Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
As part of our “Thoughts on the Apocalypse” series, over the next few months writers’ responses to our inquiry will be posted here, on Terrain.org’s blog.
I pray the apocalypse comes with electricity, but I presume that is not the name for apocalypse at all.
I knew an oyster farmer who lived on the Puget Sound. He had so many oyster beds that he could barely see the ocean floor at all. Who needs the ocean floor when you have stacks of opaline shells tucking the whole fecund ocean between their halves? The oyster farmer offered me an oyster. No lemon. No mignonette. No Tabasco. The whole point of being an oyster farmer is that you don’t need anything else. You can survive on the protein of oysters. The world could fall away and you would still have a house, a beach, a vocation, a dinner, and a moneymaker. Not everyone can grow oysters. Most people can’t even open them. He is a gifted farmer. He knows how to seed the oysters directly in the sway of currents to bring the sweetest water, the most succulent plankton and algae passersby. Oysters are the great filters of the ocean. The farmer does what he can to make sure the algae and the plankton swing by the beds abundantly or the oysters might turn to eating plastic and heavy metals and all the coffee Seattle drains into the Sound.
Palmed in the oyster farmer’s hand, the oyster cinches shut. But he is a gifted farmer and a gifted metaphor-maker. He turns rock into sustenance. One knife jab and the hard shell turned to pulsing organ. Sexy oyster. All the genitals in one. Lick me, it seemed to say, so I did. The oyster tasted as shiny as the sun, which is why they grow in the sea near Seattle—Seattlers like to keep the sun underground. Save it for a rainy day.
But this oyster was one of the last oysters, rain or shine. The farmer could not make a filter for the filters. The tides were turning red. The oyster industry was in collapse. As carbon dioxide warmed the skies, it also changed the chemical make-up of the ocean. The ocean went from Tang to Lime-Aid and there was not a mollusk in the world who preferred sour over sweet. Not a Kumamoto or a Sweetwater. Not a Hood Canal or a Fanny Bay. The names themselves suggested doughnut and apple pie, ice cream and caramel. You once put lemons on an oyster as a counterpoint. Now all you have is point point point, make a point. Blue point oysters. A redundancy. As redundant as the farmer who walks along the beach, stares out across the water and sees the bottom of the vinegary, sexless ocean just fine.
Most of the time I’m kidding. The apocalypse. I’m not afraid. There’s water in the pond on Butler Avenue. It is raining puffs of dust and wind. I have not seen an article about the bird flu all day. I have not even seen a bird. The Keystone Pipeline keeps a comin’, oil from sand—how can I worry we will ever run out of oil? I stock tomatoes—three Mason jars left. I have two packages of pork belly in the freezer. In most reserve? A pound of bonito flakes. May the ensuing apocalypse require miso soup! My munitions are no ammunition against any apocalyptic threat so I must not really be so worried.
And yet, on the top shelf, I keep an unused package of antibiotics. Azithromycin. A Z-pack my doctor gave me for a sinus infection I decided to make my immune system fight on its own to help stave off the antibiotic-resistant sinus infections of the future. The Z-pack is from 2011. It has probably expired. I wonder, at night, when I’m trying to fall asleep but not sleeping because of the bird flu, whether I should put the Z-pack in the freezer. I wonder if freezing the antibiotic would make it ineffective. I wonder why the doctors don’t keep all the antibiotics in the freezer in case our apocalypse comes supplied with electricity. I wonder about apocalypses without electricity. I think about the cold whirl of wind, the dry pond, the car in the garage that is fully out of gas. I picture making the last batch of dashi broth to feed my son and my daughter. I picture spooning it in their mouths. Their heads are draped with washcloths to keep the fever down. They are bone-thin. They are wretched because the apocalypse courts Dickens. I think of my Z-pack. Will half an antibiotic work for each child? Is whatever bird flu they have contracted antibiotic resistant? Isn’t the bird flu a virus anyway? Still, an infection. I do what I can. I break each of the pills in half. I think it’s only six days, it’s only six days, only six days, and then everything will be better. The water will fill. The birds will return. The flu will subside. The car will learn to run on sand. We will make our way to the ocean where the bonito sharks will leap into our arms, sacrificing themselves for our miso soup.
When I have these thoughts, I put my earplugs in, as if sealing off my ears can keep the thoughts out. But every once in a while, when even the earplugs don’t work, I find myself creeping downstairs to the closet where I keep the azithromycin, next to a Ziploc of lost buttons and two hundred vials of albuterol solution that we could not nebulize into my daughters lungs in an apocalypse that does not come supplied with electricity. I pray the apocalypse comes with electricity, but I presume that is not the name for apocalypse at all. There are visions of the future that are too hard to see. I bring the box of antibiotic into my hand. I look at the expiration date. I think, that is not too long. Not yet.
M only have one friend, Steve, who thinks we will survive the apocalypse. I stockpile jarred tomatoes. He stockpiles guns. We will need each other and will have to find a way to traverse the 500 miles that separate us. We will also need: sourdough starter made from wretched old grapes, fermenting in yet another Mason jar; one of those new-fangled straws that filters water even when you stick it into a nearly toxic cesspool; one cow or goat for milk; two chickens for eggs; a solar-powered automobile that can hold at least a family of four, a goat, and two chickens; sun; limes; avocado; salt. We will not need to reinvent the wheel or electricity. We may need to reinvent the Internet and flush toilets.
We will need scissors, papers, pens, paperclips, staples—general office supplies—because if there is one thing we will surely miss, and want to rebuild, it is the tax-code. Benjamin Franklin said it was the library—or possibly fire stations—that made a civilization, but if there is one thing that unites us all, it is our love of April 15th. Shared goals. A catholic expectation.
We will need seeds from not Monsanto and heart medication not from Merck. We will need the old growth forest back. We will need the polar bear back. We will need that one frog who keeps changing his sex back and forth depending on how much Prozac is in the water to finally pick a team and stick with it. We will need an ocean full of fish and oysters who forgot the name red tide. We will need someone to make movies and someone to critique them. We may need books but possibly only ones that have nice things to say about fish. We will need to partner with the otters to learn how to stay warm in the winter and to discuss with the prairie dogs how to make a proper communal town where all the berries are good for all the dogs, prairie or not. We will need not only jarred tomatoes but lemon curd. We will need apple pie. We will need to learn to make béchamel with milk from our friend, the goat. We will need someone who knows how to make guitars and someone who knows how to play one. We will need a blanket, a square sewn by everyone who ever thought, man, this might be the end, and then woke up the next day, happy that it wasn’t.
In the end, we will need a lot of things, but I think it’s going to be OK because these days Mason jars are plentiful and everyone I know is named Steve.
Three jars of homemade preserved hot mixed vegetables image courtesy Shutterstock.
Oysters in ice on the counter image courtesy Shutterstock.
Three jars of canned tomatoes lined in a row image courtesy Shutterstock.
Empty glass jar image courtesy Shutterstock.