Maggie has always envied her sister Tricia’s place of birth. Oceania—how it rolls off the tongue like a wave, how it sounds bigger than anything. She was born there, to Beth and Don, in 1977, her head dipped in the Pacific just moments after leaving her mother’s womb. Five years later, Beth pushed Maggie into a different world, into a city of three tight cornered syllables cut once by the tongue and then once again. Toronto.
Tricia’s Oceanic island divides into two countries: Indonesia on the left and Papua New Guinea on the right. A young Maggie looked at maps in her father’s study; ran her finger up and down the imaginary line separating Indonesia from her sister’s native land. Beth showed Maggie photos of rain forests hiked with Tricia slung over Don’s back like harvested fruit. “On these walks,” she told Maggie, “I began to believe in animism.” Beth pointed to trees, rocks, and birds, and said that each one has a soul. Maggie gripped the images; her fingertips imprinted tiny oil maps of herself onto a land she did not know.
Tricia had been born into a world of 850 indigenous languages. A water-bound world where, fifty years ago, seashells were currency. Maggie had to settle for full Canadian citizenship and mere tales of the mythic halved, thumbnail of an island. At bedtime, she listened to her mother talk about the Raven. A raven had flown into the makeshift hospital bed while Tricia was born and since then Beth considered the bird a sort of messenger. She told Maggie that some people think the Raven is a trickster, teaching humans to care for nature through mischievous ploys. Others see the Raven as a bird of sorrow, who flies from us with the sadness of humanity in its belly. Maggie’s mother believed both could be true, and the meaning of a raven shown up always depended on her mood.
When Maggie was eleven-years-old, Beth took the girls back to Oceania while Don stayed in Canada to work. They stood in a Maori museum in New Zealand and saw exhibits of ancestors arriving in wakes: large, ocean-going canoes. Maggie stared at a wooden carving of Tangaroa, the god of the ocean. Maori religion believed all things, living and non-living, are connected through whakapapa—genealogy. Maggie’s mother explained each exhibit to her daughters, ending each presentation with the same phrase. “Everything is sacred.” Maggie watched Tricia, a teenager now with small breasts and opinions, and tried to connect her to the framed drawings of old women dressed in shells and feathers.
In the airport, the mother’s luggage was lost. The girls stood next to her as the empty conveyor belt rolled past them again and again. At the desk, the man with the headset told them her bags were in Los Angeles. “My Raven!” the mother cried. “I shouldn’t have packed my Raven.” Maggie and Tricia pulled at their sleeve cuffs. Beth was not worried about her clothes, her toiletries, the money stowed away deep in a sock. She was worried about the stuffed Raven she had purchased at a hotel in New Zealand. Everything is sacred.
Beth raised her girls vegetarian so when Maggie moved to Vancouver her options at the university cafeteria were limited. She eats with gusto; elbows jut outward as she stuffs tofu burgers into her mouth with zeal. Maggie’s mother is vegetarian because animals have souls, but her own reasons changed as she dove into environmental science and learned about the planet. “It takes a lot of energy, a lot of fossil fuels to keep the farming industry going,” she says if someone asks her why she does not eat meat. “Harvesting vegetables, grains and fruits is much more sustainable. Less greenhouse gas emissions.”
She runs down to the dining hall in the mornings just to smell the bacon fry. She knows that she loves it, but eats for reasons other than to satisfy a craving. She keeps organic peanut butter in the small fridge by her bed and offers sandwiches to late night visitors who might be hungry.
In class Maggie took notes about the evidence of Climate Change. She memorized charts and graphs that show an unprecedented rapid temperature increase all over the world. She watched images of ice caps, once dominant Northern muscles, wither away to reveal the bones of the Arctic. And she learned Spanish, the language spoken in countries from where our food is shipped and flown; footprints of carbon monoxide plotting air, land and sea. Maggie planned a trip to South America, lamented the environmental cost of her long flight, and hoped to make some sense of how we, bit by bit, eat away at our planet. She backpacked through Peru for a few months, then hopped on a bus for a forty-eight hour trip to Altiplano, Bolivia.
The closer she got to her destination, the fewer tourists she traveled with. Eventually, she was the only woman, and the only white person on the bus as it careened over the countryside of high plateaus and endless dirt roads. Her first stop in Bolivia was at a town called La Paz, or ‘the peace’. As her bus approached the station, she could see locals throwing rotten fruit, broken chairs, and garbage cans toward the vehicle. The bus driver cursed in Spanish and swerved out of the way, narrowly missing a small boy, his face covered in mud, his hair short and spiky. Maggie found out later there was a transit strike, workers were asking for better wages and her driver had been a scab.
Once inside La Paz, the passengers could leave the bus to use the washroom, smoke a cigarette. A little girl ran up to Maggie, her wispy black hair in pigtails. “¿Necesita usted las direcciones?” she asked, and held out her small hands. Maggie looked beyond her to the rows of elderly women and men, their brown faces wrinkled like dried apples. They carried baskets of fruit and vegetables grown in their gardens, bread baked in their kitchens. “¡Papas! Maíz! Uvas!” they shouted over top of one another, running up to the travelers, holding the food at their faces. Maggie bought a bag of hard buns for five centavos and boarded the bus. She sat in the back, spread jam on her dinner, and stared out at the thunderstorm taking place miles away. The landscape reminded her of the prairies; flat, expansive, forlorn. She counted shoots of lightening as they cracked through the sky, touching down in some field, singeing some crop.
In Altiplano, Maggie met with Gloria, who would be helping her give workshops to local farmers and classrooms about climate change. The women made posters out of Bristol board, drawing colourful pictures of the Earth, the Sun, and the Greenhouse gases. Posters titled la sequía, el granizo, la lluvia, el viento – drought, hail, rain and wind. They taped these signs to ancient chalkboards and watched as the nervous farmers filed in. The men wiped their hands on dirty jeans and removed wide-brimmed hats.
Maggie led the workshop in Spanish. She asked the farmers to write down on the appropriate posters what weather changes they had noticed in the past decade. A few men could not write, and so Maggie wrote for them, carefully following their quick, rural Spanish with her eyes and her ears. The farmers spoke of record floods wiping out entire harvests. Hail the size of tennis balls smashing through the roofs of their homes. Droughts turning their soil to sand. When asked where these changes came from, none of them could answer. When asked what the term ‘Climate Change’, or ‘Global Warming’ meant to them, none of them had heard the phrases before.
Maggie and Gloria concluded the workshop by advising the farmers to drive less – hardly any of them owned a car. They advised the farmers to be watchful of waste – the farmers replied that not much needs to be thrown out, most things can be used again. And then the workshop was over. Gloria and Maggie sat in the empty chairs where the farmers had been moments before and stared at shaky handwriting on the rainbow of posters. Maggie looked out the window at the barren field before her, and realized she had been in South America for almost four months and had not felt one drop of rain.
Maggie reads the Globe and Mail, online, in Vancouver while she eats a breakfast of organic cereal and soy milk. Today, she learns the new clean air act places no caps on greenhouse gas emissions until 2020, at the earliest. Maggie reluctantly clicks on the readers response section. One reader calls global warming a poor man’s myth designed to make him feel better about not owning ‘basic’ amenities such as an SUV or big screen TV. Another reader responds by calling an SUV and a big screen TV a rich man’s myth designed to make him feel better about his small penis.
Nobody mentions what is behind the issues: a waxing sense of entitlement, an inability to admit when we are wrong. Maggie wakes in the morning with a sense of running as fast as she can away from something and toward something, while remaining in the same place. She cannot describe this urgency to anyone; she tries, hoping for relief, but her words catch in her throat and dissipate. It is embarrassing to tell your loved ones you think the world is ending.
Maggie’s sister, Tricia, had called that morning, to say she was pregnant.
She clicks on another news article. Polar bears drown in the Arctic. Their ice shelves separate and float into the open ocean. Bears dive for food and resurface to nothing, no ice to climb up on. And then they drown. Their bear cubs starve miles away. The bears are now considered ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.
It is Sustainability Week at UBC, and today Maggie holds a Funeral for the Future in front of the library. A raven sits on a garbage can rim, picks at crumbs and twitches oil drop eyes toward and away from Maggie. Today, she thinks, the raven has a belly full of sorrow. She holds a funeral because the new Clean Air Act does not attempt to meet Kyoto targets. If we continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions, resources will disappear one by one.
Maggie holds a jacket over her head as shelter from cold rain. She looks into the faces of engineers, painters, political scientists, writers. In 2007, the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, where Tricia was born, will be entirely evacuated due to sea level rise. Due to the melt of the Northern muscle. The New Guineans are being called the first ‘climate refugees’, the first because there will surely be many more. As Maggie looks at her peers, she thinks of her mother in Papua New Guinea pushing a baby into the world under a watchful raven’s eyes. Maggie delivers her declaration to the baby that grows now in her sister’s belly, and to Oceania, who will disappear beneath water, island by island.