In Case of Emergency / Break Glass

This essay went out through my newsletter on 3/29/2019.

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot to panic about these days. Things are very bad! Like, existentially! I could list some of the many, many, many reasons why, but no one needs that. You know all the global reasons, and then I'm sure you have your own, private ones, too, things that haunt you in the middle of the night. For me, those private things include my continued and agonizing unemployment, a difficult relationship that I know I'm navigating all wrong, half a dozen emails that I am afraid to send, and just generalized regret for lost opportunities and lost friends and bad choices, the almost unbearable recognition that time only moves in one direction, the fear of change but also the yearning for it, and WHOOPS it's 3:30am and I am fully awake and losing it. 

Panic, at least for me, is always the result of feeling out of control. As a rational person, I recognize that I cannot control climate change, or the election, or the plastics industry (and there I go listing all the things I promised not to). And this feeling of helplessness tends to bleed into my normal life--suddenly I become sure that I'm going to lose everything, that I can't hold on to my husband or my cats, that I'll never be able to find a job, that nothing I do matters and I can't make a better life, much less a better world, and WHOOPS I'm no longer in the present but drifting in an unbearable imaginary realm of eternal loss. 

When that happens, I find it helpful to call up this list, which I made after one particularly bad night. It is a list of action items, to-dos that manage to help EVEN THOUGH all the bad things are still bad and tend to visit one in the middle of the night (which is really fucking unfair and, frankly, seems like very bad planning on someone's part). Reading this list pulls me out of that terrifying shadow realm and back into the present. If that's a place you know at all (and I'm so sorry if it is), I highly recommend making your own emergency list. Here's mine.

The Things That Help
1. Working. Even though it's stupid and the world will likely end in ice (or maybe fire? Probably both!), it does make you feel the teensiest tiniest bit better to be working towards something that will keep my busy and engaged and doing good work. This is very annoying.

2. Reaching out to your people. Your mileage varies on this! Sometimes it's very embarrassing! You don't always want to do it! But it's always a good idea. 

3. Telling yourself, over and over and OVER as necessary, that depression lies. Depression lies! Depression LIES. Depression. Lies. We know this! It is known.

4. Recognizing the things that made you sad, but also taking a minute to think of the good and consistent things, for instance:

  • Art (even--maybe especially--art about sad and scary things)

  • Architecture

  • Art Museums

  • Bullet-pointed lists

  • Marina Abramovich

  • That Icelandic artist you love so much and can never remember the name of

  • Novels

  • History, which includes the history of lots of sad things that people sort of mostly get through!

  • Flowers

  • Cockroaches and pigeons and raccoons and rats and other really fucking resilient animals

  • Tattoos, and the possibility of always getting another one

  • The moment you're actually in, which is almost always okay, really

  • Breathing

  • Your beautiful friends

  • Mary Oliver poems about grief, for example:

Ocean

I am in love with Ocean

lifting her thousand of white hats 

in the chop of the storm,

or lying smooth and blue, the

loveliest bed in the world.

In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,

a heart-load for each of us 

on the dusty road. I suppose

there is a reason for this, so I will be

patient, acquiescent. But I will live

nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting

equally in all the blast and welcome 

of her sorrowless, salt self. 

-Mary Oliver, from Red Bird

  • The Ocean itself, big and unfathomable and yes, it is very sick, and that makes you feel in a horribly literal way like you are sick, but it is also consistently surprising and you do not know, maybe things will get better, the future isn't actually written yet even though it feels like it is

  • Water of all kinds

  • The mathematical poetry of birds

  • The work you've done

  • The work you haven't done yet--the sentences you're going to string together and fall in love with

  • The next TV show, movie, song, restaurant that will surprise and delight you

  • Cats, all of them, literally every single cat

  • Most dogs 

5. Remember that even though you feel sick and sad, you sat down and you made this. On a different day, the next time you're sick, maybe you can make something else, like cookies, or a terrible drawing! The important thing is that even in the thick of it, you can do things to remind yourself that you are not living in the terrifying future. You're living right now, in a moment that is almost always pretty much okay, really. Take a breath.

Haylie Swenson

Porous

This essay went out through my newsletter on 3/22/2019.

The first time I remember this thing I'm about to describe happening I was in the car on the way back from a rafting trip with my youth group, a thrilling co-ed baker’s dozen of 16- and 17-year olds. We’ve been rafting all day. The Deschutes river winds through central Oregon, the dry side of a wet state. It’s cold, but that doesn’t stop us from pausing between rapids to jump in, to push each other out of the boat, to clamber onto the cliff called Top Rock and plunge. Cliff jumping is a rush—the hesitation, the leap, the fear as time stretches on the way down, the shock of the water, all of this adds up to more physical sensation than most of us Mormon kids with little-to-no experience with sex or other intoxicants were used to. And then the car, which is sensually overwhelming in its own way. There isn’t anywhere to change, so I’m still in my swimsuit in the sun-warmed car, wrapped in a towel with my head against the window when all of a sudden, without any warning, it happens: hot water trickles out of my ear. It feels like a tablespoon, at least, but when I feel my ear it’s barely wet. It feels amazing—the sudden heat, the feeling of something leaving, but also the knowledge that the water was there in the first place, that even though the day is ending something of it had lingered. It also feels vaguely and thrillingly sexual: something has entered my body, breached the boundaries, and I don’t hate it. 

The night before the rafting trip, our adult leaders decide we are all sufficiently virginal to sleep out together under the stars. This is unheard of. A co-ed sleepover? Outside? We talk about sex, sort of, obliquely, but not obliquely enough because we are harshly scolded. The older kids invite me on a walk and then proceed to ignore we while they talk in whispers, asking each other, what’s the worst thing you've ever done. I don't know why I’m there, and then realize, sort of vaguely, that they're having this conversation BECAUSE I’m there. I make it safe. 

Of course, I’m terrified of sex. Helpfully, I don’t like any of the boys in my youth group, and in fact I have a persistent and irrational fear that I might somehow wake up one day to find myself married to one of them, stuck in my small town forever (I probably am attracted to some of the girls, but I’m in deep denial about that and will be for years yet). Still, I’m fascinated with them, the very idea of them, the thick miasma of sex that hangs in the air whenever teenagers congregate, yes, even over this extremely virginal group. Dimpled chests. Chaste one-piece suits that still show cleavage. Water guns wielded with phallic intensity by the boys.  It's all fascinating and mysterious, and when it happens, the unpredictability of this ear event feels somehow exactly right. 

In the years since, I’ve continued to love this feeling, the sudden hot rush of porousness when water leaves my ear. It doesn’t happen every time I swim. Sometimes I can hear the water sloshing around my ear, but it never leaves. Troubling. But other times it does, even hours later: the river, the sea, the pool hangs on until it doesn’t. Usually things leaving are humiliating or gross: the gross trickle of menstrual blood, snot, vomit, a tiny bit of pee when your friends make you laugh so hard you cry. Tears themselves. But this reminds you you're porous, and that porousness is cathartic. It feels good to be open to the world, to carry some of it with you. Every time it happens, I’m reminded of the activity—the ocean, the pool, the creek—but also of that first time that I noticed it, the humid air in the car, the towel wrapped around my waist, the feeling of being open to everything, even openness itself. 

Haylie Swenson

Grackles

This essay went out through my newsletter on 2/08/2019.

Every night around 5pm, thousands of grackles flock to the old power plant in downtown Austin. Grackles, especially the male ones, look a little bit like crows, but crows drawn by an eight-year old with a flair for angles. They're sleek with big broad tails and an impressive variety of screechy and zipper-like calls. I watch them arrive in big wheeling flocks from the north windows on the third floor of the new Central Library. From my perch, I can also watch people on the street below, pausing to take in the nightly show. 

I've been paying more attention to these things since Mary Oliver died. I’ve had a fraught relationship with Mary Oliver. for a while. On the one hand, I find Wild Geese so moving that I once tried to memorize it specifically so that I could recite it to myself when my anxiety rears up. I quit halfway through, and probably have it a third memorized? Let’s see: You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting... other stuff. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me your... pains? Secret shames?... and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, wild geese… something. 

Maybe not quite a third. The point is, I truly love it. On the other hand, though, I find the ubiquitous presence of those famous lines--and the other, even more famous ones from a different poem: "tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"--in the feeds of instagram influencers more than a little threatening. If I'm going to ask myself that question at all (which, more below), I want to do so in the deepest, most private part of my brain. I don't want to be confronted with this almost obscenely private question by yet another capitalist pretending to be a guru ("you do not have to be good, you just have to have a disposable income").

That’s not really fair (I mean, it's a little fair, but). Even if I never saw it in another post, Oliver's question would still, in a completely inescapable way, be the drumbeat of my current days. In August, I earned my PhD. I also lost a job I loved, a job I was sure would lead me gently out of academia and back into the world. But it didn't work out, and since then, nothing else really has, either. I'm applying and searching, but more often than that, I'm asking and avoiding. 

Because the truth is, I am drenched in shame these days, swimming in buckets of it, and on most days I will do almost anything to avoid recognizing that simple fact. What am I going to do with my life? I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure I've made a mess of it so far, and that feeling is enough to drive me away from the things I need and sort of want to be doing (applying for jobs! Writing! Sorting out the horrible and exciting void that stretches out in front of me) and into the realms of Twitter and Instagram, where I can pretend that my life matters by association. Where I can watch and judge as other people feel things, or pretend to feel things. Where I can pretend, too. 

This is objectively not helpful! Nor is it what Mary Oliver meant. I forget where I saw this, but someone pointed out that she seems to have spent much of *her* wild and precious life walking around and noticing things. So I'm trying to notice more things these days, too. Like how my shame sits with me, even when I'm watching the grackles come in. And how sometimes, when I’m transfixed by the shimmering murmurations above me, or the fox that crossed my path last fall, or the beat of my heart when I’m running—then, when I’m really paying attention, even my secret sweaty shame seems lovable.   

Grackles.jpg

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

—Mary Oliver

Haylie Swenson

Kind of a Downer, If I’m Honest—Not to Me, So Much, But Your Mileage May Vary

First sent out via my newsletter on 1/21/2018.

CW: Self-harm, sort of, but also not really.

3:00 am
I've woken up around 2am, every night, for the past few nights. I never used to have insomnia, and when I say never, I mean it about as literally as possible: I slept soundly nearly every single night of my teens and twenties. But I haven't slept as well for the past few years, and I don't really know what to do with it. Usually I toss and turn for a while, then look at my phone for a longer while, and repeat until 3, 4, 6am. Sometimes, when I can't stand worrying any more, I get up to watch a show. I don't know what other people do in the middle of the night.  

For the past couple nights, though, I've been fidgeting with a visualization, which is a new-agey word that I am hypocritically uncomfortable with, given how much meditating I do these days. It goes like this: as in meditation, I start by trying to chart the way my anxiety moves in my body. I'll resist the urge to enumerate things I'm anxious about: that stuff is sticky, and everyone already has their own middle-of-the-night fears. You don't need mine. But I will tell you that my anxiety feels like a fire in my belly is sending sparks shooting up into my chest, and that it reminds me of a scripture from Job that I just read in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead: "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." 

I wish I could externalize this feeling somehow, get it out of my torso, a little farther from my heart. Do you remember The Secret Life of Bees? There's a character in it, May, who can't stand sorrow of any kind. The only way she can survive in the world is to externalize it, so she builds a wall. Whenever she hears something sad, she writes it on a piece of paper and sticks the paper between the stones. That's what I want, too: somewhere to put my own sadness. Except instead of a wall, I imagine taking all my fears and shoving them into the extremities of my body: the pinky finger of my left hand, say. The minor things--the unanswered emails and things I need from the grocery store--can go into hair follicles, to be sloughed off in the shower in the morning. But the big stuff? The human suffering, the National Geographic photos of threatened animals, the unwritten dissertation pages, and the people I've hurt? All that shit goes straight into the flesh of my hand. All those fears, those worries and regrets, filling the space between the cells in my pinky.

This is extremely comforting, and I will try to explain why, although I'm not sure this will make any sense at all. I imagine that it might hurt, a little, but not too much, and that on balance it would be less bothersome than those endless, primitive sparks. And I'm comforted by this, even as I imagine my finger growing ashy and dead over the years, slowly rotting from all that fear and grief until it finally falls off, forever. I think about how much lighter I would feel then, and how proud for carrying that stuff all those years, the absent space where the digit had been a badge of empathetic honor. What a relief that would be, really; what a small sacrifice to make. And then, perhaps after a short recess, I'd have to chose another body part--a tooth, maybe, or a toe--because there will never be a shortage of sorrow. Then the process would repeat all over again, the slow saturation of bits of my body with grief amply accounted for by the miracle of, eventually, letting them go. 

Haylie Swenson

Housekeeping (with apologies to Marilynne Robinson)

This essay went out through my newsletter, Philia, on 1/25/18.

Right now, as I type this, Creature is listening intently to something under the oven. It's probably a mouse. I've never seen a mouse in our house, but I know they're there. I see mouse poop sometimes, and I've learned skills I've never had to draw upon before. How to really put food away. That some things that I don't have containers for, like bags of sugar, should go in the fridge. The importance of storing cookie sheets upside down. As I've been trying to finish my dissertation, however, Ross has been working ridiculous hours, and the housekeeping has slipped.

[OMG! Creature just pounced! I've never seen her go after a mouse before. She didn't catch anything, though. Poor thing. She looks dejected.]

LIKE I SAID, the housekeeping has slipped a bit. We don't always wash our dishes at night, and it's best not to think about the state of the kitchen floor. Or the counters, yikes. I suppose this should bother me, but it doesn't. Instead, sometimes at night I think about the mice. I hope they feel at home here. Their experience of our house is so different than mine. Ross and I, and even Creature, to a degree, only live on the surface of this old house. They live in the walls and in the cracks. They make our house alive, and I like to think that we all live in relative equilibrium. It's not like I'm leaving food out on purpose, but if the mice sometimes find our kitchen a little bit more hospitable? Honestly, that feels like a feature, not a bug. 

When I was a kid my sister's dad, Rick, was friendly with a rat who lived in our shed. We called him Templeton. It's one of the few memories I have from that part of my life, which is probably for the best. Rick was not a very good guy in a lot of ways. But he was kind to rats, and to me. He passed away a few years ago, and even though he was only my stepdad for a very short time, he kept in infrequent, unobtrusive touch over Facebook. I didn't know him very well: not at all, really. My memories of him are very different than my mother's, or even my sister's, and her memories are different than those of Rick's other kids from his first marriage. But that's the thing: none of us are wrong, really. 

Anyway, Creature has given up the hunt and has moved to the front window. Pax et concordia reigns again. 

Haylie Swenson

haileigh, hayley, haley, hailey, haylee, haylie

I submitted this letter to one of MY favorite tiny letters, "thank you notes," and posted it on 11/19/17. “thank you notes” is really detailed and mundane and wonderful and you should subscribe immediately. 

I am thankful that trying to finish my dissertation has forced me to confront all my worst tendencies: my insecurity, perfectionism, self-criticism, and all the other ways I don't feel I can be loved unless I am perfect and accomplished. I am grateful for the people who have been willing to patiently walk me through why that is. I'm thankful that when I asked for help on Facebook, no one made fun of me; instead, my friends produced

a little tidal wave of kindness and support. I'm thankful that if anyone thought it was self-indulgent to ask for compliments on Facebook, that they kept that feeling to themselves. I'm thankful for the lessons I'm going to learn from this truly shitty time. 

I'm thankful to have a name that is really hard to spell; it gives me frequent little opportunities to make someone else feel better about a mistake. I'm thankful that when other people need my help I'm happy to give it, and to believe that sometimes asking for help is the nicest thing you can do for someone. 

I'm thankful that I saw my mom for the first time in a decade recently, not because it was a joyous reunion, but because I have a better idea now of why I feel so unlovable sometimes. I'm thankful for her anyway; I'm thankful to be alive and to talk with my hands like she does and to know that we have the exact same arms. I'm thankful to feel like I come from somewhere, even if it's a rough and rocky place. 

I'm thankful for the mentor who, after I told her what it was like to meet with my mother, looked into my eyes and said, "do you know how strong you are?" I don't think I'm very strong at all, especially now that I'm unemployed with an unfinished dissertation, but I think she does. I'm thankful for how much this mentor intimidates me, because I really believe that she means what she says, and I can cling to that even if I don't feel it. 

I'm thankful that my mother spelled my name in such a funny way. I'm grateful for all the weird, awkward, broken moments where we crash into each other and either ask for, or give, forgiveness.  

Haylie Swenson

31

First posted to my newsletter on 8/10/17

I turned 31 three weeks ago. I was in Coventry, England, and surrounded by some of my very favorite people. I turned 30 in England, too, and spent that day punting around Oxford and listening to my friend Caroline's Irish session in a pub in London. It was a giddy day. And because I'm a superstitious lil' mongoose, I was sure that the energy from the Best Birthday Ever would propel me into the Best, or at least A Very Good, year. But nope! My 31st year was very bad, indeed. 

I probably should have predicted that, in retrospect! This time last summer, I was packing to move from the best place I'd ever lived to a very uncertain future in Austin. I was also in the thick of my dissertation (hahahaHAHAHAH), and leaving nearly every person to whom I really mattered. It didn't go well! And then it was November, and everything got so much worse.

The fall and spring passed in a haze of anxiety and protests and loneliness and classes and weekends away. I wrote a lot, but not enough. I read a lot, but not enough. And even though my 31st birthday was just as terrific as my 30th, with new friends and Game of Thrones and Ultimate Frisbee in a sunny park (Brits are GREAT), I couldn't shake the shadow of the previous year, the terrifying feeling of time slipping away, of potential lost. 

Listen. Obviously, I am fortunate beyond measure in millions of ways. My lost year, so far, has really only been a year (even though it feels much longer), and when I'm feeling sane and grounded I can recognize that it wasn't really lost. I accomplished a lot, and maybe that's the wrong way to think about how to measure a life, anyway (cue Rent). Capitalism!

But even with all that, it feels like something has slipped. I want so much for this year, for 31-year old Haylie. Usually my fiercest wanting arrives in the spring, but the seasons in Austin are mixed up by the miserable summers. I've never lived somewhere before where summer is the staying-in season; it's always been my favorite time of year, and especially so in DC: fireflies and outdoor movies and fireworks and happiness, happiness, happiness. But now we're mostly stuck inside, and there's lots of time to long for more. To whit! 

Things I Want This Year

  • To finish my dissertation

  • To get a part-time job...

  • And, hopefully, a career

  • To write more of what I really want; maybe a newsletter? (meta!) 

  • To read some things, and make some things

Don Draper.jpg

On Facebook a few days ago I wrote a post about how you'd think English, of all languages, would have a better word for longing (with the above image of Don Draper for good measure; I've been rewatching it, and boy oh boy does that series get what I'm talking about). One of my friends posted a Portuguese word, saudade, in response. It describes a nostalgia for something that has not happened yet, and how it's pleasant, in a way, to want things: it hurts, but damn if it doesn't make you feel alive.

So that's where I'm at, in the early days of 31, wanting the world, and already nostalgic for what I'm going to want next, after I finally get it. 

Haylie Swenson

This Mo(u)rning

First posted September 23, 2014

Last night I held a mouse while it died. I had just shooed away a menacing cat outside our local library, and not for the first time, either. A few months ago I rescued a sparrow from this same cat, carrying it home in a box supplied by a nearby friend. I hoped an evening’s worth of quiet at my house would help him recover from his shock, and it worked, I think; the next morning he hopped away into the bushes. The mouse wasn’t so lucky. He was alive when I picked him up and wrapped him in my sweater, but dead before I got home. He died from fear, I think, and for all I know my picking him up may have been what pushed him over the edge.

mouse 1.jpg

To Ross’ deep confusion (perhaps to yours too, dear reader), I brought the mouse home anyway, cradling its still little body with toilet paper in a box that used to hold earrings. I wanted a few things: to look at him some more, to give his body somewhere warm and safe to rest overnight, to keep him until the morning. I wanted to take pictures, too, not out of a desire to share them, so much (although I will share them, here), but more to record the overwhelmingly present and particulardetails of his tiny body. The velvety softness of his ears, his softly closed mouth (so much like my cat’s when she is sleeping), his distinct and delicate whiskers: I couldn’t get over the uniqueness of this little mouse. There is (was? The tenses of the dead are impossible) a white spot on his head, too, and it was this detail in particular that brought me to messy tears as I placed the lid over the box.

This morning I carried the box to my favorite park, thinking along the way of Marie de France’s “Laustic,” in which a different dead animal–a nightingale–ends up in a much more ornate box, the victim of a jealous husband. The thing is, even though the lai’s title means the nightingale, and even thought the body of the laustic is reverently handled, “Laustic” is not the bird’s story. The lai is much more interested in the rather flighty lovers, and even the nightingale’s reliquary can be read as nothing more than a symbol of their shallow romance. I thought about this as I carried my own little box; I’m thinking about it as I write. Whose story am I trying to tell? When I carefully placed the mouse’s body in a peaceful and private corner of the garden, who was I doing that for?

Does all this sound completely bonkers? It feels that way, a little. And yet this confusing, compulsive need to attend to this mouse’s death also feels like a logical continuation of something I’ve been struggling with all summer: as it happens, I’ve been working for a while now, and without much success, on a dissertation prospectus about animal death.  I’ve been having trouble articulating my stakes in the argument, but without being sure why. Now I think I know. Carrying the mouse in my heart and hands over the past day reminded me of something I should have already known: as always, my stake in this project is deeply personal, intricately linked with my greatest sorrows.

mouse 2.jpg

I don’t often have trouble sleeping, but there are two topics that, if I allow myself to think about them at the wrong time, will reliably lead to sleepless nights. The first is animal suffering, and particularly projected extinction rates. The second is my dad, who is very, very slowly fading away from brain cancer. There is essentially nothing I can do to prevent either of these losses. There was nothing I could do to prevent the loss of the mouse, either (or if there was, I didn’t and don’t know it), and so that uniquely vibrant assemblage is gone forever. But I could do something with its body, and in so doing mark the passing, even just to myself, of something distinct from the world.

The stories we tell about the dead are not for them. Indeed, “dead” seems like an ecological misnomer, as the mouse, for instance, will go on to provide life for many more creatures (Karl Steel has written beautifully on medieval instantiations of this idea here). So, someday, will you. So will I. As species pass away, others will take their place, although probably not in such diversity. As I write this, the cat is probably beginning to think about sauntering to the library to find some other creature to kill. The powerful play goes on, and all that.

I believe in these cycles, and sometimes I’m even comforted by them. But I also believe that the thing that comes in between now and then–death–is a thing that should be noted, even if our attempts to do so are, ultimately, only for ourselves. I want to write a dissertation about animal death because I think the stories we tell ourselves about death matter, and that even if our motives in marking death are selfish–death does not matter to the dead–the sympathies we express by noting it are not. Medieval theological thought set strict limits on the different possibilities for human and animal afterlives. But then, as now, the actual moment comes to us all.



Haylie Swenson

Lions and Tigers and Saying Goodbye

First posted March 29, 2014

nikki.jpg

Nicole and Mikhail (Nikki and Mikki) were born, all black and orange stripes, on Halloween 1998 at a zoo in Michigan. The Oregon Zoo has a large and very popular camp program, accepting kids all the way from four to fourteen. Most of the camp levels are named after animals in the zoo’s collection: penguin, tiger, giraffe, rhino, otter, cougar. I worked in Tiger Camp with kids going into the first grade. For a while, we quietly called our classroom the Bengal Lounge (even though Nikki and Mikki are Amur, not Bengal tigers. Those distinctions were important to us at zoo camp).

It took me a long time to get my job at OZ. My college-era interview skills were truly, comically terrible, and it wasn’t until my third summer that I landed a job as a sub, which led to three more full-time summers and a year-round position working in the overnight program. With the possible exception of graduate school, I’ve never spent so much time pursuing something. But from the very first second of my first round of interviewing, I knew I would love working in that place, with those people. And I did.

Working as a scholar in critical animal studies, I come up against critiques of zoos all the time, and my feelings about zoos are complicated. I worked in education positions at another zoo and an aquarium after OZ, and while both of them were fine, I found each of them insufficiently focused on conservation education. What’s more, the culture of those two institutions was such that I never really learned much of anything about the animals as individuals. At OZ, it was a point of importance and pride to really know these animals. Many of the camp staff members had gone through the Zoo Teen program, and some of the staff had even been camp kids themselves. These people had spent years – sometimes a decade or more – around these animals, and as a result we didn’t just have facts about them. We had stories about Akim the giraffe, Conrad the polar bear, Nikki and Mikki. We knew their names. We could tell them apart. And not just charismatic megafauna, either. I’ve forgotten them now, but I remember making a point to learn the names of a pair of recently acquired Egyptian spiny mice. We introduced these animals, told their stories, shared their names with the kids in our care, and it really did seem to make a difference. More than once I’ve (unintentionally, but, I hope, productively) made a first grader cry with the information that Amur tigers are endangered, that there’s a possibility of a world without creatures like Nikki.

My friend and colleague, Amanda, who taught me nearly everything I know about teaching kids about animals, described this sense of intimacy beautifully in a Facebook post:

“It continues to amaze me how special it is that while we spent thousands of hours educating nearby, we were growing to know magnificent animals by name, personality, and behaviors. They are/were our colleagues in education as much as anyone. That is so poignant to me and shapes all that I believe about the animal kingdom, zoos, and conservation. Nikki was pretty special in my heart. Hugs, dears.”

As it happens, I was talking about the OZ tigers earlier on the day Amanda posted this. Nikki and Mikki came up because someone asked me what my essay in postmedieval was about. I always talk about the OZ tigers when I’m asked about that article, because even though I don’t mention them or the zoo at all in the paper itself, they were crucial to my thinking about it. My paper is about the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist working in the thirteenth century. Villard drew a lot of things – architecture, faces, wild men, insects, and a cat cleaning itself. One of his most controversial drawings, however, is this one of a lion, which is accompanied by the caption “contrefais al vif” – drawn from life.

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Scholars have argued for a long time over whether or not Villard actually drew this image. After all, it doesn’t hugely resemble what we all “know” lions to actually look like, especially when compared to the accuracy of Villard’s other images. I chart an alternate path through this controversy, arguing that Villard’s lions represent a moment of encounter with a dangerous object, a strange, ultimately unknowable, predatory other. Although I never put it this way in my piece (and maybe I should have), I’m really arguing that Villard’s drawing is of what it feels like to be near a predatory cat, something that -thanks to Nicole – I know a little bit about.

Camp starts early during the summer, and when I was working at the zoo I would arrive around 7am. I loved the zoo in the morning. The grounds weren’t open yet, so there was a sense of having the place just to us, the staff. The animals are also generally most active in the morning. Some days I’d stop for a meditative moment to watch Gus and Julius, our Stellar Sea Lions, dive and surface, breaking the stillness with their loud exhalations. Other mornings I’d pause in front of the gibbons, watching them swing around on unbelievably long arms (longer by far than their legs) and listening to them scream at each other in their characteristically climactic way. But I never missed walking by Nikki and Mikki, as their horseshoe-shaped enclosure was on the way from the admin building to our classroom. On many of these mornings Nikki or Mikki – sometimes both – would watch me as I walked around the long perimeter of their home. This focused attention from a predator never failed to raise the hair on my neck, and I know I wasn’t alone. I’ve heard other camp staff talk about this same feeling. Years later, Villard’s lion – with its fiercely intelligent face and direct gaze – powerfully evoked a sense memory in me of crisp summer mornings and the goosebumps that come from being potentially prey. I could never have written the essay I did – really, I wouldn’t be doing any of the work I’m doing now – without the years I spent around those extraordinary, individual animals.

Anyway, zoos are complicated, the relationships between humans and animals are complicated, and I don’t pretend that even the Oregon Zoo of my rosy-hued memory is without some darkness and injustice. There’s a lot of magical thinking in this blog post, and I understand that. But I nevertheless feel a need, however clumsily, to say this: thank you, Nicole. Thank you for being alive, for the moments of charged intimacy and uneasy eye contact, for informing my academic work and meaning so much to so many first graders. It could very well be that my feelings about you aren’t important at all to anyone else, but here they are. You mattered to me. I remember you, and always will. You are missed.

My dear friend Kathayoon Khalil, a zoo evaluator and PhD candidate at Stanford, posted an article on Slate about her own experience at OZ. It’s beautiful and frank and well worth your time. 

Haylie Swenson

Tiny Ecology

First posted December 30, 2015

I delivered the following presentation in Jeffrey Cohen’s graduate seminar on Contact Ecology in November 2015. This day, in which all of the seminar participants presented, was the culminating event of our shared tiny ecology project, which asked us to each individually “choose a place for intense ecological attentiveness.” All of this intense attentiveness led to some really remarkable presentations, and I feel fortunate to have been in attendance for a day of blogs, comic books, scatter plots, and powerpoints as we each tried to represent our–at times achingly intimate–engagements with our spaces. 

For my six minute presentation, I filmed my tiny ecology and let it play behind me, opening and closing with some lyrics from “What’ll I Do,” Irving Berlin’s 1923 heart-stopper. The video is reproduced in full above; I’d watch at least the first minute or so.

Finally, I take some of my terms (especially “now-ness” and “bristling”) from a presentation by Timothy Morton at George Washington University, which you can listen to in full here


With its aching, quiet plea—“what’ll I do?”—Irving Berlin’s 1923 song conveys the ripplying “now-ness” of a present that is imbued with both the remembrance of past trauma and the certain expectation of future catastrophe. “What’ll I do?” the singer asks, intimate already with the pain of loss and knowing that she will lose again, and soon. It’s a bleak, but strangely not a sad song; it’s melancholy, sure, but it takes joy a certain joy in its sadness, too, and in the dense present in between past and future loss. It’s an appropriately bristly place to be when thinking about ecology, I think, and it’s barely an exaggeration to say that this song has been stuck in my head this entire semester, and especially when I visited my tiny ecology.

Built on the eastern grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian, my tiny ecology was also intended to sit in this in-between space, to serve as both elegy and restoration. The multiple signs outside of the low, stone wall that surrounds my ecology, a wetland, announce this intention:

These diverse wetlands . . . represent the original Chesapeake Bay environment, the largest estuary in North America . . . Four hundred years ago, the Chesapeake Bay region abounded in forests, meadows, wetlands, and croplands. The National Museum of the American Indian restores these environments and is home to more than 27,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants representing 145 different species.

Implicit in these plaques, and explicit in some of the museum’s other materials, is an invitation to ask Irving Berlin’s question of ourselves: Here’s what the museum is doing to conserve what remains of these habitats and traditions. What will you do?

It’s a good question, really, adequately posed. But in spite of the attention that the museum’s designers paid to the specifics of the wetland habitat—for instance, putting in native plants like swamp milkweed and southern bald cypress—I was frequently struck by the indifference of the wetland to the story that was being told about it. What does this squirrel, this cattail know about the catastrophic loss of land and life that the plaques intend to remind us of? And this raised what was, for me, a surprisingly difficult question: if this squirrel doesn’t care, why should I? In spite of our best attempts, no one today remembers what it was like when DC was covered with wetlands and hardwood forests, and the National Museum’s bristly, mallard-attracting attempt to reconstruct those habitats is, in some ways, just a pale reminder, a photograph to tell our troubles to. And someday all too soon I’ll be gone, and no one will remember the way a squirrel once scolded me out of the forest. Perhaps all the squirrels, the humans, the cattails and foxes disappear from the earth. Some other things will replace us, only to be replaced in return. Loss will follow loss, and we can safely ignore Berlin’s urgent question. What’ll I do? Nothing, thanks.

I was feeling especially bleak one day last week. It was cold at my tiny ecology, and I was sad, with the hollow, washed-out feeling I’ve had trouble shaking all semester. Watching the ducks, I was already feeling a bit better when something to my left—a sound? An unconsciously registered smell? Pure luck?—caught my attention. I turned my head, and a scant six feet away there was a fox, red and impossibly beautiful and walking straight towards me. We made eye contact, and both of us froze. Eye contact is bristling at its best, I think, a palpable shock across space. After a second and without too much haste, the fox loped around me, disappearing around a curve in the wall. And although I’m worried this is already veering into the overly personal, I think I’ll be doing this story an injustice if I don’t admit that I immediately burst into tears. I was grateful to have seen the fox, I already missed it, and I wanted more. More eye contact. More ducks and squirrels and opportunities to let my ears get cold. More life.

Every moment of contact is an individual invitation to response, right now, here. That invitation doesn’t go away just because the invited respondents will. What’ll I do with the fox that catches my eye right in the moment when I catch his? One option is to feel less, to distance ourselves from the bristly, tricky middle space between loss in the song. Another option—the option I want to choose, although not painlessly—is to care more, to ask “what’ll I do” over and over and over again, as often and as sympathetically as we can, to sit with the uncomfortable, melancholy, wholly alive and lovely certainty of loss

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Haylie Swenson