The following is an excerpt from The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin & Nicole Walker (Rose Metal Press, 2019), set to be released tomorrow. The co-authors wondered how they, as normal people and writers, might face into the mess of emotions and conundrums regarding climate change, and what might happen if they “stay with the trouble” (as Donna Haraway puts it). They decided to write an alphabetical how-to guide for surviving the Anthropocene, or at least for living within it in ways that acknowledge the beauty and complexity of our time and our fragile/resilient planet. Each author contributes a brief story (or two) on a topic relating to each letter of the alphabet. The stories bring the reader along as the authors sift through their experiences, offering small shards of wisdom while acknowledging how much sand seems to be slipping through their fingers as time and anthropogenic climate change proceed. These accessible stories are sometimes meditative, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always exploring what it means to be human, alive in this immense moment of possibility, tragedy, grief, and hope. Today, Nicole Walker shares her “U” entry, and next week we will hear from David Carlin.
by Nicole Walker
What I think I need is what I can see in front of me. Grass and lilacs, ponderosa pine trees, and seltzer on ice. I am enamored by elephants and cougars and snow leopards and tree frogs, but those are really elements of my imagination. I don’t see them in person, or, if I do, only at the zoo, where I don’t often go because Flagstaff doesn’t have a zoo and zoos make me sad because I know one day, they may be the only place to see an elephant or a cougar. I do not see most of what I think I love and I possibly love the things I can see excessively, for without them, I do not think I would be me. I saw the eyeball of a humpback while whale watching in Iceland. David took me looking for koala bears and we found three! Three koala bears even though it was so touristy to go there and crouch with the other tourists. To point and say, “aww.”
When my twin sisters, Paige and Valerie, were little, they went to Koala Camp at Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. They took their Snoopy sleeping bags and Paige’s yellow and Val’s red knit blankets and moved onto Hogle Zoo grounds. During the day, they had lessons about eucalyptus and at night, when the koalas awoke, camp leaders took them into the koala center. They rolled around with the koalas on the floor, taught them to roll a ball back and forth, and, when it got later, cuddled with them in their sleeping bags. Or so I imagined.
Many years later, after I returned from Melbourne and asked my sisters what it was like to touch and carry a koala—I’d seen them but in trees, high up! So distant! In my photos, you can barely pick them out. My sisters told me, that no, they didn’t get to hold the koalas. They got to pet the elbow of one. One time.
“What did you do the rest of the time?” I asked.
“We mostly swept up koala poop,” said Val.
I didn’t go to Koala Camp because I didn’t have a twin, I told myself. Or, I was older and my parents hadn’t discovered overnight camps yet when I was their age. Or, I would rather stay home and read about koala bears. I often think I am permanently lonely because I don’t have a twin, but maybe it’s because I don’t have a koala.
Although I am good at rolling my r’s in my throat and against the roof of my mouth, there are sounds I can’t make. I cannot ululate. Do I not think about ululating because I can’t do it or because I don’t hear it? If someone stood in front of me right now, would I include “ululate” on a list of things I need to be able to do into the future to survive?
Or, is it not so much that I am trying to survive but that it is not all gone yet. I still can behold ponderosa trees and grass, lilacs and seltzer. We are not at scarcity. Not yet. I hear the ululation as strongly as I feel the heft of a koala bear in my arms. I don’t have to own it to feel it.
Bio: Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018), Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction with Margot Singer. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and is a noted author in Best American Essays. She teaches creative writing as a professor of English at Northern Arizona University.