“A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow.”
“Don’t bleed on the work,” James and I warn each other after each prick and subsequent curse. A pin nips my finger, and I hold my index up to the light to look for a tiny puncture, waiting to see if a red drop will emerge. We’re hand sewing a ten-foot dome from socks, skirts, and other assorted fabrics, including something that might be the hide of Elmo. Every day, our hands receive tiny little injuries. Stitched together, the varying colors and fabrics appear similar to abstractly patterned stained glass. It’s a big project, sewing this tent/installation/ sculpture, so friends come to help. They include a teacher, a historian, a poet, two seamstresses, and a beekeeper whose hives are kept inside a cemetery. He calls the honey the Sweet Hereafter; every year his product sells out very fast.
Hereafter can refer to the afterlife, or it can mean “from now on.” I feel like my entire generation is preoccupied with this meaning—something already set in motion. “What will happen from now on?” I ask James. I ask him lots of questions about the future. He is anxious because he’s worried we’ve already ruined it. That’s why, these days, all of his artwork is about climate collapse. After the arctic ice melt of 2012—the ice had not been that low for sixty thousand years—he sat on a boat while carving it out from under himself. It was thirteen feet long and wooden, and he placed the boat in a storefront window. Over the course of several weeks, as construction workers and policemen watched, James chipped away at the vessel with hand tools until nothing but a sea of shavings remained.
The argument of what is and what isn’t art is beside the point: the destruction of a boat is clearly a metaphor. The process hurt him; he got splinters and had to be careful lest his hands suffer stress fractures. He hired me soon after, and during my artist-assistant training, I took copious notes. I see now that most of these notes are about pain.
The creation of the dome is an intimate and painful experience. James gives the dome a name: The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. He paints the words on a piece of wood and leans it against the base of the tent’s frame.
Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena. It’s concerned with whether plants and animals thrive or survive, because our food supply depends on the timing of events. Two other words that pop up when the term phenology is entered into a search engine: climate and consequences.
James has experienced vivid dreams throughout his life. In them, the sun expands over centuries. Oceans boil off. I’m aware of these dreams because he has told me about them and because I read his journals.
“Artist Assistant” is an elusive title. Reading private journals was not mentioned during my interview—an interview granted because I found his listing on the New York Foundation of the Arts website and applied, edging out one hundred other applicants who were equally interested in finding meaningful work and/or leaving work they hated. When I arrived at the interview, I really wanted the job, even though it didn’t pay much. During the interview, I wanted it even more because the whole practice appeared intense and mysterious, and the artist, who was about a decade older than me, came across as considerate and professional, not as a slimeball or an axe murderer, even though I suppose he could have been one. After I got the job, I quickly learned that James is an academically minded human who, alongside painting and design, studies complex systems, which basically means he studies a lot of subjects at once. Like studying the world.
I think I am the only one who reads his private thoughts.
“I work for an artist!” I tell people.
They ask, “What do you do for the artist?”
“I make art!”
I don’t tell anyone this unless prompted because, when my job comes up in conversation, one of three things happens: someone changes the subject; I’m told in one patronizing way or another that I’m noble; I’m asked what kind of art I make. This last question is a difficult one to answer, and I have not perfected my elevator speech. Mixed media? Conceptual? Socially engaged? I suppose it’s the kind of art that causes you to stop attempting to make your Iowa farmer parents proud or even understand.
How do you explain to them that you professionally contemplate the apocalypse?
For days I walk around Brooklyn neighborhoods posting tear-off flyers on telephone poles. These flyers read: “Can you divine? Do you divine? I want to know how the story ends.” “Do you have religious or spiritual experiences that provide insight into the future?” “Looking for diviners comfortable discussing the end of the world.”
James calls this flyer-ing on-the-ground research, and we do ultimately receive responses by phone and email. One of them leads to a meeting. We drive to see a man who is both a shaman and initiated asogwe priest in Haitian Vodou. We drink coffee with him, and it’s a special experience because I have never met a shaman/asogwe priest. Later, I find out he has a Twitter account. His tweets say things like, “Trying to figure out where all the kitchen knives have disappeared to and they’re all in your workings. #rootworkerproblems.” I smile at the screen. I love this shaman/asogwe priest. During the visit, we’d shared concerns for the future, and the shaman explained the Cree word, wetiko, a word that perfectly describes an otherwise unarticulated sickness. To be wetiko is to suffer a contagious, psycho-spiritual disease of the soul, to be the human instrument of an evil, cannibalistic spirit, a monstrosity collectively acted. The shaman says wetiko is our disregard for, and destruction of, our biosphere, the very thing that we need for survival. The word is a gift. I feel more at ease when I have language for what I fear.
I find hundreds of divination methods and the names for them, and I type them out on an old typewriter in James’s studio so that we can occasionally remind ourselves of the many ways one can look into, or discuss, the future.
Sortes Virgilianae divination by Virgil’s Aeneid
Cromnyomancy divination by onion sprouts
Catoptromancy divination by mirror gazing
Meilomancy divination by moles on the skin
Abacomancy divination by dust
My father does this thing where, holding my feet in both of his hands, he examines my toes. As a child, I used to love it when my parents sang “This Little Piggy” and wiggled each toe, but I don’t know what my father is looking for when he examines my feet at this age. I read somewhere that physicians often inspect the feet of the elderly. How long are the toenails? It is one way to predict whether or not the patient can still take care of themselves. I’ve started to sneakily examine my parents’ feet for this reason. A form of pedomancy? I care about their happiness and longevity, which are mostly out of my control.How do you explain to them that you professionally contemplate the apocalypse?
When my mother, a nonsmoker, discovered she had lung cancer, she notified me via text message as if it were a casual thing happening to her body. Or maybe it was a strategic distancing; she could easily write but not say her diagnosis. They removed an entire lobe at the hospital. A couple of weeks after the procedure, she was back in the grain cart alongside her husband. As far as work goes, the two of them are a package set. My mother prides herself on her usefulness but desperately wants my father to retire. I used to be convinced that my father would farm corn and soybeans right up until the day he died, but now I foresee something different. When you get a glimpse of mortality, sometimes your priorities change. “Take me somewhere warm,” says my mother.
When talking about the farm, my parents have always emphatically insisted that I never sell the land. Part of it has been taken care of by my family for over a hundred years. But recently, my parents explained a plan that would include a buy-out option regarding my future inheritance. Someone else can work the ground; I can be freed from that burden. But lifting one imparts another. “I don’t care what happens to the land,” said my father one evening at the dinner table, which is either a lie to ease his daughter’s guilt or a horrible, depressing truth. Even though I find myself outside of the world of farming, I have been thinking about this particular legacy and responsibility for years. There is pride associated with food production. And when an article appears in Atlas Obscura, written by George Pendle, titled, “This Iowa Town’s Dirt Might Be More Valuable Than Gold,” I know even before reading it that the piece will mention the fertility of Conrad in Grundy County—my home.
Some have suggested that the Pampas of Argentina have soil of especial richness. Others posit certain areas of the Ukraine, where the fecundity of the soil has led to a $900 million black market in “chernozem” (“black dirt”). However, the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, located a dispassionate fifty-three miles away from Conrad, has declared Conrad’s soil among the richest farmland in the world.
My town is built on a thousand years of prairie ecology. But this soil, with the pressures of modern yield and the large application of fertilizers, is being used up. Pendle explains that, from the Minoans and Mesopotamians to the Incas and the Aztecs, soil loss is tied to the demise of many ancient societies and “Conrad itself . . . has already decreased from the two feet of topsoil the original settlers found to an average between six to eight inches today.”
After consulting with our shaman friend, James purchases a tarot deck. He takes classes from experts and practices reading his set of cards. I quiz James about tarot’s iconography and each potential meaning. I pretend to be other people asking questions, or I simply ask them as myself—interrogations about farming, food supply, and how to be a good ancestor. Sometimes I don’t say my questions aloud. Tarot practitioners call this a blind reading; it’s a method to weed out fakers. We do all of this from inside The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. After all, this is the point of the artwork (not that all artwork has to have a point): we aim to confront climate change and its signposts, to acknowledge its complexity, and to decipher possible outcomes by means of visualization and divination.
It’s decided. In our tent, James will discuss only the future of the planet. He flips the cards over, places them into a spread, and tells me what he sees. It’s not very good.
Science writer, Craig Childs, explains in Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of the Earth that “when modern farmers first plowed Grundy County soils in the mid-nineteenth century, they said it sounded like firecrackers going off, all those prairie roots snapping as topsoil folded back like a blanket.” Childs recruited a friend named Angus to spend two nights and three days with him in the middle of a six-hundred-acre farm. They wanted to see what they’d find living in the dirt. NPR reported on their experiment, explaining that a hundred years ago the same land was home to “three hundred species of plants, sixty mammals, three hundred birds, hundreds and hundreds of insects.” What Childs and his buddy found: one mushroom the size of an apple seed, a cobweb spider eating a crane fly, some grasshoppers, and a single red mite. A combination of DuPont and Monsanto stock, the field plants had unbreakable leaves, unless you leaned right on the nodes. Childs describes walking into this farmland as “like pushing through Jell-O.”
Childs’s description of the gelatinous sensation sounds like science fiction. It sounds monstrous and horrific. A formless, shape-shifting, all-encompassing vehicle for terror.
Midway through the 1958 version of The Blob, Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) sneak away under cover of night to discuss the gelatinous creature that threatens to consume and destroy the world. The authorities in their town, who are generally dubious of teenagers’ thoughts and actions and see youth itself as a danger to a strictly controlled status quo, don’t believe the teens and so don’t believe the blob exists. A good portion of the film is devoted to the young protagonists assuring each other of their sanity, but, newly awakened to their situation—that humanity is at the brink of being eradicated and that no one believes them—Steve and Jane struggle with the veracity of their own experience as well as what to do about the town’s denial of the blob.
JANE. Steve, you believe you did see it. Don’t you?
STEVE. I don’t kn . . . I don’t . . .
JANE. That’s not true, Steve. Maybe now you don’t want to believe it; maybe you’d like to tell yourself it didn’t happen. Steve, you’re not the kind of person who can turn their back on something you know is true.
STEVE. How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don’t believe in?
JANE. You keep trying and hoping that you can find some sort of proof that will convince them.
Early ripening of the wild pawpaw.
House sparrows laying three sets of eggs instead of two.
Nonexistent torpor of the eastern chipmunk.
The northern creep of the crepe myrtle.
Changing taste of whitetail deer flesh.
Lost stripes of the eastern red-backed salamander.
So many phenological shifts are happening.
James makes a painting of each of these species, and we pin the portraits to the outside of our tent. The paintings are representations of observations and anecdotes taken from birdwatchers, citizen scientists, and elderly friends. We’re collecting them—each subsequently and figuratively detailed on marine canvas by James. Eventually, the list of observations will grow too long, and we’ll start stacking the images of plants and animals like Tibetan prayer flags. It becomes clear James will never finish all of the paintings.
Because we are working with our hands and trying to complete our tent structure in a timely manner, James and I spend a lot of time together—they are mostly quiet moments that we sometimes fill with chatter. James encourages my budding science-fiction curiosities and gives me comic books and movie recommendations. We talk about The Blob. I enjoy having this new interest, although it’s a bit paradoxical to be working on an artwork about potential end times when science-fiction narratives are frequently meant to build up the expectation that technology can solve all our problems.
STEVE. It’s kind of like a mass that keeps getting bigger.
POLICE OFFICER. Come on, Steve. Make sense.
Did you know that by 2050, there might be more plastic matter in the ocean than the biomass of fish? At the Morgan Library & Museum, I see an exhibit on Wayne Thiebaud’s drawings. He has drawn, and painted, many things but most remarkably food. My favorite work of his is Circle of Fish, which happens to be hung on display. As the title states, the fish are arranged into a perfect circle. A placard explains Theibaud’s theory behind the presentation: the common arrangement of fish into decorative circles at fish markets is intended to make the sight of dead animals more palatable. “Fish, laid out on a plain white surface, are very moving,” Thiebaud remarked, “a kind of tragedy, actually.” When I dish up dinner for myself, I always clean any dripped contents off the white-rimmed lip of my plate with a napkin. Such fussiness, but I simply cannot ignore the impulse. As well as the notion of palatability, there is an element of sacredness to aesthetics. There is also something especially sacred about the circle. It’s a symbol of unification, Earth’s generative nature, and, largely, wholeness.
We have finally completed the sewing, and James and I are standing inside the studio, inside the tent, which is a circle, and we are looking up at the ceiling through an oculus, which is also a circle—an opening we have left at the top of the tent for air circulation. Soon, our view will not be the ceiling of his studio but the sky above because we are taking the tent on the road. I’ve planned and outlined the trip. We will take the tent to approximately fifty locations in towns across multiple states, set up the structure early in the morning while everyone is asleep, and tear it down late in the evening. James likens us to a circus caravan, which is the most apt description either of us can come up with. I feel like a carnival barker and a magician’s assistant. Someone to grow the excitement of the crowd and wave her arms at the performer. Someone to step into a box and disappear when instructed.
The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies garners the attention of a professor at an ivy league school. James is interviewed by the woman (I am off camera, crouched in the box of invisibility), and she puts this filmed interview online so it can be shared with the smartest young people. They are teaching new courses at her ivy league school, teaching concepts like “climate communication,” the lens through which she’s explaining the tent project. Scientists are worried about how to get individuals to care about our climate crisis, and they have discovered that academic charts and diagrams are not the language of the people. So while offering tarot card readings about climate change may mock modern scientific thought, scientists are also recognizing that it might not be a terrible idea to use a communication tool that provides a spiritual and personalized element.
STEVE. I’ve never needed to talk to anyone before, not as much as I do now.
JANE. We’re in this together, aren’t we, Steve?
James paints “Free Climate Change Divination Readings” onto his wooden sign. It’s the last thing that we pack into his car—along with the tent, our backpacks, and ourselves. We turn away from the city and its tall buildings and momentarily allow the highway traffic to distract us from the mild nervousness accompanying what we’ve set out to do. Everything familiar trails off into the distance. A binary starts to creep into my head: there will be a before the tent tour and an after. We say farewell to our homes. We continue, driving ahead.
Around the start of our tent tour, I read in a newspaper article that “evacuation of the two villages has begun, with authorities reportedly relocating 68 of 223 families so far.” It’s an update to a story first reported a couple of years prior. People were suddenly falling asleep in northern Kazakhstan, even while walking, and waking with headaches and memory loss. Some people mysteriously fell asleep over half a dozen times, and some slept for up to six days at a time. It happened in two small villages to adults and children alike. Even a cat was reported to be snoring, wandering like a zombie. The language used to describe sufferers was that they were “dropping off.” Some lost consciousness while others experienced new realities: hallucinations of winged horses, worms eating their hands, snakes in their beds.
The investigation took a long time. After analyzing the results of medical examinations of all the afflicted residents, researchers finally concluded that it was caused by the heightened levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air. The villages had uranium mines left over from the Cold War. They had been closed at some point, but the mines had created a concentration of carbon monoxide. The real reason for the sleeping sickness was lack of oxygen.
“Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, and nowadays, hardly anybody likes it when you mention the environment,” writes Timothy Morton in his book Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. “You risk sounding boring or judgmental or hysterical, or a mixture of all three.” To Morton, there is a deep yet simple reason for this. When you mention the unconscious, it becomes conscious. When you speak of the environment, it’s brought to the foreground and stops being the environment: “It stops being That Thing Over There that surrounds and sustains us. When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink.” The waste—from human industrialization and extraction—becomes monstrous. It becomes a hostile force, invading the parameters of our conceptual environment.
A paper written by May R. Berenbaum and Richard J. Leskosky for the Ecological Society of America—Life History Strategies and Population Biology in Science Fiction Films—analyzes sixty-seven “invader” films released in theaters between 1950 and 1958. According to film historians, they were an artistic response to fears brought on by Nazi imperialism and Cold War paranoia. Only three alien creatures survive to the end of the film; most are obliterated in spectacular ways.
MEANS OF DESTRUCTION
Atmosphere 6 Water 4
Volcano 4 Microbes 1
Earthquake 2 Conventional Weapons 22
Avalanche 2 Electromagnetic Radiation 12
Poison Gas 2 Predators 2
Suicide 2 Cannibalism 1
The paper includes a table of the invader films remade between 1970 and 1990—which includes The Blob. The biggest difference between the remake and the original version is the role of the authority figures. In the ’50s’ version, the military successfully comes to the aid of the townspeople by removing the creature. In the 1988 remake, the government accidentally unleashes the blob—an experiment in biological warfare gone awry. “That organism is potentially the biggest breakthrough in weapons research since man split the atom,” says the man in charge. “What we do here will affect the balance of world power.” Everything is about power. Yet officials fail at domination and heap violence upon their creation to no avail. “Chew on that, slimeball,” says a government employee after dropping a grenade atop the blob. In response, it shoots out of a manhole like a giant phallus and falls limp upon the man, killing him instantly. His body is absorbed and disappears into the growing gelatinous goo.
I stand on a chair so that my head, shoulders, and arms emerge through the oculus at the top of our tent. James hoists up a large amount of fabric and passes it to my outstretched hands. He helps me dress the structure, and the material cascades prettily to the ground. It takes three hours for James and me to install The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. It’s slow and arduous—this daily business of building and tearing down, of dressing and undressing—but I succumb to the muscle memory of our careful process. I am my best robotic self. Tie this, pull this, snap that. Amidst a bent metal frame lies a taut canvas grid marked by numbers and letters. We cinch and button and pin our quilts of used clothing to the inner walls. When secured and drawn back, it becomes a dome of soft textiles spread into a gradated rainbow pattern. I softly trace some lace and then a child’s shirt collar with my finger before placing our tools out of sight. It’s an impressive thing, this stitched sculpture, although you can’t experience the whole effect unless you step inside, which many creatures do. A groundhog tries to enter by burrowing a hole under the base. A cat admits herself and curls her body against the wall. A young couple comes to sit and talk. I think it’s because the structure’s attractive and protective.
The couple is either newly married or about to be married. He is a serviceman working as a member of the Coast Guard and will soon be off on another deployment. The two of them gaze at the fabrics and the stack of tarot cards. James begins to shuffle.
I once heard a poet call mysticism the prophetic act of piecing together a scattered cosmic body. This serviceman tells James he has “seen some stuff” already, across both land and sea. Scenes replay in his mind, but he knows he will travel once again into zones struck by natural disaster. The man will witness more violence, depletion, and struggle. What will this “stuff” feel like when accumulated over time?
His partner squeezes his hand, supportive, grounded, and loving. She is the real reason for visiting The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. He worries about the “out there,” but he also worries about his home, which is a place but also a person—her. He doesn’t want to bring it home to his love. By it he means anxiety, darkness, and climate crisis. By it, he means a monster.
People are generally curious about the tent. I stand outside the structure, control the queue, which fluctuates from zero people to a big line and a waiting period that lasts for hours. Most everyone wants to know if James will really give them a definitive answer to their question. I say “maybe” but also “not really,” because the world is in constant flux. Mostly, I think a prophet is simply someone who pays attention and has a good imagination. A prophet is someone who can think metaphorically. I stress the positive attributes of contemplative space and envisioning possible outcomes. I am not one for strict adherence—that the cards will tell us the one and only truth. I don’t know if this is frustrating or brings relief to those waiting in line, but they nod their heads regardless.
A solitary, serious boy in Virginia sits quietly reading a book until it is his time to enter the tent. He has been scrutinizing the movement of eagles on his grandfather’s property and is now worried. In Massachusetts, a petite child asks about warming temperatures, but she is not interested in melting snow. “What will happen to life in the desert?” she asks. A middle schooler, who has a subscription to the Economist, wants to learn how this crisis will affect the complex web of trade.
Sometimes, a parent will enter the tent with their child. The parent, usually a mother, sits quietly and listens to the child’s query. James guides them through time, into the future. The mother must imagine her child as a teenager, as a college student, as someone her own age. She must imagine her child with age spots, gray hair, and bad knees. She must imagine her child without her. The mother will admit that she has never done this before, visualized her child as an old man/woman. When they exit the space, the mother is often quiet and maybe a little shaken. I notice energy shifts, how people walk in and walk out, and quickly measure these energies, occasionally checking in to see if participants are okay. James and I also check in with each other.
While driving, or over greasy diner eggs, he will relay the daily tarot readings to me, both because I’m curious and also to unburden himself. If there is a bathtub, in the evening James will lie in warm water in an attempt to clear his mind. I will sit in silence somewhere on the other side of the door, respecting his quiet suspension. I drink alcohol to help me sleep. James still has bad dreams, and when we have to share a room, I think about what he must be dreaming in the dark from my position on the floor, the couch, or a blow-up mattress. We sleep wherever people let us sleep, finding hosts in different regions and from different backgrounds.
A run-down Winnebago with a shattered window.
The carriage house of a mansion belonging to the city mayor.
The living room of a horticultural PhD student.
The insect-infested home of a woman who believes in fairies.
Amish country, surrounded by wildflowers.
In The Blob, the protagonists don’t sleep. Jane and Steve only pretend to go to sleep, sneaking out of their bedrooms at night. They know the blob is at large and feel the responsibility to warn everyone they see. When they do find the blob, it’s too late. They’re trapped inside a diner—along with Jane’s little brother—completely enveloped by the monster. Steve lifts the boy into his arms. Jane tells her brother to try and go to sleep. In the frame, the three of them appear to be a nuclear family; having grown up in the matter of a few hours and no longer recognizable as teenagers, Steve and Jane morph into parental figures. The little boy buries his head into Steve’s shoulder, and, amidst the heightened tension of this climax, Steve and Jane look meaningfully into each other’s eyes.
STEVE. Hey, listen Jane—
JANE. It’ll be alright.
When the New York Times film critic, Howard Thompson, reviewed The Blob, he described the picture as one that “talks itself to death.” But I can’t get over the way Jane cuts Steve short. We’ll never know if Steve meant to tell her “I love you” or “I’m sorry,” both of which seem true. Why did I have to get her involved? he probably thinks to himself. It’s all too much. There is no declaration of feeling, of this immensity of feeling between the two of them, because to put it into language would kill it.
James and I can talk about our day-to-day, but we find it hard to speak about the wider scope of our project—about the legs of our journey not yet traveled.
The tent is overwhelming. The tent is an endurance test. When we begin to broach these things, our voices trail off. “It’ll be alright,” I find myself saying out loud. I set an intention amidst the most tragic circumstances, telling myself something positive will be born of the experience. It’s this attitude that James and I adopt in the throes of exhaustion.
A pamphlet published by Martin Luther and Phillipp Melanchthon in 1523, and translated into English in 1579, tells of “two wonderful popish monsters.” It details various interpretations of the monstrous, either prophetic or eschatological. Monsters and prodigies are signs of fundamental change about to affect the world. Another interpretation is allegorical, each monster a divine hieroglyph exhibiting a particular feature of God’s wrath. I see tarot cards as functioning in the allegorical sense too—archetypes meant as guideposts for a way of making decisions and navigating life.
I cannot convince everyone to partake in the process. In Pennsylvania, a handful of Christians express concern that the tent and our tarot will invoke some kind of demonic spirit. In Maryland, our presence makes a few police officers chuckle. They are flippant. “I don’t care what happens with climate change because I will already be dead,” says an old man in Connecticut.
I listen to an interview on the radio with an indigenous activist.
“Not all people who grow old are elders.”
We install The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies in a public park, and it is hot. I watch a group of adults with cognitive disabilities climb onto a choo-choo train with the help of caretakers. The train plays music, and its song repeats while it does wide loops around the tent. There is another activity at the park too: paddle boating. For a small fee, people can take them out onto the pond and make figure eights in the water if they like. The proprietor leaves what I’m assuming is his son in charge. I get the impression he is one of those kids who hasn’t had much of a childhood; he has held a job since the moment he could hold one. His current job is to rent the boats. He drags a chair over to the dock and sits. He then stands up and paces, waiting for a customer.
The boats look like white swans. Tied to the dock, the big plastic birds sway in unison. A real swan avoids them, swimming at a distance. The boy doesn’t pay much attention to it because he has to pay attention to the plastic swans, the ones that will hopefully bring in money, which he needs. But the boy is interested in us and our tent, which appeared mysteriously at his workplace. He wants to poke his head inside and get a reading, but first he has to work. “Maybe I can do it when I get off!” he told us when he found us there that morning.
We—the three of us—sit in the heat for hours.
A couple of people pass by our tent while out for a walk and briefly stop. But the day is mostly quiet and boring. At a certain point, I go to buy a lemonade as James waits inside the tent. The boy departs to use the bathroom. When he gets back, the cashbox is gone. “Did you see where it went?” he asks us, as if the money left by its own volition. I spot him searching the park, visibly distressed. Eventually, we have to pack up the tent and go to our next destination. We ask the boy if he wants to look inside. “I can’t,” he says. James and I leave him with his plastic birds, and it makes us depressed.
Over time, the questions from participants begin to pile up, so much so that James and I have trouble remembering them all, and James resorts to jotting them down nightly in his journal to maintain a record.
Can I safely buy a waterfront condo?
Should I change careers to respond to climate change?
Will anything I do make any difference?
Should I be doing more?
Will climate refugees come to my town?
Will my children be a part of the solution?
Should I have children at all?
Is there hope?
A woman silently cries as she exits the tent, and I hug her. The weight and tension of her body releases into mine. A man who used to work for the National Forest Service until the President of the United States cut his research funding has his wife take Polaroid photos of the two of us standing in front of the tent— one for me and one for them to remember me by. “It’s so important,” they both say about The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies.
The Guardian recently published an article titled, “How Scientists Are Coping with Ecological Grief.” In it, the various experts interviewed are blunt. They speak about the horrifying loss of the Great Barrier Reef and other subjects of their fieldwork but also the loss of personal identities and cultural connections that indigenous people affected by global warming are experiencing. Ashlee Consolo, an environmentalist who works with Inuit communities in Labrador, mentions hearing a lot of “anticipatory grief,” which she describes as “the sense that the changes are continuing, and that they’re likely to experience worsening of what they’re already seeing. . . . This is a slow and cumulative grief without end.”
The blob is bigger, and it will grow bigger yet. It consumes an unsuspecting janitor, a car mechanic, and an old man.
“Doctor, I’m afraid,” admits a nurse when she finds the blob on the floor of a patient’s room. There’s a crash. The lights go out. The blob moves to its next target.
The true horror in the movie is knowing that the growing mass is made of once-human meat and the flesh of any other living thing the blob has absorbed. Unlike other famous monster figures, the blob has no distinguishable human qualities. The monster is simply a thing. Still, the people in the movie want to know what “it” is because they have never seen the likes of “it” before. Philosopher Georges Bataille describes an object of horror as “a fetid sticky object without boundaries, which teems with life and yet is the sign of death. It is nature at the point where its effervescence closely joins life and death, where it is death gorging life with decomposed substance.”
This boundary-less horror is something contemporary philosopher Julia Kristeva calls “abjection”—the breakdown in the distinction of the self and other. I cannot help but think of the blob’s ignorance of human exceptionalism as being analogous to climate change. The blob will consume all living things, and then these living things will become dissolved, assimilated, unrecognizable. And while I think there is hope and the possibility of change within our unknown futures, even if this means a future without humans, I also don’t want to get lost dwelling in the dissolve. After all, one of the guiding principles of a horror movie is for its main characters to try and stay alive.
In Rhode Island, a young woman from Taiwan enters The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. She describes to James her affinity for water, a relationship that has now become upsetting to her. The woman talks about the sea as intimately as one would a lover. I tell everyone who asks that the tent is not a space for answering questions of romance, but her question is an exception. Throughout her life, she would instinctively go to water when contemplating a new job or some other major transition. The water had a calming effect. Her visitation was a spiritual one. In a 1927 letter to his friend Sigmund Freud, writer and mystic Romain Rolland coined the term “oceanic feeling,” describing it as “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something limitless, unbounded . . . of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” Her oceanic feeling has become disrupted, the woman explains. After experiencing several strong typhoons in her home country, she can no longer stare at the water without feeling its violence.
Will she be able to find resolve?
James turns the cards and places them into a spread.
The truth of the matter is that water has become fraught. I read about the Ocean Observatories Initiative Endurance Array, a mechanism “designed to measure changes in the ocean on timescales from hours to decades” and how it has been keeping tabs on the Northeast Pacific—more specifically, a large region of anomalously warm surface water. Scientists are surveying this “warm blob” (as they call it), tracking its movements. The last big report observed that it had “advected south and toward the Canadian and US west coasts.” On the opposite coast, especially around Rhode Island, water temperatures contribute to what the locals ominously call “red tide.” The name itself sounds like something out of a B movie—the blob grows redder with every new victim—but instead of blood and gore, “red tide” refers to red seaweed. A spongy algae grows over native seaweed, starving and damaging the habitat. It smells bad when washed ashore, and little bugs like to cling onto it and live within its surface. For paddle boarders, swimmers, and surfers, it’s unpleasantly soupy.
Joan Didion has an essay about Rhode Island, namely Newport, called “The Seacoast of Despair.” While she calls the area “physically ugly, mean without the saving grace of extreme severity,” James and I are generously housed by those who intend to preserve the place. The Newport Restoration Foundation, with its Keeping History Above Water initiative, gives us beds to sleep in for two nights in one of the oldest neighborhoods. We left Providence late in the day, and it is dark when we arrive in town. Mist is everywhere. The house, which was built in 1725, is hard to find without daylight, but we manage. I stretch my legs while James searches for the key placed in a hidden spot and then watch as he struggles with the lock. The air smells of salt and fish. We must be near the water, but it’s hard to know in which direction the land’s edge lies.
When James finally opens the door, the house, from what I can tell, seems charming inside; it has good bones and creaky wooden floors. It’s a restoration project in progress, and I’m sure the foundation will make it beautiful and then sell it to some interested family. I find a set of new sheets stacked on the bed I claim, and I thrill at the level of cushion in the mattress. But before I can collapse on the bed, James and I take the time to carry all of the pieces of the disassembled tent from the car into the kitchen; James wants us to protect it from thieves. We go through the same motions wherever we sleep, no matter how tired we might be, because we understand that there is only one Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies.
We wake up early, shower, eat a banana, and pack everything back into the car before heading to our installation spot. I’ve made sure to wear the least amount of clothing possible as the forecast says it’ll be a scorcher. Instead of the woods or some cliff overlooking the sea, we’re setting up the tent on concrete. James drives, and unlike the night before, our destination is easily spotted. A defunct Texaco station rests in stark contrast against historic, centuries-old buildings.
James pops the trunk, we empty it, and I begin to lock the tent frame in place. A woman approaches us to say that underneath our feet is actually a natural spring, covered up by Texaco. It’s holy, or at least was at one time. The water beneath us is baptismal water. I look around. Across the street from our tent is a United Baptist Church, the second oldest in America. Also nearby: a Quaker meeting house and a synagogue. I think again of Joan Didion and her critique of the lives of individuals who chose to live in these parts. It was she who bristled at the level of topiary gardening in Newport, seeing it as a symbol of the rich. What did she say? “A landscape less to be enjoyed than dominated.” A bead of sweat slides from my neck down between my breasts. God, what I wouldn’t do to run my hands through that spring water and splash it onto my face and arms. If only we had kept and protected what was truly sacred. I turn to face James, but to utter these words out loud to him would only be preaching to the choir.
When the blob surrounds and envelopes the diner—with Steve, and Jane, and Jane’s little brother trapped inside—the parents watch. The police drop a power line onto the blob to burn it to a crisp, but the blob doesn’t care about the sparking power line or the fire that it starts. Now the diner is engulfed by the blob and engulfed by flames. Smoke begins to fill the diner and burn their lungs. They cough.
JANE’S MOTHER. Why don’t you do something?! Do something!
Jane’s mother is wildly distressed. She has been awakened from a dream. She’s been sleepwalking this whole time, you see—cooking meatloaves and cleaning windows and applying lipstick and saying “yes, dear.” Jane’s mother is an agreeable woman who never makes a scene. She wants to instill these qualities in her daughter too because these are the qualities her own mother taught her to value. These qualities will get you far in life, people in charge said. People. But people in charge can’t or won’t save her family. She never imagined it would be like this. Never dared think.
Jane’s father is waking up too. He has also been sleepwalking—going to work in clean suits in order to feed his family, coming home late and tired. He is the man of the house, a patriarch, an embodiment and expression of a system. When he opens his eyes, I envision him asking himself, How did I end up here with this monster? When he opens his eyes, he finds a rock in his hand. When he opens his eyes, he finds himself in front of one of the town’s honored institutions: the high school, where he is principal. He throws a rock at the school’s window. It breaks, of course. It’s just a facade. Teenagers cheer and swarm each room, grabbing every fire extinguisher in sight.
The teenagers drive to the diner to rescue their friends. CO2 puffs into the air. The children must save themselves.
In Newport, standing at a gas station above holy water that I cannot touch, I get the worst sunburn of my life. Halfway through the day, I notice patches of flushed skin and apply sunscreen, but it is too late. My neck is bright red, as well as most of my back, the result of my decision to wear a tank top of flimsy material with an incredibly low cutout. I put my palm below the base of my skull and hairline, and it aches upon touch. I search for trees that might offer some shade, but there are none close by. There is just a line of people waiting to enter The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies. So I stand on the concrete and make small talk with individuals to distract myself from my discomfort until James stands to leave. He tells me about the town’s worries, about the red seaweed, then furrows his brow at the sight of my skin.
In Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film, author Isabel Cristina Pinedo writes about the prevalent trend of the open ending. She lists the various options as such: the monster triumphs, the monster is defeated but only temporarily, or the outcome is uncertain. The open ending’s not the only reason I don’t particularly enjoy watching scary movies; I just don’t have a natural impulse to enjoy looming threats and death.
Regardless, the monster’s already here. It lurks in the flooded bayous of southeastern Louisiana, the land of the United Houma Nation. It visits western Saudi Arabia in the summer, bringing with it humidity and heat stroke. And it feeds on the coconut plantations in the Solomon Islands. The monster chases the giant mountain lobelia until it has nowhere cool enough to grow, tramples the habitat of the Sierra Nevada blue butterfly, sucks the life out of staghorn coral. It sends a cyclone to Buzi and gorges itself on water in Somalia so that people flee to the Wajaale district, where they create makeshift shelters. The people construct tents that look shockingly like our tent—soft and colorful things—to protect themselves from the elements.
When we enter our historic house, it’s once again dark. One of us finds a light switch, and we creak across the floor to the small kitchen table, where we sit. We try to imagine what kind of people the house played host to over the years. We have fun considering the past of this place and what sort of maritime workers might have lived here at one time. What did they do inside these walls? Who knows. It’s all a casual lead-up to this moment.
“Are you ready?” he asks. James opens the cap to a tube of aloe vera, hurriedly purchased from a nearby pharmacy.
“Yes,” I say, scooting my chair and turning away from him. I bend over slightly and pull up the back of my shirt. He sucks in air through his teeth, and I blush.
“Is it bad?” I ask.
James is gentle but thorough, squeezing globs of aloe from the tube and spreading it over every spot of inflamed flesh. I feel his hands and hear the aloe oozing between his fingers. And I feel the sliminess coating my skin.
What a predicament, I think, to be in this strange kitchen and in these strange times. There are still four more stops on this journey before we can go home. I think of all the questions from strangers, the worries detailed in James’s journal, and the fears shaping our hearts. We carry them with us as we carry the tent, somehow heavier with every stop.
His hands move to the back of my neck, and I get goosebumps from the alternating heat radiating off my skin and the coldness of the medicinal goop. James apologizes for my sensitivity. This is what James and I share: tenderness.
The blob cannot be destroyed. The only way to slow down or pause its destructive momentum is to blast it with cold air. In the final scene, it’s dropped from a plane into snow-covered territory. A literal question mark hangs in the sky.
STEVE. It’s not dead, is it?
POLICE OFFICER. No, it’s not.
STEVE. Just frozen.
POLICE OFFICER. I don’t think it can be killed, but at least we’ve got it stopped.
STEVE. Yeah, as long as the arctic stays cold.