a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I’m standing at the corner of Lenora and Sixth Avenue in Seattle, a place I should know, but don’t. I’m reminded of my step-brother Chris’ remark that every time he comes downtown now he feels like he has Alzheimer’s. Whatever was here before—and I can’t put my finger on what that was—has been wiped clean. Looking north, though, I find a familiar landmark: at the end of this new canyon of reflective glass skyscrapers, the Space Needle occupies a narrow rectangle of blue sky. In response, I feel my heart expand a little, like a bird calling “I’m here.”
Everything in the universe, we’re told, exists in a constant state of change. Physicists call this the second law of thermodynamics, Buddhists call it anicca, the doctrine of impermanence that underpins the faith. But there is something in us that rejects this truth. We long for permanence. Even if we can somehow reconcile ourselves to the fact that styles and ideas evolve, that fortunes rise and fall, or harder, that people age and die, there are some things that we stubbornly expect to remain stable. The earth beneath our feet is one such thing, the view from that particular spot on the earth another. For instance, even if you’ve grown up on the San Andreas Fault, it unsettles at a primal level to feel the ground roll underneath you like a ship at sea. In Miami, where I live now and where Nature’s threat comes in the form of hurricanes rather than earthquakes and volcanoes, people tell stories about Andrew in 1992. When it made landfall in Miami, it took out entire neighborhoods. Houses were leveled and huge banyan trees ripped up at the roots. One family hid in a dark closet, bracing the door with a mattress and listening as the wind screamed and ripped apart the house around them. But among the more haunting memories are of the hurricane’s aftermath: surrounded by an alien landscape of wreckage and absent even street signs, people had no idea where they were. They were so disoriented that they couldn’t find their way back home or even be certain if they were already there.
When I was growing up here in Seattle, this neighborhood was called the Denny Regrade, a flat expanse of warehouses, car lots, and light manufacturing, traversed by the Monorail leftover from the World’s Fair, and defined mostly by what it lay between. Over the past few years, it’s been razed and transformed into Amazon’s new urban campus. Electric cars whisk along freshly paved streets, and electric streetcars run on rails up Westlake Avenue. Because it’s all been built at the same time and in a uniform style, it looks disconcertingly like an architect’s model of a future city come to life, a glassy place where everything is efficient, clean, and blandly pleasant.
It’s not the first time the area has been entirely altered. This isn’t even the most dramatic makeover. One of the rare flat spots in the city, it was, up until the beginning of the 20th century, a big hill. The swanky Washington Hotel commanded majestic views of Puget Sound from the 240-foot summit and was reachable only by cable car. Denny Hill was one of the seven hills that Seattle boasted of by way of comparing itself to Rome, but the boast was never worth the inconvenience of all those steep grades. Since its inception as a city, Seattle has been lopping off the tops of its hills and filling in or draining the surrounding water and tide flats. If the ghost of Arthur Denny came looking for the city he founded, he would be hard-pressed to find a familiar feature anywhere in the topography to orient him.
The leveling of Denny Hill was one of the more ambitious of those engineering projects. The first Denny regrade project, started in 1908, sluiced away the twenty-seven city blocks closest to the waterfront, and took down the Washington Hotel with it. Most landowners were all for the regrade because it would improve their property values. However, local legend has it that if owners refused to comply with eminent domain, the city simply dug out the hill around them, stranding houses high atop flat-topped mesas nicknamed “spite mounds.” (This seems to be a persistent urban myth; at least two of the mesas were owned by a man who was up in Alaska working his gold rush claim and unavailable to sign the paperwork.) The second regrade in the thirties removed the remaining half of the hill and left the area as flat and empty as the surface of the moon.
I’m here to see the Amazon Spheres, which are opened once a month and by reservation to small groups of the public. The three glass domes look like human-scaled terrariums. Or gigantic brains. The locals call them “Jeff Bezos’s Balls”—fitting complements to the swooping phallus of the Amazon logo. But what they most remind me of is the futuristic 1962 World’s Fair architecture up the street, the Space Needle, yes, but also the open white tracery of the “space gothic” arches at the Science Center. This resemblance, it turns out, was by design.
What the Spheres do not resemble is office space, though this is their intended function. There are no cubicles or desks, no industrial carpet or fluorescent lights, not even straight lines or walls. Instead, the enclosed biosphere is filled with tropical plants and trees, elevated walking paths, and a Robinson Crusoe-style treehouse. Fish swim in green pools. A living wall of plants soars 62 feet into the air. Small groupings of chairs and occasional tables with USB outlets are tucked into leafy nooks, and underneath the glass roof are chaise longues to lie back on and take in the sky. The principle here is that being in the presence of plants decreases stress. In the information center outside a placard explains: “Imagine having a work conversation near a waterfall or a flowering wall of orchids. Even short doses of Nature have been proven to boost well-being. Immersed in greenery, we can think more creatively.” The Spheres give Amazon workers—or Amazonians, as they refer to themselves, apparently without irony—a place to connect to Nature without actually having to leave the office.
Chyna is one of the young “ambassadors” posted at locations inside the Spheres and recognizable by their bright blue shirts. She tells me that as apt as it might have been to duplicate the environment of the Amazon, that wasn’t possible because the Amazon is too hot and humid. They needed, she says, to find a balance that would comfortably accommodate both plants and people. All the plants in here are from mountainous rain forests—mid-mountain “cloud forests.” Even better as a metaphor, I think, because Seattle is a cloud forest. In this orderly jungle, the biosphere is kept at a steady 72 degrees and 60 percent humidity. The plants are carefully tended by PhDs like Chyna, periodically misted from strategically placed jets, and provided with their DLI—Daily Light Integral—from custom designed LEDs.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a little bench, hidden away behind a curtain of foliage. Sunlight filters down through the trees onto my notebook. The space is hushed and soothing as a spa, its profusion of plants dosing me with calming hits of saturated oxygen. I recognize a lot of the plants—ferns and philodendrons, bromeliads and pitcher plants, varieties of palms— from the backyards in Miami, but minus the mosquitoes and the wet blanket of humidity. I imagine myself being an Amazon employee and working in this secret garden, and the fantasy is pleasant.
I actually considered, briefly, going to work at Amazon, back when it was a fledgling online book company and I was a freshly minted MFA in need of work. They were looking for people to write copy for their website, and the ethos of the company at the time struck me as casual and appealingly counter-cultural: they had gotten their start, like a rock band, in Bezos’s suburban garage, and the office desks were made of doors nailed on top of two-by-fours. I didn’t know then that Amazon would make itself the archenemy of book stores and publishers. Still, early in the application process, I balked, just as I had years earlier when my dad suggested after college that I should interview at a new start-up in nearby Redmond called Microsoft. In the rearview mirror, this might look like a perverse refusal on my part to exchange bookish poverty for techie millions, but it was really the same fear that kept me from ever trying cocaine: I sensed that if I walked through those doors, I might never get out.
It takes me a while to isolate what’s bothering me about this place. It’s the same reason I’m not fond of Disney World: it’s too ordered and controlled. What’s missing in this jungle is wildness, the spontaneous, ungovernable profusion of growth and rot that, even in my little subtropical backyard is continually on the verge of entombing us in flowering vines and bougainvillea. Here, Nature has been brought to heel, and the ferns are as monitored as the humans.
I’m reminded again of the 1962 World’s Fair, with its idealized projections of how technology would usher us into the future. The official guidebook for the Fair imagined the 21st century scientist armed with technology allowing him to work anywhere, and that “the environment in which he works influences his attitude and approach to Nature.”
“The office of the future,” the guidebook continued, “will be a complete communications center with devices which project micro-mail, automatic transmission machines for correspondence and machines that communicate with one another to exchange information, freeing man for more creative pursuits.”
My mind snags on that last phrase—freeing man for more creative pursuits. This is a critical difference between the World’s Fair vision of the 21st century and Amazon’s incarnation of it. Minus the personal gyrocopters, we now have all the technological gizmos that held out such promise for that generation. However, in 1962 their stated purpose was to allow people more time and leisure to enjoy their lives, to spend time with their families, to ski or fish or read a book. Futurists predicted that all these conveniences would pare back the standard forty-hour workweek. Now, there’s not much talk of a life outside the office, and the creative pursuits in this garden are in service to Amazon. Employees in the Amazon warehouses and those driving the delivery vans are famously tracked and overworked, to the point of being denied bathroom breaks, but even the employees here in Seattle—the techies at the top of the food chain—exchange most of their waking hours in order to work here. In return, they don’t get even a Prime membership as a perk.
The French government, the Cassandra of the World’s Fair, did a better job of predicting this future we’re inhabiting. The exhibit they hosted, pointedly titled The Toys of the Modern World, countered the sunny American optimism about technology, suggesting that along with its tempting conveniences would come dangers, including “the threatened loss of individuality and sensitivity in a shrinking world of mass information and automation.”
Despite that I’m the daughter of a builder, I’ve always resisted the equating of growth with progress, and I tend towards sentimentality. So I have to ask how much of my discomfort is seated in a resistance to change. If that’s the case, I’m not alone. The people I know here, the ones who remember an earlier version of Seattle, grieve the loss of that city. They don’t like what’s happened here, the increasingly snarled traffic, the stratospheric cost of housing and the resulting homelessness that has transformed the parks and the berms alongside the freeways into trash-filled campsites. I can’t count the number of friends and relatives who’ve told me they avoid coming downtown now. “I don’t want to see what they’ve done to my city,” my aunt says.
Though Amazon isn’t single-handedly responsible for these woes, it’s arguably the largest single contributor to the problem. It’s also the largest single contributor to the local tax base. In 2018, when Seattle tried to levy an additional tax on large businesses to address the affordable housing crisis, Bezos threatened to shut down construction on one of these towers and hinted that he just might take his marbles and go elsewhere. In response, the city negotiated the proposed tax down by a third, but that still wasn’t enough. Only a month after the tax went into effect, the city council completely capitulated and repealed it in the face of a nasty campaign that Amazon was mounting for a referendum. The people I know who remember the old Seattle aren’t buying the schtick in the visitor’s center that touts Amazon’s commitment to the community.
On the other side of this equation is a new generation that has gravitated to the new Seattle to work at Amazon and the other tech behemoths nearby. Chyna is from Las Vegas, though she’s quick to tell me that she came here seven years ago, which I imagine gives her historical credibility in a city where nearly everyone seems to be newly arrived. Wyatt, another blue shirted ambassador, came here a year ago by way of Miami, though he’s not originally from there; like Seattle, Miami is a city of transients, and natives are a rare species in both cities. When I ask him if he misses Miami, he pauses and weighs his words diplomatically. He does miss some things, he concedes. “I won’t lie, winter here was kind of hard.” Not the temperatures—he’s from Oklahoma—but the shortness of days, that it gets dark here at 5 o’clock. On balance, though, he likes this city better.
And then there are the Lyft drivers who shuttle me around when I’m not using public transportation, and who, to a person, are enthusiastic newcomers. Ryan, who drove me down to Pioneer Square, is from Odessa, Texas, and moved here within the last few months. He first went to California, then to school in Utah, but said he likes Seattle the best. Angel, from Peru, feels the same. “I love Seattle. The people is so nice. The city is beautiful.” They like biking the Burke-Gilman Trail, they like the good coffee, they like going to Alki Beach on their days off.
I’m wondering if I need to take a page from their book and at least reassess my attachments to the past.
The word nostalgia, which we use to describe warm and fuzzy feelings about the past, originally carried a darker meaning. In the late 17th century, a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, observed expatriates—soldiers off fighting wars, domestics gone to work in other countries—and he diagnosed their homesickness as a literal sickness, a physical disease he called nostalgia, from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). The malady most often expressed itself in obsessive thinking about home and ensuing listlessness and debilitating sadness, but symptoms could also include hallucinations wherein the victim lost the ability to tell past from present and might have conversations with imagined ghosts. Fevers, brain inflammations, problems with the lungs, and suicidal ideation were also diagnostic.
Having been given a name, the disease spread across Europe, paralleling the advent of modernity and the migration to cities. However, because it was a disease, it could be cured. Treatments ranged from leeches to stomach pumping. The Russian army dealt with an outbreak of nostalgia by threatening to bury alive the first soldier to exhibit symptoms. This approach, apparently, was effective. However, the most successful treatment seemed to be to send the patient home.
Nowadays, though, we can succumb to nostalgia without ever leaving home. It’s no longer a disease of place but of time. And it’s no longer regarded as a disease, though it might be better for us if we gave it that respect and recognized the peril to our health as individuals and as a society.
Watching from the other side of a political chasm, I’ve been mystified by those who responded with such fervor to Trump and his slogan, Make America Great Again. Because they include some people I know and love, I’ve struggled to understand. It’s a timeworn trick of wannabe dictators to appeal to a mythical past, and slogans work especially well because they avoid specifics, such as when exactly was America great and for whom. But the appeal is emotional, it’s nostalgic, tapping into our deepest fears of change, of a world that is moving beneath our feet. Logic and facts can’t compete with that.
This inspires me to face my own nostalgia with clear eyes and try to accept the truth of this life that, as the singer Nina Simone crooned, everything must change. I’m finding it easier to take the long view today, feeling a certain equanimity—maybe only because the sun is shining and I’ve spent the afternoon hanging around with plants.
Debra Dean is the author of four critically-acclaimed books that have been published in twenty-one languages. Her debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad (HarperCollins), was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent book is Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One (Northwestern University Press). Her essays and stories have appeared in Psychology Today, Lit Hub, Manoa, Image, Mid-American Review, and Calyx. Dean is a Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.