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Excerpt

“Turns Before the Before Curtain”

Thalia Field

May 5, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Thalia Field's latest book, Personhood, about how the problem between humans and our nonhuman relatives is too often the derangement of our narratives and the resulting lack of situational awareness. Field is Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Creative Writing at Brown University. Her most recent novel is Experimental Animals.

TUMBLEWEED

An innocuous bramble cavorts onstage.

Plague! Disaster! Rampage!

“Biological pollution can’t be reversed!”

The audience giggles at the silly rolling—

Surprise! Ten thousand interlocking tumbleweeds bounce aggressively up into the grid, up and beyond the set, up the aisles, choking the exits—it’s high noon in the old west!

No more giggles.

Tumbleweeds came from “Eurasia.”

Where is that? Why did they send these marauding carcasses here?

Clowns enter—a high-kicking number—sending more tumbleweeds onto the audience.

Clowns!

Sunlight stretches across the drought-parched range where ranchers can’t support their herds. No cattle eat the strange young plants who have ample room to spread out in the denuded soil. Why does no one eat these shoots?

A sudden rain and the happy plants reach their potential, tall as you please.

Come winter, the tall green dies back to brown. Frost and wind uproot the twisted spools who perambulate far and wide, clumping and romping and intertwining, blocking schools and roads and fences. Tumbleweeds seek adventure across all habitable and uninhabitable space. The windy season is for breaking loose and setting sail, for spreading more seed than can ever be counted! Ah, destiny.

MAPS

So where is “Europe?” If you ask a fungus, maybe it starts in Moscow and travels westward at 41 kilometers a year. Maybe it reaches Sweden from its Asiatic origins.

Confused clapping. Who cares where Europe is? It’s everywhere and nowhere, so what?

But the fungus didn’t start in Moscow. It started in “Asia.” Where is Asia?

It is a continent of itself, but only by convention. Is a continent more or less a discrete landmass surrounded by water? What’s a large island? Where is Asia and where is Europe? Is there a reason to cross from one to the other?

Often, it’s left to the Isthmus. Does this audience even think about Africa?

The first chemical reaction, the know-how of fire, spread among early humans just as human populations spread out of Africa—north and east and west, bringing combustion for cooking, space-travel, and cars that pass tiny particles along arteries.

Someone yells Fungi! in the crowded theater.

Fomites everywhere: an accumulation of home, nation, fashion, and custom (from Latin fomes—the word for tinder, the ignition for the contagion)—

Exiting things leave carbon scattered on stage: bones, wood, coal, lava . . . Plants tangle their breath, absorb radioactive carbon dioxide from the universe. Lumbering animals acquire it from eating the plants.

Fat men in hats point to a star chart of possible earths.

Languages die.

Fungi gain their own “kingdom,” like a bright royal place apart from plants and animals where “growth is their main means of mobility, except for spores, which may travel through air or water . . . ” Mostly they live in soil, or on things already dead.

FERAL SWINE

Raucous horn section. Stampedes. Police at the exits. Everyone carries poison. After releasing pigs in new-world forests, Europeans bring in wild boar to shoot as well.

“Everyone is affected in some way!”

“We can’t just barbeque our way out!”

Feral piglets run down the aisles with youthful acrobatics. Their lack of natural predators makes them giddy! They are hybrids of hybrids, but if not all non-natives are invasive, and not all invaders are non-native, what, for example, do we do with the bristly pig, descendant of escaped farm animals?

Don’t be fooled! These cuties grow to 5 feet long and 3 feet high and weigh up to 250 lbs! Running up to 30 mph, they have cloven devil hooves and skin that can withstand assault rifles shot from low-flying helicopters! Worse, they breed year-round—doubling their population in only 4 months.

A feral pig dies agonizingly slowly from a gunshot, while others, wallowing, pollute springs and ponds and alter stream beds and habitat because no one wallows who doesn’t also root.

Put more bounty on feral hogs, it doesn’t stop their families spreading like wildfire across state lines, carrying disease, damaging crops, eating endangered species—not to mention whole pig clans tearing up archeological sites!

Archeological sites?

Denmark builds a 70 km fence along its border with Germany. Will the pigs stop crossing? Will African swine fever, which has been found in two dead boar in Belgium, threaten Denmark’s huge pig industry? Feral removal programs include aerial hunting, surveillance, and cage and corral traps.

In America, the feral pig population grows from 1 million to over 6 million across 38 states.

A pig runs past the curtain, escapee from a farm; another tiptoes in from a hunting preserve. They feed on endangered birds’ eggs, young lambs, crops, snakes, and ladies’ hats. Always on the move, they split up to protect their babies, jumping fences, swimming across lakes, cutting through fields, hiding along riverbanks, diverting attention to escape the dogs and night hunts—

The government enters with a plan: Warfarin (sold as Kaput Feral Hog Bait) will poison them, and, bonus, turn their insides blue to warn hunters not to cook them for dinner.

“If you want them gone, this will get them gone.”

In a part of Australia, Warfarin eliminates 99% of feral pigs in a few months. But immobilized pigs, bleeding from their eyes and dying for weeks in helpless pain, bring too much outcry, and the poison is phased out in favor of the low-flying helicopters and assault rifles.

UNITED NATIONS

Long shrill noise, microphone feedback—no, it’s a garbled announcement:

The UN Working Group on Invasive Alien Species: wah wah, wah WAH, wah wah wah

Laughter. What’s so funny?

Humans have lived in Florida for 12,000 years. Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513 and began recording “history.” Florida has historic and prehistoric sites within 8 inches of the surface being rooted up and ruined by wallowing feral swine.

Feral swine for an encore!

Making silly faces they root around everyone’s business, toss ancient artifacts, splatter mud on the front row, eat everyone’s gummy bears.

Arrest them!

UN Representative: The introduction of invasive alien species as pets, aquarium and terrarium species, and as live bait and live food is a subcategory of “escape” as a pathway. Escape is the pathway of organisms from captivity or confined conditions into the natural environment. Through this pathway the organisms are initially intentionally imported or transported into the confined conditions, then escape.

RABBITS

All 305 global rabbit species descend from maternal lines of two isolated herds 12,000 years ago, one in Spain and one in southern France.

Greek and Roman conquerors, not knowing what to call these odd, quiet animals, dubbed the region “Rabbit-Ridden.” Meanwhile, no original or single word exists in English: Cony” “Rabbidge” “Rabbert” “Rabbet” “Rabatte” “Rabytt”—

So cute!

Finland, empty of rabbits.

Europeans rush on and dump bunnies on Finland.

They dump more on Tasmania, Australia, and before anyone can look away, the entire stage is rabbits—devouring violets and chrysanthemums off the graves in the Helsinki cemetery. With their tiny mouths and picky eating, they eat seedlings before they reproduce. This eliminates new growth of the ancient steppe, and makes other mammals, reptiles, and birds starve.

Not so cute!

Rabbits dig under nets that would have stopped a wild hare. Rabbits scurry and climb and are weirdly good at getting around obstacles and aren’t particularly afraid of anything. They reject the wooded areas and invade the parks and burrow under the paths and beds.

Scientists trod around, pointing out rabbit warrens marked with dunghills.

No one can clear rabbits offstage.

By law, you can only kill rabbits in Finland with bow and arrow.

This is intolerable!

Citizens of Helsinki take the law into their hands. Rabbits are shot anywhere they appear, stabbed by hayforks, dungforks, trapped, hit by special pneumatic air-guns, or set on by cats. None of it is legal, but people openly reject the law and the official “hunting season.” Patrol platoons of stagehands set poison and carry rifles out in the city parks and along the back streets, while the Head Gardener, Pesu, kills a hundred a day with his rifle. He waves a special permit.

Uruguay, 1930—a lab full of rabbits. Scientists run onstage spreading the myxoma virus.

Tumors grow and bacterial infections kick in. All the lab rabbits die.

The virus enters Australia and most rabbits fall dead—from 60 to 100 million!

A few remaining bunnies develop immunity.

A farmer rushes into France with the virus.

By 1954, 50% of feral and wild rabbits are gone. The skin of a diseased rabbit is sent from London to Ireland so Irish farmers can rub it on healthy rabbits who are then driven by car and released around the country.

Resistance to the virus spreads.

Scientists make a new RHD2 virus that enters the rabbit population.

They sicken. Many who would hide emerge and are shot.

The Gardener stands center stage. The rabbit menace has been stopped in Helsinki because of the new virus brought from Europe; the second strain.

Dance number.

The virus carries by respiration, hairs, anything the rabbit touches or breathes on, even on the wind. Infected rabbits stay contagious for 2–200 days. The virus only kills rabbits, but fleas, flies, foxes, anyone else can give the virus back to rabbits. Infection kills within a few days, with fever, squealing, convulsions, and coma leading to last little breaths. Most rabbits die in the privacy of their underground burrows.

Cameras capture these deaths and project them on screen, so everyone can be absolutely sure.

Younger rabbits are immune due to their immature systems. They sit abandoned and terrified.

Rabbits run in a dotted line as far north as Tuusula on the map.

In their native habitat in Spain, Portugal, and southwestern France, the European rabbit is practically extinct due to a highly infectious Lago-virus that spread westward from China, where it decimated the Chinese population of European angora rabbits.

Scientists take that virus over to Australia to control those rabbits.

The virus escapes the quarantine in 1995, and kills 10 million rabbits in 8 weeks.

New Zealand farmers put dead rabbits in kitchen blenders to spread the virus after the government decides not to introduce it to the island. But the farmers didn’t get the memo that rabbits under 8 weeks old are immune, and they release the virus just after breeding season so all the babies survive. Not only that, but resistance to the disease among rabbits in New Zealand requires the use of aerial spreading of poison as well.

A few Korean scientists release a new strain of the virus they believe kills rabbits better in wetter conditions.

Vaccines against both the myxoma and the RHDH viruses are available through much of the world to protect pet rabbits, except in Australia where policy-makers fear the resistant rabbits will escape and join the feral population.

BOATS

Fanning their faces, the audience follows the cargo being unloaded and loaded and traded and moved along the dotted routes from all continents and countries, docking in every port—

Why do boats get their own laws, and can just go anywhere they want?

The dock-workers and shipmen sing We Are the World, we are the children . . .

Seriously, who needs so many air conditioners?

A generation of accidental fugitives flies and crawls and swims and seeds and spreads from the tankers and containers, each more talented than the last, each with a few tricks more effective, each hair-raising turn more daring and enthusiastic, passing it all to their excited offspring, happy children without predators, without disease, without competition . . .

What lovely ornamental plants! What pest-free varieties! What exotic pets! What delicious delicacies!

The loudspeaker crackles with a recording of the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act WAH WAH WAH-WAH

OMG! Turn that off! That hurts our ears!

Lines of yellow-bodied Mediterranean oleander aphids, glimmering emerald ash borers, and jaunty house sparrows take positions on every available armrest, preening and snacking and egg-laying.

Iridescent starlings display balletic swoops. They roost in the lights and forage every inch of stage, where Kousa dogwood, multiflora rose, kudzu, and alder buckthorns have darkened the floor. The lights no longer penetrate the somber scene, and under the weight of the vines the scenery collapses.

Norway maples, Asian hornets, snakeheads, and Asian longhorn beetles show off synchronized kicks and twirls in every last remaining inch—one two three kick!—celebrating this new-found paradise!

On and on the performers grow annoying. Then onerous. Then downright offensive!

Where is the rest of the program? Is the backstage empty? Are the dressing rooms empty? Isn’t anyone waiting in the wings? Where are the stage managers and staff?

The emcee is asleep in the piano-player’s lap. The boats have long since sailed.

(faint echo) We are the world . . .

This’ll bore us out of house and home!

The houselights flicker with a million mouth-parts smacking, twigs breaking, and larvae crawling—all in a cheerfully monotonous chorus turned deafening.

O Captain! my Captain!

The piano-player elbows the emcee, who presses play on a recording of the Alien Species Prevention Enforcement Act WAH wah WAH wah

The available oxygen is being used up!

Wah WAH wah WAH WAH wild mammals, wild birds, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, amphibians, and reptiles are the only organisms that can be added to the injurious wildlife list wah wah wah

Injurious Wildlife? Roundup them up! Give ’em the hook!

Little elbows lock in triumph—a billion beautiful, talented, daring, prodigious performers, from every end of the world—

“We slayed!”

“We killed!”

“We knocked ‘em dead!”

What impossible acts to follow!

PLASTIC

Except a furtive cohort of little nurdles on the move.

Nurdles slip and slide through tiny crevices and cracks, pearly as monarch eggs, they don’t become larvae, and glisten instead forever at the tide-line, in the space between seats, in the petals of grass, bopping down tiny creeks, joining waterways and beaches into a stained petro-chemical blur.

Nurdles?

A hose nozzle. Some sacks leak. Pipes seep. Nurdles spill from so many joints. Not-alive but—

Look! The boats are back! There’s barely room at the ports!

Nurdle powder rises up the nose. Nurdles rise into shirt cuffs, down the socks, up the panties, deep as snow, light as a breeze.

What the hell is this stuff?

Diagrams of science-y things: Broken bedrock. Shale deposits. Land and sea empires of petro-chemical companies. A nuisance byproduct molecule of fracking that made it near unprofitable.

Little Ethane enters. So cute!

Big Men jog onstage, tossing out goody-bags of flimsy toys, socks, t-shirts, and little cell phones.

PR guy: It took millions of years to make that molecule!

They grab Ethane by the collar, lift him in their arms.

PR guy: But in one tremendous heating process, we can crack the shit out of that shit, and make it ethylene! And you know what ethylene becomes . . .

The Big Men lift little Ethane onto their shoulders—

“Our Hero!” they lead everyone in clapping and smiles.

Nurdles bob in the water at the high-tide, cling to the sandy shore or wedge themselves into the smallest pebbles and stone.

Nurdles are cheap. Nurdles are slippery. Dented nurdles pick up contaminants and carcinogens. Floods of cheap nurdles have nowhere to go. Nurdles wake up on the beaches in high numbers, looking just like fish and horseshoe crab eggs. Puffins in Scotland and shearwaters in Australia have nurdles in their stomachs.

It’s a renaissance! Virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic for the very first time ever!

New ethane plants dot the Gulf Coast, financed by Saudi companies, and along Louisiana waterways by South African companies. Ports like Houston run out of space for tankers loading up nurdles for Asia and Europe.

50% of the world’s plastics are younger than 15 years old! Adolescents: fast, cheap, and out of control!

But a few dedicated nurdle-hunters creep around the beaches collecting “evidence.” They go to Scotland and Belgium, where new petrochemical hubs are sprouting up. Even a few single-use-plastic bans would slow the profits, and already thirty-four African countries are saying, “No thank you, single-use plastic!” Even China! France! The boats look a little glum.

What? Where will all the poor American nurdles go?

The Big Men twist their moustaches and laugh! Governments will bail us out. They’ll ban the plastic bans! There are no laws against nurdles! They haven’t been regulated anywhere, and most people don’t even know they exist!

Nurdles go wherever the currents take them. Older nurdles turn yellow and brown, like fossil teeth floating around the oceans.

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Excerpted from Personhood by Thalia Field. Excerpted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. Copyright © 2021 by Thalia Field.




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