Oh, plastic, scourge of the Anthropocene, shaped into adorable shapes and dyed multifarious colors; plastic, who will be with us forever: it’s easy to forget about you, but when I remember you’re here, I’m annoyed and freaked out all at once.
I’ve been thinking about plastic more than usual as we prepare this Body Issue. Petrochemically derived plastic is, more and more, part of our bodies, and the evidence for its hazards grows steadily clearer. Not only does this material stick around for thousands of years, it disintegrates into smaller and smaller particles that attract and concentrate toxins in seas, soil, living things. It pervades even the air, according to studies published in 2016 and new work out this year, lodging in lungs and carrying the same toxins to those chambers. Tali Weinberg’s woven data map Bound, featured in this issue, speaks to these hazards and the hazards of climate change all at once. Beginning with plastic medical tubing, she marks out data on annual average temperatures in cities and countries around the world, then shows that data by wrapping the tubing with hand-dyed, color-coded thread.
When it comes to the safety and integrity of ecological systems—which is to say, when it comes to our collective ongoingness—we need the versions of change most right-feeling to each of us: art, humor, activism.
I love this project because it does the work of linking big shifts and local effects—rising temperatures due to human-caused climate change; medical interventions meant, of course, to help, but using materials that are energetically costly to produce and that may have their own long-term ill effects as they live in our bodies. What work like Bound can help us remember is that the seemingly small—one procedure, performed on the body of a being we know and love, or on ourselves—is part of a larger trend. And, likewise, that the seemingly big and abstract effects of climate change are immediate, personally relevant. This connection, for me, wipes away old arguments about how individual action can’t help enough, how the only positive change that matters happens at the policy level. When it comes to the safety and integrity of ecological systems—which is to say, when it comes to our collective ongoingness—we need the versions of change most right-feeling to each of us: art, humor, activism.
There are a few shifts in the material life of this magazine that I’ve been wanting to make for some time. I’m happy to write that, with this issue, we’ve made a couple of them. We’ve moved from sending our subscriber mailings in what are known in the industry as polybags—those pesky plastic bags that many magazines and catalogs arrive in—to mailing in recycled-paper envelopes. If you fall on the plastic side of the paper-versus-plastic argument, I’ll say only that plastic’s long-term toxicity and straight-up long-termness make paper the winner for me.
It’s more expensive to send a magazine in paper, both because the material costs more, and because it is made for and by human bodies. A paper envelope cannot be puffed with a puff of machine-puffed air in order that another machine may place a magazine in it. It must be opened by hand, the magazine held in another hand and slid into it, so that the reader can reverse this action, open the envelope and slide it out. This symmetry of human acts is a consolation for the cost; another consolation is that some part of the additional cost will go to humans, in Pennsylvania, doing the work.
One kind of this lamination is called “soft touch,” a phrase calculated to make the book feel closer to our bodies. And it’s a pleasing look and feel, when you don’t think about it too hard.
One more change: since its first issue, with the exception of last year’s letterpress-printed Craft Issue cover, Ecotone’s covers have featured what’s called matte lamination—the cover is coated in plastic meant to protect the printing, and that plastic, instead of being glossy, is dull. One kind of this lamination is called “soft touch,” a phrase calculated to make the book feel closer to our bodies. And it’s a pleasing look and feel, when you don’t think about it too hard. But the lamination in fact brings us farther from the book, inserting a layer of petrochemical stuff between the reader and the text that will be here, potentially, long after the text itself has been eaten by silverfish, or dropped in the bathtub and then conveyed to a landfill, or recycled into newsprint. The soft touch, unlike the soft matter of which books and people and other creatures are made, will stay around. When the text is something like Ecotone, the gap between mission and materials becomes unignorable. There are, of course, other, more urgent-feeling pressures—climate change, the exigencies of daily work—and ones that evoke an even more visceral response (I need not point to our current politics here). So it’s taken us a while to turn to this particular thing—but at last we’re using uncoated cover stock for our issues.
These changes combined mean we’ll avoid the need of more than one hundred pounds of plastic each year. A note of gratitude to Jane Baker and Karen Dutterer at Sheridan Press for working with us on these details. Thanks to their help we can say that, as long as our budget and available materials allow, there will be no more such plastic between you and this magazine.
And for not much longer will these details keep you from the magazine’s contents proper. They’re fine ones, too. We have essays from Toni Jensen, on campus-carry laws, Indigenous students, and the safety of women’s bodies, and from Arisa White, on discovering queer identity in New York’s lesbian bars. Both of these also appear in a new anthology from Lookout Books, Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism. The book includes essays by women published in this magazine over the past thirteen years, and it is, in my biased opinion, a winner—full of complex, wide-ranging, and wise work.
Here in this issue, we’ve also got a comic from Teresa Wong, on the birth of her first child and the trials of postpartum depression; a searing story from Leah Hampton that captures the language of southern Appalachia better than most; and art from Julie Buffalohead that shows us animal bodies and intelligences in new light. There are poems from Patricia Smith, Amber Flora Thomas, Bethany Schultz Hurst, Daniel Groves, and many more. And our first-ever dance feature, which offers a glimpse of Rosie Herrera’s spirited, no-holds-barred choreography. Her work is stunning, funny, reverent and irreverent, and very much worth seeing in person if you can.
As we’ve worked this fall to recover from our university’s monthlong closure during and after Hurricane Florence, we’ve felt the connection between our individual bodies, the body of this place, and the bodies of other folks, creatures, and places affected by climate change and structural violence: in other seaside communities, from other hurricanes; on the opposite coast, by fire; in communities all over, by systemic racism and poverty that make so-called natural disasters that much worse to endure. It’s hard times, and has been. So it’s worth recalling how many bodies are doing the work of writing, art making, teaching, healing, science, activism, personal change; of printing, placing books and magazines in envelopes, delivering them to mailboxes; of opening those envelopes, of reading, of thinking in literary company. Let’s stick together, y’all. Stamp to a letter. Happy solstice, and happy new year.