A warning, a movement, a collection borne of protest.
In Watch Your Head, poems, stories, essays, and artwork sound the alarm on the present and future consequences of the climate emergency. Ice caps are melting, wildfires are raging, and species extinction is accelerating. Dire predictions about the climate emergency from scientists, Indigenous land and water defenders, and striking school children have mostly been ignored by the very institutions – government, education, industry, and media – with the power to do something about it.
Writers and artists confront colonization, racism, and the social inequalities that are endemic to the climate crisis. Here the imagination amplifies and humanizes the science. These works are impassioned, desperate, hopeful, healing, transformative, and radical.
This is a call to climate-justice action.
This anthology is not to be missed. The pandemic may have defined our year, but the climate crisis defines our time in geological history. See how this roster of talented writers and artists advance the conversation, put the crisis in context and call for climate justice.
A DISCUSSION WITH OLD MAN WHO LIVES IN THE FOREST
Old Javanese: urang [person] utan [forest], or “person of the forest”
In the treetops, I once saw my grandfather wrap a cigarette filled
with cloves and cardamom. Watched him take a pull and felt
the marrow thin inside my bones. The aroma, a reminder of
places I intended to go, though they had receded into a room called
extinction. It was odd to see him there. His beaded eyes a reminder
that culture and the wild-man were not incongruent like
the translations may say. Arms languid and longer than recalling.
There is no need to split apart my body to search for
the similarities. His flapping cheeks
are shaped in apocalyptic medallions like my brothers. Ache
unfurls at the vision of smiling red hairs, while I remain at
the precipice of the street below. He starts a puff,
did you ever stop to consider that Enkidu represents
the start of the Anthropocene?
“I no longer have the four arms essential to semi-terrestrial living.
If we spent eighty percent of our lives in trees, we’d ache less.”
He sees irony, a corn of transcendental hypocrisy,
to this fir-framed house liver, but it’s his blood. In the middle
of the night, she wears solitude in the plenty of her veins and
he sews the bones. Clotted with wars and grafts,
cultivations serving a new purpose: pushing nutrition further into
fissures too deep that only plantations exist there. Impenetrable
flat cacophony incurs scarcity and violence upon
the next generation of everything. She wants to fix forever, but the paws
and fungi that used to cross paths for tea have already been replaced.
He watches her quivering aftereffects of stitching,
don’t let the palms take root like the Asphodel Fields,
they make you forget of the habitats that once were.
It’s an odd sight, to see him on a mechanical contraption,
peddles elucidating the enormity of his legs. Large V’s
jutting out like wings of a collapsing aircraft, a spectacle
not meant to be observed. A saffron-cloak and rollup in his jaw
frees his arms for travel. This time, he has come to visit her. Axles and
wheels a vortex to further phenomenological
discussions. She wants to dream of a good place, barren from
complications, but the body is hectic with museums trips and forecasts.
He enters her cerebrum the way one enters a show,
popcorn and candies in stuffed purses. She’s read up on Heidegger
and Euripides, but the discourse isn’t enough to stop a cynical
critic of a family member. In low coos he throws the mantle,
every person in your time is Melinoë birthed from inherited madness,
birthed from a river in the underworld. so swim through it in victory.
As a Canadian, Maryam Gowralli draws inspiration from her Trinidadian-Indian and Indonesian heritage. She is an MA student in English Literature at the University of Calgary and is the Creative Nonfiction Editor for filling Station magazine. Her debut poetry collection, Citizenship in Water is forthcoming with That Painted Horse Press in 2021. You can find her works at PRISM International, The Carribean Journal and untethered magazine among others.
LIKE AN ICEBERG
“What harm could it do?” Sam says into the frozen waterfall. He holds an ice axe in each hand, a tangle of straps and carabiners jingling on his orange harness. Sam huffs mist into the air. Above us, a hundred metre wall of ice.
Ice climbing was Sam’s idea. The doctors cleared the trip to Banff, but told him not to overdo sports. He’s already weaker than he was, and he doesn’t need undue stress on his immune system. Mum went cross-country skiing on her own and Sam said he was going to the grocery store, came back to the time-share condo with his arms full of rented equipment.
“We can walk there,” he said. Lately his face has started to thin out. He was already going gaunt. But in that moment he was gleaming.
“Sam. It’s not a good idea.”
“Come on you lanky sapling!” He was smiling like a champion, the way he smiled when he talked about his art. “You were born to climb.”
I couldn’t say no.
Now he tightens his crampons and steps into the ice. “Here we go, Long John Silver,” he says over his shoulder. He climbs briskly. Lately, he’s been subtly weakening. But now his face seems to glow, and he moves quickly, even with the heavy gear.
“Like this, right?” He grins down at me, kicking his toe into the ice.
“Toe in the crampons, put the screws in every ten metres, I think.”
“What?” Sam smiles down, pounds his ice axe into the waterfall. He’s only two metres up, so the fat five-foot icicle he releases is relatively harmless. I’m just glad I searched “ice climbing basics” on the walk over, and that we’re staggered.
I wait for him to put the ice screws in and set the anchors. Then I climb up behind him, driving my axe in. On this side, it seems, the freeze is a little more consistent.
The desk clerk at the neighbouring hotel said this is a popular moderate-expert spot, but that it was still a little early and the ice was temperamental this time of year. I guess no one else decided to test a frozen waterfall for the first time on Christmas Eve.
Before long we’ve found a rhythm, grinding the ice axes in, huffing into the cold, blood flowing. The axes are light and powerful. The waterfall could be a little more frozen—the odd large chunk sloughs off when the axe hits. But it feels just solid enough.
We hit a hump in the waterfall and walk flat-footed across a ridge. Who would have thought simply walking on crampons would be the craziest part of all this?
The next bit is the last tongue, a sheer climb of thirty metres. Dig, toe, tug, breathe. After the last screw, Sam climbs impossibly fast. He’s a little crazed, hard to keep up with.
“Is it too late to say this is stupid and crazy?”
Sam grins down at me. “Two choices,” he calls. “Up or down.” I haven’t seen him so happy in weeks, maybe months, maybe ever.
I dig deep. Toe-in, axe, smash, pant. I’m sweaty, tired, hungry, cold. But I’m almost there. Another chop, some ice chunks off. Then I get the axe in, the last one, and I see my brother’s hand reaching out.
“See,” he says, pulling me up the top. “It wasn’t that hard.”
He’s flushed and beaming. I’m thirsty and sweaty.
Sitting on the top, we look out on the snow-cloaked vista, unpacking our sandwiches and cold trail mix. The pines droop with yesterday’s snow. Sam starts talking about water, about ice. “Staring into the ice all the way up,” he says. “It was so intimate. Wasn’t it?” I shrug like “yeah” and he goes typical Sam, saying how crazy it is, how we take it for granted that an entire river can freeze and thaw, liquid becoming solid, then changing back.
“We don’t see it,” he says. “The world’s all around us. All this surging wonder and we don’t see it. We just walk through it like ghosts.”
He pauses, swallows a bite of sandwich. All around us the mountains towering, hunching like great still gods.
“Sometimes,” Sam says. “I think it takes a sickness like this to really live.”
I don’t argue that. I just let the words hang, breathe, dangle. I let my brother feel what he needs to feel.
“Sorry,” he says eventually. “I’m being morbid again.”
In the distance there’s a road cutting through the mountains, sun glinting off the hoods of SUVs. Sam points to a distant peak and we watch an eagle drift down, then rise again, riding a thermal. A wind passes through the mountains, shaking snow off the branches of the smaller trees.
Fishing through the trail mix for an M&M, I gesture around at the vista. “It is beautiful up here. Satisfied?”
“Yeah,” he says, standing up. There’s a strange glint in his face. “Absolutely.”
Carefully, he brushes the snow from his legs. Then he smiles at me, the look in his eyes gone manic. He says, “I love you brother,” and starts to run. Races full speed in his crampons, tearing for the edge, the hundred-metre drop.
I stand up and take a step but it’s useless. He’s already at the brink. Already leaping, spreading his arms like wings. Over the lip of the frozen river my brother hangs, for a moment, and falls.
A friend once told me that grief is like an iceberg: most people only see the tip of the pain while the bulk broods in the hidden depths. I’d like to go see one someday. They don’t come up the bay, wouldn’t make it past the peninsula, especially these days. There are more and more of them now that the glaciers are calving. Some are as big as Jamaica. Ice islands floating in the open sea. I would have liked to go see one with Sam, if he was still here. Maybe one day I’ll go out to sea, and I’ll think of him as I watch one bob and melt, float out to the great Pacific garbage patch.
“And then,” Sam says to the people gathered in the living room. “I jumped. I flew.”
It’s February now, and Sam’s confined to a bed in the kitchen. The palliative care nurse Cass’ mother helped to arrange is more or less living with us. As he waves them, excited, his arms are strangely thin. Around his mouth he has the wrinkles of a forty-year-old smoker. So wrong beside his youthful eyes.
There’s a room full of people—Mum, Cass, Jeremy, even Roger—gathered for my birthday. We’re eating my favourite: grilled cheese with singles and peanut butter ice cream cake. Sam is being as charming as possible, telling the ice-climbing story like this great exploit. Like it’s funny. Which, maybe it could be, in another place and time.
“And then he asks, ‘You satisfied?’” Sam chuckles, takes the plate of cake Cass is handing him. “We’re up there on the side of a mountain looking out over all the pines, the winding frozen river below.”
He starts fumbling for the plate. He’s clearly having trouble, getting frustrated with his fork. He’s getting some weird looks. Everyone’s waiting for him to tell the story or take a bite. He reaches his fork forward and misses, sighs, circles back.
When Sam jumped off the edge of the frozen cliff, I didn’t realize he was still strapped in. Even still it was stupid. He broke two ribs crashing into ice and sprained his hip from the drop. When I walked to the edge and saw him dangling there. “I needed to do it,” was all he’d said. “I needed to feel it. I needed to feel.”
He knocks the cake onto the ground. Everyone is tense, trying not to grasp. No one says anything. Mum watches, stunned. She stands up but can’t seem to move. “Um,” she says.
Sam is glaring at her, then the window. His jaw is set, his face thin, frail, his arms shaking.
Cass stands up. “Okay,” she says to the room. “It’s probably time to go.”
People stand up nervously, gather their things.
Sam grins morosely, perversely. “Happy birthday,” he sings with an awful off-tune melody. “And many more.”
When we were little, maybe eight and ten, Sam and I went swimming alone. There’s this beach at the edge of Sych Harbour, if you follow Hill Street all the way up and back down again. It’s a day’s bike ride there and back. Mum was working the day shift and Sam had just started looking after me on his own and he took me there. We brought sandwiches and a thermos of red juice and biked all day but when we got to the beach we didn’t stop. We biked past the hillocks and the tall grass to a place where a river led out to the sea. “You have to go hard and fast,” he said. “Straight across. There’s an undertow.” I heard “under-toe,” pictured a wire-haired gnarl of a toe that grew up from the floor of the river and tried to grab small children. We waded in and found it strangely cold in the full of summer. It wasn’t wide but it flowed fast. “Come on,” Sam said, and I waded in behind him. He leapt and started swimming and I watched the water twist him. Watched it turn his body and push him diagonal to the sea, the current taking my brother away. Stood there wanting to follow him but shocked still. The rush was taking him, torqueing him, though he was working hard, wailing his arms up and over, pushing and pushing with all his power until finally he reached the other side, crawled wheezing to shore. As soon as he had his breath he turned back to me. He’d gone far, far, down the river, halfway to the open mouth of the sea. But when he cupped his hands and called out, I could still hear him, barely. And I could hear the grin in his voice. “Come on,” he shouted, shivering with cold and joy. “It’s amazing! The river—it’s alive!”
The thing about icebergs is that they melt, and there’s something beautiful in that: ice leaking into water. Because when you zoom out, you see that ice was water all along. Water changes from solid to liquid, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
I didn’t follow him that day. I waited and watched as he swam back across to safety, through the living river. I knew, then, that I would never be as alive as he was. I knew that life was both in time and beyond it. And I knew that my brother was a tossed stone rippling the river of me.
David Huebert’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. In 2020, David published his second book of poetry, Humanimus. A new story collection, Chemical Valley, will appear in fall 2021. David teaches at The University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, where he lives with his partner and their two children.
WE SHIT PLASTIC
Stooling myself to death one pellet at a time,
filling my pants with bakelite scurf and microbeads of phenol-formaldehyde
We shit plastic!
Polymeric slime from my thermoplastic gastric sac
synthesized into my cosmoplastic casket
the morning sky behind my office building
was a fading orange:
an old painting before restoration,
it was the type of orange
I could almost taste:
the cloudy memory of my Nonna’s knotted knuckles
in the golden hour glow of
the type of orange
I could almost hear:
the distant creak of my Nonna’s
I walked through the
into the office,
where there were no orange tastes or orange sounds
too white to hold
anything at all
when I left,
the sun was long set,
its morning colour, already a memory
THE OTHER SIDE
we fell in love
out of tree branches
whispering wonderings about the ancient history of its bark,
about the long-lit office building windows on the
of the river
that carried ducks and swans and geese
and tissues and
plastic bags and
empty vodka bottles and
fast food trash
our first date
we snuck onto the city
one side overlooking the
sunlight-adorned stream, the
autumn leaves falling like slow tears the
a parking lot
we walked through
a forest with no path
with our discovery
chattering about how more people should
fall in love
we came upon
eyes wild with panic,
limbs entangled in
plastic Halloween decorations
Cassandra is a Strategist at a marketing agency in Toronto, having graduated with an Honors Specialization in Creative Writing and a Master of Media from the University of Western Ontario. She has been published with eMpower Magazine, The Feminine Collective, Beautiful Losers Magazine, Pip Magazine, The Impressment Gang and Synaerisis Press. While studying at Western, she published a literary and arts zine to raise money to support the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She currently serves on the editorial board for Room Magazine and is always looking for new ways to connect with and serve her community through the arts. Twitter and Instagram: @cassandracervi
I saw the icons of my generation trashed, pounded, run over.
Sunlight, Madge, we were soaking in it. That box that held our Kisses
was flat. Lifestyle came undone so that life was hanging on by the grate
and style underfoot. What happened is everywhere.
"The future is in plastics," said the man in The Graduate, and it is.
One night last century, I dreamt I sat on a high wall, an open book
on the ground and the sea rose. Be careful the book! I called.
The water came anyway. What is precious and who cares and how much?
To each her own footwear in the apocalypse. It’s not just the litter, it’s the latter.
But some people notice. Someone took these pictures.
In Australia, fire eats the houses.
In Venice, someone's couch was swept into high water.
Tourists looted the Vuitton store and swam away with the goods.
Since Tom Waits isn't dead I call out. What am I seeing?
Misery’s the river of the soul, he says. Everybody row.
The young are out mopping, because there's no school when
there's no school. And the old, well, it doesn’t matter how tired and dazed you are
when you’re up to your knees. All you can do is wait. The tide will turn.
Sunlight. The real thing. Until the next siren. Fire and water and fire and so on.
Sisyphus that old trooper. Sisyphus is us.
I SAID TO THE SUN,
"Good morning, I love you. But please can you also go to Venice?"
They are drowned from exhaustion, mopping up.
'We are down on our knees', their mayor said. And as if too much
feeling added 'but only when praying.'
The sun was not political. She said, "I’ve been here
since the beginning but I’m not alone.
The sky is my company and the ocean is riled
and there is unholy steam from the ground.
I should stop my breathing in California,
Australia, across the Amazon they don’t want me.
The earth is my mirror. Cracked and dark. Or soaked.
Wherever I go, I am too much, and not enough."
And the sun shone weakly. Which was not enough.
Didn’t know if she was coming or going
and she was both.
A voice said, "remember, when your Republic really gets into trouble
there is only one way out: SAY YOU'RE SORRY
THEN BUILD A SPECTACULAR CHURCH, GRAND
ENOUGH TO CATCH THE EYE OF THE MADONNA! It works!"
I looked at the watercolor of Salute Cathedral built by plague survivors
in 1631. That floor I'd stood on with its mesmeric tiles.
Today, locals stream in for Festa della Madonna,
If I were down to my last pennies of hope, would I fling one into a flood
and make a wish? Throw a coin and see which side faces up? Look there?
My eyes are open and on the sky. What we love cannot save us.
The sun is down now and searing the other side.
And I am writing from the present to say,
"Goodnight, dear friend. I hope you find some
peace tonight, though you turn and turn."
THE NIGHT THE RHINOS CAME
The night the rhinos came we had nowhere else to look.
They were not accusatory, but trotted towards us like big dogs.
One turned her face left to show us her profile,
batted one eye at ours and fluttered there. To watch
a three-thousand-pound animal flutter makes a great gape of awe.
The children shrieked: He's looking at me!
For size is often male,
and scares or flatters us with its attention.
But she has nothing to do with that.
And trots away.
If this were a dance, a dream meeting,
we might bow and leave her.
But someone among us here is dreaming
power, will buy a rifle,
run out and begin the killing,
is already having nightmares, planning
an illustrious future.
It's still possible to love
how small we are
in the face of her face
and our fragility.
"The Future” was published in “The Litter I See Project” in February 2020.
The voice quoted in stanza 5 of “I Said to the Sun” is Cat Bauer’s from her blog "Venetian Cat, The Venice Blog: Venice, The Veneto and Beyond”
November 23, 2013
“The Night the Rhinos Came” was commissioned for the symposium “Rhinoceros: Luxury’s Fragile Frontier” which was held in Venice, Italy in 2018 and published in the exhibition catalogue. It was also published in Canthius in 2019. In 2021, it will be included in a special issue of Luxury: History, Culture, and Consumption focused on the Venice symposium and edited by Catherine Kovesi.
Ronna Bloom is a teacher, writing coach, and the author of six books of poetry. Her most recent book, The More, was published by Pedlar Press in 2017 and long listed for the City of Toronto Book Award. Her poems have been recorded by the CNIB and translated into Spanish, Bangla, and Chinese. She is currently Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and developed the first poet in residence program at Sinai Health which ran from 2012-2019. Ronna runs workshops and gives talks on poetry, spontaneity, and awareness through writing.
Pollok Free State, 1995 (i.m. Colin Macleod)
New car smell rammed into the roadbed until it stinks
of the earth’s gut: muddy leaves, wet dog, plum-cake.
Lichen-rust tectonic under bonnets, engines furred.
Headlight bulbs are goldfish bowls, tenantless. Doors pucker
with each slam and the boot flaps like a gull-wing.
Twin-exhausts are organ pipes, emptying. Everything natural,
every thing resourced: we make the things that make us,
moulded or vulcanised. Blacked tyres made up with stibnite.
When we fire them, rubber drips from the wheel-arches like hot sugar,
sweet petroarticles of faith on the tongue. We circle
each instant monument, generous heretics, knowing
these are ugly gods – bitter in the stomach, black in the lung.
ANIMAL TRIALS: STATEMENT FROM THE TRIAL OF THE WEEVILS OF SAINT JULIEN
In the spring of 1587…some weevils were arraigned before the ecclesiastical court
in St Jean-de-Maurienne for despoiling the vineyards of St Julien.
John Harwood, ‘Deliver Us from Weevils’, Literary Review, August 2013
If I may speak
on behalf of my sisters
who, of late, have sprung
bright from the soil and turned
these vineyards into frail
stock and failed wines;
at no time did we act
contrary to our creation;
and, indeed, as you will know
Reverend Father, your wormy
books spell out in calfskin
and ink, that we precede
your own ape-like standing
in the Great Chain of Being.
God created animals first,
– each creeping thing –
and gave us every green herb for food.
If I may be so bold: the holy vine-leaf
sweetens in our grubbing mouths;
the grape swells for us, juicy globes
without sin. You might damn
us to desist but you would do well
to remember this: this trial
will not bring the control you crave.
Insects are on the side of the angels
and we shall turn you out, even unto the grave.
"Carhenge" first published in The Scores, then Sacrifice Zones (Red Squirrel, 2020)
"Containerization" first published in Gutter, then Stitch (Tapsalteerie, 2018)
"Animal Trials: Statement from the Trial of the Weevils of Saint Julien" published in Sacrifice Zones (Red Squirrel, 2020)
Samuel Tongue's first collection is Sacrifice Zones (Red Squirrel, 2020) and he has published two pamphlets: Stitch (Tapsalteerie, 2018) and Hauling-Out (Eyewear, 2016). Poems have appeared in Magma, The Compass, Finished Creatures, Gutter, The Interpreter's House, Envoi and elsewhere. Samuel is Project Coordinator at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh and he lives in Glasgow. www.samueltongue.com; Twitter: @SamuelTongue
IF SATURDAY, AN EMPTY PARKING LOT
If the horse fence was split-rail
and I had an apple in my hand.
If mom and pop grocery stores still had
their ‘and.’ If I could lift out of biography
into sand and compost, hand-mixed
and laid in low spots in the yard.
If the knock at the door was a parcel
instead of a politician, if we built each day
the way a spider shuttles a web,
warp of anchor threads,
weft of hours to hammock in.
If woodstoves, whiskey, and new friends.
If barefooted, weeding garden beds.
If cold frames greened fall plates.
If boards that shudder in gale winds
held another eighty years, if Canada
warms at twice the rate of other countries.
If we stopped taking airplanes
we’d never see our families again.
If we could ride air currents with crows
fingers feathered, if the small stones
of deer tracks foretold the future.
If we weren’t afraid.
If babies were born healthy.
If this body was a bubble wand
held open to wind.
Bren Simmers’ first book of non-fiction, Pivot Point (Gaspereau Press, 2019), is a lyrical account of a nine-day wilderness canoe journey. She is also the author of three books of poetry: If, When (Gaspereau Press, 2021), Hastings-Sunrise (Nightwood Editions, 2015), which was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, and Night Gears (Wolsak & Wynn, 2010). A lifelong west coaster, she now lives on PEI.
Watch Your Head is an online journal of creative works devoted to the climate crisis and climate justice.
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Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis
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