After Nothing Is Left, the Leaves . . .

This Other World

It was a sunny but chilly October day, with the breeze cold and the sun hot, when I drove by the Taco Bell in North Ridgeville, part of a little cluster of ugly chain-store architecture in the midst of rural Ohio, just on the edge of suburbia, whose principal purpose is to service cars like mine, entering or exiting the Ohio Turnpike just down the road. In all the crystal autumn light, pools of inky black caught my eye on the low shrubs that lined the drive-thru. I cut hard into the right lane and turned into the Sheetz gas station next door, that palace of preservatives and hot dogs rolling endlessly in gleaming fat.

Having parked off to the side, I climbed up the steep little embankment between one parking lot and the other up to the back end of the drive-thru by the menu board to inspect a row of shrubs laden with black berries. The embankment was south facing. I thought, what a nice place for a little vegetable garden.

(In this world, stopped short in my tracks by black berries, I imagine the other world in which that garden exists. Imagine the Sheetz workers and the Taco Bell workers forming a committee to divide up gardening chores, and growing lettuce and greens and radishes and squash and tomatoes and basil and beets and onions.

Picture the fresh meals they might make for hungry travelers from these fresh foods, and the extra food they could take home to their families, and the monthly feasts that they could hold on Friday nights at a long picnic table set between the two places.

But of course this would lead to a different world than this one and would require there to be no Sheetz, no Taco Bell, but some other things entirely.

Workers would need another kind of connection to their jobs than a minimum wage. Profit would have to be radically reconfigured as something altogether different than surplus. Buildings by turnpikes would be gathering places for pilgrims, neighbors, and passersby rather than siphons of capital.

Concepts of property, only ever concepts, would have to account for shared space.

Who would want to grow vegetables by a gas station?

Exactly right. Get rid of the gas station.)

Strained, the juice shimmered silvery in the glass jars. It mends me in small sips diluted into water or soda water, sometimes with cranberry juice or elderberry juice as well.

What I guessed from the road moving at forty-five miles an hour turned out to be right. The little spots of blackness, up close more like a deep purple-black with a blue smoke bloom, were in fact chokeberries. Chokeberries, or Aronia melanocarpa, are a native North American shrub that in autumn holds heavy clusters of this dark fruit, not as hard as a crab apple but not as soft as a blueberry. The juice inside is astringent, potent with antioxidants, and as such is considered a “superfood.” When the berries are pressed and cooked down, the liquid they make is the deepest purple quickened with a sheen of silver. And here in front of me were some twenty bushes, each completely covered in these dark clusters. I happened to have a woven basket capable of holding five gallons or so in the car. I looked around, first at Taco Bell and then at Sheetz, standing awkwardly in the exposure of the little wilderness of this embankment. Would anyone notice me? Would anyone care?

As I squatted by a bush with basket in hand, the cars pulled through and around, each stopping for the shouted order and the squawking reply at the menu. And each time they pulled forward, heedless of me, not curious at all, it seemed, nor bothered or amused by something they couldn’t see, this other world going about its quiet business. The berries came easily as I clipped each cluster. The first ones thudded with a satisfactory heaviness against the bottom of the basket, the later ones falling with a whooshing soundlessness against their predecessors. I worked methodically around the first bush, curious to measure the yield. Two bushes filled up the entire basket. Eighteen bushes remained, but I was happy with my haul and my hands stained bright violet.

In the other world—or is it this one right here—I went home and put the fruit in a stockpot with a little water to help the heat steam its way in and burst the skins, releasing the juice inside. Strained, the juice shimmered silvery in the glass jars. It mends me in small sips diluted into water or soda water, sometimes with cranberry juice or elderberry juice as well. It is thickened into jelly with sugar and spread on toast. It is strong and not always an easy ally to welcome, but in this world, or is it the other, it offers itself freely. Who could deny it?

(To those worker gatherings at the embankment, I would take a mason jar of juice and another of jelly. As it’s gotten colder, the Friday night feasts have shifted to Saturday noon, when the sun still offers some warmth even as the sky fades to cornflower blue and white horsetail clouds are whipped by the jet stream. Carol makes stuffed cabbage rolls and sauerkraut from the fat green heads in the garden. Shamila makes a salad from the greens, radish, and the precious last tomatoes. Tom, the pumpkin whisperer who has been raising his orange prizes with a pride that belies his quiet shyness, makes not just pumpkin pie but pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin spice cookies, and a pumpkin soup. Darryl can’t come, but relents and sends along instructions for his secret herbal tea recipe so we can gather its components from the herb garden and have something warm to drink as the day chills. As we feast, we discuss and commit to experimenting with a few chickens next year, and Ruth, the retiree who found herself returning to work again at Sheetz-no-longer-Sheetz after her husband’s death, promises that she will make her grandmother’s favorite pickled eggs and her own “extra-special” deviled eggs from what the hens produce.

We linger for hours, enjoying the potluck and the company. We linger and it seems we never return to Sheetz or Taco Bell on either side of this garden, because they no longer exist. Something else is here entirely.)


No Other World

In the Brookdale Cemetery in Elyria, Ohio, you can eat well, feasting on the crunch of bursting skins with the juice dribbling down either side of your mouth. The dead don’t mind feeding you, their sustenance now based on memory and roots, visitation and flowers. They happily ruminate on the living’s thoughts aboveground, for them if they can get them, but any stray missive floating from a mind can be convincingly made into a meal if need be. Even the dead forage.

I wipe the juice pearling at the corner of your mouth and streak it across your cheek, warm and soft in the golden afternoon light.

Meanwhile the tree root plunges into the soft pulp of a once-abdomen, branching into an underworld canopy, host for nests of worms and nematodes. Flocks of bacteria nestle in root cilia, these hairs emerging into being and decomposing away in unfurling waves and tides. A place to live and a place to die, a place that is living and a place that is dying. The dead work memory in the mouths of their minds, the bacteria work the tar of a puddling human body into nitrogen-rich strings, the roots siphon these strings of atoms cell to cell and up a cosmic ladder to the green nuclear furnaces of the tree’s leaves, and in October I pluck a small hard apple bright gold on one side, flashing red on its sunward side, gray-speckled all over, and hand it to you.

You take it from my hand and lift it to your mouth where your lips are surprised by the cool of the crisp white flesh underneath the sun-warmed skin. I wipe the juice pearling at the corner of your mouth and streak it across your cheek, warm and soft in the golden afternoon light. My touch makes you think of your grandfather, whose coat you are wearing and who died hit by a car years ago, and underground the dead, as the living above­ground, feed contentedly on this foraged morsel.

We came here because an apple once fell into my eye and it gave me the power to see apples everywhere. Seeing them led to seeking them, and seeking led to me turning in one day to the entrance of the Elyria cemetery, wondering what I might find. A couple of lazy swings along the curving graveyard lanes led me to the arching limbs of this apple tree along the side of an artificially constructed brook lined with rounded river stones, the headstones arrayed in an orderly manner under its boughs.

Succeeding means following after, following being simultaneously a ruthless chase and a devotional mimicry. You and I have complicated feelings (these feelings a meal of spice and ferment for the dead) about our ancestors: Uruguayan pampas grass knit into cattle bones and muscles cut down to steaks and asados; Hyderabadi mangoes and nimbu transmuted into achar. But they have fed us our whole lives. Us, childless, in this end-time: we feed the air with our words, but who will spoon memories into our mouths after we pass into the ground? I always insisted on not passing on the ill taste of my family into a future bowl, my gift to the world being my restraint. Lest those flavors rise up regardless, I plan like a good Buddhist to escape in the smoke of the crematory, but eventually even I (not-I) will coalesce a raindrop around me or catch in a tree’s canopy or land on the deep black water of the open ocean and get snapped up by fish mistaking my shadow overhead for sustenance. Or land on the asphalt drive of a quiet rural cemetery and get washed by the cleaning truck off to the side and into the lawn under an apple tree. We always return to feed our children. They are all our children, succeeding us, us succeeding through them back into flesh, if not memory.


One-Another World

(At What’s-Left-of-the-Walmart outside the ruins of Oberlin, Ohio, we’ve been hanging on, all together. It’s been a few weeks now, but the parking lot lights still come on at night so we feel a measure of safety, together, in the light. Some of us are just passing through because we still have gas but more and more we are arriving, hoping there might still be food in What’s-Left-of-the-Walmart, and simply staying, either because the fumes have given up on us or we have given up on the fiction that there is anywhere to go.

It’s October and the Ohio fall, though glorious, is threatening each day to tip over into winter. The horsetail clouds high in the near-amethyst blue sky fill us with a feeling we can’t quite name. We are unclear whether this feeling is optimism for the continuation of the world or resentment that while everywhere we are falling apart, spectacularly falling apart, the weather remains with its seasons and its jet streams and its prisming of the indifferent sunlight into indifferent rainbows. Today is a day of golden autumn light streaming through cold air to warm the cheeks and the back of the neck exposed as we crane down to attend to our work.

“The serviceberry trees won’t help us until next June, but the bayberries, we can do something with,” Barbara said.

Barbara, who arrived two days ago in her hatchback, riding a rim for the last five miles, immediately saw what none of us could see, even if we were paying attention. The What’s-Left-of-the-Walmart land­scape engineers, probably working from some office computer in Arkansas without having ever stepped foot in northern Ohio, in their prophetic wisdom filled in the blank spaces between parking spaces with food and usefulness in the form of serviceberries and bayberries. Had they envisioned our camp of broken-down and fuelless vehicles huddled under sodium lights sure to burn out or fade away soon enough, and taken pity on us, or even imagined that they themselves might land here (no, no one, not even us, had imagined that)? “The serviceberry trees won’t help us until next June, but the bayberries, we can do something with,” Barbara said as she pointed to the lustrous leathery-leaved bushes shining with clusters of whitish-blue berries. “We’ll need light and these berries are going to give us the wax for candles to burn through the night.”

Every day was like that. Someone saw something no one else could: in bushes, in auto parts, in the bolts from the wheels of shopping carts. This was a time of the one-eyed coming together to see and cobble in pieces some kind of a life.

Five of us had been at it for an hour and we’d probably gleaned about half of the What’s-Left-of-the-Walmart’s parking lot bayberries. You bent a berry-laden branch down over your basket with one hand and ran the other hand hard from the inside out against the waxy brittle fruit so that they fell like frosted BB pellets. Monotonous work, but fun to do in a group, passing the time talking about life before and wondering out loud what life tomorrow might bring. As the sun sank past the time of warmth, we called it quits and gathered our hauls together.

Barbara showed us how to extract the wax from the berries by boiling them in the large stockpot someone pulled out of What’s-Left-of-the-Walmart over the campfire someone else made from brush they pulled out of the woodlot next door. What was frosty-white on the fruit pooled up green-gold like olive oil to the surface of the boiling water, until the fire died down for the night and we all climbed into our cars for a night of sleep in varying degrees of comfort. By morning the wax had hardened into an olive-green disk on top of the pot. We broke its surprising brittleness into shards and collected as much as possible, dumping the water and what was left of the berries. At night over the fire again we remelted it and strained out whatever detritus was left. Pure now, the wax was ready to be dipped. Barbara showed us how to patiently dip and dip and dip the strings.

As we make the candles, Sarah comes over into the light of the fire and suggests something strange but right. “Sarah Sanders,” as they like to call themselves (“Not that one! Goddess, no! Bernie’s daughter,” they say) has been the resident shaman/ess of the camp. Strange enough to make people uneasy; strange enough to bind us all together in our strangenesses. “This has all happened because we killed off the sounds of the world. Sounds carry information like a net of stories, and with each organism’s extinction the net has frayed, until . . .” Their voice drifts off, not needing to say what everybody already knows. After a moment, a motherliness reappears in their eyes and they say, “As you dip I want you to hum. Feel your chest and throat vibrate. Or sing. Sing a song of your own, or of your mother’s, or of your grandmother’s. Let’s save our contributions to the net in the strings at the heart of these candles.”

We look sideways, furtively, at each other, but then someone starts and we all eventually join in. It’s not one song or sound, but a collection weaving into each other. It’s not harmony, but it is comforting. For hours through the night, we dip and dip and dip until one by one the candles emerge in scales of accreted wax, pupae waiting to break open into light.

We will save the candles until the winter solstice, when we will burn them—as we’ve heard Pilgrim women on Massachusetts shores once did—for good luck in the new darkness. Every night that they burn, the sounds and songs we knit into them will fly into our mouths and chests. While making these candles, we start to learn each other’s songs, and though by the end of that first winter between the End and the Beginning not all of us in the camp will still be there, all of the songs and sounds will survive.)