Everything Bright Is Something Burned

How to mourn a planet

Erica Berry
photograph of metal match box with "a [image of a match] for you at any time" printed on the front
Sampson Mordan & Company, "A Match for You at Any Time." Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

I have come to suspect that I experience only two kinds of sadness: the kind where I have lost something, and the kind where I have done something wrong.

The first would be the loss of the wobbly gold earrings my mother bought me one sunny afternoon years ago or my favorite winter coat, left on a train. Lost sleep. The sorrow of losing a best friend when I broke up with him, or the respect of another friend because I said too little after her mother’s death. This kind of sadness arrives in a flood. When it has passed, it leaves a void.

If the first sadness is a kind of grief, the second is a kind of shame. This is the sadness of sharing a rumor only to hear that someone was hurt by it, a hurt that hits me the way a bird hits a window and then falls twitching to the lawn. The sadness of kissing someone when one of you already has someone else, making a secret as naturally as some people make babies or zucchini bread. It can be triggered by something as minor as telling a joke that is met with flat stares. If the first sadness makes me want to rewind time, the second can make me want to escape it entirely. The world would be better if I were not here, I think. Maybe I should leave this place.

Is it useful to parse these sadnesses? I’m not sure. Each kind can be petty at times. Still, I am trying to separate them because lately they have become intertwined, tangled in both an emotional sense and an environmental one. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the way the components of my life, its continuing creation—the meals I cook and eat, the lights and heat that sustain me through winter, the T-shirts I sometimes buy on the trips I often take—represent both a wrongdoing and a loss. A depletion of resources that are not mine to take. I consume; I mourn the effects of my consumption. I am ashamed of my grief because I know that I myself am causing it. This sadness, like the capitalism that breeds it, feels inescapable. As if, by being a twenty-first-century American, I have been cursed to enact one selfish choice after another until the sum of my actions constitutes the loss I bear. On the worst days I wonder how much of my sadness for the natural world is actually sadness for myself, nostalgia for a time when I knew less. I fantasize about seeing our world through the gloss of the passive voice: The coral reefs are dying. The honey bees are disappearing. How easy it would be to mourn those losses. To feel insulated by the distance between me and them. I could grieve for those catastrophes the way I grieve for my neighbor’s cat, an animal who one night just did not come home. Instead, I gas up my old car. It’s me, I think, turning the key. I am killing the coral. The sadness of my wrongdoings has become the sadness of my loss.

One day I confess this shame-sorrow to the woman who created me. I try to sound casual, as if it has just occurred to me, the ongoing apology of my days. I look at the roll of toilet paper and hear displaced birds; I reach for my iPhone, aware of child laborers in the supply chain. I keep on going, hauling compost to the co-op and jars to the bulk aisle, not because I think this will change the world but because it makes it slightly easier to live beside the engine of my body. Oh sweetpea, my mother said. Beneath her words I sense what she has often told my sister and me: we are not defined by our sadness or guilt, but these are feelings we can welcome like guests at a party, knowing we can say good-bye to them, knowing one day they will be back. My mother often quoted Rilke: No feeling is final.

By the time she was my age, my mother had lost both her own mother and her brother. She knew loss the way I know good luck. And yet she learned to wake up in this world day after day, closing the door to her sadness. Lately, in my own life, I have become skeptical of that peace. Peace feels like complacency. The longer I live on our warming planet, the more I feel a responsibility to remain on edge. Like an iceberg, ready to crack.

I used to marvel at dryer lint, thump downstairs whenever my mother dragged the laundry basket across the cement. I’d be at her elbow in a second, peeling the lint from the dryer filter with all the tenderness of a weekend fisherman lifting the backbone from his trout.

The trick to loving lint is to let it be its own material. A beautiful byproduct, nothing more. You cannot consider how much of our collective matter is in the lint. Not just bits of T-shirts and gum wrappers but also bits of ponytails, scabs, the forgotten tissue from a nosebleed. You have to see the lint as a creation, not detritus. Lately this has become impossible for me.

For environmental reasons, I bought clothespins, a drying rack. Still, inevitably, I sometimes use the dryer. I claw the lint away when it accumulates, nails scraping the mesh as fibers crumple in my palm. In the creation of lint I see the depletion of other things: the hole in the crotch of my favorite Levis, my calico pillowcase worn thin as cheesecloth. The lint has become a reminder of shedding—of the waste I do not want to make and make anyway, of the things I do not want to lose and lose anyway.

I once lived with a woodstove, and because I had read you could use dryer lint as a fire starter, for a while it was redeemed in my mind as useful waste. Then one afternoon I lit a fire for a friend; as the lint spit into blue flame his eyebrows rose.

“We’re probably not supposed to be breathing that.”

Even as he spoke, I felt it in my lungs. Suddenly all I could think of was the rayon, the polyester, the Lycra and fleece and cotton and skin and dirt, sliding down my nostrils, over my tongue.

In that moment, I lost my defenses. I did not feel like a body separate from the world; I felt like a parking lot where life had stopped for a while. I felt the chip bags and cigarettes and bottle caps roll toward me, and that too was mine, so I caught it all.

I followed an artist to China. I was just out of graduate school, and I wanted an adventure the way some people wanted a tan. I had recently ejected myself from a life with a kind and loving man, which is another way of saying I had burned my script. I was clinging to anyone who would write me into theirs. Faced with the prospect of that first sadness—that first loss—I wasted little time in setting up the second. I just want you to be sure you feel comfortable going? my mother said over the phone before I booked my ticket. It’s so far. I heard her breath catch: she was climbing a hill. That or she was thinking about how recently I had been living with another man. I was not sure whether I was right to go to China, but I was bored with self-doubt and trying to adopt the confidence of the artist. Maybe I too could shrug ego on like a hoodie whenever I felt sad. I feel good. I said. It’ll be an adventure.

The artist, who was South American, was living at a residency in Shanghai for six months, trying to capture smog with a camera and a paintbrush. He was tall and thin, like a Giacometti sculpture, spoke five languages, had hair the color of fish-skin, and a bank account so plush he promised to pay for everything once I arrived. When the Chinese government granted me a month-long visa, I traded airline miles for a middle seat and began to research light pollution. In deciding to scaffold our romance with productivity, we had landed on this shared area of inquiry. Light pollution. One word ostensibly good, the other not. Like “sugar rush,” it suggested that somewhere along the way the proportions had gone off.

I had met the artist on my home continent, but in the few months we had known each other, we had also traveled to his, and now we were going to a third one. Though we had bonded over a shared preoccupation with climate change, we averted our gaze from the emissions implications of our own long-distance affair. Had we added it up, we would have seen that the kindling of our relationship had led to the creation of some 13.87 tons of carbon dioxide, a number equivalent to that released by driving eleven times across the United States, or to the yearly energy use of 1.7 American homes. Would knowing these numbers have stopped us? I am certain: no.

The month before I flew to China, the artist and I spoke on the phone about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. 2040: that was the year scientists estimated our world would warm 1.5 degrees Celsius, entering a new stage of climate catastrophe. In 2040, I would be forty-nine. The artist would be in his sixties. It felt thrilling to project ourselves together into this terrible future. I imagined us living in a cabin, collecting rainwater, singing multilingual songs as we wove baskets out of hemp.

Our first meeting had been at a different residency, where, not far from my studio window, he had built, and a few days later dismantled, a sculpture made of split wood. I could not get it out of my head: this man, shirtless, throwing wood into the back of a truck. You are an apocalypse man, I thought. You will know what to do.

My first morning in Shanghai
I woke with a throat like a forgotten water glass. Dust me, I thought. My head was webby and leaden. I drank cup after cup of green tea. The artist watched me and shook his head. Today is really not that bad. The internet told us that the Air Quality Index was 162, which qualified as “unhealthy” for all groups of people but was much better than the low 200s the city had seen some months before. A few weeks earlier, the artist had asked someone to hang out a sheet for him on their balcony; he told me he was still waiting for the air to turn the cotton gray. What then? I asked. You’ll paint on it? He shook his head, waving me away. Who knows! The end is not important yet. It had been two months since I had seen him, and he looked different. He seemed to have lost both weight and joy, his eye sockets two empty bowls. Outside, we walked behind a group of laughing teenagers, and I tried to bask in their breezy cheer. The artist bought three croissants at a bakery and handed me one. He was a vegan, but I didn’t question this exception. For a minute, my mouth tasted like butter and not like street.

That day the air was all I let myself think about. I felt I should see it like dryer lint, as its own triumphant material. But I could not peel the smog away, could not separate it from myself or anything else. It was the lens through which I saw the coal boats drag their quiet cargo up the Huangpu, the tourists with their selfie sticks and jelly-bean-colored windbreakers, the plastic-caped commuters biking by like oiled birds. The haze was made of all of these things, and with every breath I was made of the haze. Later I read that America’s demand for cashmere had caused an increase in goat farming in Mongolia, which led to herds deforesting the landscape and sending clouds of dust to Beijing. Five thousand miles away, in America, my mother ordered me a cashmere sweater half-price online for an early Christmas present.

As the day burned on, the sun traveled like a flashlight in the fog. The artist told me I could look directly at it here without harming my eyes. I did not know whether I should believe him, but I was trying to focus on being young and strong, so I let myself peek. The ball of light seemed to wobble in the gray, hanging like a moon in the water. I turned away quickly. I looked to see if the artist was watching me, but he had stepped away. His eye was in his camera’s viewfinder, lens to the sky.

While walking the narrow alleyways of the city, the artist and I spoke hypothetically about our artistic collaboration. These conversations helped me feel I was creating something useful by putting my body in proximity to his, by swallowing all the moments I felt stung. Perhaps we would make a video essay, or perhaps a multimedia book. I had three weeks to spend in China, and anything seemed possible. Even after I realized we would be poor collaborators—he wanted photos of the sky that took the human out of the Anthropocene; I wanted to write about the particular interiority of existing on the ground—I let myself prop up his vision. The artist was most fun when he was scheming, throwing his arms in the air then squeezing them around me, sliding between his language and mine as he told me what great adventures we would have, what brilliant art we would make. I couldn’t risk seeing that part of him go. We bought pomelos big as volleyballs at the market then split them open on the hotel bed. I read about pollution and he painted each day’s suns, and we pretended a mission was knitting us together.

This was what it meant to be a body, but also to be a city. Leaky. Shedding in ways you rarely noticed and could hardly control. Losing the edges of yourself over and over again.

Air pollution is not light pollution, but in polluted air, you see light differently. Sunsets look bloodier. Human-made aerosols in the air scatter radiation from the sun, removing blues and violets from the sky and enhancing the red. In general, the particulates in the air reflect light differently—they make it thicker. The effect can be very beautiful. Scientists are now examining the smudgy orange paintings Monet made of London sunsets between 1899 and 1901 as early records of Victorian smog. They believe they can determine what particulates were in the air based on the color of his skies.

Before China, I had thought of light pollution as mainly an aesthetic concern. People buying silk eyeshades because streetlights were too bright. The time I drove all the way down a peninsula looking for the Northern Lights only to find that the sole stain on the horizon was the town I had left behind. An annoyance, yes, but a tragedy? In the scheme of things, surely not.

The closer I looked, though—squinting on hotel balconies to try to see the stars—the more the sheer visibility of light pollution began to feel like the whole point of studying it. I understood that humans leached chemicals into soil and sewage into water and noxious gases into air, but my amateur eye could rarely sense this toxic spread. Light was different. It was the opposite of invisible. Training my eye to recognize light pollution helped me to visualize all the other seepages that had been there all along. I thought of how the artist often found long hairs of mine on his coat. Well, well, well, he would say, sort of joking but also sort of annoyed as he tossed one to the ground. This was what it meant to be a body, but also to be a city. Leaky. Shedding in ways you rarely noticed and could hardly control. Losing the edges of yourself over and over again.

The real problem with light pollution is that its artifice harms. Animals think a lightbulb is the moon. Reports cite birds dying of exhaustion because they do not know when to rest, of entire migratory flocks crashing into brightly lit skyscrapers. The living are attracted to the glow. Sea turtle hatchlings enter the world disoriented, pushing themselves not toward the ocean but toward the road. Bats do not know when to feed. Women who work a rotating nightshift under artificial lights are found to be at increased risk for breast cancer.

Hadn’t I often wanted to chase out the dark? Once I had been grabbed by a stranger on a dark street, but the pedestrian who came to my aid saw me because we passed beneath a streetlight. Now it seemed clear that my own perceived safety came at the expense of other lives—those of birds and frogs. My sadness twisted into loss, shame for all the things I had never known to mourn.

One night, on a short trip into the tea-growing countryside a few hours from Shanghai, the artist and I streamed a documentary featuring a beach town in Florida full of confused turtles. Not only did the lights from development discourage females from nesting, many of their disoriented hatchlings then scooted away from the ocean and toward the town, stumbling through the sand like tourists hunting for their next beer. The artist blamed the residents. They should be out there, he said. Picking the turtles up off the streets. They could organize nightly crews! I tried to suggest that that solution would be a Band-Aid—that without a policy change, the turtles would just keep crawling onto the concrete, their lives depending on whatever retiree might fling them back—but the artist shook his head. It is our job to do whatever we can at any given moment. He spoke so loudly, and with so much conviction, that for a minute I let myself imagine the solution was as easy as he believed it was—that the answer for how to be the best human at any given time was in his orbit, waiting for me to grab it.

The problems between us
should have been as obvious. The night I arrived, just hours after I stepped off the plane, I had been kicked out of the residency where the artist was staying because he had failed to register me in advance. That first night we stayed in a cheap room in downtown Shanghai, the only one we could find, with twin beds and walls that reeked of cigarettes and an old man who paced the hallway and slid call-cards for naked women beneath our door. The second night, while eating skewers of grilled gingko nuts in a small Japanese restaurant, the artist and I got into an argument about sustainable agriculture. He had never seemed judgmental in his veganism about the fact that I ate some animal products, mostly those I could get from local farms. But now he slammed down his beer, turned heads. He used the phraseanthropocentric narcissist. My face, like a broken toy, just shook back and forth, but in the bathroom it sobbed. And then, because I was in a strange country and did not know what else to do, I went back to the table, where the artist had ordered more food. Baby! You have to try this! He handed me an enoki mushroom with his chopsticks. He was already singing.

The next week, the artist paid a taxi driver wads of cash to drive us into the middle of the mountains in a snowstorm, searching for the apartment I had rented us in “a bamboo ocean.” We found the building in the icy dark: a tower of concrete with us its sole inhabitants, the whole town half-built and mostly shuttered, the only sound a few barking dogs. When we got inside the artist lit a joint, then went to paint on the balcony. I’m going to need to find some food, I said. Don’t say “need,” he told me, stepping inside just long enough to hand me the joint. Life is about desire. We manifest our own reality. Besides, how can you think of food at a moment like this! He closed the door; I ate some instant ramen unearthed from beneath the kitchen sink.

I could see the relationship’s coming collapse—waited for it, counting down most days until I would fly home—but still we had moments to marvel at, even as recognizing their beauty felt like breaking all the rules. Stabilizing his tripod while we stood in the red glow of a neon-lit tea field in Eastern China, I thought, How did you get here, look at this day, isn’t this surreal? Monastery bells echoed through the hills. Standing in the wet soil as the sunset smudged the artist into silhouette and the smoggy air prickled with mist, I felt something like admiration. Not just for the artist, but for our whole messy species. So we had tried! So we were failing! So look what we had done along the way!

“In the beginning, the ending was beautiful,” Catherine Pierce writes in her poem “Anthropocene Pastoral,” which I reread a few months after leaving China. That was the thing about endings. Part of their sadness was the peculiar shame of having mined so much awe along the way. Not simply in using up what had once seemed like an endless resource, but in marveling at the glitter right up until the well ran dry. “But we were built like that,” writes Pierce. “Built to say at least.”

Months after our breakup, I saw a social media post about a solo show the artist curated in his home country with his work from China. The images were lovely. Videos and photographs of the things we had seen were now projected against whole walls, clusters of gallery goers lit by their glow. I could not help but feel pride. Many of the images were from sites that I had researched; places we arrived at because I navigated our maps, arranged our food and transportation. There were shots the artist had taken only because I had given him my gloves in the snow, or held an umbrella above his tripod, or lent him my camera when his own battery died. But that reality was mine alone. When I looked for my name in the description, I knew I would not find it. The artist had made beautiful images, and I had made myself his kindling. We had each had our adventure. Everything bright was something burned.

My high school sex-ed class never asked us to lug sacks of flour around school to approximate taking care of a baby, but if they had, I would have hated it. I did not want to parade around my fertility; I wanted to be taken seriously as a student. To be a mind more than a body. So I marveled at a high school peer who, for a time, carried around a bag of her own trash. She tied it to her backpack, a clear plastic sack. The bag swished as she walked. Her identity, on those days, was unmistakable. She was a consumer. A creator of trash. Maybe it was for a class activity—an exercise designed to make us accountable for our own consumption, aware of our take-out clamshells, candy wrappers, plastic forks. Still, I could not imagine how brave the girl must have been to walk with it through the hallways, chin high. She seemed to have no shame, no sorrow. It was as if she had just accepted that the trash was a part of her life. A shadow she would not shake. By exposing her own waste, she challenged the rest of us. What are you hiding? said the plastic sack. What have you created that will not just disappear?

I was reminded of this girl on my flight back from China, as I watched the flight attendant tip one meal tray after another into her cart of trash. How far they had traveled, our half-chewed dinner rolls. How far they had left to go. The attendant receded down the aisle, her arms moving as fluidly as a kayaker’s. In her wake the passengers clicked up their seatback trays and brushed the crumbs from their laps. Free. Nobody would have to think of their pudding cups again.

Soon the cabin was dry and dark. I drank wine from a plastic cup and between paragraphs of my book wondered how I would tell my friends about these weeks. Eventually I became self-conscious of the glare of my overhead reading light, far brighter than the blue glow of other people’s superhero movies. Was I keeping people awake? Who was I to burn this little sun? The thought was followed by a wave of self-loathing. Wasn’t it okay for me to take up space? Wasn’t that just being alive? Eventually I closed my eyes. I heard my mother’s voice in my head, telling me to count my breaths, visualize each one as a light extending to my toes. At one point my seatmate clicked open the window shade but all I glimpsed beyond it was the plane’s moonlit wing.

I slept. I dreamt that our plane had to make an emergency landing on the roof of a concrete tower. When we landed, our plane was intact, but the impact caused the building to burst into flames. The plane was perched beside a tiled rooftop pool. While other passengers screamed for the stairs, I stood at the lip of the deep end and folded the towels of the bathers who had fled. The building would fall, I knew that, but instead of terror, I felt cool with awe. Minutes earlier, I had thought my fate lay in a nose-diving machine. How beautiful to have landed at all.

Erica Berry is a writer and teacher in Portland, Oregon with essays published in print or online with The New York Times Magazine, Literary Hub, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, Guernica, The Atlantic, and others. @ericajberry
Originally published:
September 1, 2020


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