Remember the Leaf
Will moved his toe in the cold water. Leaves exhaled the last breath of fall. Genevieve listened.
“In geological time, all this, this big catastrophe, it’s nothing. It’s the world blinking,” he said, staring into the creek.
“How can you say that? Art, civilization, beauty, love, war, the rise and fall of empires—it’s not nothing to me; to me it’s something.”
“Alright, think about this then. Think about all the technology we’ve ever come up with, our flying machines, our music devices, our big bad weapons of mass destruction. None of them is as complicated as the architecture of a single leaf.”
“Wow, you’re getting poetic.”
“Well, I read somewhere the other day that the stomata in leaves are less dense when there are greater amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. That’s poetic, the way they adapt themselves to their environment in such intricate and ingenious ways. We’re not so good at that. We want to adapt our environment to us. I think about that sometimes. But mostly what gets me is how young we are as a species. Seventy lifetimes from the beginning of civilization until the end of it, that’s it. And for ninety-nine-point-whatever-percent of the rest of our existence, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. And for ninety-nine-point-nine-whatever percent of the time since the world exploded into itself and everything got started, we were floating gases in the farts of algae. We’re nothing.”
“Well, whatever. I still care. Just because we haven’t been around that long doesn’t mean there’s no point to us being here. You’re just telling yourself that none of this matters because that way you don’t have to do anything about it.”
“I already have done something. I’ve breathed. I’ve lived. I’ve left my own little portion of CO2 in the atmosphere to help melt the arctic tundra. But I suppose that’s not what you meant.”
“No.” Genevieve was quiet for a moment. Then she asked, “You know why there are so many beginnings of stories floating around?”
“Because nobody ever wants to know the real ending. People only want happy endings, and those aren’t always the ones that come to us. I started a story yesterday about what we were just talking about, and I wanted it to end happily, but it wouldn’t. There’s so much beauty inside of us and all it seems like we’re ever doing is letting the ugliness come out. So I started this story, but I couldn’t finish it. I’ll bet that happens to writers all the time.”
“Tell it to me.”
I pull my bow back at the corner of what used to be Park Avenue and Vine. There isn’t much to eat, now, but those of us left over make do. We go back to the old ways. Thousands of years ago a woman might have stood in this very place, bow in hand, stalking her prey. I remember reading somewhere in an old book that the Mayan cities used to be all paved over, like this one used to be, the forest pushed somewhere to the margins of the lives and the thoughts of those who should have been protecting it. When they died, the jungle came back. It insinuated itself into courtyards and up the steps of pyramids; it curled itself around their bones as if to cradle or devour them.
And now this.
“Wow, that is sad.”
“But things went on after the Maya died, they didn’t all die, we didn’t all die, the heroine is still there in the city, in the forest, stalking a deer like we did in the old days, like you were saying,” Genevieve said.
“Well, tell me the rest then. I think you have some hope still. Give it a try. Maybe think of the end as a beginning.”
“I’m going to steal your idea about the leaf.”
“Go for it.”
It was simple, really. We rose and fell like the Maya did, only harder and farther and faster because there were more of us, and the weight of us and all we had done was more immense. All over the world cities crumbled and exploded from the rain of bombs and the long, slow droughts. We used up everything we could squeeze out of the Earth. My grandmother still remembers it, hoarding the last of the last stores of canned food until there was nothing, and they ate the meat of stray dogs.
“I used to think you were an optimist.”
“You see what I mean? I am, but the story won’t let it come out. The story wants everyone to eat each other or die.”
“Well, finish it. Maybe you’ll be surprised. Remember the leaf.”
“Right. Well, you know the simplest leaves are the leaves of moss.” She ran her fingers over a patch of it beside her, its greeny –gold fronds like thick, stiff velvet.
“Start with those then.”
“First I have to get to the worst part.”
“The worst part?”
“They do eat each other.”
“What? I thought you were the history buff. You of all people should know that people have been eating each other for ages.”
Before the government fell apart, they’d butcher executed prisoners of war and feed them to the troops, telling them it was beef. A lot of people died that way. Sooner or later, just about everybody died. My grandmother lived.
She lay facedown on the pavement after a long day of scavenging, long after it seemed like everyone else had gone. In a tiny crack in front of her peeked out the smallest speck of green. Moss. More specifically, Bryum argenteum. It grew in cities all over the world. It grows where people grow. It grew on the rocks near our caves when we lived in caves and it grew in the cracks of our sidewalks, flown in on the gusts of air stirred by airplanes on its tiny, brave, ambitious little spores. And here it was, intrepid, green, a descendent of the bravest little alga that crept its way onto land.[12}
“It’s still here,” she thought, and fainted from hunger.
“Well now that’s better, see?”
“Yes, we’re getting somewhere.”
It grows now, at the entrance to the cave where I stash my things, in the cracks of the rocks most traveled by my calloused feet.
“Wait— is your woman the last woman on Earth?”
“No, silly, she’s part of a band of hunter-gatherers.”
“And she’s literate?”
“Yeah. Her grandma was a botanist with a love for Dickens.”
“My point is that I don’t think everything good we ever came up with has to die just because we’re flushing all of civilization down the toilet. Obviously, things aren’t going well. We’re looking at a best-case scenario of a couple degrees Celsius warmer in the next fifty or so years. Worst case scenario, you and me, under water. All of this, gone.” She waved her hand at their little clearing, quiet in the late afternoon. A few acres away the ocean refracted bits of the slanting light. “But. We still have the ziggurats. We still have the pyramids, the Parthenon, some hieroglyphs, the Popol Vuh. It’s conceivable that everything could fall apart and people would go back to being foragers while still holding onto some books and still writing some stories. They’d want following generations to remember what had happened.”
“Where would they get the paper? Where would they stash the books? Mobile bands of foragers can’t carry libraries on their backs, and they don’t have pulp mills, either. Why else do you think people had to settle down and start farming before they developed writing?”
“Alright. Well, let’s say there’s some paper left over, our heroine’s grandmother taught her to read for sentimental reasons, and she wants to record what happened for posterity’s sake. She has some romantic notion that some future alien or human excavator will find her story and know that, despite how badly we botched things up, there was some good in us. We had some intelligence. We had some promise.”
The Maya believed that all worlds intersected in the night sky. I believe they intersect here, in this moment, my bow pulled back, the tip of my arrow aimed at the deer. If the point connects, my life continues and hers ends. If it misses, I die and she lives. The outcome has been decided already if the Maya were right that time moves in cycles toward its own beginning. That’s where I am. She’s breathing, I’m breathing, the street is broken up around us and shrubs have made their way up through the pavement; I think about the beauty of her soft nose and the delicacy of her step. I’m hiding behind what used to be an SUV, rusted and moss-covered.
My grandmother was inspired by the moss’s ability to survive in the most unlikely and inhospitable of conditions, so she got up after her faint that day and went on living with the man who woke her with a bottle of water pressed to her lips. They broke into the old library and stole all the books they could carry that would tell them about how to survive in the wilderness. There was a lot they had to figure out on their own, but they were resilient. I am resilient. The pages of the old books are rotting, but I am still here.
My finger strains against the bow and I let it fly, let it open a stream of bright red in the animal’s open and defenseless hide. Today, I will live. I walk cautiously up to her and place my hand on her neck. A leaf falls from a sapling to her bloody side, and I wonder what the stomata would look like, now that the air has cleared itself of our breath. If I had a microscope, I could see the leaf’s cells in their opening, the intimate breathing at the beginning of life.
Genevieve fell silent again.
“That was beautiful,” Will said, “especially the part you got from me. And you see? You agree with me. It is nothing. If we die, the world will go on without us.”
“Some of it,” she replied.
1. Wright (2004:32) writes that “Geologically speaking, 3 million years is only a wink, one minute in Earth’s day.” Although Will is not taking an anthropological perspective per se, he is viewing the situation holistically, able to focus both on small details and the big picture.
2. “For all its cruelties, civilization is precious, an experiment worth continuing” (Wright 34)
3. “Stomatal density responds during development to the ambient CO2 level” (Moore et. al, 1996: 112).
4. The Old Stone Age “spans more than 99.5 per cent of human existence” (Wright 14); “Only about seventy lifetimes, of seventy years, have been lived end to end since civilization began” (55); “From 2.5 million to about ten thousand years ago, all humankind lived by foraging for animals and plant foods” (Scarre and Fagan, 1993: 26)
5. “Dare we admit that our exalted intelligence may be humble, a know-nothing kit chanced upon by random mutation, that we’re bastards of witless one-celled organisms?” (Ackerman, 2004: 231); “No matter how politely one says it, we owe our existence to the farts of blue-green algae” (232)
6. From inside the “dense urban core” of Tikal, “little if any jungle would have been in sight” twelve hundred years ago (Wright 95)
7. “Eight million people speak Mayan languages today— roughly the same number as in the Classic Period— and many of them practice distinctly Maya forms of social organization, belief, art, and calendrical astrology” (Wright 83)
8. “The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions” (Wright 107)
9. “In a report unsuccessfully hushed up by the Bush administration, the Pentagon predicts worldwide famine, anarchy, and warfare ‘within a generation’ should climate change fulfill the more severe projections” (Wright 125)
10. “A true moss or bryophyte is the most primitive of land plants” (Kimmerer, 2003: 13)
11. “The urban cliff hypothesis suggests that the association between humans and these species may be ancient, dating from our pre-Neanderthal days when we took our refuge in cave and cliff dwellings… Bryum spores are a constant component of aerial plankton, the cloud of spores and pollen which circulates all around the globe” (Kimmerer 92)
12. Mosses are “a halfway point between algae and the higher land plants” (Kimmerer 21)
13. “When a complex society collapses, it suddenly becomes smaller, simpler, and much more egalitarian” (Scarre and Fagan 43)
14. According to Erick Gonzalez, a Maya elder, the Maya believe that “whatever is reflected in the mirror of the sky is reflected in the mirror within ourselves;” galactic vibrations “create doorways for us to communicate with the spirit world or with other parallel universes,” and these “vibrations come in sequences as they move in a circular, spiraling form;” the calendar is “counting the cogs of toothed wheels that are marking eternity;” we are currently at “the end of a twenty-six thousand year cycle as well as the end of a fifty-two thousand year cycle” (ReVision, 2000: 23.2)
15. “The record of early civilizations could easily be written in cyclical terms, for states have risen and then collapsed with bewildering rapidity in all parts of the world within the past five thousand years” (Scarre and Fagan 42); “Our present behaviour is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance” (Wright 129)
Ackerman, Diane. 2004. An Alchemy of Mind. New York: Scribner.
Gonzalez, Erick, and Jurgen W. Kremer. 2000. The Maya Shape of Time. ReVision 23(2):online.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. Gathering Moss: a Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.
Moore, Peter D., with Bill Chaloner and Philip Stott. 1996. Global Environmental Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scarre, Christopher, and Brian M. Fagan. 1993. Ancient Civilizations. New York: Longman.
Wright, Ronald. 2004. A Short History of Progress. New York: Carroll and Graf.