Hostile Soil

By Spring Ulmer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Finalist | 6th Annual Contest in Nonfiction

On The Barrens

I am on hostile soil. That’s what the sign posted at the tree line skirting the Unionville Serpentine Barrens, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, says. The Barrens—a total of seven acres at the edge of a thousand-plus acre preserve—is home to serpentine, a green rock that rose out of cracks in the Iapetus Ocean floor a half-billion years ago. Serpetine, in which jade is often found, is also laced with asbestos and its high mineral content leeches into adjacent soil, rendering such earth inhospitable and toxic for most plant life. Plants in such infertile soil frequently rot to death. Certain plant species, however, have adapted to the high concentrations of magnesium, nickel, cobalt, chromium, and iron, and low concentrations of calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, not to mention the drought-like conditions and high soil temperatures that result from the unusually water-absorbent clays (formed from minerals) and from lack of shade cast by little blue stem, Indian-grass, and side oats gramma grasses. Some trees live here, too—the blackjack oak, post oak, pitch and Virginia pines, and eastern red-cedar, but they are stunted and offer little cover. Although this spot is called the Barrens, serpentinization is thought to have aided the emergence of life on earth given that geothermically heated hydrogen released during the green rock’s formation combined with carbon dioxide to form organic compounds, including hyrdocarbons and fatty acids—key energy sources for metabolism. What does it mean to stand here? I square myself to the elements and bow my head into the wind.

On Property

Long before Nietzsche pronounced that God was dead, Karl Marx acknowledged “geognosy—i.e., from the science which presents the formation of the earth, the development of the earth, as a process, as a self-generation” and disregarded the question of any higher power. Such a question was abstract, whereas “the real existence of man and nature” was evident, Marx argued, “through sense experience.” It was such sense experience that led Marx to his concept of the human being. An individual’s ability to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think, observe, experience, want, act, and love were social in essence, Marx posited. “The abolition of private property is therefore,” he wrote in 1866, “the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities.” Possessing land or nature—or a woman—was, Marx believed, the gateway drug to use and abuse. Private property depended upon the labor of others, and its formation bespoke the self-estrangement of the capitalist laborer. Human sense, however, Marx argued, regarded nature in its entirety—no alienation about it. And, as man’s relation to woman was equivalent to his relation to nature, a man’s need was a human need. Therefore, man’s need for “an other person as a person” exemplified that his individual existence was also a social existence. The annulment of private property, for Marx, was the recognition of the vileness of ownership and signified a return of man to himself. Communism, Marx predicted, would transform all property into the hands of the commons and require everyone to work for the benefit of the community. It wouldn’t last, but it was, he thought, the next step in man’s essential development.

Regardless whether one argues that Communist lands are most corrupt and polluted today, I continue to turn to Marx, admiring him as a thinker who somehow understood that man’s obsession with ownership was killing not only the human, it was killing all life. I bring all this up, because I first visited the Barrens with a man named Ter who once quarried and set stone with my father.

We didn’t speak of my father, the day Ter and I walked across the ancient grassland, but my father’s essence seemed to hover in the air above the soil, and I remember picking up several feathers almost perfectly camouflaged by snow-speckled Indian-grass. When my father died, half of the quarry, which he owned together with Ter, fell into my mother’s hands. My mother and I verbally agreed that Ter would become the quarry’s sole owner (something I felt was only right, given the amount Ter and his family had done for our family throughout my father’s long illness). But several months later my mother, seeming to have forgotten altogether that she and I had had this discussion, mentioned selling the quarry in passing to me. I emailed Ter, alarmed. Did you know, I asked him, that my mother is speaking of selling the quarry? Ter emailed back to say that he hadn’t known. But, he said, he knew that there were a few interested buyers, including a man whose brother had originally wanted to make the quarry into a gravel business. My father and Ter had talked for years about securing the quarry for future public access. Despite my love for my mother, I placed myself squarely between her and Ter, making it known that I would mediate, if need be, so as to protect the land my father had cared for, quarrying only what he easily could, not blasting for rock, but splitting the seams of fossil-rich, cloud-grey limestone by plug and feather.

On the Barrens Again: an Email from Ter

Conservationists are wanting to preserve that natural grassland community of plants and animals (field-nesting birds… bobolinks, meadowlarks) but now have to perform regular managed burns to discourage invasives which weren’t around until more recent times. They also appear to be haying the fields (after nesting birds fledge)…. Does the natural community withstand the haying? I guess… but that doesn’t seem like a natural process to me. Anyway it was a beautiful place to stroll about.

On Invasives

My mother is, at this minute, out in the field in front of her house, cutting the flower heads off the poison parsnip—an invasive that can burn a person’s skin. The plant looks like Queen Anne’s lace (also an invasive), but its flowers are yellow and more spread out, rather than centered in one large crown. It is reported to be “most tenacious,” “aggressive,” and “venomous,” and to readily move into “disturbed habitats.” After slowly building up an initial population, wild parsnip spreads “rapidly,” according to various websites, its “prolific reproductive capacities” changing soil chemistry and causing genetic changes in native plant relatives through hybridization, and sometimes spreading “harmful plant pathogens.” As I read about how the parsnip once “jumped the fences of colonial gardens” and about its “belligerent ability” to “push out native plants,” poised as it is to cause economic (supposedly billions of dollars of damage annually), environmental, and human harm, I am not surprised by the webpage’s accompanying ad—a photograph of people standing with their hands over their chests together with a caption that reads:

Could you pass a U.S. citizenship test?

I take the citizenship test and score a 76 percent. I’m marginally a citizen. (I score an 81 percent on the African geography quiz.) I imagine my lack of patriotism has something to do with the fact that I grew up thinking that the invasive chicory, when it flowered, was the best color on the planet. I still think it is. Perhaps the wild yellow parsnip and the blue chicory will hybridize and soon we’ll be drinking a green-colored Starbucks’ Frapchicnips. But will this, in any way, impact the ongoing war against the wild parsnip?

On World Citizenship

The World Government for World Citizens—a “political representation of the sovereign citizen of the world dynamically, intrinsically allied with sovereign humanity”—was founded by Garry Davis, a WWII bomber, who renounced (though he argued there was nothing to renounce given that national citizenship was an 18th century fiction rendered obsolete by technological revolutions) his U.S. citizenship in protest of his own wartime actions. He had flown bombing missions over Brandenburg, in part to avenge the death of his brother who had died in the Allied invasion of Italy, but it hadn’t helped. Davis couldn’t forget that his bombs had killed civilians.

To be a global citizen, according to Davis, one recognizes his or her rights and duties within the world community, including “essential kinship with nature and all other species sharing life on this world.” A world citizen must still pay national taxes for whatever is deemed peaceful. One does not, however, and this is Davis’s winning point, have to pay war taxes. Rather, one pays the amount equivalent to the war tax to the World Government for World Citizens, and then attaches a form letter (provided by Davis) to one’s partial tax return that states that one is “sanctioned by Article 28, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (inter alia),” and that one is acting “in accordance with Article 15(2) of the aforementioned Declaration (inter alia)” and with respect to one’s “world civic rights and duties as defined in part by the aforementioned Declaration, and in conformity with international law as defined by the Nuremberg Principles (inter alia).”

Before Davis died (in the Vermont town where I was reared), he granted a world passport to the stranded Edward Snowden whose U.S. passport had been revoked by U.S. authorities. (Snowden was then and is still wanted by the U.S. for leaking details of state surveillance programs.) Two days later, however, Snowden was still holed up in the Moscow airport, as Ecuador had refused to accept his world passport. Most of Snowden’s other requests for asylum were rejected on the condition that he needed to be present on whatever respective country’s soil to submit his application. Regardless, Snowden eventually received several asylum offers. Travelling to any one of the countries would not have required a passport under the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention, so Davis’s issuing Snowden a world passport was largely a symbolic gesture, and, as it turned out, Snowden accepted Russian asylum and no international travel was necessary.

I am not a passport or card-carrying, non-war-tax-paying World Citizen. (My parents, though, once received a letter threatening government seizure of their house and property for refusing to pay their war tax during the war in Vietnam.) Still, I think a lot about war taxes and who I’ve paid to have killed in my name, just as I often pause to consider what ground I’ve personally polluted, what traces of depleted uranium are associated with my income. But I would have to agree with the human rights organizations that criticize Davis’s world citizen passport for offering refugees false hope for the $45 dollars such a passport costs, just as I suspect my carrying a world passport would mire me in a mountain of paperwork and would most likely totally disable my current attempt to internationally adopt a child. It’s true that the world passport is important as a political symbol of the fiction of borders, but this fiction, like the fiction of race, remains nonetheless incredibly real today. Witness the consequences of being a non-citizen and/or someone raced in this nationalist, racist age.

On the Importance of Soil

For some time in early North America, only white male landowners were citizens and could vote. As my mother puts it, you had to own the soil, not just be born on it to vote, and because women and slaves didn’t own soil, they couldn’t vote; they were chattel.

What is chattel? I ask. I mean, I know the word, but where does it come from?

I don’t know, my mother says.

I look it up. Chattel is, the dictionary states, an item of property other than real estate, and derives from the Middle English “cattle.” We were cattle, I tell her.

Now I want to know what happens to those who aren’t born on actual soil. I look this up, too. It turns out that the U.S. adheres to the 1961 Convention on Reduction of Statelessness which contests that if parents are citizens of the country of registration of the aircraft or ship on which a child is born that this nationality is also the child’s. Other nations adhere to other conventions. As for those who are born on soil but whose soil disappears (for instance, citizens of island nations who may soon become environmental migrants’ displaced by climate change), such persons are or will be forced outside the traditional statehood criteria according to international law. In other words, a citizen is a resident of a particular land. (And isn’t even a world citizen beholden to worldly geography?)

On Statehood

Indian journalist R. Jagannathan finds statehood based on territory an archaic western concept. Take ISIS, for example. “Regardless of whether or not all Muslim countries coalesce as one political entity and accept the ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph (fat chance!),” Jagannathan writes, “the intent clearly follows the western ideal of what a nation is—a group of people united by common ideals and a common past interested in creating a common future jointly.” Europe’s definition of nation as people of a similar ethnicity confined within a geography has dominated the world for the past 400 years, Jagannathan reminds us. The refinement of the notion of the nation by Ernest Renan, a 19th century French historian, as a territory of people with “common glories in the past” and “common will in the present” and who perform “great deeds together” and “wish to perform more” was realized, Jagannathan adds, by Hitler. Every despot, he insists, dreams this same dream. ISIS has established footholds worldwide with its $3 billion dollar network facilitated by military campaigning, Internet, and media presence.

What’s intriguing about Jagannathan’s critique is that he doesn’t stop with ISIS’s hunger for statehood. He critiques Western governments for revoking the citizenship of those who join ISIS. While arguing against statehood as a dated concept, Jagannathan nonetheless is forced to acknowledge the fundamental right of nationality. Statelessness often renders people vulnerable to human rights violations, just as anti-terror laws that strip citizenship from terrorist suspects remove government and constitutional accountability. Such individuals make for easy targets, and are often tortured, detained indefinitely, and killed.

On Stealing the Self

Before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., a slave was considered a piece of property, which meant, Angela Davis writes, that when a slave “escaped from slavery, he also stole property which belonged, in the eyes of the law, to his master.” A fugitive slave was considered by state and federal law to be a criminal, “a thief who absconded with his own body,” Davis adds. Post-abolition, the erasure and disappearing of the citizen was extended to those imprisoned by the convict lease system and thereafter by the prison-industrial complex which today still denies those imprisoned the right to vote. Targets of U.S. military drone strikes also have little recourse other than to abscond with their own bodies.

To compare the erasure of the citizen of the slave era to the erasure of the citizen today, let us examine two famous legal cases—the first, the 1857 case of slave Dred Scott’s attempt to become a U.S. citizen and, the second, a case put forward in 2011 by Anwar al-Awlaki’s father after learning that his son, a U.S. citizen, had been placed on the U.S. government’s kill list. In the first case, Scott sued for his and his family’s freedom, arguing that, because his family had lived with their master in a number of states and territories where slavery was illegal, their master had forfeited his legal right to hold them in bondage. The case, however, was decided against Scott when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that no person of African descent, whether a slave or not, could be a citizen of the U.S. and that therefore Scott had no legal standing to file a suit in federal court. Similarly, in al-Awlaki’s case, the Justice Department invoked the state-secrets privilege and the lawsuit was thereby dismissed by the district court with Judge John Bates who stated that this political question could only be decided by the president himself and ruled that al-Awlaki’s father had no legal standing to file a suit on his son’s behalf; he could only file after his son was killed. After the case was decided, Anwar al-Awlaki was indeed killed by drone strike together with another American citizen, Samir Khan, in Yemen.

Not only were these two men murdered in plain sight and by a government that had excused itself of any accountability, but two weeks following this attack, Anwar’s 16-year-old son, Rahman, also an American citizen, was killed by drone strike while collecting his father’s body for burial. Neither Anwar al-Awlaki nor his son had ever had any charges brought against them. And, in fact, killing of U.S. citizens had, until this time, been prohibited by the Constitution’s due process clause. But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel thereafter prepared a secret legal memo, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could only be satisfied by the president’s deliberations. In other words, whosoever the president decided to kill, and for whatever reason he deemed necessary, the president’s word was law.

Legal ratification to justify drone strikes began with Bill Clinton, and was ratcheted up by George W. Bush who set it more firmly into place three days after 9/11, after Congress gave him permission to use necessary and appropriate force against those he determined had aided the attacks or who harbored said persons or groups, providing the president with plausible deniability for secret intelligence killings. Following Samir Khan’s and Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Rahman’s killings, President Obama further nullified habeas corpus (a person’s right to challenge in court the legality of his or her imprisonment), extending it over both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. Authorized at this time, as well, was indefinite detention without trial or indictment of any U.S. citizen designated an enemy by the president.

Legal authorities can no longer exercise control over President Obama’s power. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel John Yoo’s “unitary executive theory” has additionally put an end to the principles of the separation of powers as defined by Montesquieu. Not unlike The Barrens’ sepentinite rock that jumpstarted all life and also creates toxic living conditions, such a state of exception enables the president to protect life and authorize holocausts. In effect, it gives him legal power to suspend the validity of the law. He alone makes the final decision “between membership and inclusion, between what is outside and what is inside, between exception and rule,” and, thus, he decides, as Giorgio Agamben would have it, “which life may be killed without the commission of homicide.” The problem of a sovereign power, like President Obama’s, as Agamben argues, is that it renders modern democracy constitutionally incapable of imagining a politics as separate from the state and makes all citizens into homines sacri (what Pompeius Festus called “sacred men”—those persons whose murders would not be punished).

And because the state of exception also allows a president to protect life, it was, somewhat coincidentally, just such a suspension of law that once helped usher in the end of slavery. In 1860, Lincoln—who had previously addressed a crowd with the words, “We desired the court to have held that they [Dred Scott, his wife, and two daughters] were citizens so far at least as to entitle them to a hearing as to whether they were free or not; and then, also, that they were in fact and in law really free”—was elected president. A year later, fearing that federal troops would be stopped by rebels from marching through Maryland, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus along the Philadelphia to Washington railroad line, arguing that this suspension was essential to preserving the Union. And after issuing this state of exception and acting as an absolute dictator for two years, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which, before slavery was abolished outright, had to be followed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment which, in 1865, came to read: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”—with, of course, the wording “except as a punishment” opening up a legal loophole for the continued abuse of freed slaves, as rarely was any freed slave “duly convicted.” In any event, an era that had opened with the troubling Dred Scott Decision had spiraled into a war that had ended with the securing of citizenship for African Americans.

In contrast, the killing of al-Awlaki and his son has garnered little public outrage. Comparing and contrasting Lincoln’s and Obama’s suspension of habeas corpus and their uses of the state of exception, it’s obvious that Lincoln drew upon the force of law to mobilize troops to protect the State and thereby justly to expand citizen rights, whereas Obama continues to draw upon the force of law to protect the State at the unjust expense of citizens’—and others’—rights.

If racism generalizes the right to kill anyone, drone strikes have generalized the president’s right to kill Muslim persons. In fact, Akbar Ahmed accuses the U.S. of targeting tribal Islam (“some of the most impoverished and isolated [communities] in the world”) simply for being tribal Islamists rather than for being suspects of any particular crime. Two of Pakistan’s newspapers have calculated the vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan (where a majority of drone strikes have taken place since Obama identified the Northwest region of the country as the preeminent hotbed for the breeding of extremist elements) kill civilian tribesmen. “According to The News, between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people, 14 of whom were ‘militants’,” Ahmed writes, “and Dawn reported in 2009 that only 5 of 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks were known ‘militants.’” Tribesmen, already suffering from impoverishment, are vanishing, Ahmed claims. As Qadir Khan, a Pakistani tribesman, confesses, “Life of a tribesman is so valueless that anyone who wants to bleed a human can come and fire at a tribesman and no question will be asked.”

Such drone attacks not only fit the definition of genocide, they serve to foment blowback, precisely because tribal Islamists in South Waziristan adhere to “code of the Pukhtun, generally referred to as Pukhtunwali,” which “is a combination of hospitality, revenge, and the constant compulsion to safeguard what is normatively understood as honor,” as Ahmed explains. Blowback finds its most potent weapon in the suicide bomb, as tribesmen have no weapons, means, or method to counter the drone; all they have are their bodies. Not unlike slaves in the U.S. who once turned to suicide as a preference over continued servitude, tribesmen (suffering from the psychological impact of “the constant threat of random annihilation” by drone strike) choose, in seeking to substantiate their tribal honor, to annihilate themselves.

On the Wanted Unwanted

It is the summer that isn’t, as my mother said today. It is the summer of incessant rain and wicked winds, the summer David Sweat is shot twice in the torso while running across a field. He has Pop Tarts in his bag and has sprinkled pepper on his trail. Within just two miles of the Canadian border, he is shot in Constable, New York. The police in the photos on Google are pictured wearing plastic gloves—not unlike the ones worn in the Abu Ghraib photos—and holding up Sweat’s bare, bleeding torso. Why would you jog through a town with such a name if you were an escaped convict? I ask my mom.

We are inside, watching it rain. The windows are closed, but we are no longer scared to open them. Had we really been scared? We’d laughed at the news two felons might be knocking at our door in the middle of the night, even though someone had spotted them—or two men who looked like them—just a mile from my mom’s. Police had swarmed thicker than blackflies. Armed neighbors patrolled every outbuilding up and down the road. My mom and I had laughed. But there were times we’d spooked ourselves, times when hearing a noise in a shed had given us pause and when shots in a field garnered suspicions of something other than some farmer aiming at a sick animal or doe out of season. We’d followed Sweat’s story; it was impossible not to. It was all anyone had talked about.

I tell my mother now that I would have made wings and climbed a tree or fire tower—done something outlandish—tried to fly, had I been the one on the run. It occurs to me as I say this that Sweat was caught in the town where I, at age seven, learned how to jump out of a plane—or at least where I once practiced the moves of how to skydive while jumping from a wooden platform together with a kid who now BASE jumps in a wing suit.

Storms have wiped out my mom’s spinach, quinoa, and peas, and my gourds are yellowing in wet soil. Nothing is growing. The TV’s on, even though my mom and I are more focused on the rain—the climate has become more severe. We’re told it will rain more here over the next however many years. We’ll have to change what we plant. The rain doesn’t abate. In the wet wind, the basswoods leaves lash the top of the house (the roof boasting sheets of bright, almost fluorescent green moss). In the background, the newscaster is saying for the tenth time, Blood, he’s coughing up blood.

Who is this 35-year-old Sweat, imprisoned at 17, who never again lived for any length of time as a free man? Who can he be, jogging off across a field and letting a cop take a shot—two shots—at him? Does he still think Joyce is in love with him? Giggled like a schoolgirl around him, an ex-convict told a British tabloid. It was like the high school jock asking out the ugly girl, he added.

Joyce’s husband still believes Joyce loves him. He says she swore on her son’s head that she never slept with Sweat. But it increasingly seems that maybe she’d been planning all along to kill her husband and run off to Mexico with Sweat and Matt—the other convict she helped escape and offered other favors to. Sweat and Matt cut their way out of their cell and through sewer pipes with tools Joyce smuggled in for them in frozen meat. A reporter now jogs through a Malone neighborhood to get to Alice Hyde Medical Center to report on Sweat’s critical condition. Matt is dead. The cops shot him three times in the head the day I ran over a chipmunk with my car and had to watch it run in tortured circles afterward. I’d felt so badly, refused to speak, driven guiltily on. I’d seen such a scene before, but that time it hadn’t been my crime. I should have stopped the car, done something.

Another car will…, was what my mom said.

Men being hunted in the woods—it had thrown me. I’d thought of runaway slaves, the underground railroad stop just down the road, the many books on slavery I’d read as a child, all the while rooting for slaves’ escape. And what are my mom and I talking about? I’m talking about flying. I have the audacity to imagine building wings and climbing a tree. It’s still unbelievable to me that we can find escaped convicts, my mother is saying.

We live, I say, in a surveillance state.

This has been a particularly harrowing year with a massive amount of publicized (thanks to recording devices? shouldn’t white cops just be less racist?) killings of blacks by cops, and here is Sweat, a white cop killer—Sweat did not just repeatedly shoot a cop, he ran the cop who was still conscious over with his car, shot twice for capture, which really means: shot twice for the story of how exactly such an escape from a maximum security prison happened.

Let me go home, I sob as I drive through the storm until I can’t drive anymore. It’s a day after Sweat’s capture. I’ve had to leave my mom and drive back to a state where I wish I didn’t live—home of “hostile soil.” I pull over at a gas station. One of the gas pumps has just been struck by lightning and the dinging inside the station won’t stop. I have to keep working the register for another three hours, the girl behind the counter says. The sky looks black. A guy comes over to the coffee (I’m pouring myself one) and asks which direction I’m headed, cause he knows it can’t be south. Cars are all over the road in water this deep—I work for a tow company, he says.

Bonanza, I say.

I have bad luck, I tell my mom over the phone.

You just lived through the escaped convicts! she says.

Yeah, I tell the girl at the counter, as I pay for my coffee, my mom still on the line. My mom lives in upstate New York and you know some convicts—

The girl nods.

I’ve basically been under house arrest and now this—

The girl and I look outside and shake our heads.

On the Top Google Hits

Googling “hostile soil” introduces me to Vic Hummert (reared “in a small Illinois town where there has been only one murder in 150 years”) who cites Thoreau’s quip, “Why build a house if we do not have a friendly Earth upon which to put it,” and blogs about the melting of glaciers and acidification of the ocean. I’m led, as well, to a sci-fi website that boasts the following quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune (dubbed by some “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”): “How easy it is to kill the uprooted plant, especially when you put it down in hostile soil.” I discover, too, that in Manila “a promising plant microorganism,” commercially known as the Hi-Q Vam, is being injected into tree roots to “help trees survive hostile soil conditions”—the result of decades of unsustainable farming, grazing, and ore extraction. A report from Australia also suggests that adding large quantities of poultry manure to dense clay sub-soils can return profits to farms with hostile soil within a few years. Although the cost of mixing manure slurry deep into sub-soil is high, the article furthers, pressure to produce more food is rising as the island’s population grows and land is consumed by urban sprawl.

Google also turns up James Kent’s pontifications on the legal ramifications as per who owns the produce of hostile soil during wartime. Kent, once Chancellor of the State of New York and a Professor of Law at Columbia University, had a soft spot it seems for justice across the color line. He not only opposed raising the property qualifications for black voters, he argued that blacks and slaves, born in the United States, were “natural born subjects,” just as whites were subjects “bound by allegiance and subjection to the government and law of the land.” In 1866, the year that Congress, at long last, conceded that all persons born on U.S. soil were entitled to citizenship, Kent wrote in his Commentaries on International Law that “produce of a hostile soil bears a hostile character,” and that “whoever owns or possesses land in the enemy’s country, though he may in fact reside elsewhere, and be in every other respect a neutral or friend, must be taken to have incorporated himself with the nation, so far as he is a holder of the soil, and the produce of that soil is held to be enemy’s property, independent of the personal residence or occupation of the owner.” In other words, Kent is saying here that the produce of hostile soil is rife for the taking, but he’s also stating that hostility is linked to soil, and that, regardless from where one hails, soil is the binding clause.

On My Constitution

Perhaps it is the fusion of nation with soil and the implied understanding of an enemy as one who lives upon “hostile soil” that has me as if spellbound by the Barrens. I’ve always rooted for the underdog. And, if I feel like I am living on hostile soil these days, it is not just because the war on terror has affected my conception of what hostile soil actually is, what with international private militias, secret black sites around the world, and no true way to gauge who is or is not a terrorist, it is because I no longer feel at home anywhere. Even being a world citizen would do little to help me escape the madness of civilization. Drones, gunmen, escaped convicts, and environmental catastrophe do not heed national borders. My parents once subscribed to the “far out isn’t far enough” back-to-the-land movement. I was reared without electricity in the woods. Today, however, my generation isn’t attempting to revel in nature; those of us who care are attempting to save its remnants, archiving seeds and freezing the eggs and sperm of mammals that are going extinct faster than we can harvest their unborn. Alan Weisman in The World Without Us, however, is hopeful: without us, life will continue. We invasives, we serpentine creatures, we haters of our own species, we owners of everything can only be so destructive. Our demise promises new life.

On Coincidence

Last night I awoke in the middle of the night. I drank watermelon juice and, unable to fall back to sleep, pulled out a paperback I had been reading—Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. I read along, engaged by the beauty of the language, as Levi is, aside from being a concentration camp survivor, an incredible storyteller, until I came to the word “serpentine.” I started. I back-pedaled, rereading several of the pages I had just read, so as to fully understand why it was that I was—in the middle of my own exploration of serpentine—now coming across Levi’s. Of course! The chapter I was reading was titled “Nickel.” Levi had been drafted, after finishing his studies, to work as a chemist in a secret mine. In this mine, there was asbestos everywhere. Ashy snow, Levi called it. The Italian army wanted to enrich the 0.2 percent of nickel found in the serpentine rock. Such was Levi’s task, shadowy as it was, in the face of the looming threat to his Jewish existence. At his most weary, Levi perceived the rock that encircled him, “the green serpentine of the Alpine foothills, in all its sidereal, hostile, extraneous hardness,” as rock he had to wrestle like a “white whale,” as, he wrote, “one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this—”

And so Levi heated the serpentine to 800 degrees centigrade and then, as it cooled, passed hydrogen through it, reversing its creation. Thereafter he sat with a magnet and for hours in the early morning picked apart filigrees of 6 percent nickel—and 94 percent wispy iron—from the otherwise green-turned-yellow mass of serpentine. “I was not thinking,” he wrote, “that if the method of extraction I had caught sight of could have found industrial application, the nickel produced would have entirely ended up in Fascist Italy’s and Hitler Germany’s armor plate and artillery shells,” nor was he, it turned out, thinking that he was mistaken in his experiment, as he would later be informed that he was. The chapter ends on a hopeful note, however, as Levi leaves us with the wonder that it is the fire of the imagination that can both think of transforming sterile stone into weapons and fuel a prisoner’s dream of escape.



Spring Ulmer is the author of Benjamin’s Spectacles and The Age of Virtual Reproduction.

Photo of the Barrens by Spring Ulmer.

Nine Lessons is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.