Excerpted from The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin and Nicole Walker
“A” is for Australia and “A” is for Arizona, over 9,000 miles apart but sharing the same Earth. In this eccentric, intimate compendium of short environmental and personal essays, David Carlin (in Melbourne) and Nicole Walker (in Flagstaff) engage in a long-distance dialogue between two writers, creating an improvisational subversion of the encyclopedia, a witty-yet-serious send-up of the concept of a survival guide. In this era of interconnected ecological, political, and human rights catastrophes, these two whimsical, elegiac, and intellectually questing voices contemplate the role of the individual in the midst of increasingly inescapable collective action crises that call the very concept of survival into question. Refusing equally to find solace in false hopes and to give in to murky despair, Carlin and Walker deftly use the flash nonfiction form to wonder and worry their way through the alphabet in search of a path forward. With meditations on topics ranging from bitumen to plasmodia, elephants to xeric, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet collects an A to Z of people, places, and phenomena to marvel at, to kick against, to let go, and to fight for. [Read an interview with the authors here.]
There are people who talk too long. There are people who are content with the typeface God-as-Microsoft gave them. There are people who do not mind having hot soup on a hot day or cold soup on a cold one. I don’t like super-hot soup or super-hot coffee, but what do I really know about temperature? In Australia, I know they don’t love ice like we do in the States. The way our freezers shoot cubes into our glasses or at our chests, depending upon whether we are expecting squares or rectangles, drips, plops, or cannons. I am sitting here in my house in Flagstaff, Arizona, eating medium-warm soup, drinking lukewarm coffee, sipping a 32-ounce mason jar full of ice and water. I am temperature indulgent. I wouldn’t know the Fahrenheit outside without looking at my iPhone.
In 2001, my sister Valerie had a baby. Before that, she had a frog. The frog came in a plastic box full of water and nutrients. Natural Aquatics frog aquariums can house up to two African dwarf frogs in a 3.8 x 4.1 x 5-inch plastic tank. You need to feed the frog one to two pellets per week. Change the water twice per year.
It is the perfect product for those who don’t want a pet but kill their plants. Plants turn brown and brittle when they die. Frogs just sink to the bottom of the tank, blend in with the good-for-frog bacteria-producing gravel. Good for frogs. Good for decomposing dead frogs.
Valerie had been given the frog for her birthday. She kept the frog alive for years. Longer than the packaging suggested.
A frog needs a place to hide. He needs water that isn’t full of his own pee. A frog needs temperature controls. His amphibious body requires the manipulations of a spaceship. In space, everything is cold. An HVAC system is the only way to survive in a planet-defying box. In a plastic box on the countertop, everything is either too cold or too hot. Lukewarm is exhausting to the water-dependent temperature of a frog.
It takes a lot of energy to make ice. Even more to make the ice dispense at your will. My cup sits here on the kitchen table next to my computer. The furnace warms up meaning it must be fewer than 69 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The ice is melting. That’s okay. I like cold water but not so much the clinking of ice against my teeth. It’s almost Christmas. I should call to check on my nephew. See how warm it is in Boise where he lives. Without checking in, the degrees, it seems, click up without our notice.
The frog did eventually die. The water that housed him warmed slightly, day by day. In the end, he didn’t even notice how hot it had become.
From “F L Y I N G”
Cattle class, orange trim so you know it’s cheap. Melbourne to Sydney. We waver and shake as the fuselage tilts away from the ground. The chatting goes on regardless of the ragged cotton-wool clouds outside. Opposite, a woman closes her eyes, clutching an open magazine on her lap. Sit back and relax. Janette is moving through the cabin to give us a chance to win a brand new car or $10,000. “I would like a Fiat 500,” Linda, sitting next to me, remarks. I’m not sure what I would choose.
A sign says Exit but we all know not to pay attention to it.
A woman called Aimee smiles and asks if we would like to purchase anything. We’ll leave you in peace, says the pilot. The weather in Sydney, he says. We’d like to thank you for choosing, he says. I can smell brewed coffee. I could have purchased that from Aimee, but the trolley is passing Row 15 and we are 25. Even if it comes back I won’t buy it. I prefer the planes where they give you things for free. Even if nothing is for free.
I used to look forward to every time I flew. In Perth, the world’s most isolated city, where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, a flight was a very expensive shortcut from Western Australia to a world otherwise days or weeks away across vast deserts and oceans. They published the details of each flight arrival and departure in the morning newspaper, next to the shipping news. The Perth Airport featured an ornamental pond with black swans floating in it. At the viewing deck this provided a pretty feature beyond which, once or twice a day, a sleek 727 would back away from its parking spot on the tarmac, a man flapping a paddle in each hand at it like Gulliver waving away a giant. The black swans ascended, wheeling away to skim the waters of the Swan River estuary.
In Perth we had a love affair with flying. (Every cent counts, says the plastic bag Aimee is carrying through the cabin; we all ignore her.) Or at least, we had a love affair with being flown over. It showed us we hadn’t been forgotten. When the American astronaut John Glenn became the first person to orbit the globe in 1962, the year before I was born, his flight path took him directly over Perth one night. The local citizenry were implored to turn on as many electric lights as possible so that from his metal capsule, the space-suited man of the future would glimpse Perth glowing in the vast darkness. Would he see us? Would he love us in the City of Light? How much would he love us?
I look out the window.
Sometimes it feels like the plane might snap in half. Notwithstanding that (a) they’ve done a lot of testing, (b) a lot of people have worked very hard, (c) you have more chance of dying doing (virtually anything else). The woman with the magazine has woken up and is doing a crossword, which is called Crozzle. She could win $250, and seems unconcerned by all the bumps. The Exit signs are lit up. I can see bridges, houses, boats, oil tanks, cranes, ships, the water of the bay glistening in the sunlight, very fast grass—
Our swan has rubber wheels. Ladies and gentlemen, it says. Welcome. And once more we are grounded.
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet is now available from Rose Metal Press, 209 pages. Order wherever books are sold.
David Carlin’s books include The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder, The Abyssinian Contortionist, and Our Father Who Wasn’t There. He co-edited The Near and the Far, Vols 1&2, two anthologies of new Asian and Australian writing. His award-winning essays have been published widely, including in such journals as Hunger Mountain, Overland, Meanjin, LitHub, Terrain.org, Essay Daily, Griffith Review and Westerly, and he has written and directed for film, theatre, circus, and radio. David is co-president of NonfictioNOW, and Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT University, where he co-founded WrICE and the non/fictionLab.
Nicole Walker is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books. Her previous work includes Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and a book of poems, This Noisy Egg. She wishes she’d gone with the original title for her collection of poems, “Comeuppance,” so she only had one book with Egg in the title, but like eggs or chickens, the poetry collection came first.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 5 · September 2019
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