Maryland, 1988. Junior high. Our task in Mr. M’s class: author a dispatch to a pal on Phobos, a moon of Mars, communicating highlights about our world.
This task had a catch: ABC’s fifth and most common mark was off limits — for, as Mr. M told us, this symbol didn’t occur on Phobos.
This was just a writing drill, to build our vocabulary.
But also, this was not a drill.
Now, looking back, I think Mr. M. saw what was coming, was priming us.
I’m 45 now, living cross country. Land of Pacific salmon. Coho, Chinook, so many runs struggling, vanishing. Not coming back. Dams blocking. Pollution poisoning.
I sit by an old fir along a flowing ribbon of rain. Looking, watching, waiting. But no fish, just mist slowly swirling.
I’m living amidst loss. Gaps and cracks growing. Scripts of migrations thinning, dissolving. What maps, what scraps of instructions do I follow now? As what’s familiar — known symbols — go blank, blink out?
Loss compounding loss as food chains fail, catastrophic.
Small annihilations turn big. From Latin nihil: nothing.
Mr. M was skinny in slacks. Sitting on a tall stool, making us laugh with his funny sayings. Shouting “Rutabaga!” about a ridiculous thing. Cracking us up.
Our moms didn’t talk about it, or only did following his diagnosis, AIDS, his dying.
Hushing. His sayings stopping. Not coming back.
Facing his own fading, this man taught us how to author with missing words. How to story through this world’s muzzling and muting, how to stay lucid with vanishing ink.
Moon Phobos, from mythological Phobos: god of war’s son. Symbol of fright. Phobia.
I am afraid for this world and for us. What would I say, writing to an imaginary Phobian pal today? That my world is in crisis, rapidly losing mammals, birds, amphibians, fish. That from 1970 our animal populations sank 68%.
I could start by naming —
Pass ng r Pig on.
North rn Whit Rhinoc rus.
Pyr n an Ib x.
Gold n Toad.
Carolina Parak t.
H ath H n.
Caspian Tig r.
Caribb an monk s al.
O’ahu tr snail.
X r s blu .
I could say:
My Plan t arth is in th middl of a sixth mass global xtinction v nt.
My hom is changing b yond r cognition. Our cosyst ms: Riv r, oc an, prairi , for st, d s rt. Tatt r d. Riddl d with hol s. Our arth, languag .
Sil nc d, c nsor d.
Sinc r ly yours.
Living in a world without all of its gifts is writing without all of our words. Partial, pitiful. But survival is in starting, staying. Clinging to words and wild you still know.
What will you say? Will you craft a dispatch, a song, a story, a play, a slogan on a scrap of cardboard?
Skipping familiar sounds, but still voicing.
Doing amidst undoing.
Looking for humor — Rutabaga! — and, possibly – finding brand spanking ways of living.
Finding bounty in a world of subtraction.
You know what to say. It’s in your mouth, on your lips, tip of your —
Amy Souers Kober is a river advocate and writer looking for stories that reconnect us with the natural world and each other. She is vice president of communications at American Rivers, a national river conservation organization and the mother of two boys. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Call to action:
Support your local river or watershed group – they can give you great education and action opportunities tailored to your specific region.