Chain-link fence. Bright blue house. Molding yellow house. Charred cement house. Row of burned-out houses in pastels. New sidewalk. Row of dog runs. JR’s Liquors 2. Two-story brick houses. Single-story brick houses. Yards. Houses.


Ellen A. Orner is communications director at the University of Tennessee School of Art and reading series coordinator for The Sundress Academy of the Arts. She was the 2016 nonfiction editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts and nonfiction coordinator for the 2018 Best of the Net Anthology. She was born and raised in Gary, Indiana.