Nonfiction from NER 42.1 (2021)
Many of the animals have always been in lockdown. It’s all they’ve ever known. A peacock stares back from the other side of the fence, a lone sea lion pokes its nose up from its island, and, though you can’t see them, you know they’re there, pacing the interior: baboons, wallabies, prairie dogs. The peacock has gotten loose and has the run of the area near the fence, and as you stare into each other’s eyes, you feel there’s consciousness behind the feathers, though you know that expression of longing might only be something you’re imagining. The peacock is just looking for food, but now a few people with children have found this part of the fence where you can look in, and the animals look back at you, and we talk to them as if they have consciousness, aware of their surroundings, and aware of why so few people are visiting them. All big social animals—primates, elephants, dolphins—have the capacity to reconcile after conflict as a way to reduce tension, so the idea that there’s someone in there behind their eyes seems viable. There’s an experiment, the rouge test, intended to solve the question of whether or not some animals can identify themselves in a mirror. They go through stages of recognition, at first behaving as if the reflection is another animal, hitting, knocking the glass, then realizing when they raise arm or trunk that the reflection does as well, hey, that must be me, making faces, opening my mouth and looking inside (elephants), blowing bubbles (dolphins), scratching (magpie). You put a red dot on the forehead of chimps, elephants, or the bodies of dolphins, magpies, and watch them touch the mark on themselves, try to wipe or peck it away. These are animals that possess neurological substrates where consciousness resides.
Do slime molds, as single-celled creatures massing and clumping together, happily growing over a food source, have consciousness? Their networks of branches and hubs as they sit on forest floors or garbage dumps—those deliberate patterns of tendrils and intersections—have been used as models to design systems of underground trains. They have primitive responses to stimuli, are more than just reactive, but they don’t have brains, so do they have consciousness? Okay, say they don’t, take molds off the list. What creature has the tiniest brain? Ping another tine on the evolutionary cladogram. Ants have very small ones, even in proportion to their little exoskeletonized tri-part bodies. Individually, their brains are too small to function very well, but collectively, they’re bigger than the sum of their neurons. Here, folks: swarm intelligence. As a mob, they can find food, fight aggressive ant interlopers from other colonies, pile on top of one another to form bridges over precipices between leaf and rock. Just like us, they protect plants they ultimately have eyes on consuming. But do they have swarm consciousness? And if so, can it be manipulated? Slime mold consciousness could be one step ahead of zombies who have no consciousness.
But then, what about viruses? Without brains or consciousness, they are said to invade, populate, destroy their hosts, and, when their work is done, to die. A virus isn’t like a micro-organism, a bacterium, a single-celled whatever, but when it parasitizes, you can say, as Dr. Frankenstein said of his monster, yes, it’s alive. A micro-demon, described in words associated with monstrosity, and like a thing but not that particular thing itself. Not exactly alive, not inert either, and like Frankenstein, viruses can’t reproduce on their own, only in the cells of their hosts.
In 1823 Mary Shelley attended a staged version of Frankenstein, Presumption or the Fate of Frank, but in the playbill, the monster was not named. Where a name would appear there were only hyphens, which made the unnameable creature that much more frightening. She wrote to a friend, “This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good.” Viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses according to their genetic structure, a naming process that is stripped of romance or history. Spikey balls, reactive, desperate to survive, are they conscious of air waves they need to travel and disinfectant they need to avoid? Unknown.
USES FOR THE NEWLY INVISIBLE
A submersible with only enough space for a solitary operator descended, looked for shells of Cold War submarine salvage. Water pressure is like a couple of city buses parked on an egg, and it’s that level of stress every square inch, so opening the hatch, even if you could, would render you as compressed as if you’d tumbled down a black hole. No trial space-walks down here. Also, no sunlight gets even close. It’s a dense, bottom-of-a-cave black. The submersible’s light played across knolls and trenches until it hit a field, a flat surface teeming with a kind of life.
Some had no feet and lay face-down, others were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with their confederates. There were Jefferson Davises, Robert E. Lees, Junípero Serras complete with crucifixes, a band of Columbuses, many of them, hailing from as geographically diverse cities as Sacramento and Newark. Some Columbuses faced out, noseless as sphinxes, features lost from the force of toppling. There was a Diego de Vargas looking like a fourth musketeer to Robert Milligan, Frank Rizzo, and Zebulon Baird Vance. Some were decapitated and remained unidentified, to say nothing of monuments to nameless soldiers who had the misfortune of being commemorated in the tomb of the unknown. Some were splashed with paint as if the last time they saw dry land was during the festival of Holi, and speaking of Holi, there’s Mark Cubbon on his horse, come all the way from Bangalore. Horses weren’t separated from their riders. You’d think the horses could find some useful repurposing in parks or in rides, but bronze and stone are unforgiving materials. King Leopold of Belgium and the horse he rode in on, they were there too.
Lenin, old hand at going without his plinth, and there were many of him, stood or leaned in a cluster with Stalin, Mao, and Jiang Qing. Okay, they deserved it, but he might have felt it an outrage to stand in the company of generals, slave owners, colonialists, tyrants, and scions of industry who turned out to be the devils he always knew them to be. If he doesn’t belong here, there is no one to protest to, and he’s not alone in feeling wrongfully placed. The Oglala Mohawk Nez Perce composite on one side and Pan-African on the other side of Theodore Roosevelt remain unseparated, still a troika, a symbol of hierarchical power. To detach them from one another would’ve taken a great deal of blowtorch skill, but even if pulled apart with rope, winch, and grappling hook, into what basement would they have gone, once the central figure was discarded? Finding the composites in a storage facility a thousand years from now, how would their existence be interpreted? Commemoration or something sinister? The people of the future might be puzzled, unable to figure it out. As if casting these men, that alone, were an endorsement of the well, that’s the way things were air citizens of the time breathed in and out. So, there they all are at the bottom of the ocean.
A precedent exists for their oceanic fate. The Red Bird trains, the old RR line, defunct IRTs, INDs, BMTs were sunk off Jamaica Bay to seed coral reefs and oyster beds, so nearly extinct, victims of off-the-charts acidity and shipping traffic powered by the urgency of deadlines and large amounts of fossil fuels. How to bring back marine life? Dump the trains, and all those sponges and brain coral, mollusks and edible shellfish come back, growing without complaint on antiquated MTA equipment. Put the statues to similar use. Goodbye to those monuments, we’re done with you, boom, gone—give them something to do where they don’t have to be seen by anyone who can say, oh yeah, that guy, he had the feet of runaway slaves severed.
Underwater bronze bodies turn greenish in seawater. They stare at flounder, clouds of box jellies, hammerheads, forests of kelp in the distance. Clownfish dart around their ankles. Crabs crawl up their doublets, barnacles cling to their swords and muttonchop sideburns. Plastic sixpack rings catch on hands, tin cans, detergent bottles cluster at the feet of the plinthless, a Coney Island whitefish falls on the shoulder of one of the Juníperos. Even in life, he would have no idea what it was.
The oceans seem quiet, but on the hydrophones of acoustic ecologists, the echolocations of killer whales and dolphins are clearer and more frequent than they ever have been. The hydrophone recordings convey a lexicon of speech patterns,
warnings, distress signals, and clues as to how marine languages are passed on in the form of calls, whistles, high-frequency clicks. Other vocalizations sound like interrogative arcs but might actually be declarations or plaintive screams saying nothing mournful at all, only: seals ahead. The ocean is quiet because the cruise ships are gone, along with a percentage of tankers and fishing trawlers, though not all of those, and there is still a great deal of mischief they can get up to.
The seabed is continuous and, if it could, it would shrug its tectonic plates at the idea of boundaries, of Arctic here and Indian there. In its history, the Anthropocene is a five-minute nothing. The floor, with its volcanic vents, trenches, and mountain ranges as big as Texas, is a recording device containing the prints, the DNA of life from trilobites to the evolutionary evidence contained in whale crap. Stir it up and all those records and interlocking ecosystems of anemones, corals, fish, and shellfish, circulating microbes, of eating and being eaten, nitrogen and phosphate balance, all go kablooie. The endless micropoli are so easily shredded, and this is the chaos the all-purpose nets of the fishing trawlers create when they do their work.
Above the statue heads, fishing trawlers drag their long, deep nets, collecting yellow fins, mussels, krill, disturbing sediment as fine as powder, home to a host of creatures who thrive without sunlight, from eyeless shrimp who live on volcanic vents to aggressive worms with sharp teeth, but as they’re dragged, the nets also get caught on Francis Drake’s elbow or his flying saucer collar, or the carved fringes on depressive Meriwether Lewis in Shoshone dress, or jagged stumps of headless necks. The nets, as destructive as land mines, are torn apart. Finally, those statues standing with funerary sea lilies and clinging starfish lose their identities, join witness protection, and get a job.
In My Man Godfrey, William Powell has a conversation with another homeless fellow, both living in a city dump.
“Don’t worry, prosperity’s right around the corner.”
“Wish I knew which corner. It’s been there a long time.”
When Carole Lombard arrives she tells him he’s exactly what she’s been looking for: a forgotten man, something or someone nobody wants.
Nose pressed against the single porthole, the Ahab at the controls moves a light beam from statue to statue, but the submersible has no interest in or ability to hoist anyone back to dry land, so there they stay planted, determined expressions blindly facing the dark.
ON THE UNNAMEABLE
We talk about this person all the time, but we find not a single word or phrase that adequately conveys our horror. We assign to him lunacy, monstrosity, ignorance, the stupidity of a brick, a number, a color, lowercase letters. The failure of language causes us to stumble and sputter. Mussolini was sometimes referred to as the Talking Larvae, but larvae, icky, maligned, blind slugs of appetites, turn into moths, butterflies, bees, to say nothing of amphibians down the road. This person transitions into nothing beautiful or useful, and no matter how much we envision him in an orange jumpsuit, serves you right is not a box we are likely to be able to check off anytime soon. But then if no commemoration is ever cast, none can be destroyed, and there is some comfort in that, and in the possibility of forgetting, of some future submersible drivers saying, remember? And someone, the very oldest person, answering, can’t say that I do. ■