My End of the World

My End of the World

 

Words by Danez Smith

Photographs by Colin Dodgson

When it feels as if the world is unraveling, nature remains a source of sublimity. But who is afforded access to beauty during times of apocalypse?

My mind wasn’t well living in Philly. Arriving in August on the Southside for a year-long fellowship, my mother along for the ride, the first thing that struck us both was abundance: the endless row of cars and cars packed tight on the streets, even cars parked in the middle of the road; a new corner store that seemed to blossom every two or three blocks; the stunning and beautiful amount of Black people everywhere we looked; the stunning and sad amount of trash that danced in the wind along the sidewalk and in the streets. What took me a little while to notice, and once I did it left me with a green and hollow space I didn’t know I so desperately depended on, was what my temporary neighborhood lacked: no trees, no lawns, no grass, parks few and far between, no squirrels, too few gardens, no birds singing from the branches, but birds chanting from concrete and brick perches. I missed dandelions. I missed the jade peace of nature I had unknowingly grown to expect from so many years living in the Midwest. The gray of summer passed into the gray of winter without autumn’s amber announcement. I was grateful to my neighbors who crowded their corners with brief nurseries of bright flowers and plants, which seemed to shout, “Remember! Remember Earth! Remember the world that grows and is not built!” But still, my mind. My mind came to a halt in my year away from growth. It was hard to create, near impossible for me to give those necessary gifts of kindness and action without feeling utterly depleted. I made too much room for pessimism, gave my thoughts over to smoky, dawn-starved corners that choked what needed light to fruit. In the rows of houses joined at the hip, in the littered wind, in the hot blocks of stone and steel, I was a seed in need of dirt, pollen landing useless in a factory.

I get back to Minneapolis and am returned into the delicious flaunt of nature. There’s a statistic I kinda know about how something like no one in Minneapolis lives more than 10 blocks from a park. True or not, it’s a rumor I believe for how lush it blooms in my mind and my peace. The trees sashay in the wind, leaves turned into thin tambourines. The lawns are each home’s flirty emerald. I live most for the ones dressed in what the weed killers massacre for a clean and bland perfection. Hello again, Dandelion! How are you, Wild Lilac? Looking fine, Clover and Milkweed! Stop before my man sees us, Creeping Charlie! I have arrived in a loud and hot spring. Nature is sexy and birthing all around me. Back home in my native soil, where I’ve dug my hands in actual soil without traveling to a wealthier part of town, I am also welcomed back to my mind. Back in my mind, in my peace, back in the ease of a local and abundant beauty, I’m thinking about my recent neighbors in Philly, I’m thinking about the formerly redlined neighborhoods all over the U.S. that are often treeless, locked out of green, hotter and more vulnerable to climate change than the other side of town they were othered from. Who does this country believe deserves beauty? Who is allowed nature?

I must amend my looking, I must tell the truth of Minneapolis and the trees. Even though as a city, I am never too far from nature’s specter, there are still areas where the Black, Brown, and often poor live in a green lack. The Green Zones Initiatives were created in 2017 to address areas of the city that experience the brunt of environmental, political, racial, and economic marginalization. To clean the soil, clean the water, improve the air, bring about better housing…these are recent kindnesses to attend to the long and continuous violences of the  country, the state, the city, the people who are its body. I must be honest about my sweet home: it is beautiful and monstrous, it is nature-rich and picky, it is flower-rich and trigger happy, filled  with bees and rabbits and police everywhere you look. My city is so green and of course when they planted the trees and built the parks, there was a list of people lawmakers decided did not  deserve such wealth.

 

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I’m thinking about what arrives with gentrification: the Whole Foods, the dog salon, the higher rent, the young artists, and then the corporate creatives, coffee shops, the vintage threads, the new bus stop with the lights and the heater, the paved roads, the new and expensive bar, the trees. When money comes to the neighborhood, when the Black and Brown blocks are bombarded by whiteness, here comes beauty, here comes nature. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Money grows trees in the places where the people were once left impoverished and nature-poor.

The world is ending. We are allowing it. Or some are trying to slow it, prevent it, but a greater sum would rather ignore it, profit from it, play the fool. The world is ending, and who knows it? Who has to know it? Who has the water already left rain-hungry, thirsty? Whose aquifers have been sold to a richer someone’s need? Who has the heat already sweated out of an illusion of normalcy? I’m running along the Mississippi again. This far north where the river is thin enough to swim across and too dirty to dive into, it’s beautiful along the banks with the well-kept trails, the small forest climbing up the bluff. When I’m in the most naturally beautiful places in Minneapolis, I’m often alone, not alone-alone, but I’m by myself in the midst of white folks. I am the only of my people along the trails, sometimes a dark stranger will pass me and we get that moment of recognition in the company of trees, occasionally a friend is by my side and we are alone together along the crowded and worn paths. It’s the end of the world, and who gets to escape into the fantasy of nature’s endlessness? The mansions and apartments I can’t afford a stone’s throw from beauty, only wealth allowed to live sheltered near the treasure of trees. Who gets to pace utopia while we build apocalypse? Who gets to live by paradise as the world closes into heat? I’m running along the Mississippi into beauty, I’m going to the river to ease my mind with color and flora, to be with the plants and the bees while they still exist. The closer I get to Earth’s beauty, the less the people enjoying it look like me. Who is allowed this green wonder? Who is expected to bake first in the stone knowledge of fact? (You know, we know.)

Last year at an Airbnb cabin on a lake outside Saint Cloud, MN—renting land on stolen land—I remember looking at the water one afternoon, the row of cabins and trees across the way like a thin green belt separating fields of sapphire, and I said to myself, “They stole all this. All this.” I know as the virus of colonialism spread westward, the colonizers marveled in genuine awe at what glamor they found to pillage. I know it took their breath away as they claimed what could not be owned until it was. Now, the virus of colonialism has given way to the virus of industry, the land once stolen now poisoned, stolen now smog-filled and fracked and oil-spilled and on fire. What was once everywhere is now a vacation, beauty sectioned off into national parks. This is the viruses at work. They steal the land, they ruin the land, they decide where and who will be allowed beauty. The folks who stole this country now protect its most gorgeous scapes from themselves, as if humans inherently and inevitably ruin the land, as if there is no way to exist in harmony with nature. When the first ships crashed the shores carrying Christianity and capitalism, God began to claim the land as the money—slowly, then rapidly, like a deadly river—began to drain it. The same whiteness that stole and stole and sectioned off and poisoned the land, still the ones who largely visit and feel safe in its national parks and green, urban spaces. God’s country suffocated by God’s people. God’s people ushering in the environmental rapture in the name of a buck. 

 

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I am not we who stole the land, killed a people, and stole a people to work the land. I am not we who profits a century and some change later off the cruelty of my ancestors. I am not we who manifested destiny and is manifesting a curtain call. I am not we who thinks America was ever great. I am we who was stolen, we who can trace my family back no further than a boat, we with a little of everyone’s blood in my blood, some added from love and lust, some related to me by force. I am not we who engineered the end of us, but I buy their car and their fuel. I am we who drives their car to see the green things, my trail of smog like a train behind me as I pollute my way to beauty.

City-dweller, hood-citizen, upwardly mobile and occasional gentrifier, frequent Airbnb guest despite how I know it rots the rent, I’m just a city girl marveling at plants, mourning the waning trees, the birds that fall of out the sky by the hundreds, the mass graves of fish washing ashore for reasons we beg to not know nor see as omens. Urban as I am, I’m peering from my blue window at the great red elsewhere outside my city limits, the rural sister country outside these blue islands. I don’t believe in these colors, though I know their realities and where my allies and my enemies lie. But today, I’m wondering about that red wilderness, about the party of hunters and fishermen and so many hikers, the party of the small-town farmer and the people who live, more than little blueblack me, in and with nature. What does it mean to live with nature as a neighbor yet still vote for the people who turn their backs to nature’s ills and urgent need for care? Who can live akin to the oaks and redwoods and deer and still put their power behind men and women who would rather close their ears to the cries of Earth than to attend even slightly to her wounds? What intense denials must one live in? What lies must one fabricate? What world must you convince yourself you live in? I think my enemies deserve their world, since it is my world, I think we deserve beauty, deserve this life though it’s on land we don’t deserve, I think we all deserve a future where the planet is healthy, where this beauty is not dying from our wickedness and inaction. What, my enemy, my countrymen, my hesitant cousins, does it take for us to agree enough to doctor the land we disagree upon? How do we agree enough to make the future happen?

Summertime at the end of the world, and it’s so beautiful. My world is loudly green and blooming with what feels possible. Someone’s isn’t. My end of the world is trees and rivers and flowers I know by scent and not name. Someone else’s isn’t. My end of the world is so beautiful I could cry. Someone else not far is weeping in dystopia. Who gets to hold onto beauty as the world ends? Whose world has ended? I walk my city’s blossoming miles as I dream and add my action to the world’s survival. I pray not to know the coming guilt that while it all collapsed, it was so damn pretty.

150 years ago, Yellowstone became the United States’s first National Park, inspiring similar models across the world. Before its establishment in 1872, what is now Yellowstone was home to or stopping grounds for many Indigenous tribes—including the Kiowa, Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, and Nez Perce—who were forcibly removed from the land in the name of conservation.

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “My End of the World.”


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