The sky over Milan this morning was the glowing inner skin of a dry sea shell. Not quite blue, not white, not violet, not orange. The color of relief, of the light at the end of a long dark. Something that can’t be made by dyes because it’s not a color at all, but rather, a sensation of pressure: a force of a distant apocalypse over the area of the sky. Pantone 666: Lucifer’s Breath.
I was warned that Milan is somewhat conservative, and so I might not like it very much. It is. I liked it anyway. Apart, that is, from the lighting on the streets at night, which was nearly suffocating in its day-white LED intensity. It’s impressive, but also, shockingly disorienting. More than once, I stepped outside only to think myself inside. Pity any creatures trying to hunt at night—though, presumably they’ve all starved by now.
Apart from its aggressive umbracide, I liked the city in a similar vein to Paris, or New York’s financial district. It’s glittery and expensive and a bit demanding, a perversely comforting patina of brand capitalism layered liberally atop tremendous gothic cathedrals and ornate rococo stonework. Just to walk down the street, I feel like I should be wearing a bit of makeup, a nicer coat than I had, and just generally quite a bit more black. I’m aware of how this stern commitment to fashionability serves the capitalist treadmill and undermines the self. I’m aware of how smoking is terrible for you. It’s just... they look so cool.
And I had missed the feeling of being in a place with teeth, even the manufactured teeth of a fashion city. I’d spent the last week and a half in easy places. Berlin is bitterly cold, but this is the only way in which it’s trying to kill you. If you’re sufficiently bundled, the only requirement to go outside is that you smell like cigarette smoke. And Athens wasn’t even cold! It was sunny and lazy and pleasant and bubbling with surprising resemblances. There’s something in the shape of the buildings and streets and the resinous scent in the air that reminds me of Beirut. The streets are lined with smooth-barked trees with fern-like leaves that pulled up memories of the trees in Bangalore, trees that long ago rooted into deep parts of me.
Athens clarified a geographic gradient sweeping east and west from some central point roughly around the nile. A gradient defined by the the exigencies of building cities in earthquake zones where it never snows, and by the shape of trees slowly conforming to the wind and sun, and also by an ancient path, where long ago the first people walked north out of Africa and started to explore along the coast, walking into the enormous, dark wild.
Every summer, I’ll find myself out in the woods or in a farm—in any case, beyond the reach of city lights. At some point, there is a new moon night, and on that night, I invariably try to walk some very short distance without a headlamp. “It’s not that far,” I think, “I’m just going to the barn.” And I’ll take a few steps away from the fire and the thick dark will swallow me, and I will learn again why we worship fire and why the night is full of spirits and monsters.
Sometime over the last hundred millennia, as we walked, our minds precipitated out of the murky waves of night. We began making symbols and whispers. By firelight, we began stacking moments into stories, making gods. By daylight, we began stacking stones into temples in their honor.
I didn’t really get history until recently. Now, I find I can’t get away from it. In Athens, I wonder at the story witnessed by every stone. Standing at the Acropolis, I imagine how it would have been to see it in ancient times. Even in our age of wonders, the place is still impressive and beautiful. What would it be to experience it when it was new and grander things still unknown?
The world would have been different then, and the acropolis a more powerful magic. We were smaller then, and the world was wilder.
This NYT feature about the disappearance of insects has been haunting me. The gist: remember how there used to be more bugs? I’ve moved around so much that it’s difficult to calibrate a baseline—for all I know, there are still just as many bugs in Kansas as when I was growing up there. Except there aren’t. There don’t seem to be as many anywhere. There are surprisingly few records of how much bug-mass is around, but where there are records, the the records do not paint a promising story. One scientist, trapping insects in the rainforests of Puerto Rico, measured a 60-fold drop in bug mass since 1970. An entomological society in Germany found that over the last 30 years, three-quarters of insects across the wide area they work in had vanished.
There’s less of everything else, too. Fewer birds, fewer fish. Fewer whales—really, whales are right fucked. Fewer of everything. Except humans and our pets and livestock. There’s billions of us, and though cows’ quality of life is mediocre at best, the quantity of cow life is just outstanding. The article quotes E.O. Wilson, who calls our era not the Anthropocene—the age of humans—but rather, the Eremocine—the age of loneliness.
Once upon a time, the world was wild. Then we started telling stories.
On the plane in front of me, someone is watching the Meg. It’s a movie about some very attractive scientists who run into or perhaps somehow create a very, very, very big shark. (The subtitles are in Japanese, so I’m guessing here, but I think I’ve got the gist). Later, they kill it with poison. During the celebration, its mate pops up and eats one of them, kills another in a collateral, non-culinary way, and knocks their ship over. They’re pretty surprised by all this, and I suppose I would be too, but I also think I wouldn’t be celebrating on a boat carrying the carcass of a shark the size of four Greyhound busses. I would not want to be on that boat. Or any other boat, ever again. Anyway, this next shark devours some vacationers, and then they cut it up with a submarine.
The moral of the story is that if you run into a big shark, or maybe are responsible for creating it, you have to kill it before it eats everyone.
On another screen is The Quiet Place, a pretty-looking film about a nice white family—with, relevantly, a deaf daughter—living in the aftermath of the rise of blind nightmare creatures with incredible hearing.
The moral of this story is that there’s always some terror in the woods waiting to kill us all.
In the film, the deaf girl learns that her cochlear implant does something to the creatures. They scream and writhe, their armored skin rippling apart, rendering them vulnerable to the simple pleasure of a shotgun shell to the face. She figures out how to amplify the effect with a radio. Thus technologically empowered, she and her mom, it is implied, kill them all.
Two years ago, I visited Bangalore, and I realized that the trees along the streets there are the same as the ones that grow in my dreams, something about their strong, undulating branches having imprinted me as a child. When I see trees growing out of the sea and reaching for the stars, this is the shape they take.
Of course, those gargantuan mangroves growing in my imagination are no more trees than people are fungi. There’s a similarity, sure, and if you had nothing else to compare it to, you’d be on the right track, but they’re really a different order of thing.
Their seeds are the hope that one day the world will be wild again. That some of us will choose to leverage our minds to create an energy gradient supporting a new explosion of life. Not just human life. Not just useful life. All of it, in all its terrifying possibilities.
It’s not that I, myself want to be hunted throughout the night any more than I already am. We will still have our bubbles. But I want there to be hunters out there, slithering things, old things, creatures without explanation. In a million years, will humans be around? Hopefully not. Hopefully we will have given birth to new kinds of creatures, nurtured an explosion of spiritual descendants. But for that to be so, life needs room to explore.
I think to do such a thing is a tremendous expression of power, and I hope humanity can find it within us to do this: a voluntary reduction in our safe habitat. A sharpening of the teeth of the world. A commitment to the protean churning of life, to the many colors of blood and skin and feathers, to shadows, to spirits, to monsters, to moonless nights that swallow without explanation.