Old Roads, New Stories: Environmental Clean-Up, by Rob Carney

Environmental Clean-Up

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series 

Salt Lake City:

It made the newspaper here—this weed that’s swallowed the foothills and taken hold in places inaccessible to mountain goats, this weed that you can’t cut back because its sap is a milky burning poison, this weed that burned my hands and burned my face when I wiped the sweat off; you have to pull it out, uproot it, every stem like a toxic livewire: myrtle spurge.

It blisters you deep red and ugly, and its name is fitting, as if the olden-days botanist who dubbed it was a linguist too. Go ahead and say it out loud once: myrtle spurge. It sounds as lousy as it is.

Washington, D.C.:

I’m not going to hunt down citations for this. I’ve been weeding and weeding all week, and the internet feels like that too—weeds you can’t pull out except by typing—and just hearing it once on NPR was bad enough. Mick Mulvaney, the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decided, like some kind of Dickens character, to stop enforcing the laws against defrauding people with student loans. What a dick. Anyway, before Mulvaney showed up last November, this bureau had gotten back $750 million, some of it for veterans on the G.I. Bill, but not anymore. Now it’s under the umbrella of Consumer Education, and instead of claw-backs and criminal investigations, these CFPB employees have to busy themselves making pamphlets on things like diligence, pluck, and the keys to personal budgeting.

Mick Mulvaney’s House:

OPERATOR: 9-1-1; please state your emergency.

MULVANEY: I’ve been robbed. Somebody broke into my house.

OPERATOR: Are they still there now, or are you alone?

MULVANEY: No, I’m alone.

OPERATOR: And what was taken?

MULVANEY: All my money. Thousands and thousands and thousands. And my time, and belief in justice, and—

OPERATOR: I understand you’re upset, sir. Someone’s on their way right—

MULVANEY: Thank God. Thanks for taking this seriously.

OPERATOR: They’re on their way over with some pamphlets for Tae Kwan Do and burglar alarms.

Two Days Before Mother’s Day:

And here’s John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, reasoning with NPR. They’re on the topic of immigrants and yanking their kids away.

He’s saying the majority of immigrants aren’t criminals, but they don’t “assimilate into our modern society.” And they’re “rural” and “don’t speak English” and only have a sixth-grade education. He’s saying that they “don’t have skills”; and anyway the law’s the law; plus, the “name of the game is deterrence.” Which leads the reporter—John Burdette, I think—to add that, yeah, but taking their kids might also be cruel, so now John Kelly’s reassuring him that it’s not. He’s saying the kids, some of them toddlers and babies, will be “put into foster care or whatever.”

Those were his words: or whatever. You can look it up.


My last name is Irish. And so are Mulvaney’s and Kelly’s. And if I could revoke their Irishness, I would.

Back when their great-grandparents were going through lifetimes of English-made suffering, I doubt they passed their days with thoughts like this: Just live. Survive. And one day your kids will have kids who have kids who can do this to someone else.

Salt Lake City:

Nettles, thistles, knapweed, dandelions, crabgrass, cheatgrass, purslane, mallow, something called tall fescue, and something else called prostrate knotweed, and puncturevines (Tribulus terrestris, probably the Latin name for “Land of Stress and Tribulation,” which it is. Step barefoot on their thorns, for instance. Or try to ride a bike anywhere. Or sit on the grass; I dare you. Or let your pets go walking on the Earth), and of course myrtle spurge, like 12 new disciples.

Disciples of Plague and Malediction.

Washington, D.C.:

John Kelly, Mick Mulvaney, the whole Trump phantasmagoria: myrtle spurge.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Header photo of myrtle spurge by Acabashi, courtesy Wikimedia.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.