Dwelling on the Periphery
I am currently situated in a remote rural landscape, far from any major city, and still some distance from the nearest village. From an old farmhouse positioned on a small hill above the river bank, my view takes in a gorgeous swathe of calm landscape that includes low islands, undisturbed shoreline, a lazy current and no humans for as far as the eye can see. I was stunned by the silence and darkness at first, as the stimulation of populous surroundings began to fizzle from my system. There wasn't a single sound in the landscape here--an unbroken quietude. When I first arrived, the moon was hidden and not a speck of light pollution marred the shimmering night sky.
This radiant clarity is something I haven't seen since my last trip deep into the Australian outback. Other than the welcome isolation, the seeming tranquility of this place is, I later realized, problematic; it is due in large part to a complete lack of birds. I have spotted one bald eagle that lives in our area on the river. There are, of course, a smattering of ravens. One or two partridge have been spotted, thumping off through the trees. There was once the sound of a passing woodpecker and once a single chickadee, but there are no other species of bird, even those that typically stick around for the winter. How can there be no birds? As a bird lover, this disturbs me. I realize that species extinction is happening at a rapid pace, but is that what this actually is in its entirety?
*Our closest neighbours are sleeping in the graveyard behind this old, abandoned church.
The overall conditions of space, silence and isolation might sound ideal during COVID times, and certainly have been a balm for my still-recovering nervous system. But, the balm sometimes becomes bombing; this lovely property with its unnatural silence betrays a darker reality yet. The 44-acre wood flanks one of the largest military bases in Canada. The first day that I heard the explosions, I thought it was an oncoming, huge thunder storm. It frightened me and I rushed inside from the bush trail I'd been exploring during my first week of quarantine. Mainly, I was frightened because it was a thundering that I couldn't confidently place, something not quite timed with the frequency of a natural storm but happening in a more staccato regularity. Then it dawned on me that I was hearing explosions, uncomfortably close by.
When our provincial zone went to orange level COVID restrictions, the ballistics exercises seemed to cease. A couple more birds could be heard, though not many. I realized that the bombing is likely silencing the avian population. Are they hushed and afraid? I wondered if an endemic population of birds that did not sing were evolving to this environment, or alternately have they had merely been wiped out by PFAS chemicals? Have chemicals decimated the insect population and thus their food supply?
There is, in the history of this region, another orange factor: in the late 1960s, the US military secretly sprayed Agent Orange here. I have a friend from my early years in art school, who was born with a slight hand deformity as a result of her mother's exposure. Even though the well water was recently tested at the farmhouse, such a toxic history and daily chemical explosions alerts me to the still-present hazards to human (and animal) health. It should come as no surprise that this military base also happens to be directly adjacent to one of Canada's earliest black settlements (est. 1806), and New Brunswick's last remaining Black Canadian community, Elm Hill.
Once my two-week quarantine ended, I drove to visit (at a social distance) with friends in the area, taking the road through Elm Hill. I hadn't previously known of this settlement--on my end of the road, there are no signs to indicate its establishment and it has never been talked about in my presence, that I can recall. I didn't learn about Elm Hill in school nor is it featured in New Brunswick cultural (tourism) information as a notable part of the province's history. Along the single, bumpy dirt road that traverses the community, areas of staggering poverty seemed strangely out of place; the property next to us is a massive ranch, and further along the waterfront, foreign investments have made for grand (and mostly uninhabited) new estates. This egregious discrepancy again should be no surprise, given runaway globalism, ongoing racism and the disenfranchisement of black people, people of colour and those from different economic backgrounds--especially those who have been here the longest. In a time of COVID, rural communities are prone to a new surge of inflation, with cheap properties snatched up by economically advantaged WFHers coming from away.
The woods that edge the farmhouse are an unfortunate fir monoculture, planted in the 1970s. While pleasant to navigate because pre-commercial thinning has made passage easy, the stand is devoid of the diversity of life you'd expect to find in a forest. The only other foliage is on opportunistic low bush that springs up in neglected areas after they've been cleared. Scat indicates that there are some roaming bear, deer, rabbits and fox but the animal species (and scat) we have most encountered is coyote. This postnatural, chemical drenched thicket seems a nocturnal dreamscape of coyotes, who we discovered watching us from a very close pace. Their eyes glint fire white at night, burning low at the tree line, at about dog height. Those eyes had first appeared when we naively decided to take a quick walk after dark.
Close to the the full moon, we sat in the car one night, windows half down and sunroof open, listening to a silence that listened back to us. The enduring silence slowly, over a stretch of minutes, became broken by the sounds of howling. This was our proof of a resident pack (or two) of coyotes, since the howling originated from three sides, far away at first and then moving slightly closer. The only side without howling was at the river. We listened until the sounds died out again before heading back into the house. Then one morning, we spied a coyote by the river as we walked down to assess recent flooding, and it whispered away in a silent run through the grasses as we approached. We are the latest intruders on coyote territory, but certainly not the only ones.
Recently I joined a short online course offered by artist Mary Maggic, entitled, Hacking the Molecular. Mary's work is centred on hormonal (estrogen) extraction, hormonal disruption (xeno-estrogens), pollution in the body and the environment. I'm always interested in new DIY science methods, and applying them to my own practice, so I'm excited to learn Mary's methods of hormone extraction and DIY lab tools building. But, I found this workshop particularly relevant given my proximity to a site of extreme military pollution. The mass-scale toxicity on the base, however, is complemented by a number of personal care products I currently use--despite the fact that I am typically very conscientious about which products I buy (I make a lot of my own 'beauty' products). Mary's suggested 'witch hunt' for hormone disruptors within our 'care' products revealed that my Aveda hair volumizer contains known allergens including asthmagen sensitizers, and my L'Oreal hair oil contains persistent chemical toxins known to be bioaccumulative in wildlife. In essence, I am part of the problem here and there is no escape for me, either. Mary's transhackfeminist premise is a postnatural one: we are all infiltrated by chemical hormone disruptors and molecular pollution, there is no such thing as a toxin-free body, we are all mutable and entangled within an increasingly synthetic reality. The more we understand these agents, their effects and how to manipulate these systems, the more resilient, socially adaptable and responsible we become. This aligns precisely with my own technofeminist thinking and I'm looking forward to more discussions.