a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
It’s one of the last days to walk out to Terrapin Point and onto Luna Island before steel and wood-slat barriers prohibit closer views for the winter season. Soon, stone steps, metal railings and asphalt paths will be covered with ice from the frozen spray of the Falls. Perhaps two dozen tourists brace the late November wind, eight months into the pandemic. On the other side of the railing at Terrapin Point, tangled in brambles at the cusp of the horseshoe, disposable masks wave like flags at half-staff.
The gusts that blow across the Niagara River gorge are like no other in my experience—uprooting trees into the rapids, toppling anything untethered. Shortly after my husband, Ed, and I bought our house more than a decade ago, north of the Falls along the lower river, 80-mile-per-hour winds blew down the tall pine trees that sheltered the yard. Soaking rains early that week had loosened the soil. The land’s history of growth gone in an afternoon. Over time we dug a trench along the front of our property to replace the felled pines with a row of arborvitae – “tree of life” – and though the earth embraced them, they looked out of place in the landscape.
At the Falls, the spray blurs my vision and dampens my jeans, and I think lightly of novelist Anthony Trollope’s self-evident pronouncement at Niagara that, “you, as you stand close upon the edge, will be wet also.” Trollope came to America to understand the Civil War. Only at the Falls could he transcend history: “To realize Niagara, you must sit there till you see nothing else than that which you have come to see. You will hear nothing else, and think of nothing else. At length you will be at one with the tumbling river before you. You will find yourself among the waters as though you belonged to them. The cool, liquid green will run through your veins, and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart.”
I am trying to realize Niagara. On my walk from Horseshoe to the American Falls, candy wrappers and other litter edge the path. I snap a picture of a squirrel nibbling a piece of chocolate bar it holds like a prize gift. I see others take the same photo. Will the squirrel become a meme? How can it survive chocolate? I circle back to startle the creature, trying to save it from its own gluttony, and ours. Unafraid of people, like most wildlife at tourist sites, the squirrel ignores me.
On Luna Island, I sit on the squared stones where, pre-pandemic, I’ve asked my Niagara University undergraduates to sit with their journals, and where they’ve done so half-willingly. It’s for a course I call “Literary Niagara,” and I’m trying to connect them to this iconic place through literature. They suspect I’m asking them to participate in a cliché. It’s hard to be one with the river, to experience the sublime, with tourists looking on. Not as exciting as a tightrope walk but still part of the spectacle that is Niagara.
Much is cliché at the Falls of course—rainbows and anticipated awe, selfies, and disappointment.
Below the water’s surface, and near the ledge before it flows over Bridal Veil Falls, I see other debris. The water is surprisingly clear. Coins sparkle in the cold freshwater and sunlight, wishes balanced on a threshold.
In mid-March 2020, the world was re-framed—narrowed to fit inside small spaces, in lockdown and quarantine, with travel restrictions and closed borders, inside homes and in the one-dimensional space of screens.
Earlier in the month, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic fully infiltrated consciousness and maps and graphs charted the climb of cases, I had read a news article in the Niagara Gazette that residents near the Republic Services landfill on the outskirt of Niagara Falls complained of an odor, that, like a virus, could make people retch, and worse, have respiratory ailments. The incident was not the first occasion in which residents made complaints. Two years prior, a lawsuit was filed against the site for its emissions of hydrogen sulfide, which, according to the CDC, can be hazardous to the eyes, the respiratory system, and the central nervous system.
In her 2008 book, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, the writer Ginger Strand visited the Republic Services site, then called the Allied Waste Landfill. In the past, I’ve asked my students to read her Epilogue, a travel narrative of a trip to the Falls with her friend Pawel, a filmmaker less interested in the cataracts than in the surrounding waste sites. Upon seeing the massive manufactured mounds, Pawel looks with awe through his lens. Unlike most who come to the region, it is not nature that moves him—the grandeur of the Falls—but rather what ecological literary critics call the ‘toxic sublime.’
I arrived in the Niagara region a year before Strand’s book was published and have driven by this landfill countless times. It’s not the only one here, of course. This one lies parallel to the river roughly mid-way between Love Canal and the Falls in a sprawl of industry, tourism, and retail. The landfill once provided an odd sort of respite for eyes exhausted by the materialism and rusted clutter of the region: self-consciously manicured clean green hills marred only by the pattern of exhaust pipes jutting upward from the land. Once, when the odor was strong, my then three-year-old daughter Grace exclaimed as we drove by: “Let’s never drive this way again!”
Pronounced environmental damage has long been accompanied by the need to preserve Niagara, at least since Euro-American settlement four centuries ago.
The landfill now rises ominously from the landscape, threatening to overwhelm the former frontier. Looking upward through the car window, large excavators atop the mounds look the size of plastic toys. They’ve peeled back the grass, like skin from a wound, leaving a mountain of exposed earth. Earth, but not earth. Fragments of modern life piled high. Despite this digging, the landfill has simultaneously conquered a monumental scale and reach.
I live not far from a hazardous waste site, on the border along the Niagara River, on a narrow strip of land between two Great Lakes. The river is shared by two nations. Follow the red line on Google Maps to see where the water metaphorically parts, a border through its long middle, never-mind how fluid and boundless it is.
It’s a closed border now, beginning with the lockdown back in March 2020, then later as U.S. cases increased, followed by those in Ontario. Periodic promises of reopening get frustrated time and again.
The border is frequently patrolled up and down the river, and on my near-daily walks, I see an agent’s SUV parked on the site of the sculpture The Spirit of Victory, also called the ‘Iroquois Angel.’ It’s not far from where the Haudenosaunee (called Iroquois by French colonialists) once gathered in peace and trade, where the land gently dips to meet the water.
In late spring, toward the end of May, twin toddler racoons moved onto our patio, nestling under the arborvitae. Where was their mother? Grace and I were enthralled, taking pictures and videos to send to family.
But I also didn’t want them to stay. In the Anthropocene we have encroached on the natural world, forcing it to fit our places.
I called a local wildlife rescue group. Their facilities were already overcrowded with the displaced in a constantly disrupted ecology. But some advice: It was time for the raccoons to learn how to survive on their own, as adolescents. I could leave food away from the house to lure them toward the woods on the border of our property. Coyote urine crystals would deter them from making a home on our patio. Soon they disappeared, and we worried for them.
Later that week, I was awakened to a sound I had never heard before. Our bedroom windows were open to the early warm weather. It was a screeching or wailing, a cry of pain and desperation, a cry for life. I woke Ed, too, or he had already wakened, and we listened in fear. “Do you think it’s one of the baby raccoons?” I worried. We decided not to tell our daughter as we lay in stillness, pain piercing the silence.
Early summer brought us outside, like so many others, in revolt against the virus of racism.
It was strange to use my voice again, aloud on a city street, public yet not, filtered behind my mask after so many months inside where quiet enclosed us, the privilege of staying home.
May 25, 2020. A headline on screen caught our attention. The crushing voice of pain and violence and injustice. Grace, then ten, wept, “I don’t want people to die,” before collapsing against my body as we, like so many others, bore witness to a life brutally objectified, dehumanized, killed.
The three of us walked across Hyde Park, a vast greenspace that bookends the iconic Niagara Falls and its namesake city, to join a peace march. It was a sweltering June evening in the midst of an early heatwave. The sun beat down on the near-treeless Pine Avenue, ‘Little Italy,’ one of the more bustling corners that remains in the city, where long-established Italian restaurants now compete with fast food.
City sounds—car engines, rusted mufflers, helicopters, and voices—reverberated off the blacktop, against the now boarded businesses. The forgotten city of the rust belt.
I joined my voice with those echoing in cities across the nation and around the world—
“Black Lives Matter!”
“Say His Name – George Floyd”
“No Justice, No Peace”
—as we made our way past police, past onlookers, under a drone and the hot sun.
Maybe it was the heat, but I felt at once tired, and restless.
Returning home, in the cool of late evening, in the shade of the arborvitae: dis-ease in the privilege of my whiteness that allows me, among so much else, to claim the subjectivity of “I.”
A week after we feared that a predator had killed the racoon twins, a grasp at consolation—they wandered up the driveway toward our house, as if coming home. They didn’t stay this time. I was sure it was them.
During the summer months, a construction crew worked their way down the road replacing old water lines with massive pipes. It created only a minor inconvenience to us. By fall, the crew was in front of our house, trying to outpace the weather.
Fortunately, we had since moved the out-of-place arborvitae from their road-side border closer to the house to create that wall of patio shade and shelter. For a week or more, we had toiled in the mud and cold of a late Western New York spring, often in exhausted frustration, as we struggled to dislodge roots from soil. The trees had grown tall and wide in the intervening years since we had first planted them. We replanted one at the edge of the drain ditch that runs from our back yard, a designated flood zone, to the front yard, under the road, and somewhere out and down the forty-foot or so descent to the river. It didn’t occur to us that the tree would have no hope of survival. Over time, we watched its slow death as it dried out, turning from green to rust. Grace called it the ‘skeleton tree’ and the ‘ghost tree.’ A friend referred to it as a “memento mori.”
Perhaps better pipes will mean efficiency. Less water waste. Uncontaminated. There are reasons to worry. The crew replaces lead pipes that unknowingly fed our house all these years.
With campus reopened by fall, I take my socially-distanced students outside to ‘write’ place. To prepare, I show them pictures of what was: a seminary-turned-university; etched nineteenth-century illustrations: massive spires stretching upward, perched on a hill at the edge of the gorge; farmland—a natural setting for contemplation.
Digitization has made this shared experience of time possible: it’s 1878 on the classroom screen. And then I open two more tabs in the browser: a historic map of Niagara County, 1852, and a Google Map of the Tuscarora Nation Reservation, sixth Nation of the Haudenosaunee. Between the two maps, a period of time and 550 acres: carved out of Tuscarora territory in 1958, taken to build a reservoir for the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant (now the New York Power Authority, which powers all this classroom screen-sharing). The freshwater creeks that formerly fed Tuscarora land were rerouted by the reservoir that now feeds the power plant, which borders our university.
We are interrogating what it means to see the landscape—the land upon which we walk and live, the border of the university, a palimpsest of stories.
Our time is short.
Masks on, my students and I walk to the university’s front lawn. We watch as a hawk swoops in low beneath a cluster of pine trees and waits for its prey. But it’s not all that natural: a student shows me a recent picture on her cellphone of the hawk sitting on a nearby bench.
On the other side of those pines, on the front lawn of the university, seen from the road carved into the edge of the gorge, the border hedges invite reading. They’ve been trimmed to spell out N-I-A-G-A-R-A. It is a place name—an institution, a site of higher learning. Through reference, it attaches itself to the landscape. It has a genealogy: the city, the Falls, the River, and the land.
But the hedges look incongruous—like an essay written in a font of bubble letters. I am trying to reconcile these plants to the landscape. An unexpected school pride wells up: it is part of this place. But that pride and those manicured shrubs do not fit the natural setting. I turn to Language of the Landscape, where Anne Whiston Spirn applies poetic terms to the land. “Meiosis”: “an understatement that belittles by using materials or forms ‘that make something seem less significant than it really is or ought to be.’”
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I read an article in the Niagara Gazette about a drive for bottled drinking water for the nearby Tuscarora Nation, where aging wells in need of repair have led to water contamination.
By new year, time expands and contracts like pandemic graphs. I recall a friend once comparing life’s experiences to peaks and valleys.
I walk less these days. The sky is gray for weeks on end. Case counts are on the rise. We’re waiting to reach the peak of a virtual mountain so that we might begin the slow descent to some imagined relief.
The screen, which had long ago become our link to the outside, now takes us inside the intimate world of the funeral home. A virtual viewing of a family service – there are my cousins and aunt on the screen.
This technology makes possible a new form of collective mourning but also new ways we might fail.
The setting is dim, and the microphone at time garbles their voices, but I see plentiful cut flowers and members of my family, struggling to compose themselves, left in shock by a virus that once felt so far away but forced its way into their home.
It has been almost a year since the landscape of daily life changed. Since perception shifted.
Now, the late winter wind blows fierce and stirs the Niagara. The ground sediment of its ancient bed lifts and churns and changes the river’s color. It is muddy now, but in a few months, as the days stretch toward summer, minerals and limestone reflecting back the bright sky will return it to its gem-like cool liquid green.
Now, the ice floes from Lake Erie are making their way down the Niagara. Covered with fresh snow, the landfills take on the look of ski mountains, and for an instant, I might forget what they are.
In the spring we’ll dig up the ghost tree, but we won’t replace it. I want to make our lives fit the land.
For now, the Falls have begun their freeze, slowly layering mist upon mist to build a mountain of ice. This water and this gorge seem to have their own ritual of mourning—the reverse pattern of glacial retreat to re-collect what was once lost. The spray becomes solid, moving outward and upward as if searching for the feel of the past, gathering itself to become whole. It rises in scale until the slow spring melt will begin.
For now, I try to keep its vastness in frame and wonder at its renewal.