Averted Vision

The world is getting darker

Averted Vision

My ancestors marked the beginning of the darker half of the year in a place marked by long stones. They held a festival there, lit with bonfires. The fires burned as they brought in the last of the crops. The fires burned as they slaughtered livestock. The fires burned as they feasted together. 

The fires burn in my mind. I can almost make out the silhouettes of the people who tend it - tinder, kindly, wood, tinder, kindling, wood. When the festival was over, the flames were allowed to exhaust themselves. 

I can’t know what it was like to live in a world where long stones cast many shadows. I don’t harvest anything but my thoughts. I preserve those here, with you.

In the morning, my ancestors rose with the sun. There was work to do. They preserved their harvest against rot. They sealed the cracks in their homes against the cold. As they labored, they felt themselves tipping into the darker half of the year. 

I can’t know what it was like to live in a world where long stones cast many shadows. I don’t harvest anything but my thoughts. I preserve those here, with you. When I am cold, I turn on the space heater by my feet. 

But I live in the same hemisphere as my ancestors. The light shifts at the same angle. Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt myself tilting into the darker half of the year. 

I am always afraid of what I see in the dark.

I try to put sorrow in the periphery of my vision, to keep myself from going blind with grief. I can mostly keep my eyes on the things in front of me, in the light. But in the dark, the things in the corner of our eyes are the things most easily seen.

The center of the human eye is dominated by cones, the cells that detect bright light and color. Rods, the cells that detect light in shades of black and white, are densest at the outer edge of the retina. They help us see what can be seen in the dark.

When the earliest astronomers wanted to see faint objects in the night sky, they looked to the side of the object while keeping their concentration on it. The rods in their eyes helped them see what the cones could not detect. This is called averted vision.

Some scholars say Aristotle used averted vision to see a cluster of stars called Messier 41 over 1300 years before its acknowledged discovery. There are stars in the corner of my eyes too. But I can’t concentrate on them without also seeing the sorrow I’ve put there. 

Children held hostage by men who believe God delights in cruelty. Refugee camps and hospitals blown apart by other men who believe the same thing. Communities shredded by high velocity bullets propelled by hollow point politicians.Neighborhoods destabilized by war then shaken to the ground by earthquakes. The generations trapped between rising tides and wildfires. The cells that mutate and the treatments that don’t cure. 

They’re all clearer to me as the light dims. I don’t really know what to do with the visions. I am neither a savior nor a martyr nor a seer. I am just a woman with crowded eyes. 

Sometimes I wish the extramission theory of vision was true. Embraced by Plato, Theophrastus and Euclid, the theory argued that, 

our eyes are more than the passive recipients of images. Rather, they send out eye-beams—feelers made of elemental fire that spread, nerve-like, to create our field of vision. These luminous tendrils stream out from our eyes into the world, apprehending objects in their path and relaying back to us their qualities. - Amelia Soth, JSTOR

Extramission theory made vision a kind of reaching out. Perhaps looking could bless and gazing could shield. It wasn’t correct. But incorrect things can still sometimes be true. 

I marked the beginning of the darker half of the year with my own little fire. I sat in the dark for two weeks, with my burning eyes open, and looked to the side of sorrow. 

Here are a few objects I saw. (Each apprehended incompletely and recorded imprecisely.) 

Object 1

My ancestors processed their harvests with fire, stone and fermentation. They stored their food in salt, bogs, underground silos and earthenware pots. (2) But preservation wasn’t the only thing necessary for their survival. Rot was too. 

A harvest isn’t only a gathering, it’s a leaving behind too. Stalks, stems, leaves, threads that used to be roots.These were gathered into a pile on the same field where they fell, to form a midden. To this was added the material left over from processing crops. Chaff, stubble, straw. And then a daily ritual of walking the domestic waste to the midden. Animal bones, excrement, bits of wood, ashes.

In the dark months, the midden grew warm and restive with the processes of decomposition. And then, it grew cold and still. By the next planting season, the animal and plant materials were broken down into dark, spongy material we call humus. It improves soil structure, retains water, stores nutrients. Humus helps things grow.

Neolithic farmers didn’t transport the humus to other fields. Instead, they “simply ran an ard over their compost heaps”1 and then planted for the season. I suppose nothing was left behind. It was just gathered differently. Sometimes you sow what you reap. 

Object 2 

During the Enlightenment, western scientists went about constructing a new science of agriculture. They focused on making crops yield the age’s promise of progress. They held dirt in their hands and analyzed it under their microscopes. They thought they understood what they saw. 

Science is often an expression of the sins of its age.

Many of these men were certain humus was the product of some sort of alchemical transmutation. I suppose the particles of everyday living were not noble enough to make things grow. Instead, these scientists claimed that as plant and animal matter broke down their many different simple molecules were transformed into large complex humus molecules.  They said the humus molecule was particularly resistant to decay. It could persist for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. 

Science is often an expression of the sins of its age. The humus molecule gained acceptance as the commons closed and sugar plantations spread. Industrialists and imperialists believed oppression and enslavement turned people into minute parts of a homogenous material. That material provided structure and nourishment for capital and kingdom.This transmutation of the dead offered their killers absolution.

Object 3

Authority is the legal right to rule. Authority is the right to power. 

Western industrialists and imperialists claimed authority over the people and processes they wanted to control. They claimed their authority was naturally derived from reason, religion or race. But, as Edward Said  wrote, “There is nothing natural about authority.” 

They extracted resources from the ground of lands they invaded, spices, sugar, metal. They extracted blood from the veins of the people they subjugated. Using the mechanisms of empire, they refined their extractions into products of power. Their authority was a synthetic chain produced by those processes. 

In 1908, a British businessman found oil in Persia, on a 60 year concession he’d purchased through bribes and influence. Western power needed the energy to maintain their empires. The British, the French, the Americans used their authority to draw and redraw borders around oil, begin and end wars for oil, draw up treaties favorable to their compounding oil interests. 

Object 4

Multinational fossil fuel companies are the offspring of the industrial revolution and colonial imperialism. They extract fossil fuels from the ground and potential from the future. Using the mechanisms of empire and shareholder capitalism, they refine their extractions into products of power. 

They refine their extractions into products of power. 

Stocks are a synthetic chain produced by these processes. They require a promise of progress to maintain their authority. Carbon emission caps threatened that progress with accountability. CEOs and investors turned to the enlightened humus molecule for a restructured remission of their sins. The humus molecule’s generational persistence made soil carbon sequestration potentially scalable. 

Or it could have, if it was real. 

Like many enlightened discoveries, the humus molecule doesn’t actually exist. Using new ways of observing, scientists can now see that there are almost no large molecules in the stuff we call humus. Instead, it is made up of simple, diverse molecules. 

Those molecules do retain carbon, but not for generations. At least not human generations. Like most things that go in the ground, those molecules are susceptible to decomposing soil microbes. And then everything they held is dispersed. 

Object 5

Plastic is the inverse of the Enlightenment’s humus. It’s also made of dead plants and dead animals. That’s what fossil fuel is, after all. 

Once extracted from the ground, fossil fuels are broken down into basic chemical compounds. Those compounds are then chemically bonded into long chains of synthetic polymers, large molecules resistant to decay.

Plastic is made from those polymers. It provides the structure for much of our lives. Plastic holds our food, our medicine and our memories. 

When I was three years old, I got a Rainbow Brite doll. I fell asleep between her and my Glo Worm every night. Rainbow Brite’s yarn hair and rainbow clothes were made of polyester fibers. Her face was made of polyvinyl chloride, with toxic phthalates added to make it soft enough to press against my face. My Glo Worm was made of plastic too. When I felt scared in the dark, I hugged my Glo Worm and her face lit up. 

I was five years old when the United States entered the Gulf War. News coverage about “Operation Desert Storm” plays briefly in the background of my memories, as I eat snacks after school. The conflict felt far away. I didn’t know it had anything to do with my dolls. I didn’t know they were an oil product and the Gulf War was an oil war. 

“The fundamental U.S. interest in the security of the Persian Gulf is oil,” Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy in the George H. W. Bush administration.  

The United States claimed it was a “limited” war. But war has no limits. 

I was in high school when the second Iraq War started.  I did my homework in the kitchen, listening to news anchors narrate shock and awe. I was too old for plastic dolls, but too young to understand children were being killed so they could be made.  

Object 6

In 2022, 81% of U.S. energy came from fossil fuels. They power our electric grids, fuel transport and heat buildings.

Public support for investment in renewable energy continues to grow. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 67% of U.S. adults “prioritize the development of alternative energy sources…over increasing the production of fossil fuel energy sources.” 

An energy transition is an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry. CNBC’s Katie Brigham writes that “fossil fuel giants are looking towards petrochemicals, and plastics in particular, as their next major growth market.” 

There are crucial uses for plastic. But most plastic is woven into our lives to widen profit margins. It is cheap to produce and can assume many forms. In 2019,  theWorld Economic Forum found that up to “8% of annual global oil consumption was associated with plastics.” 

Currently, 40% of plastic is used for packaging, a single use product. Recycling plastic is more expensive than producing it, so most plastic isn’t actually recycled.

Plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it degrades too thoroughly to be useful. Degradation isn’t the same as decomposition. Plastic is resistant to decay, so incineration is often used to dispose of it. 

According to Rina Li in Waste Dive, 79% of US incinerators are located in “in the country’s most marginalized communities.” The National Institute of Health reportedthat burning plastic generates and releases, “pollutants like microplastics, bisphenol, and phthalates - all toxins that can disrupt neurodevelopment, endocrine, and reproductive functions.” 

In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood - Science News

Object 7 

There is a big glass case in the southeast corner of the Denver of Museum of Nature and Science. It contains an exhibit called The Hikers.

The Hikers are a pair of plastinated bodies. One Hiker stands on top of a boulder, reaching down. The other Hiker stands at the base of the rock, reaching up. According to the museum’s website, the bodies have been “dissected in ways that showcase everything from the spinal cord to the plantar fascia.” 

The Hikers were made by the man who invented plastination, Gunther Von Hagens. Von Hagens is also the creator of Body Worlds, the traveling exhibit of dissected bodies. In 2004, Der Spiegel reported that some of the bodies used were executed Chinese prisoners. Body Worlds has been dogged by concerns about consent since. 

The company has placed a public-facing emphasis on its voluntary body donation program. They say that all bodies are acquired with consent. 

The despairingly absurd John-Paul Sartre is quoted on the Body World’s body donation page,

“Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself.” 

The words are a kind of guarantee, the bodies in the exhibit are there because of the choices the person made while they were alive.

Plastination is a seven step process. 

Step One: Someone who was once a baby, soft and small enough to nestle into the crook of their mother’s neck, dies.

Step Two: The dead person is turned into a “specimen.”

Specimen (n.) "single thing regarded as typical of its kind, part or individual taken as exemplifying many” 

Like the humus molecule, the word specimen is a construction of the Enlightenment era. In the 1650s, scientists began to apply it to plants, minerals, animals and people. Colonialist categories still often decide which people become specimens.

Step Three: The dead body is dissected according to the desires of its consumers. The nerves, tendons and muscles are carefully exposed so they can be exhibited. 

Step Four: The body is submerged in an acetone bath, water and fat are drawn out of its cells and replaced with the acetone.Acetone is a fossil fuel product.

Step Five: The body is submerged in a bath of boiling liquid polymer. The acetone is drawn out of the cells and replaced with liquid plastic, another fossil fuel product.

Step Six: The soft plastic body is manipulated into a position fit forexhibition - climbing a mountain, playing cards, reaching out. 

Step Seven: The body is cured, hardening the plastic in its cells. 

When The Hikers were unveiled in 2011, the museum spokesperson said, “…it will be here forever.” 

Perhaps. But Von Hagens’ bodies only come with a 12 month limited warranty. According to the Von Hagen Warranty Care Guide, plastinated bodies should be disposed of through burial or cremation. Cremation requires special instructions because plastics burn at different temperatures than people. 

Our lungs, bloodstreams, politics and homes are sown with polymer chains. I don’t know how to extract them. 

The first time I saw The Hikers, I felt ashamed as I peered through the glass at their bones, and nerves and hearts. Sometimes looking isn’t the same as seeing. 

And I was afraid of what I saw reflected in the glass, my daughters and I superimposed on the plastinated corpses. We are being submerged in synthetic polymers. Our lungs, bloodstreams, politics and homes are sown with their chains. I don’t know how to extract them. 

Now when we go to the museum, I steer my children away from the bodies. But as we wander through the other galleries, The Hikers remain. 

They are still there, as I sit here with my eyes open. And something about them alone in that museum, in the night, is too much for me to bear. They were once children, who were afraid of the dark. My eyes water. And when I dry them, I forget to keep my vision averted. I look straight ahead and the center of my eye darkens. 

Generations of soft children flayed so that my arms could be filled with Rainbow Brite, warships filled with oil fuel and lamps filled with kerosene. And for a moment I am sure the fundamental interests invested in extracting power from the earth and our bodies are too persistent. They will not release us. 

There is a drive to preserve myself and my daughters. To submerge us all in the toxic compounds derived from colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. As our cells filled with their synthetic chains, we’d become soft and pliable enough to assume any position. After curing, we could be displayed together, in a place where it is always light. 

And then for a moment, we are. Or I am. I cannot see my children. Are they here too? I can only see a reflection of myself in the glass. Behind me, someone whispers, “So this is your salvation?” 

I cannot turn my head to see who is speaking. But I know they can see inside of me. They know what I’ve let fill my cells. And so there is nothing to hide. I try to respond, 

Yes. You are right. I can see now. The promise of progress for all was really a promise of power some. That promise structured my world and the world to come. It made heaven a city-state, with citizens within its walls and asylum seekers without. Hell was defined by heaven's borders. Authority was a limited resource, extracted from the lives of others. The fundamental interest of my religion was securing heaven was power without end.

But I do not have a tongue and my lips cannot move. I cannot turn my silent head to see who spoke. I have no eyelids to close as I listen to them walk away.

I search for my children using the corners of my eyes. The sorrow I keep there delivers me from self-preservation. And  I am returned here, to the dark. 

Object 8

The ground is a mystery. Soil is less known than the stars or the sea. 

According to Kate Scow, a professor of soil science and soil microbial ecology at UC Davis, even a quarter teaspoon of soil “can easily contain a billion bacterial cells and several miles of fungal filaments.” 

Soil is alive with decomposers, microbes that transform complex structures into simple molecules. There are “10,000 to 50,000 different taxa in a teaspoon of soil.” 

So much life concentrated in such a small space! A mystery with tremendous weight. Any mantle of authority derived from it must eventually bring a man down. 

I’ve got no right to anything in the ground, but I can let the ground teach me. Power is just another perishable structure. It need not persist. I can nibble at it while I live, joining thousands of others, millions of others, billions of others doing the work of decomposition. 

There are synthetic structures that need to be broken down in my country, in my culture, in my house, in my heart.

Object 9

The other day I read a Wired article about human composting. When a person dies, their body is put into “a vessel with alfalfa, straw, sawdust, and notes written in biodegradable ink.” After a few months, the body has been broken down into humus-enriched soil. Loved ones often use the dirt to nourish their gardens.  

Here is the little we think we know about the stuff we call humus. Humus is a  “supramolecular association” of small, diverse molecules. Can I tell you what that means, in simple terms?

Weakness is dynamic. 

Plant and animal matter decay into lots of different simple molecules. Those simple molecules interact with one another and “self-assemble” to create larger, complex structures that give humus its characteristics. These interactions are non-covalent. Non-covalent interactions are weak. 

This is good, because weakness is dynamic.

Humus can adapt to changes in the environment. It can incorporate and retain different nutrients and pollutants. It can be a reservoir for varying levels of water. It can shift soil structure and interact with living organisms within the soil. Humus sustains because it does not persist. 

When it decomposes, it is transformed into another form of energy. We are kept by laws of conservation. 

Object 10

Can I tell you one more thing Plato said? 

He said there was a world soul, anima mundi. 

This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related. - Plato’s Timaeus

Today, we’re more likely to refer to “soul and intelligence” as consciousness. And we call the modern version of Plato’s theory panpsychism. Gareth Cook describes it succinctly in Scientific American, 

According to panpsychism, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. This doesn’t mean that literally everything is conscious. The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience, and the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts.

If "consciousness is a quality inherent in all matter,” it cannot be destroyed. It can only be changed from one form to another. Maybe our souls are small things interacting with weakness. 

Some interactions lead to entanglement, 

A change in one particle will induce a simultaneous change in the other particle, no matter how far apart they are. Entangled particles can be separated by light years, billions of light years, and remain connected. Space and time are not the threads of existence, entanglement is. - In Which I Rot in The Ground (But Only by One Measure)

And there just beyond this object, there is an empty field. And for a moment, I think I can almost see the shape of something that looks like Sorrow Entangles, but I cannot concentrate enough to bring the light forward.

Object 11

I used to pray for salvation, with my head tipped up to the sky. But now my heavy eyes pull me to the ground, where I beg to be broken down into something small enough to be a part of something weak. 

It takes a long time to break down animal matter. And so I start now.

I fill the empty spaces around my heart and brain with the material my culture taught me to leave behind. I make a midden of myself, growing warm and restive with the processes of decomposition. I won’t be afraid as my lungs and breasts and blood turn to humus. 

When everything is cold and still, maybe I’ll be split open. My shape will be lost as the dark, spongy material spills out into the ground.

It is easy to think about becoming soil while I sit at my desk alone. It is less easy to contemplate when I am sitting at my kitchen table with my children. Pass the bread now, because our warm hands will one day become cold and we will each be buried. This is a sorrow. Sorrow may yet keep us. 

The ground is a mystery, but this much has been revealed, 

We reap what we sow.