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The Long Argument Over Gravity

from “A Journey to the West”

This piece is part of the Climate notebook, which features art by Katrina Bello.


Years before      I met him        he returned  to that road
undeformed       he would later find     Mother
under a sign that says “Bait”

The sea was consumed

He first heard   the Earth     the waters   the living
the ugly   origin of cold

while bodies   shaped like hot-air     rose

I wrote it down:

ancient myth

Amazon      of  hardy force
clustered   in harmony
tectonics lusting     a   Pangea transgression
hot fluids    weathering

every a hundred years       in honor of   air    
two men formed   the long argument   over gravity

to the east
the emperor   is pronounced   history

of the west     history captured
a skeptic’s outcrop               another face         gone

Another     ten million years
history exposed   the redundant gods
who picked and ate   fourteen grapes

etymology lost in time

After the air opened
his mother     boiled rice
that lightly thickened as it cooled

If you close your eyes     he said     China   will find    the world

I close my eyes     and see that ancient scene
I see all those people       buried   or lost
red sound of     acid rain   smog   gunpowder

red to the east
the heat and pressure   compressed for   three thousand years

language     was sacrilegious
metamorphosed     a very large army

He learned to speak

I took his word

Erasure of source text: “Assembling California-II,New Yorker, John McPhee, 1992

Author’s Note

I stumbled upon excerpts of John McPhee’s “Assembling California” in the New Yorker during the year I did not write. McPhee’s text—a narrative informed by his geological field surveys across America with tectonicist Eldridge Moores—calmed me. Human and geologic time merged, unraveling the epic undercurrent to our ordinary realities: California was once “only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock.”

Yet, beneath the shifting tectonic plates, murmured a collective voice, something ancient, buried. They guided my ears through the text. When I erased the text, there we were. We have always been there.

To excavate the Chinese from the text is to unbury us from the land. McPhee rarely mentions “China” or “Chinese”—despite the Gold Rush, despite our ancestors beneath each track of railroad built. What McPhee did mention: “from Gibraltar through China”; “A Chinese miner wounds a white youth and is jailed.”

The Anthropocene is directly responsible for the climate crisis. Despite the billion-year ruptures and formations, our brief existence has caused a human disruption of geologic time—caused by our exploitation of resources, our treatment of land, rooted in the American empire’s continuous erasure of history.

To be aware of our ecological impact means a shared consciousness of our buried, collective history: of the land, of us. Only then, will the geologic and Anthropocene merge.

Voices arose from the text; we have always been here.

They spoke; I wrote it down.